The Autumn War – Volume 4: Succession

Cover Artwork by SickJoe: https://www.deviantart.com/sickjoe

© 2022 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This story includes graphic violence and scenes featuring sexual content, and is intended for adults only.

CHAPTER 1: TRENCH BY TRENCH

“Push up!” Simmons yelled, his voice rising above the muffled sound of battle inside Evan’s helmet. “We have to get that fucking trench cleared!”

The squad rushed up the muddy embankment, weaving between the shattered tree stumps, glowing bolts of plasma punching through the smoke that choked the air. Evan could scarcely see two hundred meters in any direction, having to rely almost entirely on the ad-hoc network to pick out shared targets on his HUD, red outlines and objective markers filling his field of view. He felt like he was playing a goddamned VR game.

“Good fuckin’ job they torched the place from orbit before we set down,” Hernandez panted, jogging along beside him to his right. “Wouldn’t wanna deal with all these bunkers and trenches if the critters still had cover.”

“Oh, they still have plenty of cover!” Jade added as he ducked behind a tree stump to Evan’s left. She lifted her XMR over the cracked bark, laying down some suppressive fire on the red outlines atop the hill. “These surface defenses are just the tip of the iceberg. How do you think so many of them survived the bombing?”

“Sarge, we ain’t getting anywhere near that trench until someone deals with that pillbox!” Foster added as he dove into cover nearby.

At the top of the incline, some fifty meters away, was a dome-shaped mound of dirt that was visible through the felled trees. Like all of the other Bug structures, it was made from packed earth that had been covered over with clear resin to render it as hard as concrete, the insects inside spewing automatic plasma fire through the openings in its walls. It was part of a larger network of trenches and fortifications that created a winding network throughout the blasted forest, slowing the Coalition forces as they made their approach towards the base of the Ant Hill. The Bugs were dug-in, well-prepared, but they clearly hadn’t anticipated the fleet’s capacity for mass destruction. The battalions had pushed out from the landing zones and were slowly tightening the noose, clearing out the Bug defenses as they went, encircling the Queen’s stronghold.

“I’ve called it in!” Simmons replied, bringing up the rear with the rest of the squad. Everyone was present save for McKay, who had been evacuated to the carrier after being injured. Tatzi had returned with a new pressure suit, and the pair of Borealans were back in action again, the loud cracks of their long rifles echoing across the battlefield. Aster and Cardinal flanked the sergeant, the rest of the Marines moving up behind him.

Evan’s HUD alerted him of an approaching vehicle, the giant hull of a Kodiak rolling out of the airborne dust off to their left. The angular tank smashed through a carbonized tree stump, then jerked to a stop, its long cannon turning on the pillbox. The Bugs inside concentrated their fire on it, a brilliant light show forcing Evan’s visor to darken, the superheated gas leaving red-hot patches on its ceramic armor where they found their mark. The main gun fired, recoil shaking the vehicle, the barrel sending a sabot screaming up the hill. It punched straight through the dirt and resin, a plasma payload igniting the interior, flames shooting out of the windows as the space was filled with ionized gas.

With the bunker now silenced, the tank turned its many guns on the trench beside the flaming structure, where Drones were popping out of cover to fire their rifles down the incline at the approaching troops. Simmons ordered them to move up as it suppressed the enemy line with mortars and a stream of shells from its cheek-mounted gun pod, the IFV joining in as it trundled along behind them, the thirty-mill on its blister barking.

Evan was at the head of the pack, pausing to fire through the burnt husks of the trees. Few were more than three or four meters tall, cut down like blades of grass by the orbital bombardment. As he darted forward, he felt someone grab his rucksack, jolting him to a stop.

“Wait!” Jade warned, her eyes scanning the hill ahead of them through her visor. “Monofilament wire!”

“Fuck,” Evan panted, giving her a grateful pat on the shoulder as she passed him. Now that he was looking for them, he could see the network of shimmering fibers, as thin as hairs. They were strung up between what was left of the trees, only visible when what light that made it through the choking ash clouds caught them at the right angle. A few steps more, and he might have been diced like those poor Marines who had been caught in the Red King’s trap.

“Sergeant, there are monofilament wires all over the place,” Jade warned as she took a knee beside a stump. Despite the suppressive fire from the tank, the Bugs in the trench were still taking every opportunity to fire back, the whole squad ducking as plasma bolts sizzled over their heads. “I don’t see a way around. There are probably more of those mines, too.”

“I’m not taking any chances with those things,” Simmons growled. “Hang tight – I’m calling in the engineers. We’ll put a line charge straight through to the trench.”

“Remember, the fuckers hide those mines on the trees,” Foster added.

“Yeah, well that isn’t gonna be an issue if there are no trees,” Simmons replied.

A few minutes later, the ground began to shake, another Kodiak variant with a stubby turret and a massive prow bulldozing its way out of the dust clouds to their rear. It fought its way up the hill towards them, uprooting stumps like they were no more than weeds, shrugging off the plasma fire that came its way.

It fired a rocket from a launcher that was mounted on the side of its turret, a long spool of what looked like rope uncoiling with a puff of smoke, draping itself over the landscape. After a brief delay, it detonated, an explosion ripping along its length. It was powerful enough to topple the weakened trees, throwing up a torrent of dirt. Jade’s suspicions were confirmed as Evan noticed shimmering fibers descending from the sky, likely from detonated mines.

“Push through and clear us a path!” Simmons said, speaking to the tank’s commander. “I’ll let fifteen and sixteen know that we have a way through. Move up behind the Crocodile, people!”

They formed a column behind the vehicle as it struggled its way up the incline, the serrated teeth on its prow churning up the loose soil, creating a safe route for the infantry. The nearby Kodiak shadowed it, its engine roaring, Evan and his squad following behind. Their IFV brought up the rear, its blister still firing, its eight wheels spinning in the ash-caked earth.

The Crocodile punched a hole in the enemy defenses, crashing through the trench to the left of the burning bunker, caving some of it in. The hardy vehicle didn’t falter, continuing on, its blister depressing as far as it could to fire down over the side of the turret.

Evan took point, sliding down into the partially collapsed trench as the Kodiak rolled over it, his boots skidding in the dirt. The Drones were only around five feet tall, so the trench was a little more shallow than one might expect, but it still rose above Evan’s head. The walls were made of packed dirt that had been covered over with a layer of hard, transparent resin, which was apparently strong enough that the structure didn’t require any supports. Facing out towards the advancing Coalition troops were little letterbox-like slots that had been cut into the wall, allowing the Drones to fire from relative safety, and there was a subtly raised lip where they would have stood to reach. The whole trench was built in an organic, twisting pattern, probably designed to diminish the effects of any explosives that landed inside. Behind him, the trench terminated at the bunker, the glow of flames still visible through the primitive doorway. There was a dead Drone lying halfway out of the building, its carapace charred black, wisps of smoke rising from the breaks in its joints.

The rest of the squad piled inside after him, the two Borealans having to duck to avoid exposing their heads. Evan aimed his rifle down the trench, seeing a couple more dead Drones lying inside it, the nearest corner blocking his view of what might be beyond.

“Tatzi, Borzka,” Simmons began as he gestured down the trench. “You have point.”

The two aliens exchanged a glance, then leveled their bayonets, moving to the front of the group. Evan had no idea what the Bugs might have in store for them, but anyone who found themselves on the wrong side of a Borealan bayonet charge was going to have a bad day.

“Watch for more mines,” Aster warned as she moved up behind them, her antennae waving in the air. “They may be chemically triggered.”

The squad moved down the trench, the Borealans leaning around the nearest bend before advancing. Evan heard the crack of XMR fire, turning the same corner to see that a pair of freshly-killed Drones had joined their dead comrades that were lying in the dirt.

“Looks like the vehicles got most of ‘em,” Hernandez muttered, giving a nearby body a swift kick. It had been perforated with shrapnel, probably from the MGL fire that the IFV had poured into the area.

“Fleetcom wants us collapsing any tunnels we find,” Simmons ordered as he waded through the dead Bugs. “If you see a hole, drop a ‘nade down there. There’s probably a whole network of passages under our feet, but we don’t have the resources to clear them all one by one. All we need to do is make sure the critters can’t come up behind us.”

“Just like killin’ gophers back on the family farm,” Hernandez chuckled.

“I don’t want to know why your family has access to grenades,” Evan grumbled as he pushed a listless Drone aside with his boot. Most of its head was gone – probably a victim of the thirty-mill.

“They’re both varmints, ain’t they?” Hernandez replied.

There was a flurry of movement ahead, a Drone coming charging around the next corner, a pair of long blades clutched in its upper hands. It scrabbled low to the ground, avoiding a shot from Tatzi’s rifle, the slug shattering the resin directly behind it like glass.

Borzka stepped in to meet it, letting out a bellow that Evan could hear through his helmet, driving his bayonet into its torso. He put enough force into the blow to skewer the thing, the serrated blade protruding from the squirming Drone’s back. It flailed its limbs as he drove it into the dirt, pinning it to the bottom of the trench like an entomologist mounting a fresh specimen to his wall. The creature’s chitin swords sparked off the rifle’s long barrel, but it was hopelessly out of reach. Tatzi stepped in to finish the job, firing a round that exploded its head like a melon, Borzka using his boot to slide its body off his XMR.

“I smell a Bug hole,” Cardinal warned, gesturing ahead.

They followed her around the next corner, soon coming across an opening in the right wall that looked just large enough for a Drone to squeeze through. Just looking at it gave Evan a wave of claustrophobia.

“Glad I’m not a Trog,” Hernandez said, mirroring his sentiment.

“Stand back,” Jade said, moving over to the ominous opening. She leaned inside, giving it a brief sweep with her flashlight, then primed a grenade from her belt. She rolled it into the hole like she was playing a game of skee ball, then moved aside. After a moment, an explosion shook the ground, a puff of dust and debris erupting from the opening.

“That’ll do it,” Jade said, appraising her work. “A Worker could dig that out again if it had the time, but I doubt they can dispatch teams to repair the damage faster than we can plug the holes.”

“Without more specialized gear, it’s all we can do,” Simmons said. “Our priority is making it to the foot of that mountain. If we can kill the Queen, it’s not going to matter. Keep moving,” he added, nodding down the narrow walkway. “Let’s get the rest of them.”

***

Unlike the trenches favored by humans, the Bug equivalents were separated into above-ground sections that were flanked by bunkers, connected to the larger network via tunnels. That made the prospect of clearing them a little easier, though the squad still encountered resistance.

They found a couple more survivors, cutting them down swiftly with bursts of XMR fire. Another Drone ambushed them from one of the narrow tunnels, but in its disadvantaged position, it was quickly dispatched. By the time they had accomplished their task, the two companies that were following behind them had caught up, and they formed a larger force as they made their way out onto level ground again.

The two other mechanized companies spread out in a line, covering as much ground as possible as they advanced across an open plain that had probably once been grassland, the trees slowly vanishing. The wind was even more apparent here, whipping across the ground, creating miniature dust devils in the carpet of ash.

Evan could feel the wind battering his pressure suit, the rumble of the formation of armored vehicles that flanked him to the left and right shaking the ground as they trundled along, extending into the distance in both directions. The ash was finally starting to clear now, and although the sky was still an opaque ceiling of roiling dust clouds, he was able to see a lot further.

Simmons relayed an order to halt from the company commander, the nearby Kodiaks jolting to a stop, the squad taking a knee beside their IFV.

“I don’t like this open ground,” Simmons muttered, scanning the horizon. “We got reports of another line of trenches ahead, and there’s no cover here. Mount up.”

The IFV’s ramp descended, and they piled into its troop bay, securing themselves into their seats as the larger Borealans stood in the aisle. The vehicle rocked as it took off again, driving across the flat terrain at a brisk pace. Evan tapped into the external cameras, the armored hull melting away to reveal the landscape outside. The Kodiaks were racing along beside them, kicking up dust clouds behind their treads, their stabilized turrets remaining paradoxically level even as they bounced through craters and potholes left by the bombardment.

“We’re about halfway to the hill,” Garcia said as he checked the display on his wrist. He was sitting opposite Evan, bouncing in his seat as they rolled over another hole. “Sarge, are you seeing these weird radio signals? There’s something out there.”

“Fleetcom has been picking them up,” Simmons replied with a nod. “They think the Bugs are moving radio-emitters around the battlefield to keep their troops in contact with the Queen and avoid detection. They’re priority-one targets.”

“Are we chasing one?” Garcia asked, glancing up from his computer.

“Maybe,” the sergeant said with a shrug. “They don’t tell me everything.”

“Heads up,” Brooks warned. “You guys see those pillboxes in the distance?”

Evan followed his gaze, looking through the cab of the IFV to see a row of fortifications rising conspicuously from the flat terrain in the distance. A few moments later, the company ground to a halt again, their IFV braking.

“Driving into a killing field isn’t very wise, so the artillery company is going to soften up that line for us,” Simmons explained. “Get ready for some fireworks.”

Evan waited, a couple of minutes passing with only the low rumble of the engine to break the silence. Finally, there was a flash in the distance, a line of explosions erupting along the entire length of the Bug fortifications. From the company’s vantage point, it looked as if the entire horizon had been set on fire. The artillery barrage walked its way backwards, pulverizing the defenses with consecutive volleys of shells, fired all the way from the LZ half a day’s drive behind them. The range of those railguns was incredible.

Only after several minutes of non-stop bombardment did the company commander order them to continue on, the IFV lurching to life again.

“I don’t see how any of the critters could have survived that,” Hernandez said. “Do you reckon any of them are still alive?”

“Some will be,” Jade replied. “I wouldn’t expect them to be that easy to uproot. You can blast the surface, but most of them will be taking cover far below ground where you’d need a bunker-buster or an orbital strike to reach them.”

As they neared the Bug trenches, those bunkers rose up to loom over the plain. They were far larger than the ones the company had encountered previously, like giant grain silos made of soil and resin, maybe two storeys tall. Evan could make out four of them spaced out at intervals, probably flanking trenches. They were clearly designed to give the occupants a clear view across the flat landscape. One of them had taken a direct hit from an artillery shell, which had blown apart its domed roof, exposing the upper level. It was still smoking, and Evan could pick out what looked like a damaged cannon that was leaning precariously over the side of the structure. It reminded him of the tri-barreled design used on the Scuttler turrets, but it was much larger.

Metal glinted as the turrets on the remaining towers rotated to point down at the company, protruding from narrow slats beneath the domes, now maybe two kilometers away. Evan felt the IFV speed up, its engine roaring. Hernandez tightened his safety harness, the Borealans bracing themselves as they gripped the handholds on the ceiling. They must have been doing about eighty klicks now, the formation of armored vehicles racing across the plain, the ground a blur. At these speeds, it would only take them a couple of minutes to close the distance.

“Here we go!” Simmons warned, gripping the armrests of his seat tightly.

The three remaining towers began to fire, their cannons reciprocating into the shadowy recesses of the domes, glowing bolts of plasma racing across the plain towards the oncoming vehicles. They were like tiny suns, so bright that their emerald light reflected off the ground beneath them, their heat creating trails of ionized air behind them. One of the projectiles splashed into the ground some distance ahead of the formation, erupting into an explosion as its magnetic field collapsed, far larger and more powerful than those fired by the Scuttlers. The company’s vehicles split apart, avoiding the burning crater that it had left in its wake.

“They’re bringin’ out the big guns now!” Hernandez said. “Fuck, are those the same kind of weapons they use on frigates?”

“The Kodiaks need to take those things out before we get picked off!” Brooks added.

Off to the left of the IFV, a unit of four tanks was racing across the dusty ground, their turrets rotating in the direction of the bunkers. Even at these speeds, the stabilization systems could keep those cannons on-target, their computers churning through the ballistic data to calculate the perfect shot. The four vehicles fired almost in tandem, the recoil making their seventy-ton hulls shudder.

A moment later, the rounds impacted one of the towers, pulverizing the resin armor and releasing torrents of the soil that was contained beneath. They looked like pebbles splashing in loose sand. More shots followed, dozens of them finding their mark all along the line, the three towers erupting into explosions of dirt and flame. One of them succumbed to a volley of shots, pieces of its structural resin crumbling away, what must have been hundreds of tons of dirt pouring to the ground as it started to collapse into its own footprint. The domed roof caved in, the heavy cannon contained within plunging through the floor, tearing down more of the structure as it tumbled. In only a few seconds, the tower had been reduced to a pile of rubble.

The two remaining towers were still standing despite the holes that had been punched in their facades, their guns firing again. One of those powerful projectiles found its mark, impacting just ahead of a tank unit off to Evan’s right, striking the ground like a bolt of green lightning. The resulting release of energy created an explosion that tossed one of the seventy-ton tanks off its treads, throwing it like a toy. It landed upside-down, its weight crushing the blisters and comms equipment on its turret, bending its cannon like a piece of rebar. The vehicle skidded along in the dust until its hull caught on something that tipped it over again, pieces of armor paneling and segments of shredded track thrown from the wreck as it tumbled end over end. Evan watched with wide eyes as the formation left it in the dust, its ruined chassis settling.

“Holy shit!” Foster exclaimed. “You think those guys are alright?”

“Fuck no, they aren’t!” Hernandez replied.

The three remaining tanks in the unit closed ranks again, having no option but to keep going. Slowing down right now was a death sentence. The companies and the towers were still exchanging fire, another of the structures succumbing to a hail of sabots, listing sideways as a well-placed shot took out a chunk of resin at its base. It collapsed into the trench beside it, Evan watching a cloud of debris rise into the sky.

Another bolt from one of the towers lanced past to the IFV’s left, practically vaporizing a Kodiak some hundred meters down the line. It was there one moment, then gone the next, the burning husk of what remained of its hull coming rolling out of the dust cloud. One of its neighbors threw a track, grinding to a stop beside it, an IFV having to swerve to avoid them.

They were about halfway across the plain now, a network of smaller bunkers that were spaced out along the trenches coming into view. A wave of plasma fire spewed from them almost in tandem, but as alarming as it was, it posed little threat to the vehicles. The projectiles carried far less energy, what bolts that even made it to the company splashing off their ceramic armor harmlessly.

The last tower finally succumbed, the Kodiaks focusing their fire on those smaller bunkers now, plasma shells and HE bursting them wide open. The tanks pulled ahead, the Crocodiles taking the lead, starting to lower their plows now in anticipation of clearing mines and tank traps.

“Almost there!” Simmons announced. “Be ready to pile out as soon as we come to a stop. Our job is going to be mopping up whatever’s left alive in those trenches!”

Evan lay his XMR in his lap, pulling some shells from his belt, loading them into the rotating cylinder on his underbarrel shotgun one by one.

As he glanced ahead of the formation, watching the burning towers grow closer, one of the lead tanks simply dropped. He did a double-take, then called out in alarm, the other occupants of the troop bay following his gaze.

The ground beneath one of the Crocodiles had cracked open like the crust of a crème brûlée, plunging the heavy vehicle beneath its surface, bringing it to a jarring halt. It seemed to bob there, like it was floating on something thicker than water, its prow starting to sink deeper.

The nearby vehicles slammed on the brakes, but a few were already too close, another Kodiak starting to drift sideways as it skidded on what must be very smooth ground. Just like the Crocodile, the surface gave out beneath it, causing the tank to list as it succumbed to the same fate. From this distance, it almost looked like a bog or some kind of quicksand, slowly consuming the metal beasts. Even under fire from the row of defensive bunkers, the prospect of being entombed in their vehicle had the tank’s crew scrambling out of the two hatches on the turret. One of them was hit by a stray bolt, sent toppling down onto the hull, while the two others made it to firm ground. Evan could see the jagged hole where the vehicle had broken through, sharp, translucent fragments jutting into the air like shattered ice. No, it couldn’t be ice – that was resin.

“It’s a tank trap!” he exclaimed. Some of his squadmates who hadn’t figured it out yet gave him a confused glance, but Jade and Foster nodded along in agreement.

“The Bugs must have put down a layer of resin over some kind of marsh or bog,” Jade confirmed, rising from her seat to get a better look. “Their vehicles don’t weigh half of what ours do. Maybe they set it up to only give out when our tanks rolled over it?”

“How the hell would that survive the bombardment?” Hernandez asked incredulously.

“It must be more recent,” Jade explained. “They must have…irrigated or disturbed the ground somehow.”

The tanks were still firing, taking long-range potshots at the smaller bunkers, but they could advance no further. One of them sent a line charge shooting off towards the sinking Crocodile, the explosive draping itself over the vehicle’s partially submerged hull. The three-man crew climbed out of the hatch on the turret, using the line of explosives like a rope, pulling themselves through the wet mud. As long as the detonator wasn’t triggered, it should be safe enough. Quick thinking in a pinch on the part of the Kodiak crew.

“How the fuck are we supposed to get across this?” Hernandez wondered. “Do we go around?”

“Looks like Fleetcom is still debating what to do,” Simmons replied. “Several other battalions have encountered the same obstacle. Stand by.”

“Can’t they just land some dropships over there?” Collins asked.

“Not before we clear out any AA emplacements,” Foster replied, leaning forward in his seat. “They’d be sitting ducks. The plan was that we were supposed to clear the fortifications as we went, which would allow airborne units from the carriers to land and secure them behind us to ensure they didn’t get recaptured.”

“What if we just drive around it?” Brooks suggested with a shrug.

“Because it’ll waste a ton of time,” Foster said, turning his helmeted head to glance at him. “We’re supposed to be making one concerted push towards the Ant Hill – we can’t afford to waste hours going around. Splitting up the battalions and isolating them is exactly what the Bugs want. Same reason we can’t wait around for the engineers to build a bridge.”

“What options does that leave on the table?” Brooks asked.

Evan glanced out through the hull, watching as a trio of Marines approached the edge of the bog. One of them took a few steps forward, then began to jump up and down on the resin.

“I have some idea,” Evan muttered.

“Okay, new plan,” Simmons announced after a few minutes of waiting around. “We’re going to lay down artillery and indirect fire on the trenches to keep them suppressed, put down smoke across the obstacle, and charge across it.”

“Charge across it!?” Collins exclaimed.

“The Kodiaks have taken out the pillboxes and cannons, so as long as we force the Drones in the trenches to keep their heads down, we should be alright. We’re getting some support from the Jarilans, too. They’re dropping in some heavy infantry right on top of the enemy emplacements. Fleetcom says to keep an eye out for friendly IFFs.”

“I thought we had to clear the anti-air defenses first?” Foster asked.

“The Warriors!” Jade gasped. “The Coalition must have finally given us permission to deploy them.”

“Warriors?” Hernandez asked. “Like, friendly Warriors?”

“They’ll be deploying directly from our carriers,” she replied with a nod. “Their drop pods probably come in too hot for conventional SAM systems to bring down.”

“How far do you reckon we are from the trenches?” Garcia asked. “I’d say maybe half a klick. That’s…what, three minutes at a jog?”

“Can you guys keep up?” Hernandez asked, directing his question at Tatzi.

“We will manage,” she replied, Borzka nodding in silent agreement.

“Apparently, the Valbarans aren’t having any trouble,” Simmons continued as he checked his display. “Their vehicles are light enough to drive right across.”

“Shame we don’t have any of those,” Hernandez sighed.

“You wouldn’t fit in them,” Evan chuckled.

The ground began to shake as the artillery strikes resumed, hammering the enemy trenches with renewed ferocity. Evan could hear the grenade launcher on the IFV’s roof firing, puffs of obscuring, white smoke starting to drift across the flat terrain ahead of them.

“Get ready,” Simmons warned as he rose from his seat, heading to the back of the bay. “As soon as that ramp lowers, you run, and you don’t stop until you reach cover. Try to stay together.”

“If I was fighting on the other side, I’d try to break the resin with mortars ahead of our advance,” Aster warned as she checked her PDW.

“The artillery will hopefully prevent that,” Simmons replied.

Hopefully?” Hernandez repeated over the private channel, giving Evan a sideways glance through his helmet.

“If you do fall through the resin, just hang tight,” Simmons added as the warning light above the ramp began to flash red. It cracked open, the dull, hazy light that made it through the ash clouds bleeding through the growing gap. “You’ll be safe as long as your suit’s oxygen supply lasts, and someone will come pick you up eventually.”

“This idea is sounding worse and worse all the time,” Hernandez grumbled.

“Go, go!” Simmons yelled as the ramp hit the ground. The squad piled out after him, turning to face the enemy. Before them was an open field carpeted in a drifting, white haze, the hulk of the sinking Crocodile still partially visible as it jutted from the mud some distance ahead of them. The gunfire was constant and uninterrupted, every vehicle in sight pouring grenades and mortars into the enemy positions, the rumble of artillery so powerful that Evan feared it might crack the resin. All around them, more squads were emerging from their IFVs, beginning their mad dash across the plain.

“Last one there’s a Bug fucker,” Foster said, giving Evan a nudge before setting off at a run. Collins followed after him, Hernandez giving Evan a shrug as he joined them.

“Mechanized company my ass,” Evan grumbled as he began to jog, his XMR clutched in his hands.

The squad ran out onto the resin, the obscuring smoke billowing around them, carried by the rushing wind. Evan had to rely on his HUD to pick out his comrades, seeing close to three hundred friendly IFF signatures spread out across the open ground. Jade and the two other Jarilans were to his right, and the two Borealans were taking up the rear. Going against his instincts, he ran towards the artillery markers in the distance, usually intended to warn friendly troops on the network away from the danger zone. His helmet was soon filled with the sound of his own labored breathing, his pressure suit circulating cool air as beads of sweat began to well on his forehead, the noise of radio chatter fading into the background. The resin beneath his boots felt like firm plastic, smooth and rigid, covered over with a small layer of ash and dust. It seemed to be supporting their weight so far.

There was a flash of green light, a solitary bolt of plasma punching a swirling hole in the smoke ahead of them. It whizzed by them, passing close to the left of the squad.

“Watch out!” Jade shouted.

“I thought we were suppressing them!?” Hernandez panted.

“Looks like not all of the Bugs got the memo!” Foster replied.

After another minute of running, they started to clear the smoke, the ruins of the Bug towers fading into view. The smaller, igloo-shaped bunkers and pillboxes were smoldering, having been hit by precision fire from the Kodiaks. Their lines were shrouded in debris from the shelling, smaller explosions billowing up and down the trenches as indirect fire rained from above. It seemed that the artillery had finally ceased, the warning markers disappearing from Evan’s visor. Despite all of the damage, the surviving Bugs immediately resumed firing, a few stray plasma bolts burning like glow sticks as they shot across the plain. It was difficult to suppress someone who had no sense of self-preservation.

“Up there!” Garcia shouted, Evan turning his eyes to the sky.

Something bright had pierced the clouds, trailing smoke as the flames of reentry shrouded it. It looked like a sunflower seed at a distance, the upward-facing end tapered into a point. As it neared the ground, he was able to pick out more detail. It was organic, protected by layers of Bug chitin and distinctly artificial heat tiles, the brick-shaped blocks of silica glowing as they absorbed the intense heat. More followed behind it, two dozen of them punching through the ash clouds like bullets.

A barrage of missiles climbed into the sky from somewhere behind the defensive line, winding up towards them. The Bugs must have at least one intact AA Scuttler. The projectiles painted the sky with smoke trails, weaving and dodging, streaking off with more purpose when they locked onto their targets. Either the drop pods were too high, or the missiles couldn’t track them properly, because only one of them found its mark. There was a flash of green light as it exploded near one of the pods, but when the debris cleared, it still looked intact. The impact seemed to have knocked it off-course, however, the organic vehicle veering away from the rest of the group.

As the pods drew closer, the pieces of chitin on their rounded undersides began to break off, revealing retro thrusters that jetted plumes of green flame. Parachutes erupted from the tapered ends, great, leathery sails that caught the air to help slow them down like drag racers nearing the finish line. Still, they hammered into the ground with alarming velocity, Evan watching them toss up showers of dirt as they plunged into the trenches ahead.

The squad was close enough to see the lip of the nearest trench now, rising up from the flat terrain to form a low wall, collapsed in places by mortar shells and MGLs. Some of the defenders were still alive, the orange resin of their rifle barrels visible as they poked through the slots in the trench, taking aim at the incoming troops.

The trench directly ahead of them erupted as a salvo of grenades hammered it, dissuading the defenders before they could get any shots off. It was probably their IFV – directed by Simmons, no doubt.

“Charge!” the sergeant shouted, the squad closing the last few meters. Evan hauled himself over the lip of the trench, landing inside to find a carpet of bodies. Some of them were fresh, the holes in their carapaces still smoking from the red-hot shrapnel, while others had been partially buried in loose dirt from the collapsed walls.

The rest of the squad piled in alongside him, the two Borealans readying their bayonets, the Jarilans spreading out with their PDWs leveled. Evan could spot more squads making it to the trench further down the line, disappearing from view in the earthen fortifications.

They scarcely had time to catch their breath before half a dozen Bugs came flooding around the corner to their right, brandishing blades and pistols. Training kicked in, and the Marines at the front took a knee, their squadmates firing over their heads to create a wall of tungsten. The Drones were quickly cut down by a hail of projectiles that shattered the resin wall of the trench behind them, splattering it with their ichor, sending their torn bodies collapsing to the dirt to join their fellows.

“Secure the trenches and make sure the bunkers are cleared out!” Simmons ordered, directing them to the left of the zigzagging fortification. “Toss a ‘nade in any Bug holes you find!”

They began to move through the trench, the sporadic sound of firefights erupting all around them. As Jade has posited, it was likely that most of the Bugs had dug in during the bombardment, and they would be emerging from their tunnels now that the artillery had gone silent.

“Bunker up ahead,” Hernandez warned, nodding to the partially collapsed structure that rose up in their path. It was one of the smaller pillboxes, the packed dirt and resin of its domed roof caved in on itself. It was no longer burning – or perhaps it had been hit by something more conventional than plasma sabots, like a mortar or an artillery shell.

“We have to clear it,” Simmons said. “Can’t leave them any hiding places. Tatzi, Borzka, you’ll have to go around and meet us on the other side. No way you’re fitting through those little doorways.”

The two Borealans moved to the back, holding their long XMRs like spears, while Jade and her two Jarilan counterparts took point.

“What do you smell?” Evan asked, walking along behind her.

“Hard to tell,” she replied, her antennae waving in the air. “The place stinks of ferals. All I’m picking up is warning pheromones and burnt meat.”

The way ahead branched into two paths. One of them led into a deceptively crude doorway, the rounded, resin wall of the bunker curving away above it. The structure was larger than it had looked at a distance, probably big enough to give shelter to three or four squads of Drones. To the left, the trench led around the back of it, the two Borealans splitting off from the rest of the team as they followed it.

“Collins, Foster, watch their backs,” Simmons ordered. The two Marines followed the felines, disappearing around the side of the structure. “The rest of you, stack up,” he added.

“Want I should toss a grenade in there?” Hernandez asked as he reached an expectant hand towards his belt.

“No, the structure is already damaged,” Simmons muttered as he glanced up at the dome. “The last thing we want is it coming down on our heads. We’ll do this the old-fashioned way. Evan,” he said, gesturing for him to approach with a tilt of his helmet. “Put that shotgun to use.”

Evan nodded, moving his hand to the grip of his underbarrel shotgun, taking position at the front of the stack. He felt Simmons place a hand on his shoulder as he waited by the opening, then the sergeant gave him a pat.

“Go!”

Evan rushed into the shadowy interior, the squad following behind him, fanning out into the room. The floor was maybe a twenty-meter circle from wall to wall, the domed roof rising the same distance above their heads. Some kind of shell had definitely hit it, tearing open a hole in the roof on the side facing the plain, the ash-choked sky visible through the breach. Chunks of soil still contained in resin had crashed to the ground like pieces of broken masonry, more loose dirt and translucent shards raining down after them. It obscured their view of the room, providing ample cover for anything that might still be lurking inside.

Flashlight beams cut through the gloom, reflecting off the resin, picking out a raised platform to their right where the aliens would have fired from. There were slats that gave them a view of the field beyond the trenches, along with several damaged plasma weapon emplacements, a little raised lip of dirt allowing their operators to reach them. Evan picked out the orange glint of several bodies, most of them buried in the debris, errant limbs jutting from beneath slabs of resin and mounds of dirt.

They moved deeper into the bunker, sweeping their weapons across the broken structure, Evan’s HUD scanning for targets. He did a double-take as he caught a blip of red, his systems picking out a life sign in the rubble.

“Contact!” he announced, half a dozen flashlight beams turning on his position. “Scratch that,” he added, realizing that his target was already incapacitated. The Drone was alive – barely – trapped beneath a chunk of resin that must have weighed a quarter ton. Its carapace was cracked and crushed, only its upper torso visible, its circulatory system pumping a slow trickle of green ichor out of its mandibles. “This guy isn’t doing any fighting.”

“Put it out of its misery,” Simmons ordered. “Don’t want the fucker trying to bite people’s ankles.”

Evan held his XMR in one hand, drawing his sidearm with the other, the sound of the gunshot reverberating through the dome as he put a round through its head.

Something fell from above him, bouncing down a pile of rubble, rolling to a stop beside his boot. He glanced down to see a grenade, his heart freezing in his chest. He barely had time to yell a panicked warning before it went off.

“Grenade!”

As the organic casing cracked open, it disgorged a jet of mustard-yellow gas, the chemical quickly filling the cramped space with an obscuring cloud. He staggered backwards, relief washing over him. If that had been a plasma grenade, he’d be burned to a crisp right now, or at least missing a leg.

“Check your fire!” Simmons ordered as the toxic cloud swirled through the air. “Suit integrity report – sound off!”

The team relayed their statuses to him, all of their pressure suits maintaining their seals. The gas was no danger to them right now, but an unseen tear or hole could be a death sentence.

“I can’t see three goddamned feet in front of my face!” Hernandez complained.

“Rely on your HUD,” Simmons replied.

Evan’s systems were already catching up with the action, picking out his comrades with blue outlines, his onboard computer doing its best to map the terrain with its array of sensors. He was soon left with a strange, almost wireframe view of the bunker, the jagged rubble denoted with a glowing outline.

Jade and Aster moved up beside him, the three of them beginning to stalk around one of the heaps of dirt and resin, keeping their XMRs shouldered. Wherever the Bug was, it had to have thrown the grenade from the other side.

“That little fastball has to be around here somewhere,” Evan muttered, his flashlight beam cutting through the yellow gas as he checked a shadowy recess.

There was a sudden burst of movement, a figure coming charging towards them through the haze, the toxic chemicals swirling around it like ink in water. Evan reacted too slowly, spinning around to aim his XMR at it, but it was approaching faster than he could turn. A Drone came into view, a jagged blade poised to strike, the glow from his flashlight reflecting off the array of lenses embedded in its helmet.

Aster darted between them, blocking the blade’s wicked edge with her PDW, the chitin biting half an inch into its polymer housing. It drew a pistol from a recess in its thigh, a green glow illuminating the pair as the conductive rails charged.

Jade came in from the left, smashing the side of the Drone’s helmet with the butt of her rifle, knocking it off-balance. It was sent tumbling into the rubble, the insect quickly scrabbling back to its feet, preparing another attack.

A crack rang out as Evan unloaded his shotgun into it, one, two, three shells tearing into its torso. Like shooting a piece of fruit with rock salt, the buckshot pocked its carapace with holes, tearing off fist-sized chunks of wet flesh. Its mucous-colored fluids splattered the debris behind it, the last shot taking off most of its head, sending its lifeless body toppling backwards.

“Thanks, guys,” Evan panted, a wisp of smoke rising from the barrel of his underslung weapon.

Aster began to reply, but was interrupted as two more Drones came racing around the rubble, skidding on the dirt floor as they changed direction. One of them already had its resin rifle leveled and ready to fire, a burst of plasma bolts forcing the trio to scatter for cover.

The second Drone wielded a long blade like the first, leaping over a chunk of debris as it made a beeline for Jade, dropping into a crawl when it landed. The thing scrambled along the floor, using its five free limbs for more purchase, running like a cockroach. She fired her XMR, but its erratic movement caused her burst to miss, the trio of slugs splashing in the soil behind it.

It launched itself at her, dragging her to the ground, her flashlight beam swaying wildly. A single stab that penetrated her armor in this environment would be enough to let in the aerosolized toxins, potentially condemning her if her biology was different enough from theirs.

The Drone drove the blade towards her, and she jerked out of its path, its sharp point stabbing into the ground an inch from her midriff. The thing was frenzied, wild, all four of its arms moving frantically as the pair grappled.

Aster was closer, but the Drone with the rifle forced her into cover with another burst of plasma fire, the superheated bolts turning the resin to liquid where they impacted it. She popped up to fire back, the two locked in an exchange.

Evan rushed across open ground, trusting that Aster would keep him covered, his boots pounding on the compacted soil as he neared the two struggling insects. He gripped the barrel of his XMR, swinging it back like a golf club as he slid to a stop, the alien lifting its many-eyed head just in time to see the rifle butt coming towards it. He caught it in the face, feeling its carapace crack, the weight of the battery that was housed in the stock giving it more heft. Its mandibles shattered, one of the spider-like lenses on its helmet coming loose, dangling from a distinctly organic-looking cable. It reeled back, stunned, giving Jade the opening that she needed. She planted her three-toed feet on its carapace, kicking it off her, lifting it off the ground. It landed a few paces away, reaching up in an attempt to straighten its helmet as it struggled to right itself, but Jade had already leveled her weapon. A burst of fire from her PDW cut from its shoulder to its belly, almost severing one of its upper arms, the insect toppling back to the ground.

Evan took her hand and hauled her light frame to her feet, the pair moving to support Aster, who was still locked in an exchange of sporadic gunfire. She realized what they were doing, rising to lay down suppressive fire in full-auto, forcing her target into cover. Evan and Jade moved in, flanking around the block of resin where her opponent was hiding, cutting it down.

When the dust cleared, Evan heard another few bursts of XMR fire echo through the dome, suggesting that the rest of the squad hadn’t escaped unscathed either. The red outline of a Drone appeared on his HUD somewhere on the other side of the bunker, then quickly vanished again as gunfire barked.

“Everyone alright?” Simmons asked. “Any casualties?”

“We’re good!” Evan called back, slotting another shell into the rotating cylinder on his shotgun.

Everyone sounded off, the squad reuniting at the far door. Foster and Collins met them, the pair rushing inside with their XMRs drawn, lowering them when they realized that they’d missed the fight. The team joined up with Borzka and Tatzi outside, then continued on.

“We’re making good progress,” Simmons announced. “Looks like the first row of trenches has been completely cleared. Spotter drones show Bug forces building up in the second row, so get ready. It looks like they might try to charge across open ground. We have to keep our foothold here.”

“Don’t we have any reinforcements yet?” Garcia asked.

“No dropships are coming anywhere near this area until that AA Scuttler is dead and we’ve secured an LZ,” Simmons replied. “The armor is on its way, but it’s gonna take them a while to get around that tank trap. We’re on our own for the time being.”

“We should take up defensive positions,” Jade suggested. “The first thing the Bugs will try to do is recapture these fortifications.”

“I agree,” Simmons replied, gesturing to the left wall of the trench. “Let’s take up position here. Get ready to repel an attack.”

Unlike the side of the trench that faced out onto the plain, there were no raised platforms to stand on here, no slots cut into the resin where defenders could shoot through in relative safety. Still, most of the team was tall enough that they could simply rest their rifles on the lip of the trench, looking out over the flat terrain beyond. Only the Jarilans had any difficulty, but they managed to lift themselves high enough to see over the top, gripping the uneven resin with their clawed toes and lower arms. It was a little bizarre, but it worked.

Evan could see the enemy massing in the nearest trench some two hundred meters away, the Bugs tagged by the airborne spotter drones. After a moment, a series of explosions rippled along the line, bright billows of flame tossing clods of earth into the air. Everyone ducked reflexively, Evan feeling a few stray pebbles bounce off his helmet.

“Our armor is still in range, so we can at least get a little fire support,” Simmons explained.

“Looks like that pissed them off,” Donovan warned, Evan watching a tide of red signatures pour onto the surface. “Get ready!”

A hail of plasma bolts shot above their heads, close enough that Evan could feel their heat, but it was random fire intended only to suppress. A swarm of Drones came into view through the smoke that had been kicked up by the explosions, firing their weapons wildly as they ran.

“Open fire!” Simmons ordered, the report of a dozen XMRs ringing out across the field.

Evan held down his trigger, spraying molten tungsten into the Drones. There were so many, packed so tightly together that it was impossible to miss. The coils on his barrel began to glow red as heat built up, scores of the aliens dropping under the barrage, the projectiles sawing off limbs and shattering carapace. The same was happening in other areas of the trench, Coalition squads from other vehicles and companies laying down a firestorm. Mortars erupted, grenades tossing up plumes of dirt, indirect fire from the vehicles cutting swathes through the enemy ranks. Yet still, they came, scrambling over the growing heaps of their dead with a suicidal fervor.

“Keep it up!” Collins yelled as he paused to reload, the air around his barrel shroud shimmering with the heat that it was giving off. Evan could see the glow of the coils reflected in his visor. “Their numbers are thinning!”

“Their charge is broken!” Borzka declared, his gravelly voice full of triumph.

Evan had to aim more carefully now, picking off a couple more Drones that were still making their way forward through the smoke. He heard a boom to his right, turning to see smoke rising from a friendly trench.

“Damn it!” Hernandez growled. “Looks like one of the critters got close enough to toss a grenade.”

“Stay focused!” Simmons ordered. “It’s not over yet!”

“Fuck me!” Foster added, gesturing frantically into the drifting dust that carpeted the field. “Warrior!”

The hulking mass of a Bug battlesuit came lumbering into view, preceded by the bright glow of the plasma canisters that were built into the cannon on one of its crab-like claws. The amalgam of flesh and metal turned its slatted visors on their position, picking up speed, its clawed feet tearing at the dirt. It waded through the piles of dead Drones, paying them no mind, crushing their shells underfoot.

The squad focused their fire on the thing, chipping away at its armor, but the living vehicle shrugged it off. Simmons called in fire support, a trail of grenades cutting across its path, obscuring it from view as they threw dust and soil into the air. The Warrior came marching out of the swirling smoke, not even slowing down, the dull glow of the red-hot shrapnel that pocked its armor slowly fading.

“We don’t have anything that can dent that thing!” Brooks yelled.

“Retreat back to the bunker!” Simmons ordered, abandoning his place by the wall.

It was too late. The Warrior was within ten meters of them now – there was no way they could outrun the thing. It leveled its arm cannon, the dual barrels between its lobster-like claws emitting an ominous glow as it prepared to fire.

Another shape lumbered in from the right, running parallel to the trench. As it moved through the smoke, Evan realized that it was a second Warrior, despair overwhelming him. They couldn’t fight off one of the things, never mind two. There was no red outline on his HUD, however. After a moment, he noticed the Coalition IFF tag floating above its head, his eyes widening.

Where the Bug Warrior was huge and hulking, this one was somewhat sleeker, more agile. It still neared the same ten-foot height, but it was less massive, covering ground swiftly on a pair of digitigrade legs that were comparatively longer than those of its counterpart. It was covered in the same layers of thick armor, the overlapping plates pocked with pits and dull spikes, reminiscent of deep-sea crabs. Its upper left arm was large and reinforced, sporting a similar canon as the one wielded by the enemy, plasma canisters and segmented cables jutting from its flesh, the barrels emerging from between a pair of massive claws. Below that was a much smaller arm that sported dexterous fingers, perhaps designed for manipulating objects.

There was only one large arm on its right side, this one terminating in a thick shield that exceeded those used by the Krell in size and weight. It was more rounded, segmented in places, curving to follow the shape of the suit’s barrel-like torso. There were metal studs embedded in its surface, clearly visible against the orange camouflage, their purpose indeterminable at a glance.

The most striking differences were at the head and shoulders. Where its counterpart had a slatted visor that more resembled the headlights of a truck than eyes, along with a set of serrated mandibles, the newcomer’s jaws were split open like a Roman helmet to expose an array of sensory equipment that ran down the length of its face. They were cameras, clearly technological in nature, giving the suit a distinctly robotic look. Mounted above one of its thick shoulder pads was a thirty-millimeter railgun that had clearly been sourced from a UNN vehicle, attached via a flexible gimbal, and sporting its own little camera suite. A belt of slugs trailed down from its blocky housing, disappearing into an ammo drum on the suit’s back.

On that same shoulder pad were stenciled human letters and numbers. As it sprinted towards them, it came close enough that Evan could read them. Zero-zero-one-six. Sunny.

The enemy Warrior turned to look at it, seeming almost as surprised as Evan was, swinging its arm-cannon around to aim at the more threatening target. A stream of glowing plasma jetted forth, but its opponent raised its massive shield, electricity crackling between the metal studs on its surface. A wavering barrier formed, the shifting magnetic fields pumped with plasma, creating a secondary shield that was projected just above the first. The stream of superheated gas impacted it, the field dissipating it, collapsing moments later. Having lost most of its heat and energy, the plasma couldn’t make it through the carapace, leaving a dark smear on its studded surface.

Sunny barreled into the Warrior, using its shield like a battering ram. The force of the impact was enough to knock it off-balance, a sound like two tanks colliding ringing out, the ground shaking beneath their feet. The Warrior brought its melee weapon into play – another enormous, snapping claw that looked like it could have sheared the cannon right off a Kodiak’s turret.

Sunny caught the limb with the claw on the end of its plasma cannon, the two titans clashing, the heavier of the two monsters forcing the smaller one back. The railgun turret that was mounted on Sunny’s shoulder came to life, pointing down to take aim at the Warrior, its bark echoing across the field as it began to fire. Thirty-mill slugs tore through the Warrior’s abdomen at point-blank range, chewing holes in its carapace as large as Evan’s head, exposing glistening meat and broken machinery beneath. Still grappling with its foe, there was nothing the Warrior could do to get clear, the railgun excavating more of its armor with each shot until it breached the Pilot’s compartment.

When the operator was dead, and enough of the suit’s systems had been destroyed to disable it, the newcomer tossed the limp body aside to send it crashing to the dirt. Evan felt a pang of apprehension as the ichor-splattered suit turned to face them, the coils on its railgun barrel still glowing.

The armored panels on its torso began to split down the middle as though it was being bisected by an invisible blade, opening up like a clamshell. The two halves remained joined by drooping ropes of thick slime, the shadowy interior lined with wet, living flesh. The cavity was filled with what looked like glistening entrails or maybe tentacles, similar to what he had seen inside the Red King’s suit. They were coiled tightly around a figure, keeping it firmly secured inside, shifting and moving in a way that made Evan’s skin crawl. They parted to reveal a face and most of an upper torso, the expressive eyes of a Jarilan peering out at the rattled Marines, her carapace a striking lemon-yellow color that contrasted with the pink tendrils that surrounded her.

“Follow me across!” she shouted. “I’ll cover you!”

Simmons hesitated for a moment, then waved for them to advance, the squad climbing out of the trench and onto open ground. The Jarilan Warrior’s torso closed up again, the Pilot turning the hulking suit to face the enemy, raising her shield as the team formed a column behind her.

They advanced across the blasted no man’s land between the trenches, using the Warrior for cover in the same way that they would have used their IFV, hopping over the numerous deceased Drones that littered the landscape. Sunny kept her shield raised, dozens of plasma bolts from the Bugs that had remained in the next trench over impacting its armored surface, the thick carapace shrugging them off like raindrops. To his left and right, Evan could see other squads moving through the smoke, supported by more lumbering Jarilan Warriors.

The rifles and pistols wielded by the Drone footsoldiers had no chance of harming the battlesuits, the Jarilans wading into their distant cousins without resistance, filling the trench with plasma fire and tungsten. Sunny dropped down into the nearest trench, partially collapsing the near wall under the weight of her suit, squashing a nearby Drone like a fly with a casual swipe of her shield. Her railgun was firing all the while, seeming to seek out targets independently, the usually vehicle-mounted weapon conveying enough kinetic energy to dismember its targets where they stood. She leveled her main weapon arm, a stream of plasma pouring from the dual barrels almost like a liquid, the glowing substance filling the trench like molten metal pouring into a mold.

The Drones that were caught in its path had nowhere to escape to, the very walls of their earthworks boxing them in. Evan could hear the gas escaping from their carapaces with an audible hiss as they cooked, their shells melting like plastic in a microwave, their struggling quickly ceasing. By the time the squad actually made it inside the trench, everything was already dead.

“Well, that simplifies things,” Brooks muttered as he eyed a Drone that had been turned to charcoal.

They fanned out to secure the area, soon confirming that the last of the defenders were dead. After a few more sporadic gunfights that echoed from somewhere further down the line, there was silence.

“The second trench has been secured,” Simmons announced after a couple of tense minutes, holding one finger to his helmet as he tapped into the battalion’s radio channel. “They just sounded the all-clear. That’s it, people. It’s just one last push to the Ant Hill.”

“What do we do now?” Garcia asked.

“New orders are to stick around until someone takes out that AA Scuttler so the airborne troops can land,” Simmons replied. “Once they’ve established a foothold and the armor catches up, we’re moving in with the rest of the battalion for the final assault. I guess just take five for the moment.”

The squad relaxed a little, taking the opportunity to drink from canteens and reload their weapons. Evan leaned against the far wall to take a load off, eyeing the idle Warrior warily. As much as he appreciated the help it had provided, every Marine had developed an instinctual fear of the things that was difficult to shake.

“Do we get to keep that?” Hernandez asked, gesturing to the suit.

“The name’s Sunny, and yes, you get to keep me,” the Pilot chuckled. “Our orders are to provide support to Coalition troops, so I’ll stick around until someone tells me otherwise.”

Her voice was coming through clear inside Evan’s helmet now. It seemed that she had patched into the squad’s ad-hoc network. It was so jarring to hear such a mundane, feminine voice coming from the hulking suit, its carapace still splattered with dripping ichor.

“So, uh,” Hernandez began as he shifted his weight from foot to foot uncomfortably. “What’s it like drivin’ that thing around? Do you have a little control panel in there, or…?”

“I’m a Pilot, so the suit connects directly to my nervous system,” she explained as though it was the most normal thing in the world. “It has umbilical cables that plug into sockets that run down my spine. I see what the suit sees, and I feel what the suit feels. It’s an extension of my body.”

“Kind of looked like you were sittin’ in a giant mess of wet noodles back there,” Hernandez continued.

“Those tentacles are muscular appendages that wrap around my body to secure me inside the cockpit like a harness,” she said, her suit’s inscrutable lenses scanning the horizon beyond the trench for threats. “They’re coated in lubricating slime to prevent them from chafing against my carapace when they constrict. They also act as a layer of protective cushioning to help absorb impacts and reduce shocks. Think of them like a…full-body airbag.”

“What do they feel like?” Hernandez asked with a grimace.

“They’re kind of warm, tight, slippery,” she replied with another chuckle that came off distinctly suggestive. “I’d invite you to come try them out, but I think it’s a little cramped in here for two…”

Tatzi walked over to Hernandez without so much as a word, gripping a handle on the back of his rucksack, lifting him off the ground like she was scruffing a misbehaving kitten.

“I was just curious!” he protested as she set him down at the other end of the trench, Sunny filling the radio with her giggling. Hernandez knew better than to argue with the Borealan, turning his attention back to the field beyond.

An explosion lit up the landscape ahead of them, the glow slowly fading. A loud bang followed behind it, the blastwave whipping at the airborne dust.

“I guess the scouts found the AA Scuttler,” Brooks mused. “That looked like a bunker-buster.”

“It must have been dug in deep somewhere if it survived the initial artillery strikes,” Collins added as he watched a plume of smoke rise in the distance.

The squad waited around for a few minutes more, Evan listening in on a conversation between the four Jarilans as he drank from his canteen through his open visor. Jarilo must still be a small colony because they were catching up like people who had been raised in the same town. While Sunny didn’t seem to know Jade, Aster, or Cardinal on a personal basis, they were still direct relations. It was strange to think that all of the Jarilans were siblings, made from the same genetic material that had been provided by their Queen and her human…lover? Mate? Donor? Did the term sibling even make sense for social insects, or were they closer to clones? Evan didn’t know enough about the subject to say.

He was eventually distracted by the sound of an engine, a UNN dropship gliding low over the trenches behind them. It came to a hover a couple of meters off the level ground between the two lines of fortifications, its troop ramp lowering to disgorge a squad of Marines who quickly fanned out to secure the area. The dropship shot back up into the sky as abruptly as it had come, more of the vessels descending through the roiling cloud layer, circling overhead to shed velocity.

“New orders coming through,” Simmons announced. He gave Garcia a gentle kick as he walked down the trench, the Marine tossing a candy bar wrapper aside as he scrambled to his feet, sealing up his helmet. “Scouts have zeroed in on that radio signature they’ve been tracking. They don’t have eyes on it yet, but they’ve narrowed it down to a grid square, and they need someone to go take a look. Ghost Company drew the short straw, as usual.”

“We’ve been picking up those signals too,” Sunny added, the hulking Warrior turning its armored head to glance down at Simmons. “We managed to decode them and isolate them from the interference produced by Kerguela’s overactive magnetosphere, but we haven’t been able to pin them down. Our best guess is that they’re some kind of mobile radio emitters that are serving as nodes in a larger comms network. The Bugs are likely moving them around to keep us from finding them.”

“Well, we just found one,” Simmons continued. “Whatever it is, it’s booking it, so we need to get out there ASAP before it gets away again. The armor is gonna get here in five, so pack your shit and get ready to go. Sunny,” he added, turning to the Warrior. “Can you keep pace with a Puma IFV?”

“Not at full tilt, but this baby can do about fifty klicks at a sprint.”

“Well, okay then,” Simmons replied with an impressed whistle. “Hope you don’t get tired easily.”

Sunny hopped from foot to foot for a moment as though she was preparing for a hundred-yard dash, the suit’s immense weight shaking the ground. The bizarre sight was enough to get a laugh out of Evan.

The armor arrived right on time, the vehicles driving in from the left side of the trenches, their headlights cutting through the swirling dust. They had presumably been going near their top speed since they had split off from the infantry, and they had only just made it around the circumference of the blockade that the Bugs had set up. The squad’s Puma pulled to a stop nearby, and they climbed out of the trench, heading up the ramp and into the troop bay. Sunny followed along behind them, probably scaring the souls out of the crew.

“Strap in tight,” Simmons warned, securing his harness.

Evan tapped into the external cameras, watching the rest of the company move into position. Eight IFVs, a dozen Kodiaks, and the eleven Warriors that had made it to the ground lined up in formation.

“Driver, you got an uplink to the scout company?” Simmons asked.

“I got ‘em,” the driver replied. “They’re tailing our target five klicks out. It’ll take us about six minutes to catch up.”

They waited a couple of minutes more, the low rumble of the engine making Evan’s seat vibrate, then the signal came through from the company commander. The IFV lurched into motion, starting to accelerate as its eight wheels churned up the ash-caked soil. The rest of the company followed in a rough delta formation, the Kodiaks kicking up clouds of dust behind their tracks. Sunny began to jog alongside the Puma, gradually picking up speed, her suit taking loping strides on its digitigrade legs. Watching it move up close was so strange. Evan couldn’t tell what was muscle and sinew, and what was metal and servos. Its gait was so heavy, each footstep making its massive body quake, soft flesh quivering where it was visible between the armor plating. Its arms began to swing like a sprinter, helping power it forward, the gun on its shoulder remaining paradoxically level.

“Woo!” Hernandez yelled, bouncing in his seat as they went over a small hill. “Look at her go!”

The ground was whipping past beneath them now, the IFV’s suspension rocking, Sunny running at a flat-out sprint alongside them. Her clawed toes seemed to give her a lot of traction, her top-heavy suit remarkably balanced. The terrain here was still flat, devoid of trees, an endless expanse of ash that stretched out of view in every direction.

“How are you doing, Sunny?” Jade asked.

“Feels good to burn some calories after being stuck in that drop pod,” she replied, her voice wavering with the impact of her footsteps. She didn’t sound tired or out of breath, though. What did the suit even run on? Was it purely organic, or did it use some kind of fuel?

After a little driving, Evan spotted a dust cloud in the distance. As they neared, he saw that it was a Timberwolf from the scout company, the six-wheeled vehicle veering towards them to match pace with the rest of the formation. There was a second cloud ahead of them, gradually growing nearer. It was soon revealed to be a trio of three Scuttlers. Two of them were armed with cannons, while the third had no visible weapons. Instead, the space on its carapace that would usually have been occupied by a gun or a SAM system sported a bulky, tumorous growth. A blend of organic and metallic antennae jutted from it, rising high into the air. Their eight legs were powering them across the plain with alarming speed, the organic vehicles running along like giant spiders. While their crab-like limbs offered them a lot of mobility in rough terrain, they were clearly less suited to fast movement over open ground, the convoy slowly gaining on them.

The Kodiaks came into range, one of them firing off a sabot, its gun remaining perfectly stable even as it bounced over low hills and craters. The round streaked across the plain, narrowly missing one of the Scuttlers. The vehicle in question suddenly ground to a halt, its eight feet skidding in the ash, its turret swiveling to face the oncoming formation. It fired off a bolt of green plasma, the projectile impacting just ahead of the lead vehicles, forcing them to take evasive action as it kicked up a plume of dirt.

A second Kodiak round took it out, a HE-shell impacting its hull, tearing open a wound in its carapace to expose the living flesh beneath. The Scuttler staggered backwards under the impact, then toppled over, its sensory appendage lolling from its beaked mouth like a tongue.

Evan’s IFV had to swerve around the body as they passed it, gaining on their primary target. Another Kodiak fired, the shell impacting the ground a few meters from the radio Scuttler, forcing the thing to veer off-course. It remained surprisingly agile, executing a turn that took its pursuers by surprise. It scurried off again, the convoy making a much wider turn in an attempt to follow it, Evan feeling himself pressed into his seat as the IFV swerved. Sunny was much more limber, pulling ahead of her wheeled counterparts. She was close enough to use her railgun now, the turret on her shoulder firing off a stream of slugs, the molten metal acting like tracer rounds. Some of her shots found their mark, harassing the second Scuttler.

The organic tank turned again, cutting across the path of the convoy, the turret on its back taking aim. It brought its rocket pods to bear, sending a hail of missiles sailing towards the company. They arced down towards the ground, explosions kicking up clouds of ash and soil, the yellow haze of chemical munitions lingering in the air to create a kind of smokescreen.

When the IFV blasted through it, they emerged on the other side to see that the Scuttler was racing towards them, its cannon leveled. It fired off a bolt of plasma at an approaching Kodiak, the tank too close and moving too quickly to evade. The projectile melted into its front armor, slagging the ceramic panels and the hull beneath, liquid metal splattering the soil. It wasn’t enough to halt the behemoth, and the Scuttler was already committed, the two colliding like a pair of freight trains.

The impact was enough to lift the Kodiak’s prow off the ground like it had just hit a ramp, the barrel of its turret bending upwards as it scraped against the Scuttler’s carapace. Seventy tons of metal and ceramics went from traveling at fifty K to maybe five in the space of a second, dumping all of that energy into the overconfident Scuttler, prompting the organic vehicle to violently explode like a deer that had been hit by a truck. Like a balloon full of mucous-colored paint, it coated the tank’s hull with unidentifiable guts and fluids, pieces of shattered carapace and dislodged ceramic tiles sent flying into the air. Thrown tracks and dismembered limbs skidded to a stop in the ash as the hulking tank settled, crushing what was left of the unfortunate Scuttler’s carcass beneath its bulk. The Kodiak was mostly intact, but it wasn’t going anywhere now.

The rest of the convoy continued on, chasing down the fleeing radio Scuttler. It was heading for another patch of scorched forest, but it was a desperate bid to find cover. Another tank round landed beside it, taking off some of the legs on its left flank, sending it crashing to the ground. It skidded for a few meters, then rolled, dumping all of its momentum before coming to a stop to lie broken on the field. The company encircled it, the Jarilan Warriors slowing to level their weapons at it, but the thing was spent.

“That’s a radio emitter alright,” Simmons mused, watching on the external cameras. There was a sudden flurry of movement, the downed Scuttler’s sensory organ snaking forth to sweep around, as though it was blindly searching for aid. Two of the nearest Warriors opened up with their thirty-millimeter guns, ichor splashing as they punched holes in its carapace, the living vehicle going limp. “This must be how they’re keeping in touch with the Queen. If we can take out enough of these things, they’re going to lose coordination over any kind of distance.”

“That means any Bugs that aren’t in direct line of sight of the Ant Hill are going to be completely directionless,” Jade confirmed with a nod. “They rely on a very rigid command structure to be effective, and they’re not good at improvising. They’ll probably just dig in and wait for instructions that will never come.”

“Our new orders are to secure the area and prevent the Bugs from recovering their transmitter, though I don’t think there’s much left to recover,” Simmons continued. “They need to airlift that Kodiak out of here too, if they can separate the fucking thing from the Bug it smashed.”

“UNNI will probably want to dissect it,” Garcia added. “I wonder if they can get the body inside a lander? Maybe they can tie it to a sled.”

“We’ll form a safe perimeter using the vehicles, but our spotters aren’t picking up any enemy activity nearby,” Simmons said as he relaxed back into his seat. “We can probably take it easy for a couple of hours – get some rest and a bite to eat before we move on the Ant Hill. This might be the last break we get for a while, so make the most of it.”

CHAPTER 2: SUNNY DISPOSITION

Evan leaned back against one of the IFV’s wheels, setting his pack down beside him. The armored companies had formed a circle around the downed radio Scuttler, creating a kind of wagon fort, the Kodiaks pointing their cannons out into the empty expanse beyond. He had no idea whether this place had been a grassy plain before the orbital strikes, or maybe a lake, but it was completely barren now. He glanced up at the sky, seeing a few slivers of blue here and there, the glow of the auroras bleeding through. The wind was slowly blowing away the ash clouds, and he was grateful to have the IFV shielding him from the worst of it. With nothing to get in its way, it was whipping up the ash like a sandstorm, and he could hear it impacting the other side of the vehicle.

Hernandez, Brooks, and Garcia flopped down beside him, Garcia producing a collapsible stove from his pack. Tatzi and Borzka weren’t far behind, sitting on the dusty ground with their long legs crossed, fishing inside their packs for their oversized MREs. Evan glanced up to see Foster and Collins making their way over. The usually surly Foster now had a smile on his face, and it seemed that he and Collins had made up, the two of them engaged in conversation.

Foster hesitated a moment before taking a seat beside the Borealans, but they accepted him just as they accepted the rest of the unit. Evan hadn’t been shy about telling the squad what he and Foster had gone through during their brief separation from the rest of the team, and stories of the man’s heroics had repaired much of the damage done by his initial bad attitude. Evan doubted whether he would ever truly warm to the Jarilans, but a lack of overt hostility was a pretty good start. If tolerance was the first step, then perhaps acceptance could come later.

Jade and her Jarilan counterparts appeared with Sunny in tow, the massive battlesuit lumbering along slowly to match pace with them, its footsteps shaking Garcia’s little stove as he tried to light a flammable gel packet beneath it. It was so odd to see the thing in such a mundane situation.

The suit came to a stop beside their little camp, settling into a crouch on its digitigrade legs, its three arms hanging at its sides. Once again, the almost imperceptible seam that ran down its abdomen began to split open, the two halves of its inch-thick shell parting to expose the tentacle-filled cavity within. Ropes of thick, viscous slime dripped to the ground, soaking into the layer of ash as the muscular tendrils inside began to shift. The glistening mass retracted to expose lemon-colored carapace, unwinding their tight coils from around Sunny’s slender limbs. She placed all four of her hands on the edges of the cockpit to pull herself out – if the term cockpit even made sense in this context – stepping down from her suit.

She was much taller than Jade and the other Drones, putting her somewhere between a human and a Borealan, though her build was more willowy. It almost looked like she had been stretched out. Save for her stature, she was identical to the other Jarilans that Evan had encountered, with the same feathery antennae and expressive eyes. Rather than a belt or a rig, she had a shaped recess in her thigh armor where a sidearm was stowed. She shook a clinging glob of slime from one of her upper arms, giving the visibly disgusted onlookers an innocent shrug.

“I’d usually have some Workers on hand to towel me down, so unless any of you fine gentlemen want to volunteer…”

Knowing that she wasn’t going to get any takers, she turned slightly, inspecting something inside the Warrior’s dripping chest cavity. Evan raised his eyebrows as he saw her from the back for the first time. The firm chitin plates that covered her body split apart down the length of her spine to expose something that resembled pink brain matter, covered over in a kind of waxy, translucent layer. There was a row of half a dozen sockets running from the base of her neck to her lower back, and each one was connected to the suit’s shadowy interior via a flexible, fleshy cable that bore a disturbing resemblance to an umbilical cord.

Using her four arms, she reached behind her back, probing for the cables with her fingertips. She began to unplug them one by one, Evan feeling a shudder pass through him as uncomfortably long, metallic needles slid out of the sockets. The orifices themselves were encircled by metal rings that mated to the plugs, the holes sealing up as soon as they were disconnected, pieces of rigid chitin folding down over them to protect the sensitive tissue within. After a few moments, she was left with an overlapping row of plates running down her spine like scales, providing enough coverage that he could barely see any brain matter now. He watched them shift as she stretched, then she turned again, following her smaller counterparts to join the growing circle. She lowered herself to the ground using her lower pair of arms, crossing her long legs, sitting there like a yoga instructor about to teach a class.

“Okay, who wants to give me some sugar?” Sunny asked. “That’s not a euphemism – I didn’t pack a lunch.”

“Here,” Foster said, tearing open his MRE. He fished inside the plastic packet, producing a little container of Jarry juice the size of a toothpaste tube, then tossed it over to her. Sunny snatched it out of the air, then gave him a wink.

“Thanks for the honey, honey.”

“Never liked that stuff anyway,” he replied. “A bean burrito, on the other hand,” he continued as he fished out a larger packet. He slotted it into the sleeve of a flameless ration heater, then added water, shaking it for a moment to get the chemical reaction going.

“I’ve always found a certain fascination in watching humans masticate,” Sunny added, her mouth parts opening up as she extended her proboscis. She twisted the cap off the tube of honey, sliding the appendage inside.

Evan glanced over at Foster, expecting some kind of negative reaction, but the Marine seemed to be holding his tongue. Maybe his change of heart was more genuine than it had first appeared. There was also the distinct possibility that being hit on by a giant insect that had just climbed out of a meat suit full of tentacles had simply overwhelmed his capacity to be offended, like a form of exposure therapy.

“So, what ship are you guys assigned to?” Sunny asked as she continued to drink, pulling off the usual Jarilan ventriloquist act.

“We’re what they call a Ghost Company,” Garcia replied as he tended to his miniature stove. He was cooking a little pot of what looked like beef stew over the flames created by the gel packet. “We were reassigned after our original companies were broken up. The Bugs hit us pretty hard during the first landing. Most of us are from the Dragoon. These two are from the Spratley,” he added with a nod to Evan and Hernandez. “And, our madcats are from the Guam.”

“It’s starting to sound like I’ve been assigned to an interesting squad,” she mused as she took another sip from her tube, Evan watching the bulge travel up her proboscis. “This is the first time they’ve actually let me deploy, so I’m looking to make up for lost time.”

“I don’t think you’ll have any issues rackin’ up kills in that thing,” Hernandez said with a nod to the idle suit. “Is it, like…switched off now?”

“No, sixteen is still awake,” Sunny replied as she glanced at the suit over her shoulder. “She’ll respond to my commands to the best of her limited abilities.”

She gave a silent signal, and the suit rose from its crouched position, taking a step towards them. Everyone save for the Jarilans recoiled in alarm, Borzka baring his teeth in a snarl. The suit quickly settled again, Sunny chuckling at their reaction, holding a hand to her mouth in a gesture that she must have picked up from her human counterparts.

“She’s a darling as long as there are no hostiles around,” Sunny explained. “Our Warriors have a rudimentary intelligence – just enough to respond to basic commands and to know not to step on Workers on their way to the maintenance bays. It’s something equivalent to a lower life form, like an insect or a fish. You want a closer look?” she asked, giving Hernandez a sly smile. “C’mon, she won’t bite. I promise.”

He looked to Tatzi as if to ask for permission, Evan stifling a laugh as the Borealan narrowed her eyes suspiciously, giving him a slow nod. He and Sunny rose to their feet, and he followed her over to the suit, the pair stopping before its open chest cavity.

“Never thought I’d touch a live one,” he muttered, reaching out to brush his fingers against its carapace tentatively.

“Go on,” Sunny prompted, planting her lower pair of arms on her wide hips. “You gotta get in there elbow-deep for the real Warrior experience. Don’t be scared to get your hands dirty…”

Hernandez turned back to glance at his friends, but he couldn’t back out now.

“Elbow-deep, Hernandez!” Collins called to him.

He shook his head in exasperation, rolling up his right sleeve, then reached into the suit. Evan could hear the wet squelching sound as he pushed his hand into the mass of tentacles, grimacing as the slime coated his forearm.

“Ew, it’s warm!” he remarked. “Feels like a bunch of tongues or somethin’.”

“I’d call it cozy,” Sunny added.

“I feel like I’m birthin’ a calf. Whoa, somethin’ grabbed me!”

“Aw, she likes you!” Sunny chuckled as he struggled to withdraw his arm. “Just kidding, this thing has the mental capacity of a beetle,” she said as she rapped on its shell with her fist. “That’s just a reflex. The whole process is automated, actually. She would pull you inside and secure your limbs if I gave her the signal. I like my men flustered, covered in slime, and safely tied down,” she added as she glanced back at the scowling Borealan. “But, I can see that I’m stepping on someone’s tail.”

She snapped her fingers, which Evan doubted was actually a signal that the suit would respond to, and the grasping tentacles released their captive. Hernandez tried to wipe the layer of gelatinous goo off on the leg of his pressure suit, the substance matting the hair on his forearm.

“Don’t worry, it’s not toxic,” Sunny said. “It’s a water-based lubricant.”

“You are one uninhibited Jarrie, ain’t ya?” Hernandez grumbled.

“They don’t let us out much,” she chuckled, giving him an encouraging pat on the back as he returned to his seat. When Hernandez had made it back over to the IFV, he reached out to Collins with his slime-covered arm, the Marine scrambling past Foster in an attempt to avoid him.

“Hey, watch the burrito!” Foster complained as he leaned out of their way.

Evan watched Hernandez chase Collins around the vehicle, laughing to himself as he lifted his own meal off the ground. He slid it out of its sleeve, peeling open the packet, a wisp of steam rising into the air.

“What’s on the menu today?” Jade asked, shuffling over to sit beside him.

“A maple pork sausage patty,” he replied, taking in a lungful of its scent. “The side is hash browns and bacon, and I have a maple muffin for dessert. I guess the Canadians had their way with menu number eight.”

“Ever since you blended that food for me back on the carrier, the honey hasn’t been doing it for me,” Jade said as she watched him take a bite out of his patty. He held it in his mouth for a moment – it was still a little too hot to chew – blowing cool air over it as he juggled it with his tongue. “I know it has all the nutrition that we need, but maybe I can petition the hive to make some different flavors, at least. A little variety would go a long way.”

“You want my grape juice?” Evan asked, waving the little packet of powder at her.

“Sure,” she replied, her antennae bobbing happily. He filled a collapsible cup from his canteen, then mixed in the powder, stirring it with a plastic spoon before passing it to her.

“Haven’t seen humans and Jarries getting on this well since I left the colony,” Sunny said, sitting down to Jade’s right. She took another drink from her tube of honey, watching the pair curiously. “I don’t mean to pry, but it’s pretty much written all over you,” she continued with a nod to Evan. “The pheromones, I mean.”

“Yeah, I’m getting used to that,” he replied.

“I’ve been furloughed in orbit since the carriers jumped in, and I was starting to think the Coalition didn’t want us here,” Sunny continued. “It’s…nice to see that’s not the case.”

“It took them a while, but I think they’ve warmed up to us,” Jade said as she took a sip from her grape juice.

“Smells like it,” Sunny chuckled. “Seriously, though, I didn’t think I was going to drop down here and hang out with humans. I thought I’d be staying in my suit until I was shipped back to the carrier.”

“Here,” Jade said, passing her the cup. “Try this.”

“What is it?” Sunny asked, waving her antennae over it suspiciously in the same way a human might give it a tentative sniff.

“Rehydrated fruit juice,” she replied. “Trust me, it’s good.”

Sunny probed the beverage with her proboscis, then her eyes lit up, and she took a longer draw.

“Delicious!” she exclaimed, passing the cup back to Jade. “I haven’t eaten anything but honey since leaving the colony.”

“Sounds like someone needs to open a Jarilan-themed bar there,” Evan added, taking another bite out of his sausage patty. “They’d make a killing.”

“Speaking of which,” Jade began, setting down her cup. “In just a few hours, we’ll be moving on the Ant Hill. I don’t know if everyone really appreciates how heavily defended the Queen will be. It’s going to be a…hard-won battle.”

“You guys come from a hive,” Evan said, glancing over at the pair as he started on his next course. “What’s it like on Jarilo?”

“The Queen lives in the deepest chamber,” Jade replied. “She’s kept far underground in a secure area, separated by security doors and guarded by a contingent of males who spend all of their lives by her side.”

“That’s how it works for nuptial fleets, at least,” Sunny added. “For a hive that’s been digging in for this long, who knows what kind of defenses they might have developed? I pity whoever lands the job of going in there and clearing the tunnels out.”

“It’ll be the Trog teams,” Evan replied. “That’s what they do – they’re specially trained to clear Bug tunnels.”

“We offered to help out, but I’m told that SWAR wasn’t having it,” Sunny continued as she took another sip from her tube of honey. “A lot of those tunnels are going to be large enough to accommodate Warriors because they’re a useful tool in tunnel fighting, and we could do a lot of good below ground where the tanks won’t fit.”

“Yeah, I had a run-in with SWAR,” Evan muttered. “They’re not the most accommodating people, especially when it comes to Jarilans. They talked about my squadmates like they were military hardware.”

“I thought you were going to punch that guy right in his stupid visor decal,” Jade chuckled.

“Well, I’m glad there are people like you here,” Sunny said with a smile bright enough to match her namesake. “It’s almost like being back home again.”

“I think they might reconsider when they actually reach the Ant Hill and realize what they’re dealing with,” Jade added. “Being able to carry heavy weapons and block tunnels with those shields would be invaluable. They’ll need every advantage they can get.”

“It’s not our job,” Evan said with a shrug. He broke off a piece of his maple muffin, popping it into his mouth. “Our job is going to be to support the advance on the hill and secure the area after the fact.”

“You say that like it’s going to be easy,” Jade chuckled, giving him a nudge with her lower arm. “The Bug forces are going to be concentrated at that hill, and it’s going to be their last stand. They’re fighting to the death – literally. If we kill the Queen, the hive is effectively sterilized.”

“They say that a knife-tooth is most dangerous when it’s cornered,” Sunny added with a knowing nod of her horned head.

“Knife-tooth?” Evan asked, raising an eyebrow.

“A little critter we have to deal with back home,” Jade explained. “They’re fond of eating our chickens.”

“So,” Sunny said, her tone growing more conspiratorial as she leaned in. “How did you two get together? If there’s a knack to it, I want you to clue me in. I’m in the market for some endo action, and the fish haven’t been biting, if you get my drift.”

“What does endo mean?” Evan asked as Jade unsuccessfully tried to stifle a laugh.

“Endo,” Sunny repeated, reaching over Jade’s head to give his upper arm a pinch through his pressure suit. “Boys with bones on the inside. As in, by the end of tonight, you’re gonna endo-up in my quarters. That doesn’t really work,” she sighed, settling back into her seat on the ground. “I’m a Pilot, not a Punlet.”

“I’m gonna put you back in your pod and write return to sender on the hull,” Jade chuckled, giving Sunny a playful shove. “There’s no knack to it,” she added, becoming more serious. “You just have to give them the time they need to come around.” She reached out to take Evan’s hand in hers, giving it a squeeze, the impromptu display of affection making his cheeks flush. “Some of them don’t, but the right one will.”

“No fair, you got a head start,” Sunny said with a smirk. “I was running combat sims for the better part of a year, then it took us six months to get here. Now, they drop me in when the fight is almost over.”

“I’m sure there will be plenty of time for socializing when we’re done,” Jade added, giving her an encouraging pat on the thigh. The Pilot was so much taller than she was that it was the only thing she could feasibly reach. “There will be lots of endo boys sitting around waiting for orders with nothing better to do than talk to you.”

“Sounds like a good time,” she replied with a wink. “Now, all I have to do is survive.”

***

“There it is,” Hernandez whistled, dialing in the magnification on his visor.

Evan did the same, peering into the distance. The ash clouds had been almost completely swept away by the violent winds now, and while a dark canopy still hung over the blasted landscape like a nuclear winter, the obscuring haze that had limited their visibility was now all but gone. They could see for kilometers, the flat landscape broken up here and there by low mountains and landforms that had once been concealed beneath lush forests, now reduced to carpets of blackened stumps. There had clearly been a lot of volcanism in this area at one point in the distant past. Ancient lava flows that were newly uncovered dominated the region, and in the distance, the Ant Hill rose into the sky.

It looked to Evan like a mountain that had been cut in half, its steep faces rising to terminate in a flat, table-like top with no peak. It was large enough to be wreathed in snow, but it looked like most of it had been melted by the heat of the bombardment, only a few clusters of white starting to reappear where fluffy clouds were forming at its edges. The high winds must be blowing warm air up the mountain’s face, where the altitude was cooling it, creating condensation.

“How tall do you reckon that is?” Brooks asked, walking out from behind the idling IFV to get a better view. They were perched on a hill, the rest of the company assembling behind them, preparing for the assault.

“Data says fifteen hundred meters,” Simmons replied, joining the squad as they gawked at it.

“We don’t gotta climb up there, do we?” Hernandez sighed.

“There will be entrances near the base of the structure,” Sunny said, her voice coming through over the local channel. She was in her suit again, looming over the team as she stood behind them, the many lenses of her helmet glinting in the dim light. “Those slopes will probably be covered in defensive structures.”

“That’s what the UNNI surveys show,” Simmons confirmed. “That mountain has a shell of volcanic basalt and granite that the orbital guns can’t punch through without breaching the moon’s crust and making the Siberian Traps look like a joke. It’s a better holdout than the critters even realize.”

Evan turned his magnification to its maximum setting, peering at the far-off slopes, atmospheric haze tinting them blue as the system struggled to clear up the picture.

He could see sprawling structures, what looked like defensive fortifications built into – or perhaps carved from – the very rock. They took the form of cylindrical towers with domed roofs, similar to the ones they had faced off against during their trench assault, the long barrels of plasma cannons jutting from their walls. There were more traditional bunkers, too, little domed pillboxes that were scattered across the exposed mountainside like soap bubbles wherever there was space for them. Another common structure projected vertically from the sheer rock face like the turret of a medieval castle. They sported windows like horizontal arrow slits, designed to let the occupants fire out at anyone who might approach the mountain. These were more common at higher altitudes, where there were fewer slopes and outcrops to make use of.

The placement of the fortifications seemed devoid of any logic or strategy, and there was little consistency in their sizes, as if each one had been designed and placed without much consideration for the grander whole. Still, their sheer number was intimidating, leaving the mountainside bristling with guns and bunkers.

There were the resin and soil structures that he was already familiar with, suggesting that the Bugs must have carted thousands of tons of earth up the mountain, but many of the fortifications were made from stone. It hadn’t been hewn into blocks or even chiseled away in a recognizable sense. Instead, the surfaces were oddly smooth, as though they had been melted by some kind of acid or plasma until they had taken the appropriate shape. It gave them the look of poured concrete that had been polished to a sheen. As was usual for the Bugs, there was no decoration, no adornment. Everything was strictly functional with no care devoted to aesthetics. It reminded him of brutalist architecture in a way.

There were few walkways visible on the exterior of the mountain, suggesting that these nodes were all connected via tunnels that had been bored into the basalt. That, or the Bugs were about as agile as mountain goats. He could spot a few battlements joining the larger structures together, however. Rather than the gothic crenelations that one might expect, these walls were covered over, and they had windows like the trenches to let those inside fire out.

As his eyes wandered down towards the base of the mountain, where the greater abundance of soil resulted in more traditional resin structures taking the forefront, he saw that the surrounding land had been completely reshaped by its tenants. The mostly flat terrain transitioned onto kilometers of trenches, with more bunkers and gun towers spreading out across the plains, massive earthworks supplementing the defenses with ramparts and ditches like something from a bronze age hillfort. There must be tens, hundreds of thousands of Bugs down there. Evan could pick out Scuttlers between some of the nearer trenches, the living tanks having dug themselves into the ground, leaving only their turrets exposed to turn them into organic emplacements. There were AA and radio varieties, too, as well as Pangolins that were transporting their charges from one place to another.

“We have to fight through that?” Collins asked, spreading his arms in exasperation.

“Not before getting our briefing,” Simmons said, checking his display. “Come on, back to camp.”

They turned to make their way back down the barren hill, where a circle of vehicles was waiting. The battalion was holding position just outside the range of the Bug defensive guns, the mechanized companies making camp as they waited for the attack order to come through. The Bugs certainly knew they were there, but they had pulled back to defend the mountain after the Coalition forces had crushed all of their defenses between the landing zones and the Ant Hill. They were cornered, surrounded on all sides, and they knew it. The best strategy for them now was to wait for the Coalition to come to them, where they were dug-in and had the home-field advantage.

The company commander was setting up a portable projector near the middle of the wagon fort while the Marines and vehicle crews assembled in front of it. There were a hundred and fifty people and change, a few Jarilan and Borealan auxiliaries standing out in the crowd. Evan’s squad joined them, Sunny moving to the back of the group in her plodding suit, where a handful of other Warriors were standing. The commander grumbled something to himself, giving the blocky housing of the cooler-sized projector a tap with his boot, then an image flickered to life above it.

“Everyone here?” he asked. “Good, let’s get started.”

He gestured to the hologram that was hovering beside him, which was displaying a semi-transparent image of the Ant Hill and its surrounding terrain, portrayed as a heightmap. The Bug defenses were shown as a red circle around the mountain, and the Coalition companies were highlighted in blue. They were scattered around the extremities of the image, forming a cordon, so numerous that it was hard to estimate their number at a glance.

“The surrounding territory has been secured, and we’re on the Queen’s doorstep now,” the commander continued as he gestured to the map. “It’s been a hard fight to get here, but every defensive structure and fortification that we cleared out on our way is now occupied by Marines, and there’s no way that the critters can break out. Just because they’re cornered doesn’t mean they’re gonna give up without a fight,” he added, glancing out at his subordinates. “The Coalition has committed the largest ground force that we’ve ever deployed in one place to the assault. We have nearly two hundred thousand troops and auxiliaries, three thousand armored vehicles, and a thousand aircraft on standby for support. If you want to deliver any packages to the Bugs, you’re gonna be getting priority shipping.”

He gestured to the map again, and icons appeared showing the locations of each battalion, along with that battalion’s respective companies.

“There are sixteen battalions present,” he explained. “They all came in from different LZs, slowly tightening the noose and clearing out resistance as they advanced. We now have open supply lines to each of those LZs, as well as safe corridors for dropships and landers to put down behind the front line. This means that reinforcements and supplies are going to be readily available. If we need to lay siege to the place over a prolonged period of time, we can, but that’s not the plan right now.”

Another gesture changed the view, the hologram zooming in on a section of the map, like a pizza slice with the mountain situated at its point. Near the proverbial crust was their own battalion, Evan recognizing the name of their assault carrier hovering above the icons. There were seven companies, the six mechanized companies and the scout company. The artillery company was stationed at their LZ some two hundred kilometers behind them, but they were still well within a range where they could provide support.

The six mechanized companies were currently formed into small circles a short distance away from one another, creating secure perimeters for the unlikely event of a Bug breakthrough attack. It wasn’t inconceivable that they might be able to strike from concealed positions or use underground tunnels to pop up where they weren’t expected. So far, they had merely been shoring their defenses, preparing for the battle to come as the scout companies probed their lines for weak points.

“Our task is going to be to clear and secure this area,” the commander continued. “The company will proceed in a delta formation with the Kodiaks at the front and the IFVs at the rear. Coordinating with the rest of the battalion, we are going to push through their defenses, clearing these layers of trenches and bunkers as we go. The Bugs are going to be putting as many obstacles in our way as they can. Be prepared for Scuttlers firing from a hull-down position, mortars, and traps like mines and monofilament wire. We have Crocodiles and line charges, so the tanks will be clearing safe paths between the trenches where the IFVs can follow. You’re all experienced trench fighters by now,” he said as he turned to face his audience again. “I don’t need to tell you how to clear bunkers and seal up Bug holes. Our goal here is to keep the momentum going, break through, and take control of the base of the mountain so that our Trog teams can do their jobs.”

Evan examined the map more closely, seeing that the layers of trenches looked to be maybe ten deep. There were earthen fortifications further towards the rear, great ditches and banks obviously designed to trip up the tanks. There were an absurd number of bunkers, pillboxes, towers, and areas of the trenches had been covered and reinforced with resin. It almost looked random, like a child had scattered their toys across the landscape. It was easy to see where the damage from the orbital bombardment had been hastily repaired, craters of varying sizes eating chunks out of the defenses in places. To their credit, the Bugs worked fast. They had patched up their trench network and fixed damaged structures in record time, and they must have improvised a lot of these barriers specifically to counter the UNN vehicles. The obstacles were trivial for a legged vehicle like a Scuttler to overcome, but they would be insurmountable to anything with wheels or tracks.

“What are we going to do about all those bunkers, sir?” one of the Marines asked.

“That’s for the artillery companies and the air wings to worry about,” he replied. “They’re going to hit that hill with everything they have before the assault. There are AA Scuttlers down there, which means the Penguins and Beewolfs can’t get in too close, but the Bugs have no point defense. They’re sitting ducks – we can saturate the entire area from outside their range. There’s no reason we shouldn’t sit here and hammer them for hours. Fuckers can’t do anything about it.”

“What’s their force composition?” another asked.

“The Ninnies estimate that there are about two million Bugs at the hill,” the commander replied, a murmur of concern passing through the crowd. “Divided by sixteen battalions, that’s around 125,000 operating within our AO. That’s roughly…20,000 per company, and…” He paused to tap at his wrist display for a moment. “289 per Marine. Think you guys can handle that?”

“Easy!” someone yelled, laughter following.

“The preliminary strikes are going to even those odds a little,” the commander continued as he paced back and forth in front of the hologram. “We’re still going to be severely outnumbered even if we manage to bomb half of the bastards back to hell, so keep your heads on a swivel. Move carefully, watch your backs, and make liberal use of firepower. The UNN carted all that ordnance out here for a reason, so don’t let it go to waste. We have a Yagda rolling in with nuclear sabots, too, so I want everyone to keep their suits sealed. That means no smoke breaks, unless you have a pool running to see who can develop the largest variety of cancers. If your suit gets breached and you can’t patch it, I want you back inside your IFV, and I want you to stay there.”

With that, he closed down the holographic emitter, clapping his hands together with finality.

“I don’t know exactly when we’ll be moving out, so be ready to pick up and leave on short notice. There’s a great view of the mountain from over there, by the way,” he added with a nod to the nearby hill. “I think it’s going to be worth watching. Dismissed!”

***

“I was promised explosions,” Hernandez complained, taking a bite out of his pound cake. The squad were sat down on the crest of the hill that overlooked the mountain far off in the distance, chatting to pass the time and eating MREs. It had been a couple of hours since the briefing, and not much had happened yet. That was often the case with war – long periods of waiting followed by short bursts of activity.

“Hey, gimme some of that drink,” Sunny said as she gestured to the collapsible cup that was sitting on the dirt beside him. He lifted it off the ground, then narrowed his eyes at her.

“You can have some, but don’t get your slime on it.”

She reached over to wipe her hand on his sleeve, Hernandez rolling his eyes as he passed it to her.

“You’re the boss,” she chuckled, extending her proboscis. “Oh, is this orange flavor? You know, I’ve never seen an orange,” she continued as she began to drink. “We don’t grow them on Jarilo – the climate isn’t right – and good luck shipping fresh fruit that far out.”

“It’s more of…an approximation of what oranges taste like,” Hernandez replied through a mouthful of pound cake. “Pretty close, though.”

Approximation is a big word for you, Hernandez,” Garcia chuckled. “Have you been reading books when we’ve all been looking away?”

“A sharp tongue is no substitute for a sharp blade,” Tatzi muttered, only deigning to open one of her eyes halfway. She was lounging on the ground beside Hernandez, taking the opportunity to get a little rest, her furry fingers interlocked behind her head. “Were it not so dull, I might not have gotten so much use out of it…”

“I’m gonna take that as a compliment,” Hernandez replied, taking another bite of his cake.

“I’m starting to feel like a little leave will do everyone good,” Jade whispered, giving Evan a nudge.

“Love is in the air,” he said with a shrug.

“No, pheromones are in the air,” Jade chuckled.

“Same difference.”

Their relative peace was disturbed by the echo of a far-off explosion, everyone stopping what they were doing, Tatzi jolting upright to look over her shoulder. A large plume of smoke was rising from the base of the mountain, drifting across the trenches. Knowing the height of the Ant Hill gave Evan a better idea of its scale, the smoke towering hundreds of meters into the air.

The first shot had perhaps been for rangefinding purposes, and it was followed by a larger salvo, what looked like dozens of explosions rippling through the fortifications. The base of the mountain was soon engulfed in a cloud of dust and debris, like a giant was tossing handfuls of dirt into the air, bright flashes penetrating the dense smog as more shells found their mark. It wasn’t just happening on the near-side, either. Artillery was pounding the Bug defenses all around the foot mountain, guns from all sixteen of the landing sites dumping thousands upon thousands of rounds. Some of them began to climb up the mountainside, a wall of fire walking up the sheer cliff faces, throwing tons of earth and shattered rock down towards the ground.

Evan watched as one of the shells struck a large fortification that was jutting from the mountainside, a cylinder that had been sculpted from rock, the shining metal of gun turrets visible as they jutted from ports in its facade. The round struck it dead-center, shattering the smooth stone into chunks, sending them tumbling down the steep slope. Distance and perspective threw him off, the fragments of stone seeming to fall far slower than they should have, until he realized that they must be the size of boulders. They rolled and bounced down the rocky cliff face, a particularly large one plunging into one of the ramparts, cleaving through it. That was just one microcosm of the destruction that was being wrought, similar scenes happening all over the Ant Hill and the surrounding area. The sound was almost like a far-off drum roll, the blasts coming in such quick succession that they blended together into a constant noise.

“Dinner and a show,” Sunny muttered, taking a sip of her drink as she watched.

“All I can think about is how each one of those shells costs about fifty Gs,” Garcia added. “Every twenty seconds or so is another retirement fund’s worth of credits up in smoke.”

“Almost doesn’t feel fair,” Hernandez said, taking another bite of his pound cake.

“Even if we manage to kill ninety percent of them with the shelling, they’ll still outnumber us,” Jade replied. “This is evening the odds, if anything.”

“I’m not all that worried about fairness,” Garcia chuckled. “If our job only consisted of stepping around piles of scorched Bugs, that’d work out just fine for me.”

The whine of engines pierced the chorus of artillery fire, Evan glancing to the sky. He expected to see Beewolfs screaming overhead, but they must be above the clouds, keeping outside the range of any surviving AA Scuttlers. After a moment, another series of explosions rocked the mountain, these ones substantially larger than the artillery shells. They must be thousand-pounders dropped by the aircraft, their bubble-shaped shockwaves punching gaping holes in the lingering dust clouds that were quickly filled in by more debris. It was hard to even see the bottom half of the Ant Hill now.

More flights of Beewolfs dropped their payloads, these ones impacting the mountainside, an impressed murmur passing through the squad as they watched what must be thousands of tons of debris surge down into the trenches like a landslide.

“They did say they had a thousand aircraft,” Evan said with a shrug. “They must be running sorties from the carrier in a constant conga line.

“This is just making me really glad that the Bugs have no artillery and that we wiped out their aircraft on the first day,” Brooks said. “Imagine being in that mountain right now.”

“I’m sure they’d make some if we didn’t keep the pressure on,” Jade said, watching another airstrike hit the fortifications. “The quicker we kill the Queen, the better, because it denies her the opportunity to adapt. They’ve already been building new defenses to counter our tanks. All she’d have to do is figure out how to make a long-range weapon, mount it on a Scuttler, and we’d be facing counter-battery fire.”

Something punched through the cloud layer above the mountain, a bright, blinding flash forcing everyone who wasn’t wearing a helmet to shield their eyes. Moments later, they were hit by a tangible blast wave, powerful enough that Evan could feel his ears pop with the change in pressure. A loud bang echoed across the plain, and it was followed by more, a whole salvo shaking the ground. When Evan opened his eyes again, he saw more smoke rising from the mountain, these clouds taking the distinctive shape of mushrooms.

“That’s a carrier!” Brooks exclaimed, seeming as alarmed as he was impressed by the sight. “I thought they said they weren’t going to bring in the orbital guns?”

“It must be a limited strike, low power,” Garcia replied. “Enough to damage surface structures, but not enough to collapse the tunnels inside. Maybe there was something up there that the artillery couldn’t crack.”

The initial excitement slowly faded as the bombardment continued, minutes passing as they watched the artillery hammer the mountain, punctuated every now and then by another airstrike.

“So, I s’pose they’re just gonna keep at it,” Hernandez said, popping the last piece of his pound cake into his mouth. “What do we do now?”

“I guess we get some time off, but louder?” Sunny asked with a shrug of her upper arms.

“Time for a nap,” Foster said, reaching for his pack. He dragged it a little closer, then lay down with his helmet on top of it, using it as a pillow. He reached up to close his visor, then crossed his arms over his chest, settling in.

“How the hell can you sleep through this?” Collins asked, but Foster didn’t reply. He had probably shut off his helmet’s external audio feeds.

“He has the right idea,” Jade said, rising to her hands and knees. “We should get some rest while there’s still time.” She shuffled closer, then put a hand on Evan’s shoulder, easing him down onto the dusty ground.

“What are you doing?” he chuckled.

“Keep still, squishy boy. You’re a lot softer than my pack.”

She lowered herself down beside him, then lay her head on his chest, her antennae tickling his nose. He felt her drape both right arms over his torso – one over his chest and the other over his belly – pressing close to him. He was a little flustered that she was being so openly affectionate, but everyone knew about their relationship by now, so what did it matter? Even Sunny had figured it out already.

“Aren’t you going to put your helmet on?” he asked, returning her embrace as he hooked an arm around her shoulders.

“I don’t have ears,” she replied with a smirk. “I pick up vibrations through my carapace, so I can’t really put on earmuffs like Foster can. I’ll be alright.”

Sunny climbed to her feet, the willowy Pilot making her way back over to her suit. It was crouching beside the IFV nearby, its chest cavity opening up as she approached, the many tentacle-like appendages reaching out to her in a kind of unappealing embrace. It was so strange how it responded to her presence, more like a pet than a machine.

“You know what makes for a soft bed?” she said, giving her onlookers a playful wink. “A nice, warm Warrior.”

Evan watched with morbid curiosity as she stopped in front of it, turning to put her back to the grasping tendrils. She lifted her arms, and those tentacles slowly began to wind around them, their slick flesh glistening with slime. Some of them crept around her torso, then between her thighs, lifting her off the ground with surprising gentleness. They nestled her inside the flesh-lined body cavity, then the carapace began to close, sealing her inside. The suit didn’t move after that, and Evan could only assume that Sunny was taking a nap.

“What are you doing?” Tatzi muttered, eyeing Hernandez. He was sitting beside her, tapping at his wrist display, his attention focused on it.

“Tetris,” he replied.

“What is a Tetris?” the Borealan asked as she sat up to get a better look.

“You stack blocks.”

“Why?” she grumbled.

“It’s a game. It passes the time.”

Evan chuckled at their interaction, watching her narrow her eyes as she tracked the falling blocks. Her confusion quickly morphed into interest, both of her round ears swiveling to face Hernandez.

Evan turned his eyes to the rest of the squad, watching as they ate and chatted. Donovan, Brooks, and Garcia were all sitting around a collapsible stove as they talked and exchanged the contents of their MREs like kids swapping trading cards. One of the Jarilans, Aster, had joined them. Collins and Borzka were having their own little swap meet with Cardinal, the Marine reading off the contents of one of the packages for her benefit while the Borealan dug into a huge packet of what looked like salmon steaks. There was no sign of Simmons – he must be off talking business somewhere.

All things considered, the unit hadn’t been together for very long, but they had already developed an uncommon rapport. Even Foster had come into the fold now, and with his inclusion, there was really nobody here that Evan didn’t like. He hadn’t forgotten about the original unit that he had left behind in the burning wreckage of his convoy, but while his thoughts often turned to them when there were moments of quiet, his sense of loss had certainly been cushioned by his new friends. They were a Ghost Company, and they had all gone through something similar. There was some small comfort in knowing that they understood how he felt.

The mood was strangely serene, considering the destruction that was being delivered on the mountain in the distance. He could see a few other squads from their company further down the hill, sitting around and chatting, some of them taking the opportunity to eat or nap.

Just a little longer. Just one more push, and the most difficult battle of the war would be behind them. He glanced down at Jade, seeing that her eyes were closed. She was already asleep, her abdomen gently rising and falling, her antennae brushing his cheek as they twitched. Maybe she was dreaming.

He decided to join her, resting his head in his free hand, drifting off as he listened to the distant rumble of artillery fire.

CHAPTER 3: SUPERHEAVY

“Hey,” Jade whispered, shaking Evan awake. He opened his eyes groggily, glancing down at her. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” he grumbled, reaching up to rub his eyes before realizing that his visor was in the way.

“Exactly,” she replied, lifting her head off his chest to glance around their little camp. “The artillery strikes have stopped.”

“How long has it been?” he asked, glancing down at the display on his wrist. “Damn, nine hours? I guess I needed the shuteye.”

“It’s hard to tell what time it is on this moon,” Jade sighed. “The day and night cycle is…absent.”

A figure appeared from behind their IFV, making its way over to them, Evan soon seeing that it was Simmons.

“Pack up your shit,” he said, the squad starting to collect the gear that they had strewn about the camp. He noticed that Foster wasn’t responding, giving the sleeping figure a swift kick that jolted him awake. “Eyes up, Marine! We’re moving out in fifteen!”

“Sorry sir,” Foster stammered, seeming momentarily disoriented. He climbed to his feet, swinging his heavy pack over his shoulders.

Evan stood up, then took Jade’s hand, pulling her upright.

“Thanks,” she chuckled, sticking close to him as they made their way back over to the Puma. “You make a good pillow, you know. I’m looking forward to sleeping that well every night when this is all over.”

They loaded up, stowed their packs, and strapped into their seats. After a few more minutes, the Puma lurched into motion, driving back down the hill to take formation with the rest of the company. As the commander had outlined during the briefing the day prior, the vehicles had been arranged into a delta formation. The twelve Kodiaks were at the front, forming an armored spearhead, with the IFVs taking up the rear. Evan spotted a couple of Crocodiles joining them, identifiable by their massive anti-mine plows, along with a Kestrel for point defense. The scout company was perched on a hill somewhere off to the right, eight of the six-wheeled vehicles arranged in a loose cluster. As he watched, a swarm of quadcopters lifted off from recesses in their hulls, their little rotor blades unfolding. The spotters took to the sky like a flock of birds, maybe fifty of them soaring away across the blasted terrain.

“Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Foxtrot, all showing green,” Simmons said. “All companies reporting in – the battalion is ready to roll.”

Evan couldn’t see them in this somewhat hilly area, but he knew that the battalion’s five other mechanized companies would be taking similar formations nearby, and the fifteen other battalions encircling the hive would all be doing the same. The attack was going to be simultaneous, on all fronts, stretching whatever remained of the Bug defenses to capacity. The Coalition had them completely surrounded.

“Looks like our backup is arriving,” Simmons said, nodding to the ceiling of the troop bay.

Evan glanced up through the IFV’s array of external cameras, seeing something come barreling through the clouds above. It punched a hole in the dense canopy, burning like a meteorite, looming ever larger as it descended. He could make out a vaguely ovular shape that tapered into more of a point on one end, ringed by a dozen thrusters that jetted blue flame as it decelerated. It was covered in a layer of scorched heat tiles that were still glowing bright orange from reentry, and it was cradled by a skeletal, square structure that was shooting its own plumes of fire.

He had seen videos of a Yagda before, but they utterly failed to convey its sheer scale. It was easily thirty meters long and about half as wide, with a mass in excess of five hundred tons. Its tile-covered underbelly was completely smooth, slightly rounded, without any visible wheels or tracks.

The frame that clung to it was a lander, the vessel designed so that the armored vehicle fit snugly beneath it. Four reinforced jibs projected out to its sides, gripping the edges of the tank like a giant claw. Its cockpit was situated far to the front, its nose overhanging the prow of the tank, giving the crew an unimpeded view. There were massive, downward-facing engines on the arms, each one spewing a plume of flame as it neared the ground. As much thrust as the lander must be putting out, the Yagda seemed to be assisting, the vehicle using its own maneuvering thrusters to help the pair decelerate. At that size, it was blurring the lines between a tank and a frigate.

The lander and its enormous passenger descended behind the formation of vehicles, then they began to hover a few meters off the ground, their engines kicking up a cloud of ash that washed over the company. The backwash from their engines was uncovering the ground beneath the dust, stripping away the topsoil to reveal volcanic rock that had melted, then resolidified. Evan wasn’t sure if it had been melted by natural processes or by the bombardment.

The lander shuddered as it released its charge, Evan recoiling reflexively as he watched it drop like a brick. Rather than cratering into the ground, it stopped short, bouncing as though it had hit an invisible obstacle. The Yagda was a next-generation vehicle, a repulsor tank. It used the AG fields that provided gravity on spacecraft to push itself off the ground, somehow inverting them, creating an anti-gravity cushion not dissimilar in practice to how a hovercraft functioned.

Now that its charge had been released, the oddly shaped lander began to climb away, soon disappearing into the ash clouds.

The tank began to move, the thrusters that lined its skirt swiveling and twisting as they fought to control its inertia. It looked like it was sliding on ice, completely frictionless. As it took up position behind the company, Evan got a better look at it. It had a smooth, rounded profile that was probably intended to deflect enemy fire, and its hull was covered in heat tiles designed to absorb and dissipate the energy from Bug plasma weapons. It was painted the same ocean-grey as a jump carrier, but it had some subtle, red livery that gave away its Martian origins, as well as some distinctive Cyrillic markings. The designation zero-four was stenciled on the side of its turret, as well as a lowercase delta symbol.

The main turret was situated closer to the prow than that of the Kodiak, and it was almost the size of one of the tanks in its own right. The barrel of the 740mm railgun must have been ten meters long, like something one would expect to find on a spacecraft, and the muzzle device was the size of an oil barrel. It couldn’t rotate a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, as there was a raised section of the hull behind it, rising above it like a hood. As he watched, weapons and sensors that had been covered during reentry began to emerge from within the chassis.

On top of the swooping hood, a cluster of comms antennae rose into view, jutting into the air just behind a large CIWS gun that was situated above the main turret. It had a rotary railgun, the barrels lined with magnetic coils, and there was a wide radar dish sat above it that made up part of its sensor suite. It had two arrays of four missile launch tubes mounted on either side of it, giving it more firepower than the variety that Evan was used to seeing. It looked small perched atop such a massive vehicle, but it must be even larger than the AA turret of a Kestrel.

Along its flanks, sponsons were deploying, four of them on each side. They were ball turrets equipped with external cameras, likely remotely operated. They had a pair of railgun barrels, what looked like dual-linked 20mm guns.

As the vehicle turned, its mass making it swing around, Evan got a look behind it. There was a massive troop ramp that looked large enough to accommodate their IFV, as well as another, more conventional CIWS gun that faced backwards. He could also see another sponson that was positioned to cover the rear, likely intended to protect the ramp when it was lowered. The Yagda wasn’t merely a mobile pillbox – it was a command center, able to accommodate troops and direct battlefield operations. There was a situation room inside, crew quarters, and even an infirmary within its two-level interior. Its primary role was using that enormous main gun to take out stubborn Bug fortifications, and it could use its sponsons to defend itself from Bug infantry attacks. Evan had heard that it was equipped with experimental plasma shields, too, but they must not be active right now.

The Yagda came to a stop, panels that were mounted on the hull below the turret sliding open to reveal vents, the air around them shimmering as they dumped waste heat. The thing was nuclear-powered, with its own onboard fission reactor.

“I don’t know if I feel safer, or less sexually adequate,” Brooks muttered as he watched the thing slide to a stop. Evan noted that particles of dust and small stones beneath its wide skirt were starting to float off the ground, captured by the anti-gravity field.

“That’s certainly…large,” Jade added.

“The Yagda will be moving with our battalion,” Simmons explained. “Again, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s going to be firing nukes. Keep your fucking suits sealed unless you want to grow a third arm. Or a fifth arm,” he added with a respectful nod to Jade and her two companions.

The Kodiaks ahead of them began to move, disappearing over the low hill, their tracks churning up small clouds of ash. The IFV followed behind them, the engine making Evan’s seat vibrate. They crested the hill, the mountain towering ahead of them, tinted blue by the atmospheric haze. To their left and right, more companies from the battalion came into view, matching speed as they emerged onto the open plain. There were few trees here, and no hills, just a flat expanse that led to the base of the mountain. There were more mountainous formations behind them, but none as large as the Ant Hill, the mesa dominating the skyline. In the distance, Evan could pick out more battalions, the dust that they kicked up giving away their positions. When he turned to glance to his left, he saw that Sunny was sprinting alongside their vehicle, her suit’s clawed feet pounding the soil. Behind them, the Yagda loomed, floating along like some kind of giant air hockey puck. Every now and then, one of its thrusters would flash with a burst of flame, correcting the behemoth’s course.

“We’re about thirty kilometers out, so we should get there within a half-hour,” Simmons said, gripping a handhold on the ceiling as the IFV bounced over a small crater. “Sunny, can you keep the pace for that long?”

“Not a problem,” she replied over the local channel. “Feels good to be able to stretch my legs after spending so much time cooped up in that carrier!”

She leapt over an errant tree stump that was in her path, hanging in the air for a good second or two in the moon’s low gravity before landing again, creating a splash of dust.

“Do you feel all that?” Hernandez asked. “Like, do your legs get tired?”

“Oh, I only feel the good parts,” she chuckled as she ran alongside the IFV. “The wind on my face, the exhilaration, the freedom. I prefer this to flying. There’s no sense of speed in space – you can’t see the ground rushing past beneath your feet!”

Evan was distracted from their exchange by a billow of flame in the distance, more artillery starting to hammer the base of the mountain. They were resuming their bombardment, probably trying to prevent the Bugs from regrouping before the attack.

As they blasted across the ash fields, something began to move on the mountainside. Above the drifting clouds of dust kicked up by the constant artillery, near the flat peak, a sheer rock face began to split open. They were doors, Evan realized, so large that they must rival a jump carrier’s hangar bay in size. Like some of the turrets and ramparts, they were hewn from the very basalt of the mountain, only distinguishable now that they were parting to reveal a dark gulf.

“Holy shit, look at that!” Hernandez exclaimed.

“What the fuck is it?” Brooks added, his voice filled with apprehension. “Don’t tell me they have an aircraft hangar up there?”

“No,” Jade gasped, gripping the armrests of her chair with her lower hands. “It’s something else…”

The shuddering doors ground to a halt, fragments of stone and small landslides of soil falling down the mountainside, the cavity too shrouded in shadow for Evan to make out its interior. Slowly, something began to emerge, sliding out of the darkness meter by meter. It was a cannon of immense proportions, its long barrel made of shining metal, equipped with a pair of magnetic rails. What looked like organic power cables jutted from its length at regular intervals, trailing out of view behind it, the weapon slowly depressing to point towards the ground.

“That’s a capital-grade weapon!” Garcia warned. “Fuck, it’s bigger than the ones they mount on hive ships!”

“It’s gotta be thirty meters long!” Donovan added.

Arcs of green-tinted electricity danced down its barrel as its capacitors charged, an ominous, emerald glow accumulating between its immense rails. With a bright flash that blew out the external cameras for a few moments, it fired, that long gun barrel reciprocating back into the mountain. The immense recoil shook the structure to its foundations, sending dust and fragments of stone spilling down the cliff face. A ball of plasma lanced out towards the oncoming battalion, Evan following it with wide eyes, watching as it struck the mechanized company furthest to their left.

There was an immense explosion that shook the ground, all of the superheated, roiling plasma that was contained within the magnetic field releasing in a fraction of a second. There was another blinding flash of light, a small, green star persisting just long enough to burn afterimages into Evan’s eyes. A shockwave hit the side of their IFV like a hammer, hard enough to lift it off its left wheels for a moment before depositing it back on the ground with a thud, the passengers straining against their harnesses. Sunny had to raise her shield to absorb some of the blast, her claws skidding in the dust as she stumbled, but she managed to keep running without losing her footing.

They quickly left the rising cloud of smoke behind them, the company maintaining its breakneck pace. Evan turned his head to get a look at the plume of smoke, seeing a handful of Kodiaks and IFVs come driving out of the dust, some of them sporting scorched hulls and damaged equipment. As the wind swept away the cloud, debris raining back to the ground, he saw the extent of the damage.

Fully half of Bravo company was gone – either turned to melted husks by the intense heat of the plasma or tossed off their wheels like toys to lie disabled on the ash fields. A few of the more severely damaged vehicles that hadn’t been completely destroyed were rolling to a stop, crews abandoning their burning IFVs, a Kodiak whose turret had melted like a candle grinding to a halt as its blowout panels jetted flame.

“We can’t take another hit like that!” Garcia exclaimed. “Holy shit, why aren’t we taking evasive maneuvers?”

“We can’t outrun that thing,” Simmons replied sternly. “We have to rely on the Yagda.”

The five-hundred-ton repulsor was still drifting along behind them, the thrusters along its right flank flickering as they compensated for the force of the blast. The ten-meter cannon on its main turret swiveled, starting to elevate, taking aim at the mountain.

“It’s preparing to fire again!” Brooks warned, Evan snapping his head around to see the Bug cannon flickering with emerald light. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as he watched it charge. This was the same feeling that he’d experienced when he had been lying in the debris after the ambush on his convoy, that sensation of helplessness, of having no control over his fate. When he had a gun in his hand, he could at least do something to protect himself and his friends, even if it was futile. Staring down the barrel of that cannon, he was utterly powerless.

“Come on, come on!” Hernandez hissed. “What the hell is the Yagda waitin’ for? Fire already!”

There was a deafening crack that Evan could feel reverberating through the IFV’s hull, ringing it like a gong, the repulsor firing its main gun. A brief flare of blue backlit the vehicle as the thrusters at its rear burned to counter the immense recoil, the thing visibly lurching despite its mass, falling behind the rest of the convoy. The exposed coils on its barrel glowed with heat, the air above them shimmering like a mirage, whatever projectile they had just accelerated streaking across the plains so quickly that there was almost no travel time.

Another brilliant flash lit up the landscape in stark white, casting long shadows, the blinding light fading to reveal an orange bubble that was rapidly expanding on the near face of the mountain. It was a fireball, a shockwave preceding it, rushing down the mountainside to wash across the trenches below with enough force to displace the lingering dust left by the artillery fire. The nuclear sabot had hit the Bug cannon dead-on, taking a chunk out of the cliff face, thousands of tons of rock and dirt cascading down towards the ground as the growing mushroom cloud towered above the scene. Evan caught a glimpse of the gun barrel, warped and twisted by the intense heat. It tumbled down the sheer cliff face, crashing into the trenches below, the landslide that followed partially burying it.

Hernandez let out a victory cry, pumping his fist in the air, but all that Evan could muster was a quiet sigh of relief. That was the last trump card the Queen had up her sleeve – it had to be. What surprises could she have in store that were more elaborate than a capital ship weapon hidden inside a mountain?

“Here’s hoping the critters only had one of those,” Brooks said, tightening his harness apprehensively.

“That’s likely why they positioned the Yagda on this side of the mountain,” Jade explained. “I’m assuming they detected the gun from space but couldn’t crack it with the orbital strikes.”

“Well, it’s fuckin’ cracked now,” Hernandez replied as he watched the smoke rise from the torn wreckage.

“How many did we lose?” Evan asked.

“It looks like four Kodiaks and five Pumas from Bravo have dropped off the IFF network,” Simmons replied as he glanced down at his display.

“Fuck, that’s half the company!” Foster hissed. “That could just as easily have been us!”

“But it wasn’t,” Collins replied, sounding like he was trying to reassure himself as much as Foster. “We’ve come this far, and we’ll make it out.”

The mountain was rapidly approaching, some of the towers and bunkers that littered the fortifications at its base coming into sharper focus, framed against the backdrop of explosions levied by the unrelenting artillery fire. Only when the spearhead of armored vehicles came within maybe ten kilometers did they stop, the constant noise abruptly silenced.

“You all know what you’re doing, and you don’t need me to tell you how to do your jobs,” Simmons began as he lifted his XMR from the rack beside his seat. He checked the magazine, then switched on the battery, the electrical whir of the capacitors charging just barely audible over the sound of the engine. “Stay together, watch each other’s backs, and let’s make this bitch rue the day she decided to jump her hive ship into this system.”

It wasn’t as much a pep talk as a threat, but Evan noticed the mood in the troop bay shift from one of quiet apprehension to one of determination. Once this operation was over, the war would effectively be won. Whatever Bugs remained on the moon would be scattered, directionless, reduced to little more than fauna to be hunted at the Coalition’s leisure.

It only took them a few more minutes to cover the rest of the distance, the scattered bunkers and gun towers rising up ahead of them. Few were still intact, having suffered extensive damage from the bombing, giving the fortifications the appearance of broken teeth.

To Evan’s surprise, he saw the long gun barrel that jutted from one of the domed towers turn in their direction, firing off a bolt of plasma. The structure was pocked with holes, but it was still operable. From the first line of trenches, a barrage of small arms fire came shooting towards them, splashing harmlessly against the lead tanks. The resistance was by no means sparse, despite the utter destruction that had been wrought by the artillery. Some of the bunkers opened up too, setting the air alight with green fire, Evan watching streams of bolts arc over the convoy.

“And here I was hoping we’d just be able to walk in there,” Brooks grumbled.

“They may have brought more reinforcements up from below ground,” Jade suggested. “They might even have held many of their troops in reserve, expecting us to use our artillery. They learn and adapt quickly.”

“It doesn’t change our plan,” Simmons added, glancing at them through his opaque visor. “We get in there, and we kill Bugs.”

The Kodiaks that formed an arrowhead at the front of the company began to fire, shuddering under the recoil of their railguns, maintaining their speed and formation despite the Bug return fire. Several of the bunkers and towers erupted into flashes of flame and showers of dirt, chunks of resin raining on the trenches below, sending the insects scattering for cover. They followed up with mortar fire, the shells kicking up torrents of earth where they landed, streams of missiles from their cheek-mounted launchers streaking across the battlefield. Evan could hear the MGL on the roof of the IFV firing alongside them, making the hull vibrate.

“Look, up there!” Garcia exclaimed as he pointed to the sky. “Are those more Warriors?”

Evan followed his gaze, seeing several dozen bright points of light burn through the clouds. Those weren’t Jarilans – they were reentry capsules, shaped like truncated cones with a rounded base that was coated with heat tiles, tapering to a dome at the top. They popped parachutes as they neared the ground, flames jetting from thrusters on their round bellies to help them brake.

“SWAR teams,” Hernandez clarified. “I’ve never seen so many deployed in one place before.”

“They’re landing behind enemy lines, the crazy bastards,” Garcia muttered. “They must be after priority targets.”

A mortar exploded nearby, causing the IFV to swerve in a bid to avoid it, Evan gripping the handholds of his seat in alarm as his harness dug into his shoulders. A stream of tracers painted trails above their heads, the Kestrel at the rear of the formation employing its point defense weapons to intercept more of the projectiles.

“They’re shelling us right back!” Collins warned.

The Kodiak that was driving some twenty meters ahead of them abruptly erupted into a ball of emerald flames, losing most of its momentum in the space of a second as a powerful bolt of plasma melted through its prow, leaving a slagged hole just below the turret. Its blowout panels spewed flame as the ammunition cooked off, the impact making it throw one of its tracks, sending it jackknifing across the IFV’s path.

“Hang on!” their driver growled over the radio, the IFV’s wheels spinning in the loose soil as it corrected course. The burning hulk of the disabled tank rolled to a stop just in time, Evan feeling a powerful jolt as the IFV clipped it, a few of the external cameras going dark to create a blind spot. It had put itself directly in Sunny’s path, and she was going too fast to stop. She vaulted over it, the burning chassis sagging under her weight as she pushed off the armor, her suit hanging in the air for a moment. She landed on the other side, stumbling for a moment before resuming her sprint, matching pace with the Puma.

Another of the Kodiaks returned fire on the offending tower, punching a HE round through its resin wall, cutting it across the middle as the sabot detonated. The top half of the tower began to list, then toppled into the trenches below, a secondary blast of sickly green scattering its fragments as its stores of ammunition exploded.

Similar exchanges were happening all the way along the line, hundreds of vehicles from dozens of companies coalescing on the Bug defenses. Evan could see two battalions flanking his own in the distance, their combined firepower hammering the fortifications. Despite over nine hours of continuous bombardment, there were enough surviving guns and Drones to put up a fight, streaks of green racing across the blasted terrain as mortars exploded around the vehicles.

The Kodiaks closed ranks as they neared the first row of trenches, the Crocodile engineering vehicles pulling ahead, lowering their anti-mine plows to clear a safe path. There were two of them leading the charge, their blades digging furrows in the earth as they approached the first row of defenses, like they were plowing a field. They encountered a long web of monofilament wires that was strung between poles that had been driven into the ground at intervals, the thin strands biting into the plows, scarring the thick metal as they were stretched to their breaking point.

They pushed through, a Kodiak taking out a nearby pillbox that was firing on them, the IFV falling into one of the two columns behind them. Now, there was only a couple of hundred meters of open ground standing between them and the first trench. The other companies in the battalion were doing the same, moving alongside them some distance to their left and right.

“Just monofilament wire?” Jade mused, glancing at the tattered strands as they drove through the breach. “Is that it? No more bogs, no mines?”

“Yeah, this doesn’t feel right,” Evan muttered as he glanced out at the cratered terrain apprehensively. “They’ve had so much time to prepare – why wouldn’t they throw more obstacles at us? All of the earthworks are closer to the base of the hill.”

The IFV lurched to a stop, the driver slamming on the brakes.

“What the hell?” Evan complained, reaching up to straighten his helmet. “Why’d we stop?”

There was an explosion from the front of the convoy, a shower of dirt and debris raining down on them, little fragments of stone impacting the IFV’s roof like hail. A second followed, then another, the sound reminding him of firecrackers going off.

“Uh, guys?” Sunny said. Her suit turned, its many cameras fixing on the company off to their left, which had also ground to a halt. Gunfire echoed, flashes of explosions erupting down the length of the column. “Something’s happening.”

A few meters away from her, the ground began to stir, the movement drawing Evan’s attention. There was something shifting beneath the soil, like a crab digging itself out of the sand, a small creature emerging into view. It was about the size of a dinner plate, crustacean-like in appearance, with a rounded body that was propelled along by eight segmented legs. It was covered in a dirt-colored carapace that matched the soil, fragments of earth still clinging to it. Rather than being perfectly disk-shaped, it was thicker towards the front, where it had a set of beady little eyes and jutting antennae that protruded from its shell. It cleaned its sensory equipment with a pair of feathery pedipalps like a cat cleaning its whiskers, setting its sights on Sunny.

It sprang into motion, racing across the ground on its spindly limbs, moving alarmingly quickly. Sunny drew back one of her suit’s legs as it neared, kicking the thing like a soccer ball, sending the little crab tumbling through the air. When it was only a few paces away, it exploded like a grenade, showering the ground beneath it in fragments of white-hot shrapnel.

“We’re in a minefield!” Sunny warned, her shoulder-mounted gun swiveling to track more targets as they began to unearth themselves. Dozens of the things dug themselves out of the dirt, starting to race towards the vehicles, Sunny’s railgun causing them to detonate where her slugs found their mark. The blister on the IFV joined in, more vehicles along the column opening up, the living bombs surrounding them.

One of the creatures darted closer to the IFV behind Evan’s, wriggling under its wheels like a spider trying to squeeze through a narrow gap. It exploded with a tangible thud, delivering enough explosive force to lift the Puma a few inches off the ground, two of its tires torn to shreds by the shrapnel. The crew piled out of their disabled vehicle, taking up position outside, using their rifles to help take out the swarming bomblets. They were exploding all around the convoy, creating an obscuring wall of smoke and debris, making it even more difficult to spot them in the chaos.

“God damn it, we have to get this convoy moving!” Simmons snapped. “It’ll be death by a thousand cuts if we stay here!”

“One of the lead Crocodiles is disabled, sir!” the driver replied.

“It’s a fucking mine-clearing vehicle, how is it disabled?” Simmons demanded.

“Looks like one of those little crab bombs crawled inside their tracks and fucked up one of their drive sprockets.”

One of the Marines from the vehicle behind them paused to reload his XMR, Evan watching as a mine made a beeline for him. Before Evan could radio him a warning, the thing leapt into the air, extending its eight legs as it sailed towards him. It landed on his chest, its jointed limbs gripping him tightly, the Marine lurching as he struggled to tear it off. A moment later, it detonated, turning the man into strips of bloody meat and tattered fabric. The blast sprayed the nearby IFV with his blood, knocking two of his comrades off their feet.

Sunny moved to assist, her suit lumbering over to them as they struggled to drag one of their injured comrades back inside the troop bay, her shoulder gun spraying molten metal. Another of the mines jumped at her, and she swatted it out of the air with her shield, the creature bouncing off the ground before exploding a short distance away.

One of the Kodiaks peeled off from the column ahead of them, the blister mounted atop its turret firing down at the mines. Several of the things grouped up, seeming to coordinate, quickly rushing beneath the firing arc of the gun. They clustered inside its tracks like crabs in a rock crevice, dust billowing as they detonated, pieces of shattered wheels and fragments of track embedding themselves in the ground nearby. The Kodiak listed, more of the mines leaping up onto its hull, blasting off ceramic tiles and comms equipment. One of them jumped up onto the blister, exploding on contact, tearing the gun right off the turret.

“Get us moving!” Simmons ordered, slamming his fist on the hull. “Go around if you have to!”

The IFV lurched into motion, peeling away from the stalled convoy. More of the vehicles were doing the same, driving around the disabled tanks, the surviving Crocodile leading the way. It shot out a line charge from one of its launchers, the rocket spiraling out of view beyond the ash clouds, an explosion rippling along its length. There were several follow-up detonations, the charge presumably catching several of the mines in its blast radius.

The shadow of the Yagda loomed over them, the hulking repulsor firing the forward thrusters that were clustered around its skirt, shedding its momentum. It seemed to have no ability to brake – it could only apply thrust in the opposite direction that it was traveling, as though it was moving through a vacuum. It slid up alongside the convoy, careful not to actually float over any of the vehicles, the dust particles and small stones that floated weightlessly beneath its rounded underbelly suggesting that the same might happen to any tanks or personnel that strayed beneath it.

The sponsons that ringed its bulbous hull sprang to life, the ball turrets swiveling to track targets, their clusters of cameras and sensors fixing on the scurrying mines. The twin-linked railguns opened up, spewing streams of machinegun fire in every direction, covering every angle. There were four on each flank, one on the nose, and one mounted above the troop ramp at the rear. The withering fire saturated the surrounding area with molten tungsten, each fresh wave of mines erupting into small explosions as the turrets chewed them up.

The gunfire created a perimeter safe enough that the crews of the damaged vehicles could get to cover. A couple of the IFVs stopped beside their damaged counterparts, Evan watching as the crew of the disabled Kodiak bailed out, one of them pausing to fire at the oncoming mines with his PDW as he stood on top of the turret. They didn’t even bother to open the Puma’s ramp, the three men hauling themselves up onto its roof using the bustle racks, then climbing into the vehicle through a hatch.

After covering the crew of the disabled IFV as they transferred to a new vehicle, Sunny began to run again, soon catching up with Evan’s squad. Her shoulder-mounted railgun never stopped firing, swiveling to track targets independently, each hit causing another small puff of ash and gore.

With only one Crocodile, the company had to fall into a single column, but the living mines had lost the element of surprise now. With each vehicle using its blister to defend the convoy, they were having a harder time getting close, thirty-millimeter railguns and grenade launchers saturating the surrounding area. The Yagda kept pace, doing the lion’s share of the work, its array of weapons designed for the purpose of protecting it from wave attacks.

“We got Bug mortars incoming!” the driver warned, everyone in the troop bay bracing themselves for the impact. The lesson that stalled convoys were vulnerable to ambush had been well-learned. The Bugs had been prepared to shell them when they were tied up dealing with the mines, knowing that they would stop to evacuate their damaged vehicles.

The shells never reached them. The two CIWS guns mounted on top of the Yagda swiveled into position, their targeting globes tracking something that the IFV’s cameras could not yet see. The rotary barrels began to spin, spewing an unbroken stream of rounds into the air, glowing tracers drawing swirling patterns across the sky. Their rate of fire was so high that they sounded more like chainsaws than guns, the point-defense weapons intercepting the incoming shells, causing them to explode high above the ground.

Regaining their momentum, the company blasted through the smoke and out onto the open plain again, the first trench coming back into view. The Crocodile plowed through another monofilament fence, a mine exploding harmlessly against its thick armor, then it went barreling into the enemy fortifications. The Kodiaks funneled through the breach behind it, spreading out into a line, using their numerous weapons to suppress the Bugs in the trenches below. Most of their guns couldn’t depress far enough to hit them, but their blisters had a firing arc, pouring tungsten into the defenders. The Drones were powerless to stop the tanks, the plasma from their rifles and pistols splashing harmlessly against their hulls, their grenades able to do little more than melt their paint. A few surviving pillboxes lay down more concentrated fire, but were quickly destroyed with plasma sabots, flames licking from their gun ports as the intense heat and resulting overpressure wave turned them into pressure cookers.

The IFVs followed, skidding to a stop behind the tanks. Evan unfastened his harness, lifting his XMR from its rack beside his seat, the rest of the squad gearing up as Simmons made his way to the troop ramp.

“Get ready!” he warned, gripping a handhold on the ceiling as the warning light above the ramp began to flash. “As soon as the ramp drops, we make a run for the trench!”

The squad lined up behind him, waiting for the ramp to hit the ground, then they piled out onto the cratered ash field. The sound of battle hit Evan like a hammer, his helmet automatically dulling it after a brief delay. The deafening chorus of gunfire filled the air, the surrounding vehicles firing unceasingly, pouring tungsten and explosives into the fortifications. As Evan rounded the IFV, following behind his companions, he saw the battlefield stretching into the distance.

The hill dominated the horizon now, close enough that he had to crane his neck to see its flat peak. It was still shrouded in smoke, more artillery and cannon fire hammering the mountainside, trying to take out whatever firing positions remained up there. As he turned to look back at the Yagda, the tank hovering a good two meters above the monofilament fence, he saw that its main cannon was elevating to aim at the cliffs.

“It’s gonna fire again!” he exclaimed.

“They would have warned us if it was loading a nuclear payload,” Simmons replied, leading them past one of the Kodiaks. “Keep moving!”

The ten-meter-long cannon discharged over their heads, Evan feeling the loud crack in his bones. He glanced up just in time to see the sabot impact the mountainside, hitting a particularly stubborn gun emplacement that was firing down on a neighboring battalion. The payload might not be nuclear, but the amount of energy conveyed by the 740mm gun was the next best thing, the release of energy creating a blinding flash as it vaporized several tons of rock. The resulting blast carved a deep crater in the cliff, sending enough debris to bury a small town cascading down towards the ground like an avalanche.

Evan struggled to take his mind off the chaos that was erupting around him, focusing his attention on the trench ahead. All that he needed to think about now was the task at hand and keeping his squad safe. He piled into the ditch after his comrades, finding the construction exactly the same as the ones they had encountered on their way to the hill – dirt walls reinforced with resin. Parts of it had collapsed due to the shelling, craters biting chunks out of the network, and there were the blackened remnants of Drones wherever he looked. It was like stumbling upon some mass grave full of bodies that had been hastily torched in an attempt to hide evidence, the charred corpses lying in heaps in places, others strewn about in varying states of dismemberment. Some were more recent, slain by the gunfire from the company’s vehicles, fresh ichor seeping from their wounds. It was almost unbelievable to think that there were any left alive after the amount of ordnance that had been dropped on the hill, but there was still gunfire in the distance, the odd stray plasma bolt sailing over the trenches.

“You know the drill!” Simmons said, shouldering his rifle. “We go trench by trench, bunker by bunker, and we clear them out!”

The two Borealans took point, the rest of the squad bringing up the rear. Evan felt the ground shake, heavy footsteps nearing, and he turned his head to see Sunny jogging over to them. She was a little too large to fit inside the trench, so she walked along beside it, her railgun firing off the odd burst of gunfire at targets in the distance.

“Now it’s a party!” Hernandez chuckled.

Evan winced as he crunched the burnt carapaces of partially-buried Bugs beneath his boots, feeling the weakened chitin crack under his weight. Maybe it was his newfound closeness to Jade, but he found himself becoming more squeamish around the dead and injured insects. They made their way down the zigzagging trench, encountering only dead Drones, heading for one of the ruined bunkers. This one had been struck by multiple artillery shells, leaving little more than a vaguely circular husk, the entire roof caved in.

They reached what remained of the narrow entrance, Borzka and Tatzi leaping effortlessly over the ruined outer wall, swinging their long rifles around as they scanned the rubble inside the bunker’s footprint for targets. Borzka moved over to the left, Evan filing through the doorway after Garcia and Brooks to see him aiming his weapon at a Drone. It was still alive, barely. The insect was sitting on the ground, leaning against the back wall, a hole large enough that Evan could have put his arm through it punched into its abdomen. With a shaking hand, it lifted a pistol made from molded resin, still resisting despite being at death’s door. Borkza showed it no quarter, dumping two slugs into its chest, the creature going limp as its fluids splattered the dirt wall behind it.

The scout company’s spotter drones were airborne, helping to pick out targets with their bird’s eye view. Whatever they tagged was transmitted to the local ad-hoc network, appearing as red blips on Evan’s HUD, making it exponentially more difficult for the Bugs to get the drop on them. They needed every tool at their disposal if they were going to even the odds against such a numerically superior force.

Evan briefly checked the display on his wrist, the spotters feeding him a detailed map of the surrounding area. Blue icons that denoted other squads from the battalion were piling into the trenches all along the front line, while sparse clusters of red moved to intercept them, more of them appearing as they came into range of the sensors. The Bugs were rallying their forces for a counter-attack.

Evan saw the Drones appear on his HUD as red outlines as they neared, visible through the walls of the trenches.

“Staggered formation!” Simmons yelled. Four of the Marines dropped, kneeling shoulder to shoulder, wide enough to just about fill the trench. Four more members of the team took up position behind them, the two Borealans included, aiming their rifles over their heads. “Wait for my command!”

They poised there, their fingers on their triggers, waiting for the cluster of red signals to round one of the twisting corners ahead of them. A moment later, a Drone stalked into view, turning its many eyes on them. It was wielding a pistol in one hand and a long blade in the other – a standard CQC loadout that they were all intimately familiar with by now. Even as it raised its sidearm, the weapon emitting a threatening glow, Simmons held off. He waited for four more of them to swarm around the corner, filling the trench, their mandibles clicking as they raced towards the squad.

“Open fire!”

They filled the trench with tungsten, automatic fire cutting a swathe through the Bugs, the high walls of the trenches boxing them in. It was like shooting fish in a barrel – they had nowhere to go – the slugs punching through them. The rounds overpenetrated, shattering the resin wall directly behind them, the force enough to lift the Drones off their feet and toss them back. In a single burst, they were knocked to the ground, their carapaces perforated with bleeding holes.

One of the Bugs had known better than to be so foolhardy, Evan watching its outline on his visor as it ducked out of cover from behind the corner, aiming a rifle at them. It was distracted as a grenade bounced off the wall behind it, the insect torn apart by the red-hot shrapnel before it even had a chance to react.

“Keep pushing up!” Simmons ordered, the team continuing down the trench.

There was so much noise, so many other firefights happening all around them, but Evan had to focus on the here and now. He leapt over the dead Drones, following Borzka as he rounded the corner with his bayonet at the ready. The unfortunate Bug that had been hit with the frag grenade had been splattered against the resin like a fly on a windshield, the wounds in its shell still smoking.

“Heads up!” Hernandez warned. “We got a squad comin’ in on the left flank!”

A group of maybe forty Drones were rushing across the open ground, making a mad dash for their trench, ducking low as gunfire zipped above their heads. It was like a scene from World War One – soldiers making a desperate charge across no man’s land.

“I’m on ‘em!” Sunny declared, wheeling around to face them. She braced herself, the suit’s clawed toes cracking the resin at the lip of the trench, its stance lowering to give the shoulder-mounted gun a better firing arc. Thirty-mill slugs painted molten trails above Evan’s head, chewing through the approaching squads. The Bugs spread out, weaving and dodging, but half a dozen of them had been felled in a single burst. Another three were dropped, their outlines vanishing from Evan’s feed.

“Get some suppressive fire on them!” Simmons ordered, the squad rising from cover to aim their weapons. Evan lifted his head just in time to see another of the Drones explode into a shower of viscera as a round caught it in the chest, carrying enough energy to tear it open like a ripe fruit. The rest were still coming, undeterred, and he aimed his XMR at them. They were juking and dodging, making themselves as hard to hit as possible, but his visor helped him track them in the haze of smoke and dust that was being blown across the field.

Their gunfire joined Sunny’s, most of the enemy number dropping, but a few were getting close. Four of them made it to the trench, leaping down onto the Marines. Tatzi caught one, raising her bayoneted rifle into the air, using the Drone’s momentum to make it impale itself. It slid down the barrel a good couple of inches, Evan hearing a hiss as the hot coils seared its exposed flesh.

Another landed on its feet between Aster and Cardinal, whipping around to face Aster, a pair of long swords sculpted from chitin flashing as it brandished them. It lunged at her, but Cardinal was faster, pouncing on it from behind. She managed to restrain the struggling creature, keeping its blade-wielding arms at bay, one of her upper arms wrapped around its neck. She gave it a kick to the back of the leg that forced it to take a knee, Aster taking the opportunity to draw a UNN combat knife from a belt on her thigh. The Jarilan slew the creature with a practiced stab to its chest, pushing the serrated steel to the hilt between its armor plates. The Drone went limp, and Cardinal tossed it aside, Aster shaking the blood from her blade.

Garcia was thrown to the ground as a Drone landed on him, the thing showing no concern for its own wellbeing, the blow knocking the wind out of the Marine. It drove a chitin dagger into his chest piece, aiming for his vital organs, but the plate stopped it dead. As it struggled to withdraw the blade, Simmons wheeled around, taking off the thing’s head with a quick burst of well-placed fire. The decapitated body slumped on top of Garcia, and he rolled it off him, wiping green ichor with the consistency of mucous from his visor.

The final Drone dropped into the trench a few meters behind them, its compound eyes reflecting the flashes of gunfire. This one was different from the rest, a long, segmented tube trailing from its helmet to make it look like it was wearing a gas mask. It had a large tank on its back, and it raised a weapon at them, a bright pilot light igniting at its tip. Evan didn’t need to be told that it was a flamethrower. Brooks spun around to aim at it, but the thing had the drop on them. In a moment, the trench would be filled with boiling plasma fire.

Sunny came barreling in from the Drone’s right, the resin wall beneath her collapsing under her weight as she stepped down into the trench. There was a flash of colorful plasma as she ignited her shield, wavering energy flickering between the metal studs in its surface. She put her suit between the squad and the flamethrower, Evan watching emerald flames lick at it, Sunny taking cover behind her barrier. A moment later, the stream of emerald flames stopped, and she lunched forward as she swung her heavy shield.

She caught the Drone in its side, crushing it against the trench wall, the resin cracking beneath it. Her plasma field was still ignited, and the Drone began to cook under its heat, its shell running like a liquid as it melted. It wasn’t a fate that Evan would wish upon anyone, but the Drone had tried to do the same to them. Sunny drew back to let its scorched body fall, the unfortunate insect collapsing in a smoking heap at her feet.

“Thanks for havin’ our backs, Sunny,” Hernandez said as he lowered his rifle.

“No problem,” she replied, her plasma shield fizzling out. “Gotta keep my endo boys in one piece.”

“Hey, gimme a hand?” Garcia asked as he gestured to the knife that was jutting from his chest plate. Borzka walked over to him, gripping the haft and giving it a yank. When it didn’t budge, he let his rifle hang from its sling, placing his second hand on the Marine’s chest. He gave it another tug, almost lifting the man off the ground.

“Just pull harder!” Garcia complained. Borzka cocked his head as he examined the blade, then he drew back his hand, striking it from the side. It snapped, leaving its tip still embedded in the armor. “Alright, that works too…”

“Wear it as a trophy,” Borzka replied, lifting Garcia’s XMR off the ground and thrusting it into his hands.

“A trophy that reduces the armor’s overall integrity, but if you say so.”

Evan took advantage of the lull in battle to get a look out over the trenches. He could see three entire tank companies from his viewpoint, some three dozen Kodiaks pushing up through the Bug defenses, hammering what few bunkers remained intact with their main guns. Another artillery strike rippled across the landscape in the distance, throwing tons of earth high into the air.

“Keep moving!” Simmons ordered, leading them further into the trench network.

***

Evan reloaded his rifle, letting the red-hot coils beneath his barrel shroud cool, taking a moment to catch his breath.

“You good?” he asked, watching Jade brush some stray dirt off her carapace. “That mortar hit way too close.”

“None the worse for wear,” she replied, giving him a smile through her visor.

The rest of the squad came rushing around the corner, stepping over the slug-riddled corpses of the Drones. They had come across a squad taking refuge from an artillery strike in the ruins of one of the gun towers and had cleared them out. The engagements had been so numerous and relentless that they were starting to blend together now, minutes slipping into hours. The team had been hopping from trench to trench, bunker to bunker, the battalion inching its way across the hellscape. They were about halfway to the base of the hill now, fighting bitterly for every kilometer.

“That’s this trench clear,” Simmons said, checking in on his radio. “Fucking hell, Foxtrot didn’t plug enough Bug holes. They had a squad of critters pop up behind the line and get the drop on them.”

“Do they need help?” Jade asked.

“They’re being reinforced by an airborne company, nothing we need to worry about.”

“What’s our next objective?” Brooks asked. He paused to lean against the nearby wall of the ruined structure, reaching for his canteen. Radiologicals were still above safety levels, so he had it connected via a little valve that screwed on in place of the cap. It was connected to a straw inside his helmet via a tube that ran through the suit. “We moving up to the next trench?” he added, pausing to take another drink.

“Negative. We need to wait for the Kodiaks to break through that defensive line,” Simmons replied as he lifted his head above the lip of the trench. He looked out over the fields, scanning the terrain ahead of them. “The Bugs are dug in. We’re not getting past that without heavy support.”

Sunny came lumbering over from behind a ruined wall, her suit now sporting numerous burn marks from their prior engagements. She paused to glance at the defenses ahead of them, her higher stature giving her a better view.

“It looks like they might have some Scuttlers buried behind the line,” she mused. “I’m seeing some very suspicious mounds of dirt.”

Evan glanced in the same direction. There was a stretch of no man’s land a couple of hundred meters across that separated the next trench from theirs, its surface pocked with craters from artillery shells. There was a mostly unbroken line of monofilament fences that were three rows deep blocking their path, and beyond them was a trench that was still occupied. Their bunkers and towers had been destroyed, but if Sunny was right, they had moved in armor to help bolster their ranks.

“Hold fast, they’re on their way,” Simmons said as he ducked into cover.

Evan took a moment to take a drink, extending the straw inside his helmet with a press of the touch panel near his temple, pursing his lips around it. They had been fighting for the better part of a day with little time for rest, and he had to stay hydrated. As much as he would have loved to open his visor and get a taste of fresh air, it wasn’t worth exposing himself to radiation or chemical agents, so he would have to be satisfied with his suit’s built-in cooling system.

They didn’t have to wait long for the armored element of their mechanized company to arrive, the eleven tanks trundling over the trench some distance to the squad’s left, bridging the narrow gap on their tracks. They would usually number twelve, but one of them had been disabled by mines earlier in the operation. A Crocodile was leading the way, its scarred prow lowered, but the formation halted on the near side of the fences.

Before Evan could ask why, an artillery warning marker appeared on his HUD, outlining a danger zone that encompassed the fortifications just ahead of them.

“Danger close!” Simmons warned. “Get your heads down until they give the all-clear.”

They hunkered down in the trench, the two Borealans having to crouch to get their heads out of view. A few tense moments later, the ground shook as a barrage hammered the position ahead of the tanks, a wall of smoke blown by the shock waves washing over their heads like a tide. Small pebbles and fragments of debris rained down into their trench, Evan feeling something bounce off the top of his helmet. Only when the warning markers had vanished from his visor did he raise his head again, seeing the tank company advancing into the rising plume of smoke. The Crocodile pushed through the monofilament fence, tearing a hole in it, the rest of the vehicles following behind. He noted that a Drone had been thrown clear out of its trench by one of the blasts and had landed on the fence, the thin strands slicing it apart like cheese wire.

As the smoke cleared, Evan got a view of the trench, where the squads of Drones were making a strategic retreat rather than attempting to deal with the incoming armor. Had they finally learned their lesson, or was the Queen trying to conserve what forces she had left? That was the problem with expending your soldiers like ammunition – you would eventually run dry.

The tanks advanced towards them, their blisters pouring fire into the fleeing insects. On the other side of the trench, a mound of earth began to shift, Evan glimpsing a flash of red and orange as a segmented leg emerged. It was a Scuttler, the Bug tank digging itself out of its hiding place, ash and soil pouring off its spiky carapace. The living vehicle lifted itself out of the ground just enough to expose its turret, keeping its hull buried, the exposed metal of its plasma cannon shining as it swiveled to aim at the Kodiaks. The tank’s worm-like sensory organ breached the ground nearby, acting as a kind of periscope, its antennae waving as it sought out its targets.

More Scuttlers surfaced nearby, Evan counting ten of the things forming a cordon to prevent the Kodiaks from passing. The tank company had already spotted them, grinding to a stop, their guns turning on the enemy as they rotated on their tracks to put their thick frontal armor towards the Bugs.

There were flashes of light as the two groups exchanged fire, bright bolts of plasma splashing against the ceramic plating that lined the hulls of Kodiaks. The Scuttlers might be able to penetrate the side and rear armor if they landed a lucky shot, but facing them head-on, their weapons simply lacked the energy to penetrate. One of the Kodiaks lost a cheek-mounted missile launcher as it took a stray round from a Scuttler, the munitions inside igniting, a series of explosions rocking it. One of the missiles streaked away, spiraling as it jetted propellant. The crew ejected the damaged component, the burning launcher dropping to the ground beside the vehicle’s treads. It didn’t seem like any permanent damage had been done.

The Scuttlers, on the other hand, were defenseless against the AP sabots fired by the cannons. The projectiles tore through their carapaces like paper, the immense energy that they dumped carving out massive, bleeding craters in their shells. The one that Evan had seen dig its way out of the ground took a sabot dead-center, the shot tearing off its entire turret, depositing the twisted wreckage on the ground behind it. The wound exposed the socket where it joined to the Scuttler’s body, a round hole that was filled with a blend of mechanical components and what looked like torn entrails, bodily fluids seeping down its spiky flanks.

Still mobile, the Scuttler clambered out of its dugout, shaking off its covering of soil as it aimed one of its rocket pods at the Kodiaks. Before it could fire, the same tank hit it with a follow-up shot, this one punching into its hull just above its beak. The blow knocked it to the ground, where it lay on its side, its eight legs curling up beneath its belly.

One of the Scuttlers further along the line exploded violently as its volatile plasma tanks were ruptured, sending chunks of burning meat high into the air, which rained down to splatter the hulls of the MBTs. In only a couple of minutes, all ten of the enemy vehicles had been reduced to burning – or bleeding – wrecks, and the Kodiaks had taken little damage other than some scorched paint and a busted launcher. They lurched into motion again, driving deeper into the fortifications, picking off the Drones as they went.

“Not so fuckin’ tough when they have to fight on an even playin’ field,” Hernandez spat, no doubt recalling the ambush on their convoy.

“Time to move,” Garcia added, preparing to lift himself out of the trench. “We need to get across before-”

“Hold,” Simmons interrupted, kneeling with a finger to his helmet. “I’m getting a priority transmission.”

Evan tapped into the channel, hearing a distorted voice come through on the squad’s network.

“Delta-seventeen, you are ordered to reroute to the following coordinates.”

“On who’s authority?” Simmons asked, clearly confused by the request. “We’re under orders from the battalion commander of the UNN Omaha to advance on the Ant Hill.”

“Well, you’re under new orders now,” the voice replied. “I’m transmitting the authorization codes as we speak. You’re the closest squad to our position, so get your baby-blue asses over here ASAP.”

The squad exchanged confused glances as Simmons tapped at his wrist display, then he stood up, giving them a shrug.

“The codes check out. I guess we’ve been reassigned.”

“To what, exactly?” Foster asked.

“I suppose we don’t need to know,” Simmons replied. “All I have are coordinates. Sunny,” he added, turning to glance at her towering suit. “What about you?”

“My orders are to reinforce your squad and help keep you endos alive,” she replied, peering back at him through the inscrutable lenses of her helmet. “I’ll stick around until someone tells me otherwise. Besides,” she added, giving him a thumbs-up with her suit’s lower arm. “Sounds like you’re gonna need the extra firepower.”

“Alright, fall in,” Simmons said as he waved for the squad to follow behind him. “These coordinates point to a location about a kilometer to our North-East. That area hasn’t been cleared yet, so watch for critters. Sunny, I want you on overwatch. If you see something that doesn’t show up on the IFF system, I want you to shoot first and ask questions never.”

“You got it, boss,” she replied as she began to stalk through the rubble of the ruined tower. “I’m in itchy trigger finger mode. Or, maybe itchy spinal implant mode, since I don’t actually use my hands to fire these guns.”

“That’s more information than I needed,” Hernandez muttered, setting off behind her.

CHAPTER 4: FOUR LETTER AGENCIES

They made their way through the ruined trenches, sticking to cover. This area had already been hit pretty hard, so they weren’t expecting much resistance, but it was still nerve-wracking to be separated from the rest of the company. It was somewhat difficult to go undetected with Sunny’s ten-foot frame walking along beside them, but she was at least much more resistant to small arms fire than the average Marine. The IFV was driving some distance off to their right, keeping them covered with its blister as they advanced.

“There are so many bunkers and gun towers,” Hernandez mumbled as they trudged through the shell of a ruined structure. It had been reduced to chunks of resin and mounds of loose earth by artillery fire, the massive cannon that had once sat in its dome now lying twisted and warped, buried in the debris along with the bodies of its operators. “You ever make mud castles as a kid?”

“Mud castles?” Evan repeated, giving him a sideways glance through his visor as he swept his rifle across the room. “Hernandez, where the fuck did you grow up?”

“You fill a bucket with mud and upturn it,” he continued, ignoring the question as he gave a partially-buried Drone a tap with his boot. “If it’s sticky enough, it’ll stay that way. Me and my brothers would build castles, but they’d always fall apart after a while. That’s what this reminds me of. I feel like a toy solder walkin’ through one of the mud castles we used to make.”

“Was this before or after you were killing gophers with grenades?” Evan asked.

“You ain’t got no respect for country livin’, Evan.”

They were interrupted by a flash of light and a loud bang, the squad ducking reflexively, readying their weapons.

“It’s alright,” Simmons said, rising to glance at the sky warily. “It’s just lightning.”

Evan turned his visor to the roiling clouds above, seeing another bright fork dance between the ash clouds. A droplet of water landed on his helmet, then another, rain starting to spatter the shattered blocks of resin that surrounded them.

“Great,” Hernandez grumbled. “Just what we need – a rainstorm.”

“It’s because of all the ash and dust that the orbital strikes sent into the troposphere,” Jade added. “The particles are creating static electricity and attracting moisture.”

There was another thunderclap, the rain coming down in sheets now, Evan feeling it pounding against his armor. Now, he was glad to have an environmentally-isolated pressure suit. Small puddles were already forming, their boots splashing in the mud.

“Keep up the pace,” Simmons ordered, waving them on. “I don’t want to be wading through flooded trenches for any longer than I have to.”

“It’s fucking Kruger III all over again,” Hernandez sighed.

“Look on the bright side,” Evan replied as he marched along beside him. “If we find you a bucket, you can make some mud castles.”

They emerged from the ruined tower and into yet another identical trench. Evan noticed that despite the downpour, there was no flooding. The ground was muddy, but the water wasn’t collecting there as he would have expected.

“Check it out,” Brooks said, gesturing to the base of one of the resin walls with the barrel of his rifle. “Looks like the critters built drains into their trenches.”

When Evan looked more closely, he did indeed see a series of small drainage holes, barely large enough for a man to push his finger into. Even the simplest of Bug designs seemed to have hidden complexities when one took the time to appreciate them. They did nothing in half-measures.

“What is this?” Aster asked, kneeling to check the body of a Drone.

“What’s wrong?” Simmons asked, pausing beside her to glance down at it. “There are dead Bugs all over the place.”

“This one was killed with a blade,” she replied, turning the limp body onto its back. There was a deep cut across its abdomen, separating the plating on its chest to reveal pale meat. “It was metal – the edge would have been too sharp to be chitin.”

“I’m starting to have some idea of who placed that call,” Simmons sighed. “Keep moving, and watch out for friendlies. Someone is clearly fucking around out here.”

As they moved through the trenches towards the coordinates, the spotter drones that were loitering above alerted them to the presence of a large signature, heading towards them from the direction of the mountain. They couldn’t do much more than tag it as a red blob, their sensors perhaps impacted by the dwindling atmospheric conditions. Evan glanced out over the top of the trench to see an ominous, dark shaping moving their way, the sheets of rain lashing against it.

“Something big coming in from the right flank!” Simmons warned, ordering the squad to take cover. They lined up, aiming their rifles at it, struggling to get a clear visual through the storm.

“That’s a troop transport!” Sunny warned, hunkering down behind her shield.

It was a Pangolin, the crab-like vehicle marching its way through the muddy field, its clawed feet splashing in the water-filled craters. Its forelimbs were raised to protect itself, the armored panels that ran down its bulbous body extended to provide more cover to its payload of Drones. As it neared, its passengers began to disgorge from their handholds on its abdomen, dropping down into the mud with a splash. They had already spotted Sunny and the IFV, beginning to spread out, firing their rifles as they used the craters for cover like foxholes. The defensive gun turret mounted atop the Pangolin’s hull opened up, laying down withering suppressive fire on the trench, the glowing bolts of plasma sizzling as they turned the raindrops to steam.

“God damn it, why did they have us come out here with no armor support?” Simmons growled as he ducked under a stream of burning projectiles. “Those stupid assholes are gonna get us killed!”

“You’re gonna need to task some artillery or something,” Sunny added, the railgun on her shoulder joining the blister on the IFV to harry the Pangolin with gunfire. Even the thirty-mill wasn’t doing much to its frontal armor, carving deep furrows in the chitin but failing to reach anything vital. “I don’t have anything heavy enough to penetrate that armor!”

She raised her left arm, extending her lobster claw, the gun barrels that were nestled between them radiating an emerald glow. She loosed a stream of plasma fire at the enemy vehicle, but the superheated gas splashed harmlessly against its shell, doing little more than melting the spiky protrusions that jutted from it. It returned fire, and she had to duck behind her shield again, the bolts hammering the wavering barrier of energy that was projected from its studs.

The Puma fired off a burst of grenades from its MGL, one of them landing in a shallow crater, the three Drones that had been using it as cover scrambling to escape. Before they could get clear, it exploded, throwing up a shower of wet mud as it lifted them off their feet to deposit their torn bodies near the rim.

The enemy squads were advancing now under the cover of their Pangolin, the crab tank directing its rapid-fire plasma turret at anyone who dared raise their heads, shielding its charges with its armored hull.

“We’re gonna have to pull back to a more defensible position, or we’ll be overrun!” Garcia yelled.

The first wave of Drones was nearing, two dozen of them charging in fast, readying blades and handguns. The two Borealans lifted their bayonets, Sunny stepping over their trench, putting herself between them and the oncoming Bugs. Simmons was on the radio, his hand to his helmet, trying to call in whatever support they could get.

A bright beam of light lanced out from a hill on their right, so brilliant that Evan’s visor went almost completely black to protect his eyes, the glow still bleeding through. It was like staring at an acetylene torch through a welder’s mask, its color a faint, ghostly green. It wasn’t one uninterrupted beam but rather a stream of pulses, throbbing like a strobe. It hit the Pangolin in the side, the thing lurching as smoke began to billow, parts of its thick carapace that were near the impact point seeming to vaporize. The beam only persisted for a few moments, then went dark, the Pangolin wheeling around to put its frontal armor towards this new threat. A hail of XMR fire came from the same direction, cutting down the Drones that were out in the open, fragments of shattered carapace flying as they were sent tumbling to the wet ground.

“Fire, fire!” Simmons suddenly ordered as he realized that they had an opening. The squad joined the engagement, the Bugs now caught between two battle lines, unable to suppress them both at the same time. Sunny’s thirty-mill turned its targets to bloody confetti, the XMR fire taking fist-sized chunks out of the Drones and severing limbs, a couple more grenades landing in their midst to perforate them with shrapnel. In a few moments, the charge had been broken, and some two dozen Bugs lay dead. Those that remained crowded behind the Pangolin for protection, the vehicle spraying the unseen targets on the hill now in a bid to dissuade them.

Again, that strobe of light struck it, glittering as it reflected off the airborne raindrops, blasting a perfectly round hole clear through its hull. It was some kind of laser, Evan realized, like those employed by some ships for point defense purposes. This time, the Pangolin appeared to take serious damage, one of the shovel-like claws that it used to protect itself going limp, some of its legs giving out on the same side. A third burst finally felled it, the laser blasting through its prow like a cutting torch, cooking the thing’s insides. It dropped to the ground, crushing an unfortunate Drone beneath its weight. The rest tried to take refuge behind its smoking carcass, but were quickly mopped up by Evan’s squad.

“Cease fire!” Simmons ordered, rising to his feet. He turned to look up at the nearby hill, where three figures were making their way down the incline. They didn’t have IFF signatures, Evan realized, his HUD failing to pick them up.

“I take it that you’re the guys who called us?” Simmons asked, Evan hearing a hiss of static as the strangers tapped into the local ad-hoc network. “Why aren’t your IFF tags transmitting? You realize that we’re in a war zone, right?”

“We were running in zero-emissions mode,” one of the men replied. “The roaches can pick up your EM signatures at close range.”

As the men drew nearer, the strange situation started to make sense. Evan had seen people dressed like this before – they were SWAR operatives. Their unconventional gear, prosthetic limbs, and painted helmets were unmistakable. One of them stepped forward, his sleeves and pants ending at the knees and elbows to reveal skeletal cybernetics, the visor on his helmet painted with a stylized decal of a crow. There was a weapon resting on his shoulder that Evan had never seen before – what resembled a rocket launcher with a large, dome-shaped lens on one end. It was about a meter long, with a bulky housing, a battery pack the size of a lunchbox hanging off the back. It looked uncomfortably heavy, but the man showed no sign of strain.

“I think I’m gonna keep my IFF on,” Sunny said, the operatives eyeing her suit warily.

“What do you need?” Simmons asked, getting straight to the point. He was visibly irritated, but they clearly outranked him, so there wasn’t much that he could do about the situation.

“We were dropped in behind enemy lines to disrupt key infrastructure and take down comms equipment,” the one with the crow decal replied. “We’ve taken casualties, and we need reinforcements if we’re going to move on our next objective. Your squad was the closest.”

“What’s your objective?” Simmons asked. “My team is attached to a mechanized infantry company – we don’t have any special expertise that would be of use to a wetwork team.”

“You’re warm bodies that can hold guns – we’ll find a use for you,” another added. He was dressed much the same as his counterpart, wearing modified armor with an extended collar to protect his neck, his helmet sporting an array of aftermarket sensors and lenses. He had no visor, perhaps relying on its many cameras instead, and the armored faceplate was decorated with a stenciled number seven.

“Our next target is an underground comms relay,” Crow continued, ignoring his squadmate’s comment. “It has a direct hardline to the Queen, and it’s being used to transmit orders to the Bug forces in the area. We took out a couple of radio Scuttlers that were bouncing the signal, but if we can sever that connection, her ability to coordinate the defense will be diminished. It’s protected by a fortified bunker, and after the hits we took on the way here, we don’t have the manpower to take it out. That’s where you come in,” he added, gesturing to Simmons with a prosthetic finger. “We need people to help us clear the bunker and secure the perimeter while we do our work.”

“We’ve cleared bunkers,” Simmons replied with a nod. “Just put us where you need us, and we’ll do the rest.”

“Good,” Crow replied, waving for them to follow as he turned back to the hill. “Fall in.”

Evan hung back a little, matching pace with Jade and her two counterparts, switching to a private channel to avoid being overheard by their new friends.

“Watch your back around these guys,” he warned. “If they’re anything like the ones we encountered at the refinery, they’re not going to think twice about putting Jarilans in harm’s way.”

“Simmons will look out for us,” she replied confidently. “And, in a worst-case scenario, I can sick my big sister on them. Just don’t punch anyone, okay?”

“No promises,” he chuckled.

“What the hell is that gun?” Hernandez asked, jogging ahead to catch up with Crow. He was as outgoing as ever, even though it was obvious that these guys weren’t interested in casual conversation. “I’ve never seen anythin’ like that before.”

“It’s an experimental weapon called a Scalpel,” Crow replied, keeping his eyes on the hill ahead. “It stands for Soliton Crystal Pumped Electron Laser, or SCPEL. It fires a series of rapid laser pulses using solitons to extend its effective range and focus the beam. This thing’ll vaporize the armor right off a Scuttler,” he added as he gave the weapon’s polymer casing an affectionate pat.

“I guess that’s where the Special Weapons part of the name comes in,” Hernandez added. “You guys sure like acronyms, don’t you?”

“Yeah, acronyms let you covey information very quickly without having to rely on long conversations,” Crow replied with a pointed glance at the Marine. Hernandez knew when he wasn’t wanted, backing off to walk beside Simmons.

They climbed up the muddy incline, where two more SWAR operatives were waiting for them, putting their total number at five. Evan had no idea how many there had been originally, but it was an odd number. One of them was wielding an assault rifle variant of the XMR, while the other had a long rifle with a high magnification scope.

“Good, we got some madcats,” one of them said, glancing up at Tatzi and Borzka as they passed. “And, whatever the hell that is.”

Sunny lumbered up the hill behind the rest of the team, giving the man a friendly wave with her lower arm that contrasted starkly with her intimidating appearance.

“Alright,” Crow began, turning to face the ragtag group as they assembled. “A short walk North of here is the comms bunker. There are two levels – an above-ground section that houses the antennae and defensive guns, and an underground section that protects the actual electronics. We need to crack the bunker, take out those guns, then fight down to the lower level where we can plant our charges and take out the transmitter. The moment we open fire, they’re going to call in any reinforcements in range to protect the asset, so we’re on a time limit. We stick around too long, and we’ll be swamped by roaches.”

“We’re going to split up into three teams,” the one with the long rifle added. There was a bulky rangefinder jutting from the side of his helmet, and his visor was decorated with a decal of an owl. “The overwatch team is going to set up on a nearby bluff and watch for Bug patrols, the assault team is going to clear out the bunker, and the guard team is going to secure the perimeter while the charges are set.”

“Why not just hit the bunker with an artillery strike?” Collins asked.

“That’s a good way to collapse the structure and ensure that nobody can reach the lower level,” Crow replied. “Unless you really like digging holes, the quickest way to take this thing out is to do it manually.”

Simmons and Crow discussed how best to partition up the team for a few minutes, eventually arriving at a consensus.

The overwatch team would consist of Brooks, Garcia, Collins, Foster, and the SWAR sniper known only as Owl. The guard team would be made up of the squad’s heavier assets – the two Borealans and Sunny. Joining them in a supporting role would be Aster, Cardinal, and Donovan. There were two SWAR guys who would be staying with them as well. It wasn’t lost on Evan that most of the aliens had been put in the position where they were most likely to take fire. The team that would actually be entering the bunker consisted of Evan, Jade, Simmons, Hernandez, and the two SWAR members who were referred to as Crow and Seven. As much as the operatives were clearly leery of the Jarilans, they at least seemed to acknowledge that their ability to sniff out Bug pheromones would be useful in the tunnels. They insisted that the IFV stay behind, as the vibrations and engine noise that it created could alert the Bugs long before they arrived, costing them the crucial element of surprise.

Their plan now in place, they began to make their way towards the bunker through the blasted terrain.

***

“There it is,” Owl said, training his scope on the bunker. He had crawled up to the top of a bluff that overlooked their target on his belly, lying prone as he sighted the domed structure in the distance. Evan watched through his camera feed as the man zoomed in on a squad of Drones that were loitering around the entrance. Loitering might be the wrong word. Where humans would have been walking around and chatting, maybe sitting down to rest, the Bug sentries stood as still as statues. The only movement came from their helmets as they turned their heads to scan the surrounding terrain, their resin rifles held at the ready. There were two dozen that Evan could see – maybe four squads – and there were certainly more of them inside. The round structure was heavily defended, with visible gun barrels jutting from the ports in its walls.

“How are we supposed to get past those?” Hernandez whispered as he hunkered down beside Evan. The rest of the team was waiting at the base of the bluff, out of view of the guards.

“Just let the cyborgs deal with it,” Simmons replied.

“Alright,” Owl began. “Overwatch team – start moving up to my position. Stay low, and don’t fire until I give the order. The rest of you – approach from the South. Crow, hit those guns on the near side with the Scalpel. We don’t need to take them all out, just the ones that have a bead on us. You can do the rest from the inside. We’ll start hitting them before you move in. Taking fire from two different positions seems to reduce their reaction times.”

“Just FYI, stealth isn’t my strong suit,” Sunny added. “My strong suit is my strong suit.”

“The Warrior will have to hold back until the attack begins,” Crow said, addressing her in the third person. “Bugs tend to aim for the biggest perceived threat first, so it’ll probably draw a lot of fire off us. Everyone clear on what we’re doing?”

Nobody had any questions, so they began the operation, four members of the team sneaking up the bluff to join Owl as the rest started to move around its base. There wasn’t a lot of cover, but a river or maybe a lava flow had clearly cut through here at some point in the ancient past, creating a series of low hills that they could use to approach unseen.

They followed behind Crow in a tight column, with Sunny bringing up the rear, spreading out into a wedge as the terrain began to grow flatter. They were only some two hundred meters away from the bunker now, and they would be emerging into sight of the sentries soon. Crow raised a fist to signal them to stop, taking a knee at the base of a small hill.

“Wait for Owl to open up,” he whispered.

After a few tense moments of waiting, the report of an XMR broke the silence, followed by a chorus of automatic gunfire. Crow dashed to the top of the incline, the rest of the team following behind him, the bunker coming into view. The Drones were scrambling for cover, rushing around to the opposite side of the bunker, several of their number already lying motionless in the mud. The squad wasted no time, laying down more fire on the Bugs from their elevated position, taking them by surprise as they opened up a second front. While the bunker’s guns couldn’t fire at the overwatch team, the same wasn’t true for the second group, three automatic plasma turrets turning their sights on them.

Crow was already preparing the SCPEL, an ominous, electrical hum emanating from the weapon as he trained it on his target. It emitted another strobe of light that forced Evan’s visor to darken, the rapid pulses forming a ghostly beam between Crow and one of the guns. The tough resin and the packed soil beneath it was blasted away, atomized in a picosecond, the brief duration of the beam seeming to be no handicap. The rails of the plasma turret slagged, and Evan glimpsed the Drone that was operating it practically disintegrate through the perfectly circular hole in the wall.

They mowed down the remaining Bugs, stray slugs cracking the resin and splashing in the puddles, the hail of gunfire ceasing only when the bodies stopped twitching. Crow hit another defensive gun with his SCPEL, boring a tunnel straight through the wall, turning its barrel to molten slag.

The remaining turret spewed a stream of plasma at them, forcing Crow back into cover behind the hill, the bolts turning the rainwater to steam as they impacted the other side.

“Leave this one to me!” Sunny declared, lumbering out of cover behind the squad. She made her way around their little hill, raising her shield and igniting the barrier of plasma, the colorful energy dancing across its pocked surface. Breaking into a run, she covered the distance quickly, the streams of plasma fire from the bunker failing to penetrate her defenses. She skidded to a stop in front of the open doorway, then jammed her claw into the narrow aperture, the appendage large enough to plug it almost completely. A green glow emanated from within the structure, Sunny flooding its interior with boiling gas, turning it into a giant oven. Emerald flames licked out from the gun ports, spilling around her arm wherever there was space. The sight made Evan glad that Bugs couldn’t scream…

Sunny stepped back, the twin barrels of the plasma gun that were nestled between her crab claws smoking, turning her many lenses and cameras back on the squad.

“Might want to give it a minute to cool off.”

The team rose from cover, Crow trying not to look too impressed as he led them over to the bunker. Evan could feel the heat that was still radiating from it, even standing a couple of feet away. If he had reached out to touch the resin wall without gloves, it would probably have burned his hand. He glanced through the doorway, seeing several stiff, blackened figures lying on the ground inside. It was safe to say that the guns facing in the opposite direction had been disabled…

“Looks like the upper level is clear,” Crow muttered, examining the bodies. “Guard team – stay here and keep the perimeter secure. They will have had time to send a distress call to any units in the area. The rest of you, get ready for some spelunking.”

Jade popped her antennae out of her helmet, recoiling as she scented the carbonized corpses, Evan checking his underbarrel shotgun as he ducked through the low doorway behind her. Simmons and Hernandez followed, Seven and Crow joining them. Crow was still holding his laser cannon, while Seven was equipped with a more conventional – albeit heavy – XMR.

They quickly swept the top level of the bunker, stepping over the smoking bodies, soon locating the entrance to a tunnel that led deeper into the structure. There was a thick, insulated cable leading out of it, which trailed across the floor to climb one of the curved walls. It terminated in the domed ceiling above their heads, Evan craning his neck to get a look at it. Perhaps some property of the resin allowed the Bugs to use the bunker itself as an antenna?

“Take point, shotgun boy,” Crow said.

Evan approached the edge of the dark hole, shining the flashlight that was mounted on his barrel shroud down into a vertical shaft. It was only a couple of meters deep before it leveled out again. He cursed under his breath, wishing that the Bugs weren’t such adept climbers, then dropped down. It wasn’t much of a fall – the low gravity further cushioning his landing, and he raised his weapon again to scan the dark passageway. It wasn’t completely black – there was that same bioluminescent fungus clinging to the ceiling, casting the resin walls in a dull, off-blue glow that provided just enough light to see by.

Jade climbed down behind him, her antennae twitching, the rest of the team following. The tunnel was just large enough for two humans to walk side by side, Seven pushing to the front of the group to walk beside Evan as they made their way deeper.

“I’m gonna be able to buy a fuckin’ mansion with all this hazard pay,” Hernandez complained. “Sarge, we are getting hazard pay, right?”

“There are live Bugs down here,” Jade warned, interrupting him. “I smell…alarm pheromones. They likely retreated deeper to protect the transmitter.”

“You blue boys ever done any tunnel fighting?” Seven asked.

“Not much,” Evan replied. “Trenches are more our speed.”

“A tunnel is just a trench with a roof,” Hernandez added. Evan couldn’t see behind Seven’s visor, but he got the impression that he was rolling his eyes.

“They move fast in close quarters,” the operative continued. “Don’t give them any opportunities.”

They made their way down the winding tunnel, spiraling into the depths. The Bugs had hidden the transmitter deep below the ground to ensure that no bunker-busting weapons or artillery shells could stand any chance of reaching it, the thick cable that he had seen in the room above glued to the wall. It got noticeably warmer as they descended, contrary to what Evan had expected, humidity starting to mist his visor.

Their progress was soon stopped, the tunnel terminating in a dead end.

“Uh, what’s the holdup?” Hernandez asked as he hopped on the spot to get a look over the people in front of him.

“What is this?” Evan wondered aloud, brushing his gloved fingers against the obstacle. It was made from the same resin and dirt as everything else.

“It’s a door,” Jade explained, squeezing her diminutive frame between him and Seven. “Looks like they closed a bulkhead to lock us out.”

“Can you open it, Bug?” Seven asked.

“I doubt it,” she replied, giving him a disdainful glance. “Looks like the controls are on the other side, and they’re probably coded to specific pheromones or gene sequences.”

“Everyone get behind me,” Crow said, readying his SCPEL. The team moved back, clearing the tunnel ahead of him, and he fired the cannon. The first shot punched a hole straight through the obstacle, a couple of follow-up shots carving a vaguely human-sized opening in the door. The rapid laser pulses vaporized the material so effectively that it appeared to simply vanish from Evan’s perspective, as though it had been deleted from reality. The bulky battery on the back of the device popped off, leaving a naked socket that Crow quickly filled with a replacement from his belt.

The operative stepped aside, gesturing for them to continue in mock politeness, Evan and Seven leading the pack again. As Evan ducked through the door, he recoiled reflexively, noticing a dead Drone lying on the floor. It was severed at the waist, the flesh cauterized, leaving only a pair of legs behind. Seven chuckled to himself as he ducked through the hole after him, finding the situation more amusing than shocking.

“Fucker was waiting to ambush us on the other side of the door. Bad day for him.”

“Where there’s one, there will be more,” Jade added as she followed behind them.

The group continued on, passing by short passageways that led to storerooms and armories. The little cubbies were stacked with crates made from resin, and there were weapons on wall-mounted racks that seemed to be hooked up to life support systems, Jade explaining that the guns literally needed to be fed. It wasn’t difficult to find their way – all they had to do was follow the thick cable.

“The smell is growing stronger,” Jade warned, her feathery antennae waving. There seemed to be a gentle breeze in the tunnels, suggesting that the Bugs had a system for circulating fresh air. “Be ready.”

Evan pulled his rifle tight against his shoulder, Seven doing the same, the pair rounding the next corner. They emerged into a larger room that was maybe twenty feet wide, a domed ceiling rising above their heads. There were several tunnels leading out of it at intervals, giving Evan the impression that it was some kind of warehouse or maybe a barracks. It was hard to tell while knowing so little about how the aliens lived.

At the far end of the main room was a stack of storage crates, placed end to end to form a kind of low wall. Before he could comment on it, five Drones popped out of cover, leveling rifles at the intruders. They rested their resin barrels on top of the crates, arcs of plasma dancing between the magnetic rails as they prepared to fire. Seven grabbed Evan by his chest rig and yanked him back behind the corner, narrowly avoiding a hail of plasma bolts. They impacted the tunnel wall, splashing against the resin, the Bugs filling the opening of the passage with fire.

“Thanks,” Evan said breathlessly, giving the operative an appreciative nod.

“What now?” Hernandez asked, watching another barrage of plasma bolts fill the tunnel ahead. “Do we just wait for them to run out of charge?”

“Can you shoot a hole through that wall?” Simmons asked, his question directed at Crow.

“No,” Crow replied. “Loose strata like dirt and small stones are gonna be a bitch for this thing to bore through. I don’t have enough spare batteries.”

“In that case,” Simmons continued, turning to Hernandez. “You still got any grenades left for that launcher, Private?”

“Sure do, boss,” Hernandez replied. Simmons gestured for him to toss it, and he handed his XMR off to the sergeant, who checked the breech on the underbarrel launcher.

“I’m going to try something,” he said, tapping at the side of his helmet as he synced its systems up with the rifle’s scope. “Stack up behind me and get ready to move.”

Seven looked like he wanted to remind Simmons who was in charge, but Crow seemed more curious than anything, giving his partner a shrug. The sergeant moved over to the corner, waiting for a lull in the suppressive fire, then leaned the rifle out of cover. He was careful not to expose his body, using the in-picture scope function to get a bead on the Bugs. They reacted quickly, sending another barrage of fire pouring into the tunnel, but Simmons had the opening that he needed. He fired the underbarrel launcher, a loud bang echoing down the corridor. Before anyone could ask if he had succeeded, he dashed around the bend, Evan hearing a couple of shots as he rushed after him.

When he saw Simmons again, he was standing in front of the crates, one XMR held in his hands as the other hung from its sling. The grenade had impacted the wall directly behind the Bugs, showering them with shrapnel and killing several of them outright. One had survived, it seemed, its body now draped over one of the crates where Simmons had shot it.

As Hernandez neared, Simmons tossed him his rifle back.

“I’m starting to like these new attachments,” he said, probably grinning behind his visor.

They proceeded deeper, following the cable into another tunnel. The passageway eventually opened up into a large chamber with a domed ceiling that had been hollowed out of the earth, the walls reinforced with a layer of clear resin. Sitting in the middle of the space was a cluster of machinery that looked like someone had poured a bucket of fresh offal over a server rack, organic cables that resembled entrails interwoven with the more familiar electronic parts. It was connected to the ceiling by some kind of danging web of cables.

As soon as the squad stepped out of the mouth of the tunnel – Evan and Seven spreading out so as not to block the way – the Bugs made themselves known. Two Drones wielding blades rushed out from behind the bulky machine, darting towards them, four more leaning out of cover as they prepared to fire their rifles.

Evan reacted quickly, firing his shotgun attachment from the hip, the cylinder on the underslung weapon rotating with a click as it ejected a spent shell. The buckshot stopped one of the Drones dead, blasting a hole in its chest, knocking it to the ground like it had been hit with a sledgehammer.

Seven didn’t have as much time, the Drone ducking low as it closed on him, pushing his rifle aside with one of its upper arms. He stepped in, closing a hand around the faceplate of its helmet like he was catching a football, driving the thing to the floor with his superhuman strength. He slammed its head into the dirt, then there was a loud thud, followed by the sound of metal scraping against metal. Seven jerked his arm back, Evan watching a six-inch spike slide back into a recess in his palm, covered in green blood and brain matter.

The rest of the Drones opened fire, the cramped chamber filled with flashes of emerald light, forcing those who were still inside the tunnel back around the nearby corner to avoid the slew of bolts. Evan and Seven moved around the circumference of the circular room in opposite directions, hugging the wall, forcing the Bugs to split their fire. Seven took a plasma bolt to the shoulder but shrugged it off with his thick armor, responding with a burst from his XMR that brought one of them down. Caught in a pincer, there wasn’t much that the Bugs could do, their limited cover soon counting for nothing as the two men got a better angle on them. Careful to avoid a crossfire, they dispatched the last of them, leaving the four bodies bleeding on the floor.

“Not bad work for a Marine,” Seven chuckled, lowering his rifle. The rest of the squad flooded into the room, Crow turning over one of the dead Drones near the entrance with his boot.

“I can probably figure out how to disable this thing if you’ll give me a few moments,” Jade said, moving over to what Evan recognized as an organic interface.

“I got the off-switch right here,” Crow replied, gesturing for her to step aside. He set his SCPEL on the ground, then produced a pouch from his rig, pulling out a lump of plastic explosive. He stuck it to the exterior of the biomechanical device with either carelessness or the confidence that came from experience – Evan wasn’t quite sure which. Moving around the transmitter, he placed several more, then began to connect them by pressing small diodes into their clay-like surfaces that were connected to thin wires. Those wires terminated in a spool on his hip, which began to unwind as he headed back to the entrance. “Come on, we’re done here.”

They climbed back to the surface, finding the guard team waiting for them outside the bunker.

“The Bugs sent a squad to crash the party,” Sunny explained, gesturing to a nearby corpse pile. “We reminded them that it’s an invitation-only event.”

“We’ve set the charges,” Crow replied, unsheathing a combat knife from his belt. He severed the end of the wire, then wound it around the contact point on a small device the size and shape of a lighter. When he flipped the protective cap on top of it, it exposed a red button, Crow pausing there with his polymer thumb hovering above the trigger. “Fire in the hole!”

There was a dull thud that Evan felt travel up through his feet, a puff of dust and debris shooting out of the hole in the floor.

“I can confirm that the transmitter isn’t sending signals anymore,” Seven said as he checked the readout on his wrist display. “I’ll let Fleetcom know that we’re done here.”

“Let’s get moving before more of them show up to investigate,” Crow added. “Thanks for your help,” he said, turning to Simmons. “I’ll make sure the right people know that you came through for us. You can return to your IFV now.”

“Is that it?” Hernandez asked.

“That’s all we needed,” Crow replied. “Come on, people, let’s pick up the pace!” he added as he addressed his men. Owl was leading the rest of the overwatch team down from the bluff, the other SWAR members assembling nearby.

“Where are you going next?” Simmons asked.

“That’s classified,” he replied, the five operatives starting to make their way off into the muddy field. Evan watched them until they vanished into the rain, their IFF tags still turned off.

“Men of few words,” Jade muttered disdainfully.

“I bet it wasn’t actually classified,” Hernandez whispered. “I bet he just thought it sounded cool.”

“I’ll check in and see where the battalion commander wants us next,” Simmons said. “We’ll walk and talk – we need to get clear of the bunker before a whole Bug army descends on this place.”

They left the bunker behind them, making their way back up towards the bluff, trudging through the mud as the rain continued to hammer them.

“The commander wants us to rejoin the assault on the hill,” Simmons announced. “Look lively, people. We have a lot of ground to cover if we want to catch up.”

CHAPTER 5: SPLASH ONE

Evan had never seen so many tanks in one place before. His squad had just finished clearing out a fortified Bug position on an elevated outcrop that overlooked the trenches below, rising some 150 meters into the air. The closer they got to the hill, the more uneven the terrain became, more volcanic formations and foothills breaking up the flat expanse and giving the enemy more places to hide. The base of the Ant Hill was only a few dozen kilometers away now, and Evan could see the earthen fortifications that protected it, giant ditches and three-meter-tall walls made from mounds of soil that were designed to impede the UNN’s vehicles. The majority of the trenches had been cleared out now, the Coalition forces wiping out everything on the ground, then punching holes in the enemy’s AA network so they could land airborne troops to secure the fortifications behind them.

Formations of tanks stretched from horizon to horizon, even more visible due to the elevation, maybe three battalions each comprised of more than a hundred vehicles rolling across the expanse. The sound of gunfire was constant. The mechanized companies were destroying intact bunkers and exchanging fire with Scuttlers, the alien tanks popping up out of the ground or shooting from the cover of the volcanic rock formations, trying to slow the advance. Coalition infantry flooded into the trenches to clear out the defenders, engaging Drones in close quarters, supported by grenade and mortar fire.

The Yagda was still floating a few meters off the ground in the distance, defending a contested position with its sponsons, by far the largest thing on the field. It made a conspicuous target, but the Bug mortar fire and plasma bolts that were sent its way were intercepted by its plasma shield, the projectiles melting or dissipating before they got anywhere near the hull. As Evan watched, a salvo of mortar shells rained down on the repulsor, but a section of the tank’s shield activated to counter them. It was a form of reactive armor more than a contiguous bubble, pumping plasma into a magnetic field and shaping it into a rough circle, the wavering barrier disintegrating the shells such that only molten fragments reached the ocean-grey armor beneath.

Artillery strikes were hammering the structures ahead of the Coalition line, blasts sending plumes of smoke rising high into the air. Where the area had been cleared of AA Scuttlers, Penguin gunships were swooping in low to provide air support, drifting over the battlefield as they loosed cannon fire and missiles into the trenches. Far behind the front line to their rear, Evan could see dropships and landers breaking through the clouds like meteors, delivering reinforcements and equipment to the surface.

The Bugs were fighting them for every inch, but they were gaining ground, going trench by trench and bunker by bunker with practiced efficiency. Evan hadn’t ever really considered the possibility of failure, but seeing their gains with his own eyes still filled him with confidence.

Behind him, the rest of the squad were standing around a collapsed bunker that they had just cleared out, their idling IFV parked nearby.

“Get away from that edge, Private,” Simmons barked as he waved Evan back over. “You’re just begging to get hit by a sniper.”

Before Evan could comply, he was distracted by the sound of an engine. He glanced up to see a pair of Beewolfs screech overhead, low enough that he could have waved to the pilots, the two fighters descending towards a target in the distance.

“What the hell are they doing?” Simmons asked as he jogged over to get a better look, his prior warning forgotten. “This grid square hasn’t been cleared for aircraft!”

The rest of the team joined them at the edge of the outcrop, watching the two aircraft perform a low pass over the trenches, their cannons barking. They were aiming for a cluster of bunkers, Evan zooming in past the bright glare of their engines to see maybe ten or eleven Scuttlers advancing on the position, flanked by teams of Warriors. The Bugs were making a hard push to recapture it, pouring fire into the mostly collapsed fortifications. There were a couple of disabled IFVs nearby, plumes of smoke from their burnt-out hulls rising into the air, several that were still intact firing back at the encroaching enemy. It was hard to make out details at such a distance – even with his visor’s magnification – but it seemed as though there were Marines taking cover in the buildings.

The Beewolfs swooped in, strafing the advancing line of Bugs, explosive shells cutting a swathe through their ranks. Several of the Scuttlers collapsed, emerald flames erupting as their fuel and ammo stores ignited, one of the Warriors torn almost in half as the twenty-five-millimeter projectiles ripped through its carapace.

“Those guys are pinned down,” Garcia mused, watching the scene unfold. The two fighters banked up, breaking off as they prepared to circle around for another attack. “I guess they can’t call in artillery when the Bugs are right on top of them like that.”

“There could still be active AA in the area, so the Penguins can’t provide air support,” Simmons added. “They’re probably hoping that the fast-movers can get in and out in time. Those are either the bravest pilots I’ve ever seen, or all the blood that’s supposed to be in their brains is pooling in their feet…”

The planes came in for another pass, their cannons chewing through more of the Bug units, precise enough that they could fire within what looked like a couple of hundred meters of the friendly Marines.

“Looks like there’s a company of Kodiaks heading to reinforce them, but they’re still a good five minutes out,” Even added as he pointed to a formation of tanks that was making a beeline for them across the cratered terrain.

The counterattack on the UNN position had been soundly broken, the Scuttlers and remaining Warriors scattering, many of them too wounded or damaged to continue their assault. After another strafing run, the planes began to climb away, their noses pointed towards the clouds.

The celebration was short-lived, a stream of projectiles rising on plumes of smoke from somewhere out of view, fired by a concealed Scuttler. The anti-air missiles locked on after a moment, streaking after their targets, the two Beewolfs taking evasive action. They shot off in opposite directions, firing flares as they rolled and banked, the missiles closing. Several of them were distracted by the decoys, veering away to chase the falling points of red light, erupting into explosions of plasma in mid-air. One of the aircraft managed to escape unscathed, but the second was still being chased, a single stubborn rocket staying on its tail. The plane weaved and banked, but the missile was faster, able to make tighter turns without the limitation of having a pilot who was susceptible to g-forces.

Despite the impressive aerobatics of the airman, the missile closed into range, erupting into a spreading sphere of plasma. It engulfed the tail of the craft, stripping away the black stealth coating to reveal exposed metal, the structure slagging under the intense heat. Evan expected the plane to explode, but it didn’t, continuing on as it trailed dark smoke from its damaged fuselage. It seemed to have lost all engine power, and the two tail fins that would have given it rudder control had been vaporized, the pilot engaging the thrusters in an attempt to regain some control as the craft started to nose towards the ground.

“Come on, buddy,” Hernandez hissed under his breath. “Eject already!”

The Beewolf leveled out into a glide, its thrusters jetting blue flame as they struggled to help right it, the burning plane angling itself vaguely in their direction. It went down hard, digging a deep furrow through the trenches, more pieces of its hull shearing off along the way. It lost a wing, which made it wheel around, the burning craft sliding to a stop just in time to save itself from tipping over and rolling.

“Fuck, do you think he survived that?” Garcia asked.

Simmons put a finger to his helmet, receiving a transmission, Evan listening in on the local ad-hoc network as the battalion commander’s distorted voice came through.

“Delta-seventeen, the Rorke just lost a Beewolf over the hot zone, and you’re the closest team to the wreckage. They’re picking up an active beacon and life signs from the pilot, so get over there and extract him.”

“Consider it done, sir,” Simmons replied. “Saddle up, people!” he added as he turned back to the IFV. “We have a downed pilot to rescue!”

“Man, why does it always have to be us?” Hernandez grumbled as he hurried after him. “This squad gets passed around like a Marine on shore leave.”

“I got a soft spot for fellow pilots,” Sunny said, her suit rising from its crouched resting position beside the Puma. “Let’s get down there before the Bugs beat us to the punch and have themselves an endo sandwich. I’m usually all for that kind of thing, but it’s not a euphemism this time – they’re gonna kill him.”

“Yeah, I think we got that,” Hernandez replied.

They loaded into the IFV, then drove back down the slope of the outcrop, Sunny running alongside their vehicle as they headed out onto the battlefield. This grid square hadn’t been captured and sectioned off by airborne reinforcements yet, so there was a high likelihood of Bug troops being present in the area. In a way, it was like cauterizing a wound.

The IFV bounced through a crater, jarring Evan in his seat as he glanced out through the external cameras, the damage done by their earlier collision with a Kodiak still creating a blind spot in his field of view. The area surrounding the Ant Hill looked like a lunar hellscape now, craters of all conceivable sizes pocking the landscape, most of them partially filled in by the constant rain to form small lakes and ponds of ash-tinted water. Shattered Bug structures were scattered everywhere he looked, sparse pockets of burnt tree stumps reminding him that there had once been a forest the size of a small country here. The land was scarred by trenches, crisscrossing back and forth between the collapsed bunkers and towers, the odd scorched Drone carcass or burnt-out shell of a Scuttler rushing past their vehicle. Sunny was sprinting alongside them, leaping over ditches and skirting around the ruins.

“We’re about five minutes out,” Simmons said. “Be ready to disembark in a pinch because the critters are definitely going to be trying to secure the site, same as we are.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for backup?” Hernandez asked, bouncing in his seat.

“Not if we want to extract him in one piece,” Jade replied.

“I see the smoke!” Sunny announced. “It’s just over this next rise!”

Evan felt the IFV’s wheels leave the ground for a moment as it crested the hill, its suspension sagging as it landed, his harness digging into his flesh through his pressure suit.

“I think the driver is getting a little too accustomed to this low gravity,” Brooks complained. “This isn’t a fucking moon rover.”

“But we are technically on a moon!” the driver replied, apparently listening in.

Evan spotted the wreck some distance ahead of them, the torn fuselage lying at the end of the ditch it had carved into the ground, burning pieces of debris strewn all over the area. Despite the damage, the main body and cockpit area seemed relatively intact, suggesting that the pilot might still be alive. After a crash like that, mere minutes could mean the difference between life and death.

“We got bogies!” Sunny warned, skidding to a stop in the mud. The IFV hit the brakes, Evan turning his head to see a couple of squads of Drones making their way through the wreckage ahead of them. They had approached from the opposite direction, following the trail of debris. They were sifting through the twisted pieces of hull, making their way towards the fighter, hunkering down when they noticed the newcomers.

“Don’t hit the plane!” Simmons warned, rising from his seat as the troop ramp began to drop. “I dunno anything about Beewolfs, but it’s generally not a good idea to shoot at something that’s full of fuel.”

Sunny was already opening up with her shoulder cannon, the IFV’s blister joining her, laying down suppressive fire to force the Bugs into cover as the squad exited the vehicle. The IFV deployed its walls, everyone ducking behind them, Evan lifting his head over the barrier to get his bearings. The Bugs were retreating behind the wreck, seeming to realize that they were safe there, Sunny cursing over the radio as she was forced to cease fire.

“I gotta move around and get a better angle on them – try to flush them out,” she announced as she began to stalk around the left side of the wreck.

“We have to get to that pilot,” Simmons added, hissing through his teeth in frustration. “Every minute we waste fucking around is a minute they might not have.”

“Let me, Aster, and Cardinal climb up to the cockpit,” Jade suggested. “We’re lighter than a human – we’ll stand less chance of disturbing the wreck.”

“And have the pilot shoot you in the face because they think you’re Bugs?” Evan scoffed. “No way. I’ll go.”

“They probably aren’t even conscious after that crash,” Jade argued, but Simmons stepped in.

“Evan, Garcia, get your asses over there. The rest of you – cover them.”

Evan nodded to Garcia, and the two of them vaulted over the wall, ducking low as they crossed the open ground between the IFV and the Beewolf. It had landed sideways relative to them, listing at a shallow angle, its intact wing lifted into the air. It was much larger than it had looked now that he was up close – maybe fifteen meters long when it still had its tail, and a wingspan of ten or eleven meters. The pair approached the fuselage, Evan climbing up onto the angular paneling, most of it still painted with an onyx-black stealth coating. There were warning and no step signs all over the damned thing, but he paid them no attention as he hauled himself up onto the back of the downed plane.

He reached down to take Garcia by the hand, lifting him onto the wreck. The pair shouldered their rifles as they balanced on the smooth hull, making their way towards the cockpit near the nose. Evan stopped a few feet short, covering his counterpart as he knelt to try to get a look through the canopy.

“You see the pilot?” Evan asked, glancing around warily. He could hear Sunny firing from somewhere behind him, engaging the Bugs, the red outlines that she was transmitting to his visor blinking out one by one. They were very close, hiding just beneath the plane, only a few meters away.

“Nah, I can’t see inside,” Garcia replied. “Looks like it’s full of some kind of foam…”

“How the fuck do we get in?” Evan asked. “Sarge? Anyone know how to-”

“There,” Garcia said, pointing to a handle that was recessed into a panel beside the glass. “It says emergency release.”

The Marine reached for it, but he was distracted as a Drone clambered up the nose of the plane. It used all six of its limbs like some kind of giant cockroach as it scrambled up the fuselage, far more agile than they were, putting itself behind Garcia to block Evan’s shot. Garcia swung his weapon towards it, but the Bug reacted faster, delivering a kick to his chest plate that sent him toppling backwards off the plane. It was quite a fall, maybe three meters, but the low gravity and the soft mud cushioned the impact. It came for Evan next, dropping to all-sixes, scrambling over the domed canopy in a bid to reach him.

There was a loud pop, like a firecracker going off, a ring of small thrusters sending the entire canopy shooting violently into the air. The Drone had been standing on top of it, and the creature was sent hurtling head over heels, thrown clear of the wreck.

Evan turned his wide eyes to the open cockpit, the expanding foam that filled it starting to shift as a figure dug their way out. He glimpsed a flight helmet and a pressure suit, almost completely buried beneath a layer of the clinging substance, the pilot struggling their way up onto the hull. They stumbled to their feet, wiping some of the beige gunk off their reflective visor, the two oxygen tubes that trailed from their helmet dangling as they shook their head in an attempt to clear it.

Before Evan could ask if they were alright, two more Drones leapt up onto the wing to Evan’s left. He turned to aim his rifle at them, bringing one down with a burst of gunfire that chipped more of the stealth coating off the wing. The pilot drew a service pistol from their thigh, firing it from the hip, putting a trio of rounds through the second Bug’s carapace. One of the bodies slumped onto the wing, the other tumbling back down towards the ground.

“You good?” Evan asked, switching on his helmet’s external speakers. “Are you hurt?”

“Do I look hurt to you?” the pilot replied, a male voice coming through. “We need to get the fuck down from here. I armed a five-hundred-pounder.”

“What!?” Evan exclaimed. He had no idea what a five-hundred-pounder was, but he knew what the word armed meant.

“There’s a five-hundred-pound bomb that I didn’t drop yet still inside the bay,” the pilot explained, dropping to his butt as he slid down the smooth paneling. He dropped down to the muddy ground, where Garcia was brushing himself off. “It didn’t go off during the crash – smart bombs won’t until they’re armed – but it’s live now!”

“What the fuck did you do that for?” Evan asked, hurrying after him. “Garcia, you alright?” he added. Garcia nodded, straightening his helmet before running along beside him.

“I didn’t know I was about to be rescued!” the pilot replied, the trio heading for the nearby IFV. They returned to the safety of the deployable wall, diving back into cover.

“I got the last of the Drones, but we have a bigger problem!” Sunny warned as she came back into view from around the left side of the crashed Beewolf. She was backing up, her shield raised, plasma dancing between the studs on its surface. The pilot reacted with alarm when he saw her, but Evan put his hand on the man’s sidearm, pushing it down.

“It’s alright,” he explained. “She’s with us.”

“That thing is a she?” the pilot replied. He wasn’t patched into their ad-hoc network and couldn’t hear Sunny over the radio.

Evan didn’t need to ask what had Sunny so spooked – he could see the red outline that her suit was transmitting to the rest of the team, the unmistakable silhouette of a Scuttler. It was approaching them from behind the crashed Beewolf, out of view of the IFV, turning its cannon on the Jarilan Warrior. It fired, a massive bolt of plasma slamming into Sunny’s shield, sending her staggering backwards under the blow. There was a flash of light as the projectile met her plasma field, releasing all of its charge, too powerful to be completely dissipated. The combination of kinetic and thermal energy blew her shield apart, sending molten fragments of chitin spraying, leaving only a scorched chunk of armor attached to a limp arm. She regained her footing, then leapt out of its line of sight, her damaged limb dangling at her side.

“Sunny!” Jade exclaimed. She put a hand on the lip of the wall as though intending to vault over it, then seemed to reconsider, sinking back down into cover. “Are you alright?”

“I-I’m good,” Sunny replied, backing up towards them. “My shield took the hit. We don’t have anything that can scratch that thing, though! We need to hightail it out of here while we still can!”

“Back into the IFV!” Simmons said, waving them towards the troop ramp. “That Scuttler is going to roll right through us!”

“Wait, you guys don’t have an AMR?” the pilot demanded. “Where’s your armor support?”

“Our orders were to extract a downed pilot,” Hernandez replied as they jogged behind the Puma. “We didn’t come here fixin’ to fight Scuttlers!”

“Wait, wait,” the pilot said as he stopped to look back at his wrecked plane. “I got an idea. Tell your Warrior to lure the Scuttler closer to my wolf.”

“Why?” Simmons asked, pausing beside the ramp.

“The bomb,” Evan said.

“What bomb?” Simmons asked.

“I armed a bomb,” the pilot continued.

“I suggest that you give me the abridged version,” Simmons said, making no attempt to quash the urgency in his tone.

“We arm bombs manually before a run,” the pilot continued, picking up the pace. “The last thing you want is one of them going off inside the hangar bay and killing the entire flight crew. They’re essentially duds until they’re activated. I armed the last bomb in my bay before your guys came to get me. Shoot it, and it’ll blow that fucker sky-high.”

“Sounds like a better plan than tryin’ to run,” Hernandez added.

“All we have to do is shoot it?” Simmons asked.

“Light up the midsection of my wolf with that thirty, and it’ll go off for sure,” the pilot replied with a gesture to the IFV’s blister.

“You getting this, Sunny?” Simmons asked.

“You want me to play matador with a Scuttler?” she replied, sidestepping to keep the wreck between her and the approaching tank. “I can think of less elaborate ways to get myself killed, but if that’s what you need…”

“Everyone else into the IFV!” Simmons barked, the rest of the team springing back into motion. “Shrapnel generally isn’t good for your health. You’re sure this will work?” he asked, putting his hand on the pilot’s shoulder to stop him as he passed.

“Probably,” he replied with a shrug. “Bombs don’t take well to being shot at.”

Evan piled in after them, the troop bay even more crowded than usual with the extra passenger. They slid into seats and gripped handholds on the ceiling, watching through the external cameras as Sunny skirted around the right side of the Beewolf. He saw the red outline of the Scuttler as it marched towards her on its eight legs, its sensory appendage licking out of it its beak to track her position like the tongue of a lizard.

“What if it just shoots at the plane?” Hernandez asked.

“What’s going on?” the pilot grumbled. “I can’t see.”

Garcia helped him tap into the IFV’s cameras, the pilot wiping some more of the foam off the display on his wrist as he searched for the network.

“You want to back up a little!” he warned. “That’s a five-hundred-pound bomb!”

“I have absolutely no baseline for what that means, honey,” she replied. The frustrated Scuttler fired a salvo of rockets at her, Sunny darting back into cover. They streaked past the plane, embedding themselves in the mud, some of them landing near the IFV. The canisters popped open to release clouds of toxic gas, the yellow fumes blown by the wind. It was trying to smoke her out.

“He’s getting pissed off!” Hernandez warned, Sunny starting to retreat towards their vehicle. With her shield gone and her left arm hanging limp, Evan wasn’t sure if she could take another shot from that thing. Warriors were tough, but they weren’t invincible. The IFV began to back up slowly, putting more distance between itself and the plane, Sunny staying in front of it to make sure the Scuttler kept its attention focused on her.

From behind the wrecked plane, a snaking appending rose into view, its black eyes and fleshy antennae scanning the area for targets. It fixed on the IFV but turned when Sunny started to wave at it with her intact arm, the more vulnerable target drawing its attention. Rather than go around the plane, it decided to climb over it, the already damaged fuselage sagging under its weight as it placed one of its clawed feet on the black paneling. The things were designed to tackle difficult terrain, and the obstacle didn’t give it pause. It lifted another leg, then another, Sunny starting to retreat more quickly as it hauled itself over the creaking hull. Something gave, part of the damaged airframe breaking to drop the Scuttler a good meter, but it just kept coming. Finally, it was able to level its gun again, its bulky body standing directly on top of the wreck.

“Any day now!” Sunny yelled, the conducting rails on its cannon starting to crackle with energy.

The blister on the IFV opened up, spewing a stream of molten shells into the Beewolf. The Scuttler lurched as some of them impacted its carapace, punching through one of its legs, swinging that long gun towards the more immediate threat. They weren’t aiming for the Scuttler, however.

One of the molten slugs found its mark, shooting into the bomb bay, igniting its payload. The entire Beewolf seemed to lift into the air, carrying the alien tank and what looked like a couple of tons of soil along with it, a ball of orange flame quickly engulfing them. A powerful shockwave raced out, forming an expanding bubble in the pouring rain, a shower of burning debris falling on the surrounding area. The flames receded into a pillar of black smoke, leaving nothing but a crater where the crashed plane had once been.

Evan searched frantically for Sunny, seeing her climbing to her feet some distance away. Save for her damaged arm, she looked none the worse for wear at a glance.

“Sunny, what’s your status?” Simmons demanded.

“My status is alive but pissed off, sir,” she grumbled. “Let’s never do that again.”

“Driver – get us the hell out of here,” Simmons added. “The last thing we need is more roaches sniffing around.”

Sunny jogged over to them, matching pace with the IFV as it turned around and drove back towards friendly lines. She was a little unsteady at first, then her gait evened out, her arm dangling uselessly. There was some damage to her carapace, but nothing too extensive – just shallow pockmarks where shrapnel had hit her.

“Does that…hurt?” Evan asked. “The arm, I mean.”

“It hurts the suit, but it doesn’t hurt me in the way that you might imagine,” she explained. “Think of it like…when you see a wound, and you recoil reflexively. I’m aware of it, I know how it should feel, but all I’m getting is secondhand feedback.”

“That’s good, I guess,” he replied. “I don’t know if the fleet has enough morphine to dope that thing up.”

“I’m glad I crashed where I did,” the pilot began. He was standing in the aisle in front of the Borealans, as there were no seats left for him, his flight suit still covered in foam. “You guys are handy in a pinch.”

“Who exactly are you?” Simmons asked. “Why the hell were you doing a strafing run in a grid that hadn’t been cleared of AA yet? Why didn’t you eject?”

“Lieutenant Baker,” he replied. “Wing Commander of the UNN Rorke’s fighter squadrons. If me and my wingman hadn’t come in for a low pass, those Bugs would have overrun that position. It was that, or watch our guys on the ground die. Sometimes you just have to make the call. As for the ejection seat – electrical malfunction. Had to rely on the foam system to cushion my landing.”

“Lieutenant?” Simmons repeated, seeming to straighten up a little in his seat. He hadn’t realized that he was talking to someone of a higher rank, and it was hard to blame him. This Baker guy didn’t act like any lieutenant that Evan had ever met.

“If you can get me to a dropship, that’d be swell,” Baker continued. “I need to get back to the carrier and hop in a new wolf.”

“Do you know where you are, Lieutenant?” the sergeant asked. “You came down several kilometers behind enemy lines. If we’re going to get you back to your carrier, we’ll have to drive you out to a safe LZ where they can land a dropship. That’s the opposite direction from the one we’re supposed to be going in.”

“I realize that you’re not a taxi service, Sergeant, but I’m not much use on the ground,” Baker replied.

“I need to call my battalion commander,” Simmons said, putting a finger to his helmet. They spoke in private for a minute, then he returned to the open squad channel. “Sorry, Lieutenant, but we’re about to start our push on the Ant Hill. The company can’t spare the IFV. The best I can offer you is a ride to the next staging area, where you can maybe transfer to another vehicle.”

“I guess I’m grounded, then,” he grumbled, turning to glance at Borzka as a lurch made the giant Borealan bump into him.

***

They returned to where the rest of the company was preparing their final push, just beyond the foot of the mountain. It had been a long and hard-fought battle to get here, but the kilometers of trenches that ringed the Ant Hill had been cleared and occupied by friendly troops, leaving only a scant few left before their final goal of securing access to the hive itself could be achieved. This was where the defenses were the strongest, however, and where the Bugs would be at their most desperate.

Evan stepped out of the IFV, glancing at the looming cliffs in the distance. If the Bugs had been allowed to have their way, all of the battlements and turrets on the mountainside would have been able to pour fire at the approaching forces with impunity – a deadly tactic for an invading nuptial fleet that didn’t have the means to deal with them. Unfortunately for the Bugs on Kerguela, the Coalition’s fire support was formidable. There was little left now but smoking ruins and collapsed structures, without a functional cannon in sight.

At the base of the mountain were the massive earthen fortifications that the insects had created to trip up the UNN’s vehicles – wide ditches that had been excavated out of the ground, and three-meter mounds of soil formed into impenetrable walls. They were some of the most primitive structures a sentient species could build, seeming more worthy of ancient hill forts than a spacefaring race, but they would do the job just the same. At a glance, Evan had no idea how they were going to get their armor through. Could a Crocodile bulldoze through that much mass with its plow?

The steep inclines were no obstacle for the Bugs. Evan could see them in the distance, entire squads of Drones scaling the walls to reach cover, Scuttlers using their eight legs to traverse ditches that would have gotten a Kodiak hopelessly stuck. They were shoring their defenses, moving their remaining forces into new positions, preparing for the assault that they knew was coming. After such brutal and lengthy fighting, the momentary lull in battle was strange. Even though it was entirely incidental, and the Bugs had no concept of mercy, it almost felt like a temporary ceasefire had been declared.

The other battalions were clearing out the last of the resistance in the trenches now, preparing for the final push. The Omaha’s battalion would have to wait a couple of hours for everyone else to get into position, and then a simultaneous, all-out attack would commence on all fronts. The Bugs would be encircled, trapped between the mechanized companies and the mountain.

“Take a little R&R time,” Simmons said, stretching his arms above his head as he walked around the side of their IFV. “I gotta go talk to the company commander about how they plan to get us over those ditches.”

“I’ll tag along,” Baker said, the pilot still trying to scrape hardened foam off one of his sleeves. “Someone has to be able to get me out of this muddy shithole. No offense,” he added. “I don’t mean to disparage you ground-pounders, but I am literally up to my fucking ankles in mud.”

“Come on, then,” Simmons sighed as he gestured for the man to follow. He’d only been on the ground for a little while, and it already seemed that the sergeant was tired of him.

Evan was distracted as Sunny’s injured suit lumbered over to join the squad beside their vehicle. Up close, the damage was even more visible. The stump that was all that remained of the shield was little more than a cauterized husk of meat attached to her right forearm, the limb visibly broken, hanging limp. Without bones to break, maybe the shock of the impact had torn the muscles away from the carapace or something to that effect. The overlapping plates on her abdomen were pocked with shrapnel damage, dried ichor that had leaked from some of the holes suggesting that the wounds ran deeper than he had assumed. That explosion had been a closer call than any of them had realized.

“You alright, Sunny?” he asked.

“I’m fine, but I think this suit has fought its last fight,” she replied. “I have something that I need to take care of.”

The suit’s torso split open like a clamshell to reveal the tentacles inside the chest cavity, the slimy appendages pulling back in a squirming mass, Sunny’s lemon-yellow shell coming into view beneath them. She unfurled her antenna, rolling her shoulders in a way that seemed remarkably human for such an exotic creature.

Constancy, this is Sunny,” she began. It seemed that she was putting through a call using the suit’s comms systems. “Serial number one-five-nine, seven-two-three. Unit zero-sixteen has been rendered combat ineffective. Requesting a replacement type-three suit at the following coordinates.”

She listed off more numbers, Evan waiting to hear a reply, but the signal might be coming through one of the plugs in her spine rather than a traditional speaker or earpiece.

The Pilot stepped out into the mud, her yellow carapace glistening with slime, strands of it drooping as they linked her to her suit. She let the rain wash some of it off, then turned to glance up at the battle-ravaged Warrior as the abdomen sealed up again.

“Sorry, sixteen,” she said as she reached up a hand to give it an affectionate pat. “You’re gonna have to wait here until a reclamation ship can pick you up.”

She began to walk away from the suit, Evan watching curiously as she headed out into an area of open ground some distance from where the company was camped.

“What’s she doin’?” Hernandez asked, sidling up beside Evan to watch.

“I think she has a delivery coming in,” he replied, lifting his eyes to the clouds. After a few minutes, a bright point of light appeared – the familiar sight of an object entering the atmosphere from orbit. A blazing meteor punched through the grey canopy, trailing smoke, green flames joining the orange glow of the heat tiles on its belly as its thrusters fired to help it decelerate. The seed-shaped pod popped a leathery chute when it was closer to the ground, like a sail made from skin, shedding more velocity. It embedded itself in the mud like a bullet, kicking up a shower of wet earth, still moving remarkably quickly for something so large. It was maybe six meters long and half as wide, covered in armor plating and the resin-like flesh that Evan had come to associate with the Bugs. The leathery parachute draped itself over the pod, then began to retract, sucking back inside a recess at the top of the vehicle. A section of carapace the size of a dinner table popped off the near side, landing in the mud with a splash, the water on the ground steaming as the residual heat turned it to vapor.

The interior was lined with padded, spongy flesh, the glistening tissue a sickly green in color. Something shifted inside the cavity, a hulking shape stepping into the open, the dim sunlight reflecting off its autumn camouflage. It was a fresh Warrior, identical to the one that Sunny had first arrived in. It was moving under its own power, coming to a stop just in front of its drop pod, the thirty-mill on its shoulder folding up from a recess in its shoulder plate. It crouched, entering some kind of stand-by mode as it waited for its new master to approach.

As Sunny neared, its torso split open, the tentacles inside reaching out as though they could sense her proximity. She turned her back to it, raising her arms, the appendages gently lifting her inside. It swallowed her up, then rose from its crouched position, walking its way back over to the curious crowd that had assembled.

“That feels better,” Sunny sighed over the radio, flexing the suit’s arms experimentally. “Back to one hundred percent.”

“Why don’t we have those?” Garcia asked. “Imagine if they could drop food and ammo down in those things instead of having to fly in dropships that need secure landing sites.”

Explosions began to echo across the trenches, Evan glancing over at the hill to see that the artillery companies were hitting the Bug defenses again, fireballs rippling along the length of the earthworks. It had become such a common occurrence that it was scarcely worth watching now.

“That should soften them up a bit before the push,” Simmons said, making his way back over to them from the direction of the clustered vehicles nearby. Evan was surprised to see that Baker was still with him.

“Just came back to thank you guys for being my knights in mud-caked armor,” the pilot began. “The Rorke is sending down a shuttle to pick me up and put me back where I’m supposed to be. Unlike some people, the Navy doesn’t do home deliveries,” he added with a pointed glance at Sunny. “I have the captain’s ear, so I’ll make sure he knows where to send the medals. I am very important, after all.”

“Delta company has been earning quite a reputation for itself,” Simmons replied, appraising his squad with what might be pride. It was hard to tell without being able to see his face behind his visor.

“Does that mean we get paid more, Sarge?” Hernandez asked.

“You keep it up, Marine, and I’m gonna make sure you get paid in gift cards,” Simmons replied. “Now, everyone say goodbye to the nice lieutenant, and try to look lively about it!”

They saluted Baker, the pilot returning the gesture lazily before giving them a thumbs-up and setting off again.

“That guy does not act like a wing commander,” Hernandez muttered over the private squad channel, watching Baker saunter away through the mud.

“I’ve found that the stranger someone with a lot of authority behaves, the better they are at their job,” Sunny replied. “It means that the brass thinks they’re worth tolerating.”

“How do you figure that?” Hernandez asked.

“Personal experience,” she replied with a chuckle.

“I want you all to get some food in you while you can,” Simmons announced, getting their attention again. “We’re still reading higher than background radiation levels this close to the mountain, so take turns eating inside the IFV. In a couple of hours, we’re going to be moving on the Ant Hill.”

“What’s the plan, Sarge?” Evan asked. “Did the commander tell you how they expect us to get past those fortifications?”

“I was getting to that,” he replied. “The mountain is surrounded by a ditch and a wall,” he continued as he gestured into the distance. “It seems as though it was all dug out pretty hurriedly, probably as a direct response to our tanks, so the construction isn’t on the same level as a lot of the other structures. It looks like they excavated a trench just deep and steep enough that a Kodiak wouldn’t be able to climb out, and they moved all of that dirt a ways back to create a wall. None of these obstacles are a concern for their own vehicles, naturally.”

“We’re not dismounting, are we?” Foster asked skeptically. “They’ve clearly built that area to be a kill box.”

“No,” Simmons replied, shaking his helmeted head. “The plan is to drive in some more Crocodiles and have them use their plows to fill in the ditch with dirt, creating bridges so the rest of the company can drive over the gap. After that, we wait for them to punch holes in the wall with their cannons.”

“Sounds like a lot of stopping and starting,” Jade said, folding both pairs of arms. “There will be multiple stages where we’re being funneled into choke points and held up while we wait for the engineers to do their work. That’s by design, make no mistake.”

“We’re confident that we can hold them off,” Simmons replied. “We have a firepower advantage – all of their gun emplacements have been destroyed. All they have now is infantry and Scuttlers.”

“Until they throw some new curveball at us,” Foster grumbled.

CHAPTER 6: MAJOR HURDLES

The IFV bounced over the craters and trenches, mud splattering its hull, Evan watching the scenery flash by beyond the external cameras. They were encountering no resistance on their way towards the mountain. It seemed as though the Bugs had completely abandoned the outer defenses beyond their ditch. The company was advancing in their usual formation, the tanks leading the pack in a loose arrowhead, the troop carriers following after them. The other companies flanked them to their left and right, extending into the distance, the rain making them fade away beyond a few hundred meters. The Yagda was floating along behind them, lifting small pieces of debris and clumps of wet mud with its gravity field, then depositing them on the ground again as it passed. If the Crocodiles didn’t have the firepower to make it through that wall, then the repulsor certainly would…

“I’m not seeing any defenses on the wall,” Evan mused, examining the towering mound of earth in the distance. “I expected them to try to mount some plasma guns up there, at least.”

“I’d call it strange if their plan wasn’t so painfully obvious,” Jade replied. “They’re clearly waiting for us to get bogged down trying to cross the ditch before they attack. Any tank commander who isn’t an idiot will have their guns trained on that wall, ready to drop them as soon as they show their faces.”

“Is it still a trap if we’re walking into it on purpose?” Evan asked with a shrug.

“That all depends on how it goes down,” she replied skeptically.

The convoy ground to a halt as the ditch came into view, the tanks forming a protective cordon as the three Crocodile engineering vehicles that had joined the company drove forward, lowering their plows. After appraising the work for a few minutes, they began to push dirt into the gap, filling it in. The going was slow and methodical, but the hastily-dug trench relied more on its steep slopes than its depth, so it didn’t take as long as Evan had expected. Still, there was no resistance from the Bugs. No mines, no mortars, no waves of infantry.

Before too long, the Crocodiles had created a narrow bridge that would allow one vehicle to cross at a time. One of the tanks inched its way across slowly, sinking a little as it compacted the earth beneath its tracks, but it made it to the other side without incident. One by one, the rest of the company followed, until they were all safely on the far side. Evan watched in amusement as Sunny simply slid down the incline, then climbed up the other side, leveraging the mobility of her bipedal suit. Her counterparts further down the line were doing the same, splashing through the little stream that was starting to form inside the hole.

“The UAVs aren’t picking up any enemy signatures on the other side of the wall,” Simmons mused, checking his display. “It’s close enough to the base of the mountain that they could have pulled all of their forces back inside.”

“You think they’re planning to fight the rest of the battle in the tunnels?” Collins asked. “That would give them a pretty big advantage.”

“Maybe,” Simmons replied, shaking his head in frustration. “But, why go to all this trouble to build the wall and the ditch if they expect us to make it to the mountain anyway? No, I expect they’re all going to come flooding out once we get closer. They’re probably just trying to stop us from shelling them.”

“They might have worked out the range on our artillery, too,” Jade added. “They know that we can’t drop shells on our own heads, so they’ll wait until we’re closer before they attack.”

“Whatever happens, we’ll probably be sitting this one out,” Simmons said as he relaxed back into his seat. “There are no more trenches to clear, tunnel running isn’t our job, and there’s nothing we can do in a tank battle. Once the Kodiaks have done their thing, our job will just be to secure the perimeter while the Trogs do their work.”

The three Crocodiles at the front of the formation lined up side by side, aiming their stubby cannons at the wall. First, they fired off a series of line charges to ensure that there were no mines planted in the hundred or so meters of land that separated the wall from the ditch, the explosions rocking the IFV. Next, they began to fire their main cannons, blasting holes in the obstacle. The Crocodiles were designed to breach fortifications, and their demolition guns were loading HESH sabots – rounds that expanded on contact with a surface before detonating to maximize the kinetic energy that they transferred. The result was massive holes being blasted out of the wall, throwing torrents of soil inward.

It wasn’t long before they had cleared a gap wide enough to get two or three vehicles through at a time, the Kodiaks taking point once again as they crossed the short distance. Much of the company held back, anticipating the counterattack that would no doubt begin once the proverbial rock hit the hornet’s nest.

“Here they come, right on time,” Simmons said as enemy targets began to appear on the shared network. The UAVs were picking up a flood of contacts that were spilling out of the tunnels at the base of the mountain, thousands of Drones swarming, Scuttlers and Warriors marching out of larger openings that might serve as garages. They began to climb the far side of the wall, the obstacle no challenge for the six-limbed infantry and the walking armor, the Scuttlers scaling the steep incline without breaking stride.

As soon as they crested the top of the wall, the vehicles opened up, mowing them down with fire from their blisters. Scores of Drones were torn apart, their ruined bodies sent tumbling back down the other side of the barrier, what Scuttlers and Warriors that emerged succumbing to withering fire from the Kodiaks. Most of them were taken out before they could even level their plasma cannons to get a shot off, the burning wrecks crushing more of the Drones that were trying to advance behind them as they slid down the slope.

“I get that the Bugs don’t surrender, but this is suicidal, even for them,” Garcia muttered as he watched the chaos unfold. “Are they really so desperate that trying to stop a thirty-mill with their face seems like a viable plan?”

“Maybe this really is all they have left to throw at us,” Hernandez replied. “The Queen is on the ropes.”

The Kodiaks began to drive backwards, retreating closer to the edge of the ditch. There was no reason to be so close to the wall when they could shoot the Bugs at their leisure. More of the insects tried to crowd through the breach created by the Crocodiles, but all that accomplished was funneling them into a bottleneck where they were cut down in swathes.

The massacre was interrupted as Borzka’s gravelly voice got their attention.

“The Yagda…why does it fire into the air?”

Evan turned his head, looking behind them to see that the massive repulsor’s dual CIWS guns were shooting at a high angle, sending streams of tracer fire arcing into the air above them. One of its missile tubes popped open, sending an interceptor jetting into the sky on a plume of smoke. It looked like it was firing at something on the mountain. More Kestrels were joining it from further down the line, the anti-air guns swiveling into position. As he looked through the cameras on the roof of the IFV, he saw a cloud of dark shapes silhouetted against the clouds, growing larger.

“Incoming!” he yelled.

The IFV shook as one of the objects embedded itself into the ground like a javelin some distance away, showering the nearby vehicles with mud and dirt. Evan only had to look at it for a moment to realize what it was. The blend of resin and carapace, the tapering shape, the twenty-foot length. It was a drop pod.

“The Bugs don’t have drop pods!” Garcia stammered, quickly reaching the same conclusion. “We destroyed all their ships!”

“The mountain!” Sunny gasped, turning her suit’s cameras skyward. “They’re launching their drop pods from the mountain!”

The rest of the salvo began to land, the pointed vehicles slamming into the ground all around the formation. There was a sound like a giant hammer striking an anvil as one of them collided with an IFV off to their left at what seemed to be terminal velocity, spearing the troop transport on its pointed tip. The hull buckled under its weight, the IFV’s rear wheels lifting off the ground as it was practically bent double by the impact, the forces at play enough to rend steel like it was no stronger than foil. The drop pod fared little better, its carapace shattering, the two wrecks blending into a twisted mass of flesh and metal as they dug a crater into the wet earth.

There was a brief moment of stillness as the dust settled, punctuated only by the gunfire from the vehicles, then one of the nearby pods popped open. It fired off a piece of carapace with enough force that it bounced off the side armor of a Kodiak, rocking the tank on its tracks. The interior was similar to the one that had carried Sunny’s replacement suit to the surface, its walls lined with a glistening layer of padded flesh that would presumably lessen the violent shock of the landing. Something stirred within, an imposing figure stepping out of the opening, its familiar profile filling Evan with a cold stab of terror.

It was a Supermajor. The armored creature stood ten feet tall, its body covered in heavy, overlapping plates of carapace that bristled with sharp spines. Atop its raised collar, a helmet the size of a man’s torso turned to take in its surroundings with its array of eyes, the wicked chelicerae of its mouthparts flexing. It had the basic four-armed body plan of a Drone, but it was many times the mass of its smaller counterparts, its clawed foot sinking deep into the mud as it stepped out of the pod. In one pair of hands, it wielded the deadly rifle that Evan had encountered during his last run-in with the creatures, its long barrel lined with heat vents that resembled the gills of a fish. In its secondary pair of arms, it held a weapon that he had never seen before – something akin to a long pole made from resin. It had no blades or hammerheads that he could see, just a mass of flesh and electronics that were clumped around one end.

More of the things were emerging from their pods, striding out into the midst of the company’s vehicles, already close enough to reach out and touch their hulls. Blisters and turrets turned to track new targets, but the trap had been sprung, and the Supermajors were already moving.

Evan watched as one of the Supermajors strode away from its pod, approaching the nearest Kodiak from the right flank. The tank was forced to turn its attention away from the swarms on the wall, the blister atop its turret switching targets, bringing the glowing barrel to bear on the giant insect. It got off a short burst, the slugs blowing a trio of bleeding holes in the Supermajor’s shoulder, making it twist as it advanced. It shrugged off the blows, raising its anti-materiel rifle, shooting the blister right off the turret with a single round. The gills that ran down its long barrel split open, venting steam, making the air around them shimmer with heat.

The Supermajor placed a clawed foot on the tank’s hull, pulling the rifle tight against its shoulder, then began to fire. Once, twice, three times – the recoil rocked the ten-foot creature. The rounds sparked off the armor, digging craters in the ceramic plating, but failed to penetrate. Its rifle spewing jets of steam, the Supermajor turned its head, clicking its chelicerae as it watched the barrel of the Kodiak’s cannon swing towards it. The Bug was inside the weapon’s radius, too close for the cannon to fire on it, but the barrel hit it like a swing from a hammer. The creature weathered the impact, pushing back with its shoulder as it dug its feet into the mud, sliding on the wet ground. The Kodiak’s gunner wasn’t trying to use the cannon – he was trying to get a bead on the thing with one of the cheek-mounted guns.

The alien brandished the pole that it was wielding, the implement as long as it was tall, the blob of machinery on the top end making it look like a giant cotton swab. There was a flash of light, a stream of glowing plasma jetting from its tip like a cutting torch, the wavering flame taking shape as it was molded by a powerful magnetic field. It formed the roiling plasma into a blade the length of a man’s arm, the superheated gas flowing through the field like a liquid, a cloud of mist enveloping it as it turned the falling rain to steam around it. It swung the weapon like a glaive, sweeping it upwards towards the Kodiak’s cannon. The shroud that protected the vehicle’s barrel slagged, molten metal dripping to the ground, a shower of bright sparks flying as the blade bit into the electronics beneath. The creature jerked its weapon upwards and away, severing the barrel down the middle, the front half dropping to the mud below with a thud.

The creature spun the pole with practiced precision, aiming the wavering edge down, then drove it towards the hull of the Kodiak like it was spearing a fallen animal. Where the rifle had failed to penetrate, the plasma blade created a soup of bubbling, steaming slag. It held the weapon steady, letting the intense heat do the work, sparks bouncing off its carapace as it pushed the blade deeper.

Without the barrel in the way, the vehicle’s turret was able to rotate further, bringing its cheek-mounted missile launcher to bear. It fired, sending a salvo of rockets shooting out of the pod. They were below the minimum arming distance, so they couldn’t explode, but the Supermajor was knocked back as half a dozen missiles slammed into its abdomen at point-blank range. With another impressive flair of its glaive, it sliced through the pod, disabling the weapon as the still smoking missiles fell around its feet. It brought its wavering blade back to the cooling pool of molten metal, resuming its work, sinking the weapon deeper in search of some vital system.

One of the hatches on the turret flipped open, the commander emerging with his sidearm at the ready, aiming it at the Supermajor. He fired at its face, the thing raising an arm to protect its head as it recoiled, the slugs digging through its carapace with splashes of ichor.

The commander emptied his magazine, but as he began to slide down back inside the turret, the Supermajor leveled its rifle. It cut him in half, the round turning his upper body to red mist, leaving a streak of blood on the turret behind him. What was left of the body slumped back down into the crew compartment, the Supermajor readying its glaive again, fluids leaking from the bullet holes in its helmet.

The severed barrel of the Kodiak’s cannon rotated to face it, leveling to aim its chest, the commander’s handgun having forced it back just far enough to give them a clear shot. There was a sound like rending metal, what remained of the severed cannon exploding into a cone of molten shrapnel, its conductive rails peeling back like the skin of a banana as the magnets forced each other apart. They had fired the cannon, the sabot impacting the cooled slag, turning it into a tumbling mass of debris that threw the Supermajor back like a shotgun blast. It was joined by an arc flash as the unshielded electronics ionized the air, what looked like a lighting strike forking out to char the creature’s carapace, dancing across the Kodiak’s hull. Most of the sabot’s mass tore a chunk out of the Supermajor’s chest, shrapnel and flecks of molten metal peppering it, the dying beast slamming into the IFV behind it with enough force to lift its wheels a good few inches off the ground.

The Puma had taken a hit too, the sabot leaving a significant dent in its armor, even after dumping most of its energy into the Supermajor. The Kodiaks couldn’t fire their cannons at these ranges, not without a clean shot that they weren’t going to get with the Supermajors wading between the vehicles.

A dozen of the towering creatures were cutting a swathe through the company, using their blades to carve through the armor where it was thinnest on the sides and rears of the vehicles, firing at exposed machinery and weak spots with their rifles. They were met by blisters and turrets, but what had begun as a firing line was now a melee.

“Pull us back!” Simmons ordered. “Get us out of range of those fuckers!”

“We can’t retreat any further!” the driver shot back. “The ditch is behind us!”

“They’ve trapped us between the ditch and the wall!” Jade snarled. “There’s nowhere for us to go.”

Evan turned to look back at the dirt bridge that had been created by the Crocodiles. One of the IFVs was reversing across it, but it was effectively blocking the way, and no orderly retreat was going to be happening under these circumstances. Worse, the gunfire that had been keeping the Bugs on the wall at bay had now been redirected to the more immediate threat of the Supermajors, allowing Drones to flood over the obstacle. They were going to be overrun at this rate if the Supermajors didn’t finish them off first.

“Just try to focus your fire!” Simmons added. “There aren’t that many of them!”

Evan watched through the feed as one of the Supermajors made a beeline for Sunny, the Jarilan raising her shield as it aimed its rifle at her. The heavy projectiles rocked her, but she weathered the blows, her plasma field melting the conventional rounds enough that they couldn’t make it through the thick chitin. She brought the railgun that was mounted on her shoulder to bear, the weapon positioned high enough that it could fire over the barrier.

“On my target!” she barked over the radio, Evan feeling a tremor as the blister on the roof of their IFV joined her. The vehicle immediately to their left followed suit, the streams of tungsten from the three railguns converging on the same Bug, tearing it apart where it stood. Even a Supermajor couldn’t withstand that kind of firepower, the molten slugs blowing gaping holes in its carapace, punching through its redundant organs. Chipped away piece by piece, it collapsed to the ground, falling face-first in the mud as wisps of smoke rose from its wounds.

Everyone inside the IFV ducked reflexively as they heard a series of hammer strikes impact the outer hull, only their helmets preventing their eardrums from bursting. Simmons lifted his head, turning to glance out at a nearby Kodiak that had fired its blister straight through a target that had been standing between them.

“For fuck’s sake, watch your fire!” he bellowed. “You’re gonna kill us faster than the Bugs!”

Ahead of them, one of the Supermajors was using its glaive to slice through another Kodiak’s rear armor. It seemed to hit something important, because the turret abruptly stopped its rotation, its guns going silent. As the creature began to burn into the crew compartment, a nearby IFV lurched into motion, rapidly accelerating towards it. The vehicle rammed into the Supermajor from behind, sandwiching it between the two hulls, crushing its legs. Its blister unloaded on the Bug as it collapsed backwards onto the sloping prow of the Puma, the projectiles creating showers of sparks where they hit the Kodiak, its armor too thick for them to penetrate.

The Supermajors were starting to thin out, but the damage had been done. Several vehicles were disabled, and the Drones were almost upon them. They flooded down the hill like a red wave, crashing against the Crocodiles at the front of the formation, spilling over their hulls. There wasn’t much that they could do to damage the tanks, wrenching off ceramic panels and bending the comms antennae, some of them trying to pry open the hatches in a bid to get inside. Still, it was another distraction, more sparks flying as the vehicles cleared each other’s hulls with gunfire. One of the Crocodiles lowered its plow, starting to drive into the crowd, crushing half a dozen of the Bugs beneath its tracks.

The Drones seemed to think that Sunny might be an easier target, but their rifles couldn’t penetrate her armor, the Jarilan swinging her shield to knock them over like bowling pins. She leveled the suit’s plasma cannon, the weapon spewing a stream of superheated gas at the Drones, filling the space between two of the Kodiaks with emerald fire.

Chaos was erupting all around them, but all Evan and his squad could do was sit inside their IFV. If they opened the troop ramp and tried to help, all they would accomplish was giving the Drones a way inside and providing softer targets for the Supermajors.

Another one of the ten-foot monsters strode towards Sunny, the smaller Drones parting before it to avoid its thundering footsteps, communicating perhaps through pheromones. It shouldered its rifle, but she took the initiative, charging towards it with her shield raised. It only managed to get off a couple of rounds, neither of which penetrated her defenses, Sunny shouldering into it like a freight train.

The Supermajor stumbled back a few paces, its claws sliding in the mud. It bumped into the flank of an IFV, tall enough that it could place a lower hand on its hull to steady itself. The vehicle’s blister spun around to aim at it, the sound of the whirring motors alerting the creature, who severed the turret with a swift swipe of its glaive in what almost seemed like annoyance. Its attention was focused solely on Sunny. Whether it saw her as the largest threat on the battlefield or simply recognized her as a Betelgeusian from a rival hive, Evan couldn’t say.

“Sarge, I’m not gonna be able to get a clear shot at that thing if they’re ballroom dancing!” the gunner announced.

“God damn it, focus fire on the Drones and try to cover the other vehicles!” Simmons snapped. “Sunny can handle herself!”

Their IFV turned its gun on the Bugs that were swarming over the Kodiak ahead of them, the thirty-mill tearing them up. Evan kept his eyes on the Supermajor, watching as it squared off with Sunny. There was just enough room between the parked vehicles to create a kind of arena, the size of a boxing ring to the towering creatures. The nearby Drones spread out, leaving a small pocket of calm on the battlefield, the two titans beginning to circle one another.

The Supermajor pulled its rifle against its armored shoulder, firing off a trio of shots, the recoil slamming the weapon back into its chitin. Sunny blocked the rounds with her shield, the plasma field that danced between the metal studs on its surface turning the bullets to slag.

Realizing that it couldn’t penetrate her defenses, her adversary tossed the giant rifle aside, the heavy weapon embedding itself in the mud at its feet. The way that these things moved in the low gravity sometimes made Evan forget just how heavy they were. That rifle was large enough that even Borzka had found it hard to handle…

The Supermajor brandished its glaive, the wavering blade shrouded in steam as it boiled the rain. It took a few steps closer, passing the long haft of its weapon between its upper and lower pair of arms, keeping its opponent guessing. Sunny kept her guard up, matching its movements. Her railgun was trained on it, and her arm cannon was leveled, peeking out from behind her shield. The Supermajor seemed to have realized that she wasn’t willing to fire with the possibility of collateral damage, ensuring that there was always a friendly vehicle directly behind it. Knowing that it couldn’t challenge her with its rifle, it was forcing her to engage on its terms.

Sunny waited for it to approach, then parried a probing strike from its glaive, the Supermajor dancing forward to lunge with the long weapon. The two magnetic fields melded together when they made contact, the blade’s defined shape becoming distorted, a bright flash of light casting the pair into dark shadow for a brief moment.

The Supermajor pulled back, the flickering blade taking shape again, the creature making small circles with the tip of its weapon. It was hard to guess who was going to come out on top. Sunny’s suit had more mass, but her opponent was more agile, moving more like a Drone than the lumbering Warrior that she had bested during their trench fighting. The Supermajors seemed to be designed as heavy infantry, carrying weapons that had enough punch to defeat familiar targets like Scuttlers and Warriors. The way that they tried to disable the Kodiaks by probing for vital systems like they were spearing wild boar suggested that they were trained to target organs.

The alien struck again, testing her defenses, Sunny batting the glaive aside with her shield. Once more, there was a flash of light as the two magnetic fields met, exchanging energy. The Supermajor pressed the attack this time, darting in for a low strike that targeted her feet, Sunny once more blocking the blow as she planted the pointed tip of her shield in the mud. The Supermajor’s proximity gave her a high angle on her target, enough that she must have felt safe using her railgun, the shoulder-mounted weapon moving independently on its gimbal as it fired off a short burst. The chain-fed weapon spewed a stream of slugs at the ground, the Supermajor darting away, but not quickly enough. A couple of the slugs found their mark, blowing holes in its thigh, green ichor staining the puddles that had formed in its footprints. They blasted off large chunks of its orange chitin to expose the pale meat beneath it, wet and glistening, but the creature didn’t fall.

It staggered back a couple of paces, putting some tentative weight on the injured leg, then seemed to ignore the wounds once it was sure that it could still walk. Pain, shock, fear – these were not concepts that the Bugs understood. As long as the limb was functional, it would keep fighting regardless. Still, it was wary of getting so close now, starting to circle again as it searched for an opening.

This time, Sunny was the one to press the attack, throwing her considerable weight into a shield slam. Evan could almost feel the impact as their titanic bodies crashed together, the forces at play rendering what seemed like rock-hard carapace as flexible as soft plastic, a visible ripple spreading through their bodies like a shockwave. The Supermajor was agile, but it still weighed as much as a small car, the creature trying to absorb the blow with its armored shoulder rather than attempt to evade. The lighter Bug was thrown back, slamming into the side of the nearest IFV with enough force to dent the armor plating.

Sunny’s railgun was always tracking it, pivoting on her shoulder, its optics package locked onto the Supermajor’s torso. Even though she had an opening, she hesitated again, unwilling to risk the possibility that her slugs would penetrate the troop compartment behind it and endanger the passengers inside. Instead, she used her shield to trap the Supermajor against the IFV’s hull, leaning her weight on it. The Supermajor pushed back, trying to free itself, but the still-active plasma field began to melt its carapace as though Sunny was holding a giant blowtorch to it. The alien placed its upper pair of hands against the shield, pushing off the IFV as it forced her back, the vehicle’s wheels sliding in the mud. Using its lower pair, it hooked its glaive around the side of the barrier, the blade biting into her forearm.

It was enough to make her retreat, Sunny dancing back, a wisp of smoke rising from a cauterized gash in her shield arm. The Supermajor brandished its glaive with its lower arms, the hands on its upper pair almost burned away completely, its fingers nothing more than charred stumps.

The thing crouched, its digitigrade legs like coiled springs, then leapt. It launched itself a good two meters into the air, raising the glaive like a javelin in one hand, bringing the glowing point down towards its opponent. Sunny lifted her shield with only a moment to spare, the powerful blow making her reel. It pressed the attack, harrying her with strikes, jabbing from different angles to keep her on her toes. It was running rings around her now, Sunny turning on the spot to keep up, just barely holding it at bay.

The alien managed to make an opening, the haft of its glaive sliding against the edge of her shield, slipping past her defenses. It embedded itself in the suit’s torso, burning through the carapace, targeting the Pilot’s cavity. Evan realized that he was holding his breath. The suit would keep moving even if Sunny was killed, so it was impossible to tell whether the strike had found its mark or not.

It tried to draw back the weapon, then encountered resistance, Sunny gripping the haft with the one lower arm on her left side. The Supermajor tried to wrench it loose, but her suit was stronger and heavier, Sunny maintaining her stubborn hold on it. The plasma blade was still embedded in the suit’s torso, but it was the opportunity that she had been waiting for.

Raising her heavy shield into the air, she brought it down on the haft, splintering the tough resin like it was made of wood. The weapon split in two, sending the Supermajor reeling as it clutched the lower half, Sunny swinging her cannon arm towards it. Before it could regain its footing in the mud, she closed her lobster-like claw around its neck, the heavy pincers putting pressure on its armored collar. The chitin began to crack under the crushing force as Sunny raised the struggling creature off the wet ground, the thing clawing at her forearm with the blackened stumps that remained of its fingers, its lower pair of hands trying to pry itself free. A green glow began to reflect in its many visors, lighting up its helmet, the two barrels of Sunny’s plasma cannon starting to ignite.

The twin streams of boiling gas melted away the front of its helmet, pouring inside, Evan catching a brief glimpse of the flesh beneath before it was functionally decapitated. Sunny dropped the still-twitching body to the dirt, the plasma falling around it like a liquid, mud splattering her carapace. Just to make sure, she brought her shield down on its abdomen, the pointed tip caving in its chest and biting into the meat beneath.

“Target down,” she snarled over the radio, Evan feeling a wave of relief wash over him. She reached for the blade that was still embedded in her side, pulling it out with her lower arm, tossing the now inert clump of flesh and machinery to the ground.

Her opponent defeated, she turned her attention back to the Drones, melting a whole squad with her claw cannon as her railgun took opportunistic shots at the scattering Bugs. Evan saw the last standing Supermajor fall, succumbing to a well-placed shot from a Kodiak, the sabot catching it in the chest. The creature was obliterated, what was left of its body thrown back towards the wall of earth.

The Drones were pulling back now, unable to do much to harm the vehicles on their own, scores of them getting chewed apart by railgun and MGL fire as they rushed back across the open expanse of land. Several Warriors and Scuttlers had taken advantage of the chaos caused by the Supermajors to take up position on top of the hill, starting to fire down on the company from elevation. Rockets, mortar shells, and plasma fire began to pour down towards the vehicles. The Bugs concentrated their fire on the more vulnerable targets, perhaps knowing that they stood little chance of getting through the front armor of the tanks, but the Kodiaks were now free to pick their targets at will.

One by one, their sabots found their mark, sending the biological vehicles tumbling back down the other side of the hill. It was like a duck hunt for the tanks – the Bugs had nothing that could withstand that kind of firepower. HE shells tore through Scuttlers, ripping open their hulls to send guts and broken machinery spraying, Warriors falling with holes the size of manhole covers punched in their abdomens.

“The roaches are routed!” Simmons declared, rising from his seat with his rifle in hand. “We got orders to go after them!”

“We’re going out there?” Hernandez asked in disbelief, reaching for his XMR as the ramp began to lower.

“They’re trapped,” the sergeant replied. “The only place for them to go now is back inside their mountain. Pursue, and fire at will. We’re going on a fucking Bug hunt!”

The ramp hit the mud, the team piling out, Evan’s boots sinking into the wet soil as he wheeled around to face the wall. The rest of the company’s Marines were deploying from their IFVs all around him, starting to move between the vehicles, covered by their blisters. There were close to six hundred men advancing towards the base of the slope now, pursuing the retreating insects, their IFVs starting to trundle alongside them to match pace.

“Staggered column!” Simmons ordered. “Stay close to the Puma!”

They formed a wedge shape beside their vehicle, starting to jog forwards. The IFV crushed the bodies of fallen Drones beneath its honeycomb tires, their shells cracking and splintering under its weight. There were scores of them littering the ground, most partially buried in the mud, Evan having to step over and around them. He skirted the decapitated Supermajor that Sunny had killed, its body even larger up close, the constant rain spattering its carapace. Sunny was a ways ahead of them, slowing her advance to let them catch up, falling into formation with them. Her shoulder-mounted railgun never stopped firing, Evan watching the belt of slugs feed into it, the red-hot coils on its barrel boiling the rain. More Jarilan Warriors were advancing alongside some of the other squads, their firepower joining those of the vehicles.

The Drones were fleeing, but they weren’t disorganized. They didn’t experience fear, after all. They retreated the same way that they attacked, squads of six pausing to support their companions with covering fire, leapfrogging up the slope. There was nowhere for them to hide in the open, no places to take refuge, no vehicles left to support them. It was a shooting gallery.

“Weapons free, weapons free!” Simmons barked.

Evan aimed his XMR, the rest of the team doing the same, firing as they moved. His rifle rocked into his shoulder as he loosed a burst at the Drones on the hill some hundred meters ahead, watching one of them drop as his slugs found their mark. He barely had to aim – there were so many of them. Hernandez loaded a grenade into his underbarrel launcher, firing it at a high angle, the projectile exploding into a cloud of shrapnel as it impacted the sloping wall. He caught three or four of them in the blast, throwing one legless body into the air, the others dropping to roll back down the hill. The IFV followed suit, peppering the horde with its MGL, rapid-fire grenades cutting a swathe through their ranks. One of the Bug squads targeted them with return fire, but Sunny put herself in the way, intercepting the barrage of plasma bolts with her shield.

The same was happening all along the line, the insects scrambling to escape the hail of fire, dying by the hundreds. The Drones were slipping in the wet mud, scrambling over their dead, molten slugs punching holes in their carapaces.

The sound of an engine rose above the gunfire, Evan glancing up to see a gunship swooping low over the battlefield, its thrusters blazing as it came to a hover over the wall. Its nose gun tracked targets on the other side of the obstacle, spewing shells into the Bug ranks, firing missiles from its racks. The carnage was out of view, Evan watching the smoke rise into the air.

“I’m gonna have to watch a replay to figure out how many of these fuckers I’ve killed,” Foster chuckled, pausing to reload. “I’m losing count!”

“Push them back to the mountain!” Simmons ordered. “The less of them make it inside, the better!”

They were nearing the base of the wall now, encountering more dead and injured Bugs. Some of them tried to fight back, the piles of broken bodies shifting as survivors struggled to raise weapons. The squad turned some of their rifles to the ground, dispatching them, unloading into the bodies for good measure.

One of them lifted a shaking arm to aim a plasma pistol at Jade, Tatzi darting in before it could fire, pinning it to the ground with her bayonet. Jade kept firing up the hill as she passed it, drawing her handgun with a lower arm, barely glancing at the thing as she put two rounds through its helmet.

Another had staged an ambush beneath a pile of its dead brethren, lunging out with its blades drawn, catching Collins by surprise. He yelled in alarm as one of its chitin sabers carved a furrow into the armor on his thigh, pushing it back with a swift kick from his boot, almost losing his balance in the process. The thing rolled backwards, hopping to its feet, its posture low as its wicked mandibles twitched and clicked. It was bleeding ichor from a wound in its chest, probably already functionally dead. The round had hit it in the back, creating an exit wound the size of a softball that exposed the pulsing organs beneath to the air.

“Aster!” Cardinal shouted, the pair darting past Collins to tackle it. They dragged it to the ground, peppering it with stabs from their combat knives, barely breaking stride as they left its bleeding body behind to resume their advance.

The team began to climb up the incline, Evan struggling to find purchase in the wet mud. The Bugs used their lower arms to help them scramble up, but it was a lot more difficult for mere bipeds. The vehicles had to break off, unable to tackle the slope, heading instead for the nearest breach that had been carved out by the demolition cannons of the Crocodiles.

Evan paused to fire again, bringing down a Drone that was nearing the top of the wall. Bodily fluids and fragments of carapace sprayed, the creature dropping backwards, tumbling towards the team. He had to side-step it as it rolled past him, its lifeless limbs flailing.

Sunny was leading the charge, her claws digging deep for purchase, the rain splattering against her suit’s camouflaged carapace. She reached the top, blocking a volley of fire with her shield, answering them with her railgun.

Evan slipped, his stomach lurching as he began to fall. He barely had time to utter a yelp of alarm before something lifted him, a giant, furry hand gripping the back of his rig like it was scruffing a kitten.

“Your balance leaves much to be desired,” Borzka said, placing him back on the incline.

“Thanks, big guy,” he said with a sigh of relief.

“Don’t lose your momentum!” Simmons said, waving them on. He led them to the peak of the hill, bracing his rifle against his shoulder as he fired down the other side in full-auto. The rest of the team scrambled up behind him, dropping to their bellies to make themselves smaller targets, mud splashing against Evan’s visor. As he wiped it away, he saw the base of the Ant Hill up close for the first time.

Where the volcanic mesa met the ground, it was riddled with innumerable holes, the shadowy openings carved into the very rock itself. They came in all shapes and sizes – some just large enough to let a Worker squeeze through, while others looked big enough that a Scuttler could have marched down them unimpeded. They resembled the Bug holes that had been encountered elsewhere on the planet, but rather than leading below ground, they seemed to cut horizontally into the mountain. The wall was the only defensive structure – there were no trenches here, no bunkers or turrets save for those that were mounted higher on the cliffs above, now destroyed by the relentless Coalition bombardment.

The short expanse of open ground between the wall and the tunnel entrances was littered with bodies and wrecks now. The base of the slope looked like a blend of a scrapyard and a mass grave, every Scuttler and Warrior that had fallen down the inside of the wall lying there in a tangled heap, some of the wrecks still burning with vibrant, emerald flames as their fuel and ammo cooked. There were Drones scattered all around them, the bodies deep enough in some places to almost bury entire Warriors. Closer to the mountain, some hundred meters away, was yet more evidence of the damage that had been done to the Bug defenses. Chunks of resin the size of boulders and heavy fragments of rock were strewn all over the place, having fallen from the high cliffs above, some of them creating deep craters like meteorite impacts that had since filled in with rainwater. Enormous mounds of dirt and rubble had piled against the mountainside, the remnants of landslides caused by the shelling, what must be thousands of tons of earth blocking the tunnels in places.

The debris had given the Drones more cover, some of them ducking behind boulders and mounds of dirt, firing back in an attempt to cover the rest of the insects as they made a break for the safety of the tunnels. Picking them off was a trivial affair, the squad firing from elevation, dropping Bugs at their leisure. Below and to the right, the vehicles were starting to filter through the narrow breach in the wall, spreading out to join the slaughter. They were completely unchallenged, the Bugs unable to scratch them. All the while, the Penguin roared overhead, pounding the ground with salvos of missiles and bursts from its nose gun.

What had been a force of thousands was now little more than a hundred stragglers, the remaining Drones trying to make their way back to the cover of their hive, many of them cut down as they neared the shadowy entrances. When there were no more red blips on their visors, Hernandez rose to his feet, lifting his rifle above his head in triumph.

“That’s right, you fuckin’ cockroaches! Run back to mommy!”

“Will you lie down?” Evan complained, tugging at the leg of his pressure suit. “You’re gonna get your head shot off.”

“The enemy flee like cowards before us,” Borzka declared with a rumbling growl, brushing the mud off his chest piece as he climbed to his feet. “We have driven them back into their holes.”

“Don’t mistake their actions for cowardice,” Jade replied. “They’re consolidating what remains of their forces, pulling them back into the tunnels where they can mount their final stand on their home turf. It doesn’t get easier from here – it gets harder.”

“Not our problem,” Donovan added, tossing an empty mag down the hill. “That’s for the Trogs to worry about.”

“I just got the all-clear,” Simmons announced, turning his helmeted head to survey the carnage as he stood up. “We’re not picking up any signs of Bug activity in the area. Our new orders are to hold until the engineers can confirm that there are no mines or booby traps, then we’re going to move in and secure the tunnel entrances so the specialists can do their work. Everyone good? Nobody get hit?”

“My leg got scratched,” Collins said, gesturing to the scarred plate on his thigh.

“What do you want, a fucking Purple Heart?” Simmons replied. “I meant is anyone injured?”

“Sunny, how about you?” Evan asked. “That spear looked like it went pretty deep.”

“It didn’t penetrate far enough to reach me,” she replied, her suit standing watch over the team like a sentinel.

“You fucked that Supermajor up good,” Hernandez chuckled. “I got that shit on video,” he added with a tap at his helmet. “It’s goin’ on the fleetnet as soon as we’re back in orbit.”

“They’re not as tough as they look,” she said, rolling the massive shoulders of her suit.

CHAPTER 7: CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Vos stood on the carrier’s observation deck, watching Kerguela through the glass beneath his boots. The red foliage and wisps of white cloud that characterized the moon’s surface now gave way to a patch of ashen grey, the winds smearing it across the globe like a dark stain, the obscuring canopy of dust illuminated by intermittent flashes of lightning. It was a terrible thing to scar a planet, like defacing a work of art, but the forests would recover…in a few generations.

He tore his eyes away from the grisly sight, turning them to a holographic representation of the Ant Hill that was hovering just off the floor, large enough to occupy most of the room. The naked eye couldn’t penetrate the ash clouds, but the carrier’s array of sensors could. Before him was the flat-topped mountain seen from above, its perimeter surrounded by a dense ring of blue markers, the ground forces broadcasting their positions over the fleet’s network in real-time. There were a few visible blobs of markers further out, forming rough concentric rings where Marines were occupying trench networks that the Bugs had been driven from. Beyond those were the LZs, larger patches of blue icons, supply convoys now extending from them like growing tendrils. Aircraft flitted about, squadrons of Beewolfs circling over the area in holding patterns, dropships touching down to deliver troops and equipment to wherever they were needed.

There was a flicker of light as a secondary hologram projected beside the first, the three-dimensional image of a man appearing, his breast adorned with campaign ribbons. It was Katukov, the commander of the Argyre, broadcasting from the repulsor’s command deck. This was the call that Vos had been waiting for.

“Reporting in, Admiral,” he began, his thick Russian accent crackling through unseen speakers. The electrical storms seemed to be causing some distortion. “The enemy has been forced into a full retreat, and we have secured the base of the mountain. All enemy strongholds are now occupied by Coalition forces, and all of their defensive structures and gun emplacements have been neutralized. I have sixteen battalions reporting their readiness.”

“Excellent work, Commander,” the admiral replied with a curt nod. “Casualty reports?”

“Lower than our projections,” he said. “Those Jarilan heavy infantry units were an asset.”

“Your new orders are to hold position and keep the area secure while the Trog teams are dispatched,” Vos continued. “I don’t need to tell you how important this objective is to the success of the campaign.”

“Understood, Admiral,” the commander replied. “No Bugs will enter or leave the Ant Hill under my watch.”

“The Queen is on her own now,” Vos added, his eyes narrowing. “The Red King has been eliminated, and even if she had a way to get word out to the Kings in neighboring zones, our other CSGs are keeping them tied up. There’s no help coming for her.”

Another hologram appeared to Vos’s left, the admiral turning his head to glance at it. This wasn’t another three-dimensional representation, but rather a video feed from the surface, broadcast from what looked like a wrist-mounted camera. It was Brenner, immediately identifiable by the lenses and sensors that filled his empty eye sockets, a flash of lightning casting him into shadow for a single frame as the rain behind him created blocky artifacts.

“Admiral,” he began, raising his gruff voice above the storm. “All of the enemy comms installations have been disabled, and we’re not picking up any more radio Scuttlers in the field. The Ant Hill has been totally cut off. If there are any roaches left in the area, the Queen has no way to reach them.”

“Good work, Lieutenant,” Vos replied. “Have your teams rendezvous with the armored battalions at the hill. The Trogs are being dispatched, but we may need your support. We have no idea what we’re going to be facing in those tunnels.”

“I’ll make sure that my people are ready to respond when you need them,” Brenner replied, droplets of rain spattering his camera.

Vos raised a gloved hand, putting through more calls with a few quick gestures. The captain of the Constancy responded to his summons almost immediately, a translucent representation of the Jarilan’s upper body appearing to hover in the air beside him, her two pairs of hands folded neatly in front of her segmented carapace. She greeted him with a nod of her horned head, her feathery antennae waving with the motion, as courteous as ever.

There was more of a delay before Xipa deigned to respond, her scarred face materializing beside her Jarilan counterpart. She had only recently returned from her mission to the surface, and the perpetual self-satisfied smile that she had been wearing ever since served as a constant reminder of how wrong he had been.

“You’re looking none the worse for wear, Ensi,” he said as she greeted him with a flutter of red feathers from her headdress. “I trust that your refugees are taking to their accommodations aboard the Saturnian Star?”

“It’s quite an adjustment for them, going from living in a waste treatment plant to bunking on a luxury cruise liner, but I’m sure they’ll manage,” she replied with an amused ripple of yellow. “I hear that the catering is of especially high quality.”

“There’s a four-star chef aboard, so I’ve been told,” Vos replied with a twitch of irritation. Moving the refugees to a cruise ship that had been commandeered as an emergency troop transport had been just one of several favors that she had coerced out of him since her return.

That was enough small-talk, or Brenner would probably drown in the rain before they were done.

“Commander Katukov tells me that your Warriors performed well,” Vos said, turning to the Jarilan captain. “We should have cleared them for deployment earlier in the campaign.”

“The Type-three suit was designed for the express purpose of supporting Coalition infantry,” she replied, puffing out her molded chest piece in what might be pride. “We’re carrying several prototype suits designed for tunnel fighting, too,” she added with a smile. “I would be happy to deploy our Type-twos if you’re in need of extra support.”

“Our Trog teams are very good at what they do, but keep your Warriors on standby alert,” Vos replied. “We have no idea how large this tunnel network is going to be. Nobody has ever encountered a hive this old and established before, so we may need to bring in extra hands.”

“If there’s one thing that we have in abundance, it’s hands,” she chuckled. “As always, the Constancy is at your disposal, Admiral.”

“My best Commando flock is sitting around on the Vengeance preening their feathers while they wait for something to do,” the Ensi added. “I want to give them a crack at the Queen.”

“The tunnels under that mountain are going to be an unimaginably hostile environment,” Vos replied, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “Do your people have the training and the experience necessary for such an operation?”

“They’ll never get any if we leave them benched,” she grumbled. “Millions of our people died at the hands of the Queen, and I’ll be damned if we don’t play a role in her elimination. I’m not asking you to baby them – they can handle themselves, and we’ve developed our own specialized equipment.”

Vos knew that she would get what she wanted one way or another, so arguing with her was a futile endeavor.

“Very well,” he conceded. “I suppose that having more teams mapping those tunnels will be beneficial.”

“We can certainly provide any extra support that you might need, Ensi,” the Jarilan captain added.

Vos tried not to look visibly annoyed by the aliens making their own plans right in front of him, turning back to Katukov.

“You’ll have all of the resources that you need, Commander. It’s time for Operation Regicide to commence. Let’s kill us a Queen.”

***

“They’re not gonna come out,” Hernandez said, tossing a rolled-up MRE wrapper at Garcia.

The Marine shot him an annoyed glance, then turned his attention back to the tunnel entrances in the distance. The squad was set up at the top of the wall with the rest of their company’s infantry, keeping watch on the base of the mountain, the elevation giving them an excellent firing position. It had been hours since the Bugs had retreated, and there hadn’t been any sign of them since. The tense atmosphere had gradually receded as the UNN had begun to fly in equipment and reinforcements, indicating that they now had unrestricted access to the airspace around the Ant Hill. There were even vehicle convoys coming in from the direction of the LZs. The company’s Kodiaks and IFVs were down at the base of the wall, scattered between the numerous boulders and chunks of resin that had fallen from the cliff face above during the bombardment, their weapons trained on the tunnels. Sunny had remained on top of the wall with them, her suit standing motionless, the cameras that served as its eyes occasionally shifting or telescoping slightly to get a better look.

“There go the Trogs,” Foster said, giving Evan a nudge.

He glanced down at the opening in the wall that had been blasted out by the Crocodiles, seeing a procession of maybe twenty bulky figures emerge on the near side. They wore the same segmented armor that he had seen during his first run-in with them back at the Bug farm, with reinforced plating and a protective collar that rose up to shield the neck area like something from a bomb disposal suit. Their visors were little more than a slit of glass over their eyes, large rebreathers jutting from the mouth area of their helmets, connected to flexible cables that trailed deeper into their armor. The rigs that they wore were laden with all kinds of specialized demolition equipment – grenades and detonators – their distinctive microwave weapons clutched in their gloved hands.

“They look like they mean business,” Evan muttered, watching as the Trogs began to make their way through the rubble.

“I’m a Jarilan, and you couldn’t pay me to go in there,” Jade chuckled. She was sitting beside him, her proboscis extended into a flavored drink packet that he had shared with her.

“What do you think they’re going to find in there?” Evan wondered as the men approached the mouth of one of the smaller tunnels, pausing to examine it.

“I can only speak for my own hive, but the Queen had plenty of defenses set up before the Coalition subdued her,” Jade replied as she took another sip. “There were water locks – sections of tunnel that were submerged in water to prevent chemical weapons or pressure waves from proliferating through the tunnel.”

Underwater parts?” Hernandez added, apparently feeling the need to shuffle closer to express his displeasure. “Fuck that.”

“It wouldn’t slow down a Bug, but I can imagine it being a very nerve-wracking experience for someone who exchanges oxygen through lungs,” Jade chuckled. “Other traps included things that you might expect. Chemically-triggered mines, hidden compartments where Drones could lie in ambush, sections of tunnel that could be intentionally caved in, pitfalls designed to kill aliens that couldn’t climb as Bugs do – you name it. The nuptial fleet that landed on Jarilo only had weeks to prepare, so I can’t imagine what this Queen has in store.”

“Are they good just walking up to the tunnel like that?” Evan wondered.

“The engineers cleared away all the mines, right?” Hernandez replied with a shrug.

Several more Trog teams arrived, a couple of IFVs driving along beside them, the men starting to unload equipment from the troop bays of the armored vehicles. They began to line up at the mouths of several of the larger tunnels, checking each other’s gear, slamming fresh batteries into their microwave weapons. With so many guns trained on the openings, and the lack of any Bug activity for hours, the atmosphere was pretty relaxed. There were several squads of Marines nearby, most of them standing idle as they watched, a few others helping them carry crates down the open ramps.

“How much do you reckon those guys get paid?” Hernandez asked, taking a bite of a protein bar as he watched.

“More’n you,” Foster chuckled.

“How about you, Sunny?” Hernandez continued as he glanced to the towering suit. “What does the hive pay?”

“We haven’t really figured out the whole currency thing yet,” she replied.

“What? You work for free?” the Marine asked as he paused his chewing.

“Needless to say, the hive didn’t use money or have a concept of property when they arrived on Jarilo,” Jade added. “They acted as one organism, receiving whatever nourishment and tools were deemed necessary for them to fulfill their function.”

“We’re a little different,” Sunny added. “The hive provides us with everything we need – food, housing, equipment. Maybe it’s our human DNA, or maybe it’s because of our social interactions with the colonists, but that’s starting to change.”

“We started off sharing our resources with the colonists,” Jade explained, setting down her empty drink packet. “We gave them whatever resources they needed, provided labor to help them expand the settlement, protection from the local fauna. The Queen sees herself as part of the human hive, so there’s no separation between us in her mind. She’ll feed a hungry colonist the same way she’ll feed a hungry Worker.”

“That escalated into manufacturing,” Sunny continued, Jade nodding her head in agreement. “We built electronics, furniture, tools. The underground foundries and factories that used to manufacture weapons during the war didn’t go anywhere, so we put them to use. Endos have this funny idea of scale,” she added with a chuckle. “They’re happy to take things for free, but only up to a point. Then, it’s like a switch is flipped in their heads, and they feel guilty if they don’t compensate you. At first, it was barter, things like biomatter for the Repletes or raw materials for the factories. Eventually, currency was just more convenient for everyone.”

“How does that work?” Evan asked. “Do you each have your own bank account?”

“The hive is still very much communal,” Jade explained. “The Queen manages our money just like she manages all of our other resources. It’s actually one of the few alien concepts that she’s really taken to. We mostly use the funds to purchase things that we can’t easily obtain on Jarilo, but we’re building quite a portfolio now. Honey exports are a big thing for us, and the UNN has already taken out shipbuilding contracts for when our orbital facilities are completed.”

“You’re building orbital facilities?” Evan asked, surprised by the idea.

“I suppose it’s cheaper and more efficient to let the hive build the tether and the shipyard,” Jade replied with a shrug. “Better than contracting a human company that’s just going to gouge the colonists and drag out the process for as long as possible.”

“Yeah, I guess free is more appealing,” Evan conceded. “That’s crazy, though. I didn’t realize the colony was that developed already.”

“Our Workers don’t exactly need lunch breaks or paid vacations,” Sunny added.

“Isn’t that like…slavery or somethin’?” Hernandez added.

“Slavery implies coercion,” Jade replied. “They could stop if they wanted to, but it’s just…what they do. It’s hard to explain,” she continued, pausing to consider for a moment. “I don’t have to be a Drone, and Sunny doesn’t have to be a Pilot. If we wanted to quit and become pastry chefs or dance instructors, there’s nothing stopping us. But, there’s a kind of comfort in knowing what you were made for and knowing that you have the tools to excel at it. Some humans live half their lives without figuring out who they want to be or what career they want, but we’re hatched with a path already laid out for us. We can choose to reject it, but few do.”

“That implies that some Jarilans have?” Evan asked.

“I know a Replete who decided to become a chef,” she replied with a shrug.

“What?” Hernandez chuckled.

“Yeah,” Jade continued. “I mean, I suppose that a Replete becoming a chef isn’t really too far removed from their usual role, which is processing biomatter into honey, but she wanted to feed other species who weren’t as…comfortable with how we prepare our food.”

“There are those Workers who brew honey mead for the colony, too,” Aster added.

“Sounds like a place I’d wanna visit,” Hernandez said. “What do-”

The sound of an explosion rocked them, a blast wave tearing at Evan’s suit, almost powerful enough to knock him over. His hand was on his rifle before he was even aware that he was moving, the squad scrambling to their feet, Sunny’s weapons bristling as the plasma field on her shield ignited.

“Holy shit!” Foster exclaimed, gesturing above them. “Look!”

Evan followed where he was pointing, seeing a cloud of debris rolling down the mountainside, boulders the size of cars tumbling down the cliff face. At first, Evan wondered if the bombardment had weakened the mountain enough to cause some kind of delayed collapse, but those were explosions, rippling along the cliffs in a horizontal line like demolition charges.

It was far enough away that it didn’t pose an immediate threat to the people on the wall, but the squads of Trogs and Marines that had been assembling near the tunnels were scattering, running for cover. The IFVs began to reverse, half of the men rushing back towards the wall while the others made for the relative safety of the tunnels. What must have been hundreds, thousands of tons of soil and rock quickly came thundering down on their heads, sweeping across the open ground between the mountain and the wall like a pyroclastic flow from a volcanic eruption. The tiny figures were engulfed, the ground shaking as massive chunks of stone hammered the ground, a wave of dust crashing against the wall like a tide.

“What the fuck just happened?” Garcia snapped, shouldering his rifle as though the landslide was some kind of enemy that he could shoot. “Was that blue on blue? Did some idiot fire an artillery shell?”

“The Bugs,” Jade growled, watching the debris settle below. “They must have blown the cliff. They knew that we’d be massing troops at the tunnel entrances. Damn it, we should have seen that coming!”

“We gotta get down there!” Collins said, but Simmons reached out to grab his rig as he made for the slope.

“Hold!” the sergeant ordered. “The area isn’t secure yet.”

“But Sarge, our guys are buried alive!”

“And you might join them if we don’t make sure there aren’t more traps before we go fucking around down there!”

Collins looked like he wanted to argue, but he stepped back, falling into line.

“We have people whose job it is to do this,” Simmons continued, his tone a little more reassuring now. “Let them do their work, and we can do ours.”

“Looks like a fuckin’ avalanche,” Hernandez muttered, watching the dust clear.

Where the tunnel entrances had once been, there was now a fresh mound of soil and rubble, piled up against the mountainside like it had been dumped there by a giant shovel. After the sudden surge of movement, everything was now deathly still, only a few stray pieces of rock rolling down the pile before settling. Not only had the Bugs crushed and buried the would-be intruders, but they had also sealed up the tunnels. There were already teams of people starting to climb over the debris, digging through the soil as they began their rescue efforts, but Evan doubted whether anyone could have survived that…

***

“The Bugs really fucked us,” Simmons said, addressing the team as they watched the Crocodiles excavate the tunnel openings with their plows. “They pulled the same stunt all around the mountain, and they wiped out enough of our Trog teams that Fleetcom can’t go forward with the planned operation. There just aren’t enough of them to get it done.”

“What the hell are we supposed to do now?” Brooks asked, his companions sharing worried glances.

“Are they gonna ship in more Trogs?” Collins added, his tone hopeful.

“Not with time working against us,” Simmons replied with a shake of his head. “The longer we wait, the more time it gives the Bugs to prepare. We don’t think that there’s a way for them to evacuate the Queen, but it wouldn’t be the first time the Bugs have caught us with our pants down. If they move her, and she starts laying eggs in another location, we’re back to square one.”

“I have a feelin’ I know where this is goin’,” Hernandez sighed, crossing his arms.

“Fleetcom is pulling in some SWAR assets to help bump up the numbers, and the Jarilans and Valbarans are also sending some specialists,” Simmons continued. “But that’s still not enough manpower to replace all of the people we lost. Delta company has made a bit of a name for itself over the course of the war, and the admiral has asked that we help fill in for them.”

“Oh, this is bullshit,” Hernandez snapped. A few of the other Marines nodded, murmuring their agreement, the Jarilans looking on in quiet confusion. Tatzi and Borzka reflected their sentiment, sharing concerned looks, the aliens not accustomed to insubordination.

“Can it, Private,” Simmons replied with a stern jab of his finger. “If the admiral tells you to march directly into Hell, then that’s where you’re fucking going, and I’m gonna be the guy sticking your ass with the pitchfork.”

“But Sarge, this isn’t in our job description!” Garcia added as he spread his arms in exasperation. “Trogs are special forces – they have special training, equipment, experience that none of us have. We can’t fill in for them, just like that!”

“I understand your concerns, believe me,” Simmons continued as he raised his hands in an attempt to diffuse the situation. “These are the same questions that I asked when the orders came down from the battalion commander. The surviving Trogs are going to be assigned to our squads, and they’re going to lead us through the tunnels. They have the equipment and the training required – we just have to keep them alive and follow their orders so that they can do their jobs.”

“I dunno about this, Sarge,” Foster muttered.

“It’s not a debate, Private,” Simmons replied. “Those are our orders. You’re Ghosts – you’ve escaped bad situations more than once, or you wouldn’t be standing here complaining. You have the luck and the grit to get through one more trial.”

Hernandez looked like he wanted to argue, but there was nothing more to say.

***

The team made their way down the wall, assembling near the foot of the mountain. The engineers had excavated paths that led to the tunnel entrances through the debris left by the landslide, like someone digging through a giant, dirty snowdrift. The rescue operations were still ongoing, Evan watching as personnel dug into the mound of dirt with shovels and backhoes that were attached to the Crocodiles, still trying to locate some of the buried men. After so long, it was unlikely that any were still alive, but they couldn’t just leave them there.

Simmons walked over to them, a Trog by his side. The man was wearing the usual heavy armor, his rig laden with equipment, an intimidating microwave gun with a three-pronged barrel held in his hands. It was a little smaller than some of the others that Evan had seen, held more like a conventional rifle, though it still looked unwieldy.

“This is Lieutenant Bainbridge,” Simmons said, the man nodding to them as he was introduced. “He’s going to be taking command of the squad for the duration of the operation.”

Bainbridge looked them over through the narrow slit that was his visor, the thick tubes that ran from his rebreather shifting as he turned his helmeted head. Evan couldn’t see his expression, but it wasn’t hard to guess that he was probably just as unhappy with the situation as they were. He had probably lost most of his friends only hours prior, and the survivors had been split apart to form these new teams.

“Listen up,” he began, his British accent coming through tinny on his speakers. “I understand that you guys are Ghosts, and that means you’ve seen some shit on your way here. I’m also told that none of you have experience running tunnels. When we’re down there, visibility is gonna be poor, and it’s gonna be cramped. Your first priority needs to be watching your fields of fire. I don’t want to get shot in the bloody back. This is a microwave emitter,” he added, raising his odd weapon so that they could see it. “This thing can saturate entire tunnels with deadly radiation that excites the water molecules in a target’s body, cooking them alive. You do not want to be in front of this.” He lowered it again, the squad exchanging glances. “You’re gonna do what I say, when I say it, without question. You waste a couple of seconds arguing, and you’re gonna wind up dead. Saying that this environment is hostile is an understatement – the Bugs designed every inch of this place to keep us out. They’ll use every trick in the book, and they don’t care about making your death quick or easy. They’re not above burying you alive, breaking your legs and leaving you to die at the bottom of a pit, or cooking you inside your suit.”

“I trust my people,” Simmons said. “They’ll get the job done.”

“Well, the Jarilans will be useful,” Bainbridge said as he looked to Jade and her friends. “Having mad cats in a close-quarters fight is always a boon. I was told I’d be getting a Warrior, too?”

“Our Pilot is currently changing into her formal attire,” Simmons replied. As if to illustrate his point, a series of sonic booms echoed across the landscape, Evan looking back over his shoulder to see a dozen bright points of light descending through the clouds trailing plumes of smoke.

“Relax,” Jade said, seeing Garcia’s hand wander down to his rifle reflexively. “They’re ours this time.”

The drop pods landed in the distance beyond the wall, and after a few minutes, a group of Jarilan Warriors crested the hill. These must be the Type-twos that Sunny had mentioned, their profile immediately different from the ones that Evan had become accustomed to. This variant was a good couple of feet shorter than the Type-three, and the configuration of limbs was very different this time. The head was situated between the upper and lower shoulders to give the Warrior a more squat look, protected by a hood-like protrusion of carapace.

Evan noted that there was no large shield and no claw-like plasma cannon, this suit sporting a total of four arms. The upper pair were configured as giant crab claws, clearly intended for brawling, the pincers large and sharp enough that they looked as though they could easily cut a Drone in half. Their forearms flared outwards into large plates of chitin, Evan quickly realizing that they were a form of buckler – smaller shields that would be easier to maneuver in the tunnels. They had the same metal studs implanted across their uneven surfaces at intervals, suggesting that they could ignite plasma fields when necessary.

The lower pair were larger and more functional than the solitary utility arm on the previous suit, equipped with three dexterous fingers. He was surprised to see that they were clutching weapons in their hands – not of Bug design, but AMRs. They were anti-materiel rifles usually fielded by a team of two Marines, their long barrels packed with dense magnetic coils, tipped with a round muzzle device that prevented them from creating plasma discharges when their slugs ionized the air. In the hands of the massive Warriors, they were almost the size of a conventional marksman rifle. The weapons required a power cell the size of a car battery to run, which was linked to the receiver via a trailing cable. Evan followed it, seeing that it vanished into a socket on the Warrior’s torso, likely drawing power from whatever the suit used as a reactor. It was a lot of firepower to be able to bring underground.

The group of Warriors split up, heading to join different teams, one of them making a beeline for Evan’s squad. It hopped deftly down the slope on its digitigrade legs, the many cameras and lenses that served as its eyes scrutinizing them as it approached. As it neared, its chest cavity began to split open, the low head rising up like a jaw along with one of the plates to give the pilot more room. Sitting among a mass of shifting, glistening tentacles was Sunny, the Jarilan raising a hand to give them a casual wave.

“All set, Sergeant,” she announced in her usual cheerful tone. “Just had to step away for a moment so I could slip into something more comfortable.”

“Is that thing gonna fit?” Hernandez asked, marveling at the biomechanical vehicle.

“Some of the tunnels are pretty wide, at least near the surface,” Bainbridge added as he appraised Sunny’s new outfit. “They were clearly intended for moving large vehicles and heavy infantry in and out of the mountain, but whether those tunnels just lead to garages, we don’t know. Our radar systems can’t reach very deep below the surface with all of that basalt and bedrock, and we can’t fly drones in there without the signal dropping off pretty fast. UNNI thinks that the Bugs might have repurposed a lot of the natural lava tubes that formed in this area, and it’s a safe bet that the Queen’s guard is made up of Supermajors rather than Winged Drones, but we can’t say for sure until we actually get down there. We’ll take the Warrior and the Borealans as far as we can.”

“Our objective is twofold,” Simmons began. “We’ll be moving down through the tunnel system, mapping it as we go, and locating important chambers along the way. We’re going to rig those chambers for demolition to deny the enemy assets, and we’re going to kill anything that tries to stop us. We can’t transmit signals through those tunnels, so watch out for other teams whose paths might intersect with ours, and check your targets.”

“What happens if we find the Queen?” Brooks asked. “Do we just shoot her?”

“Killing the Queen is priority one,” Bainbridge replied. “If we come across her, we take her out, but that place is a maze. There’s no telling where she might be holed up. The chances of us just stumbling across her chamber are pretty small, but it’s a possibility that we should be prepared for.”

“Do we get any special gear?” Foster asked, eyeing the conspicuously thicker armor that Bainbridge was wearing.

“Just these,” Simmons said, holding up a small parcel about the size of a potato. Evan recognized it as the plastic explosives that the SWAR team had used to destroy the transmitter during their assault on the comms bunker. “Each of you will be carrying a few of these, but you aren’t expected to know how to use them. That’s the lieutenant’s job.”

“We’re gonna be carrying bombs?” Hernandez asked skeptically.

“Relax, Private,” Bainbridge replied. “Those explosives are inert until an electric current is passed through them. They’re safer than those grenades on your belt,” he added with a gesture to the bandoleer of 40mm shells that was strung across Hernandez’s chest.

“Just stick close to the lieutenant and follow his orders, and this will go down without a hitch,” Simmons added.

“What was it that you said, Hernandez?” Evan asked. “Tunnels are just trenches with a roof?”

That elicited a chuckle from the team, but Hernandez merely crossed his arms stubbornly.

“I’m not wrong.”

“One thing that I want you to do before we enter is tweak your XMRs for CQB,” Bainbridge added. “Short barrels and high rates of fire are your friends, along with fast target acquisition, so red dots and holo sights. Bayonets and shotguns might save your arse in a pinch, and bring large mags. You’re not going prone in there, and you’ll need all the slugs you can carry.”

“Over here,” Simmons said, waving them over to a nearby IFV. The troop bay was filled with crates of weapon parts, and there were already a couple of other teams making modifications to their guns beside it. “The lieutenant knows what he’s doing, so don’t argue.”

“I already tweaked mine just the way I like it,” Hernandez sighed.

“Just think about the hazard pay,” Jade said as she gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

CHAPTER 8: TROGLODYTE

The newly assembled team marched down one of the dugouts towards a tunnel opening in the distance, the walls of excavated debris slowly growing larger and more oppressive as they neared. There was very little light reaching it now, leaving it cast into dark shadow, like a black hole that was about to swallow them up. This one looked large enough for a Scuttler, which meant that Sunny could make it through unhindered.

“How did you survive the landslide, Lieutenant?” Aster asked as she glanced up at the tall walls of earth that enclosed them.

“We ran into the tunnels when the explosives went off,” Bainbridge replied, keeping his eyes on the opening ahead. “That’s it. I’m alive because my team was a few feet closer to the mountain than everyone else. We barely made it, and it took hours for them to dig us out. Lost almost half of our guys,” he added with an exasperated sigh. “Good people, people with a lot of experience that they can’t pass on now.”

Evan remarked that, unlike the SWAR teams that they had encountered, Bainbridge seemed to show no animosity towards the Jarilans. He even seemed glad to have them. Whether that was because he had worked with them previously or because he simply valued their unique talents, it was impossible to say.

“Where do you want me, L.T?” Sunny asked as she marched along behind the group. While this new Type-two suit was comparatively smaller than the previous one that she had used, it was still near ten feet tall and wider than both Borealans standing shoulder to shoulder.

“If there’s room, I want you beside me at the front,” Bainbridge replied. “Privates Aster, Cardinal, and Jade – I want you on the lookout for pheromones. The Bugs paint their stink on the walls like road signs, and you might be able to give us an edge if you can recognize patterns, maybe stop us from getting turned around in there.”

“We can try, sir,” Jade replied. “We don’t speak Kerguelan, if that makes sense, but we can certainly detect the presence of enemy forces and maybe pick out some common pheromone markers.”

“It’s going to be hard for them to get the drop on us in those tunnels,” Aster said. “If the hive’s air circulation system works the same way as the one back home, then we’ll be able to smell them coming well in advance.”

“The same goes for them, though,” Cardinal added. “They’ll know that we’re there.”

Sunny moved to the front of the pack, slowing her gait so as not to outpace Bainbridge, her long upper arms swinging at her side as her lower pair held her AMR at the ready. Evan watched as Jade popped her antennae out of her helmet, uncurling them like a pair of growing ferns.

“What about the radiation?” he asked. “Are you going to be alright?”

“It should be fine as long as we’re inside,” she replied, shaking her head like she was letting her hair down. “Wow,” she added, flinching as though some terrible stink had just struck her.

“What is it?”

“Smells like iron and pheromones,” she replied. “I guess that’s the radiation,” she added with a nervous chuckle. “I should probably take some iodine supplements when we’re done.”

“Report,” Bainbridge said as they approached the mouth of the tunnel.

“This was indeed designed for vehicles,” Jade replied, waving her feathery antennae as she took a few steps closer to the gaping opening. “It smells of Scuttlers, Warriors. Drones came through here, too. I sense alarm pheromones. A retreat.”

“I’d say the same,” Aster added, Cardinal nodding along.

“A garage or a vehicle repair bay is as good a target as any,” Bainbridge said, hefting his heavy microwave emitter as he glanced up at the resin-coated ceiling. “I don’t really fancy fighting a Scuttler in close quarters, though. I think we need some heavier support.”

“A Kodiak can’t fit down these passages,” Simmons replied. “I think even our Timberwolfs would be scraping the walls.”

“Not a problem,” Bainbridge said, putting a finger to the side of his helmet. “Fleetcom, this is Lieutenant Bainbridge, leading Delta-seventeen. I need a Cozat’li if there are any going. My coordinates are as follows.”

After a few minutes, Evan heard the sound of engines, and he turned to see a dropship cruising in for a landing beyond the wall. It wasn’t a UNN craft, but rather a Valbaran one, the color panels that ran down its rounded nose flashing like landing lights. It was larger than the human variety, shaped more like an archaic spaceplane, its hull painted in ocean camouflage. It shifted into VTOL mode when it got close enough, lowering itself out of view.

Not long after, a tiny vehicle drove into sight at the far end of the channel that had been excavated out of the landslide. It was one of the little Valbaran tankettes that the company had fought alongside during the assault on the refinery, scarcely four meters long and half as wide. It trundled towards them on a pair of tracks, the barrel of its gun remaining perfectly level as it bounced along the uneven ground. It rolled to a stop behind the group, a small hatch on the sloping front of the vehicle swinging open, the driver popping her helmeted head out to greet them.

“Someone order a tank?”

“That would be me,” Bainbridge replied, stepping aside as he gestured to the tunnel. “Take point, and watch out for enemy armor. We know that Scuttlers came through here, but we don’t know where they ended up.”

“We’ll go as far as we can,” the driver said, tapping on the hull with her three-fingered hand. The tankette lurched into motion, the squad stepping out of its path as it drove to the front of the pack. It was much smaller than the twenty-ton Scuttlers, fitting inside the tunnel with room to spare, scarcely rising above Sunny’s waist as it passed her by. The vehicle slowed to walking pace as the squad followed behind it, using it as cover, its headlights lighting up the darkness ahead. As they got deeper, the opening receded behind them, becoming a small point of sunlight.

Jade jogged ahead a little, hopping up to grab one of the bustle racks on the hull of the tankette, her antennae waving in a breeze that emanated from deeper inside. Bainbridge paused for a moment by one of the curving, resin walls of the structure, fishing for something in a pouch on his belt. When he stepped away, Evan saw that he had placed a small, metallic device the size of a coin on the wall.

“It’s a wireless repeater,” the Trog explained, noticing that Evan was watching him. “It extends the range of our comms so we can keep in touch with the surface, and it lets us find our way back out again.”

“Breadcrumbs,” Hernandez muttered.

“And, what happens if the Bugs eat these breadcrumbs?” Evan asked.

“Then I hope you have a good sense of direction,” Brainbridge replied ominously, the two Marines sharing a worried glance.

They ventured deeper into the tunnel, finding that the floor was relatively level, the passage winding just enough to create blind corners. It never grew completely dark, Evan noting that the bioluminescent moss that he had encountered in other Bug structures was clustered at the apex of the arching ceiling, creating pockets of light at regular intervals that cast their surroundings in a blue glow.

“Shouldn’t it be getting colder as we go deeper?” Brooks asked. “My suit’s cooling systems are kicking in.”

“I’m reading higher than usual humidity, too,” Simmons confirmed as he glanced at the display on his wrist. “This place should be as dry as a fucking bone after what we did to the environment outside.”

“Bug hives have very sophisticated air circulation systems,” Jade explained. “They’re not even necessarily technological in nature – they work using spires that act as chimneys, creating a convection cell inside the structure. These chimneys are connected to more branching vents inside the hive, kind of like a trachea and lungs. When it’s hot out, the air in the vents warms more rapidly than the air inside the insulated chimney, causing cool air to sink deeper into the system while hot air rises out. When the temperature on the surface falls, the system reverses, cycling waste gasses in the process.”

“It’s the same system that Earth termites use in their mounds,” Bainbridge added. “It’s effective, and simple enough that even an animal could come up with it.”

“This hive may have technological systems that help the process along, like purifiers,” Jade continued as the tankette rounded another bend. “But, the basis of the system is very simple.”

“What if we just waited for nightfall and pumped poison gas into the chimneys?” Hernandez asked.

“One, that would violate a hundred conventions on chemical warfare,” Jade chuckled. “Two, it wouldn’t be very effective due to the gas locks these hives use. The circulation of air can be stopped by pressure-sealed doors, or just by flooding sections of tunnel to prevent gas exchange. Feral hives use chemical weapons against each other pretty routinely, so counters are hard-baked into their construction.”

“The only way to get the job done is to do it manually,” Bainbridge grumbled, placing another repeater as he went.

“How many times have you done this?” Evan asked, noting the fatigue in his tone.

“This is my third hive,” Bainbridge replied. “I was deployed to Kruger III and Epsilon Eridani IV before this.”

“Fuck,” Hernandez muttered. “I heard Kruger was fuckin’ bad.”

“No worse than this,” the Trog replied. “The big issue on K-3 was that the terrain was too muddy for us to deploy mechanized units, so it was all fought on foot. That place was a fucking shithole – just endless fields of mud inhabited only by worms and a few scraggly trees barely clinging to life. Breathable atmo, though, and comfortable gravity. There are colonies there now. Those poor cunts probably wish that we’d lost…”

“The scent is getting stronger,” Jade warned, hopping down from the tankette. “I think we’re coming up on something.”

“Wish we’d had some Jarilans on K-3,” Bainbridge said, readying his unwieldy weapon. “The chemical analyzers they gave us were trash – only showed us pheromone concentrations without being able to distinguish what they might mean.”

“Lieutenant, I recommend that we have the tankette hold back,” Jade warned as she turned to glance back at him. “It’s creating a lot of sound and vibration.”

“You heard her,” Bainbridge said, rapping his fist on the hull of the vehicle. “Hold for further orders. Miss Sunny, please tread lightly, if such a thing is possible.”

“Quiet as a mouse,” the Pilot whispered, slowing her gait.

“How far do you reckon, Private?” Bainbridge asked as he moved to the front of the group.

“One or two more corners, maybe,” Jade replied. “The scent is getting stronger rapidly, which suggests a larger concentration than just the trail we’ve been following.”

“All of you hold here while I check it out,” Bainbridge said.

They stopped as he crept around the next bend in the tunnel, remarkably quiet for someone who looked like he was carrying his body weight in gear.

“Won’t they smell him?” Hernandez whispered.

“Don’t you feel the breeze?” Cardinal replied, gesturing to her antennae as they waved gently. “We’re upwind. It’s enough to let us get the drop on them.”

Evan tapped into Bainbridge’s helmet cam, watching as he made his way through the gloom, inching around the corner. This one was clear, so he moved on to the next, putting his back to the wall. He looked down at the bulky device on his wrist, tapping at the touch panel with the capacitive pads on his thick gloves, a snaking tube extending from it. It was a little camera, Evan realized, mounted on the end of a telescoping hose. As he watched, Bainbridge extended his arm just enough that the tiny camera could get a look around the corner.

“Fuck,” he growled. “We have activity. I’m broadcasting my camera feed.”

Evan opened up the view in a window on his HUD, sucking in a gasp as he blew it up to get a better look. Before him was a massive cavity that had been hollowed out of the mountain, black, igneous rock visible through the resin that held up the domed ceiling. It must have been the size of a spacecraft hangar, maybe five or six thousand square meters of floor space. At the peak of the dome was a cluster of bioluminescent moss, far larger than any that they had encountered so far, creating enough light to act as a giant chandelier.

Ringing the base of the circular wall were alcoves of varying sizes – holes that had been hollowed out of the rock. Rather than being lined with resin, they were filled with meat, giving them the off-putting appearance of organic orifices. Most were empty, exposing the glistening interiors, just enough light making it inside from the bioluminescent moss to give them a wet sheen. They weren’t dissimilar from the cavity inside Sunny’s suit, like a lining of living tissue that was covered over by a slimy mucous membrane. There were fat, entrail-like cables running between them to form a kind of network, much in the same way that insulated power cables or fuel lines might trail across the deck of a hangar. They were clearly transporting resources between the alcoves – methane fuel, honey, maybe even something more conventional like electricity or plasma.

There were mechanical components to these systems, each alcove sporting a bank of the fleshy computers that Evan had encountered inside other structures, like server racks covered in offal that were linked to the network by more tangled wires and cables. He could see rows of large, cylindrical storage tanks like those they had seen at the refinery, shining some light on their purpose. Everything was so incomprehensibly alien, so impossible to grasp, but it was possible to piece it all together with enough prior knowledge and context.

What few alcoves were occupied were filled with Warriors and Scuttlers, organic cables and more conventional wires hanging down to plug into various connection points on their carapaces. This was a service bay of some kind – they were being repaired, refueled.

Scurrying about their feet were short, squat Workers, the four-foot creatures tending to their far larger charges. They operated the computers with their four arms, carried spools of living cable between the alcoves, and hauled themselves up onto the hulls of the vehicles to repair battle damage. They used mechanical cranes that were mounted on the ceilings of the bays to remove armor panels that had been damaged by railgun fire or shrapnel, replacing them wholesale, performing what looked more like surgery on the components that couldn’t be swapped out.

Evan watched one of them manipulate surgical tools in its dexterous lower hands, crouched on the shoulder of a Warrior as it worked on a bloody wound that had damaged the organic eyes behind the vehicle’s slatted visor, like a scene right out of an operating theater. Another was repairing the holes left by railgun slugs on the suit’s thigh armor with resin, licking its hands with its proboscis to coat them in saliva, then smearing it on the wounds.

The suit shuddered as its chest split open down the middle, a mass of writhing tendrils disgorging its Pilot, strands of slime dripping from her autumn-colored carapace as the cables that connected her to the suit disconnected from her spine. She reminded him of Sunny, with her seven-foot frame and her lanky limbs. The differences between the two were subtle. This Kerguelan Pilot sported similarly expressive eyes, but lacked the more humanoid facial structure. Where Sunny had a mouth and lips, this creature had a wicked set of mandibles more akin to a scorpion, serrated like blades. Her horn was larger and more prominent, and she lacked antennae and fur entirely, leaving her looking far less welcoming. She paid no attention to the smaller Workers, stepping over them as she strode deeper into the bay.

There were Drones, too, the familiar combat forms standing guard. They weren’t stupid – they knew that this was a likely point of ingress into the hive, and they weren’t about to let the invaders just march right in unopposed. Two of the functional Scuttlers and three Warriors were positioned to watch the tunnel opening, ready to lay down a lot of fire on the choke point.

“Is this all they were able to salvage after the battle?” Aster whispered. “More than half of those service bays are empty.”

“Even with only a fraction of their original force, we don’t have the numbers to take them on,” Simmons growled as he watched the feed. “If we had some Kodiaks, maybe, but the gun on that tankette can’t take the Scuttlers out fast enough to prevent them from returning fire. Even with the element of surprise, we’re at a disadvantage here. We should pull back and call in reinforcements.”

“Wait, I have an idea,” Evan said. “I recognize those storage tanks – they’re full of methane. That’s probably what they’re using to refuel their vehicles. I see stores of munitions, too. See those racks of missiles being loaded into one of the launchers?”

“You’re proposing that we shoot the tanks?” Bainbridge asked.

“Even a few shots from an XMR would probably do the trick,” Evan replied. “We encountered a modified Scuttler that was carrying one of those tanks on its back when we assaulted the refinery, and it went up like the fourth of July. If I’m right, everything connected to those tanks should burn along with them.”

“A huge methane explosion in such a confined space would do a lot of damage,” Bainbridge mused as he swept his camera around the chamber. “Especially if those munitions stores get caught in the blast. It might even collapse part of the chamber if we’re lucky. Good thinking, Private.” He stepped away from the corner, the camera retracting back into its housing on his wrist. “Sergeant, think you can hit those tanks without exposing yourself?”

“Not a problem,” Simmons replied, readying his rifle as he stepped forward.

“The rest of you, hang back,” Bainbridge added. “Stay around the bend, and get ready for a pressure wave. As soon as you hear the fuel tanks go up, I want the Warrior and the Cozat’li to roll out shooting at anything larger than a Drone. Everyone else, focus your fire on the enemy infantry. Spread out, and try to stay in cover. Don’t waste any energy on the Workers – they’re harmless.”

Simmons moved up beside Bainbridge, using the wireless feed from his rifle’s scope to find his target, leaning the weapon out of cover. He centered it on one of the larger clusters of storage tanks, the containers linked to the trailing network of pulsing cables that wound their way through the chamber.

“Here goes,” he muttered, bracing the weapon against his shoulder.

A burst of gunfire echoed down the tunnel, Evan watching through the sergeant’s feed as they struck the centermost tank, punching a trio of holes in its resin shell. The pressurized methane rushed out of the breaches to mix with the oxygen in the atmosphere, quickly igniting into a growing fireball, consuming the other tanks in the blaze. As he had hoped, it caused a chain reaction, the adjacent containers erupting in powerful blasts that shook the very walls of the chamber. The pressure wave shot down the tunnel, a wall of hot air almost knocking Evan off his feet.

The emerald flames rushed along the lengths of organic cable, splitting them open like burst sausage casings on a barbecue, quickly spreading throughout the network. More fuel tanks exploded as the flames burned through the trailing cables like fuses, raining flames and debris on the terrified Workers below, the squat creatures scattering for cover in the confusion. One of the alcoves where a Scuttler was being refueled exploded outwards, spraying chunks of burning flesh and fragments of chitin, the vehicle’s internal tanks rupturing violently.

The fires spread all around the massive chamber, making their way along the curved wall, shattering the resin in places. The detonations weakened the structure enough to send cracks dancing across the translucent, brittle material, culminating in great chunks of it crashing down onto the Bugs below. A piece the size of a car fell from the apex of the domed roof, landing on one of the active Scuttlers, crushing it beneath its weight. The thing’s eight legs gave out, fluids and fuel splattering as its shell caved in on itself.

One of the fires reached a crate of munitions, what must have been pressurized gas canisters for use in plasma weapons detonating in a blast that threw a nearby Drone almost clear across the chamber. Missiles that had been waiting to be loaded into launchers set off, whizzing through the air like fireworks, sending deadly shrapnel and plasma spraying wherever they landed. Chemical munitions ruptured, obscuring clouds of yellow gas filling the air, quickly forming a murky haze in the enclosed space.

The Bugs were in a blind panic, moving like a herd in an attempt to escape the fire and debris, the Drones and Pilots pushed along by the far more numerous Workers. The remaining Scuttler plodded along on its eight legs, torn between trying to identify the source of the explosions and trying to avoid crushing the smaller creatures that were swarming around it like ants. Whether this was true fear or merely some reflexive attempt at self-preservation, the results were the same.

“Go, go!” Bainbridge ordered as he rushed down the tunnel. “Get the drop on ‘em while they’re distracted!”

The tankette drove along behind him, the squad following after it in a column, using it for cover just as they would have with their IFV. Sunny outpaced them on her long legs, moving to the right of the vehicle, its turret at waist height to her. She ignited the plasma shields on her forearms, readying her AMR.

They soon rounded the corner, seeing the chaos with their own eyes. Some of the methane fires still burned, overpowering the room’s blue lighting with their flickering green, creating a ring of flame that engulfed the base of the wall. Most of the Bug infrastructure had been reduced to smoldering wreckage, the tanks that had housed the methane split open, the supports that had held them aloft collapsed to send them crashing to the floor. Many of the vehicles that had been undergoing repairs now burned in their alcoves, their fuel and munitions cooking them alive, turning their service bays into ovens.

The victims of the blaze and the resulting cook-off were numerous, some of the Workers reduced to blackened husks in the alcoves where they had been performing maintenance, Drones and Warriors blown apart by shrapnel and crushed by debris. Many had been buried under the falling fragments of resin, the remaining Workers already moving to dig the survivors out of the rubble, the haze created by the breached chemical munitions hanging over the room.

The tankette didn’t wait to open fire, its cannon roaring as soon as the targets came into sight. It focused its attention on the remaining Scuttler, hammering its carapace with a stream of automatic railgun fire, the slugs punching gaping holes in its organic hull. Sunny wasn’t far behind, gripping her AMR by its extended bipod, the recoil shaking her massive frame as its deafening crack reverberated off the walls. The Scuttler began to turn to face the mouth of the tunnel, plodding on the spot as its turret rotated, attempting to bring its plasma cannon to bear. It was too late, and it succumbed to the barrage, a well-placed shot from Sunny’s gun rupturing its fuel tank. The resulting explosion blew it wide open, exposing living flesh and twisted machinery to the air, sending it collapsing to the ground.

As soon as it was down, the Cozat’li’s gunner turned her cannon on the remaining Warriors, three of them moving in. One of them was quickly felled by the cannon, the thirty-millimeter slugs perforating its chest cavity, killing the pilot and disabling enough systems to send it crashing to the ground. Another managed to get a shot off, firing a plasma bolt with its arm-mounted cannon, the barrel glowing between its pincers. The bolt impacted the tankette’s front armor, rocking the vehicle, but failing to penetrate. While the Cozat’li was small, it would take more than a single shot from a Warrior to breach its hull.

Sunny returned fire, killing the second Warrior with a trio of railgun rounds, maneuvering the heavy weapon with the same ease of a Marine wielding an XMR. The platform had been designed specifically to counter heavy infantry and light aircraft, and it cut through the tough carapace like butter, but the remaining target was closing into melee range. It would tear the tank apart with its claws if it got close enough, Sunny darting forward to intercept it, giving it little choice but to meet her head-on.

Sunny lowered her AMR, bringing her two massive claws to bear. Her opponent swung a heavy pincer at her, but she leveraged her suit’s agility to step out of range, juking like a boxer in a ring. It raised its cannon arm, intending to bring the heavy weapon down on her head, but she lifted her left claw up to meet it. Her suit shuddered as she stopped it dead, those powerful pincers closing like a pair of giant hydraulic shears, cutting through chitin and metal alike. The Warrior’s carapace cracked under the pressure, the sharp blades biting through the flesh beneath, severing the limb. There must be a tremendous amount of muscle inside those bulky forearms.

The heavy claw fell to the ground beside her, leaking ichor and what might be coolant, its pincers twitching like the leg of a spider. The Warrior had three more arms to work with, the claws on the lower pair snapping as they reached out to her, its remaining upper arm rising to grapple. Sunny batted its upper arm away with a backhanded swipe from her forearm, the claw sparking against her shield. The blow threw it off-balance, and she took advantage to deliver a kick to the Warrior’s torso, sending it staggering away from her as it tried to keep its balance. Sunny darted backwards, freeing up the tankette to take a shot. The Cozat’li tore the Warrior apart with a salvo of railgun fire, tossing its ruined body against the tunnel wall.

“Move up!” Bainbridge ordered. “Weapons free!”

The tankette rolled out into the room, picking targets among the burning debris, its cannon starting to fire. Sunny followed, leveling her AMR, her massive suit letting her control its recoil as though it were no larger than a rifle. The weapon turned Drones into showers of bloody confetti, laying down suppressive fire that forced them into cover behind ruined Scuttlers and blocks of shattered resin.

The squad moved under her covering fire, fanning out into the room, Evan feeling his suit’s cooling systems ramp up as he neared the emerald flames. CO2 levels in the air were high, and his suit began to tap into its onboard oxygen supply, his rebreather doing what it could to filter out the smoke and chemical gasses. His visor highlighted targets, sharing data with the squad’s network, red outlines appearing on his HUD.

“Fuck, I can’t tell the Drones from the Workers!” he growled, momentarily overwhelmed by the number of signatures.

“Just kill ‘em all!” Hernandez shouted, opening up with his XMR.

The squad formed a rough line, advancing through the debris, the sound of gunfire filling the chamber. The confused Workers didn’t even try to get out of the way, and they were cut down in swathes, Evan watching the ammo counter on his HUD tick down as he unloaded on them. A trio of the insects stood like deer in the headlights as he moved towards them, completely lacking the sense to get out of the way, the Workers thrown to the ground as he perforated them with railgun fire.

The fruit pickers in the fields, the Workers that they had found hiding in the refinery, and now these helpless creatures. It was pointless to apply human logic to their behavior, futile to try to spare them. All he could do was remove the obstacles from his path. They were dead anyway once the Queen was killed.

He swung his rifle to catch another pair of Workers that were trying to dig a Pilot out from beneath a chunk of resin that had crushed her legs, the lanky Bug struggling to free herself. He caught one in the head, splattering its brains on the resin, the second one dropping as he put two rounds through its torso.

“Fucker,” he snarled into his helmet, dumping the last three rounds in his mag into the trapped Pilot’s face. He tossed the empty magazine, then grabbed another from his rig, making his way around the piece of fallen masonry.

“Cathartic, ain’t it?” Hernandez laughed as he flanked him to the left.

“Don’t have too much fun,” Jade grumbled, following behind the pair. She paused to loose a burst of XMR fire at a scurrying Worker, perforating its orange shell, sending it toppling to the ground. “Keep your eyes peeled for Drones – they won’t go down so easily.”

They approached the dead Scuttler that had been killed by Sunny and the tankette, the gaping craters in its shell still smoldering, the exposed meat inside charred black. A group of half a dozen Workers were clustered nearby, completely indifferent to the gunfight that was happening around them, concerned only with salvaging parts from the downed vehicle. Hernandez swept his rifle across them, his slugs sparking against the Scuttler’s carapace where they overpenetrated, the Workers slumping to the ground in a heap.

From atop the hulking tank’s hull, three Drones appeared, climbing up its spiky shell to get to an elevated firing position. Their plasma rifles were ready, the green light of the flames reflecting in their lenses as they prepared to fire.

Evan didn’t even have time to yell a warning before a railgun slug cut them down, the round hitting the one in the middle, the sheer kinetic energy turning it into a cloud of gore. The blast and subsequent organic shrapnel caught the two standing to either side of it, sending their dismembered bodies topping out of view behind the Scuttler. He turned his head to see Sunny striding up behind them, the dense coils that lined her AMR’s barrel glowing red-hot. Another Drone took a pot shot at her from off to the right, which she deflected with one of her shielded forearms, answering with another crack from her gun.

“Excuse me,” she said sweetly, stepping right over Evan and his companions. She moved around the Scuttler’s corpse, her suit’s cameras scanning the environment for targets of opportunity. At around ten feet tall, she could see over most of the debris.

Evan led them towards one of the blown-out fuel tanks on the far side of the room, stepping over the blackened bodies that littered the ground nearby. The fuel lines had trailed all over the chamber like capillaries, and they were now split wide open, some of them still burning. They killed any Workers that were in their way, then felled a Drone that popped out of one of the alcoves to take a pot shot at them, their coordinated fire tearing it apart.

The gunfire slowly subsided, Evan turning to glance out at the chamber. He could see Sunny standing near the center of the room, towering over the chunks of resin and disabled vehicles that surrounded her, while the rest of the squad had spread out to clear the perimeter. A few more shots rang out, Evan watching Tatzi spear one of the remaining Workers with her bayonet, presumably to conserve ammunition.

“Clear!” Bainbridge announced, more members of the squad sounding off to let him know that they had no more contacts. The team reassembled closer to the center of the room, Bainbridge holstering a sidearm as he stepped into view. It seemed that he hadn’t used his microwave emitter at all. Maybe he was conserving the battery charge for when it was truly needed.

“I think that’s all of them,” Simmons said, appraising the squad. “Everyone alright? Any suit breaches?”

“No, or we’d probably be dead by now,” Foster replied with a dry chuckle.

“That’s one way to destroy a motorpool,” Bainbridge said, turning to look at a Scuttler that was smoldering in its alcove. “I don’t think we need to use any of our charges – there’s no way the Bugs can get this place up and running again before we’re through with them.”

“Where to next?” Collins asked.

“Looks like there’s only one tunnel that leads deeper into the hive,” Jade said, gesturing to an opening on the opposite side of the chamber to the one they had come in through.

“The tankette won’t be able to turn around in there,” Bainbridge sighed, turning to wave at the Cozat’li. “Thanks for the help, ladies, but it looks like we can’t take you any further. You can head back to the surface now.”

“Good luck,” the driver replied, her chirping voice filling Evan’s helmet. “If you meet the Queen, send her our regards.”

The little tank rotated on its tracks to face the tunnel, then drove off, soon disappearing around the corner.

“Let’s keep moving,” Bainbridge said, heading for the opposite tunnel without even pausing to catch his breath. “The Bugs will know that we’re here now – if they didn’t already – and every second we waste standing around is another second they can use to shore their defenses.”

“You heard him!” Simmons said, jogging along to catch up with Bainbridge. Evan and Hernandez shared a shrug, then followed behind them, forming a column with the rest of the squad as they moved through the debris. Sunny strode along behind them, the presence of her AMR making Evan feel a lot safer, but he wondered how far she would be able to travel through these tunnels. They had already lost the tank, and without Sunny, they would have serious trouble dealing with any Warriors or Supermajors that they encountered.

Bainbridge paused to place another repeater beside the entrance to the next tunnel, then headed inside. They left the heat of the vehicle bay behind, Evan hearing his suit’s rebreather start to wind down as the air cleared of smoke and chemicals, the flow of cool air in his suit stopping the sweat that was starting to form on his brow. Once they were clear, the Jarilans popped their antennae out of their helmets again, Jade once more moving up to walk beside Bainbridge.

“The breeze is coming up from deeper inside the hive,” she explained, her feathery sensory organs waving. “Some Workers retreated down this way.”

“Any Drones?” Bainbridge asked.

“None that I can smell,” she replied with a shake of her head.

“Keep your wits about you,” the Trog added, hefting his gun. “Just because you can’t smell them doesn’t mean they’re not hiding in the fucking walls,” he said with a wary glance at the ceiling.

They made their way deeper into the passageway, the team approaching each corner with the same caution that one might show when breaching a room. The route to the motorpool had been pretty straight and open, designed for vehicles to be able to pass through easily, but these narrower passages were becoming worryingly maze-like. Despite not encountering any forking paths yet, Evan still felt hopelessly disoriented. Everything looked the same, and there was no way for him to get his bearings, no clear lines of sight more than a few meters long. It made him glad of Bainbridge’s repeaters.

“What’s the deal with these tunnels?” Hernandez huffed, his flashlight reflecting off the resin walls. “Why are they so fuckin’ twisty? If the roaches are so damned efficient, why don’t they just dig in straight lines?”

“These corners are designed to break lines of sight,” Bainbridge replied, cautiously leaning around the next bend. “It makes it easier for them to get the drop on you, and it makes fighting at range almost impossible. The critters do better in close quarters, and they know it.”

“It also helps to deflect bomb blasts,” Aster added. “Our hive back home has old tunnels like these, but mostly just near the surface. They straighten out when you go deeper.”

“It’s gettin’ kind of claustrophobic in here,” Garcia chuckled, the nervousness in his voice suggesting that he wasn’t making a joke.

“It’ll get a lot worse,” Bainbridge replied, pausing to look back at him. “If you can’t cut it, you need to turn around right now. If you start panicking and running around down here, you might starve to death before anyone finds you again. These places can make the Paris catacombs look like a maze off the back of a cereal box.”

“Nah, nah,” Garcia replied as Evan heard him swallow over the radio. “I can cut it. If I can live on an assault carrier for six months, I can do this. There’s just…dirt over my head instead of vacuum.”

“Just watch out for the tunnel worms,” Sunny added, Garcia snapping his head around to glance back at her.

“What the fuck is a tunnel worm?” he demanded.

“Something that I just made up to fuck with you,” Sunny replied, the chuckling that filled the local channel alleviating some of the tension that had been building.

“Very funny,” Bainbridge grumbled. “You joke, but I have no idea what might be lurking down here. Every hive is a little different, and this one has had a lot of time to prepare.”

They continued down the tunnel, eventually arriving at the first junction. One path led off to the right, the other to the left, their elevation difference conspicuous.

“The right path seems to go deeper,” Simmons mused, sweeping the tunnel with his rifle. “Ladies? Any input?”

“The smell of pheromones is stronger on the right,” Aster replied, scenting the air with her antennae. “Smells like…Workers.”

“Then we go this way,” Bainbridge said, leading them on. The ground began to slope – not enough to be a problem, but enough to let them know that they were going in the right direction.

They came across more branches, the tunnels starting to take on the maze-like quality that Bainbridge had described, the team following the strongest scent and the sharpest incline each time. They kept placing the repeaters as they went, Evan growing more and more glad to have them on hand. The passages here were still wide enough for Sunny to make her way through, indicating that perhaps Warriors or large cargo containers were intended to be moved through these areas.

Bainbridge stopped by another corner, going through his usual careful routine, then waved them over.

“Got a chamber here,” he warned. “Private Jade, report.”

“Workers,” she replied, waving her antennae. “I’m not picking up anything else.”

“Move carefully,” the Trog continued, raising his weapon as he walked around the bend. The rest of the squad followed, Evan’s racing heart starting to calm as he entered the room. It was another domed chamber – large, but still smaller than the motorpool.

“The hell is this?” Hernandez mused, lowering his weapon as he examined the strange space.

The chamber was filled with long tables made from resin, arranged in no logical order that Evan could discern, kind of like a chaotic dining hall. Workers were clustered around the rough, almost makeshift furniture, so focused on their tasks that they didn’t even look up as the newcomers began to fan out. Evan approached one of the tables cautiously, more curious than anything now. The Workers were…working. All kinds of little items were scattered across their work surfaces, ranging from what almost looked like circuit boards and electronic components to chunks of armor plating that the insects were busy patching up. As he walked along beside one of the tables, he had a hard time even guessing what the purposes of their projects might be – maybe spare parts for the vehicles in the bay above. There were resin crates stacked up against the curved walls, some of them open near the workspaces, Evan seeing that they were filled with what looked like scrap. The Workers were completely engrossed, deftly manipulating strange tools made from resin and metal with their lower hands, moving with almost mechanical precision.

“It’s a workshop,” Jade explained, making her way along one of the aisles. “Looks like they’re making components for vehicles and weapon systems.”

“I guess they have to make everything they need on-site,” Donovan said, still holding his XMR at the ready as he watched them suspiciously.

“They have mining operations inside their hive,” Jade explained. “They mine ore, smelt it into metal, and use it to build equipment. Guns, armor, tools, infrastructure – it all gets made by hand. There is no automation in the human sense, unless you consider specialized castes to be automation…”

“So, it’s a mine, a foundry, and a factory all in the same buildin’?” Hernandez asked.

“These tunnels could span for hundreds of kilometers, so calling it one contiguous structure might be a bit of an exaggeration,” Jade said. “It’s more like lots of buildings linked by a huge highway. It was the same on Jarilo. We’re still using a lot of those wartime facilities to manufacture tools and equipment that the colonists don’t have the industrial base to make yet.”

“What should we do with them, Lieutenant?” Simmons asked.

“I could kill these creatures with nothing more than my boot,” Borzka growled as he glanced down at the diminutive Bugs. “I doubt they would even try to flee.”

“Just ignore them,” Bainbridge replied, heading for an exit on the far side of the dome. “No point wasting ammo if they’re not in the way.”

“Don’t they even care that we’re here?” Garcia muttered. He paused behind a Worker that was hunched over what looked like an optics package for a weapon, the creature weaving wet strands of flesh and conductive wires together like it was braiding a cable. He hesitated, then reached out with his XMR, prodding the back of its skull with the short barrel. The Worker turned its head to look back at him for a moment, then resumed its task.

“Don’t bully the Workers, Garcia,” Cardinal chided as she gave him a push to keep him moving.

“They tend to fixate on their tasks,” Jade explained. “It makes them dedicated and tireless, but they’re not the most reactive creatures. Present them with a new or unexpected situation, and they’re going to need instructions from a higher authority.”

“Shouldn’t we at least cripple their ability to manufacture parts, sir?” Garcia asked.

“Why?” Bainbridge replied with a shrug that made his heavy suit creak. “They’re making parts for the vehicles that we just wiped out upstairs. They’re not gonna win the war with an extra handbrake and some spare logic boards.”

“True enough,” the Marine conceded.

“Don’t let the Workers make you complacent,” Bainbridge warned as he kept his weapon trained on the tunnel opening ahead of them. “Just because these weird little fuckers don’t react doesn’t mean a Drone isn’t going to be on you like an STD the moment it sees you.”

“Ew,” Hernandez muttered. “Is that a thing people say where you come from, Lieutenant?”

“This coming from the guy who casually talks about killing gophers with hand grenades,” Evan muttered as he advanced behind Bainbridge.

“Shut up, Evan,” Hernandez whispered in mock outrage. “You’re makin’ us look bad in front of the special forces guy!”

“I knew that a Ghost Company would have some quirks, but you guys are fucking weird,” Bainbridge grumbled into his helmet as he placed another repeater beside the tunnel opening.

Even Sunny didn’t disturb the Workers as she thundered past them, the fact that her footsteps shook some of the tools and parts on their tables more concerning to them than the presence of a giant enemy battlesuit in their midst.

“We go this way,” Bainbridge said, gesturing down the next tunnel. “It leads deeper.”

CHAPTER 9: FOOD CHAIN

“Hold,” Jade warned, the squad stopping their advance. They were making their way through another nondescript tunnel, its featureless resin walls no different from the last.

“What is it?” Bainbridge asked. “What do you smell?”

“Something about this wall smells off,” she replied, stepping closer to the curving resin. She lowered her PDW, reaching out with a lower hand to run her fingers across the uneven surface. “There’s a panel,” she added, starting to shine her flashlight around as though searching for a handle or a keypad.

“There,” Aster said, shining her beam on something that looked like a little blob of mucous.

“It’s a hidden door,” Bainbridge said. “You reckon you can open it?”

“As long as it isn’t coded to only open for specific pheromone signals or gene sequences, it should be fine,” Jade replied.

“Alright, stack up,” Simmons ordered. “Get ready to breach.”

They formed a line on the right side of the hidden door as Jade poked and prodded at the gelatinous mass, the button – or whatever it was – shifting and reacting as though it had a life of its own. It finally had an effect, and the panel slid aside to expose a room, Jade stepping out of the way as the team piled inside. They illuminated the space with their flashlight beams, Evan picking out snippets of the environment, and it soon became clear that the room was deserted.

“False alarm,” Bainbridge said, shining his beam on a stack of resin crates. “It’s just a storage alcove.”

“Why the hell would they hide this?” Collins wondered aloud, walking over to one of the crates. He examined it for a moment, then popped open the lid, something golden reflecting the light back at his visor. They were honey vials, the amber fluid contained inside translucent capsules that resembled test tubes, sealed with a little cap. Judging by their size, they must be rations. They weren’t too far off the more conventional toothpaste tube honey rations that Jade and her counterparts carried. “Why conceal an empty storage room filled with food?” he continued as he turned back to face the team. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Because it’s not hidden,” Bainbridge explained. “The Bugs navigate primarily by scent, so what a human would walk right past, a Bug will pick up right away. Remember – they use pheromones in the same way that we’d use signs or writing. Storage closet is probably written right on the wall – we just can’t pick it up because we don’t speak Bug.”

“You’re in an alien environment here,” Sunny added, her suit standing in the tunnel outside. “Take nothing for granted.”

“This room wasn’t full of pissed-off Drones, but the next one might be,” Bainbridge said as he turned around. “Stay alert.”

***

“I’m glad that the tunnels are still big enough for Sunny,” Aster said as they made their way along another winding passage. “I feel a little safer having her with us.”

“I don’t,” Bainbridge grumbled. “Warrior-sized tunnels mean that we can expect Warriors, or something that needs a similar amount of room to maneuver.”

“Are you expecting them to get narrower?” Garcia asked, sparing a worried glance at the resin tube that surrounded them.

“Warriors are just suits, like mine,” Sunny explained. “While it’s useful to be able to move them around the hive, they don’t need to be able to access every nook and cranny. Honestly, wider tunnels tell us that we’re on the right path, because it means there’s something down here deemed worthy of protecting with heavy infantry.”

“And I’d rather not go toe to toe with one of those things in close quarters,” Bainbridge muttered. “They wiped out whole squads on Kruger.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Sunny said cheerfully, snapping one of her claws as if to demonstrate. “If you see anything bigger than a Drone, just get behind me. I’ll keep you safe, little guy.”

“That’s Lieutenant,” he sighed.

Evan waited for her to reply with some kind of pun, but she seemed to have decided that keeping quiet was better than getting a reprimand.

“I was kind of expecting them to put up more of a fight,” Brooks said as they marched along the tunnel. “They fought so hard to stop us from getting inside the mountain, but now that we’re here, it feels like they’re just letting us wander around as we please.”

“Make no mistake, they know that we’re here,” Bainbridge replied. “The hive is like a living thing in its own right, and it has an immune system that’s going to start reacting to us the deeper we get. We’re bacteria invading a blood vessel right now, and the T-cells are on their way…”

“Then call me Ebola, because I’m gonna shut this place down,” Hernandez chuckled.

“That’s a virus, not a bacteria,” Jade whispered.

“Same difference,” he replied.

“Hold on,” Jade said, raising a hand to silence him. Whatever Jade had picked up, Aster and Cardinal noticed it too, all turning their heads in the same direction.

“What is it?” Simmons asked.

“The ventilation system is carrying the scent of Drones towards us,” she replied, gesturing down the tunnel. “Coming from ahead, not far off.”

“Probably a patrol,” Bainbridge grumbled, hefting his microwave gun. “Keep behind me.”

“You had to jinx us, Brooks!” Garcia hissed.

Bainbridge knelt in the tunnel, shouldering his weapon like a rifle, aiming the bulky device at the blind corner ahead of them. The rest of the squad stood there as he waited, expecting further orders. If nothing else, he was a patient man, willing to let the Drones come to him.

“The scent is getting stronger,” Aster warned, a couple of the Marines at the front of the group raising their XMRs.

“Hold your fire,” Bainbridge said without taking his eyes off the tunnel. “And turn off your flashlights – you’re going to give us away!”

The minutes ticked by, until finally, there was movement. A squad of Drones stalked around the corner maybe ten meters ahead, their weapons at the ready, clearly aware that there were intruders present in spite of being upwind of the airflow that wafted through the passages. They reacted quickly, turning their resin rifles on the squad, but Bainbridge was already set up.

He pulled the trigger, and the air in front of the blocky device began to waver, the microwave radiation exciting the water molecules in the atmosphere to produce heat. In a mere moment, the tunnel was shimmering like a desert mirage, the unfortunate squad of Drones finding themselves in the path of the beam. They staggered, dropping their weapons, starting to jerk and twitch erratically as they cooked. The exposed flesh between their joints began to blister, what might be smoke or steam pouring from the breaks in their carapaces with an audible hiss as the water inside their bodies boiled, the intense heat starting to warp their shells like melting plastic. Only a brief burst was enough to send the entire squad toppling to the ground – maybe a couple of seconds of exposure, their twitching limbs going still.

“Holy shit,” Hernandez whispered, Jade recoiling as though she could smell the burnt flesh with her antennae. “Why don’t we get those?”

“They’re very short range, and not much use outside of tunnels,” Bainbridge replied as he rose to his feet. “You need a lot of practice and training to avoid roasting your team alive, too.”

“I could handle it,” Hernandez insisted.

“I barely trust you with sharp objects, Hernandez,” Evan said, patting him on the shoulder as he walked past him.

They stepped over the pile of dead Drones, Evan glancing down at their corpses. They were blistered, melted like candles, still steaming like they had just come out of an oven. He had seen plasma weapons have similar effects on living creatures, but those were localized, not spread across a target’s entire body. It couldn’t have hurt for more than a second, but boy, what a second…

As they made their way around the corner, he noted that everyone was making a point of staying well behind the lieutenant now.

“The platform has a lot of advantages,” Bainbridge explained, leading them around the bend. “It’s completely silent, instantly deadly to anything smaller than a Warrior, and it can hit targets through thin surfaces like doors if necessary. The only downsides are the range, and of course the potential to burn all of your friends to death if you’re careless.”

“Why doesn’t it work on Warriors?” Sunny asked, her suit’s footsteps echoing through the tunnel. “Shouldn’t it cook them just the same as a Drone?”

“It does, but the issue is that Warriors have a lot more mass,” Bainbridge replied. “Doing fatal damage to them or their Pilot generally takes longer than it takes for them to shoot back or get into slicing range, so it’s a bit of a crapshoot. It’s best used for clearing tunnels of Drones and mitigating their numerical advantage.”

They came to another junction, this one leading off in five different directions, the tunnels curving and sloping out of view to ensure that it was as disorienting as possible.

“I am liking this less and less,” Garcia muttered as he swept his rifle across the various openings.

“They’re all marked,” Jade said, walking to each tunnel mouth in turn. “Problem is, I don’t speak Kerguelan.”

“Do you not recognize any of them?” Bainbridge asked, setting another repeater as he waited for Aster and Cardinal to chime in. “I guess we’ll just have to take the path that looks like it goes down.”

“I recognize this one,” Aster said, pointing down one of the tunnels.

“Oh, yeah,” Jade added with a wave of her antennae. “Smells like honey. The Replete chamber must be down this way.”

“I’d like to avoid that if at all possible,” Bainbridge said.

“Why?” Jade asked, cocking her head curiously. “Repletes look tough, but they’re pretty harmless. I doubt they’ll attack us.”

“Because we don’t know what they might have been eating,” he replied, keeping his voice low as though he didn’t want the rest of the team to overhear their conversation.

“I’m sorry, but that’s all the information I can give you,” Aster replied with a shrug of her upper arms. “The feeding chambers should be relatively deep, close enough to important areas of the hive that other castes can reach them easily.”

“Alright,” Bainbridge sighed, setting off down the tunnel. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Evan switched to a private channel, hurrying to match pace with Jade.

“What’s got the lieutenant so spooked?” he asked. “I thought Repletes weren’t combat forms?”

“They have some nasty blades and mandibles, but they’re not usually aggressive,” she replied. “The issue is that they have a large appetite. Their role in the hive is to break down organic matter and process it into honey to feed the rest of the population. That includes plant matter, animals – they even recycle dead Bugs so that some of those resources can be reused.”

“Yeah, I remember you telling me that they eat their dead,” Evan replied with a shiver.

“Not just their own dead,” she replied, sparing him a worried glance. “Just…be prepared. This might be grisly.”

***

After following the twisting path for what felt like a couple of kilometers, they finally arrived at another chamber. Bainbridge used his camera to check that the coast was clear, then waved them on, leading them inside the domed structure.

They emerged into a room that looked just like all the rest, the translucent resin that coated the walls exposing the igneous rock beneath it, the ceiling terminating in a cluster of bioluminescent moss far above their heads.

“Are those…Repletes?” Hernandez asked, aiming his rifle at the creatures.

They were sat at the base of the circular wall, dozens of them leaning back against the resin in a remarkably relaxed posture. The things rivaled a Pilot in stature, but where Pilots were slender, these were bloated and swollen. Sacks containing an amber fluid that must be honey bulged from their abdomens, the plates of their carapaces spreading apart to accommodate them, the translucent skin stretched taut like a balloon that had been filled to capacity. They looked like distended bellies, so full that it must have been a struggle for them to move.

As if to demonstrate, one of the creatures got up, starting to waddle over to a pile of what looked like leaves and branches that were clustered in the center of the room, its belly swinging with each step. Too heavy to walk normally, it dropped to all-fours, using a lower pair of stocky arms to support itself like a gorilla. When it reached the pile, it sat down heavily, the motion making its fluid-filled sack wobble like jello. Its upper pair of arms were far more dexterous, and they were equipped with wicked blades that extended from the wrists, the creature employing them to strip the bark from a branch like someone peeling a piece of fruit. It brought the remaining strands of green sapwood to its mouth, opening a set of saw-like mandibles, larger and sharper than any that Evan had seen save perhaps for the chelicerae of the Supermajors. With alarming efficiency, the branch was consumed like a celery stick, the Replete immediately starting on another one.

“Looks like they’re no more interested in us than the Workers were,” Foster muttered, lowering his rifle.

“No breasts,” Jade mused, examining the nearest Replete. “I guess they must regurgitate their honey.”

“They’re supposed to have breasts?” Hernandez asked, his bemusement obvious even through his opaque visor.

“That’s how our Repletes share food,” Jade explained. “They’re not actually breasts, just structures that bear an outward resemblance to them.”

“So, like…you suck the honey right out of the nipple?” Hernandez continued.

“In more primitive times, we might have,” Jade replied as she followed Bainbridge deeper into the chamber. “Now, we’ve been introduced to food receptacles.”

“But, it’s still coming from a titty?”

“I feel like you’re fixating on one specific detail here,” Jade replied, keeping her eyes on the nearby Repletes as the Bugs watched them vacantly. She had said that they were usually docile, but that implied situations existed where they might become violent, so Evan gave them a wide berth. They were very large, clearly very powerful, and those wrist blades looked like they could probably have taken his head off with one swing.

“Hang on, hang on!” Collins said as he raised a clenched fist to signal them to stop. “I have Marine IFFs on my feed. One, two, three…enough for a whole damned squad! We must be close to another group.”

“I thought the lieutenant said that signals couldn’t penetrate these walls?” Brooks asked.

“Wait,” Collins mumbled. “They’re all reading…”

“Leave it, Private,” Bainbridge warned. He was using a softer tone than Evan had ever heard from him, and something about that chilled his blood. “Trust me, you don’t need to see this.”

Foster followed after him, Evan sparing Jade a worried glance before joining them. His guts were churning, and he already knew what Collins was going to find. There were no corners in the round chamber, but piled against the resin wall like refuse was a small mountain of armor plates. It looked like someone’s dish after a meal at an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, pieces of armored carapace from Kerguelan Drones heaped up on top of each other haphazardly. There were chest pieces, helmets with their many lenses still intact, along with other segments that Evan didn’t recognize. These must be the inorganic components of their dead that the Repletes couldn’t digest – synthetic armor that was layered on top of their natural shells.

Evan’s heart skipped a beat as he caught a glimpse of something more familiar. Collins noticed it too, kneeling beside the pile, the nearby Repletes looking on curiously as they lounged. The pieces of carapace clattered as Collins sifted through them, retrieving a UNN helmet, its visor melted inward by what must have been a plasma bolt. He held it in his hands for a moment, staring at it in disbelief, then dropped it to the ground as he returned to the pile with more urgency. He pulled out a shoulder pad, a piece of thigh armor with its straps still intact, a gauntlet with a built-in touchpad. The source of the IFF signatures had suddenly become obvious to everyone, the rest of the squad watching in silence.

“These Repletes are gorged,” Jade said, glancing at one of the creatures. “This was recent.”

“They fucking ate them,” Foster whispered, stooping to pick up the helmet. “They stole the bodies and fucking ate them. We can’t even give our guys a proper burial…”

“We basically destroyed all of the edible biomatter in a two-hundred-kick radius,” Bainbridge explained, his tone still uncharacteristically gentle. “Once their stores ran out, they probably became desperate. An army marches on its stomach, as they say.”

Desperate,” Foster scoffed, tossing the helmet aside. “We’re just biomatter to them – proteins and sugars – they don’t even see us as people. Desperate implies that they’d think twice if they had a nice Caesar salad to chew on instead.”

“Foster,” Jade began, but he waved her away with an aggressive swipe of his hand.

“Don’t!” he snapped, Evan glancing between the two warily as the tension in the air became palpable. “This ain’t you,” Foster continued, his expression inscrutable behind his dark visor. “Don’t even think about apologizing on their behalf because this isn’t you. I’m sorry that I ever compared you to these fucking things.”

He wheeled around, startling Jade as he aimed his rifle at the nearest Replete, the creature peering back at him in quiet bemusement. It had no idea what was happening, no concept of tone, no experience of body language or raised voices.

“You motherfuckers!” Foster yelled, loud enough that Evan could hear it through the Marine’s sealed helmet. The sound of gunfire filled the chamber as he unloaded on the Replete, the slugs punching through the translucent film of its skin like tissue paper, the pressure of the honey inside forcing the amber fluid to leak out of the holes like water escaping a punctured balloon. The skin tore, more of the sticky fluid oozing out onto the dirt floor, the creature jerking as he riddled its body with projectiles. They blew chunks out of its carapace, cracking the resin wall behind it where they overpenetrated, green ichor joining the spilled honey. The Bug slumped over, twitching as the snarling Marine emptied the rest of his magazine into it, practically dismembering the creature before his weapon ran dry. Evan heard a couple of empty clicks as Foster pulled the trigger, then he finally relented, the air above his XMR’s barrel shimmering as the glowing coils baked it.

Collins moved to his side, Foster watching as he shouldered his rifle, taking aim at a second Replete. A hail of hypersonic slugs perforated it, the Bug trying to move out of the way once the first round had punctured its belly, slowly losing limbs and chunks of carapace as it tried in vain to crawl to safety. The other Repletes were starting to rise to all-fours now, some of them cradling their swollen abdomens like heavily pregnant women, apparently more reactive to threats than the Workers had been.

Evan looked to Bainbridge, who was most of the way across the chamber. Foster and Collins had gone against his orders, but no reprimand came. The lieutenant understood how they felt – he had probably been in their shoes before, and so knew that trying to talk them down was pointless. Better to just let them get it out of their system.

“I guess food production is a valid military target,” he sighed, turning to aim his microwave emitter at a group of Repletes on the opposite side of the room. “Just don’t waste too much ammo, you hear? You’re gonna need it.”

Hernandez gave Evan a shrug, then leveled his rifle, firing a burst into a Replete that was busy chewing on a branch. The thing keeled over, honey pooling around its body like syrupy blood. The rest of the squad opened up, forming a rough circle near the middle of the room, Collins and Foster leaving the pile of armor to join them as they reloaded their weapons. Evan felt his XMR rock into his shoulder as he cut down one, then another, the defenseless creatures starting to pile up. Jade and her two companions showed no more remorse than Foster, sweeping their rifles around the room, moving from target to target. Sunny loomed over the team, her rifle silent, perhaps saving her limited ammunition for more suitable targets. Borzka and Tatzi seemed glad of the opportunity, the sound of their powerful rifles reverberating off the walls.

Evan turned his head to watch Bainbridge as he slammed in a fresh magazine, the lieutenant slowly sweeping the wide beam of his microwave weapon across the far wall, making the air ripple with heat. One of the Repletes found itself in the beam’s path, bubbles starting to form in the honey that filled its abdominal sack, the liquid beginning to boil before Evan’s eyes. The skin on the outside of the sack blistered and split open, disgorging steaming honey, the creature folding in on itself like a dying spider as its carapace began to warp. So swollen with food, none of them could move fast enough to save themselves, the lumbering arthropods succumbing to the searing radiation one by one until a dozen of them lay smoking on the ground.

The chorus of gunfire finally subsided, Evan staring out at the piles of bodies, a few of them still twitching as the slug holes sent wisps of smoke rising towards the apex of the dome. There must have been enough honey to fill a swimming pool leaking onto the ground, Evan pulling his foot away as one of the growing puddles neared his boot.

“I hope that makes you feel better because that’s the only one of those you’re getting,” Bainbridge finally said as he leaned his microwave gun over his armored shoulder. “Let’s get moving. We have important work to do.”

The squad began to file away, Brooks giving Foster a pat on the back as he passed by him.

“You alright, Foster?” Evan asked as he lagged behind.

“Once this place is cleared out, we’ll find all of them,” Jade added as she paused to look back at the pair. “We’ll scour every tunnel if we have to – our Workers can do it. I saw funeral services on Jarilo, I know how important burials were to the colonists.”

“The only thing that’s gonna make me feel alright is putting the Queen in the ground,” Foster replied. He let his rifle hang from its sling, unholstering his sidearm as he walked over to one of the bodies. This Replete was still alive, its abdomen like a deflated balloon now, the thing turning its head to watch him approach. He aimed the weapon, then put a slug between its eyes, splattering green brain matter on the soil behind it.

“So dramatic, you Endos,” Sunny muttered over a private channel.

“Come!” Tatzi demanded, waving to them as she loped towards the tunnel opening on the far side of the chamber. “There will be many more opportunities for you to avenge your dead, Foster. Save your anger for them!”

The Marine holstered his sidearm, then jogged to catch up with Collins, who welcomed him with a pat on the shoulder.

“I’m glad that he’s not rejecting our support anymore,” Jade said, speaking privately as she walked beside Evan. “He needs it now more than ever.”

“I think he finally gets it,” Evan replied, glancing down at her. “What makes you different from them.”

“That we don’t eat people?” she chuckled dryly.

“No, that you see us as people at all. I don’t think he understood that until now.”

***

“Here’s something that we can blow up,” Bainbridge said, stepping through into another chamber. This one was a lot smaller than the one that had contained the Repletes, and it was filled with crates of supplies and racks of weapons, its purpose obvious at a glance. This was an armory. They spread out into the room, clearing the tall stacks of containers that broke up the lines of sight, like the shelves in a library. Charging stations were mounted where the walls were bare, or perhaps feeding stations would be a more apt description. There were resin rifles and two-pronged handguns mounted on them, connected to reservoirs of honey via tubes, like some kind of life support system.

“Guns gotta eat too,” Hernandez said, noticing that Evan was staring.

“All clear,” Simmons announced. “Looks like they blocked up the exit to this room.”

“There have to be thousands of guns in here,” Brooks said, walking along one of the stacks. “These crates are full of them.”

“Toss me a few of those charges,” Bainbridge said, Garcia reaching into a pouch on his rig. He fished out a potato-sized chunk of plastic explosive, the lieutenant sticking it to a nearby crate like a handful of modeling clay. “I’ll set these for remote detonation,” he explained as he pressed a receiver into the malleable material like he was inserting a temperature probe into a chuck roast. “We’ll be able to activate the triggers over the repeater network.”

“Hold up,” Jade said, raising her rifle as she walked over to the other side of the armory.

“What’s wrong?” Simmons asked, the rest of the squad readying their weapons. By now, they trusted her antennae implicitly.

“Something smells wrong,” she replied, eyeing the blocked tunnel. It extended for maybe a meter, then a wall of dirt and resin plugged it completely. “There were Drones here, Warriors…recently. I don’t think this tunnel should be blocked.”

“They probably plugged it up to stop our advance,” Bainbridge replied. “I’ve had Workers collapse tunnels ahead of my team or try to block them with earthworks. Make no mistake – they know that we’re here. It’s just a matter of time until we do something they deem worth responding to in force.”

“What, like blowing up an armory?” Hernandez asked.

“Precisely,” Bainbridge chuckled, setting another charge. “It’s alright. We’ll just double back and take that left a few hundred meters further up the tunnel.”

“This looks brand new,” Jade said, taking a step closer to the blockage. She reached out to brush her fingers against it, her antennae waving.

The wall moved.

“Contact!” Evan yelled, the team scattering to take cover behind the stacks of containers. Jade moved faster than he had ever seen her move, leaping out of the tunnel mouth and darting behind the wall to break line of sight with whatever the hell was coming out of the passage.

As he watched from the cover of a crate, the wall split into two halves, the resin and soil pulling away to reveal the unmistakable hulk of a Warrior filling the tunnel. The two roughly semi-circular plates were attached to its upper arms, extensions of its carapace, textured to match the tunnel around it. It brought its four massive claws to bear, barreling into the room, a dozen Drones piling in behind it with their weapons drawn. They brandished blades and pistols, spilling into the chamber, swarming around the twelve-foot Warrior.

The Marines opened up, filling the tunnel with tungsten, dropping several of the smaller creatures before they could make it out of the bottleneck. The slugs tore through their carapaces, spraying the curving wall behind them with alien fluids and fragments of shattered chitin, knocking some of them off their feet with the force of the impacts. Bainbridge fired his microwave emitter, taking advantage of the cramped space to bring down another handful, turning them to steaming husks as the radiation cooked them in their shells. Several of the Drones had lagged behind in the passageway, laying down suppressive fire, forcing the squad into cover.

The Warrior was indifferent, using one half of the fake tunnel blockage on its arm as a shield to ward off the gunfire, not unlike the way that Sunny employed her bucklers. The slugs took chunks out of its armor, leaving gaping craters, but they couldn’t hit anything vital. The radiation didn’t even give it pause – its mass far too great for the beam to have much effect. Sunny fired her AMR, its deafening report ringing the small storage room like a church bell, but the behemoth merely weathered the blows as it made a beeline for her.

It covered several Drones, letting them get closer to the team, then dropped its defenses as it closed with Sunny. The two giants clashed in the middle of the armory, toppling over a stack of crates as they grappled, the ground shaking beneath their feet.

Four of the Drones were in range now, brandishing their blades as they swarmed into the aisles. Two of them came for Evan, forcing him to back up against the wall as he fired his XMR from the hip. He riddled one of them with slugs, sending it tumbling to the ground, but his heart stopped in his chest as he felt his magazine run dry. The second Drone had taken a few hits from rounds that had passed through its companion, but not enough to kill it, one of its upper arms hanging limp as it stepped over its fallen squadmate. Evan tried to reach for a new mag, but the thing was far faster than any human could have hoped to be.

As the thing raised its sword, he saw a blur of movement from above, a camouflaged figure dropping down from atop the crates to land on his adversary. Jade knocked the surprised Drone to the ground, her knife already drawn, holding it down with her upper arms as she peppered it with stabs. She rose to her feet, and her opponent didn’t, the Jarilan turning to glance at him over her shoulder.

“Evan! Are you alright?”

“Thanks to you,” he replied, reloading his weapon.

The rest of the Drones had been dispatched, Evan and Jade moving to the other end of the aisle just in time to see Tatzi toss the broken body of a Bug like a sack of garbage, dark blood seeping from tears in her pressure suit. It had clearly picked the wrong target.

Another stack of crates was sent crashing to the floor as Sunny and the Warrior brawled in the middle of the domed room, pummeling each other with claws that must have weighed as much as an anvil. There was nothing that the rest of the squad could do other than stand back and watch, their weapons ineffective against its armor and redundant systems.

The Warrior was larger than Sunny’s Type-two suit, heavier, a savage blow from one of its upper arms knocking her back. She hit another set of shelves filled with crates, knocking them down like dominoes, the containers raining down to bounce off her carapace. Her opponent pressed the attack, harrying her with blows, Sunny blocking them with her shielded bucklers. She tried to fire her AMR, but the Warrior was wary of the weapon, gripping the barrel with one of its lower claws to push it aside as a shot rang out. There was a sound like rending metal, and the pincer sliced through the coils, severing the rifle in two.

The Bug had her on the defensive, bringing its lower pair of snapping claws down towards her abdomen. It pushed their sharp tips into the subtle seam between her plates, trying to pry open the cockpit to get at her. She reacted quickly, tossing her now useless AMR aside, closing her dexterous lower hands around its wrists. Her suit visibly straining against her assailant’s weight, she raised them away, the Warrior drawing back as it prepared another hammer strike. She deflected the blow, its claw sparking off her buckler’s wavering shield, Sunny still holding its lower arms tightly even as it tried to wrench them free. Quick as a flash, she brought the claws on her upper arms down, closing them around its trapped limbs. The Warrior recoiled, but too late. They snapped shut, shearing through her assailant’s joints, exposing the pale meat beneath its orange shell.

Another crash echoed through the armory as the Warrior hammered her with its upper arms, its carapace sparking against her wavering shields, the fields of plasma vaporizing parts of its armor that came into contact with them.

Sunny tried to rise again, but the Warrior forced her onto her back, throwing its enormous weight around like a giant Sumo wrestler. It got a blow in, smashing the face plate of her suit with a vicious hammer strike that would probably have turned a human to pulp, damaging some of the sensitive camera lenses on the helmet. Ichor leaked from the dented carapace, Evan expecting the blow to stun her, but she kept fighting. Of course – that wasn’t her real head.

As the Warrior brought one of those crab claws down again, intending to beat her into submission, she caught it with her pincer. Her assailant tried to crush her with its second arm, but she caught that too, metal and muscle creaking as her suit strained to hold the Warrior’s two remaining limbs still.

“Sunny!” Jade exclaimed as she watched the suit’s abdomen begin to split open, exposing the tentacles within. “What are you doing!?”

Her yellow carapace was birthed from the battlesuit, the slimy tentacles raising her out of her flesh-lined compartment, Sunny standing halfway out of her fallen Warrior as the tendrils helped support her. Her spine remained linked to its systems, her suit’s upper arms trembling as they held her opponent’s heavy claws at bay, the Warrior looming over her. If they slipped or gave out, those massive pincers would squash her like an ant.

She reached down, drawing her sidearm from the shaped recess on her thigh, then aimed the weapon up at the Warrior. Still linked to her nervous system, the lower arms of her suit reached out to push its fingers into the gap in her enemy’s carapace, forcing the plates apart. The Bug Warrior struggled, but it couldn’t break free, slime from its cockpit dripping down to coat Sunny’s yellow carapace in gelatinous strands as she pried it open like an oyster. There was a chatter of gunfire as she dumped the contents of the XMH’s magazine into the shifting tentacles, the enemy Pilot’s ichor staining the otherwise clear slime a dull green.

She threw the now immobilized Warrior off her, leaning back into the tendrils, letting her suit swallow her once again as she stowed her weapon.

“Well, that’s one way to get through their armor,” Bainbridge mused.

“That was the last of them,” Simmons confirmed as he stepped out from between the aisles. “Everyone good? Tatzi, you’re bleeding.”

“My wounds are merely superficial,” the Borealan replied.

“Yeah, but if you can’t patch all of those tears, I’m sending you back to the surface.”

She growled in frustration, but didn’t argue, reaching for one of the pouches on her belt. Hernandez moved over to help her, Tatzi handing him a roll of what looked like black electrical tape, which he began to place over the breaches in her camouflaged suit. All of the Marines and auxiliaries had a patch kit that would let them repair holes in their pressure suits. In theory, it would make them suitable for vacuum again and would protect the wearer from chemical attacks until they could be replaced, but it was only a stopgap measure.

“The rest of you, keep an eye on that tunnel until I get the rest of these charges placed,” Bainbridge ordered. “Sunny, how’s your suit?”

“Took some damage to my optics, but I’m still good to go,” she replied as her suit climbed to its feet. One side of the thing’s helmet was dented, ichor bleeding down onto the reinforced collar of its shell, but it was in a better state than her opponent.

***

With the tunnel now open and the charges placed, they continued on, making their way deeper into the winding maze of subterranean passages. As they proceeded further, the walls began to narrow, the armored hood of Sunny’s suit starting to scrape along the ceiling.

“Damn it, I think that’s as far as I can take the Warrior,” she grumbled. The squad stopped, Evan glancing back to see her ten-foot frame plugging the tunnel behind them. “I can continue on foot.”

“Don’t be silly, Sunny,” Jade replied. “I know you want to help, but you’re a Pilot. You’re not built for combat – you don’t even have body armor.”

Evan got the sense that she wanted to argue, but there was nothing more to be said.

“Follow the repeaters back up to the surface,” Bainbridge added, his order carrying more finality than Jade’s words. “We couldn’t have gotten this far without you, but there’s no sense putting yourself in more danger than necessary.”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” she sighed. “Jade, take care of the endos for me, won’t you?”

“We’ll make sure they make it out safely,” Jade replied.

“I guess I’ll see you topside,” Sunny said, backing up a few paces to give herself room to turn around. “Give the Queen my regards!” she added, starting to walk back up the tunnel the way they had come.

“Will she be alright on her own?” Hernandez asked.

“We cleared all of the tunnels on our way down here, and none of the repeaters are offline so far,” Bainbridge replied. “I don’t see any indication that the Bugs have taken ground behind us.”

“She’s also in a Warrior,” Brooks added. “She’s probably safer than we are.”

With their heavy support now gone, Evan felt more vulnerable than ever, but they had no option other than to press on. At least with the tunnel narrowing, it meant that they wouldn’t encounter any enemy vehicles.

CHAPTER 10: COMPOST HEAP

“What is that?” Garcia asked, gesturing to something on the wall above them. Evan shone his flashlight beam on it, illuminating another gelatinous pustule. This one reacted to the light, seeming to recoil from it, something that bore an uncanny resemblance to an iris contracting.

“That’s a camera,” Bainbridge replied.

“A camera?” Garcia repeated, his tone far less calm than the lieutenant’s. “You mean those fuckers can see us right now?”

“I told you that they know we’re here,” Bainbridge said as he checked another blind corner ahead of them.

“Yeah, but I didn’t realize that meant they had a real-time video feed,” the Marine added as he glanced at the organic device warily.

“A human structure might have data cables running through it connecting things like doors and cameras to automated systems,” Jade explained. “In a hive, most of that is handled directly by the Queen, and most computers that you see are just terminals linked up to her neural net. She plugs her nervous system into the hive’s network in the same way that Sunny connects to her suit, translating nerve impulses and electrical signals into data. She sees through those cameras as if they were her own eyes.”

“So, this whole hive is basically using her brain as a CPU?” Evan asked incredulously. “Just how smart is she?”

“Smart enough to perform superlight calculations or sequence a genome in her head,” Jade replied, her deadly serious tone letting him know that she wasn’t exaggerating for effect.

“Their skulls are big enough that you could attach an outboard motor to one and take your buddies on a fishing trip,” Bainbridge added. “They’d better be smart…”

“That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to take out the Queen as fast as possible,” Aster said as she walked along behind Evan. “Given enough time to gather information – to learn and adapt – she’ll find ways to counter and outmaneuver you. The only thing holding her back is a lack of data.”

“So, what’s to stop her from just sending an army through the tunnels to take us out?” Garcia asked.

“The fact that there are dozens of other teams doing the same thing we are,” Bainbridge replied. “After the losses during the battle for the hill, there’s no way she can respond to every incursion with full strength. How much resistance we encounter will scale with how much we piss her off.”

The tunnels were getting even more winding and confusing now, the layout defying any kind of human logic. Whether they were intentionally designed to disorient invaders or if this was a product of a completely alien mindset, Evan couldn’t say. As dark and as confusing as the passages were, navigating by smell was essentially like having glowing signposts on every wall, so it was probably no hindrance to the locals.

“Ladies?” Bainbridge began as he placed another of his repeaters at a five-way junction. “I’d appreciate a little guidance here.”

The three Jarilans spread out, sniffing around the junction with their antennae like bloodhounds tracking down an escaped convict.

“More armories and feeding chambers that way,” Jade said, gesturing to a couple of the tunnels with two of her arms. It seemed that she was learning the pheromonal language used by the Bugs, perhaps making a mental note of what they had encountered previously. “These lead deeper, and there’s a breeze coming from these two. I suggest we go this way.”

“Your nose is the best GPS we’ve got,” Bainbridge conceded, setting off down the passage.

They marched through the dingy tunnels, the resin walls no more than three meters apart now, another path branching off their tunnel after every couple of bends. Evan better appreciated the danger of getting lost down here now that they were heading into the further reaches of the hive, the structure growing ever more complex. Bainbridge suddenly raised a hand to tell them to stop, the Marines taking a knee, the lieutenant waving his flashlight beam across the passage ahead as if trying to get a better look at something. Evan caught it too – a shimmering strand reflecting the light when it caught it at just the right angle.

“These are Stalker webs,” Bainbridge warned.

“There are fuckin’ Stalkers down here?” Hernandez hissed under his breath, as if the Bugs might hear him. “I thought those things lived in trees?”

“It’s not like they’re at any real disadvantage down here,” Bainbridge mused. “They’re smaller and more agile than a Warrior, so they won’t have any trouble maneuvering in these narrow passages, and they have some pretty nasty close-quarters weapons.”

“This is a problem,” Jade added, turning to glance back up the tunnel warily. “Stalkers don’t give off pheromone signals – they’re essentially mute by Betelgeusian standards. We won’t be able to smell them coming like we did the Drones.”

“That’s by design,” Bainbridge said. “On the bright side, it means that the Stalkers can’t coordinate – they’re operating on their own.”

“One Stalker is still more than enough to fuck up our day,” Simmons said. “Borzka, Tatzi, keep your ears open. Maybe you’ll be able to hear the things coming.”

“We’ll double back and go around,” Bainbridge said as he turned away from the web, the thin strands blowing gently in the breeze. “There are plenty of other passages down here.”

“You ever hear the story of the Minotaur?” Hernandez asked, giving Tatzi a nudge as he walked beside her.

“No,” she replied. “Tell me later, little one. I must listen.”

“I’d like to hear it,” Jade said, Hernandez switching off Tatzi’s channel.

“Okay, so,” he began. “Way back in ancient Greece, there was this king called Minos. He was supposed to sacrifice a bull to the Gods, but he skimped out, so the Gods cursed his wife to be seduced by it. She had this wooden cow built, then climbed inside it, and had the bull fuck her.”

“Does this story have a point, Hernandez?” Evan sighed.

“I’m gettin’ to that!” he replied indignantly. “You oughta learn your history, Evan. Anyway, she fucks the bull and gets knocked up, and what she gives birth to is this half-man half-bull that only eats human flesh. The same guy who built the wooden bull ends up buildin’ a huge labyrinth beneath the castle to keep the thing from gettin’ loose, and they sacrifice virgins to keep it fed. So, the hero Perseus-”

“Theseus,” Donovan corrected. “Perseus was the guy who killed Medusa, not the guy who killed the Minotaur.”

“Whatever, Theseus,” Hernandez continued.

“You remember all the details about the woman who fucked a bull, but you forgot the name of the protagonist?” Donovan added.

Anyway,” Hernandez said, resuming his spiel. “He goes into the labyrinth to kill the monster, and he finds his way back out again using a ball of yarn. It’s kinda like what we’re doin’, right? Instead of yarn, we have the repeaters, and instead of the Minotaur, we have the Queen.”

“Or the Stalkers in this case, since they’re gunning for us,” Garcia added.

“I feel like you were going for something insightful there but didn’t quite think it through,” Evan said. “Points for effort, though.”

“I’m confused,” Jade said. “Is that story real? What’s a bull?”

“No, it’s a myth,” Evan explained. “A bull is a kind of-”

“Silence,” Tatzi hissed. “Did you hear that?”

“We are not alone,” Borzka confirmed, hefting his rifle. “Something hunts us.”

Evan glanced back down the tunnel, seeing only the dim light of the luminescent moss reflecting off the resin walls, his view blocked by blind corners in both directions.

“What are your orders, Lieutenant?” Simmons asked. He hadn’t said it out loud, but his tone conveyed that his question had been more along the lines of what the fuck do we do now?

“We’d usually have more microwave guns,” Bainbridge grumbled, pausing to consider for a moment. “Keep moving, and find a way around that web. Our objectives haven’t changed. I’ll take point, and I want whoever takes up the rear to keep an eye on our arse. Watch for an ambush from adjoining tunnels – these things strike fast.”

They pressed on, following the trail of repeaters back to another junction, the team standing back to back as they covered all of the branching passages. Jade identified another suitable path, and they set off again, Bainbridge planting more of the coin-sized repeaters as they went. He kept his microwave gun aimed at the tunnel ahead, walking slowly, checking every blind corner. It made their pace sluggish, but Evan suppressed his frustration, trusting that the lieutenant knew what he was doing.

“Hold,” Aster warned, waving her antennae.

“I smell it too,” Jade said, moving to join Bainbridge at the front of the group. “Workers, disturbed earth. Traps, maybe, or walled-off tunnels.”

“This is getting too risky,” Garcia said, shaking his helmeted head.

“This is the job, Marine,” Bainbridge replied sternly.

“Not my job,” Hernandez muttered, using the private channel so that the lieutenant couldn’t overhear him.

“Switch to thermals,” Bainbridge said, reaching up to tap at the touch panel on his helmet. “Sometimes, recently disturbed ground or power sources from concealed devices will show up.”

Evan did as he asked, plunging the tunnel into shades of dark blue that bordered on black, his companions taking on brighter hues of red and orange. The fungus that grew on the curved ceiling formed an illuminated trail that ran down the length of the passageway, giving off a little residual heat, but he couldn’t make out much else.

They rounded another corner, coming across a tunnel that was indistinguishable from the rest at first glance, but something was wrong here. Beyond the resin walls were small heat signatures, barely perceptible, but standing out against their otherwise cold surroundings. There were more of them beneath the dirt floor, spread out in an irregular pattern.

“I’m seeing batteries,” Jade warned.

“Mines,” Bainbridge confirmed. “Probably chemically triggered rather than proximity. The Bugs will want to avoid blowing up their own guys.”

“Should we go around?” Simmons asked, keeping an eye on the tunnel behind them.

“No, I got this,” Bainbridge replied as he raised his bulky gun. He fired it in a wide beam that filled the passage, heating the moisture in the air, making it ripple like the haze above a sun-baked road. Evan could see the mines heating up in real-time, their faint signatures growing warmer, becoming defined enough that he could make out the vaguely circular shape of the objects. These were not the same spider mines they had faced on the battlefield – they seemed to be stationary. He braced himself, waiting for them to spontaneously explode, but nothing happened.

“That should do it,” Bainbridge announced, lowering his weapon.

“Are they deactivated?” Evan asked. “What did you do?”

“Most Bug tech has organic components,” he explained, setting off again with no concern for the lingering heat signatures that surrounded him. “Hit them with a microwave burst, and all of the fluids in those organic components will boil, killing them before any explosives or plasma charges reach a high enough temperature to go off.”

“So, you just cook ‘em like a microwave dinner?” Hernandez asked. Even with Bainbridge’s reassurances, he was still stepping over the mines carefully, like a kid making a game of avoiding the cracks on a sidewalk.

“That’s the idea,” the lieutenant replied. “We don’t get too many of those, though – it drains the battery on this thing. I’m used to having a team of Trogs with me, so we’re going to have to be conservative with our power usage.”

“Look,” Jade said as they came across another junction. “More webs.”

One of the two branching tunnels was covered over by a thick net of shimmering strands, the tiny threads only just visible as the flashlight beams bounced off them.

“Don’t touch the fibers, and watch for tripwires,” Bainbridge warned. “You walk into one of those things, and the Stalker might come running. They’ve been known to run tiny strands from their webs that get tugged when you disturb them.”

They took the clear tunnel but quickly encountered more webbing, the obstacle blocking another junction to leave only one path open to them.

“I’m getting worried that we’re being corralled,” Brooks muttered. “Are they smart enough to do that?”

“I wouldn’t make any assumptions to the contrary,” the lieutenant replied.

The two Borealans suddenly whipped around to aim their rifles back down the tunnel, the furry ears that protruded from their helmets focusing on something beyond the range of human hearing.

“I do not think the creature lies in wait for us,” Borzka warned. “I think it stalks us through these warrens.”

“Could be Drones,” Collins suggested.

“I have never known Drones to move so quietly,” Tatzi replied warily.

They kept moving, venturing deeper into the labyrinth. Many of the tunnels seemed to link together in strange ways now, looping back around on themselves, making finding a straight path through far more difficult. It was only thanks to the Jarilans’ antennae and Bainbridge’s repeaters that they didn’t become hopelessly lost.

“I’m picking up a pretty clear pheromone trail,” Jade said, pausing to bring her antennae closer to the ground. “It smells like…Workers.”

“I don’t like this,” Bainbridge grumbled, sweeping his weapon between two tunnel openings that branched off their path. “They could come at us from any angle in here.”

“There aren’t any webs down this way,” Hernandez said, stepping into a side tunnel. He shone his flashlight down the long passage, the beam reflecting off the uneven resin. “Maybe we could-”

As he took another step forward, the ground beneath him gave out, Hernandez letting out a yell of alarm as he plunged out of sight. Tatzi was moving before Evan had even registered what was happening, somehow going from a standing position beside the squad to skidding on her stomach in the time it had taken him to blink. One of her arms had vanished into a dark hole, and she was using the other to anchor herself, driving her long claws into the loose soil. She grunted, hauling Hernandez out of the pit by his rucksack, depositing him on the ground beside the opening.

“Holy shit,” Hernandez panted, sitting up to look at the hole. “Tatzi, I could fuckin’ kiss you.”

“Later,” she replied, standing up to brush some of the dirt off her pressure suit. She helped him to his feet, then leaned a little closer to get a view down the shaft.

“This is what happens when you wander even a few feet,” Bainbridge snapped. “Stay in line, Marine. Your friend might not be there to protect you next time.”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” he replied as he stood to attention reflexively. “Sorry, Lieutenant.”

Evan entered the branching tunnel, taking a few tentative steps closer to get a look down the hole. The soil had been held in place by an ice-thin layer of resin that was placed just beneath the floor, not unlike those that had trapped the tanks back on the surface. The brittle substance must have given out when Hernandez had put his weight on it. When he shined the flashlight on the end of his barrel down the shaft, it didn’t reach far enough to reveal the bottom, vertigo tugging at his stomach.

“I dunno where the fuck that goes, and I don’t want to find out,” Foster muttered as he leaned over Evan’s shoulder.

“Pitfall traps,” Bainbridge explained. “They’ll either break your legs, impale you on spikes, or worse. These aren’t recent, or we’d be seeing disturbed soil. That’s gonna make them a pain in the ass to detect, so watch your footing.”

“There’s no pheromone warning, only the trail of Worker scent that we’ve been following,” Jade added. “Maybe it’s a map – a route laid out for them so that they don’t trigger any of these pitfalls.”

“And whatever else they’re hidin’ down here,” Hernandez muttered.

“The pheromone trail leads this way,” Jade said, gesturing ahead with an upper hand.

“Let’s keep moving,” Bainbridge said, leading them on.

***

“Got something up ahead,” Bainbridge said, leaning around a corner. “I want you guys to set up a firing line right here, aiming down this tunnel.”

They did as he asked, six members of the team forming the same firing line they had been trained to use in the trenches – three of them kneeling while three more leveled their weapons over their heads. Bainbridge lowered himself to a prone position just ahead of them, resting his microwave gun on the floor.

As Evan knelt, he saw their target. There were clusters of heat signatures in the walls and ceiling, far larger than the mines they had encountered earlier during their explorations. They were deep enough that the soil partially blocked their warmth, but it was very visible near the surface, where only a thin layer of resin separated them from the tunnel. As he watched, one of them moved, and his brain suddenly recognized the shape.

“Are those…Drones in the walls?” he asked.

“I’ve encountered this before,” Bainbridge replied, his heavy armor rustling as he shifted his weight to get a better angle on them. He lay the barrel of his weapon on his forearm, elevating it just enough that the three-pronged emitter was pointing at the hidden figures. “The Bugs will entomb Drones and other nasties in the walls, sometimes accessible by hidden hatches, and sometimes not. They don’t need to eat a lot, and they don’t get claustrophobic. They’ll wait until their sensors are tripped, then they’ll hop out right on top of you.”

“We know that the Bugs on this moon can enter a low metabolic state to conserve energy and reduce their body temperature,” Simmons added. “The fuckers have ambushed us using that method before. If we’re seeing them on our thermals, they must have only set up here recently. A few more hours, and we might not have noticed them at all.”

“Well, they’re toast now,” Bainbridge chuckled. “Get ready to fire. I’m gonna cook the bastards, and when they come piling out of their holes, gun them down.”

“Ready!” Simmons replied, the squad aiming their rifles.

Bainbridge fired his weapon, heating up the tunnel, Evan watching the temperature rise. He switched back to his normal view mode, seeing the air in the dimly-lit tunnel start to shimmer again. After a few moments, several curved hatches on the resin walls flipped open, so seamlessly integrated into the tunnel that they would have been invisible. Four of them swung wide, disgorging half a dozen Drones each, enough for four squads. The Bugs were armed with knives and handguns, prepared for brutal close-quarters fighting, but they fled from their hiding places like they were on fire now. Steam was already rising from their carapaces, their exposed flesh blistering under the heat of the radiation. It seemed that the wider the beam, the less of an immediate effect it had, most of them still alert enough to turn their weapons on the Marines.

Gunfire echoed through the tunnel, the team cutting the Bugs down. The Drones were packed tightly together in the limited space, and there was no cover, making them easy targets. The slugs tore them apart with ease, carrying enough energy to pass through several Drones before they finally shed their velocity, turning protective carapace into deadly shrapnel as they blew gaping exit wounds in their targets. The hail of automatic fire ceased as the last Drone slumped to the floor, the tunnel now filled with their still-twitching corpses.

“Textbook,” Bainbridge said, signaling them to cease fire with a wave of his hand. He struggled to his feet in his cumbersome armor, walking over to appraise the dead Drones.

They moved past them, Evan trying to step over the corpses and failing, feeling their smooth carapaces beneath his boots. There were too many packed too tightly to avoid.

“Looks like this tunnel network was designed to slow down intruders,” Bainbridge mused, pointing out the heat signatures of more concealed mines ahead of them. “We’ll be facing more pockets of resistance like this for sure, so keep your eyes open and report anything that stands out, no matter how minor you might think it is.”

***

“Clear!” Bainbridge announced, rising to his feet.

Ahead of the team, another four or five squads of Drones were lying in a bleeding, smoking heap in the narrow tunnel. They had encountered maybe two dozen minefields – if they could be described that way – along with six or seven more of these Drone ambushes. With the IR cameras and the microwave gun, it was a simple matter of taking things slow and making sure that they used caution with each corner that they turned. Thanks to Jade and the Jarilans, they had been able to follow the pheromone trail left for the Workers, avoiding pitfalls and tripwires. It made Evan better understand why Bainbridge seemed to work so slowly and approach every situation so meticulously. He never did anything if he couldn’t be sure that he could do it right, and he left no room for mistakes, as even one could prove fatal.

“Not seen any of those Stalker webs for a while,” Brooks said as they waded through the dead Bugs. “Do you think we got away from them?”

“There’s no getting away from them,” Bainbridge replied, gesturing to another of the organic cameras that turned to track them as they walked past it.

“There’s a bad smell ahead,” Jade warned, Bainbridge stopping.

Bad?” he asked. “Can you elaborate, Private?”

“It’s not Bugs,” she replied, Aster and Cardinal approaching to sniff the air alongside her. “Smells like decay.”

“Maybe rotting plant matter?” Aster suggested, Jade giving her a shrug.

“Well, this is new,” Bainbridge muttered. “I guess keep your eyes open and be ready for surprises.”

As they rounded the next corner, Evan saw that the tunnel ahead opened up into another chamber. He heard Garcia let out a sigh of relief over the radio – the claustrophobic passages full of mines and hidden compartments concealing angry Bugs had done his already frayed nerves no favors.

They stepped into this new space, the team spreading out to cover all angles, and Evan’s breath was quickly taken away by the sight before him. This was another domed chamber like the rest, but it was far larger than even the room that had housed the Repletes, the ceiling curving high over his head to make him feel like he was standing inside some kind of indoor stadium.

“It’s…a garden?” Jade whispered.

“Holy shit,” Hernandez added as he craned his neck to get a look at the massive clump of luminescent moss at the apex of the dome, its glow casting the room into a kind of eerie twilight.

The immense floor space was taken up by a veritable forest of tall, irregular towers, some of them reaching ten meters high or more. They almost looked like porous tree trunks, but without any branches or leaves. It took Evan a few moments to realize that he had seen these before. They were the fungi that had been encountered on the surface, where pockets of them had grown in the woods. None of those had been quite this numerous or as impressive, however. This species was thriving down here.

As the team advanced a little deeper, he saw that the living spires were growing on mounds of what looked like compost, comparatively smaller species of mushroom with wide caps covering the decaying matter like a carpet. The soil here was deeper than it had been in the other chambers, and there were dead leaves everywhere, despite the fact that there were no trees in sight.

“What the hell is this?” Collins asked. “Why is there a mushroom forest down here?”

“They’re growing them,” Jade mused, making her way over to the nearest cluster carefully. There were winding paths between the mounds of dirt and compost, clearly designed so that the clusters of towering fungi could be accessed easily. “Look at this,” she added, kneeling to push one of her lower hands through the fat mushrooms. She withdrew a handful of dirt and leaves, along with what might be husks from grains and nuts. “That explains why it smells so bad in here,” she continued as she let the stuff fall. “This is all garbage – food waste. They’re using it to grow mushrooms.”

“I guess mushrooms don’t need any sunlight,” Evan mused, glancing up at the faint glow that emanated from the ceiling above. “Why are they doing this, though? I thought the Repletes could digest basically anything and turn it into honey? They didn’t even leave any bones behind.”

“Maybe they get more bang for their buck doing it this way?” Jade replied, shaking some of the wet soil off her hand. “I’m guessing they can grow more usable biomatter in the form of mushrooms than they’d get just by feeding this waste to the Repletes.”

“It’s a fuckin’ greenhouse in here,” Hernandez added. “My suit’s coolin’ system just kicked in.”

“It is unusually hot,” Bainbridge confirmed, glancing around warily. “Ambient temperature is high enough that it’s fucking with my thermals. That’s not good…”

“Very high humidity, too,” Collins added as he wiped away some of the moisture that was starting to condensate on his visor. “Probably good growing conditions for the mushrooms.”

“What’s that shit on the ceiling?” Foster asked, nodding above them.

Now that Evan was looking more closely, he could see what looked like large, organic vents spaced out around the dome at regular intervals. They were breathing, opening flaps that resembled lips in a regular rhythm, revealing gill-like structures with feathery cilia that waved in the breeze as they inhaled.

“Oh, I get it!” Jade said as she planted a lower fist in her palm. “They’re not just harvesting mushrooms for biomatter, they’re farming the bacteria that are breaking down the waste, and those vents are filtering out the methane that they produce. They’re turning decomposition into energy. That’s why it’s so hot in here and why the airflow is coming into this chamber.”

“You think they’re using it as fuel?” Simmons asked.

“It makes sense that they wouldn’t rely solely on the refineries that we destroyed,” Jade replied. “They can’t be getting anywhere near that amount using this method, though. Even if they have a dozen chambers like this, I’d guess that they’re only using them to power systems inside the hive.”

“They’d want to be self-reliant if their supplies were cut off,” Bainbridge confirmed with a nod as he began to lead them into the forest.

“And we sure as hell cut them off,” Hernandez chuckled.

They made their way deeper, following one of the winding paths between the scattered mounds of rotting plant matter, Evan thanking his stars that his helmet filtered out what must be an abhorrent stench. It was like being transported from the narrow tunnels to a moonlit forest, the dense clusters of pillar-like fungi blocking their lines of sight, making it impossible to see very far in any direction. When he switched to his thermals in the hopes that it might help, all he could see were the fumes of heat rising from the mounds, like smoke visualized in shades of orange and red.

“Movement!” Foster warned, the team spreading out to take cover. “False alarm,” he added after a tense moment. “It’s just a Cultivator.”

Crouched in the knee-high carpet of mushrooms nearby was one of the creatures that they had encountered tending the fields during their assault on the Bug farm. It resembled a Worker, but it had long arms with dexterous hands designed for picking crops. It was filling the little resin basket on its back, plucking the mushrooms from the ground with surprising care, paying the Marines little attention as it toiled.

“Watch your fire,” Bainbridge ordered as they resumed their advance. “Don’t waste your ammo on these things.”

“Yeah, we’re gonna need it for that,” Hernandez said as he gestured to some nearby pillars.

“Oh, fuck,” Evan sighed.

Two of the spires to either side of the dirt path ahead of them were joined by silvery webbing, bridging them to trail shimmering threads in a sparse curtain, the feather-light strands floating on the air like the tendrils of a jellyfish. It was clearly a trap designed to ensnare the unwary.

“So, this is why they were blocking off tunnels,” Bainbridge grumbled. “They wanted to reroute us into this chamber so they’d have more cover when they engaged.”

“A safe assumption, Lieutenant,” Simmons added. “Should we turn back?”

“Let’s keep going,” he replied, pressing on. “We’re going to have to deal with them sooner or later.”

Their heads were on a swivel as they marched along, every pillar potentially hiding a sniper, every sign of movement that was revealed to be a harmless Cultivator giving Evan palpitations. He remembered their last encounter with the Stalkers, how the aliens had tied that poor vehicle crewman to a tree, using him as bait to lure the Coalition forces into an ambush.

“Fuck!” Foster snarled, almost jumping out of his skin as he turned a corner to see another Cultivator staring at him blankly. “Fuck off!” he continued, reaching for an empty magazine from his rig and tossing it at the creature in frustration. It bounced off the thing’s head with surprising force, the Cultivator slinking away into the spires as though it had realized that it wasn’t welcome.

“Keep your head on straight, Marine,” Bainbridge warned.

“Sorry, Lieutenant,” he grumbled as he fell back into formation. “These things are just…trying my patience.”

“What are we even gonna do with all these things?” Hernandez asked as he stared at another mushroom picker, its basket almost filled with the fleshy caps. “Like, the Workers, the Cultivators – all the other non-combatants.”

“Bugs don’t have non-combatants,” Foster replied.

“Yeah, but you get what I mean,” Hernandez continued. “The combat castes are only part of their population. The ratio of Workers to Drones has been three to one so far. There must be thousands of them down here. What are we supposed to do with them – just let them starve to death in the tunnels?”

“That sounds like a self-correcting problem to me,” Foster muttered.

“This isn’t like Jarilo,” Jade explained. “There’s almost no chance the Queen will surrender at this point, which means that every combat form on the planet will have to be hunted down and exterminated. That may take months, even years, as there will be isolated pockets of resistance spread out over the whole moon. With no orders to stand down, they’ll fight to the death, regardless of the odds.”

“And, the rest?” Evan asked.

“I don’t know,” she sighed, shaking her head. “Even if we could communicate with them, which isn’t impossible, they’d have no reason to follow our orders. It depends on how much leeway the Coalition wants to give the Jarilans. If it’s decided that executing them or just letting them die is cheaper and easier, that might be what happens.”

“We’ve always wiped out colonies in the past, but this is the largest one I’ve ever seen,” Bainbridge said. “Something about the scale makes it a tougher question.”

“Workers are generally pretty sociable and amenable,” Jade continued as she swept her rifle across the nearby spires. “Since they’re not combat castes, they don’t really have any aggressive tendencies.”

“Yeah, they won’t even defend themselves,” Foster scoffed. “It’s fucking weird, honestly. Survival instincts are the most basic functions of every living thing, and seeing creatures that will just stand there and die really betrays their artificial origins.”

“Like turkeys drownin’ in the rain,” Hernandez added.

“Your mistake is seeing them as individuals,” Jade explained, hopping over a pile of dead leaves. “They’re more like cells in a larger whole, with dedicated castes to do the protecting for them. The problem is, they become so specialized that they can’t function properly on their own. We have Workers left over from the previous era, from before the Queen surrendered,” she continued. “They’re perfectly intelligent, but the scope of their skills and mindset is so narrow that we could never break them out of their niche. They would get upset and agitated if we tried to introduce them to anything new, so we just let them keep doing their thing and tried to steer them into roles that were useful. Digging ditches, hauling gear for the colonists, that kind of thing.”

“I’m glad you recognize that as a defect,” Foster replied, turning his helmet to glance at her over his shoulder.

“Of course,” she replied with a confident nod. “You can be part of a greater whole without sacrificing your individuality. The Coalition taught us that.”

Ahead of them was another hanging curtain of webbing, Bainbridge directing them around it, following a different trail.

“Check it out,” Hernandez said, giving Evan a nudge. They paused to watch as one of the Cultivators walked down the path towards them, the resin basket on its back filled with mushrooms, the little Bug apparently oblivious to the presence of the web. It wandered right into it, quickly getting tangled in the gluey strands, a few moments of struggling ensuring that it was completely immobilized. It quickly gave up, either lacking the appropriate response or simply realizing that it stood no chance of freeing itself without help.

“Guess he’s just gonna hang out for a while,” Hernandez said, chuckling at his own joke.

Something whizzed past Evan’s helmet, striking Hernandez in the back with enough force to knock him over, sending him face-first into the pile of dead leaves and garbage in front of him. The squad scattered, diving into cover on either side of the dirt path, taking refuge between the mushrooms. Evan was on Hernandez in a second, gripping him by the rig and dragging him towards his beckoning companions. He hauled him up onto one of the mounds of rotting vegetation, putting some of the spire-like fungi between them and the shooter.

“I’m not dead, you idiot!” Hernandez complained as he struggled to right himself.

Jade and Tatzi came rushing to their side, keeping their weapons trained on the chamber beyond.

“Hernandez, what’s your status?” Simmons asked over the radio.

“Somethin’ fuckin’ shot me, Sarge!” he wheezed as he attempted to reach behind his back without much luck.

“Cease your squirming,” Tatzi grumbled, rolling him over again to check his back. There was no wound, but there was…something. She reached down with her clawed fingers, plucking an object about the size of an XMR slug from the small of his back. It was attached to the material of his pressure suit, just beneath the ceramic plate that protected his torso, stuck fast enough that Tatzi had to tug.

She raised the object to her visor, Evan’s eyes catching movement. It was some kind of insect, and it had little pointy legs that were waving in the air, reaching out towards her helmet. It looked like a beetle, with a segmented body that was oddly smooth, almost…bullet-like.

“What the hell is that?” Jade exclaimed, recoiling from it. “It’s putting out pheromones – strong enough to overpower the smell of the vegetation.”

“They seek to mark us!” Tatzi snarled, tossing the thing into the spires angrily. “Like hunters scenting a wounded animal!”

“It’s too late to throw it away,” Jade said, shouldering her rifle. “Hernandez is coated in the stuff. Unless he wants to fight the rest of the battle commando style, we now have a crosshair over our heads.”

“Take up a defensive posture and let them come to us,” Bainbridge ordered over the radio. “We can’t see shit, so it’s the only advantage we have. Stay in cover – don’t expose yourselves. The next round that comes our way might not be a tracker.”

Evan glanced around as he settled in behind one of the thick spires, the porous fungi about as girthy as your average medium-sized tree. The soft tissue didn’t look like it would provide anywhere near the same level of protection as wood, but it was all they had. The rest of the team was split into two random groups, each of them taking cover on separate sides of the path, putting them maybe ten meters apart.

“I think the shot came from somewhere around…two-fifty degrees,” Evan said as he turned his attention in that direction. He reached up to flip through his visor’s various view modes – infrared, night vision – but he couldn’t see a damned thing. Most vision modes were blocked by the forest of spires, and the heat made IR next to useless.

“What’s the strat for dealing with Stalkers?” Foster asked. “Do we have a strat?”

“Their effective range is yes,” Bainbridge replied. “They’re equally deadly at a distance and in close quarters, relying primarily on ambush. If you can catch them out in the open, they’ll go down like any other Bug, but that’s a big if.”

“We had a whole armored company at our backs the last time we fought these things, and they still got some good hits in,” Simmons added. “Don’t hesitate if you have one in your sights – you may not get a second chance.”

“That tracker round is still pumping out pheromones,” Jade whispered. “We should move to a different spot – it might confuse them.”

“Worth a try,” Evan replied, relaying their plan to Bainbridge. Their group consisted of Evan, Hernandez, Jade, Tatzi, and Foster, the five of them slinking between the spires as they repositioned with a view of their previous hiding spot.

They waited, covering as many angles as possible. In this kind of soup, the enemy could come from any direction. There was a flash of movement, Evan spotting a shadow through the mushrooms in an adjacent compost heap, turning his rifle on it. He loosed a burst of gunfire, the rest of his group following suit, the slugs blasting chunks out of the spires around their target. Only when it had slumped to the carpet of mushrooms did Evan realize that it was one of the Cultivators.

“Fuck!” he snarled. “Cease fire, cease fire! It was just one of the mushroom-pickers.”

The towering fungus a few inches to his left exploded, a round whizzing through it close enough that he could feel the displaced air tug at his pressure suit, spraying him with moist chunks of the thing’s spongy flesh.

“Incoming!” Hernandez yelled, everyone scrambling for cover as another round whistled through the spires. It hit the ground near Jade, throwing rotting leaves into the air. They must be subsonic – there was almost no sound to indicate where they were being fired from.

Evan dropped to a prone position, crawling behind one of the spires, leaning out to unload in the general direction that the bullets seemed to be coming from. The rest of his group did the same, Jade frantically trying to relay the general coordinates to the rest of the team. Bainbridge’s group soon opened up, their slugs tearing chunks out of the spires, cutting some of the fragile structures in half to send them crashing to the ground below.

Another shot blasted through the towers in the patch of fungi where Tatzi had thrown the tracker bug, sending one of the giant mushrooms listing like a falling tree.

“That one came from a different direction!” Jade warned. “Multiple shooters!”

“They’re firing from elevation!” Brooks added, his voice crackling over the radio. “Aim high!”

“Looks like those fuckers can’t see us either,” Evan grunted as he rolled onto his side to grab a fresh mag from his rig. “They’re firing blind, aiming for the pheromones, I think.”

“They have to be climbing the spires,” Jade added. “There are no other elevated positions in here – not unless they can hang off the walls.”

“Wouldn’t put it past ‘em,” Hernandez said, shuffling a little closer through the mushroom caps. “We saw ‘em web themselves to tree trunks last time.”

Another round impacted nearby, this one embedding itself into one of the spongy trunks of the fungi like a dart, traveling at a much lower velocity. It had what looked like an insect casing around it, which split open as Evan watched, disgorging a puff of mustard-yellow gas that the breeze quickly carried through the air.

“Chemical weapons!” Evan warned. “Ears and antennae inside your helmets, now!”

“Damn it!” Foster snarled, firing a burst into the distance. “We can’t let them pin us down like this. There has to be some way to fight back!”

“Y’all ever light a fart on fire?” Hernandez asked.

“Now is not the time, Hernandez!” Foster growled as another salvo of shots impacted around them.

“Methane!” Hernandez insisted. “That shit’s flammable! When we had compost heaps back on my family’s farm, we had to churn the piles in the summer to stop ‘em from gettin’ hot enough to go up like a fuckin’ bonfire. It don’t look like the Bugs are churnin’ shit to me!”

“You want us to light the compost piles on fire?” Jade asked, seeming almost awed by his suggestion.

“God damn it, Hernandez,” Evan grumbled. “I don’t know if you’re an idiot or a genius sometimes.”

“A slug might do it if it hits a methane pocket, but this’ll make damn sure,” Hernandez said as he tapped the grenade launcher that was mounted beneath the barrel of his XMR. “I got a few incendiary shells.”

“Then load that shit, you crazy asshole,” Foster cackled as he reached over to give him a pat on the shoulder. “Lieutenant, we got a plan. Get ready for a bang – we’re gonna light up one of these piles with an incendiary grenade.”

“Can you land that thing on target?” Evan asked, watching Hernandez load a conspicuously red grenade into his launcher. Hernandez took a knee, his expression that of a child who has just discovered a bottle rocket and an unattended lighter.

“Shit, I can put a shell up a Bug’s asshole at two hundred yards,” he replied as he took a knee. “Just gotta figure out where they are.”

“Alright, let’s try and get a bead on these things,” Evan said as he let off another burst of gunfire.

More shots impacted the fungi and blasted the carpet of mushrooms nearby, the aliens using scent to direct their fire, so certain that they had the advantage.

“There!” Tatzi bellowed, leaping to her feet to fire off a burst from her rifle. While she had begrudgingly attached a shorter barrel to make it easier to wield in the confined tunnels, she had kept the wicked bayonet mounted beneath it.

Evan followed the shot, the trail of molten tungsten briefly illuminating a figure that was perched in the tallest spires a few compost heaps over. Borealan eyes were better suited to this gloom – he would never have noticed it. The creature moved like a ghost, Evan vaguely aware of spindly, spider-like limbs reaching between the fungi as it repositioned.

“Hernandez!” he yelled.

“Fire in the hole!” Hernandez declared, rising to a knee again as he angled his grenade launcher towards the target. There was a loud thunk sound as he fired, followed by a delayed explosion, a bloom of flame silhouetting the spires as it detonated in their midst. A moment later, the massive mound of rotting plant matter erupted upwards, the explosion igniting the pockets of trapped methane beneath the surface. What must have been several tons of soil and compost was thrown into the air, uprooting the large spires and smashing them into spongy fragments, Evan’s helmet muffling the deafening boom that echoed off the chamber’s walls.

As chunks of burning mushrooms rained down all around them, Evan spotted something land near the flaming mound. The figure hit the ground hard, rolling for a few paces, then struggled to its feet. Lit by the roaring candle of burning methane, it was unmistakable, the Stalker rising to an upright posture. Rather than the leaves that those on the surface had used as camouflage, the sticky webbing that coated its thorny carapace was covered in rotting plant matter, making it look like it had rolled around in a pig’s trough. It turned the compound visors of its helmet towards Evan’s position, the many lenses reflecting the orange glow, its wicked mandibles flexing. It seemed to have lost the rifle that it had been carrying in the explosion, extending the mantis-like scythes that jutted from the wrist joints of its upper arms, their blades lined with cruel spikes. It dropped low, beginning to run, covering ground alarming quickly in spite of a conspicuous limp.

“We got a bogey coming in!” Evan warned, climbing to his feet. He started to retreat through the spires, firing through their porous trunks in the general direction of the approaching Stalker, the slugs cutting through them like butter. He only caught glimpses of the thing as it ran, backlit by the fire, dropping low and juking to avoid the incoming rounds.

“Don’t let it get close!” Jade warned, firing her PDW from the hip. “It’ll tear us apart in close quarters!”

“Fuck, I’ve lost it!” Hernandez added. “The fuckin’ visor can’t get a lock!”

The Stalker suddenly burst through the spires to the team’s left, somehow having circled around to get the drop on them, using the murky shadows and obscuring trunks to its advantage. It cut through a tower that was in its way, cleaving through the fungus with ease, sending it toppling over like a lumberjack felling a tree. It was so fast – faster than Evan could swing his rifle around to aim at it – the dirt-caked Stalker’s blades whistling through the air as it swung them towards him.

There was another loud thunk, and something shot past Evan’s helmet like a bullet. It bounced off the Stalker’s face plate like a fastball, hitting it with enough force to stop it dead, snapping its head back. It stumbled, almost falling over, one of its compound visors now sporting a large crack. It was the opening that they needed, the team cutting the thing down with a hail of slugs, blowing off chunks of its carapace and shearing off its limbs as it gradually slumped to the ground.

“Fuck,” Evan panted, glancing down at a forty-millimeter grenade that was resting by his boot.

“Minimum safe armin’ distance,” Hernandez explained. “It won’t go off, but it’ll hit like a fuckin’ truck.”

The fight wasn’t over yet, more gunfire forcing them back into cover. Hernandez loaded another grenade into his launcher, dropping low as a round blew apart a ten-meter spire nearby, shearing off a good meter from its tip. The piece fell towards Jade, Evan launching himself towards her, tackling her to the ground. He felt the chunk of porous tissue land on his back as he shielded her, bouncing off harmlessly, the combination of its spongy structure and the low gravity making it no more dangerous than a pool noodle.

“I get that we’ve not been alone for a while, but now isn’t the time,” Jade joked as he let her up.

“Sorry,” he chuckled. “That looked a lot heavier than it actually was.”

“It’s the thought that counts,” she replied, giving the side of his helmet a tap as though it were his cheek.

They joined the rest of the group in cover, watching the second team exchange fire with another mound, another chemical round exploding nearby in a puff of yellow smoke.

“How many of these fucking things are there?” Foster growled, covering his helmet reflexively as a round zipped over his head.

“There’s about to be one less,” Hernandez replied, leveling his rifle. “Fire in the hole!”

He sent another grenade sailing across the chamber, this one going a little wide. It hit one of the spires, but the soft obstacle wasn’t even able to set it off, the sponge-like flesh turning to moist chunks as it passed through unhindered. It landed deeper inside the mound, creating a bloom of bright flame, a secondary explosion tearing open the near side of the heap as the trapped methane was released. Spires some eight or nine meters tall were thrown to the ground, airborne dirt and debris raining down on the surrounding area.

Another Bug was tossed through the air, what remained of a torso and a couple of spindly limbs landing in the middle of the path. It wasn’t a Stalker this time, just one of the less fortunate Cultivators that had been caught in the crossfire.

From the burning forest of spires, a tall figure emerged, glowing embers clinging to its spiky shell as it fled from the blaze. The Bugs might not feel fear, but they reacted to being on fire the same way any creature that possessed nerve endings did. Despite being covered in smoldering compost, the Stalker raised its rifle, taking careful aim before loosing a single shot. Through the obscuring trunks of the fungi, Evan saw Bainbridge get knocked off his feet, disappearing from view beneath the carpet of mushrooms.

“The lieutenant is down!” Brooks yelled.

Forced out into the open, the Stalker was quickly taken out with return fire, the slugs turning it to Swiss cheese.

“We’re still taking fire,” Simmons warned. “There’s at least one more shooter!”

A bolt of bright, green light suddenly illuminated the spires, casting long shadows as it raced between them. It hit Tatzi in the back, splashing against her ceramic plating, sending her stumbling. Evan wheeled around, seeing two or three squads of Drones making their way through the fungi on the compost heap behind them, the burning piles making it easier to see their orange carapaces and reflective lenses.

“Drones incoming, six o’clock!” Evan shouted as he began to return fire. Jade and Foster lined up beside him, Tatzi joining them, none the worse for wear. They were gradually learning to pay no attention to the mushrooms, simply firing through them as though they weren’t there at all, spraying to make up for their broken sightlines. Evan watched a few of the Bugs fall, knocked off their feet by the impacts, ichor spraying. One of them lost an arm, the force of the blow spinning it around, a spray of molten metal sending it toppling over.

The Bugs lay down plasma fire, covering one another as they advanced, forcing the squad to pull back. The XMRs seemed far more suited to this environment than the plasma rifles, however. The slugs punched through the towers without any resistance, while their spongy tissue stopped the magnetically-contained gas dead, the boiling projectiles searing smoking holes in their trunks.

“Regroup!” Simmons ordered, turning his team’s attention to this new threat. “Form a firing line!”

They began to retreat towards Simmons’ group, firing as they went. Hernandez shot off another grenade, this one exploding into a cloud of shrapnel that tore a handful of the Drones to pieces, scattering their dismembered bodies across the chamber. Several nearby spires were caught in the blast, the damage enough to send them crashing down.

“What happened to the incendiaries?” Foster demanded, pausing to reload.

“That was all I had!” Hernandez replied. “I brought three – used the last one to brain that Stalker.”

They made it to the incline, putting the compost mound between them and the Bugs, the five of them rushing across the dirt path that separated them from the rest of the team. Simmons had already set his people up on the crest of the hill, covering them as they scrambled up it, Evan taking handfuls of rotting vegetation for purchase. They fell into line, turning to fire on the Drones again, the insects hot on their heels. The aliens were making their way across the mound that Evan’s group had just abandoned, struggling to get clear shots with their plasma weapons, another dozen of them succumbing to railgun fire.

Perhaps realizing their disadvantage, the Drones broke into a sprint, discarding their rifles in favor of bladed weapons and pistols. Four squads of them swarmed through the spires, wading through the densely-packed mushroom caps, relying on their numbers to overwhelm the defenders. They spread out, making themselves harder to hit, leaping over the fallen bodies of their comrades.

Evan reloaded his rifle, turning his head to see Collins tending to Bainbridge. The lieutenant was lying still, though Evan couldn’t see any obvious wounds, and his face was hidden behind his opaque visor. His IFF was still picking up a pulse, but it was hard to gauge the extent of his injuries through all that thick armor. As Collins tried to pry the microwave gun from his hands, Bainbridge suddenly sat up, pulling it away from the startled Marine.

“I’m not out of the game yet, Private,” he grunted as Collins helped pull him to his feet.

He hurried over to the firing line, shouldering the bulky, black housing of the microwave gun. The Drones that had made it across the path emerged into view, scrambling up the hill, only a few meters away now. They brandished their swords and daggers, the rails of their pronged handguns crackling with green energy as they charged.

Their assault was stopped dead as Bainbridge fired, the wide beam heating the air, the searing radiation beginning to cook them where they stood. Steam poured from the breaks in their warping carapaces, escaping from their helmets to make them look like they were exhaling smoke from their mandibles, the creatures jerking violently as their flesh baked. The beam wasn’t concentrated enough to kill them outright, several of them fighting through the shock and pain to level their pistols, but the team did the rest of the work. A hail of gunfire cut through the Drones, putting them out of their misery, their smoking bodies collapsing into the compost.

“Lieutenant!” Simmons stammered, turning to face him.

“Good job those bastards aren’t using XMRs,” he grunted, brushing some debris from his chest piece with a gloved hand. There was a conspicuous dent in the plate, some of the fabric stripped away to reveal the cracked material beneath. “It felt like someone hit me in the chest with a sledgehammer – knocked the fucking wind out of me.”

“We need to get the hell out of here, Lieutenant,” Simmons said as he dropped an empty magazine. “I think we’ve outstayed our welcome.”

“Yep, the Queen definitely seems pissed off with us,” Bainbridge replied. “There has to be an exit on the other side of the chamber. Move quickly, but keep an eye out. There’s at least one Stalker that’s not accounted for.”

They began to move, keeping to the cover of the spires. With a sniper on the loose, their first instinct was to stay put, but allowing themselves to remain pinned would put them at risk of being overwhelmed by more Drones. Regardless of how well they fared, they would run out of ammo eventually. There was a lot of smoke in the air from the fires now, and Evan noted that some of the orifices on the ceiling had sealed shut like pursed lips, perhaps sensitive to the ash and embers.

“On the right!” Borzka warned, Evan turning to see a dark shadow leaping through the towering mushrooms. It moved so quickly, monkeying its way between the spires using its long limbs, its camouflage making it blend into the gloom.

They stopped to fire at it, their slugs blowing off chunks of fungus, but it was moving like a ghost.

“Can’t you hit it with your microwave gun, L.T?” Hernandez asked as he let off another burst in frustration.

“It’s moving too fast,” Bainbridge replied. “I can’t hold the beam on it long enough to have any effect.”

“Keep moving!” Simmons ordered, weaving between the spires. “I think it’s trying to head us off at the exit!”

They followed him through the fungal forests, their boots pounding on the wet earth, hearing the sounds of more Drones approaching from somewhere behind them. Another round zipped through the spires, disgorging a puff of yellow gas as it impacted in their midst, splitting open like a pepper ball. The team ran through the spreading cloud, the chemicals unable to penetrate their suits, but the fact that the Stalker had such a clear shot was reason enough for alarm. Bainbridge had gotten lucky, but luck was a resource that was draining even faster than their ammunition.

“There!” Tatzi said, her feline eyes able to pick out their destination as they neared. “I see a tunnel!”

She led them towards it, the team skidding down one of the compost heaps, finding themselves on a dirt path that led to a shadowy opening a couple of hundred meters away. They were in the open now, but relative safety was in sight. As they rushed towards the exit, a shot rang out from somewhere behind them, a projectile whistling over their heads. It shed its casing like a sabot, a web of gossamer filaments unfurling from it, a net made from sticky fibers blocking off the tunnel mouth.

“It’s trying to stop us from getting away!” Foster snarled.

Borkza accelerated towards it, outpacing the rest of the team, bracing his shoulder like a furry freight train.

“Wait!” Jade yelled, but it was too late. The Borealan slammed into the webbing, the strands straining against his weight, stretching – but not breaking in the way that he had anticipated. Instead, he became tangled in the gluey strands, his struggling only ensuring that he was more trapped. The stuff had incredible tensile strength, and it wasn’t breaking away from the resin where it was anchored, despite Borzka’s writhing.

“Cut through it!” Bainbridge ordered, his boots skidding in the dirt as he wheeled around to face their pursuers.

“We’ve got this!” Jade said, waving for Aster and Cardinal to follow her as she rushed to Borzka’s aid. They drew their combat knives, starting to cut at the strands that held the web up. While they could easily hold the weight of the struggling Borealan, they didn’t seem as difficult to slice through. It looked like it was still going to take a hot minute, Evan joining the firing line, aiming his rifle back down the path.

A squad of Drones that had been tailing them rounded one of the heaps, quickly scattering for the cover of the spires as the squad unloaded on them, their slugs creating splashes in the rotting vegetation and kicking up clods of dirt. Several of their targets fell, follow-up shots finishing them off as they tried to crawl to safety. The Stalker fired a second chemical round at them from out of sight, still not realizing that they were immune to its effects, a burst of yellow gas obscuring their vision.

“How’s that net coming, ladies?” Simmons asked as his rifle rocked back into his shoulder. “We don’t exactly have a lot of time here!”

“Almost done, Sergeant!” Aster replied. Her blade flashed, another of the taut strands snapping, the Jarilan leaning away to avoid the hanging thread.

“Keep still, you hairball!” Jade grumbled as Borzka struggled against his bonds. “You’re not making this any easier for us!”

A volley of plasma bolts sailed their way, another squad firing from the cover of the fungal towers on a heap to their right, most of them splashing against the wall behind them. One of them found its mark, hitting Aster in the back, the Jarilan letting out a pained yell as it charred her carapace. Evan had no idea whether that was armor or part of her body, but she kept cutting, ignoring the injury.

Simmons directed their fire, the Marines responding in kind, their slugs chewing through Bugs and spires with equal ease. Half a dozen of the Drones dropped, the rest choosing to retreat deeper into the forest, where their plasma bolts posed less of a threat.

“Got it!” Jade announced, Evan turning his head to see Borkza fall forward. He was still wrapped in the tangle of sticky webbing, but the way had been cleared, the darkness beyond beckoning to them.

“Pull back!” Bainbridge ordered, a wide beam from his microwave gun dissuading a more persistent squad of Drones that were trying to flank them to the left. The creatures scattered as the heat scalded them, diving for cover.

The squad lay down covering fire as they filed into the tunnel, Evan feeling a wave of relief wash over him as the resin walls enclosed them like a protective cocoon. Once everyone was inside, Bainbridge slowed, rummaging in one of his pouches. He was interrupted as several Drones clogged the mouth of the tunnel, their blades drawn, but a more concentrated burst from his gun sent their steaming bodies toppling to the floor. He withdrew one of his explosive charges, jamming a little receiver into it before tossing it at the ceiling, where it stuck fast like a wet clump of toilet paper to a restroom wall.

“Go, go!” he warned as he began to jog after them. “Get clear!”

“Where are we going?” Hernandez demanded.

“Anywhere that isn’t here!” Bainbridge replied. He fired another dissuading blast from his microwave gun down the passage, sending more Drones fleeing from its searing heat. The things were relentless, trying to swarm into the narrow space, only the bottleneck preventing the team from being swamped.

Evan wondered what had become of Borzka, seeing that he was still wrapped up like a mummy in the Stalker webbing, his limbs hopelessly tangled. The stuff had seemed to grow tighter the more he fought, and he was now totally immobilized. Aster and Cardinal were dragging him along the ground like an oversized piece of luggage, their insect strength and the low gravity allowing them to move his five-hundred-pound frame with more ease than Evan would have expected.

They rounded a bend in the tunnel, Bainbridge narrowly avoiding a barrage of plasma bolts that reflected off the resin in brilliant green. The lieutenant put his back to the wall, bringing up the bulky touch device that was built into his armored wrist, jamming his gloved finger into it. There was no detonator – he seemed to be keying a code into the computer. A blast resonated through the tunnel, Evan’s helmet rendering him completely deaf to protect his ears, a pressure wave rushing through him with a tangible jolt that he could feel in his very organs. It was followed by a rush of dust and debris that came racing around the corner, momentary panic gripping him as the air was filled with obscuring smoke.

“Everyone good?” Simmons asked, Evan’s helmet picking up the squad’s IFF signals in spite of the swirling dust. All blue, no KIA markers. The team sounded off one by one, the haze slowly clearing, revealing the figures. Most of them were sitting or leaning against the walls now, taking a moment to catch their breath, a few of the more wary members keeping their weapons trained on the blind corner. Bainbridge inched closer to the bend, using the extensible camera on his wrist to check that the coast was clear.

“That did the job,” he announced. “The tunnel has caved in – the Bugs can’t follow us this way. It’ll take them a while to dig through that, even with an army of Workers.”

“And we can’t get back out,” Garcia panted, turning his opaque visor towards the lieutenant.

It wasn’t like him to snap at a superior officer. Perhaps the claustrophobia that he had expressed earlier was creeping up on him again. Evan couldn’t really blame him, feeling a knot form in his belly at the prospect of being buried alive down here. Their breadcrumb trail of repeaters was of no use to them if they couldn’t find a route back to those tunnels from their present position.

“Stow it, Marine,” Simmons replied.

“It was either cave in the tunnel or deal with that swarm of Drones,” Bainbridge explained as he checked the charge on his microwave gun. “I prefer the option where we don’t get butchered like pigs.”

“Will one of you please untie me?” Borzka grumbled, still tightly bound in the netting. The three Jarilans got to work slicing away the strands, but Tatzi made her way over to them, pulling Aster aside.

“You are injured,” she said, examining the burn mark on Aster’s back as she held her firmly by one of her upper arms.

“I-I’m fine,” Aster replied, though the tension in her voice suggested otherwise. The carapace where her shoulder blades would have been had sagged inward to form a little crater, its edges charred and blistered, stripping away the camouflaged paint to reveal patches of the pastel purple color from which she no doubt got her name. As nasty as it looked, Evan had no idea if that plate was part of her body or just a piece of armor.

“Looks like the plate took the brunt of the damage,” Jade said, walking over to examine the wound as she sheathed her knife. Behind her, Cardinal stripped away the last of the strands that held Borzka, the Borealan finally able to sit up. “It looks like enough heat made it through to burn your carapace,” Jade continued as she leaned closer. “I think it might have fused.”

“Fused?” Tatzi asked, glancing down at the diminutive insect.

“The armor plate has melted to her carapace,” Jade explained. “We have synthetic armor plating that we wear in the same way that you wear ceramics, but underneath that, we have an organic exoskeleton. It has nerve endings, blood vessels – it’s not much less sensitive than skin.”

“I can deal with it,” Aster grunted, pulling away from Tatzi’s furry grip. “It’s not like we can go back anyway…”

“I have painkillers for burns, but they’re for humans,” Simmons said. “I have no idea if they’ll even work on a Jarilan.”

“I’ll be fine,” Aster replied, perhaps with a little less conviction than she had intended.

“We have to keep moving,” Bainbridge said, swapping out the empty battery that was housed beneath his microwave gun in the same way that someone would reload a rifle. “The longer we hang around, the more time the Queen has to figure out new ways to get at us. We’re officially on her shit list now.”

“What’s the prognosis on Aster?” Evan asked, opening a private channel with Jade as they followed after the lieutenant. The Jarilan in question was lagging behind, just walking seeming to hurt her, Cardinal sticking close to her side.

“Not immediately fatal,” Jade replied, glancing back at her counterpart. “That’s maybe more optimistic than it came across, though. If we can get her to a medic within a few hours, she should be okay. It has to hurt like hell, though. Imagine having your melted clothes stuck to your skin, and that’s basically what happened.”

“You guys really should bring medical supplies for Jarilans,” he added, but Jade just shrugged in response.

“Sorry, first war. It’s not like the Betelgeusians before us were too concerned with keeping their Drones comfortable.”

“Fair point,” he conceded.

CHAPTER 11: WETWORK

Bainbridge stopped, Evan almost bumping into him.

“Water lock,” the lieutenant announced, his tone dour. Evan leaned past him to see that the tunnel ahead of them was completely flooded with dirty water. “Check your suits for leaks. Especially you, Tatzi.”

“What the fuck is a water lock?” Brooks asked. He was at the back of the column, too far away to see what was going on in the narrow passageway.

“It’s a submerged tunnel that acts as a natural airlock to mitigate the effects of pressure waves and prevent the spread of contaminants like chemical weapons,” Bainbridge explained as he reached up to check the seal on his helmet. “I don’t suppose any of you have done any cave diving, by any chance?”

“Cave diving?” Garcia repeated in disbelief. “Lieutenant, with all due respect-”

“Whenever people start a sentence with that phrase, the respect that’s due is never given,” Bainbridge interrupted. “Speak freely, Private.”

“You want us to go cave diving?” Garcia continued. “It’s not bad enough that we’re hundreds of meters below ground, stuck in tunnels filled with mines and pitfalls, being chased by murderous insects. Now, we have to add drowning to that list, too?”

“You won’t drown, Private,” Bainbridge replied. “Your pressure suit is rated for vacuum – it’ll keep you alive in shallow water for as long as your oxygen supply lasts. These water locks are usually only a few hundred meters long.”

“A few hundred meters,” Garcia replied in disbelief. He sounded like he was going to pass out from the mere suggestion.

“It’s the only way out of this tunnel,” Bainbridge added. “Your options are to stay here and wait for the Workers to dig through that cave-in, or you can get wet. Your choice.”

Garcia didn’t reply, but he began to run the necessary checks on his suit, which seemed to be enough to satisfy Bainbridge. Tatzi’s suit had gotten pretty torn up during their fight in the armory, and it was being held together with tape – literally. The cuts and punctures had all been covered over with the emergency patch tape.

“Pressure reads normal,” she announced, knowing that they were all waiting for her.

“Better be damn sure,” Bainbridge warned. “If you spring a leak down there, it might be a bit of a walk back to the surface.”

“My people are strong swimmers,” she insisted.

“Not with all that gear, you’re not,” the lieutenant muttered. “Alright, any more objections? We all pressurized and ready?” Nobody spoke up, so he continued, turning to face them. “Visibility down there is going to be low, and the water will interfere with your other view modes. The only thing that’s going to stand any chance of cutting through that shit is a flashlight. Keep your eyes on the Marine in front of you – don’t lose sight of them. If you get turned around for any reason, just stay put and try not to panic. Wireless signals can’t travel far in water, so anyone who’s more than a few meters away is going to have a hard time hearing you. Remember – the more agitated you are, the more oxygen you’re burning.”

The pep talk didn’t seem to be doing much for Garcia’s nerves. Evan could see his chest rising and falling rapidly beneath his suit as he checked the seals on his gloves. He had already expressed apprehension at just being sent underground, and now he was being put under even more pressure – both figuratively and literally. At this rate, he might crack.

“Hey, Jade,” Evan began as he switched his attention to her. “How do Bugs make it through those flooded tunnels? They don’t have pressure suits, do they?”

“Betelgeusians are evolved to live in space,” she explained. “Maybe they’re engineered that way, or maybe they originated in some environment that we can’t even imagine – we don’t know – but they can survive for extended periods of time without air.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen them walk around in vacuum,” Evan grumbled as he recalled the four-legged astromorphs that he had faced on the hull of his original assault carrier. “You’re not freaking out about this, so I assume the same is true for you?”

“I’m rated for vacuum,” she replied, rapping a lower fist on her carapace. “Like our Betelgeusian ancestors, Jarilans can accumulate hemoglobin molecules in our tissues and hemolymph, which can then be released as necessary. It’s kind of like using all of your fat and muscle as an emergency oxygen tank. We’re a little less specialized than our cousins,” she added, gesturing to herself with a lower hand. “We had to sacrifice some efficiency for…well, y’know. We can still hold our breath for a really, really long time, though. Actually, the accumulation of waste gasses like CO2 that can’t be expelled will kill us faster than running out of oxygen would in space. It’s a little easier in water. You can just open your spiracles and exhale – if you can call it exhaling.”

“Well, aren’t you full of surprises,” Evan mused. He lowered his helmet, making a point of looking at her chest, her bosom contained beneath her armored plate. “Fatty tissue…and here I thought that the Queen just wanted to make you look good.”

“That’s not the reason I have them,” she replied, cocking an eyebrow plate at him through her transparent visor. “But, yeah, it’s a little more adipose tissue for hemoglobin storage. If you start calling them oxygen tanks, you’re going to be sleeping on the couch.”

“That implies you envision a future where we own a couch,” he replied, Jade unable to see his grin through his helmet.

“Let’s focus on getting out of here first,” she replied, failing to stifle an amused chuckle.

“Do our XMRs work underwater?” Foster asked.

“All of the electronics are insulated, so it’ll function underwater,” Bainbridge replied as he approached the murky liquid. It looked like a stagnant pond from where Evan was standing, but he could guess that the tunnel likely sloped down, maybe like the U-bend in a toilet. “Just be aware that your ballistics are going to be very different.”

“You have a custom profile with voltages and coil timings for this,” Simmons added. “Check your system.”

“I didn’t know that,” Foster grumbled as he keyed in the settings on his wrist device.

“That’s because we don’t make a habit of fighting underwater,” Simmons replied.

“Gee, I wonder why,” Hernandez whispered over the private channel.

“Are we actually expecting to have to fight down there?” Garcia asked, the tension in his voice palpable over the comms.

“You should expect to fight Bugs anywhere a Bug can feasibly go,” Bainbridge replied, starting to wade into the water. He slung his microwave rifle over his back, unholstering his sidearm, switching on the flashlight that was mounted beneath its short barrel. The water reached his knees, then his waist, and he soon vanished into the flooded section of tunnel.

Evan and Hernandez waited at the water’s edge, neither one of them willing to make the first move, until Jade finally got frustrated and gave them both an encouraging push.

Evan could feel the frigid water through his suit, and he had to keep reminding himself that it wasn’t actually wet on the inside, his boots slowly submerging. He remembered the apprehension of waiting in the airlock before walking out onto the assault carrier’s hull, where missing a step could send him tumbling into open space, but something about this was even more frightening. Vacuum was an abstract concept – something no human was ever supposed to experience naturally – but the fear of drowning had been written into every strand of his DNA.

The water line slowly crept up his visor until it rose above his helmet, the murky liquid limiting his vision to just a few feet ahead. It was like walking along the bottom of a muddy lake, each step dredging up clouds of silt – or loose dirt, in this case. His suit switched to its oxygen reserves, quickly giving it a recycled taste, a hint of metal pricking his tongue with each breath. With a pang of alarm, he realized that Bainbridge was already out of sight. He reached down to fumble with the flashlight on his barrel, the beam cutting through the dark water, providing just enough light for him to see the resin walls that enclosed him. The disturbed soil was making the visibility even worse, waterborne dirt quickly filling the tunnel.

Finally, he caught a glimpse of Bainbridge – the lieutenant was waiting a few paces further down the tunnel.

“Try to keep up, Private,” Bainbridge said. The water was fucking with the comms enough that it already sounded like he was talking through a busted radio, this voice coming through crackly and distorted.

The rest of the team filtered in behind them, every step they took sending more crap floating up into their field of vision, even the flashlight beams quickly losing their effectiveness. All that Evan could really rely on now was the IFF system, which highlighted his companions with blue outlines when he enabled the setting.

“How do the Bugs even see anythin’ down here?” Hernandez grumbled, keeping one hand on the resin wall to his left as he trudged along in what looked like slow-motion. It was a little like walking in microgravity.

“They don’t,” Jade replied. “Vision isn’t that important of a sense for them in these environments. They’ll use touch and scent to navigate.”

“I suppose this ain’t botherin’ you in the least, then,” he continued as he stumbled along.

“This isn’t exactly my idea of a pleasant stroll either,” she shot back.

“Garcia, how are you doing?” Simmons asked. He’d clearly picked up on the Marine’s apprehension too, and it was good to know that he was keeping a close eye on him.

“I’m doing,” he replied, which was apparently enough to satisfy the sergeant for the time being.

They advanced down the tunnel, the visibility next to nothing, the blue outlines on Evan’s HUD wavering as the water interfered with the wireless signal that connected the squadmates to one another. With another stab of alarm, he realized that this was not merely a single straight tunnel. There were branching paths that terminated in junctions, perhaps designed to protect as many ingress points from the aforementioned chemical attacks and pressure waves as possible. It meant that they were on the right track, but it made taking a wrong turn in this underwater labyrinth doubly dangerous.

“Perhaps we should hold one another’s tails like kittens on their way to school,” Tatzi suggested, the mental image giving Evan a brief moment of levity.

“Grab the next guy’s rig if it helps,” Bainbridge replied. “We’re not in a hurry, so if there’s a problem, just stop and ask for help.”

“I’d rather not spend a second longer than I have to down here,” Garcia grumbled, sounding out of breath.

They turned a bend, Evan struggling to keep Bainbridge in sight. The lieutenant had clearly done this before, and he was more accustomed to this awkward underwater movement. Microgravity was one thing, but there was no force fighting against you in space, no medium that you had to push through.

“Whoa!” Hernandez exclaimed, Evan whipping his head around as he struggled to find his friend in the murky water. There he was – almost impossible to see despite being in arm’s reach.

“What’s the issue?” Bainbridge demanded.

“Somethin’ brushed my leg!” Hernandez insisted, kicking up more silt as he checked his immediate surroundings. “There! On the walls!”

Evan could see them now too. Anchored to the resin – or perhaps growing out of it – was a forest of fleshy tendrils that waved with the gentle flow of water. At a glance, it was impossible to tell if the things were animal, plant, or some kind of fungus. They had a muted, off-green color, with a vaguely flat shape that reminded Evan of a flatworm.

“Lieutenant?” Evan prompted.

“Never seen these before,” Bainbridge replied, unconcerned by the development. “Maybe the Bugs are using them to filter the water, or maybe they’re growing them as crops.”

They kept moving, the sparse tendrils becoming denser the deeper they traveled into the tunnel network until the walls were completely covered with them. They were growing out of the floor, too, Evan feeling the uncomfortable squishing sensation as they were compressed beneath his boots. It was like walking down a giant, overgrown storm drain filled with weeds.

“H-hey!” Jade grumbled, Evan turning to see what was wrong. She had been advancing close behind him, but she had stopped, her visor angled down towards the floor. “One of those things grabbed me!”

He followed her gaze to see that one of the fleshy tendrils had wound its way around her ankle, pressing flat against her carapace. More were following, the nearby protrusions slowly reaching for her, coiling around her limb like the tentacles of a sea anemone. She was able to pull one foot free, but by the time she tried to do the same with the second, it was stuck fast. The flat, slimy tentacles were forming a kind of cocoon over her foot, wrapping around her shin and coiling between her hoof-like toes.

“Ew, they’re sticky,” she complained. “Guys? I think…I think we might have a problem.”

Evan felt a pressure on his boot, glancing down to see that the same thing was happening to him. The forest of tendrils was reaching out, gripping his foot with surprising strength, feeling their way around until they found purchase as though acting with some rudimentary awareness of their surroundings.

“Pick up the pace!” Bainbridge said, his tone more urgent now.

“The fuckin’ things are trying to stop us!” Hernandez added, tearing his boot away from the reaching tendrils with considerable difficulty. When he leaned a hand against the nearby wall for balance, more of them began to slide around his gloved fingers, the Marine letting out a grunt of disgust as he pulled away.

“It is a security mechanism!” Borzka growled. Evan couldn’t see him – the Borealan was too far behind him – but he could hear him struggling over the comms. “They do not recognize our scent, and so they seek to hold us here until we drown!”

“What the fuck do we do?” Garcia snapped, panic gripping him.

“Keep moving!” Bainbridge barked.

They picked up the pace, trying to make it past the tentacles before they could react to their presence, but the things were extending out of the ground and walls to reach a foot or more in length. They were communicating, perhaps spreading pheromones through the water, activating those that weren’t even close to the intruders. They reached out blindly, flailing in the water, searching for anything that they could get a grip on.

Evan felt one coil around his arm, stopping him dead, a second joining it. Like some kind of probing slug, it felt its way along the kevlar-lined material, finding an armor plate to hook its tapered end around. He let go of his XMR, letting it float on its sling, reaching for the combat knife on his belt. The serrated blade reflected his wandering flashlight beam as he brought it to one of the tentacles, slicing into the soft muscle, severing it. Its grip loosened, the appendage wriggling as it pulled away, jetting dark ink. It must be some kind of ichor – as black as night, quickly filling the water.

“Help me!” he heard Garcia yell, terror cracking his voice. “Help me!”

Evan glanced back to see him being pulled against one of the walls, lit by the ghostly beam of the flashlights, the tentacles overpowering him. He was thrashing around violently, kicking up more silt, the iron grip of several dozen tendrils practically cocooning him.

Tatzi came to his rescue, using her machete-sized knife to slice and chop, tearing some of the appendages up from the root like garden weeds through sheer brute strength. Every severed tendril released more of that ink, the mucous-like fluid blinding them, making their already limited visibility even poorer.

“I can’t see my own goddamned hands!” Foster yelled, his voice breaking up over the radio.

“Visibility is zero!” Donovan added. “Where the hell are you guys?”

“Keep it together!” Simmons replied, but Evan didn’t even know where the sergeant was anymore. It was all falling apart – everyone was lost, panicking, trapped. He felt another questing tentacle wrap around his ankle, trying to pull him closer so that its neighbors could reach him, Evan kicking it away. Holy shit, they might actually die down here, suffocating in the pitch darkness as their limited oxygen supplies ran dry. There were so many overlapping, fragmented cries for help and requests for orders filling his ears that he couldn’t even concentrate.

Something gripped his wrist, but it wasn’t a fleshy tentacle this time – it was a hand.

“Follow me!” Jade said, her voice coming through clear inside his helmet.

She led him down the tunnel, cutting away the tendrils that snagged on her limbs, Evan doing the same when he felt one of them get a hold on his pressure suit. He was almost completely blind now, relying on her guidance entirely, trusting that she could leverage her Bug senses to find the way out.

After what must have been a couple of minutes of blind fumbling, the water finally began to clear, the grasping tentacles growing sparse enough that he could walk normally again. He saw Bainbridge and Hernandez waiting in the tunnel, Cardinal leaving their side to head back in search of more of their squadmates. Her antennae were extended, waving in the water. Evan could see that her helmet had flooded, turning her visor into a fishbowl, but he reminded himself that the Jarilans didn’t need to breathe. They had no real mouths, no lungs, and their oxygen stores were housed in their tissues rather than inside pressurized suits.

“Holy shit,” Evan panted as Jade released him. “I was starting to think we weren’t getting out of there.”

“Stay put while we fetch everyone else,” she replied hurriedly, whipping around. She made her way back down the tunnel, the ink that clouded the water turning it into a black abyss, Cardinal disappearing from view behind her.

One by one, the two Jarilans returned with a squad member in tow, delivering an exhausted Marine before heading back into the darkness. Everyone was tired, frightened, but none the worse for wear. It seemed that the purpose of the tentacles was merely to ensnare intruders for long enough that they would drown, or perhaps until a squad of Drones could be sent to investigate – as Borzka had guessed.

When Tatzi emerged, she was carrying Garcia in her arms, the Marine gripping her tightly like a baby monkey. Aster trailed behind her, apparently injured enough that she couldn’t help her sisters in their rescue attempts. Now that everyone was accounted for, Bainbridge led them on, the smooth walls devoid of tentacles after a few turns. With Jade’s guidance, they made it to an upward slope, Evan letting out a sigh of relief into his helmet. He checked his suit’s oxygen supply, seeing that he had about fifteen minutes left. It was less than it seemed, and it drove home how close they had just come to disaster.

Finally, Bainbridge located the exit, slowly disappearing from view as he climbed out of the murky water. The rest of the squad followed, Evan watching the waterline slide down his visor as he emerged onto dry land. He reached up to pop open his helmet, taking in a deep breath of that stale tunnel air, now as sweet as a summer breeze. If a chemical mine exploded in his face, then so be it. If he spent another second breathing recycled oxygen, he was going to lose it like Garcia.

Two by two, the team emerged from the flooded passage, the dark water sloughing off their armor to dampen the packed dirt that made up the floor. Everyone was covered in splotches of that dark ichor, like someone had splashed them with ink, the substance apparently denser and stickier than the water. Foster was the last out, holding Aster’s hand as he guided her along, the injured Jarilan wincing behind her visor with each step. The extra movement required to escape the tentacles must have been painful for her, and she was hobbling along like an elderly woman.

“I got you,” Foster said as he lowered her to a sitting position beside the tunnel wall, his tone gentler than Evan had ever heard it. “Take it easy, kid.”

Tatzi set Garcia down, and he immediately tore off his helmet with a hermetic hiss, taking in rapid gulps of air as he staggered away from her. He leaned over with his hands on his knees as though he expected to start retching, his face drained of color, drenched with sweat.

“This is fucked,” he eventually declared, pausing to swallow the lump in his throat. “We’re Marines – we aren’t even supposed to be here.”

“You’ll go wherever Fleetcom tells you to go,” Simmons replied, but Garcia was at the end of his rope. He pointed an accusing finger at the sergeant, the rest of the team watching in silence.

“This is a fucking suicide mission – that’s what it is. We don’t have the training or the equipment to do this job, and they just sent us down here to fucking die!”

“Stand down, Private,” Simmons replied sternly. “If you want to turn in your resignation the moment we get topside, that’s your prerogative, but you’ll do as I say as long as you’re under my command.”

Bainbridge began to laugh, Garcia snapping his head in the lieutenant’s direction.

“On Kruger, the casualty rate for Trog teams was thirty percent,” Bainbridge chuckled. “The fact that none of you have kicked the bucket yet is a fucking miracle, and you don’t even realize it because you have no point of reference. Now,” he continued, turning around. “If you’ve gotten it out of your system, we have a mission to complete.”

Garcia didn’t even argue – he was too taken aback by the strange response.

“Lieutenant, they need a few minutes,” Simmons said apologetically. “As little as I appreciate Private Garcia’s insubordination, my people aren’t Trogs. He’s right about that.”

“Alright, take five,” Bainbridge conceded. “We probably still have a ways to go, so don’t think the worst is behind you. Use the opportunity to take a breather and get some fluids in you.”

“I think I’ve had enough fluids for the time being,” Collins grumbled, glancing back at the flooded tunnel behind them.

Evan followed Jade over to where Aster was sitting, the injured Jarilan leaning forward conspicuously to prevent the burns on her back from coming into contact with the resin. It didn’t exactly look like the most comfortable position. Foster was leaning against the wall beside her, Evan giving him an appreciative nod as he approached.

“How are you doing?” Jade asked, crouching down beside her.

“The cold water helped a little,” she replied, attempting to sound reassuring. “Listen,” she added, turning her eyes to the dirt. Despite her injuries, there was no wavering in her voice, no strain. Whatever organ was producing her speech, it wasn’t connected to a pair of lungs, and it required no great effort from her. “You should leave me behind. I’m only going to slow you down. I would have drowned in that tunnel if you guys hadn’t been there to cut me loose.”

“That’s not how we do things in the UNN,” Foster replied, crossing his arms defiantly. “We all go, or none of us go.”

“Borzka or Tatzi can carry you if you can’t keep up,” Evan added. “They won’t even notice the extra weight. Hell, you probably weigh less than my pack does in this gravity.”

“The roaches might expend their troops like ammo, but you’re not expendable to us,” Foster continued as he glanced down at her. “Suck it up, Private.”

“A-alright,” she said, reaching for Jade’s hand as she struggled to her feet. Foster could be blunt, but he didn’t split hairs, and his words seemed to have gotten through to her.

“Garcia,” Hernandez said, giving the Marine a rough pat on the back. “You good?”

“Yeah,” he sighed, glancing up at Tatzi. “Thanks, by the way. I kind of froze up down there.”

“We are a pack,” she replied, shaking some of the water from her XMR. “Packmates look out for one another.”

“Alright, let’s get moving,” Bainbridge said as he waved them on.

***

Gunfire filled the tunnel, a squad of Drones falling, their bodies riddled with smoking holes. Bainbridge lowered his microwave gun, the wavering air cooling.

“Patrols are getting more frequent,” he muttered as he stepped over their bodies. “We’re in the more sensitive parts of the hive now. The Queen’s chamber can’t be far off.”

“We’re not really going to try to take out the Queen on our own, are we?” Collins asked as he hopped over one of the limp Drones. “All due respect, sir-”

“What have I told you guys about saying all due respect?” Bainbridge grumbled.

“L.T, we can’t take on the Queen,” Collins continued. “The Kings had Supermajors and shielded Warriors in their entourages. Sunny’s gone, and we don’t have any heavy weapons.”

“Queens aren’t generally as tough as Supermajors,” he replied, pausing to place another repeater on the wall. With their way back sealed off by the collapsed tunnel – not to mention the flooded passage filled with tentacle traps – it seemed like a futile gesture. Nobody had brought it up yet, but they had no clear route back to the surface anymore. “Supermajors and Warriors have redundant organs and layers of armor, but Queens are all brain. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still big and strong enough to tear a Marine in half, but an XMR will get the job done.”

“Unless their Queen is something we’ve never seen before,” Brooks added.

“The Queens are all pretty similar,” Bainbridge replied, leading them down another branching tunnel. “They’re one of the few constants in a hive, since they’re a holdover from the nuptial fleet. Queens don’t exactly have a line of succession, so we shouldn’t expect any large genetic variations between them. Their security, on the other hand, varies a lot. Blast doors and an entourage are a given.”

“How exactly are we supposed to get through blast doors?” Hernandez asked.

“That’s what the explosives are for,” Bainbridge replied.

“It’s starting to get hotter,” Garcia complained. “My suit’s cooling is kicking in again. Is that just because we’re so far underground?”

“No, a hive is kept at a constant temperature and humidity,” Jade replied. “If there’s any variation in the climate, it’s for a reason.”

“Do you smell anything odd?” Simmons asked.

“It smells…hot,” she replied with a shrug. “Like sun-baked resin. There’s metal, soot. I don’t smell any Drones, just Workers.”

“Hold,” Bainbridge said, the team coming to a stop as he checked the next corner. “We got another room here. Standard breaching procedure – be ready to fire.”

The team fanned out as they entered another large dome, this one almost the size of the chamber that had housed the methane farm. Immediately, Evan realized where the heat was coming from. The room was filled with kilns – large mounds of what looked like packed clay and resin with round openings that emitted a fiery glow. They were lined up in rows along the base of the wall, and they were being tended by an army of Workers, the squat little creatures carrying tools back and forth and manning what looked like some form of organic bellows. There were great heaps of raw, unrefined metal stacked nearby. The chunks looked like they had only recently been dug up, like something one might expect to see coming out of a mine shaft on a cart. There were no carts, however. Evan could see a series of tunnels at the other end of the room, processions of Workers emerging from them with buckets of raw ore, depositing them on the heaps before heading back the way they had come.

“They’re smelting ore,” Collins mused, watching one of the aliens pump a bellows that looked eerily similar to a giant lung. Another of the creatures deposited some of the ore into a metal container that resembled a pot with a long handle, then slid it into the kiln, orange sparks dancing out of its uneven opening.

“The techniques are so primitive,” Foster added, lowering his rifle. “These look like something you’d find in an iron age settlement, not something that a spacefaring species would rely on.”

“The Bugs aren’t as heavily industrialized as you might imagine,” Bainbridge replied, leading them through the middle of the chamber. “They have a limitless source of manpower, and they aren’t exactly concerned about their working conditions, so there isn’t much of an incentive to automate their production. You don’t need conveyor belts if Workers are perfectly happy to just carry things, and you don’t need robots to assemble equipment if your Workers are just as specialized and precise.”

“How do they make more advanced materials?” Foster asked. “What about composites? Processors? I assume they’re not individually aligning nanotubes into lattices by hand?”

“Most of their computing is done organically,” Bainbridge explained, stepping around a confused Worker that was standing in his path. “CPUs are usually grown, not built. That said, they’re still perfectly capable of manufacturing complex electronics. The voltage regulators on their weapons, for example.”

“You’d be surprised by what you can make by hand,” Jade added. “It’s the same on Jarilo – everything that we make receives the individual attention of a Worker. It makes our technology and our products more reliable than you might expect.”

“What are those?” Brooks asked. He was pointing to a row of huge vats, large enough that the Workers had to climb up little resin steps to reach them. They were depositing bucketfuls of crushed-up ore into them, then stirring them with long poles, like they were cooking comically large stews. Some of the vats had what were clearly insulated electrical cables running to them, which were connected to copper-colored sheets that were immersed in their contents.

“Looks like they’re doing electrolysis to purify their metals,” Jade replied. “Those vats will be full of acid, and when they run an electric current through the solution, the atoms of copper or zinc or whatever they’re trying to extract will collect on the cathodes.”

“They’re carrying the smelted ore through there,” Brooks said, gesturing to a tunnel opening across the chamber that was conspicuously larger than the rest. A procession of Workers laden with armfuls of rough, cylindrical ingots were disappearing into it, transporting the metal from the kilns once it had cooled.

“Let’s follow them,” Bainbridge said, changing direction. “There might be something important in there that we can blow up.”

They followed the little Workers as the creatures waddled along on their stumpy legs, seeming perfectly content in their work. They might have been cute under different circumstances – if they hadn’t been making weapons and killing machines for a genocidal army.

The neighboring chamber was even hotter, Evan noting that there were vents on the domed ceiling not unlike the organic orifices that had filtered methane from the air in the mushroom farm, no doubt intended to act as chimneys to siphon away some of the waste heat.

That heat was being produced by what could only be described as a mill of some kind, the floorspace almost completely taken up by masses of biomechanical machinery. He could see organic crane arms, covered over with segmented carapace like the disembodied limbs of some great kraken. They were anchored to the sloping walls, whatever machinery that powered them concealed behind the resin, a dozen of them spaced out so that they could reach into the chamber like robot arms on an assembly line. They were using their very literal claws to lift handfuls of the raw materials that the Workers were depositing in heaps, moving them like a grabber at a scrapyard, dropping them into huge buckets that must have weighed ten or fifteen tons. Teams of Workers scurried about beneath them, collecting any debris that escaped their clutches and returning it to the piles.

The massive buckets were then passed off to cradles made from rib-like, resin structures near the far wall, which held them in place while a series of what looked like carbon rods were lowered into the sealed containers through openings in their lids. White-hot flames and bright sparks jetted from the holes, suggesting that the ingots inside were being subjected to intense heat, making the buckets give off an orange glow. Those rods were linked to sockets on the wall via heavy, drooping cables that resembled intestines – likely some kind of high-capacity power delivery system.

Further along in the process, Workers that had climbed up precarious, elevated platforms were using scoops on long handles to skim the floating slag off the molten surface. They were removing the impurities that had floated to the top, their bodies lit by the bright glow. Despite what must be intense heat, they wore no protective clothing, their shells apparently tough enough to withstand it. There was a flash, followed by a puff of steam as one of them dumped some kind of chemical solution into one of the buckets, its purpose unknown. The Workers were treating the metal, preparing it for something.

More arms then picked up the still glowing buckets, pouring them into unidentifiable machines that must be molding or casting the metal. This was the most industrial that Evan had seen the Bugs get so far, a stark contrast to the relatively primitive kilns and mining methods. The scale of whatever they were manufacturing here must be far too large and heavy to be handled by Workers alone.

That wasn’t to say that the Bugs weren’t present. They scurried between the machines, operating computer terminals and manipulating gelatinous switches like those that were used as door locks. Evan had no way to describe the machines other than as being vaguely industrial in their size and function, constructed from a blend of metal, resin, and organic matter. It was like looking at the aftermath of an explosion at a meat packing plant.

He bristled as he saw a Scuttler march into the factory from another wide tunnel, but this one wasn’t armed with any kind of turret. Like those that had transported the fuel from the refinery, this one had a flatbed where its abdomen would have been, making it look like someone had cut a chunk out of its back. It walked its way over to one of the machines on its eight legs, settling into a shallow dugout in the floor, waiting for something.

The nearest crane arm reached into that same machine, emerging with a handful of what looked to Evan like metal elephant tusks. They were made from some kind of shiny alloy, like chrome or titanium, tapering into a dull point on one end. Rather than being smooth, they were flawed – filled with odd holes and imperfections. Was that by design?

The claw deposited two dozen of the heavy tusks on the back of the Scuttler, which extended a set of spindly limbs from its bed to hold them in place, rising from the dugout to carry its cargo back the way it had come.

“I don’t see any guards,” Bainbridge said, scanning the chamber. “I’m gonna go place some explosives on whatever looks important. The rest of you – follow that thing and find out where it’s going. Let’s see if we can’t disrupt the supply chain a little while we’re here.”

The rest of the team did as he asked, making their way across the factory, dodging past scurrying Workers as they went. Just like during their previous encounters, the little creatures paid no attention to them, the Marines only registering as obstacles in their hyper-focused minds.

Simmons led them down the tunnel, this one wide enough to accommodate the Scuttler, the organic vehicle trudging along some distance ahead of them on its crab-like legs. They emerged into yet another chamber, Hernandez whistling over the radio as he took in their surroundings.

The room was filled with dozens of resin cradles, raising their charges off the ground like automotive lifts in a repair shop. They were filled with fighters – Bug spacecraft that looked like giant, biomechanical house flies. At around fifteen meters long, they were small by most metrics, but it was no less intimidating to see one of the things in person. The organic interceptors were in varying states of assembly – some complete enough that they almost looked ready to walk down off their cradles on their six legs.

Others were still partially built, reminding Evan of carcasses, masses of alien organs and glistening flesh interwoven with cables and mechanical components exposed to the air. Teams of Workers crawled over them like parasites as they spliced thruster nozzles into living meat, braided nerves and wires, and carted tools and components across the chamber. Evan felt a shiver of disgust as he noticed that one of the nearby interceptors was watching him, an array of black, expressionless eyes moving in their sockets independently to track his movements. They were mounted in its bulbous head, a kind of prow that was protected by a hood of thick carapace, its whisker-like antennae wiggling.

Its body was torn open, segments of its shell removed to reveal pulsing organs, a solitary Worker tending to one of the main engines that was mounted on its near flank. Thick cables snaked across the floor, linking it to the hive’s network, pouring fuel and sustenance into the living vehicle like an IV drip. The plasma repeaters that were usually mounted on its prow were absent, and it likely had no pilot, or he feared that it might break out of its cradle and open fire.

“So, this is how they make their vehicles,” Collins mused. “It looks like they’re trying to rebuild their air force.”

“They will have had factories like this one all over the planet,” Jade added, walking around one of the partially-completed interceptors. “Probably with much larger capacities, too. If they’re building these things inside the hive, it means they’re desperate.”

“I don’t suppose they’re too happy about losing air superiority,” Evan muttered as he watched a Worker install a glassy eye into an empty socket. “At the rate they’re going, they’ll have a whole squadron ready soon.”

This specimen was little more than a skeleton, its frame made from the same tusk-like pieces of metal that Evan had seen in the last room. They were ribs, he realized – forming a kind of structural cage around which the other components were being anchored. Flesh was growing around them, anchoring itself into the sponge-like alloy in a way that resembled bone marrow.

“It’s a kind of metal foam,” Jade explained, noticing where he was looking. “If it’s anything like what we use in our shipyard, it’s probably some kind of titanium alloy that they expose to corrosive chemicals during the melt. It’s lightweight, strong, and porous enough to be…properly integrated into the organism. All of these organic parts – the eyes, the organs – they’ll be grown in gene vats somewhere else in the hive before being transplanted.”

“That’s nice,” Foster replied sarcastically. “Can we blow them up now?”

“Warrior!” Collins warned, the team scattering for cover as one of the armored suits came lumbering into view from behind a cradle on the other side of the chamber. It made its way over to the Scuttler that had recently arrived, the modified tank lowering itself on its segmented legs to let the suit access its bed, the Warrior lifting one of the metal ribs in its claws. It didn’t seem to have any weapons – it had been modified for industrial use. Its upper arms were equipped with dull pincers, while the lower pair sported manipulating hands.

It turned in their direction, carrying its cargo over to the partially-constructed fighter. The team relaxed, stepping out of their hiding places, but the thing paused when it noticed them. It dropped the rib that it was carrying with a tangible thud, turning its slatted eyes on them.

“Uh, guys?” Jade said as she began to back away warily. “That might not be a combat model, but there’s still a Pilot driving it!”

Unlike the Workers that surrounded it, the Pilot wasn’t indifferent to their presence, the Warrior’s claws snapping as it began to lumber towards them.

“What do we do?” Garcia demanded.

“We don’t have anything that can stop that thing!” Simmons replied. “Run!”

Tatzi paused to sweep up Aster in her arms, the squad turning around, sprinting back down the tunnel as the suit gave chase.

They had some distance on the thing, but it was alarmingly fast for its size, quickly narrowing their lead. The team fled down the long tunnel, adrenaline driving them, Evan’s helmet filled with the sound of his own labored breathing.

“We have to go back the way we came in!” Donovan panted. “It won’t be able to fit down those tunnels!”

“That’s like two chambers over!” Brooks replied.

“Come back towards me!” Bainbridge added, listening in over the radio. “Once you get inside the factory, get into cover.”

Evan could see him at the far end of the wide passageway, kneeling on the ground, placing something in the dirt. It didn’t take a genius to know what he was planning.

They reached the tunnel mouth, the Warrior only twenty meters behind them now, still coming at them like a runaway train. In a few more seconds, it would be right on top of them. The squad split into two groups, diving out of the way, Tatzi knocking down a group of confused Workers like bowling pins as she barreled through them with Aster clutched in her arms.

Bainbridge was hiding behind a piece of industrial machinery, and he leaned out to gauge his target’s distance, a gloved finger poised over his touch panel. Evan put his back to the resin wall, feeling the floor vibrate with each of their pursuer’s heavy footsteps, growing louder as it neared. There was a sound like a thunderclap, the wall shaking as a blast threw dust and debris into the chamber, the tunnel focusing it like a shotgun blast. Several unwary Workers were thrown to the ground, torn apart by pieces of shattered resin and pebbles that had been turned into projectiles by the explosion. Through the billowing dust, the hulk of the Warrior emerged, Evan’s heart freezing as he watched it race out of the tunnel. It was only a moment later that he realized it was being carried by momentum, its torn corpse skidding to the ground, squashing an unfortunate Worker that was directly in its path. It rolled, then came to a stop, its brown carapace pocked with smoking holes. Its legs had been vaporized at the thigh, the entire underside of its body charred. Bainbridge had used the plastic explosive like a land mine, triggering it when the Warrior was directly on top of it.

He stepped out of cover, drawing his sidearm as he approached the smoldering hulk. The Workers were in a frenzy now, rushing around to pick up debris, tending to machines that had taken shrapnel damage. One of them had popped a fleshy cable and was spewing some kind of unspeakable fluid on the dirt floor like a cut fuel line.

The lieutenant gave the Warrior a prod with his boot, but when he got no reaction, he holstered his weapon. The Pilot had probably been killed instantly by the shock of the explosion. That had been a demolition charge designed for destroying buildings, after all.

“Quick thinking, Lieutenant,” Simmons said appreciatively as he stopped beside him to examine the body.

Hernandez approached too, and was somewhat less refined in his praise.

“Yeah!” he yelled, running up to kick the Warrior’s lifeless head like it was a football. “That’s what you fuckin’ get, you…you fuckin’ glorified forklift!”

He shoved a nearby Worker for good measure, the little creature stumbling away in confusion.

“Let’s get the hell out of here before we cause any more work safety violations,” Bainbridge said. “The rest of the charges are set, and I’m gonna trigger them early this time, just in case we have to collapse any more tunnels behind us.”

The squad regrouped near the fallen Warrior, Evan looking down the tunnel to see that it was partially collapsed, chunks of resin filling it like rubble. Tatzi placed Aster on the ground gingerly, the wounded Jarilan taking a tentative step.

“I can carry you further if you wish,” Tatzi said, but Aster waved her away.

“N-no, I’m good. I can handle it.” She took a few more steps, then faltered. “On second thought, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble…”

Tatzi swept her up again, Aster crawling over her shoulder and onto her back, gripping the Borealan’s rig with her four arms so as not to prevent her from using her rifle. Tatzi seemed surprised for a moment, then realized what Aster was trying to do.

They followed Bainbridge back the way they had come, leaving the bustling factory and smelting room behind them. Once they had turned a few corners, Bainbridge activated the explosives, a series of blasts shaking loose dirt from the tunnel ceiling above them. It felt like an earthquake, and for a moment, Evan was grateful that the Bugs were such reliable builders. There seemed to be a flexibility to the resin, allowing it to absorb shocks in a way that something like concrete couldn’t.

“Let’s see them build interceptors now,” Bainbridge chuckled. “Come on. We shouldn’t overstay our welcome.”

***

“What the hell is this?” Hernandez wondered, an eerie glow from the next chamber casting him into silhouette. They had proceeded deeper into the winding tunnels of the hive, disabling more traps and mines as they went, the few Drone patrols that they had encountered easily dispatched with the help of Bainbridge’s microwave gun. If Evan had to guess, they were probably kilometers below ground by now.

This next chamber was a little smaller than the factory, and while there was bioluminescent moss clustered at the apex of its domed ceiling, that light was overpowered by something else. The room was stacked with rows of what looked like mismatched fish tanks, containers made from transparent resin that were filled with some kind of green fluid, each one giving off a glow. Some were small enough to house a few goldfish, while others were huge, like something one might find in an aquarium. They were mounted on platforms that were packed with biomechanical machinery, organic cables and electronic equipment trailing up into the tanks, banks of computers melded into their flesh. The ceiling was a mess of drooping cables and wiring, connecting everything up into a giant grid, like vines in a jungle canopy.

The strange machines were being tended by an army of Bugs. Evan raised his rifle briefly, not recognizing the caste, but quickly lowered it again when he realized that they weren’t hostile. Like the Workers, they were completely engrossed in their tasks, their eyes fixed firmly on their fleshy computers. There wasn’t a display in sight – it seemed that their eyes were of lesser value than their antennae, even when it came to interpreting data.

This caste were of a similar stature and build to the Workers, but where the Workers had reinforced upper arms with shovel-like hands designed for digging, these creatures had long, dexterous limbs that looked more like those of the Cultivators. They were clearly engineered for fine work, with slender fingers for manipulating tools and buttons.

“They look like our Medics,” Jade mused, the team heading deeper into the strange facility. One of them turned to glance at Evan as he passed by it, distracting the alien from its monitoring of one of the tanks, and he noted that it had three pairs of eyes that were all different sizes.

“What do Medics do?” Hernandez asked, as if the name didn’t make it obvious.

“They’re doctors, geneticists,” she replied as she paused to examine one of the tanks. “I think these are growth vats for organic components.”

Evan leaned closer to one of the tanks, watching air bubbles slowly rise beyond the resin. This one looked large enough to house a person, and he could see the shadows of cables and wires trailing into the fluid, but it was too murky for him to clearly make out what lay deeper inside. He moved to the next vat over, a smaller one about the size of a lobster tank at a restaurant, seeing a mass of malformed flesh floating inside it. It was a cluster of eyes, he realized, like those that were used on Warriors. As Jade had said, the organic parts were being cultivated in these vats. The blob of meat was about large enough to fill his cupped hands, an array of lenses attached to one end, and a cluster of nerves on the other. It was just hanging out in the fluid like some kind of gruesome fish.

“Check it out,” Collins said, gesturing to another tank. “This looks like the guidance package for a missile.”

“Secure the area while I place some more charges,” Bainbridge ordered, setting off in search of something that looked important. The Medics posed no threat, so the team wandered around, taking in the sights like it was some kind of macabre museum.

“Whoa, look at this,” Brooks said.

Evan made his way over, moving between the rows of tanks, coming upon one that was eight or nine feet tall. Floating inside was a figure, growing more familiar as it came into view.

“Is that…”

“A Stalker,” brooks confirmed with a nod. “Looks like they’re…repairing it?”

The seven-foot predator was suspended in the liquid, floating gently, a series of cables linking its body to the machinery below. Evan wondered whether they were oxygen tubes connected to its spiracles, but as long as it had a supply of oxygenated hemoglobin, its body would do the rest. Respiration wasn’t necessary. The Stalker’s torso was damaged – its left flank pocked with open wounds that might be from shrapnel or XMR fire, one of its mantis-like upper arms missing at the shoulder.

“This is very unusual,” Jade mused, walking up behind them.

“What is?” Evan asked as she glanced up at the tank.

“Bugs don’t heal, they recycle,” she explained. “What you saw back in the Replete chamber? That’s their idea of triage – feeding the dead and dying to the Repletes so the resources that their bodies represent can be returned to the hive’s ecosystem. I’ve never heard of ferals establishing a hospital before. The Queen must have realized that she can’t mature their replacements fast enough to make up the numbers.”

“That means she’s getting desperate,” Evan added. “She’s short on manpower, short on resources. With the numbers the brass has been throwing out, it seemed impossible to make a dent, but this is proof that we’re hurting them.”

The ground suddenly shook, Evan reaching out to grip the nearby console for support.

“What the hell was that?” Brooks demanded, the vibrations petering out.

“Sounds like one of the other teams is having a party,” Bainbridge explained over the radio. “That felt close. We’re probably getting nearer to the heart of the hive.”

As Evan moved through the chamber, dodging around the Bugs, he came across something new. There was a low table, about the right height for the four-foot Medics to work on, the creatures crowding around it to block his view. When he got close enough to see over their heads, he had to turn away, bile rising in his throat.

A dead Marine was lying on the slab, his armor peeled away like the shell of an insect, leaving him exposed. The Bugs were in the process of dissecting the body, disassembling it with surgical precision, laying out its components like mechanics working on a car. Evan had seen bodies blown apart in battle, burned to husks in their vehicles, but something about the clinical indifference of the creatures turned his stomach. There was no respite behind him, Evan finding himself face to face with another equally grisly scene – the bulky body of a Borealan laid out on a table in a similar state. As he glanced around, he realized that the Bugs had several specimens from each Coalition species, bodies stolen from the battlefield. Valbarans, Marines, Borealans, even a couple of Jarilans. Only the Krell were conspicuously absent, the reptiles either too large or too resilient to be recovered intact.

“What the fuck is this?” Foster snarled, walking over to take in the macabre sight. Evan awaited another violent outburst, but he was more subdued now, perhaps burnt out after the revelation in the Replete chamber. It was difficult to maintain that level of anger and outrage for any real length of time.

“They’re studying us,” Jade said, pushing a couple of Medics aside to get a look at the Valbaran that they were working on. Its scaly hide had been stripped away, revealing pale muscle, a mess of cables trailing into its open chest cavity. “Remember – they don’t know what we are. The only other species that they had encountered until a few weeks ago was the Valbarans. They’re dissecting us in an attempt to learn our vulnerabilities – to figure out what makes us tick, how best to kill us. We’re not a hive, nor are we a unified species. We must confuse them terribly. Perhaps they assume that we’re all specialized castes in some sort of super-hive.”

“Savages!” Borzka growled, approaching a group of Medics that were working on one of the Borealans. He brought his boot down on the nearest Bug, crushing it against the side of the pedestal that held up the slab, its carapace making a sound like splintering wood as it split open. It tried to crawl away, leaking ichor, Borzka knocking several more of them off their feet with a savage swipe. “Even the most primitive Lakeless do not disrespect the dead in such a way!”

“They’re dissecting them,” Jade explained. “They’re taking them apart, learning their weaknesses. This is a product of curiosity, not disrespect. They have no concept of dignity.”

“These creatures do not even have funerary rites,” Tatzi scoffed, her tail flicking back and forth in what might be anger or disgust as she appraised her dismembered countryman. “They cannibalize their dead like carrion birds.”

“They see things in purely practical terms,” Jade continued. “A body is no more than the sum of its organic parts. They’ll use this information to create targeted biological agents, make new castes better suited to exploiting our weaknesses, new weapons designed to defeat our armor.”

“No, they won’t,” Bainbridge replied sternly. “There’s no breakthrough that’s going to save them now.”

“Requesting permission to fuck this place up,” Foster said, leveling his rifle at the Medics.

“Request denied,” Bainbridge replied. “Save your ammo, Marine. I told you that you’d only get one of those. That said, a biological weapons lab is a juicy target. Do any of you have any objections to me blowing this place sky high? I don’t know the first thing about any of your cultures or burial customs.”

“It is better than having them serve the enemy,” Tatzi replied, the Marines nodding along.

“We don’t…really have any customs yet,” Jade said with a shrug.

“Alright,” the lieutenant continued. “Whichever one of you has the strongest stomach, walk around and get some clear footage of the bodies. The least we can do is properly identify them later.”

Bainbridge began to place charges on some of the larger tanks, Jade opening a private channel to Evan.

“I hope I don’t come off as…uncaring,” she began. “These things make everyone so angry, so emotional, and I feel like I should be experiencing that too. But, I don’t.”

“You know the Bugs better than any human or Borealan could,” Evan replied. “You expected something like this, you knew what would happen with the Repletes. Even if you had explained it to us in gory detail, we wouldn’t have been ready for it. Bainbridge is the same,” he added with a nod to the lieutenant. “He’s seen all of this before. It’s not just you.”

“I guess that’s true,” she replied as she watched Bainbridge slap a lump of plastic explosive onto the Stalker tank. “It’s strange, to belong to such a young society.”

“How so?” Evan asked.

“Humans have had civilization for thousands of years. You developed language, art, culture, all in a vacuum. Betelgeusians have heritage, lineage, but culture is something that they lack completely. They only pass on knowledge in the form of genetic information. They have no myths, no recorded history to tell them where they came from. We Jarilans were birthed out of nowhere – we were an accident. We’ve only existed as a society for a few short years. While we’re part human, that culture is alien to us, and our Betelgeusian heritage is something that we’d rather forget. That leaves us with no customs, no rites, no practices. When someone asks us how we celebrate the new year, or how we bury our dead, we have no answer. There’s no precedent for that.”

“Surely there’s something?” Evan asked. “Nuptial fleets often use similar weapons and ships – does that not count?”

“Betelgeusians have absolutely no sense of aesthetics or appreciation of art,” she replied. “That’s not a criticism of their tastes – they completely lack the sense. If there was ever a time in their distant past when they had it, it was edited out of their genome, deemed of no benefit to their survival. Even the bright colors of their shells and the shapes of their horns only serve to make them easier to identify. Everything that they make is functional, stripped of any unnecessary elements. Even the capacity to seek pleasure or enjoyment outside of the framework of their role in the hive has been erased.”

“Do you think they were ever different?” Evan mused, glancing down at her. “Do you think they were ever more than they are today? Nobody really has any idea of where they originated or how old they are.”

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “They’re incredibly good at what they do. If they’re a product of nature, then evolution has refined them over potentially millions of years into a near-perfect organism that is functionally immortal as a species. They’re the end-game of Darwinism.”

If?” Evan repeated.

“There are other theories,” she continued, her tone becoming almost conspiratorial. “Some have speculated that they’re an artificial life form, perhaps some kind of terraforming tool or a biological Von Neumann probe gone out of control. After untold generations of gene editing, it’s impossible to look for any genetic markers that might prove the theory. There’s nothing left that hasn’t been tampered with. Even our Queen can’t give the researchers any insights.”

“And, what do you think?” Evan asked.

“I have a hard time believing that any sapient species would voluntarily give up the things that I feel,” she replied. “Maybe they never had that, and they’re just social insects that advanced to the point that they could colonize space, but I don’t know what evolutionary crucible could result in such a brutal life form.”

“I’ve never really thought about what it might be like to live without a culture,” Evan said, watching Borzka shoo away the Medics as they tried to resume their work on the Borealan. “It informs so much of my behavior, it’s the lens through which I perceive the world.”

“I met a Krell on Jarilo,” Jade continued, sounding wistful now.

“A Krell?” Evan prompted, waiting for her to continue.

“He wore this necklace made from shells and beads,” she said, gesturing to her collar to demonstrate. “I thought it was laughably primitive at first, but then, he began to tell me the meaning of each element. Every decoration told a story or expressed some wish or aspiration – every mark of pigment and hand print on his hide had been left there by friends and family from his village. His culture and his history were such inseparable parts of who he was, and…I wanted that.”

“I see it as a unique opportunity,” Evan replied, Jade giving him a quizzical look through her visor. “We’re stuck with our culture, for better or worse. There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of mistakes, a lot of stuff we’re not all that proud of. There’s no way to rewrite history. You guys have a blueprint now – you don’t have to start from scratch. You can pick and choose the parts that you like and ignore the parts that you don’t. Even if you don’t inherit our culture, you can inherit our collective experience and learn from it.”

“That’s certainly a more optimistic way to look at it,” she replied. “How do you make culture? Where does it come from?”

“You make it up and hope it sticks,” he replied with a shrug. “I don’t think there are any rules. If you want necklaces or funerals, you go make them. Fuck anyone who says you can’t.”

“Maybe I will,” she said, watching as the lieutenant made his way back over to them.

“We’re good to go,” he announced, glancing down to tap at the display on his wrist. “Let’s blow this joint – literally.”

They turned their backs to the dissected bodies and the growth tanks, an explosion shaking the lab once they were at a safe distance, Evan feeling the displaced air rush down the tunnel to whip at his pressure suit.

“Where to next?” Jade asked, waiting for orders.

“Whichever way takes us down,” Bainbridge replied.

***

“This way should be safe,” Jade said, gesturing down one of the branching tunnels. “We’re getting close to the Queen’s chamber.”

“How do you know?” Simmons asked.

“Because…it’s a nursery,” she replied as she glanced back at him over her shoulder.

“What, like baby Bugs?” Hernandez asked.

“Of course,” Evan replied, giving him a nudge. “What the hell else could it mean?”

“She’s right,” Bainbridge added. “The egg chambers are always close to the Queen.”

As they rounded a corner, they came upon a squad of Drones that were guarding a door, a few quick bursts of XMR fire dispatching the surprised creatures. The team was becoming remarkably efficient at tunnel fighting.

“Let me see if I can get the door open before anyone tries more forceful measures,” Jade said, stepping forward to manipulate the fleshy organ that was embedded in the resin beside it. After a bit of fiddling and maybe a few creative puffs of pheromones, the door receded into the ceiling.

Readying her rifle again, Jade led them inside, the team fanning out as they scanned the chamber for targets. There were no more Drones, only a group of Repletes, their bellies swollen with honey. They were sitting on the dirt floor in a circle, turning their heads to glance at the newcomers curiously. Evan’s eyes were quickly drawn to the walls of the chamber. They were moving, pulsing, like they were covered in some kind of living material. It was hard to make out much detail in the dim light from the bioluminescent moss. He shone his flashlight beam at the seething mass, recoiling as it revealed glistening, pulsating flesh.

The walls were pocked with regular holes, and those holes were filled with maggots the size of a human baby, their pale, segmented bodies undulating in a ceaseless wave. They looked like larvae infesting a rotten wound. They had faces, he realized, little mandibles and oddly expressive eyes that narrowed to protect themselves from his bright beam.

“They’re babies,” Brooks mused, sounding no less disgusted by the sight than Evan was.

“They look like giant fucking maggots to me,” Foster added.

As Evan approached the Repletes, he saw that they each had one of the writhing larvae clutched in their upper arms, cradling it like a swaddled baby. He watched as one of the bloated Bugs opened its wicked set of serrated mandibles, extending a fleshy proboscis, not unlike the one that Jade used to drink. After a moment of struggling with what seemed to be a fussy eater, the Replete succeeded in getting the fleshy tube into its mouth, bulges starting to travel down its length. They were feeding the larvae, sharing honey from their bulging crops.

“I’d really like to go home now,” Garcia grumbled, watching as one of the Repletes rose to a four-legged stance. Holding its charge in its upper arms as it used the lower pair to support its exaggerated weight, its full crop swinging beneath it like a bloated belly, it replaced the satiated maggot in an empty recess in the wall. The disgusting little creature seemed wholly content, closing its eyes as it wriggled to get comfortable, the Replete selecting a more lively one from a neighboring hole. This one was eager to feed, opening its tiny mandibles expectantly, the Replete returning to sit beside its counterparts.

“I dunno, they’re almost cute,” Hernandez said as he dared to step a little closer. “It’s somethin’ about the eyes. Don’t get me wrong, they still look like a used condom.”

“I’m genuinely impressed that you managed to find a way to make this situation even more disgusting,” Evan sighed.

“Our young look almost identical,” Jade said, giving the Marines a sideways glance.

“I didn’t mean any offense,” Brooks added hurriedly.

“Sorry, but you got some fuckin’ ugly kids,” Hernandez added with a shrug. Jade couldn’t keep a straight face, her stifled chuckling filling the channel.

“Humans seem to have an instinctual aversion to worms and larvae, but they’re very cute once you get over the initial shock,” she insisted. “If you held one-”

“I ain’t holdin’ one of those things,” Hernandez grumbled.

“So…what do we do about this?” Collins asked.

“What do you mean?” Evan replied.

“Like…I know we’re supposed to be blowing this place up, but…they’re babies,” he added as he glanced between Evan and Jade. “We can’t kill babies…can we?”

“We’re here to kill the Queen and destroy this hive,” Bainbridge added, his thick armor rustling as he walked over to join their conversation. “With the Queen dead, the rest of the colony is rendered non-viable – it’s essentially sterilized. There will be dozens, perhaps hundreds of nursery chambers like this one, and every one of those larvae is going to die. We don’t have the means or the resources to keep them alive even if we wanted to. Even if we did, every larva is potentially a Drone or a Stalker in the making that would stab you as soon as look at you once they mature. In a way, blowing them up might be more of a mercy than leaving them to starve once the flow of honey dries up.”

“He’s not wrong,” Jade added, placing a reassuring hand on Collins’ shoulder. “The combat castes are genetically predisposed to kill anything that has a scent they don’t recognize. The hive needs infrastructure and personnel to maintain their population, which we’ll have to destroy if we want to cripple their ability to make war. Everything in the hive is interconnected – like one large ecosystem. Destroy the Queen, and the rest fall like dominoes. There’s no scenario where we win, and the hive survives.”

“In Elysia, kittens do not participate in the pack system until they come of age,” Tatzi added, Aster watching their conversation from over her shoulder like some kind of organic rucksack. “They are not yet large or strong enough to stand a chance of defending themselves. It is taboo to strike them.”

“Invading nuptial fleets often make a point of targeting nurseries to deny the enemy reinforcements,” Jade added. “It’s not like ferals would spare them either.”

“Yeah, well the ferals aren’t exactly the ideal we’re trying to live up to here,” Evan said. “Being pragmatic is one thing, but we’re not meat machines, and that’s what sets us apart from them. We feel empathy, we’re sentimental, we have a conscience.”

“It’s not like this is the first time we’ve done this,” Bainbridge said. “We’ve wiped out every hive that we’ve come across so far, except yours,” he continued with a nod to Jade.

“This Queen won’t surrender like ours did,” Jade replied with a sigh. “She’s too entrenched, too established. Her armies won’t stand down without her order.”

“What if we…simulated her pheromones?” Collins suggested with a shrug.

“It’s not that simple,” she explained. “We would have to learn their pheromone language, then gain total control over their entire communications system, all without revealing our hand.”

“I feel like this is a pointless conversation,” Foster chimed in. “We’re applying human concepts to the Bugs and judging them by our standards. Jade and the lieutenant are right – this is an unavoidable part of our mission. Besides, didn’t we just technically bomb a hospital? What does UNN RoE have to say about that?”

“What about the Workers and the other non-combatant castes?” Collins asked.

“How are you gonna feed millions of fruit pickers and ditch diggers?” Hernandez demanded. “Listen, I don’t like this any more’n you do, but I don’t see that we got a choice.”

“I wish there was a way,” Jade said, watching as one of the pulsating larvae wiggled in a Replete’s arms. “Maybe we could incorporate the Workers, since they’re non-violent by nature, but how? Hernandez is right – we can’t feed a population of millions, and we might not even be able to locate them and round them all up before they starve.”

“We had this conversation already when we found those Workers at the refinery,” Simmons said. The whole squad was pitching in now, and it was becoming more of an argument than a debate.

“Enough,” Bainbridge said, his commanding voice silencing them. “I’m not going to order anyone to kill grubs – we’re only here because we’re on our way to the Queen’s chamber. That said, don’t think that you’re doing these little guys a favor by sparing them now. They were dead the moment we jumped into the system.”

“Is there really nothing that we can do?” Evan asked, opening a private channel to Jade. The lieutenant had made it clear that the discussion was over.

“I wish I could say that there was,” she replied, giving the nursing babies one last glance as they walked past them. “We might be able to save some elements of the hive, depending on how much freedom the Coalition gives us and what resources they’re willing to allocate. The question is – why? It’s like Bainbridge said – we’re not doing them a favor by keeping them on life support when they would die if nature was allowed to take its course. Putting Workers in an environment where they’re confused and they have no purpose isn’t a kindness. There’s also no way for them to reproduce, so we’d just be keeping a single doomed generation alive purely to make ourselves feel better.”

“You make some good points, I’m not denying that,” Evan continued as they headed for the exit. “It just feels wrong to me.”

“It’s something that I came to terms with on the ride over here,” she replied, her tone reassuring. “I understand how you feel, though. Just because we have to do something, that doesn’t mean we have to like it or that we can’t feel conflicted. Like you said, that’s what makes us different from them. Maybe the fact that we ask ourselves these questions and that we have these reservations is enough.”

CHAPTER 12: PYRODUCT

They made their way deeper, the tunnels eventually leading them to some kind of larger passage. It wasn’t a chamber, nor was it one of the more spacious routes reserved for large vehicles like Scuttlers – it was far more cavernous than anything they had encountered thus far. It must have been forty meters wide, more oval-shaped than circular, their tunnel terminating abruptly as they intersected.

“There’s no resin lining these walls,” Evan said as he stepped gingerly into the open, shining his beam on the naked stone. There was no soil underfoot, only bare rock with a few loose pebbles, his footsteps echoing. “Are these natural formations?”

“This is volcanic rock,” Bainbridge replied, glancing up at the towering ceiling. “It’s a lava tube – the ones that UNNI warned us about in our briefing. The mesa isn’t the only reason that the Bugs chose this spot for their hive. Volcanic activity created a natural superhighway that runs throughout this whole area. The moon’s crust is riddled with old magma chambers and lava tubes like a giant fucking sponge, and the low gravity here just makes them bigger.”

“It’s like termites taking up residence in an old log,” Simmons added. “Why do the work yourself when nature will do it for you?”

“For a superhighway, there ain’t a lot of traffic,” Hernandez said as he shone his flashlight down the tunnel. It was truly massive, the beam petering out after a few hundred meters. “How can we be sure the Queen hasn’t already bailed?”

“Oh, she’s here,” Bainbridge replied. “She couldn’t abandon this place if she wanted to at this point. If there’s a bolt hole within two hundred klicks of this mountain, we’ll catch her.”

“She mounted her last stand at the Ant Hill,” Jade added. “She seems to have pooled the last of her resources here. To abandon this stronghold would guarantee her death.”

“So, we going left or right?” Hernandez added.

“Right,” Jade replied, stepping forward. “They once moved armies through these tubes – I can smell the residue.”

“They ain’t got no armies left to move now,” Hernandez chuckled.

“If we hadn’t decimated their forces in the way that we did, they could have moved entire battalions right under our feet and have them pop up behind our lines,” Simmons added as he swept his flashlight across the ceiling.

They made their way down the passage, Evan feeling more like he was exploring a cave than a hive now. It was much colder and damper down here than it had been in the tunnels above, suggesting that the same climate control wasn’t present. These were purely highways, as Bainbridge had said. No Bugs actually lived here long-term. Rather than the clusters of moss that lit up the chambers, the lava tube was lit by pockets of the bioluminescent fungi that were growing on the walls at intervals, their glow creating uneven pools of light that almost resembled street lamps. The ground beneath his feet was very uneven, the bare rock pocked with holes that formed shallow puddles of stagnant water. The Bugs had filled some of the larger ones in and had used resin in places to level out the ground where it was especially uneven. There were no sharp corners or bends here – it was as straight as nature could make it, the tunnel tapering off into darkness.

“Movement!” Donovan yelled, shining his flashlight on another entrance that branched off the tube on the left side.

“Hold your fire!” Bainbridge warned. “Those are friendlies!”

Their IFF signals soon popped up on Evan’s HUD, and he lowered his rifle, the surge of adrenaline still making his heart race.

A Trog and a squad of Marines came piling out of the tunnel opening, led by a solitary Jarilan, the newcomers seeming just as surprised as Evan and his team were.

“Bainbridge?” the Trog said, patching into the local comms channel. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Yates, is that you?” the lieutenant replied. “Glad to see you’re still kicking.”

“Barely,” the Trog replied. “Did you guys encounter the flooded tunnels full of tentacles?”

“Aye,” Bainbridge said with a nod. “Have you met any more teams on the way down here?”

“No, you?”

Bainbridge shook his head.

“I hope you guys have a clear route out of here,” he added. “We had to collapse a tunnel to hold off an army of Drones, and we lost our repeaters as a result.”

“Yeah, we have a way out,” Yates replied. “The tunnels behind us aren’t exactly clear, though. We came across some kind of staging area and had to loop around. There were a couple of hundred Drones gearing up for a fight.”

Evan was amused to see that the Jarilans had formed a little circle and were all touching antennae – a form of greeting or identification, perhaps. Aster was still clutching Tatzi’s rig, watching the exchange from over the Borealan’s broad shoulder.

“Well, I’m glad we have some extra manpower,” Bainbridge said as he turned his attention back to the lava tube. “Our Jarilans say the Queen’s chamber is this way.”

“Ours was pretty sure she’d caught a scent,” Yates confirmed. “By the way, you wouldn’t happen to have any spare batteries, would you? I’m afraid I’m almost out of juice.”

“Last one,” Bainbridge said, tossing the man a blocky battery from his rig. “The fuckers keep popping out of the walls.”

The two groups fell in, continuing down the cavernous tunnel, the Jarilan guides leading the way. Evan felt a little more secure now that their numbers had been effectively doubled, but it wouldn’t be much help if a Scuttler or a team of shielded Warriors came marching in the opposite direction. He found himself wishing that they had Scalpels like the SWAR team they had encountered. They made conversation with the newcomers as they walked, learning that these Marines were from the UNN Tabor and that their Jarilan’s name was Cherry.

They had entered the hive from a completely different direction and had followed the same pheromone trails to arrive in the lava tube, meeting similar resistance on their way down. It seemed that the Bugs were putting up a fight, but they were struggling to split their remaining forces as each team probed the hive from a different ingress point, taking random routes as they explored the winding tunnels. It was hard to predict the actions of an enemy who had no idea what they were doing or where they were going. Other than reinforcing strategic areas, the only answer the Bugs really had was to send out patrols and hope that they chanced upon an intruder. That certainly wouldn’t be the case if the Coalition hadn’t thinned their numbers to the extent that they had.

“Do you reckon the Queen’s chamber is at the end of this lava tube?” Hernandez asked. “I can’t picture that.”

“No, but if the tunnels that we’ve been exploring are veins, these tubes are the arteries,” Jade replied as she stepped around one of the puddles. “They’ll lead us to the heart.”

“If you say so,” he added with a shrug.

“Wait,” Tatzi said, the echo of their footsteps carrying down the tunnel as the group halted. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” one of the Marines asked skeptically.

“It is ahead of us,” Borzka added. “They are coming.”

“Spread out, form a firing line!” Bainbridge ordered. Yates relayed the command to his men, seeming to trust the lieutenant’s judgment, and they began to scatter. There was no cover in the tube, but it was wide enough that their near thirty-man force could stand shoulder to shoulder, their rifles aimed into the darkness ahead. There were no blind corners, and there was no obscuring haze in the air, giving them excellent visibility in spite of the gloom. Evan switched view modes to night vision, casting the details of the rock walls into shades of green, causing the little patches of glowing moss to flare for a moment before his system automatically adjusted itself to compensate.

He heard them before he saw them, the echo of chitin claws on stone carrying down the tunnel, growing louder as the enemy neared. It was impossible to tell exactly how many there were, but it was a lot. The sensors on his helmet detected motion at the limits of their range, starting to pick out individual targets, red blips filling the tunnel. They were on the walls, on the ceiling, packing the lava tube in a swarm. Some were even flying, using their wings to leap over their comrades like grasshoppers. These were not the cautious, regimented movements of Drones.

“Tweakers!” Yates warned. “Open fire!”

The rock walls were illuminated as a stream of fire poured down the tunnel, trails of molten tungsten reflecting off the moisture that clung to them, their glow mirrored in the puddles. The Bugs began to drop, dozens of them succumbing to the first volley, the rounds chewing through their ranks to send them toppling to the floor. There were so many that Evan didn’t even have to aim – hundreds of them packing the tunnel, accelerating once they realized that they were under attack. They didn’t try to lay down covering fire or make themselves harder to hit, they just flooded towards the line, running and leaping with abandon. They had no rifles clutched in their four arms, only an assortment of blades, wicked daggers and swords made from chitin. There was something wrong about the way that they moved – their limbs twitching erratically, their gait jerky and uncoordinated.

“What the fuck’s wrong with ‘em?” Hernandez demanded, pouring another long burst into the approaching insects. They were a few hundred meters away, but approaching fast, the losses doing nothing to dissuade them. “They look like they’re on amphetamines!”

“You guys haven’t encountered Tweakers before?” Yates asked, firing his sidearm. They must be out of range of his microwave gun. “They’re males – winged Drones – and they’re off their fucking tits on combat pheromones. In the Green Zone, they used them to soften up our positions before an assault. They’d try to overwhelm us through sheer weight of numbers before sending in more organized squads to mop up.”

“We mostly fought heavy armored units in the Red Zone,” Evan added. “Seems like the Kings each had their own way of doing things.”

The Tweakers were relentless, scrambling over each other in their bid to reach their targets, Evan watching them absorb multiple rounds before they dropped in some cases. Normal Drones seemed to feel no pain and would keep fighting when injured, but these creatures didn’t even seem to realize that they’d been hit. He watched one of them lose a leg to a slug, the round shattering the carapace and shredding the limb at the thigh, the creature falling on its face as it tried to support itself with a leg that was no longer there. Undeterred, it began to crawl along the ground, quickly disappearing beneath the stampede of Bugs.

Dead Tweakers fell from the walls and ceiling where they crawled like spiders, the flying creatures knocked out of the air, their fragile wings torn to shreds. The only pauses in the constant hail of gunfire were when one of the Marines had to reload, the glow of the red-hot coils on their barrels reflecting off their visors.

Evan’s confidence was rapidly diminishing. For every one they felled, two more were there to take its place, and ammo wasn’t something they had in abundance after fighting their way down here. At this rate, they were going to run out of slugs before the enemy ran out of bodies.

“We need to pull back!” Simmons yelled. “Find a smaller tunnel and bottleneck them!”

“No dice!” Bainbridge replied. “If we stop firing and try to retreat, they’re just going to overrun us! We’ll use the microwave guns when they get close enough.”

“So, bull-baiting, basically?” Garcia added.

“It’ll work!” Bainbridge added. “Trust me!”

The crazed insects were gaining ground, Evan having to turn off his HUD’s targeting system to be able to see anything other than a blood-red wave of signatures sweeping down the tube towards him. He turned his sights on another of the creatures, peppering it with slugs, the rounds blowing holes in its carapace and taking out several Tweakers behind it as they passed through its body.

“Get ready, Yates!” Bainbridge warned as he readied his microwave gun. “You take the left side, I’ll take the right – wide beam!”

The swarm was within maybe fifty meters now, so close that Evan could see the glow of his flashlight reflecting off the many lenses of their helmets, the thundering echo of their footsteps reverberating off the tunnel walls. The two Trogs fired, the moisture that clung to the stone starting to turn to steam as they heated the air, the puddles boiling. The effect seemed to taper off with enough distance, the Tweakers that charged into range of the microwave emitters staggering, but continuing all the same. While pain was not enough to give them pause, having their very muscles cook inside their shells was, the leaders of the frenzied charge faltering as their bodies betrayed them. Their carapaces warped, their flesh blistered, steam rising from the joints in their armor.

The rest of the group took full advantage, pouring fire into the burning creatures, putting them out of their misery. Even though they were being cooked alive, and the pain must grow all the greater the closer they came, they still tried to fight through the invisible field like it was a physical barrier. They threw themselves into the beam, clawing their way across the hot stone, boiling fluids spilling from their bodies as the building pressure ruptured their organs.

It slowed their charge – just enough to make the difference – the two squads starting to slowly walk backwards to keep their distance as they chewed through the Bugs. How many had they killed already? A hundred? More? Piles of dismembered and steaming bodies littered the tunnel floor, but they persisted, leaping and crawling over their dying companions with a thirst for blood that would surprise even the most seasoned Marine.

It felt like they were walking up a beach to avoid the tide, the surf inching towards their toes, the creatures tripping over each other in their mad bid to reach them. One of them fell close enough to reach out and try to grab Evan’s leg, and he kicked it away, turning his XMR towards the ground. The slugs punched through its twitching body, chipping the stone floor beneath it, turning the fragments of rock into shrapnel.

“Stay together!” Bainbridge yelled. “Keep firing!”

“I’m out!” Hernandez shouted, holding his empty rifle in one hand as he drew his sidearm with the other. He kept firing into the crowd, the Bugs packed so tightly together that aiming was an afterthought.

“I got a spare!” Brooks said, handing him a magazine. Hernandez hit the release, dropping the empty mag on the floor, trapping the stock of his rifle in his armpit as he slammed in the fresh one. Only then did he holster his sidearm, bringing his XMR to bear again.

As Evan glanced to his right, he saw that even Aster was helping, firing her handgun over Tatzi’s shoulder as the Borealan unloaded from the hip.

The momentum of the attack finally slowed, then stopped, the last few Tweakers that stood above the carpet of dead Bugs falling to join their comrades. Evan paused to reload, glancing down the line to his left and right to see that nobody was hurt, their barrels glowing like hot coals in the darkness. The two Trogs lowered their weapons, Bainbridge soon stowing his on his back as he realized it was out of juice, drawing his sidearm once more.

“That all of them?” Yates asked, adrenaline making his voice waver.

“I think so,” Simmons replied, sweeping his flashlight across the veritable graveyard ahead of them. “What do you reckon that is – two, three hundred?”

“Fuck me sideways,” Hernandez exclaimed, his crassness inspiring a chorus of relieved chuckling over the radio. “Some of those fuckers got within a few inches of shankin’ us. If it wasn’t for those microwave guns…”

“Told you it would work,” Bainbridge said with no small amount of satisfaction. “Everyone still in one piece?”

Nobody reported any injuries, and the soldiers passed around ammo as they took a few moments to calm their nerves. There was something about these brushes with death that was starting to become exhilarating, Evan feeling his heart hammer beneath his chest piece as he looked over the steaming piles of dead with fresh clarity brought on by adrenaline.

“I’m afraid that’s pretty much it for the microwave guns,” Yates added, walking over to give a nearby Tweaker a prod with the toe of his boot. “These bastards aren’t so tough once you know how to deal with them.”

“I feel like we’re gonna need a snowplow to get through that,” one of the members of Yates’ team sighed as he appraised the pile of Tweakers ahead of them.

“Watch out,” Yates added. “Some of the fuckers are probably still hot.”

“You ever burn your mouth on a microwave burrito?” Hernandez asked.

“Fall in,” Yates ordered, stepping over the nearest bodies as he began to lead them deeper. “My team will take point – I still have a little battery charge left.”

His men followed after him, starting to trudge through the bodies, wading like they were walking through a bog. After a few moments, Bainbridge gestured for Delta to proceed, the squad lagging behind as they formed a narrow column.

“If they’re throwing this much fodder at us, we’re on the right track,” Yates added. “We can’t be far from-”

Yates exploded into a cloud of gore, fragments of his armor peppering the nearby Marines, his blood splattering their pressure suits. What was left of him was spread out across the floor behind them like a smear on a road, Evan watching an arm that was still wearing its wrist display roll to a stop on the bare stone. A thunderclap followed shortly after, the sound jolting everyone out of their stunned silence.

“Retreat!” Simmons ordered, wheeling around.

Another round took out Cherry, turning her into a mist of ichor and carapace fragments, the two teams starting to flee back down the tunnel. Evan paused for a moment, his visor picking something out in the darkness ahead. The signature ballooned in size, outlining the unmistakable shape of a Supermajor, two more of the towering monsters flanking it. One of them paused, shouldering an anti-materiel rifle, its report shaking his bones. He could feel the overpressure wave as the projectile displaced the air, bisecting a Marine who was stumbling back through the pile of bodies, conveying enough energy to toss his torso a good three meters.

He felt someone grab his arm, turning to see Jade’s wide eyes peering up at him through her visor.

“We have to get out of here!” she said, Evan running after her as another shot rang out.

“They used the Tweakers to soften us up and waste our ammo!” Bainbridge hissed, struggling along in heavy armor that wasn’t designed for sprinting. “We can’t scratch those Supermajors – we’re sitting ducks!”

“There’s no cover here!” Garcia added, stumbling as he splashed in one of the puddles. “This place is a goddamned shooting gallery! What do we do!?”

“We have to get back to the tunnels!” Simmons replied. “They won’t be able to follow us!”

“What the fuck are we supposed to do until then?” Foster demanded.

“I dunno, fucking serpentine?” Hernandez added, Foster growling his frustration into his helmet.

More shots rang out, one of them striking the tunnel wall a few paces ahead of them, fragments of stone spraying out like shrapnel from a grenade. Evan could hear the debris ringing his helmet, bouncing off his shoulder pad, the blast knocking him off-balance.

“Dropping smokes!” one of the Marines from Yates’ squad declared, tearing a bandoleer of grenades from his chest. He popped the pins one by one, then tossed them over his shoulder, billowing smoke filling the passage behind them.

Another bullet punched a swirling hole in the white cloud, whizzing over their heads. A follow-up shot narrowly missed, striking the floor. It ricocheted off the stone, skipping like a pebble, still carrying enough energy to sever one of Brooks’ legs. The tumbling round sheared off his limb at the knee, the Marine’s momentum carrying him forward, sending him rolling across the ground.

He lay there for a moment, in too much shock to utter much more than a stifled “fuck!”

Borzka spun around, skidding on the slick rock floor, forcing a fleeing Marine to dodge out of his path as he bounded back towards his wounded comrade. Like someone lifting a duffel bag, he gripped the man by the rig on his back, hauling him off the ground. Evan had to fight the impulse to turn around and lay down covering fire – their XMRs were like bee stings to a Supermajor.

“They’re picking us off!” Collins warned, Evan watching another of the Marines drop as a hole the size of a dinner plate was punched through his chest.

“The tunnel opening is ahead!” Simmons shouted, gesturing to a shadowy orifice in the rock wall maybe a hundred meters away.

“We ain’t gonna make it!” Hernandez panted.

“On your bellies!” someone shouted, a high-pitched female voice carrying over the radio.

Evan didn’t hesitate, throwing himself to the tunnel floor, covering his head with his hands reflexively. Jade slid onto her stomach beside him, stopping her momentum with her four arms, the rest of the group following suit. Borzka rolled on top of Brooks to protect him, covering him with his massive body, Aster clinging to Tatzi’s back like a limpet.

Projectiles whistled over their heads, but they were coming from the opposite direction now, molten tungsten reflecting off the walls like bright orange tracers. Evan lifted his visor to see friendly IFFs popping up in the lava tube ahead of them, each flash of light from their guns illuminating a column of vehicles, the tunnel spacious enough that half a dozen could drive side by side with room to spare. As their camouflaged hulls came into focus, he realized that they were Valbaran tankettes, the whir of their electric engines filling the passage. They accelerated rapidly on their treads, jolting to a stop a few meters in front of the team, continuing to lay down covering fire. Most of them were sporting thirty-millimeter cannons, but one of them had some kind of laser weapon, a beam of bright light lancing out to pierce the haze of smoke behind them.

There was a Valbaran riding on the hull of the lead tank, wearing their customary skin-tight pressure suits, her features obscured beneath her helmet. She was indifferent to the cannon that was firing in arm’s reach of her head, leaping down from her vehicle, brandishing a PDW as she waved to them.

“Get behind the tanks!” she trilled, the squad scrambling to their feet. They rushed between the pocket-sized vehicles, finding that there were another dozen of the golf cart-like troop carriers driving after them, each one packed with Commandos. Some of them were dismounting now, taking up position behind their armor, signaling to one another with colorful flashes from the LED panels on their suits.

“Who the hell are you?” Bainbridge demanded, putting his back to one of the tankettes. It was so small that its hull was barely high enough to cover his head. More of the Marines hurried through, the little reptiles waving them forward. They began to shepherd the injured towards some of the trailing troop vehicles, taking Brooks and Aster from the Borealans, helping some wounded Marines into the undersized seats.

“Tela’xol’vati,” the stranger replied. “I’m commanding a strike force from the Vengeance – here by special order of the Ensi.”

“I dunno what half of those words meant, but welcome to the party,” Bainbridge replied. “We’ve got three pissed-off Supermajors riding our asses.”

“We have heavy infantry in the tunnel!” Tela growled, slamming the hull of the nearest tankette with her tail. “Load AP! Switch the lance to tight-beam, continuous!”

The line of tankettes jerked into motion again, driving down the tunnel towards the wall of smoke, the troops forming columns behind them. Evan wasn’t sure if their optics could see through the obstacle, but they kept firing, the rounds punching holes in the fog. Evan could hear the sound of crunching carapace even over the din of the engines and the gunfire, his helmet muffling the louder noises, raising the gain to pick out details that might be crucial in a tactical situation.

One of the Supermajors came striding through the smoke, crushing its dead comrades underfoot. It was as proud and as imposing as ever, its overlapping armor thick enough to rival that of a tank, its carapace lined with defensive spines. Its chelicerae ground together as it raised its rifle to take aim at one of the tankettes, the gill-like vents that ran down its barrel jetting waste gasses in a puff of steam, its many eyes fixed on its target.

The Valbaran vehicles were ready for it, their concentrated fire peppering its massive body with thirty-millimeter slugs, as deadly to it as an XMR was to a Drone. It jerked and twitched under the assault, the combined kinetic energy of half a dozen guns forcing it to take a staggering step back, ichor and fragments of carapace spraying as its armor was pocked with craters. Its weapon disintegrated in its hands, a few wayward rounds blowing it to pieces, the organic weapon bleeding just as its wielder did. Whatever ammunition was left in the magazine ignited, cooking off in the thing’s face, scorching one side of its giant helmet. Despite the volume of fire that was pouring into it, the creature stood for a few seconds longer, redundant organs keeping it alive. One of its arms was blown off, dropping to the ground like a fallen tree branch, a slug punching a molten hole in its torso that Evan could see right through. It finally toppled to the floor, shaking the stone.

Its two compatriots emerged from the smoke behind it, undeterred by its fate, their weapons at the ready. One had a rifle, and the other was wielding one of the plasma glaives that they had used during their surprise attack at the wall, the shaped blade igniting to light up the surrounding area in its green glow. It began to lumber forward, crossing the ground quickly with its long strides, rapidly picking up speed.

The second fired, the round whizzing through the air, ringing the hull of one of the tanks like a gong. The bullet hit its angled front armor, bouncing into the ceiling, little more than a flash of light from Evan’s perspective. It dug into the rock above, sending a shower of shattered stone down onto the vehicle. It was no threat to the tankette, but the Commandos who were following behind it had to dive out of the way, covering their heads as they were peppered with fragments.

The vehicles split their attention, the Supermajor with the rifle succumbing to the same fate as the first, the barrage of cannon fire chipping its very body away until it fell into a bleeding heap on the carpet of dead Tweakers. The third creature made a beeline for the lead vehicle, leveling its blade, the wavering plasma sizzling through the humid air. It was large enough that it could probably have lifted the tankette off the ground and tossed it aside like a shopping cart.

The vehicle’s turret followed its movements, chunkier than the railguns mounted on its counterparts, enclosed in a heat shroud. Instead of a muzzle device, it had a domed lens at the end of the barrel, the whine of capacitors reaching Evan’s ears as they charged. A bright beam of glittering light lanced forth, his visor darkening to protect his eyes, the weapon striking the Supermajor in its chest. Its reinforced carapace ran like melting wax, the flesh beneath smoking as it was charred as black as soot, the blinding light cutting a hole straight through it. The creature faltered, the massless photons providing no resistance, the beam scything through its shoulder as it lowered itself. It was almost enough to cut the Bug’s torso in half, as though an invisible blade had been brought down on its shoulder, biting almost all the way to its midsection. The beam cut off, Evan seeing molten rock dripping from the tunnel ceiling directly behind the Supermajor.

The thing wasn’t dead, even with half of its organs turned to slag, the creature staggering forward as it passed its glaive to the working hands on its right side. It brandished the weapon, spinning it with surprising dexterity, but the turret fired again. The beam engulfed its head, vaporizing it, shutting off to leave a smoldering stump. The lifeless body slumped to the tunnel floor, the blade at the tip of its glaive melting the rock for a moment before it, too, petered out.

“Check for survivors!” Tela ordered, leaping up onto the hull of the lead tank again. “Recover the bodies and evacuate the wounded!”

“Can we afford to evacuate right now?” Bainbridge asked. “We can’t abandon the mission.”

“This lava tube is a straight shot to the Consensus staging area at its mouth,” Tela replied. “It’s the quickest way to get your people help. Our Gue’tra are faster than you might think.”

The little reptiles fanned out with surprising coordination, the Marines following them, checking the bodies. None had survived, but at least the dead were spared the fate of being dissected or eaten, Evan helping them load one of the victims onto a troop transport.

“You alright there, buddy?” Hernandez asked as he gave Brooks a pat on the shoulder. There was a tourniquet around his thigh, blood still seeping from the tattered leg of his pressure suit. Despite his horrific injury, he was sitting upright in one of the little seats, one hand holding onto the metal frame of the buggy like nothing was wrong.

“I think I’m in shock,” he replied, his voice remarkably calm.

“You’ll be alright,” Evan added. “The medics will fix you up – get you a new leg. You’ll be like those SWAR guys.”

“Cool,” he muttered quietly, his expression unknowable behind his visor.

Borzka came lumbering over, holding something in his hand, his combat knife clutched in the other.

“A trophy,” he growled, thrusting something into Brooks’ hands. The Marine lifted it, examining it curiously. It was one of the clawed fingers of a Supermajor, crudely cut away at the joint by the Borealan’s serrated knife. It was still dripping green ichor, the fluid staining Brooks’ suit. “Wear it with pride, as you will your scars.”

“You lost a limb, but you gained a finger,” Hernandez added sarcastically.

“Thanks,” Brooks mumbled. “I think I’d like to go back now.”

Jade and Cardinal were standing beside Aster’s buggy, the Jarilan leaning forward to prevent her injured back from touching the padded seat.

“I’ll be fine, really,” she chuckled weakly as she waved them away. “Be safe. If any of you don’t come back…”

“That won’t happen,” Jade replied, touching her antennae against Aster’s. “Like we promised Sunny – we’ll keep the endos safe.”

“And yourselves,” Aster added. “Don’t let your guard down around the Queen. There’s no way that she’s just waiting to be killed in her chamber.”

“Worry about yourself,” Cardinal added, repeating Jade’s gesture. Was it some show of affection? “You’ve done enough, and the humans will remember it.”

“There’s not even enough left of Lieutenant Yates to fill a canteen,” one of the Marines said, approaching Bainbridge. “You have command, Lieutenant,” he added with a brief salute.

“Fall in,” Bainbridge replied with an understanding nod. “The Queen’s chamber can’t be far. We’ll make sure their deaths were meaningful.”

Regicide,” Tela chuckled, tossing him a Valbaran PDW to replace his empty microwave gun. He caught the tiny weapon in his hands, turning it over, finding that he could just about get his gloved finger through the trigger guard. “That’s what you Earth’nay call it, right?”

“Something like that,” he replied, reaching up to sync his helmet to his new weapon. She passed him a couple of mags, and he stowed them on his rig. “Thanks, by the way. I dunno where the fuck you guys…girls came from, but we would have been toast if you hadn’t shown up when you did.”

Toast,” she repeated, her panels flashing yellow as she cocked her head. “Charred bread, yes. The Ensi thought that our vehicles would be small enough to make it through any bottlenecks in the lava tubes, and it appears that she was right. The last thing the Queen is expecting is an armored assault on her chamber.”

“Alright, people,” Bainbridge added. “Rearm and get ready. We have a Queen to dethrone.”

***

“Contacts ahead,” one of the Valbarans warned, the vehicle crews using the more powerful optics on their tankettes to penetrate the gloom in the tunnel. “What looks like Workers are climbing on the ceiling of the tunnel, and they are guarded by a squad of Drones. Should we open fire, Commander?”

“Wait,” Bainbridge interjected before Tela could give her reply. “They’re crawling on the ceiling? Hold while we check it out.”

“If you insist,” Tela said. “Be ready to fire on my signal,” she added, addressing the gunner.

Bainbridge led Delta and the remaining Marines from Yates’ squad ahead of the tanks, soon coming across the scene. There was a team of maybe a dozen Workers milling around, some clinging to the walls and ceiling, where they were hammering what looked like giant nails into the rock with crude mallets. There was a resin crate sitting on the ground nearby that was filled with the things, the Workers forming a human – or rather an insect – chain to pass them along to their counterparts. There was a squad of six Drones armed with rifles standing guard, quickly noticing the approaching troops.

There was a brief exchange of gunfire, the Marines quickly taking out the Drones and catching a few clueless Workers in the crossfire, approaching to secure the area. Hernandez walked over to the crate, reaching for one of the strange nails, but Bainbridge gripped his rig to stop him.

“Don’t touch those, Private,” he growled as he pushed past him to get a better look. He lifted one of the objects, which was about the size and shape of a railroad spike, turning it over in his hand. “As I suspected – these are explosives. They’re hammering them into fault lines in the tunnel ceiling,” he added with a glance above his head, where some of the Workers were still performing their task with their usual indifference. “Shoot those guys down, and try not to hit the bombs, please.”

The squad let off a few precise shots, the dead Workers falling a considerable distance to the tunnel floor, landing among the bodies of their deceased guards.

“They were trying to blow the tunnel, L.T?” Garcia asked as he gave one of the Workers a prod with his boot.

“The Queen must really be desperate if she’s willing to collapse the lava tube to stop us,” Bainbridge replied. “This is the equivalent of collapsing a major highway to stop enemy troops from reaching your capital.”

“She’s still watching us,” Evan added, glancing at the stone walls in search of cameras. “She has a pretty good idea of where we are.”

“We need to pick up the pace and stay ahead of her,” the lieutenant continued. “Who knows how else she might be shoring her defenses.”

CHAPTER 13: INNER SANCTUM

They came to a stop again, the lava tube ahead curving enough to create a blind corner. Bainbridge called for the group to halt, then walked out ahead of the tanks, hugging the bend in the tunnel as he scouted out the path ahead. Evan tapped into the feed to see him extending the little telescoping camera on his wrist device. This was a natural formation, not an intentional obstacle, which made its curve far gentler than the abrupt turns they had encountered in the hive above. Evan watched as the fuzzy objects down the tunnel came into focus, Bainbridge having to extend his arm to avoid exposing himself.

There was a cluster of objects scattered across the floor of the tunnel, tank traps that looked like giant sea urchins, their sharp points jutting out on all sides. Maybe a hundred Drones were taking cover between them, and behind them was the imposing hull of a Scuttler, the organic tank’s tongue-like periscope extended as it scanned the lava tube for targets. It was flanked by a pair of Supermajors with anti-materiel rifles, creating a considerable amount of firepower. Even the tankettes might have some trouble pushing through. A little further behind them was a wall, Evan feeling his heart skip a beat as he realized that it was the end of the tunnel.

“That’s a lot of firepower,” Tela muttered, perching on the hull of the lead tankette. “We can take the Drones and the Supermajors no problem, but we might have trouble against that Scuttler. The time to kill on those things is pretty high with our ‘thirties.”

“What about that giant laser of yours?” Bainbridge asked, turning back.

“It’ll do the job, but we’d need to get in close if we want to get through its armor before it can return fire,” she replied. “Its effective range is a lot shorter than a railgun. One hit from that plasma cannon is gonna pop our Cozat’li like soap bubbles.”

“So, we distract it,” Bainbridge added. “Keep the fire on it – hope it doesn’t target the laser before it fires. I’d say there’s about six hundred meters to cover.”

“Is that really the best plan we can come up with?” Garcia asked, peeking out from behind the cover of one of the tanks as the lieutenant jogged back over to them. “Hope and pray they don’t take out the only effective weapon we have?”

“We might get a lucky shot with one of the ‘thirties,” Tela replied. “Cozat’li have killed Scuttlers in the field, it’s just a matter of saturation. Gotta chew through the armor – try to damage enough redundant systems to render the target inoperable.”

“They’ll focus their fire on whatever they deem to be the biggest threat,” Jade added. “That means putting the other vehicles in danger, though.”

“I have to admit,” Tela began, glancing back at them from her perch. “We didn’t plan for any scenarios like this. If you Earth’nay have any of that famous improvisation on hand, now’s the time.”

“Do we have any smoke?” Bainbridge asked. “Anything we can use to blind it?”

“Our tankettes have smoke launchers, but I don’t think that’s going to help much,” Tela replied. “We have to keep advancing if we want to get into range, and we’ll leave the smoke behind.”

“The same would be true for any smoke grenades,” Bainbridge added. “We don’t have any left anyway.”

“What’s the effective range on this thing?” Foster asked as he appraised the laser weapon on the tankette.

“In ideal conditions, it can do damage to a target up to two kilometers out,” Tela replied as she gave its housing an affectionate pat. “The issue is, lasers work by firing high-energy photons, and those photons will bounce off anything that gets in their path. Water droplets, dust, whatever is between it and the target. That means it sheds energy pretty fast over distance, and only a percentage of the energy you initially fired is reaching its destination. It can bring down a small aircraft at two klicks, but if you want to vaporize a Scuttler’s hull, that’s going to be more like three to five-hundred meters.”

“So, it can hit the Scuttler at this range – it just can’t do enough damage to disable it,” Foster mused. “How accurate is it? Even if it can’t kill the Scuttler, could it burn out its targeting optics? We know that they use a blend of organic and electronic systems.”

“See, this is why we keep you mammals around,” Tela chuckled.

They keep us around?” Hernandez asked over the private channel.

“Do we know where all of their optics are mounted?” Bainbridge asked.

“Certainly,” the Valbaran chirped. “We’ve studied salvaged carcasses extensively. They have those little tongue things that they deploy from their beaks, which have both organic optical sensors and antennae for picking up scent, but they also have an optics package mounted in a recess in the turret for when that organ is stowed. We think they use that one for more accurate targeting and range finding. It’s very small – close to the barrel, but if it can see us, then we can hit it.”

“I think we should target the optics package on the turret first,” Foster continued. “The first thing it’s gonna do when it spots us is stow its tongue. We hit the optics on the turret, and that will force it to expose its main sensors. It’ll still be able to smell us, but that won’t help it hit a target at three hundred meters out.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tela replied.

“Good thinking, Private,” Bainbridge added. “As for the rest of the tankettes, they should focus on the Supermajors. They’re the next biggest threat. We need to kill those things before they can fire those anti-materiel rifles. The railguns out-range them, but in this confined space, we can’t really leverage that advantage.”

“We’ll hold the Gue’tra back,” Tela said. “Once the armor and the heavy infantry are disabled, they can move in and help mop up the Drones.”

“It looks like we’ll have to abandon the vehicles once we reach those tank traps,” Bainbridge continued. “I don’t imagine the Bugs have made them easy to shift.”

“Then, let’s hope they don’t have a second Scuttler waiting for us, or we’re totally screwed,” Tela chuckled. “Alright, do we have consensus? Everyone understand the plan? Let’s move out.”

The infantry and the buggies remained behind as the six tanks began to drive forward, soon vanishing around the corner. Evan opened the view from one of the vehicles on his visor, patching into its feed, getting an image from the perspective of its turret.

The moment the vehicles cleared the turn, the laser opened up, sending a bean of glittering light shooting down the tunnel. The Scuttler was already stowing its organic periscope inside its beak, hunkering down as it prepared to fire back, these scant few seconds the only advantage the attackers had. The beam found its mark, and although there was no visible indication of damage, the way that the vehicle faltered let Evan know that the plan had worked. Almost reluctantly, the thing cracked open its three-way beak, parting the heavy plates just enough to get a look out at its target like a clam peeking out of its shell. If it could receive enough light to see, then it was vulnerable, a second well-placed shot pouring a stream of blinding photons into the gap. It snapped its beak shut again, but too late, the tank staggering.

Arcs of green energy danced between the barrels on its main cannon, and it fired, sending a glowing bolt racing towards the tankettes. It sailed over them, the projectile splashing against the stone wall behind them, melting the rock.

“You did it!” Bainbridge exclaimed. “The fucker’s blind!”

The other vehicles were already firing on the Supermajors, Evan watching as the camera swiveled with the turret, the gun barrel sending a stream of railgun fire towards the far end of the lava tube. Its target was moving into cover behind the Scuttler in the same way that the infantry had taken cover behind the tankettes, but too late. As it tried to raise its rifle to shoot back, it was taken apart by concentrated fire, the second Supermajor succumbing to the same fate.

The Drones were firing back from the cover of the tank traps, but their rifles were useless against the advancing vehicles, streams of plasma fire splashing against their hulls harmlessly. The Scuttler was still standing, and although it was blinded, it was still dangerous. It fired another round from its cannon, the powerful bolt slamming into the ground a few meters ahead of the lead vehicle, forcing it to swerve to avoid the pool of molten rock. Was it trying to aim using sound now, maybe vibration? Repositioning itself, its eight legs thundering as it turned, it fired its side-mounted rocket launchers. A volley of missiles came streaking down the tunnel, trailing plumes of smoke as they spiraled aimlessly. They seemed to be unguided, some of them slamming into the walls and ceiling, exploding into billows of orange flame as they hit the floor. Accuracy wasn’t necessary in the confines of the tunnel – the sheer number of projectiles ensured that several of them found their mark by sheer chance.

One of them struck the front armor of the leftmost tankette, the vehicle lurching as shrapnel peppered its hull. It emerged from the smoke relatively unscathed, its armor plating scarred, pocked with molten metal. A tankette to the right of the formation wasn’t so lucky, a missile striking the ground beside it, tearing apart one of its tracks. It sent torn treads flying, the vehicle grinding to a stop, one of its wheels rolling along of its own accord.

The laser was in range now, a searing beam bridging the distance between the tankette and the Scuttler in a fraction of a second. It carved a burning channel through the creature’s hull, slagging its carapace, cooking the meat and metal beneath. Like some kind of giant C&C machine, it dragged the burning beam across the thing’s body, severing a leg, drilling a hole through the tough beak on its prow. Smoke poured from the deep wound channel as the weapon bored into it, finally cutting off abruptly, the liquid slag of the molten components within dripping from the hole like glowing blood. The Scuttler shuddered, then heaved, its remaining legs giving out as it toppled to the tunnel floor.

“Target down!” one of the Valbarans trilled over the comms.

“Move in!” Bainbridge ordered. “We need to take out those Drones before they swarm the tanks! Watch your fire – an XMR might make it through the rear armor on those things. We don’t need blue on blue.”

The Coalition troops rushed around the bend in the tunnel, the buggies keeping pace behind them, the sound of automatic fire quickly joining the roar of the cannons. They aimed between the tankettes, the vehicles covering their advance, their thirty-millimeter turrets peppering the helpless Drones as they huddled behind the tank traps. The obstacles didn’t provide much cover, the slugs blowing their targets to pieces, practically turning them to vapor.

Realizing that their only chance of winning was to overrun the vehicles and pry open their hulls to get at the crews, the Drones suddenly changed their strategy, as if the same signal had been shared between all of them. Moving as one organism, they rushed forward, spilling between the urchin-like traps in a wave of orange carapace.

It was too late – the infantry had already reached the cover of the vehicles, firing between them at the oncoming horde. Caught out in the open and faced with a firing line, they began to fall by the dozen. Some of them tried to cover the advance of the rest, sending plasma volleys streaking towards the attackers, but their assault was already in disarray.

Evan leaned out from behind one of the little tanks, fighting the recoil as he dumped his magazine into the wall of oncoming Drones. The Bugs had no choice but to commit now, some drawing blades as they came within a dozen meters of the tanks, but they were quickly felled. Just like the Tweakers, they were so densely packed that aiming was scarcely necessary, every round overpenetrating to hit multiple targets. His visor darkened as the laser swept its beam across the charging Bugs like a flashlight, turning them to charred husks where they stood, their bodies crumbling as though they were made of loose charcoal.

Despite the withering fire, their sheer numbers allowed some of the Drones to reach the vehicles, the creatures leaping up onto their hulls. They were quickly dispatched by the nearby troops, Evan cutting one almost in half as it tried to pry open one of the hatches.

Trapped between the tankettes and the wall behind them, the Drones had nowhere left to go, the last of them succumbing to the concentrated fire. The infantry moved forward, stalking between the tank traps, the occasional crack of an XMR echoing through the tunnel as they put down the wounded. They reached the fallen Scuttler and the two Supermajors, approaching them warily, their weapons ready. Seeing no movement, Bainbridge declared the all-clear.

“Nice work, people,” he said as he turned to look back at the carpet of bodies and the idling tanks beyond. “No casualties?”

The crew from the damaged tankette had already been helped out of their vehicle, and it seemed that they were none the worse for wear. Tela came walking over to them with her bobbing, Valbaran gait, flanked by several more of her kind.

“It doesn’t look like we can move these things,” she said, avoiding the sharp prongs of one of the sea urchins. They were about as tall as she was. “I’ll have the vehicles remain here and secure our rear. The last thing we need is Bug reinforcements sneaking up behind us and lifting our tails.”

“I’ll check for an entrance ahead,” Bainbridge replied. “These guys must have been guarding something.”

Delta followed behind him as he made his way over to the wall, the lieutenant appraising it as Tela began to direct her vehicles to turn around. It was distinct from the surrounding rock, made from resin and dirt, forming a kind of plug in the lava tube.

“This is definitely a blast door,” he mused. “A big one – it’s gotta be forty meters high. I’m not sure we can get through this with explosives.”

“I see a control panel,” Jade said, jogging over to the tunnel wall. “I’ll see if I can get it open.”

They waited as she fiddled with the fleshy button, the minutes dragging by until she finally stepped away with a frustrated grumble.

“The locking mechanism is a lot more sophisticated than the others,” she explained, turning to give the team a shrug with both pairs of arms. “It’s asking me for specific molecular chains that are coded to a sequence, like a passcode. They really don’t want us getting through here.”

“Commander Tela,” Bainbridge said, waving to the vehicles behind them. “I wonder if we could borrow one of your toys?”

“We Valbara’nay know how to share,” she replied, her tone conveying a smirk over the radio channel. “Let me guess – you need us to clear a path for you?”

“Should we…get behind you?” Simmons asked warily, watching as the laser turret on the tankette rotated to point in their direction.

“It’s quite precise,” Tela replied, hopping up onto its hull in a single bound. “Just try not to look directly at it without a visor, or you might end up like that Scuttler over there.”

The carcass in question was actually in the way, and she had the tankette drive further to the right of the tunnel so that the laser could get a clear shot around it. Delta and the surviving Marines split into two groups, giving the weapon a wide berth despite Tela’s assurances that it was perfectly safe. They had all seen what it could do first-hand.

With a slap of her tail on the tankette’s hull, the laser ignited, a spear of light lancing out to sear into the resin. Like a boring machine drilling through rock, it cut into the obstacle, melting the resin and vaporizing the dirt beneath it. There was another protective layer of metal beneath that, the material spewing sparks as the laser slagged it, the hole growing. Evan could see Tela cocking her head, just as surprised as the rest of them as the beam burned through layer after layer. It was like cutting through the door of some great bank vault or a hermetic bunker, the weapon exposing meters of layered material, until the beam sputtered out.

“It’s overheating,” Tela explained, her suit panels flashing orange. “Give us a moment.”

“Looks like a giant slice of lasagna,” Hernandez muttered, daring to lean a little closer to get a look down the smoldering tunnel.

“That’s one hell of a blast door,” Bainbridge added. “I’ve never come across one this large before. It must weigh hundreds of tons.”

“It’s another sign that we’re getting close,” Jade insisted, glancing up at the barrier. “It wouldn’t surprise me if these lava tubes are the only way to enter the heart of the hive. These blast doors can be larger and more heavily defended than a conventional tunnel, and the walls are volcanic rock rather than soil and resin. I struggle to imagine how an invading nuptial fleet could even get through this.”

“Here comes another one!” Tela warned, the cannon igniting again. The beam disappeared into the hole, so deep now that Evan couldn’t see any sparks or molten metal. This time, when it stopped, it was because it had accomplished its task.

Evan stepped out in front of the hole, gazing down the long tunnel, just big enough for a Borealan to get through if they lowered their head. The layers of metal were still hot enough to be molten, illuminating the perfectly round passage with burning rings, a few stray droplets dripping to the floor as the stone cooled. Beyond it, there was only darkness.

“I’d give it a few minutes,” Tela said, hopping down from her tankette and making her way over to join them. “What’s your plan from here?”

“I’ll move in with my men,” Bainbridge replied, peering down the tunnel. “We could use some Commandos if you can spare them. Maybe just one squad – there’s no advantage in having too many bodies clogging the tunnel.”

“I was going to insist on coming along, but let’s just pretend it was your idea,” she said with a flutter of green from her panels. Was that amusement? Evan didn’t know enough about the little aliens to say. “The Ensi hand-picked my flock for this mission. We’re the best, and we’ll be an asset.”

“Alright,” Bainbridge replied, giving her a nod. “This is your colony, after all. I wouldn’t dream of denying you the chance to have Valbarans in the chamber when we put a slug through the Queen’s skull. Besides, I think a Consensus commander outranks a UNN lieutenant…”

“Teething issues,” she replied with another flash that might be the equivalent of a smile. “We’ll figure it out.”

Tela assembled her squad – what Evan soon learned was her flock, three other Valbarans with similar gear joining her. They were not her subordinates, but her equals, sharing her rank. It was a little confusing to have to treat four people as an individual, but as a private, all he really had to do was follow any orders they gave.

He noticed that Tatzi and Borzka had moved behind the dead Scuttler. Curious, he followed to see them pulling the anti-materiel rifles off the dead Supermajors, the weapons large and unwieldy even for the eight-foot felines. It was bizarre to see Borealans contrasted with equipment that was larger than they were.

Hernandez walked over to see what was happening, whistling as he watched Tatzi check the magazine on one of the weapons.

“Can you guys handle those things?” he asked.

“I have used one once before,” Borzka replied, Evan remembering their first encounter with the Supermajors at the refinery. “They are heavy, but powerful. If we should encounter any Supermajors from this point on, we will have no need to retreat.”

Tatzi hefted the second rifle, examining the strange device. Like the creatures themselves, it was a blend of organic and technological components, all encased within an orange carapace. The gill-like structures that ran down its long barrel fluttered, a very literal eye where the scope would have been quivering like jelly. She had no way to tap into its output, so she would have to play it by ear.

“Good thinking,” Bainbridge said as they returned to the group with their new prizes. “I was about to suggest that we hold until we could bring in some heavy weapons, but these will do nicely.”

When they were ready to move out, Bainbridge led them down the borehole. Delta, the surviving members of Yates’ squad, and Tela’s flock followed after him. Although Tela outranked the L.T, she seemed willing to defer to his experience.

The tunnel was narrow enough that they had to move in single-file, the metal now cooled to the point that it was no longer glowing ominously. After a walk of several meters through the absurdly large blast door, they emerged on the far side, fanning out as they scanned the chamber beyond with their flashlights.

Evan’s beam transitioned from volcanic rock to resin, the lava tube giving way to more traditional Bug architecture, expanding into a domed chamber that had been hollowed out of the stone. The curved walls were draped with insulated cables and fleshy tubes, descending from the apex of the ceiling to connect to haphazard clusters of equipment on the floor below. Evan immediately recognized them as computers, or maybe servers – what looked like racks of electronic equipment that someone had dumped buckets of offal onto. The organic and technological components were interwoven, connected to this expansive network of power and data cables, Workers milling about between them as they tended to the humming machines.

“What do you reckon this is?” Hernandez asked, stepping over a cable that was trailing across the floor. “Some kinda…data storage room?”

“Could be data storage, communications, some kind of computer hub for their terminals,” Bainbridge replied as he led them down one of the winding aisles. “This hive is the nexus of a planet-spanning communication system. Well, it was before we bombed the fuck out of it. The Queen manages everything herself – what resources to allocate to the different regions, troop movements, supply and manufacturing. She would have been running a planetary economy from this location.”

“Should we blow it up?” Garcia asked.

“Lieutenant, I suggest we keep it intact,” Jade added hurriedly. “If the hive is storing data or keeping records of their activities here, then we might be able to find a way to salvage it. Having some insight into how they approached the invasion or how they’ve been managing their colony could be invaluable for future operations.”

“Agreed,” he replied. “Don’t worry about the Workers,” he added, glancing back at Tela and her flock. “They’re harmless.”

The group made their way across the chamber, finding several exits on the far side. Evan noted that they were all large enough for a Supermajor, suggesting that the Queen wanted her guards to be able to have the run of the area. He could only hope that their reserves of heavy infantry had been depleted. They couldn’t get the tanks through here, and he doubted whether there would be any bolt holes where they could escape the giant Bugs. At least the Borealans had something that could bring them down now.

“Check out those cables,” Hernandez said, gesturing to the ceiling of one of the tunnels. Thick wires wound along it, trailing deeper into the passageway, joining it to the chamber’s network. “Looks like a red carpet to me.”

“A link to the Queen’s chamber, maybe,” Jade said with a nod.

“Oh!” Cardinal added, her antennae standing up straight. “Do you smell that?”

“What are you picking up?” Jade asked, moving over to her.

“Males,” she replied excitedly. “Not Tweakers this time, normal males.”

“The Queen’s harem!” Jade gasped.

“A harem?” Hernandez asked skeptically. “What, like, velvet pillows and shit?”

“Betelgeusian Queens keep an entourage of fertile males close by,” Jade explained. “She uses them to extract…uh…genetic material when necessary. They rarely leave her side under normal circumstances.”

“Sounds like these Queens have the right idea,” Tela chuckled, a flash of pink passing through her suit panels as she nudged one of her counterparts.

“They’re actually very dangerous,” Cardinal interjected. “Think of them as elite Drones, capable of flight. They often double as bodyguards.”

“Not more dangerous than we are,” Foster muttered, checking his XMR.

The Jarilans led the way, following the scent of the males, the team spreading out in the wider tunnels. They soon rounded a corner and came across another closed blast door, Jade trying and failing once again to get it open. This time, Bainbridge stepped forward, one of his charges in hand.

“A shaped breaching charge should probably do the trick,” he said, planting the device on the door at about chest height. After a moment of examining the obstacle, he elected to place a second, the group moving back around the corner warily as he armed them. “That’s far enough,” he added, glancing back at them. “All of the explosive force will be directed forward. That’s what shaped means.”

“Will it be enough to get through?” Collins wondered.

“As long as it’s not as thick as the last one,” Bainbridge replied. “This is what these charges are designed for.”

Evan watched with bated breath as the lieutenant tapped at his wrist device, arming the explosives, detonating them a moment later. There was a flash of light, hinting at extreme heat, a pressure wave washing down the tunnel. The blast door crumbled, the resin and dirt turned to shrapnel, the charge tearing a jagged hole in the reinforced metal beyond.

Bainbridge approached the breach cautiously, using his telescoping camera to get a look through the jagged opening. He quickly jerked away again as a stream of plasma bolts raced through. The lieutenant pressed himself flat against the door in alarm, the volley of enemy fire splashing against the ground and impacting the far wall. After what must have been almost a minute of continuous fire, it finally subsided, a Drone stepping through the breach a few moments later. It gripped the torn edges with its lower pair of hands, its rifle held in the upper, the lenses on its helmet glinting in the light as it searched for targets.

Bainbridge casually leaned over and blew its head off with his PDW, sending it slumping to the ground. Evan noted that this one had wing casings on its back, the glass-like, gossamer appendages visible beneath the protective coverings. Another barrage of plasma fire followed, several of the projectiles charring the thing’s body, its comrades indifferent to its plight.

“Yep, I’m thinking we found the males,” Bainbridge declared as he shuffled a few more steps away from the hole.

“They have the blast door locked down,” one of the Marines from Yates’ squad said. “How the fuck are we gonna get through that?”

“Anyone got any grenades left?” Bainbridge asked. “Frag, plasma – doesn’t matter.”

They passed a handful of grenades to the Marine closest to the corner, who began to toss them to Bainbridge like softballs, unable to expose themselves due to the intermittent plasma fire. The lieutenant caught the first of them, then primed it, tossing it through the breach. He repeated the process with each grenade, finishing off with a plasma variant of Valbaran design that created a green flash beyond the door.

“You think that got ‘em, L.T?” Hernandez asked, poking his head around the corner.

“Depends on how big the room is, Private,” he replied. “Are you volunteering to take a peek inside to check?”

“No, sir,” Hernandez replied as he slunk back around the corner again.

Bainbridge extended his telescoping camera again, angling it so that it could see through the hole, Evan tapping into the feed to get a look at the chamber beyond. There wasn’t much to see, just smoke and darkness.

“I think we’re clear,” the lieutenant said, waving for the rest of the group to approach. “I’ll go through first,” he said, stowing his camera. “My armor can take more hits than those Marine suits. If you hear shooting, I guess try plan B.”

“What’s plan B?” Donovan asked, Bainbridge ignoring the question as he stepped through with his weapon ready. After a tense few moments, he called for them to follow, everyone filing through the breach one after another.

Evan emerged into another chamber, this one relatively small when compared to the others he had seen. It could best be described as a rather spartan barracks, the resin walls pocked with recesses that were about large enough to serve as beds for the males. They were lined with hard resin, no blankets or pillows in sight. The Drones in question were scattered around the room in varying states of dismemberment, the grenades having eviscerated them in the enclosed space. It looked as though they had erected defensive barriers, just chest-high walls of dirt and resin, positioned to give them a firing angle on the door. It seemed desperate, even by Bug standards. There was nothing else in the room, no tables or chairs, nothing resembling furniture. He could see a weapon rack that had been mostly destroyed by the explosives, the honey feeding tube dripping, but that was about it. For elite troops and the Queen’s personal harem, they didn’t have more amenities or nicer living quarters than any of the other castes. He found himself wondering what they did all day – if they even had a concept of entertainment or whether boredom had just been engineered out of them.

“What do you think, Cardinal?” Hernandez asked as he rolled over one of the dead males with his boot. “Smash or pass?”

“The mandibles aren’t really doing it for me,” she muttered, stepping over the body. “You smell that, Jade?” she added as she turned to her counterpart.

“Yeah,” Jade replied. “Queen pheromones. It’s…very strange,” she added with a shake of her head that made her antennae bob. “I’ve never smelled another Queen before.”

“What’s it like?” Evan asked.

“It’s hard to explain,” she replied, pausing to consider for a moment. “Bugs experience many pheromones as emotions or impulses, and the Queen’s presence is…overriding. Jarilans aren’t affected in quite the same way due to our human genes, so we have what you might call an extra layer of awareness operating above that level. This is also a foreign Queen, so her pheromones aren’t tailored to us. Still, the association is there, and it’s hard to suppress that sense of…awe.”

“Nothing that’s gonna stop us putting a slug between her eyes,” Cardinal added, Jade giving her a nod.

“Smile for the camera,” Hernandez said, pointing to the ceiling above them with the barrel of his rifle. There was another of the gelatinous monitoring devices there, an iris beneath the off-green gunk visibly narrowing as it focused on them.

“We never had the element of surprise,” Bainbridge muttered. “We don’t need it. Come on.”

They continued deeper into the Supermajor-sized tunnels, the featureless rock and resin starting to change. The passages widened further, becoming cavernous corridors ten meters high, shapes starting to appear as though they had been extruded from the walls. They almost looked like ribs, or maybe weight-supporting buttresses. They were organic in their design, irregular, no two quite the same. They had clearly been sculpted by hand by the hive’s Workers, each one fashioned to provide the strongest possible support. The designs reminded Evan of something created by an algorithm more than a creative mind. Still, it gave the impression that they were walking through the rib cage of some long-dead sea serpent.

“This place is a lot more built up,” Jade muttered. “I wonder why the extra strength is necessary?”

“Think the Queen is afraid of cave-ins?” Evan asked.

“That could be a possibility,” she replied, stepping beneath one of the resin pillars. “It might be designed like a bunker – to resist heavy bombardment.”

The winding tunnel led them to yet another large chamber, the dome above their heads supported by similar rib structures, coalescing at its apex to make Evan feel like he was standing beneath the vault of a cathedral. If it was a cathedral, then it was dedicated to some ancient and malicious god, volcanic rock the color of obsidian and black soil dominating the environment.

The room was filled with thick, round pillars made from resin. There were a dozen of them, rising to intersect with the ceiling, furthering the impression that they were venturing into some kind of reinforced vault. As their flashlight beams played across them, they reflected the pale color of bone. The pillars were pocked with holes and recesses, as though they had been eaten away by some kind of corrosive acid, and those voids were filled with something round…

“Are those…skulls?” Garcia gasped. “Human skulls?”

Evan felt a pit form in his stomach as he approached warily, his flashlight making the round objects shine. As he neared, he realized that they were wet, glistening. These weren’t skulls – they were round, fleshy objects about the size of a human head.

“They’re not skulls,” he announced, reaching out to prod one of them with a gloved finger. It was wet, more sticky than slimy. He pulled away, his digit linked to the thing by a gluey strand, no doubt the substance that was keeping them in place. “I think they’re eggs.”

“That doesn’t make it look any less like a fucking ossuary,” Foster grumbled.

“She must be producing so many eggs that she needs ancillary chambers to store them,” Jade mused, walking around one of the pillars as she examined it. “Once they hatch, the larvae will be transferred to the upper chambers, where the Repletes can care for them.”

“Somehow, I don’t feel as conflicted about blowin’ the fuck out of this place,” Hernandez said as he scanned the chamber with his rifle. “Did they make it fuckin’ creepy on purpose?”

“They’ve never met a human before,” Cardinal replied. “They have no idea what you find creepy.”

“Yeah, well they clearly didn’t get the memo,” he grumbled.

“Enough sightseeing,” Bainbridge said, waving them forward.

They crossed the egg chamber, passing into a second room that was near identical, only distinguishable from the last by the haphazard placement of its pillars. Something moved in the corner of Evan’s eye, and he spun around, his visor picking up activity. He heard Garcia yelp, the beam of his flashlight picking up a figure that was clinging to the top of one of the pillars high above their heads. As the software outlined it in red, picking it out against the black backdrop, Evan recoiled with reflexive disgust. It was a Bug, its limbs long and spindly, like some kind of grotesque spider. It had a head and body that were of a normal size for a Drone, but those arms and legs were stretched to absurd proportions, obviously to give it more reach.

He watched, a shiver crawling down his spine as it monkeyed its way down the pillar, reaching into a recess to pull out one of the round eggs. It seemed to examine it, its hands dripping with the sticky glue that kept them in place, then put it back. There were more of them, crawling up and down the pillars, tending to the eggs. Not one of them was on the ground, instead using handholds and recesses in the uneven resin to get around, hanging off the ribbed buttresses above like monkey bars.

“They must be nurses,” Cardinal said. “I don’t think they’ll hurt us if we leave them alone.”

“I really hate it here,” Garcia sighed.

“I’m not seeing any more blast doors,” Bainbridge added as he shone his light down the next passage. “It might be a straight shot to the Queen from here. Borzka, Tatzi, flank Jade and Cardinal at the front. The second you see anything larger than a Drone, fuck it up. There’s no ceremony here, you hit that bitch in the face with an anti-materiel rifle, and she’ll go down like anything else.”

They nodded, moving to the front of the group, the rest of the team following after them.

“It’s strange that we’ve only seen two Supermajors,” Tela said, her trilling voice filling Evan’s helmet. She had a strange manner of speaking, like she was shifting between several different accents, a flanging effect making her sound like a songbird. “Surely the Queen should be better defended?”

“They threw everything they had at us during the assault on the mountain,” Collins replied. “Whole squads of Supermajors dropped right on top of our tank companies. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of them were wiped out during that attack. Supermajors have always been pretty rare.”

“They must take a phenomenal quantity of resources to raise and feed,” Jade confirmed. “The Queen can have one Supermajor, or she can have a hundred Drones who can patrol her territory.”

“I bet she’s regretting not making an army of the things,” Foster said.

“Given a few more decades, she might have been able to,” Jade replied solemnly. “If this is what they were able to accomplish after thirty years, imagine sixty, imagine a thousand. This colony is still young by Betelgeusian standards, and they’ve only just begun to exploit the moon’s resources.”

“Don’t let your guard down,” Bainbridge added. “We have no idea what other defenses she might have prepared for us.”

They walked through another tall tunnel, passing beneath the resin ribs, the passageway branching off into more identical egg chambers. If these rooms ringed some kind of central chamber, there must be dozens of them.

“Look,” Simmons said, gesturing to a mass of thick cables that wound their way across the ceiling. “We’re on the right track.”

As they turned a blind corner, there was a flurry of movement, those at the front of the group raising their weapons in alarm. They quickly lowered them again as they saw a procession of a dozen Workers waddling towards them down the tunnel. The creatures were as indifferent as ever, Evan leaning over to look into the resin crates that they were carrying between them as they passed. The containers were padded with some kind of soft, fleshy material, and they were stacked to the brim with round eggs. He felt another shiver of disgust as he watched one of the lanky Nurses stride along behind them, walking on two long legs, something about the way its arms moved triggering some deeply rooted unease in him. Unlike the Workers, it at least acknowledged his presence, turning a pair of curious eyes on him. He clutched his rifle, ready to raise it should the Bug try anything, but it seemed to have other priorities.

“Fresh eggs, maybe?” Cardinal suggested.

“How long does it take them to mature?” Simmons asked. “Should we be worried? There must be a whole army cooking down here.”

“At least for Jarilans, it takes about six months for us to go from an egg to a larva to a mature adult,” she replied. “Even if they accelerated that process, I doubt any of these eggs will be viable for months yet. It’s too late for her to replenish her forces.”

“So, your childhood memories are just a few months of wrigglin’ around on the floor?” Hernandez asked.

“I’ve seen human babies in the colony,” she replied. “I could say the same for you.”

“She’s got you there,” Evan added.

“Yeah, but do you go to school?” Hernandez pressed. “How do you learn English? Don’t tell me you’re born already knowing how to do fuckin’ algebra.”

“In my experience, Earth’nay are liable to forget something you told them ten minutes ago,” Tela added with a chuckle.

“We have training programs, and we go to school,” Cardinal replied. “We just do it a little faster than you do.”

They continued down the tunnel, which began to gently slope upwards, a blind corner leading to another opening. Jade checked the path ahead using the in-picture scope on her XMR, then waved them on, the incline providing them with some convenient cover. When they got high enough to see over the little lip, a chamber was revealed, dug out of the ground like a bowl. Its floor was at a lower elevation than their passageway, sloping down a good three or four meters, giving them a vantage point.

The chamber was vast, almost as large as the mushroom farm had been, the domed roof rising some fifty meters above their heads. Swooping buttresses made from crystalline resin climbed the curving walls, as large as suspension bridge supports in their own right, meeting at the apex of the chamber to further the impression that they had stepped into some kind of Gothic sanctum. They had that same organic, surreal design, material added or removed to increase their structural integrity with no concern for symmetry or aesthetics. They were pocked with small, bone-colored pustules, and he quickly realized that even the supports were being used to store eggs. They were so precariously high, but it wasn’t a concern for the spider-like Nurses, the creatures climbing up and down the walls as they tended to the Queen’s brood.

Those same pillars were present here, too, as girthy and as tall as redwoods. The chamber was so cavernous that even these seemed dwarfed in comparison. They rose to the ceiling to form a rough circle, serving as structural pillars as well as nurseries for the young, the resin that enclosed the black rock and dirt hollowed out to accommodate tens of thousands of eggs. The comparison that Foster had made to an ossuary was stark in Evan’s mind, the undeniable comparison between these ivory-colored eggs and human skulls giving the place the atmosphere of some dark mausoleum. It was lit by a forest of moss on the ceiling, the bioluminescent fungi growing between the ribs of the buttresses, casting just enough of a twilight glow to see by.

That wasn’t the only thing on the ceiling, however. The cables that they had followed to the chamber climbed the wall above them, snaking along until they terminated at the dome’s apex. There were more entrances to the chamber, and another mass of fleshy tubes trailed from each one, coalescing to form a kind of network. At their center was a thick trunk that was anchored to the resin, made from intersecting plates of carapace, almost like a flexible shower hose. As his eyes followed the trunk down, he could see glimpses of pink flesh between the segments, hints of nerves and cables that wound beneath it. The shell was distinct from the oranges and browns that Evan was used to seeing, colored like an amethyst gemstone, a purple so dark that it bordered on black with hints of iridescence that brought out vibrant violets when it reflected the blue light.

Hanging from it like some kind of grisly chandelier was a massive figure, suspended just a couple of meters off the ground, the thick trunk connecting somewhere out of view behind its back. It was large enough to make a Supermajor look short, perhaps fifteen feet tall or more, but it was hard to judge its height when it seemed to be crouching over something. As his eyes adjusted to pick out the dark purple carapace against the black backdrop of volcanic basalt, he saw it in greater detail. It was the Queen.

The first feature that jumped out at him was her head, a crest shaped vaguely like the hood of a car sweeping back to terminate in a pair of rounded, upswept prongs. Its skull alone must have been six feet long and almost as wide. At the front was a comparatively small face with a pair of large, blue eyes that were framed by exposed flesh with a rosy hue. Its mandibles were different from those of its offspring, smaller and daintier, almost understated when compared to the bulky chelicerae that he was used to seeing on the combat forms. From its forehead sprouted an ornate horn large enough that it would have reached a man’s shoulder if he were to stand beside it, its thick stalk branching into an ornate headdress of symmetrical prongs that reminded Evan of a stag beetle. Though the aliens had no concept of ostentation, it was a crown befitting of her station.

Her neck was stocky and reinforced, designed to hold up that heavy skull, protected by more segmented plates of armored carapace. At the shoulders, it split into a torso that was unlike those of the other castes he had encountered, the shell forming a kind of X-shape that transitioned into arms at its four points. The upper limbs were truly massive, eight or nine feet long in their own right, while the lower pair were somewhat shorter. Below the torso was another flexible midsection made from intersecting plates, expanding as the Queen breathed to show more pink flesh between them.

Her hips were as wide as her shoulders, a pair of long legs socketed to them, more meat visible between the snug joints. The thighs were enclosed in thick, protective plating, whatever muscle and sinew that was required to hold her heavy body aloft making them disproportionately large. They were about the same thickness as her lower torso, the wide, flat surfaces shining with iridescence with each subtle movement. They tapered into more slender, digitigrade legs, her clawed feet perched on a glistening mass.

It was only now that Evan realized what she was sitting on. The Queen was attached to a giant, fleshy egg sack, voluminous enough that even her massive frame could have fit inside it twice over. It was made from pink flesh that shone with a slimy sheen in the dim light, covered in bulges and wrinkles, pulsating with an unceasing motion. It resembled a giant slug, waves of muscle rippling along its bulbous length, terminating in an unidentifiable orifice at the tapered end. As he watched, the fleshy slit split open, disgorging an egg along with a flood of clear slime. There was a Nurse waiting there to receive it, quickly snatching up the round object, scurrying away to find a place for it.

She barely seemed to notice – her attention focused on a series of computer terminals that surrounded her, built up like pillars to accommodate her stature. There were no displays, only rows of pustule-like buttons, her eyes darting between them as her four arms moved independently to prod and manipulate the fleshy interfaces. It made her look like she was operating some kind of giant pipe organ. There were cables everywhere, winding across the floor between stacks of eggs, bridging the gaps between the unidentifiable machines. She was surrounded by towers of flesh and metal that served no purpose that Evan could guess at, masses of biomechanical tech that blended throbbing meat with thrumming electronics.

“Holy shit,” Hernandez hissed, lowering his voice as though he feared that she might overhear him.

“There she is,” Bainbridge said, keeping low to the tunnel floor. “The fucking Queen – and a big one at that. She’s been eating better than the one we found on EE-4. What is that, fourteen feet?”

“What’s all that shit around her?” Foster asked.

“I dunno,” Bainbridge replied. “Information terminals, life support equipment, who knows? The Queen stays rooted to the ceiling of the chamber once she’s established, and she won’t move from that position unless there’s an emergency. She’s reliant on her hive now – they’ll bring her everything she needs, hook her up to the colony’s systems.”

“What are we waiting for?” Tela added, giving them a pulse of red that might indicate impatience. “She’s vulnerable, and we have a clear shot. Let’s take her out!”

“Tatzi, Borzka, move up,” Bainbridge said.

Crouching low, the two Borealans crept forward, carrying their heavy rifles in their hands. Moving silently should have been a challenge for someone of their size, but they managed it remarkably well. Dropping to their bellies, they crawled closer to the mouth of the tunnel, bracing their rifles against their shoulders as they rested the long barrels on the ground. From their elevated position, they couldn’t have asked for a better shot.

“This feels too easy,” Jade whispered, her antennae waving as though she was scanning for some telltale scent that might give away a trap. “She knows we’re coming – there are cameras all over this place. Why would she just sit there and wait to be shot?”

“We can’t afford to pass up this opportunity,” Evan replied. “We can end this war with one bullet.”

“Don’t you think she knows that?” Jade hissed. “Her brain is the size of a goddamned bathtub!”

“Do you guys have a clean shot?” Bainbridge asked. “Do you know how to use those things?”

“We will not miss, Lieutenant,” Borzka replied. “We do not need scopes to hit a target so large at this range.”

“Unless the weapons can refuse to fire on their master?” Tatzi suggested, turning her helmet to give them a sideways glance.

“I guess we’ll find out,” Bainbridge replied. “Delta, take up position behind them just in case. An XMR should still do the job – these Queens don’t have thick armor or redundant organs like Supermajors.”

Evan watched as the Borealans prepared to fire, glancing between the two shooters and the seemingly oblivious Queen. Jade was right – something felt wrong, but they couldn’t turn back with victory in their crosshairs.

“Take the shot,” Bainbridge ordered.

A pair of cracks echoed down the tunnel, the rifles slamming into the shoulders of their wielders, Evan watching the recoil rock their entire bodies. There was a flash of light, his visor clearing to show a shimmering field projected in front of the Queen, the molten remnants of the two rounds cooling on her carapace.

“Ah, fuck!” Bainbridge snapped. “She has a shield!”

“Damn it, it must be reactive!” Jade hissed. “We couldn’t see it until we triggered it!”

“Fuck it, open fire!” Bainbridge added as he rose out of cover. The team that had been kneeling behind the Borealans rose over the lip of the tunnel and began to open up, a hail of slugs peppering the plasma field, sparks flying as the superheated gas melted them. Plasma bolts joined them, a few of the Marines sporting underbarrel launchers, each impact making the shield waver.

The Queen only now acknowledged her uninvited guests, tapping at some of the buttons on her massive control panel as she glanced up at them. Evan felt her eyes on him, intelligent, evaluating. As she pressed one of the fleshy pustules, there was an audible pulse, an electronic thrum that he could feel in his very bones. Behind her, an arc of dancing electricity bridged two of the stacks of biomechanical machinery, like an arc flash in a failing power plant. A tingling sensation washed over him, his visor suddenly going haywire, forcing him to close his eyes as the HUD elements jumped and flickered.

The tingling in his limbs increased, his muscles spasming, his legs giving out from under him. For a moment, he lost all control over his body, just long enough for him to smash his now dark visor into the tunnel floor. His cold terror slowly subsided as sensation flooded back into his extremities, and he took in a gulp of stale air, his limbs trembling as he rose to his knees. What the fuck had just happened?

Hissing static so loud as to be painful filled his helmet, followed by the distorted cries of his squadmates, the same interference happening to all of them. His onboard computer seemed to shut down abruptly, the projections on his visor going dark, his audio feed cutting out to leave only the muffled sound that bled in from outside his helmet.

He felt someone grab his arms, Jade and Hernandez pulling him upright.

“You good?” Hernandez demanded, his voice almost inaudible. “Evan, you good?”

Evan tried to pop open his visor so that he could hear better, but had to wrench it open manually when the control panel didn’t respond, glancing around to see that his friends were all tapping at their dead displays or fumbling with their weapons in confusion. He shouldered his XMR again and tried to fire it at the Queen, but there was a dull click from the trigger, all of the readouts and indicators on the device offline.

“What the fuck just happened?” Foster demanded, flinching as the display on his wrist sparked.

“My suit’s systems are fried!” Tela added, swinging open the jaw-like visor on her helmet. The usually colorful panels that adorned her armor were now dark. “All of my comms are offline!”

“L.T, all my shit is busted!” Hernandez added.

“What the hell did she hit us with?” Simmons demanded, slapping the side of his XMR in a futile attempt to get it working.

“That was an electromagnetic pulse!” Garcia said.

Evan opened and closed his fist experimentally, feeling his stiff muscles loosening. The pulse must have reset his spinal implant – shut off its communication with his nerves for a moment. If the shunt had used circuitry instead of high-speed optical relays, he might be completely paralyzed right now.

“Our systems are hardened against EMP!” Simmons shot back. “You’d have to detonate a nuke right over our fucking heads to knock them out!”

“Whatever she did, the fucking battery in my rifle is shot,” Collins said. He had popped open the compartment on the stock and was trying to pry it loose, but the components seemed to have fused together. “Garcia is right, Sarge! All the contacts have shorted!”

“Alright,” Bainbridge began, taking control of the situation. “We need to pull back and-”

He stopped, Evan following his gaze to see that the Queen was extending her four arms, holding them aloft as though she expected something to happen. To either side of her, more of those organic machines began to move, muscle and metal shifting.

The masses of flesh and machinery began to split apart, his eyes unable to make sense of what he was seeing, the unfamiliar shapes seeming to reach out towards her. Strands of slime and unidentifiable fluids stretched and broke, glistening meat quivering as the devices lurched into motion, gleaming steel exposed as though it was breaking through living skin. They were not tearing themselves apart, but building something, like robotic arms assembling a vehicle on a production line.

They placed slabs of living flesh and overlapping carapace over her outstretched limbs, disconnecting them from the armatures with hisses of escaping gas and jets of slimy fluid, the objects tightening with muscular contractions to better conform to her shape. From behind her, a pair of the mechanical arms raised another of the things, its inner lining coated with a layer of glistening meat that reminded Evan of the belly of a mollusk. It draped over her broad shoulders, enclosing her X-shaped torso in a harness, reinforced ribs meeting around her chest like interlocking claws. Thick cables broke away from metallic sockets on its armored surface, separating it from the surrounding machines, the green glow of plasma emanating from within its recesses.

Dozens of tiny, needle-like arms emerged from some of the nearby pillars of machinery, moving with the speed and precision of sewing machines as they joined the plates on her limbs to those on her torso, bridging veins and wires. Her neck was enclosed in a collar of overlapping chitin plates that resembled medieval scale armor, more armatures adorning her long midsection and her powerful thighs, the Queen pulling in one of her arms to flex a gloved hand impatiently. It was a battlesuit, like Warrior armor that had been split into sections large enough to fit her massive body, inches-thick plating and thrumming electronics enclosing her fifteen-foot frame. Another slender blend of muscle and metal reached towards her face, the Queen leaning into it, bringing her wide skull forward.

Her face disappeared behind a heavy visor, the slats that protected her eyes igniting with a sickly glow as they were hooked up to the rest of the suit via trailing cables. Two more arms enclosed her giant skull in a protective helmet, like two halves of a clamshell joining together.

The tether that kept her anchored to the ceiling shuddered, and the Queen dropped, her weight shaking the ground as her long legs absorbed the shock. Evan glimpsed the near end of the tether behind her, the structure curling away from her, a few remaining connections breaking away from hardpoints on the back of her neck. They looked just like the fleshy tentacles that had linked Sunny to her Warrior.

Now clad in a suit of biomechanical armor, the Queen extended one of her lower hands. The crescent-shaped control panel in front of her parted like a gate, splitting in half, what had looked like a solid object revealing itself to be eerily flexible. From a recess in the floor, another tower of metal and carapace rose into view, as though it was being extruded by a hidden elevator. It slid into her waiting hands, and as she raised it, Evan recognized the glowing plasma canisters that jutted from its surface. The Queen readied a rifle the size of a car, the conducting rails that made up its barrel sparking with arcs of emerald electricity. As she stepped forward, the massive egg sack tore away where it connected to her lower body, spilling clear fluid that pooled around her feet.

From the other tunnels that led into the Queen’s chamber, movement caught Evan’s eye, squads of winged Drones spilling out of the shadows to flood between the egg-encrusted pillars. Two Supermajors strode into view from the tunnel to her right, dwarfing their counterparts, one of them igniting a plasma glaive as its twin raised an anti-materiel rifle. The horde coalesced around their Queen, who aimed her titanic weapon at the team’s vantage point, her shield creating a flickering bubble around her.

“The Queen has baited her assassins!” Tatzi yelled, scrambling to her feet.

“Back down the tunnel!” Bainbridge shouted through the narrow slat of his open visor. “Retreat!”

They turned and began to run back down the passage, a hail of plasma fire sailing over their heads, the incline at the mouth of the tunnel providing them with enough cover to avoid an immediate massacre. As they rounded a corner, Evan heard the buzzing of insect wings behind him, and he wheeled around just in time to see one of Yates’ Marines raise his XMR reflexively. He tried to fire at something out of view from Evan’s perspective, the man cursing loudly as he glanced down at his dead gun. He tossed it aside, then drew his sidearm, another hollow click echoing down the tunnel.

A trio of plasma bolts hit him in the chest, carrying enough force to knock him onto his back. A Drone came rushing around the corner, leaping like a grasshopper with the aid of its fluttering wings, pouncing on the man. It unloaded another burst of gunfire into his helmet as it stood over him, slagging his visor, the man’s scream cut short as the superheated gas melted through his skull. The Drone spun its head, turning its many lenses on the rest of the team, half a dozen more of the things skidding into view behind it.

“Grenade!” someone yelled, Evan watching a frag sail over his head. Their comms were down, and without a working visor, there were no indicators or squad uplinks to alert him of danger. The grenade exploded in the Drones’ midst, throwing one of them into the air as its legs were turned to vapor, two more of them tossed against the resin walls like dolls. More soon replaced them, the chittering, buzzing horde flooding around the bend. Those at the front began to fire, jostling one another in the enclosed space, bright bolts illuminating the dark tunnel as they sailed towards the fleeing Marines.

One of them caught Collins in the back, knocking him to the ground, the ceramic plate glowing as it dissipated the heat. Foster ducked to haul him to his feet as he ran past him, his yelling getting lost in the chaos of panicked shouting and gunfire. Evan tried to find Jade in the crowd, spotting her running beside Tatzi and Hernandez some distance ahead of him. He caught up to her, and she gave him a relieved glance through her visor, matching pace with him.

They barreled into the nearest egg chamber, diving into cover behind the pillars, some of them pressing themselves flat against the curving walls in a bid to get out of the line of fire. The winged Drones were hot on their heels, but they seemed to have stopped firing.

“What the fuck do we do now?” he heard Foster yell from somewhere to his left. Without his visor, he had no IFF tags, and no idea where anyone was in relation to him. “Nothing is working! My XMR, my sidearm – the batteries are all fried!”

“You still have your blades!” Borzka growled. Evan leaned around his pillar to see the Borealan grip the barrel of the anti-materiel rifle that he was holding, wielding it as a club, preparing to swing it like a baseball bat as he shuffled closer to the mouth of the tunnel. Evan could see the Drones swarming down the passage, the creatures drawing their own wicked melee weapons. Why weren’t they firing? Would the Queen not risk collateral damage to her offspring?

“They’re scared of hitting the eggs!” Evan yelled, his voice echoing through the chamber. He had never had to raise his voice in combat like this before – he had always been able to rely on his radio and his helmet to provide the optimal soundscape.

“Great, so we’ll get stabbed instead of shot!” Hernandez replied.

“We have to leverage the bottlenecks in these tunnels!” he heard Bainbridge add. “Bayonets, knives, use whatever you fucking have. Use your goddamned fists if you have to!”

“I knew this would be a one-way trip!” Garcia growled from beside Evan, sliding his combat knife out of its sheath. “We can’t go toe-to-toe with Drones!”

“Hang on,” Evan hissed, his gloved hand wandering down to the underslung shotgun that was mounted beneath the barrel of his rifle. If that was an EMP, it wouldn’t have affected conventional firearms. “Anyone else got a shotgun!?” he bellowed, glancing around at his comrades. “Anyone got any weapons that aren’t electronic?”

There were a few replies, Bainbridge’s voice ringing out.

“Good thinking, Marine! Get a bead on that tunnel – kill as many as you can!”

Evan swung out of cover from behind the pillar, leveling his shotgun. The Drones were almost upon them, only a few meters from the chamber now, running and leaping through the air. Three more Marines stepped into view, wasting no time, the deafening sound of shotgun fire filling the room. Evan gritted his teeth as he joined them, the cylinder on his weapon rotating, ejecting spent shells with each shot. He had forgotten how fucking loud firefights were without his helmet’s systems protecting his ears. The buckshot cut through the advancing Drones, the concentrated fire sending a dozen of them toppling to the floor, their armor of little use against solid projectiles.

“Last grenade!” Tela yelled, whipping the round device down the tunnel. There was a flash of green light, a spreading ball of plasma evaporating scores of the densely-packed Bugs, but they just kept coming.

“Gotta reload!” one of the Marines yelled. Evan felt a gut-wrenching click as he fired his last shell, and he threw himself back into cover, a wisp of smoke rising from his barrel. He had a bandoleer of shells slung over his chest, and he cursed to himself as he fumbled with them, his hands trembling. He saw a set of four hands reach out to him, Jade slotting the shells into the cylinder, the Jarilan impossibly calm despite their dire situation. He gave her a grateful nod, then shouldered the rifle again, resuming his suppressive fire.

It wasn’t enough – there we too many of them, the insects reaching the chamber. Borzka stepped out from behind the wall, swinging his club, hitting the leading Drone hard enough to decapitate it. The insects crowded around him, the Borealan snarling as the comparatively tiny creatures stabbed and cut, their blades struggling to penetrate his thick armor. Still, some found their mark, blood starting to stain his pressure suit. He waded through them like a giant, using his five-hundred-pound mass to crush one of them against the wall, sweeping his club to send half a dozen of them crashing to the ground.

Tatzi wasn’t far behind, some of the Marines letting out desperate yells as they piled in, joining the fray with their combat knives. Their training had instilled in them the idea that they should never engage a Drone in hand-to-hand combat, but they no longer had any choice.

Evan only caught glimpses of carnage in the melee – a Marine driving his knife into the collar joint of a Drone, Tatzi tearing the arm from one of her opponents, Cardinal’s blades flashing as she dueled with one of her winged counterparts. Tela and her flock darted over to help a Marine who was being overwhelmed, producing weapons that resembled brass knuckles with dull points, like an emergency tool used for breaking car windows. They lay into the Drones with rapid flurries of punches, each blow cracking carapace, alarmingly strong and fast for their stature.

One of the Drones broke away from the group, targeting Evan, putting itself between him and one of the Marines. He raised his shotgun, but hesitated, the fear of collateral damage staying his hand just long enough to let it close the distance. It brandished a cutlass hewn from sharp chitin, using a flutter of its gossamer wings to propel itself forward.

Jade barreled into it from behind the pillar, the pair rolling across the black dirt as they wrestled, steel and chitin flashing. She rose to stand over it, her knife wet with its ichor, her opponent lying still. Another Drone came at her from behind, its weapon raised, Evan wheeling around to stop it dead with a shotgun blast.

They were actually holding the Drones back, mostly thanks to the help of the two Borealans, the felines towering over the smaller arthropods like giants as they blocked the tunnel mouth. Marines and Commandos hovered at the periphery of the fight, pulling Drones from the pack, butchering them on the dirt floor. There were only occasional flashes of plasma from pistols and rifles, the insects refusing to fire if there was any chance of the bolts hitting the eggs that filled the room. He watched as Tela hooked a Drone with her dexterous tail, sweeping one of its legs out from under it, sending it toppling onto its back. She was on it in a flash, harrying its helmet with blows, her fists a blur as she turned its face to green pulp.

On the other side of the room, a burly Marine from Yates’ squad trapped a Drone in a headlock with one arm, lifting its feet off the ground as it scrabbled for purchase. It clawed at his armored forearm, trying to turn its long saber back so that it could stab him, but it didn’t have the leverage to penetrate his suit. The Marine brought his combat knife to its sternum, the serrated blade piercing its carapace, sinking to the hilt in its chest.

One of his squadmates wasn’t faring as well, Evan cursing as he watched a Marine fall beneath a wave of Bugs, the crowd of Drones burying him as they stabbed at him with their blades. Tatzi came to his rescue, barreling into them like a freight train to send them scattering, but it was too late for him. This was more like a deadly bar brawl than anything resembling the combat they had trained for. The Drones were starting to fly over their counterparts now, bypassing the bottleneck, swarming into the chamber. Evan and the other Marines with working shotguns turned their weapons to the ceiling, knocking them out of the air like they were skeet shooting, pieces of shattered carapace and slivers of shredded wing fluttering to the crowd below. They couldn’t keep this up forever – they didn’t have the ammunition for sustained fire. There was a click as his last shell left the chamber, Evan reaching for his bandoleer, finding it empty.

The sheer weight of numbers of the Drones was pushing them back now, the fight spilling into the chamber, the defenders forced to give ground. There was another flash of green light as one of the Drones got off a shot from its handgun, the bolt splashing against Borzka’s back armor. He snarled, swinging around to swipe at his attacker, knocking the thing off its feet.

“I have an idea!” Evan said, Jade and Hernandez sticking close to him as he rushed out of cover. He headed for the nearby Drone that Jade had slain, stooping to pick up its rifle. The weapon felt strange in his hands, made primarily from resin that had the texture of rough polymer. The receiver was a mess of biomechanical parts, and the barrel was made up of a pair of conducting rails, the plasma canister that served as its ammo source mounted just behind them. He pointed it at the ground, fumbling with the grip as he tried to find something approximating a trigger. It let off a flash of light, a bolt splashing into the soil at his feet. The firing mechanism was pressure-sensitive, requiring him to squeeze.

“The Bug guns still work!” he exclaimed, trying to shout over the din of combat.

Either he wasn’t the only one who had figured it out, or other people had heard him, because several of his squadmates were relieving their fallen enemies of their gear. Having no fear of harming the eggs, they began to fire into the crowd of Drones, quickly figuring out how the weapons worked. Jade followed his lead, crouching to pick up a plasma pistol, Hernandez availing himself of another rifle. This one had a pair of foregrips molded beneath its barrel, the Marine struggling to find a comfortable way to hold it, settling on wedging his hand between them.

“Why the hell do their weapons still work after that EMP?” Hernandez asked, shouldering the odd rifle before letting off a stream of plasma fire. “Fucker has some kick to it!”

“If they’re using nerves to conduct electrical signals instead of wires, an EMP might not affect them at all,” Jade replied as she leveled her pistol. “It makes sense – the Queen wouldn’t want to fry all of her own equipment.”

“Who cares why? Just keep firing!” Evan replied.

They took potshots at the Drones, careful not to hit their comrades in the melee, the covering fire allowing them to disengage and follow suit. Evan watched a Marine drop low to pull a handgun from a dead Drone, firing a bolt at an insect that was coming at him with a blade, the superheated round caving its helmet inward. One of the Valbaran Commandos lifted a rifle off the ground with her prehensile tail, passing it to her hands, opening up on a Drone that was grappling with her flockmate.

They were actually starting to turn the tide now, more of the men arming themselves, pulling back into the chamber as they began to pour fire into the tunnel. The return fire was sparse, the Drones giving up their advantage to protect the eggs, their numbers starting to thin.

Bainbridge rallied them now, directing them to form a firing line. Borzka and Tatzi were the last to pull back, drenched in blood, both crimson and green. They had taken off their gloves to expose their wicked claws, as their suits were already compromised, their orange fur soaked with ichor. The alien weapons were too small for them to use, but they had their captured anti-materiel rifles, a crack making Evan’s ears ring as Tatzi vaporized a Drone and several of the creatures behind it with a point-blank shot. It probably hadn’t occurred to them that they still worked until now.

As Evan fired another stream of bolts into the crowd of insects, something far larger rounded the corner at the other end of the tunnel. Its face was lit by the wavering plasma blade on the end of its glaive, the lenses on its helmet reflecting the glow, its mandibles grinding together. The second Supermajor advanced behind it, stepping out of cover, its rifle already raised.

Evan yelled a warning, but a shot echoed down the tunnel, one of the Marines a few paces to his left erupting into a puff of red vapor. The round punched straight through him, fragments of ceramic armor and pieces of the round slamming into the pillar a few meters behind him, splitting open the leathery eggs to disgorge clear fluid and pieces of torn embryo onto the floor.

Behind the two Supermajors, the Queen stalked into view, the slatted visors that protected her eyes turning towards her quarry. She was so huge that it was almost surreal, her body practically filling the tunnel. Her guards suddenly sprang into motion as if they were responding to a command, starting to stride down the passage towards them. The Drones changed their tactics, too, a sudden deluge of return fire forcing the team to scatter for cover.

“I don’t think momma Bug gives a fuck about scramblin’ her eggs anymore!” Hernandez warned.

“Tatzi, Borzka, bring those Supermajors down!” Bainbridge ordered as he darted behind the cover of a nearby pillar. They still had a good angle on the tunnel mouth, keeping the Drones at bay, but those Supermajors would shrug off the plasma bolts like raindrops.

The towering creatures waded through the tightly-packed Drones, pushing them aside without concern, perhaps driven to disregard their safety by the Queen’s commands. Still, the horde slowed them enough for the Borealans to get off some shots, aimed at the most immediate threat. The Supermajor with the rifle reeled under the blows, the heavy rounds blasting chunks out of its carapace, exposing the wet meat beneath. The sheer destructive power of the weapons negated any thick armor or redundant organs, four, five, six shots turning its torso into Swiss cheese. It collapsed, crushing half a dozen Drones beneath its bulk.

Its companion continued on, leaping over its smaller counterparts, stray plasma rounds splashing harmlessly against its thick carapace. It moved so quickly for something so large, darting into the chamber proper, brandishing its sizzling glaive as it sighted Borzka. Tatzi hit it in the shoulder as it ran, the thing lurching as a chunk the size of a football was blown out of it, but it pressed on. The nearby Marines dove for cover as it marched towards Borzka, but the Borealan stood his ground defiantly. Snarling through his open visor, he dumped his magazine into his opponent, the creature staggering with each shot. One of them blew a chunk out of its chest, another splitting open its midsection, the exit wounds spraying gore. Even for a Borealan, the weapon was hard to handle, its stock rocking back into his shoulder as its vents spewed steam.

Tatzi dashed out of cover to get a better angle on it, but as she wheeled around the pillar, the Supermajor brought its weapon to bear. Using the glaive like a spear, it skewered Borzka through his chest piece, the burning blade searing through his ceramic armor like it wasn’t even there. He bellowed as it lifted him off the ground, slamming him against the nearby wall, pinning him there like an entomologist mounting a specimen.

“No!” Tatzi yelled, her mournful voice rising above the din of gunfire.

Borzka leveled his rifle with trembling hands, the Supermajor now close enough that the barrel could almost touch it, and fired. At point-blank range, the round tore open its chest like a ripe fruit, sending ichor and viscera splattering on the floor behind it. The thing slumped over, losing its grip on the glaive, collapsing into a twitching heap before the skewered Borealan. Still pinned to the wall, he let his rifle drop, one hand gripping the long haft of the glaive that jutted from his chest as he gritted his teeth against the pain. He turned his head to glance over at Tatzi, his fangs now bared in a triumphant grin, then his body went limp.

Tatzi let out a roar of rage, turning her rifle on the advancing Queen. She emptied the rest of the magazine, but the bullets sparked against the shield that enveloped her, the molten fragments splashing harmlessly against her armored suit.

“Focus fire on that shield!” Bainbridge ordered, snapping Evan out of his stupor. There was no time to mourn – not with the Queen bearing down on them.

A torrent of plasma fire rose towards the approaching monarch, the bolts impacting the shield that enveloped her, the superheated gas melding into the magnetic field. As much fire as they were pouring into it, the barrier of energy barely wavered, absorbing the shots.

“It ain’t workin’!” Hernandez warned, starting to back away. The more fire they took off the Drones, the more ground the creatures were able to gain, swarming about the Queen’s feet like ants as she strode over them.

“What the hell is powering that thing?” Simmons demanded, watching another burst of fire melt into the field to join the swirling gas.

Tela plucked a grenade from one of the dead Drones, priming it, then tossing it at the Queen as the towering creature neared the tunnel mouth. It exploded into a spreading ball of green light, but when the dust cleared, the shield remained unbroken.

“Pull back!” Bainbridge shouted, waving them deeper into the chamber. “Split up! She can’t follow all of us!”

The remaining troops separated into smaller groups, Yates’ Marines sticking together as they retreated down a side tunnel, Delta getting separated as they fought off the pursuing Drones. Without their radios, they had no way to coordinate once they were out of earshot, their cohesion quickly falling apart. There were several tunnels that led deeper into the maze of egg chambers, and Evan backed down the nearest one, cutting down two more Drones with plasma fire as he went. The enemy’s numbers were thinning too as they split up to chase the different groups, Evan watching the Queen lumber behind one of the pillars, the massive cannon that she wielded spraying a stream of energy bolts at something out of view.

After checking that Jade and Hernandez were still by his side, he continued down the winding passage, the far-off sound of gunfire and yelling fading. The Drones seemed to have relented, and he took the opportunity to pause beside the wall, leaning a hand against the resin as he caught his breath. He took in deep lungfuls of the stale tunnel air, the odd, alien scents assaulting him.

“You guys alright?” he asked, turning back to his companions. It seemed that Delta had been cut in half during the chaos. Jade and Hernandez were standing nearby, and Tatzi was with them, holding her now empty anti-materiel rifle. Without the IFF system, he had to glance at the faces of the other two Marines to identify them, finding that Foster and Garcia had ended up in his group. Tela was with them, too, the little Valbaran aiming her captured plasma rifle down the passage behind them.

“Fuck!” Foster snarled, kicking at the dirt in frustration. “What the fuck just happened?”

“They slew Borzka!” Tatzi growled, her claws digging into the resin on her weapon’s barrel. “After all that we have survived, to die when victory is within our grasp…”

“Where the hell is everybody else?” Hernandez asked as he glanced at their ragtag team. “We lost the Sarge, the L.T. My fuckin’ radio is still on the fritz,” he added as he tapped at the touch panel on his temple.

“I was separated from my flock,” Tela added, her tail whipping back and forth. “We have to go back!”

“And face the Queen?” Garcia scoffed. “We don’t have anything that can scratch her! What do you propose we do – hurt her feelings?”

“We can’t just give up!” Foster snapped, turning to glare at Garcia through his open visor. “At the very least, we need to try to link up with the rest of Delta and Yates’ team.”

“Everyone ran in different directions!” Garcia protested, spreading his arms in exasperation. “This place is a fucking maze!”

“Save it for the Bugs!” Jade said, putting herself between the pair. “It’s up to Tela now. She outranks us.”

“The Earth’nay is right,” the Valbaran replied, nodding in Foster’s direction. “We must try to find the others. We are stronger together. That said, I have learned to listen to aliens in a crisis. What are your proposals?”

“I say we retreat back to the lava tube,” Garcia replied. “Maybe we can lure the Queen into range of that laser tank. If plasma won’t bring her shield down, maybe that will.”

“We need to link up with the others before we do anything else,” Foster added, glaring at Garcia.

“Did you see that thing on the Queen’s back?” Jade asked, their heads turning in her direction.

“No,” Evan replied, his brow furrowing. “What are you talking about?”

“There was some kind of protrusion coming from her armor,” Jade explained. “It looked like an antenna, and it was dragging along the ceiling above her. Even the shielded Warriors that we encountered in the forest couldn’t withstand that kind of firepower. She also wasn’t wearing that armor when she was attached to her tether, remember? Her shield was being projected from somewhere else.”

“What are you suggesting?” Foster asked impatiently.

“I think the hive is powering her shield,” Jade explained. “I’d bet my honey ration that there are induction coils throughout these tunnels that are feeding her suit energy so she can keep that shield up. We’ll never collapse it as long as she can keep charging it with more juice to compensate. The way we overload shields is by dumping more plasma into the magnetic field than it can handle, but we’re not trying to overwhelm a handheld shield or even a Warrior’s power plant – we’re fighting against the hive’s entire power grid.”

“That’s a big assumption,” Garcia replied.

“There’s an easy way to test that theory,” Hernandez said. “All of our shit uses magnetic fields and conduction, right? If there’s juice runnin’ through the ceiling, then…”

He pulled the handgun from his belt, then drew his arm back, tossing the weapon at the ceiling ahead of them like a boomerang. When it neared the trailing cables that ran along the apex of the curving tunnel, there was a bright flash of light, a fork of electricity reaching down to turn the weapon into a shower of molten sparks.

“She’s right,” Hernandez confirmed, blinking away the afterimages. “That giant bitch is chargin’ up like a fuckin’ battery. Maybe that’s how she hit us with the EMP – this whole fuckin’ place is one giant conductor.”

“Okay, so we’re double-fucked?” Garcia asked. “What do we do?”

“If we’re going to take down the Queen, we need to kill her power source first,” Jade insisted. “We either need to shut down the grid or find some way to turn off whatever is delivering energy to her suit. Until that happens, she’s functionally invulnerable.”

“You couldn’t even open the doors here,” Foster scoffed. “Do you really think there’s just going to be an off switch sitting on a console somewhere?”

“We might be able to locate a generator and blow it up if we can find Bainbridge,” Evan suggested.

“And those generators could be a klick above or below us,” Foster continued. “There’s no way the Queen is dumb enough to make the power supply vulnerable from inside these tunnels.”

“All we need to do is interrupt the circuit,” Evan continued. “Those induction coils have to be near the surface. We plant two charges, space them apart, then lure the Queen between them. We blow the charges – cut her off. Once she’s out of juice, her shield will go down, right?”

“Then what?” Hernandez asked.

“There is at least one anti-materiel rifle left,” Tatzi added, glancing down at him with her yellow eyes. “But it is back in the previous chamber, with Borzka.”

“So, we need a rifle, and we need Bainbridge,” Evan said with a nod.

“How are we supposed to find the lieutenant in this maze?” Garcia asked. “Assuming he’s even alive.”

“I got that covered,” Jade said, gesturing to her feathery antennae.

“You aliens really are useful in a crisis,” Tela chuckled. “That sounds like a consensus to me. Lead the way, Jarilan.”

Jade nodded, readying her captured rifle. Tatzi tossed her empty weapon to the ground, rolling her shoulders.

“Don’t you need a gun?” Foster asked, stepping out of its path as it crashed to the tunnel floor.

“I am never unarmed,” she replied, flexing her ichor-soaked claws.

“Don’t overdo it,” Hernandez added, placing a hand on her thigh. She bristled, but her expression softened when she saw his concerned face peering up at her. “I know you got skin as thick as leather, but you’ve lost a lot of blood. Death by a thousand cuts is still death.”

“I will not lose any more packmates,” she replied. “Least of all you.”

“This way,” Jade said, starting to lead them deeper into the tunnel. “We should probably circle around in case there are Drones still tailing us. The Queen’s scent will lead us back to her chamber.”

Evan jogged to catch up to her as they formed a short column, lowering his voice to avoid being overheard in the absence of a private channel.

“Just in case we don’t make it, I want you to know-”

“We’ll make it,” she said, cutting him off. “And…I know.”

CHAPTER 14: SUCCESSION

Jade led them through the maze of tunnels, and they eventually emerged into the Queen’s cavernous chamber. The team made their way across it cautiously, skirting around the giant control panel in the center of the room. Evan glanced up at the tether that still hung from the ceiling high above, a mass of what he knew to be neural connectors dangling from the near end like fleshy fiber optic cables, still glistening with slime. The Queen connected to the hive in exactly the same way that Sunny hooked into her suit, just on a far larger scale. Maybe her massive brain was the central computer for this whole place. Her egg sack was still lying beneath it like a beached whale, oozing clear fluid that pooled on the ground beneath its puckered orifice.

“Can she reattach that thing?” Hernandez wondered as he grimaced at the sight.

“The tether? Yes,” Jade replied. “The egg sack? I don’t think so. She’d probably have to regrow it, which is why Queens only detach themselves in emergencies. It costs them weeks of egg production.”

Save for a scare caused by a Nurse that was climbing a nearby support pillar with an armful of eggs, they encountered no Bugs. The Queen could be anywhere, her entourage of Drones in tow, but they weren’t here. It was hard to feel relieved when she was certainly hot on the heels of one of the other groups that had been separated in the confusion.

Jade sniffed out the tunnel mouth from which they had taken their first potshots at the Queen, the group climbing the incline of the bowl-shaped room, leaving the strange sights behind them.

They rounded the bend and came across the carnage left over from the initial firefight, Drones piled several deep, a lone Supermajor lying among them. Tatzi waded through the bodies, relieving the dead giant of its rifle. She checked the magazine, turning to nod to her companions.

“Five rounds remain.”

“Don’t waste them,” Foster replied. “We don’t have anything else that can bring that bitch down.”

They moved deeper into the egg chamber, Evan kneeling to check the vitals of one of the dead Marines. Tatzi paused, her eyes locked on Borzka’s suspended body, the glaive still jutting from his chest.

“I’m sorry,” Evan said, one of her ears swiveling in his direction. “I know that you two had been through a lot together. He was the last member of your original pack.”

“He died a martyr’s death,” she replied. “His name will be woven into the great tapestries of Elysia.”

“We’ll get him down from there once the area is secure,” Hernandez added.

“This way,” Jade said, gesturing down one of the passages that led out of the chamber. “Bainbridge went right – I have his scent. Cardinal was with him.”

As they made their way deeper into the maze, Evan spied more dead Drones. One of Yates’ people was lying against the wall of the tunnel, his body pocked with burn marks from plasma weapons. They had given as good as they got – there must be another two dozen dead Bugs lying around him. Evan didn’t need to check the pulse on this one, there wasn’t a lot left. The hive’s outward resemblance to an ossuary was starting to become disturbingly literal.

“The Queen was on their ass last I saw,” Hernandez muttered. “You think they could have gotten away from her?”

“We have to assume that she knows exactly where we all are,” Garcia replied. “Those cameras are everywhere.”

Each tunnel brought new signs of combat, the resin walls pocked with plasma burns, dead Drones scattered about. It seemed as though the lion’s share of the Drones had accompanied the Queen as she pursued the other teams.

“Let’s pick up the pace,” Tela grumbled, leaping over a dead Drone. “Private?” she continued as she glanced at Jade. “Do you smell my flock, too?”

She didn’t say it aloud, but Evan could tell that she was dreading rounding a corner and coming across one of her own companions lying on the floor.

“They were with the rest of my team when we split up,” Jade replied. “Don’t worry – Cardinal was with them. She’ll make sure they find their way back.”

The sound of gunfire and raised voices echoed from somewhere ahead of them, but it sounded far-off, the winding and branching tunnels making it hard to pinpoint exactly which direction it was coming from.

“This way!” Tatzi said, her sensitive ears swiveling like little radar dishes. The sound grew louder as they rushed down one of the winding tunnels, emerging into a gunfight.

Bainbridge was immediately identifiable by his cumbersome armor, leaning out from behind an egg-encrusted pillar to fire a captured plasma rifle at a horde of Drones that were attacking from an adjacent passage. Donovan and Collins were nearby, the Marines laying down covering fire. Cardinal, Simmons, and the three members of Tela’s flock were trapped in another tunnel off to the right. They must have been caught in the open while entering the room.

“Friendlies!” Foster yelled at the top of his lungs, announcing their presence in the absence of radio and IFF.

Evan’s group piled in, helping push back the attacking Drones, their numbers quickly thinning under the hail of plasma fire as they were bottlenecked at the tunnel entrance. Several of them dashed forward, their blades drawn, simply running through the fire with no concern for their own safety. All of them were cut down save for two, who managed to close, making for Cardinal and the Valbarans.

Tela and Tatzi sprang into action, moving to intercept them, the Bugs turning their attention on the newcomers. The Borealan swung her rifle like a war hammer, carrying enough force that the stock turned her target’s head to mush when it made contact. Tela darted in with surprising speed, sweeping her tail as a martial artist might sweep their leg, sending her opponent crashing to the ground. As the Bug scrambled to right itself, she melted a hole in its torso with a burst of plasma fire, the smoking corpse falling back to the chamber floor.

The Marines mopped up the last few stragglers in the tunnel, then Cardinal and the other Valbarans left their hiding place, hurrying over to join the growing group. Tela reunited with her flock, her relief palpable, Jade and Cardinal touching antennae in a greeting.

“I finally found you,” Cardinal sighed. “I was following your scent, but we had to evade the Queen. She went after the other humans, I have no idea if they’re alive or dead.”

Foster pushed past his friends, making his way over to Collins. The Marine’s arm was hanging limp, his sleeve soaked in blood, a Bug handgun held in his good hand.

“Collins!” he exclaimed.

“Good to see you alive,” Collins replied, his pale face breaking out in a smile.

“Are you-”

“I’m not done yet,” he insisted.

“It’s about time you fuckers showed up,” Bainbridge said, his brow drenched in sweat beneath the narrow opening of his visor. “Did we lose anyone else?”

“Everyone is accounted for,” Evan replied.

“Lieutenant!” Tela chirped, hopping clear over a startled Hernandez to land in front of Bainbridge. “We have a plan.”

“A plan?” he asked. “I was gonna suggest we retreat and regroup. We can’t take the Queen down with that shield active – we need heavy support.”

“Private Jade has proven her theory that the shield is powered by induction coils in the ceiling,” the little alien explained, talking so quickly that Bainbridge had to concentrate to understand what she was saying. “We believe we can destroy them and cut the Queen off from her power source, which should collapse her shield long enough for Private Tatzi to dispatch her, in theory.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied with a nod of approval. “You need bombs? I got bombs,” he continued as he patted a satchel on his hip.

“We need to set them to blow on the ceiling, some distance apart,” Jade explained. “If we’re right, it’ll break the circuit between the coils and stop the flow of power.”

“How big of an explosion are we talking?” Bainbridge asked.

“Big enough to damage the machinery below the surface, but not enough to collapse the tunnel,” Jade replied. “I don’t know how helpful that is, but I can’t be any more precise.”

“I’ll figure it out,” Bainbridge said. “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s blowing up Bugs.”

“Remember, we only get one chance at this,” Evan added. “The Queen is too smart to fall for the same trick twice. If she chooses only to engage us on her terms, then we’re screwed.”

“Try not to look like you’re settin’ a trap,” Hernandez added, Foster giving him a sideways glance.

“What does that even-”

They were interrupted by the sound of a scream, Evan snapping his head around to see a Marine come sailing into the chamber from another tunnel as though he had been thrown. He hit one of the pillars hard, crumpling to the floor, flashes of light emanating from further down the passage. Three more of Yates’ men came running down the tunnel, one of them pausing to fire back at his pursuers. He was answered by a stream of plasma fire that vaporized him where he stood, leaving nothing but tattered fragments of his charred pressure suit floating in the air.

The Queen lumbered towards them, the barrel of her massive cannon crackling with arcs of plasma, more Drones swarming about her feet. The massive crest on her head skirted the ceiling, her shoulders almost broad enough to touch the walls, the energy field that shrouded her wavering as she moved.

“Pull back!” Bainbridge ordered.

They turned to run, heading back down the tunnel towards the previous chamber, but Tela and her flock remained.

“What the hell are you guys doing?” Simmons demanded.

“Buying you the time you need to set those charges!” Tela replied, shouldering her rifle. “We’ll loop around and lead her back through the tunnel that we just came down – it’s straight enough to give your Borealan a clear shot!”

“How the hell are you gonna find your way back here?” the sergeant asked.

“Perfect recall,” she replied, tapping the side of her helmet as she began to run. “Don’t tell me that you forgot already?”

Before Simmons could argue, the Drones came flooding into the chamber. They split into two groups, likely at the Queen’s behest, their towering regent turning another of Yates’ Marines to a cloud of boiling gore with a burst from her rifle. That thing had probably been designed to kill Warriors sent by an invading nuptial fleet, and she was using it against soft targets. Evan waved frantically for the surviving Marine to join them, the man narrowly avoiding a barrage of fire from the Drones, putting one of the pillars between him and his attackers. He made it to their tunnel, most of Evan’s group already hurrying back the way they had come. Before Evan could follow, he saw the Queen’s slatted visors turn on him, the fifteen-foot creature raising her weapon to aim at him between two of the pillars.

There was a flash of light, her shield flickering as plasma fire began to pour into it from off to the right. Evan glanced over at Tela’s flock, seeing them leaning out of cover from a tunnel mouth, harrying her with a stream of bolts.

The Queen switched targets, giving chase as her entourage of winged males swarmed ahead of her, the Valbarans darting deeper into the tunnel. Evan’s relief was short-lived, the second group of Drones heading in his direction. He wheeled around, Jade waving him on as she lagged behind the rest of his comrades.

They raced down the winding tunnels, the blind corners and branching paths giving them cover, the Bugs hot on their heels. As they rounded a bend, they found a dozen rifles pointed in their direction.

“Get down!” Bainbridge yelled. Evan, Jade, and the surviving Marine threw themselves to the floor as the team opened up over their heads. The Drones that had been chasing them were cut down, taken by surprise by the sudden coordinated gunfire. Evan rolled onto his back, raising his plasma rifle to defend himself from a wayward Drone that had taken cover behind the bend, his bolts burning smoking holes in its torso.

He scrambled back to his feet, helping Jade up, the Marine following behind them as they caught up with the rest of the group. Cardinal guided them down the maze of tunnels, and they soon emerged into the passage that led to the first egg chamber. Tela had been right – it was long and straight enough to serve their purpose. If Tatzi set up at the far end, she would have a straight shot at the Queen, and there was room enough to space the two charges a good distance apart. That was, if Tela and her flock were able to lead the Queen back in this direction without getting vaporized.

“Tatzi, get down to the other end of the tunnel!” Bainbridge barked as he reached into his pouch. He began to shape the plastic explosive as he ran, sticking a detonator into the malleable substance like a toothpick, connecting it to a spool of wire. “The rest of you – set up to cover her in case any Drones come at us from behind!”

“Delta, on me!” Simmons added as he waved for them to follow him.

Bainbridge skidded to a stop, glancing up at the ceiling.

“We might have a problem!” he announced.

“What’s wrong?” Foster demanded, stopping to look back.

“I don’t think you guys took the height of the ceiling into account,” the lieutenant continued, gesturing to the snaking cables high above his head. “That’s gotta be six meters!”

“Toss us the charges!” Jade said, wheeling back around. “Cardinal, come on!”

Bainbridge threw the charge to Jade like he was passing her a softball, and she caught it in her lower pair of hands, then headed for the tunnel wall. Using her remaining arms, she began to scale the resin just like the Bugs did, its uneven surface providing ample handholds for her. She reached the apex of the ceiling remarkably quickly, parting some of the fleshy cables as she hung there, upside-down.

“Where should I put it?” she asked hurriedly. “Does it matter?”

“Just stick it somewhere beneath those tubes – that should do it,” the lieutenant replied. “Make sure the Queen can’t see it!”

“What about the wire?” she asked, tugging the thin cable that was still connected to the spool of det cord on his hip.

“Fuck,” he grumbled, pausing to think for a moment. “Okay, I’ll give you the spool, then I need you to run it along the ceiling where the Queen can’t see it. She shouldn’t notice it if you wind it through the existing cables, right?”

Jade buried the charge among the insulated cables, then Bainbridge tossed her the spool, the Jarilan crawling along the ceiling as she hastily threaded it into the existing wiring. They couldn’t just run it along the floor – not without it being obvious to the Queen, and the EMP had neutralized any capability they had to detonate the charges remotely.

Bainbridge finished shaping the second explosive, tossing it into Cardinal’s waiting hands.

“Put that one a few meters away from the tunnel entrance!” he said, Cardinal nodding as she set off at a run. “Jade, just wind the cable around the little electrode that sticks out of the charge – I can blow them both at the same time.”

Evan and the rest of the team arrived in the chamber, easily identifiable by the bodies that littered its floor. He tore his eyes away from Borzka’s remains, taking up position beside Tatzi as she leaned against the wall beside the tunnel opening, keeping to cover. From here, they could see all the way down to the bend in the tunnel some thirty meters away. The Queen would be boxed in, and missing would be practically impossible. Delta fanned out, covering the other angles, ensuring that they couldn’t be flanked.

Cardinal dropped down from the ceiling just as Jade and Bainbridge reached her, the trio hurrying over to join the rest of the group, taking up position with their rifles aimed back down the passageway. Jade handed the spool of wire back to Bainbridge, who cut it loose with his knife, holding the severed end in a gloved hand as he fished in one of his pockets with the other. Cursing, he tore off his glove with his teeth, then produced a stormproof match kit of the same kind used in MREs. It was a little orange tube with a screw-on cap and a striker on one side.

“And they told me I was being paranoid,” he chuckled to himself, using his teeth again to twist off the cap. He prepared one of the fat matches, his eyes fixed on the far end of the passage. The team waited, the silence punctuated only by their labored breathing as they recovered from their sprint.

“What if she doesn’t show?” Hernandez whispered. “What if she wasted the Valbarans, and she attacks us from behind or somethin’?”

“We have to trust Tela,” Evan replied. “She helped get us this far.”

The sound of gunfire echoed down the tunnel, the team bristling, Tatzi pulling her long rifle tighter against her shoulder.

“Hold,” Simmons whispered. “Don’t fire until you see that shield go down, or this was all for nothing. The rest of you – take out any Drones that come around that corner.”

Evan gripped his strange, alien weapon tightly, reminding himself not to squeeze the grip too hard for fear of a misfire. After everything – a coordinated invasion on a planetary scale, hundreds of ships, almost a million men – it all came down to a match and a rifle.

The far end of the tunnel was illuminated by flashes of green light, a few stray bolts striking the right wall. A moment later, a small figure raced into view, skidding as it changed direction. It was Tela, her three flockmates following behind her. They were stumbling, exhausted, their limited stamina already drained. What they lacked in endurance, they made up for in speed, the four of them flying down the tunnel as the rest of the team shouted encouragement and waved them on.

When they were about halfway down the thirty-meter passage, the Drones that were chasing them rounded the corner. Simmons shouted a warning, the Valbarans ducking low, moving to the base of one of the walls as the team opened up. Plasma filled the tunnel, streaming past the fleeing Valbarans, cutting down the Bugs before they could react. Tela and her flock dove into the safety of the chamber, panting as though they had just run a marathon, the Marines snatching them out of the line of fire. More Drones followed, taking potshots as they leaned around the bend, but the withering suppressive fire kept them at bay. That was, until a larger shape strode into view.

The Queen rounded the corner, stepping into the hail of bolts, her shield flickering as it rendered the plasma harmless. What remained of her horde began to advance behind her, using the shield as cover, some two dozen Drones forming a column at her rear. The towering insect raised that massive rifle to aim it down the tunnel, the team withdrawing into cover as she sent a burst of return fire streaming towards them. This wasn’t some piddly plasma rifle, the bolts impacting the pillar behind them with enough energy to melt into the resin, the eggs popping like blisters as they boiled. She loosed another barrage, the projectiles blasting the tunnel mouth, forcing the defenders to leap to safety as they were showered with fragments of melting resin.

Bainbridge scrambled to his feet, shaking off some of the smoldering debris, checking that his wire was still intact. He shuffled closer to the shattered edge, peering into the passage beyond, Evan hearing him count down under his breath. The Queen passed beneath the first charge, the lieutenant waiting a few seconds longer, then he struck his match. The det cord ignited with a flash, the small explosive within racing down the wire in a fraction of a second, the hive shaking as the hidden explosives went off.

The Queen reeled as the ceiling behind her collapsed violently, unidentifiable fluids spraying from the torn cables, sparks showering from the severed power lines. Large chunks of resin rained down, crushing some of the less fortunate Drones, cutting off most of her trailing entourage as the passage filled in with rubble. The blast exposed machinery, too, pieces of damaged electrical equipment hanging from the gaping hole in the tunnel. The explosive ahead of her detonated in tandem, though it was far less destructive, likely by design. Bainbridge was an explosives expert – he knew what he was doing. It was still powerful enough to tear apart the winding cables, blasting a chunk out of the resin, exposing the twisted induction coils beneath.

The shield that enveloped the Queen flickered, then died. The wavering plasma contained within its powerful magnetic field escaped in a flash of boiling gas, warping the tunnel walls around her. The Drones that had survived the cave-in were caught in the blast, the release of energy vaporizing them. She turned her massive, crested head, scrutinizing the ceiling through her slatted visors. There was understanding there, the trap that they had set now obvious to her.

She raised her massive weapon, but as Evan ducked further into cover, he noticed that no bolts came racing towards their position. When he leaned out again, she was examining her rifle, using one of her dexterous lower hands to fiddle with the biomechanical components. Maybe the gun had been powered in the same way as the shield, or perhaps the sudden collapse of the magnetic field had damaged it. Either way, it wasn’t firing.

“Now, Tatzi!” Bainbridge bellowed.

The Borealan stepped out into the open, taking aim with her unwieldy rifle. The Queen knew what was happening, and with the tunnel behind her blocked, she had no way to go but forward. Tossing her massive weapon aside, its weight enough to shake the ground, she began to charge. With her long legs, the thirty meters between her and the egg chamber were nothing more than a few strides. Even without her rifle, she was still plenty deadly, strong enough to tear them limb from limb like a sadistic child pulling the legs off a spider.

“Tatzi!” Hernandez warned as he began to back away, the team moving deeper into the chamber as they wavered between standing their ground and getting out of the Queen’s path.

She didn’t reply, waiting for the perfect moment, taking careful aim at the lumbering behemoth. Her rifle resounded, its crack echoing off the tunnel walls, recoil slamming it into her shoulder. The first round struck the Queen in center mass, making her stagger as though she had been hit by a hammer, the chest piece that cradled her torso erupting into a spray of shattered carapace and ichor. She reeled as Tatzi blew more bleeding craters in her suit, each follow-up shot stripping away the layers of protection to expose quivering meat and sparking electronics. The next round hit her armored torso at an angle, creating a spray of shrapnel that severed one of her lower arms, the pieces of flesh that still joined it to the bloody stump tearing as the limb fell to the tunnel floor. The fragments peeled open the plating on her narrow midsection, creating an ugly tear in the amethyst-colored carapace beneath. Tatzi fired one more time, aiming for the head, the Queen flinching away as it shattered her branching horn. The bullet punched through, ricocheting off the armor that protected the Queen’s crest, still carrying enough energy to crack her skull. One of the cables that connected her mask to her suit tore away, spraying off-green fluid as it snaked through the air.

The Queen stumbled, bracing herself against the tunnel wall, Evan’s breath catching in his throat as he waited for her to topple over. His elation soon turned to dread as she righted herself, covering the bleeding wound on her midsection with one hand as she resumed her advance. Her armor was little more than a torn mass of wet meat and broken chitin that hung over her shoulders like a tattered shawl, but it had kept her vital organs intact.

“Tatzi, what are you doing!?” Garcia yelled. “Shoot her!”

“I am dry!” she replied, tossing the empty rifle aside.

The team scattered as the Queen stumbled into the egg chamber, passing the second damaged induction coil. Her shield flickered as she reconnected to the hive’s grid, the protective bubble that surrounded her reigniting. It only lasted for a moment, petering out again, her armor too damaged to sustain the field. Ichor dripping on the soil behind her, she swiped at the fleeing Marines, raising another forearm to shield her face as she was peppered with plasma bolts.

“God damn it, try and get some fire through the gaps in her armor!” Bainbridge yelled.

Evan followed his friends deeper into the chamber, putting the pillars between them and the rampaging Queen, the air filled with the sound of gunfire and panicked yelling. The Queen’s footsteps shook the ground beneath their feet, the giant creature making an attempt to grab Collins, who only just managed to leap out of her reach.

“What the fuck do we do!?” Hernandez asked, putting his back to one of the supports. He broke an egg, cursing as the clear fluid inside spilled over his shoulder, seeping down his chest piece.

“We’ve got no fucking ammo!” Foster replied, sliding in beside him. Jade followed Evan into cover, glancing back over her shoulder to see the Queen lean around a nearby pillar like a monster from a nightmare as she pursued Simmons and Garcia. “That was the last anti-materiel rifle we had!”

“There has to be somethin’ we can use to kill the bitch!” Hernandez added.

A giant arm rounded their pillar, chitinous fingers the size of a man’s forearm reaching for them, forcing them all to duck in tandem. It raked at the eggs a scant foot above their heads, those digits as sharp as claws, spilling more amniotic fluid as it drew back. Evan shuffled around the base of the support, reaching for Jade’s hand, pulling her along with him as the Queen leaned into view. She was distracted from her hunt by another scurrying Marine, the ground shaking as she set off in pursuit, Evan exhaling the breath that he had been holding.

“Where the fuck are Bainbridge and Simmons?” Foster hissed. “We can’t let her scatter us like this! We need to regroup!”

“Wait!” Evan said, shuffling around the pillar. He located the tunnel that led to the Queen’s chamber, clogged with dead Drones and one of the fallen Supermajors. A few meters to its left was Borzka’s final resting place, his body still suspended off the ground by the giant glaive. “This might be a bad idea, but hear me out.”

“The glaive!” Jade hissed, following his gaze. “But, who’s strong enough to wield that thing? It has to be three meters long!”

“Tatzi,” Foster added. “She’s the only one of us who’s big enough!”

“We gotta do this fast,” Evan confirmed. “Wait until she’s far enough away, then make a break for it.”

“I got this,” Hernandez said, giving Evan a nudge with his elbow.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” he whispered.

“You always said I was a loudmouth, right? Now’s my fuckin’ chance to shine.”

“Wait, you can’t just-”

“Don’t let me get smushed,” Hernandez added. “Tatzi’ll pull your arms off.”

Before Evan could stop him, he raced out into the open, jumping up and down as he waved his arms above his head.

“Come get me, you party-sized cunt!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.

The Queen paused, her slatted visors turning on him, then she began to lumber in his direction. Hernandez spun around, leading her towards the opposite side of the room at a mad sprint, the Queen weaving through the pillars as she gave chase.

“Now!” Foster said, Evan and Jade following as he ran towards the glaive.

They skidded to a stop in front of Borzka’s body, hopping over the Supermajor that he had slain as his final act, Evan reaching up to grip the long haft of the weapon. It was angled slightly down, bringing it low enough that even Jade could get a good grip. She wrapped all four of her hands around the resin, Foster taking up position behind her.

“One, two, pull!” Evan groaned. They strained against the weapon, but it barely budged, embedded deep in the wall behind Borzka’s body. They tried again, panic flooding Evan’s veins with adrenaline. It wasn’t enough – the thing was just too large for them.

“Again!” Foster bellowed, the three of them giving it another tug.

Evan felt the haft vibrate, turning his head to see Tela and her three flockmates joining them, the prehensile feather sheaths on their forearms wrapping around the resin like tentacles to give them more leverage. She must have seen what they were trying to do.

“Pull like your flock depends on it, Earth’nay!” she trilled. “One, two, heave!”

With the extra help, the weapon loosened, Borzka’s limp body shifting.

“Again!” Tela chirped, and they gave it another pull. This time, it came free, the still-lit plasma blade at its tip flaring as it emerged into view. Borzka fell to join his dead foe on the ground, everyone holding the three-meter weapon between them.

“Tatzi, on me!” Evan yelled. With her sensitive Borealan ears, she should be able to hear him over the yelling and shooting.

A few moments later, she came barreling towards them, not even slowing as she snatched the glaive from them. She hefted it in her blood-soaked hands, wielding it like a medieval pike due to its length, her face contorting into a snarl as she turned to face the Queen. Tatzi let out a feline roar that rose above the din, the blood-curdling sound getting the Queen’s attention. The towering arthropod turned to face her, acknowledging her challenge, ichor and fluids still leaking from her damaged armor. She broke into a lumbering run, Tatzi bracing herself, everyone else scrambling clear.

The Queen accelerated as she crossed the chamber, swinging one of her long upper arms, her fingers open as though intending to snatch the weapon from Tatzi’s hands. Tatzi lunged, ducking under the swipe, sliding between the Queen’s long legs. She wheeled around to face the creature again, leveling the wavering plasma blade, the towering insect turning in place as she tried to track her quarry.

Tatzi was already moving, another nerve-jangling roar building in her throat as she plunged the boiling blade into the Queen’s midsection. She aimed for the break in the armor, where the Queen was already wounded, the plasma burning through her exposed carapace like a red-hot knife through snow. The shell around it bubbled and blistered, ichor boiling into steam. The Bug froze in place, throwing her massive, crested head back in what looked like a silent cry of agony. All three of her remaining hands gripped the haft as it jutted from her body, but it was too late, Tatzi stepping in to drive it deeper. The Borealan used her opponent’s size and weight against her, impaling her, the superheated blade carving a cauterized channel as it rose towards her torso. It slipped beneath the protective armor on her chest, sinking into her abdominal cavity, the way that the Queen shuddered suggesting that it had hit something vital.

The Queen’s lifeblood bubbled up from beneath her face mask, mucous-colored ichor spilling down her cratered chest piece, one of her hands reaching for the device as though desperate to remove it. She tore it loose, living flesh stretching and snapping where it was joined to her head, a thick tube sliding out from between her twitching mandibles. Another flood of vital fluids spilled from her mouth, her eyes wide, emotive enough to express her pain and disbelief. She extended a trembling arm towards Tatzi, but the limb fell limp before it reached her, the Borealan releasing the glaive from her grasp as she darted out of the body’s path. It didn’t fall, its weight forcing the haft of the weapon deeper into the soil, propping up her corpse as she went still. The plasma blade continued to boil her insides, wisps of steam rising from the joints in her carapace.

Evan was still aiming his rifle reflexively as his brain processed what had just happened. Jade put a hand on the barrel, gently lowering it, Evan turning to see her smiling at him through her visor. Foster gave him an affectionate punch on the shoulder, and he saw Tela close ranks with her flock as they celebrated in their shrill native language.

Gradually, a triumphant cheer began to rise in the chamber, growing louder as more of their squadmates realized what had happened. They coalesced to form a broken ring around the Queen’s body, raising fists and captured rifles in the air, exhaustion and elation making them giddy. Everyone was accounted for – Bainbridge, Simmons, Collins, Donovan, Garcia, even the last remaining member of Yates’ team had made it out. Cardinal pushed through the small crowd to reach Jade, the two sharing a moment as they touched their feathery antennae together. Tatzi tore her eyes away from her prize, her chest rising and falling visibly as she caught her breath, her shoulders still squared as though she expected more trouble. Her posture relaxed when she saw Hernandez come racing towards her, the Borealan snatching him up in her arms, her relief palpable.

“Fine work,” Bainbridge said, stepping closer to the Queen as he examined the corpse. “You know, the Trogs need people with your tenacity and skillset. Positions are always open.”

“After this fiasco, I’m not even riding the fucking subway anymore,” Garcia replied to a chorus of relieved chuckling.

“That was some quick thinking,” Simmons added, nodding to Evan and his companions. “I’ll make sure the right people hear about what happened today. You make me proud to lead Delta.”

“Hazard pay!” Hernandez exclaimed, his voice muffled as Tatzi clutched him against her chest protectively.

“It was Evan’s idea to use the glaive,” Jade said, glancing up at him appreciatively.

“Yeah, but getting the damn thing loose was a team effort,” he replied. “I can’t take credit.”

“Borzka is avenged,” Tatzi said, setting a flustered Hernandez back down on the floor. “The Queen’s blood stains the same ground as his own. Once the hive is cleared and the body can be recovered, I will see that he is returned to Elysia for burial with the rest of our packmates. The whole territory will hear of his sacrifice.”

“I feel like you’re downplayin’ the fact that you just skewered the fuckin’ Queen like a goddamned kebab!” Hernandez added as he patted her armored thigh. “If that don’t make you a war hero, I dunno what does. They’re gonna name a frigate after you.”

“I did only what was required of me,” she replied, but her stern face soon began to warm as her friends voiced their agreement.

“It’s finally over,” Jade sighed, wrapping an arm around Evan’s as she leaned her head on his shoulder. “We just dealt a killing blow to the hive. With the Queen dead, they can’t coordinate their forces, and they can’t produce new Bugs.”

“We’re not quite out of the woods yet,” Bainbridge added. “This hive is still full of active hostiles. Our mission now is to retreat back to the lava tubes and get word to the surface. From here, it’s a cleanup op.”

“Follow me,” Tela declared. “I remember the way. We’ll take the vehicles back to the staging area – it’s a short drive.”

“Just keep your eyes peeled in case the Queen called in reinforcements before she kicked the bucket,” Bainbridge replied. “After you, Commander.”

They began to make their way back out of the egg chamber, Foster pausing beside the dead Queen.

“Tatzi,” he said, getting her attention. She stopped, watching curiously as he drew his knife, reaching up to saw through one of the finger joints on the Queen’s remaining lower arm. He tossed her a severed digit the size of a banana, Tatzi snatching it out of the air. “It’s what Borzka would have wanted.”

She nodded appreciatively, stowing it in one of her pouches.

***

The pinpoint of light at the end of the lava tube grew larger as they approached, Evan gripping the frame of the little Valbaran buggy as it bounced along the uneven tunnel floor. They were following behind the tankettes, their ragtag group loaded into the undersized troop transports alongside the Commandos. Tatzi was so large that she had to stand, gripping the open frame of her buggy like she was riding inside a giant shopping cart.

The Queen had indeed called for backup during their fight, and the Commandos had held the Bug reinforcements off at the breached blast door, using their tanks and mounted guns to mow down a veritable army of Drones. In the open tunnel with no cover, the enemy hadn’t been able to close the distance, and their rifles couldn’t threaten the armored vehicles. There were even several Warriors, the armored suits scorched by the Valbaran laser cannon, the little buggies having to drive around them on their way out. Tela’s people had certainly played their part in the operation.

The commander in question was riding on the hull of the lead tank again like the captain of some old sailing ship standing on her vessel’s prow, gripping the netting on the bustle racks with her tail.

Evan squinted as they emerged onto the surface, his eyes having to adjust to the light in the absence of his visor. While it was relatively gloomy outside, the skies still choked by ash clouds, it was much brighter than it had been inside the dingy tunnels. As his vision cleared, he saw that they had driven up an artificial ramp into what looked like a staging area. There were chunky, camouflaged Valbaran landers scattered all around them, along with a few UNN dropships, the steep facade of the mountain rising up some distance behind them. The forward operating base, if it could be described as such, was made up of a cluster of mesh tents that were camouflaged to approximate the oranges and browns of the moon’s forests. There were idle vehicles parked all over the place, both Valbaran and UNN, along with piles of crates and supplies. Evan even spotted a Jarilan Warrior keeping watch, but he doubted that it was Sunny. She would have no way of knowing where they would exit the hive.

Their little convoy ground to a stop, and the Commandos leapt out of the buggies. They ferried Collins and a handful of their own injured over to one of the tents, which was likely acting as a field hospital, the wind whipping at the fabric as though trying to tear it from the metal rods that held it in place.

A large group of Valbarans was assembling, perhaps recognizing their commander, starting to crowd around her tankette. Several Marines and UNN personnel who had been tending to the supply crates or servicing vehicles paused their work to see what was happening. Tela leapt up onto the raised turret, perching there like a bird, her long tail extended for balance. She tore off her helmet and rolled up the sleeves of her pressure suit, extending her fleshy feather sheaths, spreading her arms wide as a burst of red flickered through her vibrant plumage.

“The Queen is dead, and any hope the insects had of surviving this war dies with her! Kerguela is ours again!”

The aliens responded with waves of red from their suit panels and exposed feathers, and while the exact meaning of the color displays was lost on Evan, the way that they bounced and trilled made it obvious that they were celebrating. Some of the humans made their way over to greet their counterparts, adding their cheers to the chorus of chirping, helping the exhausted Marines out of the buggies. Evan found himself assaulted by congratulatory pats on his back and shoulders, some of the men stealing handshakes as he was led away from the convoy. People were already foisting drinks and snacks from their MRE packets onto him, pushing candy and nutrient bars into his pockets and pouches like pushy souvenir peddlers in a bazaar. He couldn’t really pick out what they were saying without his helmet, their yelling and cheering blending with the sounds of idling engines, but their enthusiasm was infectious. He didn’t feel like much of a hero, however. He mostly just felt tired.

He glanced over his shoulder to see Jade rise from the crowd, the Marines hoisting her light frame over their shoulders, her alarm quickly replaced with laughter. She caught his eye, the two sharing a relieved smile. Tatzi seemed embarrassed by all the attention, but Hernandez stuck by her side, gesticulating wildly as he relayed what was probably an embellished story to his captive audience.

Tela soon shooed away the mob and rounded up the team, Bainbridge walking alongside her as she led them towards the command tent. The chaos subsided as they ducked inside, the sound of the wind tearing at its fabric somewhat muffling the growing ruckus outside. Word of their victory was spreading through the camp like wildfire.

Evan saluted, snapping to attention as he saw a Marine wearing the insignia of a colonel. The man was leaning over a short table that looked better suited to Valbarans, a holographic map of the lava tubes projected above its surface. He was joined by several more UNN personnel who were examining tablet computers intently, along with a flock of Valbarans that were engaged in a rapid-fire conversation among themselves. They stopped as Tela entered, the colonel turning to greet them.

“At ease,” he began as the team crowded into the relatively small tent. The ceiling was low enough that Tatzi’s furry ears were scraping the canvas. “Judging by the riot that you’ve instigated outside, am I to assume that your mission was a success?”

“Yes, Colonel,” Bainbridge replied. “We have a confirmed kill on the Queen.”

“What the hell happened to your suits?” he asked, glancing at the squad. Not one of them had any active electronics, and those who were still wearing helmets had their visors open.

“The Queen hit us with a powerful EMP,” Bainbridge replied. “I’m prepared to give a full report, but the priority right now should be securing the Queen’s body and evacuating our dead. The area is relatively secure, but there’s no telling how many Bugs are still running around in the hive.”

“Of course, Lieutenant,” the colonel replied. “Hendricks!” he barked, one of his attendants looking up from his tablet. “Get word to any Trog teams that are still on the repeater network and let them know that the priority target is down. Their new orders are to focus solely on destroying infrastructure. Carter,” he continued, turning his attention to another of the personnel who was hovering nearby. “Get on the horn to Fleetcom and let them know what’s happened. The admiral will want to be informed about the situation ASAP.”

“Sir,” the man replied with a curt nod, reaching for his earpiece.

“Contact the Ensi and schedule a private transmission,” Tela added, the other Valbarans responding with flashes of color. “I will relay the news of our victory myself.”

“As for the rest of you,” the colonel said as he appraised the team. “You are to be commended for your efforts. I have to admit – I was initially skeptical of assigning Marines and auxiliaries to reinforce our Trog teams, but my concerns were clearly unfounded. You’ve dealt a killing blow to the hive today.”

“It was a group effort,” Bainbridge replied, turning to glance back at his team. “It’s no exaggeration to say that we couldn’t have done it with a conventional squad makeup. Was it not for the navigation skills of the Jarilans, the raw muscle of the Borealans, and the timely arrival of the Valbarans, it could have gone very differently. That’s to say nothing of the bravery of our Marines. In fact, I’m thinking of making some recommendations about changing our future team composition.”

“That can wait,” the colonel replied. “You look like you’ve been through hell. Let’s get your people some fresh clothes and a hot meal first.”

The colonel summoned another of his attendants, who led them out of the tent, where they were greeted by another crowd of waiting Marines and Commandos. The humans clapped and pumped their fists in the air, cheering and whistling, while the Valbaran equivalent seemed to be salutes of crimson color panels and flourishes of red feathers.

“I feel like a goddamned celebrity,” Hernandez said, giving Evan a nudge as he walked beside him. “You think we’re gonna get medals?”

“I’m just going to be happy to get a few hours of sleep,” Evan chuckled weakly. “I’d trade my paycheck for a cot right now.”

They were led to a makeshift barracks, little more than a tent filled with rows of beds – simple hammocks that were strung between metal frames. It wasn’t exactly quiet, and plenty of the cots had already been claimed by sleeping Marines, but the simple allure of lying down was intoxicating to Evan. He hadn’t been able to sleep on a bed in days.

Clean pressure suits were soon brought for them, and they began to strip off their damaged armor, helping one another remove the heavy ceramic plates. Bainbridge had particular difficulty getting out of his cumbersome suit, and like squires tending to a medieval knight, several members of the team crowded around to help him. They stripped down to their underclothes, then donned their new suits, Evan chuckling at the lieutenant’s relatively lithe build. His armor made him almost as wide as he was tall, and he looked almost unrecognizable without it.

“That looks nice,” Jade mused, watching as he zipped up his suit. “I wish I had my shirt. I can’t exactly take off my supplemental armor without…y’know.”

“Hang on,” Evan replied, opening up his suit again. He pulled off the undershirt that he was wearing, Jade’s antennae going haywire as he passed it to her. “It’s a little sweaty – okay, more than a little – but it’ll be more comfortable than your plates.”

She draped the shirt over one of her arms, then used one pair of hands to pull off her chest piece, preserving her modesty with the other. After handing the plate to Evan so that he could set it safely aside, she pulled the shirt over her head, the cotton tearing as she forced her second pair of arms through the short sleeves. It fit her snugly, the outline of her bust visible through the fabric.

“Doesn’t smell too bad?” he asked sheepishly.

“It smells of you,” she replied, batting her long lashes at him.

He was distracted as Tatzi pushed apart some of the nearby cots, clearing space for herself on the dirt floor. They were too small to accommodate her, but she wasn’t letting that stop her. She took Hernandez roughly by the arm, pulling the Marine down with her, guiding his head onto her ample bosom. Evan watched his friend’s head sink into her pressure suit, surmising that Hernandez probably had the most comfortable bed in the barracks.

Some of his teammates were finding their own cots, while others were eating the various snacks and food items that the other Marines had foisted on them. As much as Evan’s stomach was growling, his fatigue easily overpowered his hunger.

“Come on,” Jade said, taking his hand as she led him towards an unclaimed bed. “There’s room enough for two, right?”

Evan lowered himself into one of the hammocks, and Jade struggled to climb in after him, making it swing as they shuffled around to get comfortable. It was only intended for one person, and the way that their weight made it sag forced them close together, her body pressing up tightly against his own. They wrapped their arms around each other, creating their own little pocket dimension of warmth and peace in the relative chaos of the camp, her flowery scent igniting a fire in him despite his exhaustion. They probably made for a strange sight, but he was long past caring about that.

“If all these people weren’t watching…”

“You’d ravish me?” she chuckled under her breath. “Yeah, I can smell your pheromones. Hold your horses, squishy boy. I’m sure we’ll be getting rotated back to the carrier soon, then I’ll be all yours.”

“I still can’t believe we survived all that,” he sighed. “It feels like a dream. I haven’t really processed it yet. I just wish that Borzka…”

“There will be time for all that later,” she whispered, raising a finger to his lips. “For now, just hold me, okay?”

He obliged, letting her warmth and her familiar fragrance lull him to sleep.

***

“Who got the kill?” Brenner asked, Vos watching him cross his prosthetic arms through the wavering hologram. The SWAR operative almost seemed annoyed by the news, as though his teams had been robbed of their prize. Vos was standing in the Rorke’s gloomy conference room again, translucent representations of his counterparts peering at him from around the table. Fielding was by his side, and he was joined by Brenner, Agent Lorza of UNNI, the Jarilan captain, and Xipa.

“Delta-seventeen, a ghost company operating from the UNN Omaha,” Vos replied. “It looks like reinforcing the Trog teams was the right call after all. They were led by one Lieutenant Bainbridge – a very accomplished tunnel runner. His service record shows that he earned some commendations during the Kruger and Epsilon campaigns.”

“Don’t downplay our contribution,” the Ensi added, giving him a smirk from across the table. “The way I heard it, your team wouldn’t have been able to reach the Queen at all if it wasn’t for my commander and her tankettes pushing through the hive’s defenses.”

“It was indeed a group effort,” Vos conceded with a nod in her direction. “It seems as though all the work that we’ve been doing to integrate auxiliaries into Coalition forces is paying dividends. We’ve been able to leverage the unique skills and attributes of each species in ways that contribute materially to battlefield outcomes. And to think that I voted to expel the Borealans from the program during their probationary period,” he chuckled. “This will all be reflected in my report to the admiralty and the CSC, naturally. In fact, I can envision some doctrinal changes that may allow us to take better advantage of heavy infantry units and Valbaran armor in the future.”

“So, what happens next?” Xipa asked. “The Queen is dead, which means that the hive has been rendered sterile. They no longer have any capacity to produce more troops, and their central command structure is gone for good.”

“I see this as an opportunity,” Vos replied. “While the Bugs have lost this war, there are still pockets of resistance scattered all over the planet, including some surviving Kings. Even with a concerted effort to root them out, it’s going to take months of low-level fighting, maybe even years to completely eliminate their population. My proposal is that we use Kerguela as a training ground. We have total dominance over the moon’s orbit, and we’ll soon be establishing safe zones on the ground where we can start to capture territory and put down permanent bases. With the level of control that we’re now able to exert over where and when we engage the enemy, we can give our troops practical, hands-on experience fighting Bugs in the field. We can test new doctrines and unit compositions, hold trials for new equipment and vehicles, and collect useful data that will sharpen our edge ready for the next time we have to engage a hive on this scale.”

“The moon would become a crucible,” Brenner mused, scratching his stubbly chin with a prosthetic finger. “I like the way you think, Admiral. Our boys can gain some real experience that would have taken them multiple campaigns to accrue in the past. We can even divide the moon into regions based on how many roaches are active in each area and whether Kings are still present. That way, we can estimate the intensity of the fighting our guys are likely to see. We can ease in the muddy recruits and harden the more experienced units.”

“That’s all well and good, but this is a place where we want to settle,” the Ensi added. “Our priority should be securing the cities, making them livable again, then bringing in new colonists to repopulate them. That’s going to require the long-term deployment of troops to keep the surrounding territory secure, extensive repair efforts, and a large influx of supplies.”

“As was promised when your Consensus voted to admit us to the Coalition, Jarilo is ready to assist in the restoration efforts,” the Jarilan captain said as she turned to the Ensi with both pairs of hands clasped neatly in front of her segmented torso. “As soon as the security council permits it, we will begin landing Workers. They will build entire cities to your exact specifications if that is what you desire.”

“Our architects are already drafting the plans,” Xipa replied. “Your help is appreciated.”

“Now that the worst of the danger has passed, we need to start cycling out our personnel,” Captain Fielding added as he leaned on the table beside Vos. “There was a lot of heavy fighting around the Ant Hill, and while it’s still the largest concentration of Bug forces on the moon, our people need some R&R.”

“I’m sure that Valbara can accommodate them,” the Ensi replied. “The Coalition was already viewed very favorably after the defense of the planet, and after what they’ve achieved here, they’ll receive a hero’s welcome. For the first time in thirty rotations, the specter of invasion is no longer hanging over the heads of our people,” she added with a flutter of green. “There will be no more evacuation drills, no more fear, no more public service announcements about using toys and treats to keep children calm in their bunkers. I doubt that any of you truly appreciate how much this will change our society for the better.”

“This is why the Coalition was founded, Ensi,” Vos replied. “It is our collective duty to keep the Galaxy safe.”

“Jarilo can bring in more Drones and heavy infantry to make up the difference if you find yourselves short of personnel,” the Jarilan captain added. “Your men have earned their rest.”

“As have yours,” Xipa added, the Jarilan glancing over at her in mild surprise. “The Consensus voted to bar the Jarilans from Valbara during the initial period of shore leave. That was wrong, and I would like to personally apologize.”

The Jarilan captain looked taken aback, not sure of what to say, her feathery antennae waving in the air.

“Do you think the Consensus will support that decision, Ensi?” Agent Lorza asked, the towering polar cocking her head at her smaller counterpart. “It was my understanding that such policies are usually determined by committee.”

“I don’t care whether they support it or not,” she grumbled in response, a flicker of red passing through her plumage. “Anabar is my city, and if they want to stop me from landing Jarilans there, they’re welcome to try. It just so happens that I’m also in command of the whole fleet, too.”

“Yes, I imagine that trying to strip a war hero of her command would be an unpopular move right now,” the Agent added with a smile. “Based on our…intelligence gathering, there has been a general uptick in positive sentiment towards the Jarilans recently. We expect another significant spike after word of their exploits during this operation spreads.”

“Either way, they are welcome in my city,” Xipa added.

“Will you be returning to Valbara, Ensi?” Vos asked.

“No,” the Ensi replied firmly. “My place is here. I was born on Kerguela, and the people of this colony need me more than those on the homeworld. I will personally oversee the reconstruction and relocation efforts. Sorry about poaching your team, by the way,” she added with a smirk. “They’ve been so useful that I’ve had a hard time letting them go.”

“I do know how to pick them,” he sighed.

As much as he butted heads with the Ensi, she reminded him of himself in many ways. She was stubborn, unafraid of confrontation, and she would apply any pressure that she could in order to get what she wanted. Fletcher had turned in a well-earned request for an honorable discharge and could now do as he pleased as a civilian, and Ruza was a mercenary who had no obligation to the UNN once his contract had been completed. It seemed that Gustave would be moving on to other theaters, but Vos was certain that the Ensi would find a way to get her grubby little hands on Bluejay, too. She was already becoming very buddy-buddy with the Jarilans.

“Very well,” he continued, turning his attention back to Lorza. “Agent, I want your people picking that Queen apart cell by cell, and I want the report on the Kings delivered to the admiralty as soon as it’s ready. You’ll have all the Jarilan help that you require. We need to glean as much information about how this hive developed as possible – anything that might give us an edge next time. And make no mistake, there will be a next time.”

“We’re already dissecting specimens of the hive’s various vehicles and combat forms,” the Polar replied, puffing out her ample chest. “With the help of Jarilan doctors and their affinity for gene sequencing, we should have a very thorough understanding of their development and capabilities.”

“Excellent,” Vos replied, turning to Brenner. “Lieutenant, your next objective will be deep reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. We might have cut the head off the snake, but the body is still thrashing around. There are plenty of hidden Bug strongholds, tunnel networks, and sizable armies still wandering the forests without direction. With the collapse of their central command structure, they’ll be following their last set of orders until they either starve or are killed. Depending on the resources available to them, that could take a long time. It’s possible that the remaining Kings might still try to rally the surviving forces in their regions, so we need to pinpoint their locations.”

“Recon and assassination,” Brenner replied with an approving nod. “It’s what we do best, Admiral. My boys are gonna be very happy to hear that they’re going on safari.”

“Captain Fielding,” Vos continued. “You’ll remain in command of the task force responsible for the Ant Hill. It’s going to take weeks to map out all of the tunnels and chambers, even with Trog teams working around the clock. Prioritize the capture of sensitive equipment, the culling of the hive’s population, and the recovery of fallen personnel. We’ve had some disturbing reports about their treatment of our dead, and we need to get those bodies back home.”

“Yes, Admiral,” he replied. “Now that there’s no more need for urgency, we can start rotating in fresh troops from other CSGs and get more boots on the ground. We’ll have those tunnels safe for field researchers to explore before you know it.”

“I think that’s all we needed,” Vos continued, glancing around the table at his counterparts. “I’m not one for big, sappy speeches – I’ll leave that to the PR people – but what you’ve accomplished here is a first. Nobody has ever undertaken an operation on this scale, with so many moving parts, against an enemy so organized and entrenched. More than that, you’ve proven that this Coalition can function as a united force. This will have far-reaching repercussions that will influence this alliance for decades to come.”

“You’ve all kept your promises to my Consensus, and to my people,” Xipa added. “As you know, we have very good memories, and this won’t soon be forgotten. Thanks to the Coalition, Valbara is safe, and Kerguela is in our hands once again. Even my own skepticism has proven to be unfounded. We have ceased to be separate entities working in concert and have become a unified whole – a flock. Whatever you need,” she added, her feathers flashing blood-red. “Wherever it’s needed – Valbara will answer the call.”

With that, the conference came to a close, the holograms fizzling out to leave Vos and Fielding standing alone in the dark room.

“That went rather well, all things considered,” Fielding said.

“The conference or the war?” Vos asked, raising an eyebrow.

“A little of both,” the captain replied with a smile. “We might have stumbled at the gate, but we brought this conflict to a quick and decisive end. The Valbarans are going to be building statues of us, and the Jarilans are finally being accepted as equal members of this alliance. We won’t have to worry about a public backlash or discontent among the troops when we deploy them in the future, and we can do so on a much larger scale.”

“Yes, I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the Jarilans will soon be capable of,” Vos mused. “We need to keep them in check – make sure that they don’t come to resemble their warlike cousins too closely.”

“I have faith in them,” Fielding replied. “As long as we don’t ask too much of them, I don’t think we’ll have any problems.”

“Time will tell,” Vos replied, leaving the table as he headed for the door. “I feel like I can relax for the first time in weeks. Would you care to join me on the observation deck for a drink, Captain?”

“It would be my pleasure, Admiral.”

EPILOGUE: IN LOVE AND WAR

Six Months Later

The white skyscrapers of Anabar were wreathed in vibrant greens and crimsons, great banners of fabric storeys-long draped over the facades of the buildings, the wind catching them to send waves rippling across their surfaces. They were the colors of peace and of victory, though the hues held yet more complex meanings to the Valbarans that escaped Evan’s limited grasp of their feather signals. The same colors were present everywhere he looked, long streamers hanging from every available balcony or street lamp, strips of LEDs that resembled Christmas lights strung above the streets.

The locals had welcomed them with open arms during their first visit, but upon their return, they had been given an even more enthusiastic reception. The citizens had turned out in their thousands, the endless sea of colorful headdresses making the city look like it had been overwhelmed by a giant Brazilian carnival, jubilant crowds filling the streets as they welcomed the Coalition forces.

He hadn’t truly realized how important Kerguela was to Valbaran culture, how it had become almost a creation myth for a new society that existed in perpetual fear of invasion, and in perpetual mourning of their lost colony. The moon was where their hopes of becoming a multi-planet species and exploring a friendly Galaxy had been dashed, replaced with the realization that they were small fish in a very large and hostile pond. An entire generation had been raised under the threat of invasion, and for the first time in their lives, they didn’t have to watch the skies in fear. More than that – the moon had been reclaimed, and a historical wrong had been righted. The friendly Galaxy that their scholars had once envisioned had sought them out, and they were now members of an interstellar community, able to protect themselves and their interests.

The most surprising thing of all was the decree that the Jarilans be allowed to set foot on the planet’s surface. It appeared that they had proven their worth, at least to someone with enough sway to make what even now might not be a universally popular decision.

Evan glanced down at Jade, squeezing her hand as she walked along the winding footpath beside him. They were surrounded by the rolling hills of one of the city’s many parks, the carpet of blue-green grass and the palm-like fronds of the trees blowing in the breeze, the gentle wind catching Jade’s feathery antennae.

After so long fighting on Kerguela, where reds, oranges, and browns dominated the forests, Valbara almost seemed like a color inversion of the moon. Here, greens dominated the pockets of trees and the carefully tended shrubs, along with hues of blue and purple that were a result of the anthocyanins that some of the planet’s flora used instead of chlorophyll. At least, that’s what he had been told when he had asked about them.

The spires of the city center towered in the distance behind them, the snow-white structures gleaming in the sunlight, their decorative banners visible even from so far away. The city’s defensive wall rose up ahead of them, and it had been given the same treatment – banners that must have been two hundred meters long trailing down its inner walls. Even as they passed a scooter station – a little glass structure that housed the two-wheeled personal transport vehicles that the Valbarans favored – he saw that someone had tied green and red ribbons around their handles.

“I still can’t believe I’m actually here,” Jade said. She tilted her head towards the sky, closing her eyes, seeming to enjoy the sensation of the breeze on her antennae. “It’s so beautiful. We have no shortage of pristine nature on Jarilo, and while our colonies have their rustic charms, I’ve never been anywhere as developed as this. The Valbarans take such care in everything that they do. I hope that we can emulate that back on Jarilo. Maybe one day, we can have cities there that look like this.”

“I’ll bet you could hire some Valbaran city planners,” he chuckled as they turned a bend in the path. “After all this, they might even do it for free.”

She dipped one of her lower hands into a pouch on the belt that she was wearing, fishing out her phone, then passing it to her dominant hand. After being recalled to the Omaha shortly after the attack on the Ant Hill, Jade had been cleaned of her camouflaged paint, the Workers from her carrier providing her with some kind of soap-like substance that just melted it away in the shower. Instead of the oranges and browns that he had come to associate with her, she was now emerald green, her carapace shifting hues to a subtle blue when it caught the sunlight at just the right angle. He had told her that it made her look like a waxed sports car with iridescent paint, but she’d had no idea what a sports car was until he had shown her pictures, much to her amusement.

While she wasn’t wearing her combat armor anymore, all Jarilan clothing resembled carapace, and she was sporting much lighter plates without all of the supplemental protection. Instead of a chest rig, she just wore a belt with pouches as a substitute for pockets. Evan was wearing casual clothes, and it felt good to be out of his pressure suit for the first time in months.

The Valbarans had put everyone up in hotels, some of which had been converted for larger species like humans and Borealans. Interstellar tourism was a growing industry, and it seemed as though many of the renovations had been underway long before the start of the war. He and Jade had been sharing a suite ever since they had arrived, as the locals were more than happy to accommodate their requests. The last few weeks had been dream-like, their days spent exploring the city, their nights spent in the privacy of their hotel room. To say that they had been making up for lost time was an understatement – it was a honeymoon in all but name.

As they rounded a bend in the footpath, they came across a group of Marines walking in the opposite direction. They were being tailed by a flock of Valbarans, the locals hurrying to keep up with them, their heads bobbing with their pigeon-like gait. Evan had learned enough about their feather signals to know that the abundance of pink hues likely meant that the women were hitting on them. Just like during their first visit, the civilians on this planet were intensely curious about aliens, and they hadn’t gotten any more shy about approaching them.

They made way for the group, a couple of the Valbarans glancing over at Jade. Their looks were not cautious or accusatory, only curious. Jarilans were probably the least numerous of the troops on shore leave in the city, and to Evan’s surprise, they had encountered no hostility or suspicion from the locals. Just like Jade had always hoped, it seemed that their good deeds were starting to precede them, and the general attitude of the population had begun to warm after word of their exploits on Kerguela had spread. The Jarilans had played just as large a part in the war as any other species, after all, and they had shed ichor for Valbara.

They left the carefully landscaped hills, emerging into a more open, grassy area that was framed by clusters of blue-green trees and flowering shrubs that added splashes of reds and yellows to the scenery. Off to their left was a lake where several Valbaran families were picnicking, the gleeful shrieks of children at play carrying over to them. Evan chuckled to himself as he saw a trio of Krell lying on the grassy shore, partially submerged in the clear water, their massive frames pushing aside the lily-like water weeds that surrounded them. As always, they were remarkably tolerant, not even reacting as Valbaran parents struggled to stop their frenetic offspring from using them as living jungle gyms.

The Krell were unfortunately impossible to accommodate in the hotels, but they were perfectly happy to lounge in the endless lakes and waterways that crisscrossed the city’s bands. In a way, the environment almost seemed custom-made for them, and it was common to come across one of the creatures basking like a crocodile or lazily floating down one of the streams. As long as they had sunlight and water, they didn’t want for much.

Off to their right, nestled in a little grove of trees, was a domed building that resembled a cluster of white soap bubbles. There was a large, arched opening carved into the facade that looked out over the lake, a colorful awning erected above it. Scattered in the building’s vicinity were low tables surrounded by cushions, where patrons of the establishment were eating and smoking from their elaborate hookahs. Instead of the parasols that one might expect to see outside a cafe, they had instead strategically cultivated trees with wide fronds to provide shade.

“This is the place,” Jade said, returning her phone to its pouch.

Evan could already see some of their friends sitting outside the cafe, standing out starkly among the other patrons. Sunny was seated beside Aster and Cardinal, her long legs crossed neatly on the padded cushions, her lemon-yellow carapace catching the sun like a beacon. The table was so small in comparison to her seven-foot frame that it barely rose above her knees. Cardinal now sported the red-orange hues of the bird that was her namesake, and Aster’s coloration was now lilac. She had recovered from her injuries only recently, but she seemed none the worse for wear after her ordeal.

Tatzi was sitting beside Hernandez, the massive Borealan practically dwarfing the little reptiles that surrounded her. She was lounging on a larger pile of cushions, lying on her side with her legs outstretched, which put her low enough to reach the table at her convenience. Her civilian clothing took the form of a kind of sari made from gossamer fabric that left very little of her impressive figure to the imagination, no doubt adapted for the heat of her homeworld. Around her neck was the Queen’s claw, severed at the joint, now hanging from a string that was attached through holes that had been drilled in the thick carapace. Like shelling a lobster, she had extracted the meat from inside the digit, and the shell was tough enough to keep without spoiling. Evan was amazed that it hadn’t been confiscated by the UNN, if not by the scientists who were now studying the carcass, but it was a trophy well-earned.

If the attention made Evan feel like a celebrity at times, Tatzi actually was one. While the names of the Marines and Jarilans who had participated in the raid on the Queen’s chamber were probably known to some of the city’s population, they were a lot less recognizable than the giant feline striding around with a claw the size of a man’s forearm hanging from her neck like a pendant. They even had a name for her – Queenslayer. More than once, he had seen a flock of Valbarans stop to take pictures with her or present her with gifts, and she was always surprisingly gracious in her dealings with them. Borealans weren’t exactly known to be approachable, so maybe her culture had some precedent for the celebrity-war-hero status.

Several Marines from Delta had joined them at the table. There was Foster, Collins, Garcia, Donovan, McKay, and Brooks. McKay had completely recovered from his injuries, as had Brooks, who was now sporting a shiny new prosthetic leg. He was still getting used to it, so he was a little wobbly on his feet. Just like Tatzi, he wore the Supermajor’s finger about his neck, both in memorial of Borzka and as a memento of his missing limb. Simmons and Bainbridge had both elected to remain behind, as the war was far from over, even if the most important battles had already been won.

Hernandez was the only one of them still wearing his Navy blues, the medal that he had been awarded for operational gallantry pinned to his breast, along with the special commendation that had been given to him by the Consensus for his service to Valbara. They had all received the same commendations, and they had all attended the ceremony on the fleet’s flagship – the UNN Rorke. Only Aster and Brooks hadn’t been present, as they’d been recovering from their injuries at the time. Admiral Vos had presented the medals himself, and his Valbaran counterpart – the Ensi – had done the same. While humans made their medals from precious metals, the Valbarans favored small electronic devices about the size of a wristwatch that projected a colorful hologram, powered by a tiny battery. There was now a little floating symbol in blood-red hovering an inch above his breast, and if Evan recalled correctly, the swirling text listed off his deeds.

Hernandez reveled in the attention, and who could really blame him? He had earned it. Every time some passer-by inquired about the story, as there was no video recording due to the EMP killing all of their helmet cams, he was happy to regale them with a somewhat embellished version of events in which the Queen seemed to gain a few inches with each retelling.

Their friends waved them over to the table as the pair walked up the path, and they lowered themselves onto the cushions, the fronds of a nearby tree giving them shade. Drinks had already been ordered, and the hookah was bubbling, the Marines taking intermittent puffs from its long hoses. The Jarilans couldn’t partake with their spiracles, but the Valbarans seemed to be giving them something that they could drink. Despite being dressed like an Arabian princess, Tatzi seemed uninterested in the herb, focusing on a small cup that she had to hold between her padded thumb and forefinger like a thimble. Borealans had a very low tolerance for alcohol, so even the tiny portions of Valbaran spirits might be appealing to her.

“If it isn’t the love birds,” Sunny chuckled, giving them a smile befitting of her name.

“Where have you guys been?” Hernandez asked, holding one of the hoses to his lips for a moment. He paused to exhale a cloud of smoke, then finished his thought. “We’ve been here for nearly an hour.”

“How the hell did you find out about this place?” Evan asked, glancing over at the main building. He could see a few more patrons inside who were leaning on a Valbaran-sized counter, perhaps ordering drinks or chatting with the staff.

“The guy at the hotel recommended it to me,” he replied with a shrug. “I figured it might be a little quieter than the lounges and restaurants we’ve been going to.”

“I thought you liked all the attention?” Evan asked.

“I do,” he conceded, taking another puff. “I’d also like to be able to eat a meal without bein’ interrupted every now and then.”

Evan noticed a Valbaran wearing a colorful tunic winding her way through the tables, a tablet computer clutched in her hands. She stopped beside them, announcing herself with a trill and a flutter of green.

“I can take your orders?” she asked. Her grasp of English wasn’t perfect – she might have only just started learning.

Before Evan could ask if there was a menu, a hologram projected from the table, three-dimensional representations of dishes and scrolling text appearing before him. There were rudimentary English translations, enough that he could get some idea of what he was ordering. He selected a seared Gue’tra steak, something that Brooks insisted tasted just like chicken, with a side of something akin to watercress that was grown in their aquaponic farms. It seemed that the Valbarans were actually catering to the Jarilans, too. There was a menu of liquid foods that they could eat, much to the delight of their arthropod companions.

Before long, a whole flock of waitresses arrived with their plates, setting them down on the table in front of them. Tatzi was eating an entire grilled fish about the size of a large carp that was served on a bed of greens, which she liberally drizzled with some kind of oil, and each of the Jarilans was presented with a glass vial of some kind of colorful fluid. It looked to have the same consistency as the honey that made up the bulk of their diet, but it came in different flavors, and it seemed to impress them.

One of the women placed Evan’s dish on the low table in front of him, the pale steak still steaming, a cross-hatched pattern charred into the flesh. He picked up the two tiny, child-sized pieces of cutlery, eager to dig in.

“No pay, no pay,” one of the waitresses protested as Hernandez pulled out his phone. She gestured to the holographic badge on his chest, giving him a flash of red that matched its hue.

“Looks like we’re eatin’ for free,” he chuckled as the flock headed back into the building. “I gotta say, the hospitality of these little fellas is somethin’ else. They really know how to make a guy feel welcome.”

“Maybe I should start wearing my badge more often,” Garcia added. “That said, I haven’t had to pay for a drink yet. These local girls are…confident.”

“I feel bad, though,” Brooks added. “With all the hazard pay we got, we could probably buy this place out ten times over.”

“Hey, I’m gonna need every credit if me and Tatzi are gonna take that trip to Borealis,” Hernandez replied over a mouthful of Gue’tra steak. “How about you two?” he asked, nodding to Evan and Jade. “Where are you goin’ next?”

“I dunno,” Evan replied, sharing a glance with Jade. “We were thinking of maybe visiting Jarilo. There’s a lot of land there for the taking, and Jade has been pretty insistent.”

“It’s a great planet,” she replied, giving him a nudge with her elbow as she sipped from her vial. “Even if we only visit for a while, I want you to see it.”

“How long do you reckon they’re gonna let us stay here?” Collins asked. “It’s basically a vacation paid for by the UNN. I can’t imagine they’ll let it go on indefinitely.”

“I heard they plan to keep rotating people in and out of shore leave until the war ends,” Foster replied, cutting into his steak with a tiny knife. “There’s gonna be low-level fighting on Kerguela for months, maybe years, and they still have tens of thousands of troops sitting on liners who haven’t even seen combat yet. They’ll probably want to keep us on standby for a while, which is fine by me,” he said as he popped a piece of meat into his mouth. “This place is like a resort. You’d have trouble paying for this kind of treatment back on Earth.”

“Word is they’re going to use Kerguela as a training ground for grunts,” Donovan added, gesturing with a half-filled glass. “It’s a controlled environment where muddy Marines can get some real battlefield experience with relatively low risk.”

“I’d believe it,” Foster replied with a nod. “The fleet will have a great deal of control over how and when they engage the Bug remnants. They can tailor each operation to the experience level of the force.”

“If anything, that just means they’re going to prioritize troops with less experience,” Donovan added. “In other words – not us.”

“It’s a nice change of pace, but I think I’ll get bored if I stay here too long,” Sunny added with a sigh. “I feel weird if my plugs are empty for too long, if you know what I mean.”

“It’s almost like you were bred to be a pilot or something,” McKay added.

“That said, the boys here are cute and very available,” she chuckled, reaching up to fiddle with one of her antennae flirtatiously. “I think I can find ways to keep myself entertained for a while.”

“Hey, check it out,” Evan said as he gave Jade a nudge. He gestured to two children who were seated nearby with their flock, the table strewn with small toys – plastic representations of Coalition troops. The pair were chirping to each other in their native language, but while Evan couldn’t tell what they were saying, the game that they were playing was obvious enough. They had a little Krell, a Marine, and some Commandos, which were facing off against small representations of four-armed Bugs. One of the children had taken a Bug and had placed it on the Coalition side of the table. “Looks like you’re on the good guy team now.”

“That’s adorable,” she chuckled, leaning her head on his shoulder as she watched them play for a few minutes. It was only a small thing, but it spoke to the changing attitudes of the Valbaran population.

“How’s the drink?” he asked.

“Good!” she replied, taking another sip from her vial. “They’ve matched the consistency of honey, but they seem to be using different plant extracts to change the flavor. It’s a nice change – eating something specifically made for Jarilans. I haven’t had anything like this since I left the colony.”

“I’m glad you’re having a good time,” he replied. “You deserve it.”

“How’s your meal?” she asked, nodding to his plate.

“Also good,” he said. “It’s a damn sight better than an MRE. If you want, I can bag this up and stick it in a blender for you, like the good old days.”

“I don’t need blended food anymore,” she replied with a smirk, sipping at her drink pointedly. “Not when the Valbarans are being so accommodating. But, I appreciate the callback.”

“What do you want to do after dinner?” he asked, watching one of the Krell reposition itself by the shore. It flipped over onto its back to expose its pale belly to the sun, creating a large splash, much to the delight of the nearby children. “One of the other guys from our company said that they were going to see a dance show at a lounge tonight. I dunno what that entails, but it sounds like it could be fun.”

“Maybe,” she replied, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I don’t mind a quiet night in back at the hotel, though.”

“Why do you say that like it’s a euphemism?” he asked.

“Because it’s a euphemism,” she replied.

“Who am I to refuse a famous war hero?” he chuckled, popping another juicy piece of steak into his mouth.

***

“There they are,” Bluejay whispered, raising the scope of his rifle to his eye. Through the autumn foliage, he sighted a group of Drones, the insects trekking through the forest in a loose column formation. They were vigilant, the many lenses on their helmets scanning the surrounding trees for movement, their resin rifles held at the ready. One could never rely on the creatures letting their guard down – their attention span was infinite, and they never grew bored or restless.

He counted ten of them wading through the underbrush, a far juicier target soon coming into view behind them. Stalking along on its eight, crab-like legs was a Scuttler of the variety that was modified to carry cargo, a large fuel container attached to its back.

“Come in, Miqi,” he said into his helmet. “Got visual confirmation that these guys are hauling fuel back to their base of operations. It’s a big, fat Scuttler carrying what looks like liquid methane.”

“Receiving you,” she replied, her voice crackling over the radio. “Do you have a shot?”

Miqi, along with many of the other survivors who had returned to the city after it had been recaptured, had been learning English to better communicate with their new allies. Their progress had been incredibly fast, and most had become almost fluent in only a couple of weeks, but they had their quirks. They learned primarily through mimicry – remembering complete phrases and the specific contexts they had been used in – which resulted in some strange choices of words here and there. It was an ongoing process.

“The big guy is slow, and very conspicuous,” he replied. “A couple of shots from my XMR should create some fireworks – an explosion,” he added, correcting himself. “Are you guys ready to move in?”

“My flock is poised to strike,” she said, the sound of rustling leaves coming through over the radio. “We await your signal.”

“The signal is gonna be a very loud bang,” he continued, resting the barrel of his rifle on a nearby tree branch. He was high up in the canopy, and it gave him a great vantage point. “They’re gonna scatter as soon as I hit that fuel tank, so get ready. Don’t let them get into cover.”

“We have them on our network,” Miqi replied. “These new suits are a marvel.”

The Consensus had provided the survivors with a lot of gear and equipment after their return, and brand new Commando suits were among them, along with modern XMR systems. They still wore their camouflaged cloaks, however, and they refused to leave the base without some kind of brutal improvised melee weapon. Old habits died hard.

“Taking the shot,” Bluejay announced, lining up his sights on the lumbering tank.

He pulled the trigger, and there was a flash of light, the fuel igniting into a brilliant fireball that shook the surrounding trees. Burning foliage fell from the canopy, showering the startled Bugs, the creatures running for cover as their vehicle smoldered.

Miqi and her flock bounded into action, the squad of Valbarans revealing themselves with a hail of gunfire, their rifles chewing through the shrubs and tree trunks to send splinters of wood flying through the air. The Drones were caught completely off-guard, and they were cut down before they could even return fire, collapsing to the forest floor as their carapaces were riddled with slug holes. Miqi led her team forward, sweeping through the undergrowth as they cleared the area, Bluejay keeping watch with his rifle. When they were certain that their enemies were all dead, Miqi turned to give him a feather signal.

“Nice work,” he said, lifting his rifle off the branch. “Whatever they were planning to do with that fuel, they’re screwed now. With all of their refineries captured, what reserves they have left must be dwindling by the day.”

“They will meet their end either by starvation or the gun,” Miqi muttered, crouching to examine one of the bodies. “Even now, it is hard to break the habit of checking their carcasses for gear.”

“You know,” Bluejay continued, opening his wing casings as he walked along a creaking branch. “Eventually, there aren’t going to be any Bugs left, and you’re gonna have to find some other way to pass the time.”

“Perhaps I’ll help the Workers pour carbcrete,” she scoffed, watching as he dropped to the ground with a flutter from his gossamer wings. “It is nice to be going on the offensive,” she added, sparing a glance at the burning wreckage of the fuel Scuttler. Its heat was such that Bluejay didn’t want to stray too close for fear of singing his antennae, but Miqi almost seemed to enjoy it. “These mealworms are the remnants of the army that attacked the city. They thought they could exterminate us, but now, we hunt them for sport.”

“How the tables have turned,” he added, Miqi giving him an inquisitive look through her visor. “It’s an expression,” he explained. “A reversal of circumstances.”

“Noted,” she replied, no doubt filing the phrase away in her mental library for later use.

“So, where to next?” Bluejay asked.

“We have been tracking this group for near two days,” she replied, glancing up at the gas giant that hung in the sky above the canopy. “We should return to base for food and rest before we set out on another hunt. Do we have consensus?”

“Fine by me,” he replied, watching as her four flockmates chimed in.

He had grown closer with Miqi during the months since their return to the moon. For someone who had once captured him in a net and threatened to eat him, their shared experiences had created a kind of professional rapport, which had developed into a friendship after the evacuation. She seemed to respect his abilities, and he respected her tenacity in turn. Now, they frequently went on patrol together, hunting down roaming Bugs beyond the wall. As a Jarilan, he was useful as a tracker, but he got the impression that it was more about her enjoying his company than the value of his antennae.

The same was not entirely true for her flock. They were on friendly terms, but Komi, Peyo, Matli, and Mesta didn’t seem to share Miqi’s appreciation for him. Whether that was because he was a Jarilan or simply because they hadn’t been through the same experiences together, he wasn’t quite sure. He got the sense that they respected him, even that they accepted him, but Miqi stood out in that she always seemed to want to be around him when they were off-duty. She had always been more open about showing affection, so perhaps she was simply the most outgoing of the bunch. That was often the case in flocks, where each member filled a niche, balancing out the qualities of the other members.

The group turned in the direction of the city, Bluejay checking the coordinates on his wrist device before setting off through the trees.

***

By the time night had fallen – which could only be determined by checking a clock, as the moon had no regular night cycle – they had arrived at the foot of the city’s wall. It towered above the forest, some two hundred meters tall, transitioning to weather-stained white once it grew too high for the vines and creepers to latch onto. They walked around its base for a couple of kilometers until they came to one of the four doors that were spaced out in cardinal directions. It began to open at their approach, the decades-old machinery groaning as it pulled the fifty-meter slabs of metal and carbcrete apart to create a narrow breach. Repairs on the city’s infrastructure were ongoing – Jarilan Workers equipped with schematics provided by the Valbarans finding their way into every nook and cranny, salvaging what they could and replacing what they couldn’t. It would probably have been cheaper to bulldoze the entire city and start over, but cost wasn’t as much of a factor when you could call in favors from a species that had no real use for currency.

As they made their way through the gap, they encountered a pair of sentries who were waiting on the other side, the survivors greeting them with friendly feather signals.

“Good hunting?” one of them asked. They were speaking their native language of chirps and trills, but Bluejay had picked up a little of it during his time living in the base, at least enough to follow an average conversation. The biggest barrier was just how fast they spoke, like voice recordings being played back at double speed.

“Ten Drones and a fuel transport,” Miqi replied. “Not a bad haul.”

“There’s a Gue’tra charged and ready to roll,” the sentry added, gesturing to a row of buggies that were parked nearby. “I’ll call ahead and let them know that you’re on your way back.”

They loaded into one of the vehicles, Bluejay sliding into the passenger seat beside Miqi, her flock hopping up into the open troop compartment at the rear. The engine thrummed to life as she kicked it into gear, spinning the wheel to drive it out onto the road, the suspension bouncing through potholes in the old asphalt. Bluejay relaxed into the padded seat, feeling the wind blow his antennae as it rushed through the buggy’s open frame. The Workers were a long way off repairing all of the roads, but they had cleared the overgrowth and the debris from some of the major routes. It was enough that travel between important locations like the city gates, the spaceport, and the base was fast and safe. Parts of the city that suffered from structural weaknesses and areas that had sustained too much damage had been sectioned off, making some of the routes a little circuitous, depending on where you were going. He had to resist the urge to check the map that was stored in his computer, reminding himself that Miqi had committed it to memory.

The ruined buildings flashed past them, still overgrown with autumn foliage, countless empty windows streaking by. The Workers had begun repairing some of the structures, but they had focused primarily on the most traveled areas, as there wasn’t much of a reason for anyone to stray further afield for the time being. There were entire districts that would probably have to be completely demolished and rebuilt from scratch, too damaged by Bug attacks and decades of neglect to repair, but Xipa’s mandate was that as many of the city’s original structures be preserved as possible. It was a monument to the countless civilians who had died here, and a testament to the tenacity of the Valbarans – both those who had persisted and those who had returned to reclaim it.

He saw a glint of orange carapace in the distance, fighting the urge to raise his weapon as they neared. Miqi slowed down as they approached a procession of squat little Workers, maybe fifty of the four-foot creatures waddling along the middle of the road with armfuls of tools and raw construction materials. They were incredibly strong for their size, able to carry multiple times their own body weight, loaded up like pack animals. Even as Miqi matched pace with them, they didn’t look up, too focused on the task at hand to pay any attention to the newcomers. Walking along at the front of the group was a smaller team of Jarilan Workers, easily distinguished from their Kerguelan counterparts by their fluffy collars and long antennae. Miqi leaned out of the driver’s-side window to chat with them, a crew chief who was wearing a high-vis vest and a tool belt waving to them in greeting.

“How’s work today, girls?” Miqi chimed.

“We’re laying new fiber optic cables,” she replied cheerfully, raising her voice a little over the hum of the electric engine. “The gates are all going to be hardwired to the base so you won’t have to rely on radio to send messages back and forth. It’s part of a larger initiative to rebuild the city’s communications system.”

Infrastructure was being prioritized across the board, with extensive repairs to the sewer system and other important facilities like communication and power delivery well underway. That was one aspect of the reconstruction that couldn’t be done piecemeal, as it was all interconnected in one giant, city-spanning network. Right now, everything was being powered by portable generators that the UNN had landed in the port, but the city’s own fusion plant would have to be rebuilt eventually.

“Sounds good!” Miqi replied. “How are the prisoners behaving?”

Prisoners implies that we’re keeping them against their will,” the Worker chuckled, glancing back at them. “I’m not sure what they’d do if we stopped giving them instructions. Probably just wander around and get lost until someone came to find them.”

After the hive had been cleared of hostiles, the CSC had voted to allow the Jarilans to recover some of the eggs from the brood chambers. Cultivators and Workers had been evacuated and hatched where possible, while any combat forms such as Drones or Stalkers had simply been allowed to die off. Even with a concerted effort to recover eggs and larvae, only a small portion of the population had been spared, but it was enough to provide a sizable native workforce to supplement the Jarilans who were being shipped in.

While they weren’t able to communicate beyond basic pheromone signals, and so could not take on any complex assignments, they had a natural inclination for simple tasks like picking crops or digging ditches. As long as they had a Jarilan handler, they were generally useful to have around. There was something almost poetic about employing them to rebuild the world that their forebears had destroyed. They couldn’t reproduce without their Queen, which made them the last of their kind, and it had been decided that there would be no further intervention on their behalf. Still, Bluejay found it more palatable than allowing the infants to die in their nurseries. The Coalition had saved every sentient being that it possibly could, and had lived up to its values as much as could be expected under the circumstances.

“Don’t work too hard!” Bluejay said, waving to the Workers as Miqi accelerated again.

“You know, I was skeptical when they decided to save some of the larvae,” she began as she maneuvered around a large pothole. “I would have put the torch to them myself, had I been there. But, I am forced to admit that they are proving useful.”

“They’re harmless creatures,” Bluejay replied, dangling an arm out of the window. “As long as they’re kept busy, they’re happy. We encountered a similar situation back on Jarilo with the Betelgeusians that were left over after the first generation of Jarilans were hatched. We tried to integrate them into the new hive, but they were too specialized, and anything that deviated from their routine just upset them.”

The buggy bounced along the street until they came to another obstacle, Miqi slowing as a row of carbcrete road barriers blocked their path. They were maybe a meter tall, spaced out to close off several of the highway’s lanes, a solitary Puma IFV with its deployable cover extended helping to bolster the defenses. She drove into the one open lane, and a UNN Marine walked up to their vehicle, one of several who were standing guard nearby. It was a makeshift roadblock erected to act as an extra layer of security – there were dozens of them all over the most traveled areas of the city. While patrols into the old ruins still happened, it was more practical to keep their eyes on important routes and sensitive locations. The risk of Bug attacks inside the walls was minimal, but not impossible. It would be years before they found and patched up every possible ingress point. The Coalition had established a temporary FoB in the old port and was assisting the survivors with security and relief operations, garrisoning troops inside the city, and helping ship in supplies. The Valbarans might have survived for decades in hostile territory, but actually controlling the city now that the Bugs had been driven off required a level of manpower that they simply didn’t possess yet.

The Marine approached the driver’s window, his demeanor casual, his weapon lowered. There weren’t exactly a lot of Bugs driving stolen buggies around, so this was just a formality.

“Lance Corporal,” the man said, giving Bluejay a salute when he noticed the rank insignia on his armband.

“At ease,” Bluejay replied. He still wasn’t used to having the Marines salute him. As well-earned as his promotion might have been, he had spent his entire life trying to prove himself to the humans, trying to make himself useful. Now, he outranked many of the people who he interacted with on a day-to-day basis.

“Didn’t mean to keep you waiting, sir,” the Marine continued as he waved them through.

“It’s quite alright,” Bluejay replied. “We’ve been out in the bush for a couple of days, so it’s nice to see some friendly faces.”

“Bag any big game, sir?”

“A couple of squads of Drones and a fuel truck,” he said, the Marine nodding in approval.

“Sounds a lot more fun than watching empty roads, sir. Go right ahead.”

They passed through the checkpoint, Miqi flooring it again, Bluejay feeling the acceleration press him into his seat.

“You’re not gonna be able to drive this fast when people are actually using these roads again, you know,” he said as he gripped the buggy’s metal frame reflexively.

“Then, should I not make the most of it?” she chuckled as she shifted gears.

Their joyride was soon interrupted by a flash of light, Bluejay lifting his eyes to the sky, spotting a plume of fire descending through the clouds above the ruined spires ahead of them. A second joined it, then a third, the objects moving in formation as they began to decelerate.

“Looks like a new shipment is coming in,” he mused. “They must be heading for the port.”

“I hope those new sensor arrays for the wall are onboard,” Matli complained from the troop compartment as she watched the vessels dip below the buildings. “We won’t actually have to station any sentries up there once we have the network up and running.”

They soon arrived at one of the entrances to the old base, a ramp leading down into one of the larger sewer systems. Now that the Bugs had been expelled from the city, there was no further need for secrecy, and entrances that would once have been camouflaged were now out in the open. They stopped the buggy alongside a couple of other vehicles that were parked on the sidewalk, greeting another sentry who was perched on a nearby balcony some two storeys off the ground. They descended into the tunnels, droplets of water dripping from the rusty old pipes that fed into the sewer, the raised metal grate that had been erected to keep their feet dry creaking beneath them.

Despite having the opportunity to live anywhere they wanted, almost all of the survivors had elected to move back into the water treatment plant. Their experience on the luxury cruise liner, the open offer to return to Valbara, and even the promise of apartments refurbished to their specifications by the Workers hadn’t been enough to sway them. Bluejay couldn’t really blame them. Maybe it was because he’d grown up in the warrens of a hive, but he always felt a little more secure when there was a few meters of soil above his head.

He heard a noise ahead of them, and another procession soon came into view, illuminated by the intermittent light strips that had been set up along the tunnel’s arching ceiling. Bluejay recognized the Valbaran who was leading the group. It was Nocha, the woman who had almost lost her life during their mission to rescue the missing survivors all those months ago. She greeted them with a flurry of green feathers as the two groups neared each other, stopping to chat for a moment. Nocha’s flock was with her, along with a couple of female Drones, Bluejay brushing antennae with them.

“Where are you off to, Nocha?” Miqi asked. “Looks like you’re geared up for a patrol.”

“Just routine stuff,” she replied, patting the XMR that was hanging from a sling across her chest. “Some of the Workers picked up what they think might be insect pheromones out by one of the demolition sites. It’s probably nothing, but we can’t discount the possibility that a handful of Drones might still be wandering around over there. Who knows how many of them got separated from the invasion force or went to ground during the battle.”

“Happy hunting,” Peyo chimed.

The two teams continued past each other, Miqi jogging for a few moments to match pace with Bluejay.

“So, what do you want to do when we get back?” she asked.

“What do I want to do?” he repeated, giving her a sideways smile. “We’ve been out in the wild for a couple of days, Miqi. I was hoping to get a shower and a vial of honey.”

“I meant after that,” she continued with an impatient flutter.

“Other than taking a nap somewhere humid, I have no plans,” he chuckled. “Sounds like you had something in mind?”

“It’s been a while since I had a smoke,” she replied with the Valbaran equivalent of a shrug. Unlike their rapid-fire speech, their body language – or rather feather language – was a lot easier to pick up using contextual cues. “I was thinking of heading to the lounge. Care to join me?”

“Aren’t your flockmates coming?” he asked, turning his head to glance back at them.

“No, they’ll be busy,” she said hurriedly. “What do you say?”

“Yeah, sure,” he conceded. “I can’t smoke on account of not having any lungs, but Chatli sells some drinks that I’m quite partial to.”

“Partial?” Miqi asked, cocking her head at him. “Sectional, fractional?”

“Being partial to something means you like it very much,” he explained, his companion nodding her head in understanding.

The sewer tunnel soon transitioned into the more familiar carbcrete corridors of the base, electrical lines and pipes snaking their way along the walls like blood vessels, the harsh halogen lights welcoming them home. Before long, they found themselves in the main living area, passing Valbarans and Workers who were carrying equipment and supplies to the storage areas. There were almost as many Coalition species as survivors now, though few of them lived in the base long-term.

Bluejay remembered the fear and confusion etched onto the faces of the civilians when he had first arrived, how he had been made to wear a tag that identified him as friendly to minimize the chance that someone might just reflexively shoot him. Now, Workers and even Drones mingled with the civilians without incident, their presence no more noteworthy than that of the Marines or the Commandos from Valbara.

The group headed for the armory first, returning their gear and weapons to the racks. The stockpile had grown considerably since the days of captured Bug weapons fed with intravenous drips of honey. Now, the walls were covered in state-of-the-art XMRs, crates of parts and ammo stacked in piles.

“I’m gonna check in with Xipa and Fletcher before I freshen up,” Bluejay said as he pulled off his chest rig. “What say we meet up in the lounge in, let’s say, an hour?”

“Okay,” she trilled, stowing her XMR on a nearby rack. As Bluejay turned to the door, he glanced back to see her whispering conspiratorially with her flock. Somehow, he got the impression that she hadn’t discussed their dinner plans with them yet.

He stopped by the infirmary on his way back to the main chamber, checking in on Ruza. The Borealan was sitting in an oversized chair near one of the curving walls of the old water tank, a struggling Valbaran squirming in his giant hands, its parent flock hovering nearby. He was holding a hypodermic injector between his sharp teeth – probably some kind of vaccination cocktail. The youngster didn’t look to be more than two or three years old. Despite how the Borealan’s furry mitts dwarfed it, the baby was a remarkably adept escape artist, repeatedly wriggling free of Ruza’s grasp. There was a male nurse wearing purple scrubs standing nearby, but he was too short to even reach Ruza’s waist, let alone provide any assistance.

Growing frustrated, Ruza let out a low, resonating growl that Bluejay could feel reverberate through his carapace. The unexpected sound and sensation made the baby freeze up, its eyes wide in alarm, its feathers flashing yellow and purple. With practiced speed, Ruza reached for his injector, holding the device against the baby’s upper arm and pressing the button on its tip with a padded thumb. Before the infant had even realized what had happened, a series of tiny needles had delivered their payload, and Ruza was passing the frazzled child back into the waiting arms of its parents. They thanked the doctor, then gave Bluejay a polite feather display on their way out, the baby still wearing that shell-shocked expression.

“How’s business, Doc?” Bluejay asked as he made his way inside. “You still kissing boo-boos and distributing bandaids?”

“I will be much happier when the hospital has been completed,” he grumbled, passing the empty injector to his Valbaran assistant. The little male scurried off towards the back of the tank, disappearing behind a privacy curtain. “It is difficult to establish a proper sanitary environment here, so I must send those with more severe injuries off-world for the time being.”

“Looks like most of the beds are empty,” Bluejay mused, glancing at the rows of cots. Before the evacuation, they had been filled with Valbarans who had been injured in combat, but they were now playing host to a handful of people with sprains and hangovers. A small waiting area with a row of stools had been set up near the door, and there were several seated civilians glancing up at him curiously, probably waiting for their turn to be seen. Ruza waved one of them forward, the woman hopping off her stool and bobbing her way over to him. To Bluejay’s amusement, she didn’t sit down in a chair on the opposite side of the table, but rather jumped up onto its surface. Ruza was so large that it was a more convenient way for him to carry out his examination.

She extended an arm with what might be a small cut or a burn – Bluejay couldn’t see well from where he was standing – and Ruza began to clean it with an antiseptic solution. Despite his size, he was so careful with the tiny creatures. Even after knowing about his gentle nature for so long, the juxtaposition still gave Bluejay pause.

After the mission was over and Ruza’s contract had been fulfilled, he had chosen to enter into the employ of Xipa. Now, he acted as the base’s doctor, tending to the population’s ills and training up their medical personnel to a Coalition standard. There would be a hospital eventually, and he could do more with the proper facilities, but he would play family doctor for the time being. For a mercenary, money didn’t seem to be much of a concern for him, and Bluejay got the impression that staying with the team was his primary motivation. It had been a challenge to get him to agree to a treatment plan for his radiation sickness, as he refused to leave the moon while there were still people in need of his care, but Bluejay had strings enough to pull that he’d arranged for a Jarilan medical team to set up shop on Kerguela. In a few months, when the hospital had been completed, they would be able to start his regimen of gene therapies.

“I’ll leave you to it,” he said, Ruza giving him a nod as he began to wrap his patient’s limb in gauze.

“Remind Fletcher that he must see me for his physical if you encounter him!” Ruza called after him, Bluejay giving him a quick thumbs-up.

He made his way up towards the main chamber, pushing through the crowds of civilians that were milling about, then headed in the direction of one of the exits. As he passed the corridor that led to the main storage area – the same one where his team had slept during their first visit – he was flagged down by a flock of Valbarans. They were pushing a cart that was laden with boxes and supplies, likely a recent shipment from the port.

“Bluejay!” one of them chirped. “Are you heading topside to see the Ensi?”

“I am,” he replied, pausing at the mouth of the corridor. “You want me to make a delivery?”

One of the women hefted a sack off the trolley, Bluejay walking over to meet her halfway, and he stooped to take it off her hands. It was heavy, made from some rough material like burlap or canvass, and there were English words stenciled along one side.

“Wood chips?” he wondered, brushing his antennae against the bag to confirm. “What do they need with a big sack of wood chips?”

“I dunno, but thanks for saving us the trip!” the woman replied as she hurried back to her flock. They pushed their cart deeper into the passageway, the sound of squeaking wheels slowly growing quieter.

Slinging the sack over his shoulder, Bluejay continued on his way, eventually transitioning into another of the old maintenance tunnels. It led to a ramp that brought him up onto the surface again, and he waved to a pair of guards who were stationed at the entrance, then extended his wings. Clutching the bag of wood chips in his four arms, he lifted off the ground, the two Valbarans quickly shrinking to the size of insects as he climbed towards the aurora-filled sky. This damned sack was almost as heavy as Xipa. It must weigh forty pounds.

He soared above the ruined cityscape, taking a moment to soak in the vista. He could see the port in the distance, the runways clogged with landers and shuttles of all makes and models, prefab structures set down by the UNN taking up the empty space at the limits of the compound. As he watched, a gunship rose into the air, streaking off above the city. It was probably headed out on a sortie to bomb some stubborn Bug fortifications somewhere nearby. A large, colorful Valbaran lander was unloading cargo from its ramp, which was being loaded onto waiting trucks by a team of Workers. A small convoy was already heading into the city, half a dozen of the flatbed vehicles snaking their way along the road that led through the overgrown parkland.

Bluejay set off towards the wall in the distance, following one of the major highways. As he flew high above the asphalt, he saw a team of Jarilans at work far below. Maybe a hundred Kerguelan Workers were digging up a couple of klicks of road, working with their shovel-like upper hands to excavate its damaged surface. Jarilan Workers were moving along behind them, inspecting the exposed structural supports and the underlying sewer pipes beneath, making repairs and replacing the top layer with fresh bitumen where appropriate. They had shipped in some Valbaran construction equipment, small tracked vehicles and mixers. At four feet tall, the Workers were actually a very appropriate size to use the equipment comfortably. Another team was moving along each sidewalk, tearing up plants with their bare hands where they could and spraying what was probably some kind of weed killer from tanks that were slung across their backs.

It seemed like an impossible task, but there were hundreds of teams like this one operating all over the city, and their numbers would grow exponentially as more were shipped in from Jarilo. That wasn’t to mention the extra manpower provided by the Kerguelans and whatever resources the other species could contribute to the reconstruction effort. The job was barely underway, but it was already having a tangible impact on the areas of the city that they were prioritizing.

Bluejay drifted over the industrial band, gazing at the derelict factories below, the streets between them so filled with wild growth that they looked like rivers of crimson. The terrain transitioned to another band of overgrown parkland, some of the flooding that they had seen upon first entering the city starting to rear its head, the ponds and streams having long ago overflowed their original bounds.

His eyes caught movement, and he spotted a herd of native creatures drinking from one of the pools, their horned heads lowered to the algae-covered water. He dropped a little lower to get a closer look, startling the animals in the process. They fled in a tightly-knit herd, skipping across the crimson grass, disappearing into the shade of a patch of tall trees. Fletcher had described them as deer, but Bluejay didn’t really have anything to compare them to. Still, their branching horns and their ruddy coats were oddly pleasing to the eye.

His destination soon came into view over the treetops – the old residential band. Much of it was still submerged and overgrown, the dome-shaped, bubble-like structures that had once housed the city’s inhabitants and their families succumbing to the rising water. One neighborhood was different, however. The weather-stained carbcrete had been returned to its original pristine white, cleared of clinging vines and weeds, the wild trees and shrubs cleared away. Newly-laid footpaths snaked between the gently rolling hills, joining the residences in a large network, carefully tended flower beds sprouting along their periphery. A larger road linked this developed area to the city’s highway, extensible stilts raising it above the flooded swampland, the exposed metal standing out starkly against its more natural surroundings. It was a temporary measure and would surely be replaced in time, but it was strong enough for a supply truck to drive across.

While most of the survivors had chosen to return to the base, some of the older flocks who still remembered life before the invasion had elected to return to the surface, and new colonists and volunteers from Valbara were already filtering into the city. They had to expand quickly to keep up with demand, and there were already several similar communities popping up around the residential band. Bluejay would never have imagined that so many people would want to leave Valbara and put down roots in a colony that was still technically a war zone, but they seemed to see reclaiming the moon as a patriotic duty.

As he began to descend, Bluejay spotted figures milling about. He could see a few flocks working on the land that surrounded their dwellings, clearing the encroaching plant life, some tending to garden farms. Others watched over small children, the little reptiles racing back and forth on the grass as they chased each other, splashing in the ponds beneath the open sky. The sight ignited the protective instincts that Bluejay had cultivated during his time guarding children back on Jarilo, but he reminded himself that water was no danger to Valbarans. Their hollow bones were filled with air sacks, and they were too buoyant to be in any danger of drowning. After so long huddling in underground tunnels and skulking in the shadows, the idea that a child could be out in the open was still incredible.

He could see teams of Workers renovating buildings to add more homes to the little settlement, Valbarans unloading supplies and building materials from a buggy, and a few Commandos patrolling along the footpaths. As idyllic as the little enclave was, there were still UNN watchtowers spaced out around its periphery, keeping the burgeoning community safe from any errant Bugs.

Bluejay spotted Fletcher and Xipa’s place – a little cluster of domes sat atop a hill that was surrounded by wild trees and flowering shrubs. Unlike the other structures, these rounded buildings were accompanied by a blocky prefab that was perched on a set of hydraulic legs nearby, the human architecture standing out like a sore thumb. There was a satellite dish on the roof, and it was connected to the local infrastructure by a series of fat, insulated cables that ran through the grass. The little settlement was powered by portable generators, and the running water came from the same kind of pump and purifier system that was common on Jarilo. One day, the city’s systems would be back up and running, but they had to use the same methods as burgeoning colonies for the time being.

Bluejay set down in the garden behind the prefab, his wings blowing the red grass, disturbing a few nearby patches of flowers. To his amusement, Fletcher had discovered that he had a green thumb and had been playing amateur botanist since his retirement. The flower beds and the rows of native root vegetables that were growing in wooden planters were his doing. His crops seemed to be coming in well. Orange shoots broke the dark soil, winding their way up the wooden poles that he had driven into the ground, fresh leaves just starting to sprout. A short distance away from the rest of the flowers was a larger patch of native shrubs, a solitary sapling taking root among them. Resting in its burgeoning branches was a Betelgeusian dagger, the spiraling patterns that adorned its blade unmistakable. Xipa had placed it there in memorial of her fallen flock, and she had expressed the wish that it should slowly be consumed by the tree, becoming a part of Kerguela. Its wood would grow around it, slowly absorbing it, until it was finally laid to rest.

Hefting the sack over his shoulder, he started to search for Fletcher and Xipa, finding them beneath the shade of a grove of trees a few meters from their house. Xipa was sitting on a bench that had been crudely fashioned from wooden planks, while Fletcher was tending to a portable grill, prodding at something beneath the raised lid with a long set of tongs. The weather was balmy, and he was wearing a tank top and shorts, exposing his limbs. Instead of black polymer, they were flesh and blood, his bare feet nestled in the grass.

True to his word, Bluejay had called in some favors and had managed to secure Fletcher passage aboard the Constancy. The Jarilan medical staff on the ship had cloned him new limbs using similar methods as those used to repair injured Drones, though it had been a far more involved process, as it had never been done with mammalian gene samples before. Jarilan surgeons were among the best in the Coalition, however, and the subsequent grafts had held. So far, there had been no rejection, and Fletcher was slowly relearning how to use what he referred to as his organics.

Fletcher looked up from his work as he noticed Bluejay, his waving prompting Xipa to turn her head, and she gave him a flutter of welcoming green.

“BJ!” Fletcher exclaimed, brandishing his tongs. “What are you doing back? I thought you were out on patrol with Miqi’s group?”

“We just got back to the city,” he explained, making his way over to the human’s side. Fletcher’s eyes lit up as he saw the sack that Bluejay was carrying.

“Oh, shit! You brought my shipment!”

“Yeah, one of the women in the base handed it off to me,” he replied as he set the sack down on the ground. “What the hell’s in here, anyway? I dunno why you need to ship in wood chips from off-planet when you live in a forest,” he grumbled, gesturing to the trees that surrounded them with his four arms.

“I asked him the same thing,” Xipa chuckled, curling up in her seat as she watched her partner stoop down to pick up the bag. Bluejay noted that she was still wearing the oversized pendant that Gustave had given her, its wooden charm hanging down below the collar of her tunic.

“You two have no idea,” Fletcher continued, producing a small knife from his belt. He split open the burlap, reaching inside to reveal a handful of pale wood splinters. “This right here is red oak.” He glanced between the two of them as though expecting them to be impressed, Xipa and Bluejay sharing a confused glance. “You can’t just use any old wood for smoking!” he scoffed. “Every species brings different flavors to the party.”

“You shipped a bag of wood chips sixty light-years across the Galaxy so you could flavor meat?” Bluejay asked incredulously.

“Not just one,” he replied, returning to his grill. Bluejay could smell the alluring, smoky aroma now, and it made him wish that he had jaws. “Listen, with the pension the UNN is giving me, I could build a fucking jump carrier out of hickory and have the goddamned Admiral fly it here himself. I don’t have to live like some kind of…knuckle-dragging neanderthal and grill with sub-optimal wood chips.”

“He has been subjecting me to Earth’nay cuisine,” Xipa added, giving Bluejay a smirk. “They eat far too much meat, but there’s something to be said for their cooking.”

“No reason not to,” Fletcher said, turning over a chunk of unidentifiable flesh on his grill. “There’s free-range game all over the fucking place. I need to get my hands on something a little more suitable for hunting than an XMR, though. Even at the lowest voltage setting, it’s a bit extra. I’m trying to bring down animals, not turn them to paste.”

“I can’t return the favor, unfortunately,” Xipa continued as she settled back into the bench. “I’m far too busy coordinating the repairs and the resettlement program. The prefab has a holo-table, so I can take care of most of it from home. Still, I’m glad to have a househusband to take care of me. It’s a nice change from having faceless staff members bring me meals in my office back in Anabar.”

Househusband,” Fletcher scoffed. “Listen, lady, I gotta fill my time with something. It just so happens that I want to grow space potatoes and cook space venison.”

“And tend the garden, and carve me precious little wooden trinkets,” Xipa chuckled. She was teasing him, but there was warmth and appreciation in her tone.

“Ruza says it helps develop my fine motor skills,” he replied with a dismissive shrug.

“How are the grafts treating you?” Bluejay asked, gesturing to his arms. He could see the surgical scar beneath the tank top where the limb joined to the shoulder. They looked a little out of place, even though they were functionally perfect, the skin pale and devoid of the scars that peppered the rest of Fletcher’s body.

“Real good,” he replied, clenching a fist experimentally. “I could barely use them for the first couple of weeks, but I don’t need help walking anymore, and my coordination is getting a lot better. It’s been an adjustment, and I kind of have to change the way I think. I’m weaker and less durable than I used to be – burned my hand on the stove the other day because it didn’t even occur to me that I could be hurt – but being able to feel grass between my toes again is worth the trade-off. I don’t need to be a killer cyborg anymore, there are more important things.”

“Like flower arranging,” Xipa interjected, laughing at his scowl. “He thinks his new hobbies are unbecoming of a man, but our cultures have very different standards of masculinity,” she explained. “I, for one, find it outrageously attractive.”

“How about you?” Fletcher asked, quickly changing the subject as his face began to warm. “Has your graft taken okay?”

“Oh, mine?” Bluejay asked as he raised one of his lower arms. “This is routine for Jarilans – you’re the interesting case study.”

“Well, I can’t thank you enough,” he added as he ran a hand up his hairy forearm. “It’s more than just the limbs,” he continued, pausing for a moment to consider. “I guess I felt like, as long as I had those prosthetics, they would define what I could be. You gave me a way back. It’s kind of ironic that it would take a bunch of fucking aliens to make me human again,” he chuckled.

“Would you like to stay for dinner?” Xipa asked. “We have some honey in the pantry.”

“Imagine this,” Fletcher said, raising his hands into the air as though said imagination required a visual aid. “A protein shake with liquid smoke – the Jarilan version of a barbecue.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I gotta fly,” Bluejay replied as he extended his wing casings. “I have a date with Miqi.”

“Oh?” Xipa purred, suddenly far more interested.

“I don’t mean a literal date,” he explained, noting the little flutter of pink in her feathers. “We’ve been out in the bush for a couple of days, and she wanted to unwind at the lounge.”

“Sounds like a date to me,” Fletcher mused, flipping a cut of meat. “Will her flock be there?”

“I didn’t ask,” Bluejay replied, trying and failing to appear nonchalant.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Xipa added, sharing a conspiratorial glance with Fletcher.

“Oh, Ruza asked me to remind you about your appointment,” Bluejay added, changing the subject.

“I remember,” Fletcher replied, waving him away with his tongs. “Off you go, now. It’s rude to keep a lady waiting.”

***

Bluejay stepped into the lounge, the old water tank stretching out before him, maybe eight meters wide and ten times that length. The curving walls were covered over with hanging curtains and drapes of mismatched styles, sourced from all over the old city, hiding the bare metal to make the establishment feel a little more welcoming. The floor was raised wood, providing a flat surface for the patrons to walk on, the planks covered over with soft carpets in the same haphazard style as the drapes. The shades over the bulbs that ran along the ceiling gave the light a warm quality, softer than the harsh halogen strips that were found in other areas of the base.

Bluejay walked past the booths, each one separated by dividers to provide some privacy to its occupants, the wood cut to fit the walls of the tank snugly. Each one had a low table that was surrounded by piles of lavish cushions, sparkling drinks and hookahs with trailing hoses sitting atop their varnished surfaces. Several of the booths were occupied, flocks of Valbarans relaxing in the nests of pillows as they smoked and drank from their thin flutes, exhaling clouds of fragrant smoke that hung over the room in a haze. Bluejay could smell each flavor as he passed, hints of spices and fruits prickling his antennae.

Unlike the first time he had ventured into this establishment, he no longer felt horribly out of place, and the Valbarans barely lifted their eyes as he passed them. There was something truly wonderful about being ignored. There were a few aliens, too, mostly humans sitting awkwardly in the undersized booths as they chatted with their hosts.

Only Chatli acknowledged him, giving him a feather greeting, the grizzled old Valbaran standing behind the bar at the far end of the tank. True to Xipa’s word, Chatli had been able to return to her lounge, and the Coalition hadn’t bombed it to dust.

As he walked past one of the booths, a feather sheath reached out to grab one of his lower arms, coiling around his wrist like a snake. He lurched, turning his head to see Miqi chuckling at his reaction. As Xipa and Fletcher had posited, she was indeed sitting alone in her booth, her flock nowhere to be seen. She had already started on her hookah, and there were two drinks sitting on the table, bubbling gently with carbonation.

“Sit,” she insisted as she dragged him into the booth, never one to take no for an answer.

Bluejay obliged, sliding in between the divider and the table opposite her, settling into the plush cushions. Unlike the lanky humans, he was about the right stature to sit comfortably, resting all four of his hands on the table. He reached out to take the nearest glass, dipping his proboscis into the bubbling liquid, tasting something fruity and slightly alcoholic.

“Your flock couldn’t make it?” he asked, eyeing the other empty seats.

“They’re busy,” she replied cryptically, taking a sip from her drink as she watched him from across the table.

“Sometimes, I get the impression that they don’t really like me,” he added.

“No, they like you,” she replied with a confident flutter of red. “Maybe…not in the same way that I do. They respect your prowess as a warrior, and they’re grateful for your help in reuniting us, back when we were separated. I’ll just say that we haven’t reached consensus. How were Xipa and Fletcher?” she continued, changing the subject.

“Good,” he replied, taking another draw from his glass. Maybe a little Irish courage would loosen his lips, as Fletcher would say. Not that he had lips. So many human idioms lost their meaning when applied to Jarilans. “I’m glad that Xipa is finally able to relax a little. She’s a lot more mellow with Fletcher around to take care of her. She used to be so high strung.”

“You’ve known her a lot longer than I have,” Miqi said. “What was she like before she arrived in the city?”

“Everyone was a little more…abrasive when we set out,” he chuckled. “It took us all a while to learn how to get along and work as a team.”

“Even you?” she asked, cocking her head. “You are so agreeable.”

“I’m no exception,” he replied over his drink. “It took me a long time to earn everyone’s trust, and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye with Fletcher.”

“But, you seem so tightly-knit now,” Miqi continued as she cocked her head. “You are as close as any flock I have ever known. It’s hard to imagine you disagreeing.”

“It wasn’t always that way,” he replied. “Xipa used to mistrust me before she came to understand that Jarilans are different from Bugs. Fletcher and I came to blows once.”

“You came to blows?” she asked, a flicker of surprised yellow passing through her headdress. “When he still had his mechanical arms? How did you survive?”

“Oh, that probably makes it sound a lot more impressive than it really was,” Bluejay added hastily. “I actually just…sucker punched him into a table. I’m not exactly proud of losing my temper and striking a superior officer, it’s just the kind of relationship we had back then. Turns out he used to provoke me because he wanted me to stand up for myself.”

“You aliens have strange interactions,” Miqi chuckled, swirling her drink around in its glass.

“So, is there anything in particular you wanted to talk about?” he asked. “Not to rush you, I’m just not used to being invited to lounges by my coworkers. Small talk isn’t something I was trained for.”

“Coworkers?” she repeated.

“Colleagues, allies,” he explained. “It means we work together.”

“No, I didn’t invite you here because I wanted to talk about work,” she replied as she circled the rim of her fluted glass with a claw. “We’ve been out working in the forest for days. I want to learn more about you.”

“About me?” he asked, gesturing to himself with one of his hands. “I’m afraid there’s not much to tell.”

Not much to tell,” she chuckled, mimicking his voice to a tee. The way that her giggling was joined by a flash of pink plumage made him feel strange, like the alcohol was swimming around in his stomach. “Let’s start with your home.”

“Jarilo?” he asked, Miqi giving him an affirmative flutter that was akin to a nod. “Well, I was hatched in the Jarilo hive, not long after the Queen surrendered to the UNN. I’m a first-generation Jarilan, created using human DNA, so I share a lot of their traits. I’m a male Drone,” he added, flexing his wing covers. “Our job would usually be to…inseminate the Queen, but we don’t do things that way anymore. I was trained by the UNN to be a scout sniper, and I worked in the nearby human colony until the invasion, which was my first deployment. I guess Admiral Vos saw promise in me, because he requested that I be assigned to Xipa’s escort team. Probably because I was always pretty close to my dad. He was a scout sniper in the Marines – taught me everything I know about shooting and tracking.”

“What job did you do?” she pressed.

“I…uh,” he trailed off, trying to think of something that sounded more impressive than babysitting. “I mostly just minded the colony’s children and kept the livestock safe from predators,” he admitted. “There are native species that’ll hop the fences and drag off little kids and chickens.”

“You hesitate as though it embarrasses you,” she giggled. “I’ve seen you leap from a dropship to save a child.”

“Anyone with wings would have done that,” he replied with a wave of his hand, but his attempt to downplay his heroics clearly wasn’t having the intended effect.

“In Valbara’nay culture, males who are good with children are highly valued,” she explained. She paused to take another drink, Bluejay feeling his belly swim again as she locked eyes with him. Her irises were a striking violet, like the wings of the butterflies that Walker used to show him on his tablet. “In Kerguela’nay culture, men who can handle themselves are doubly valued. The division of labor is a lot broader here than it is on the homeworld. We can’t have our boys sitting idle and preening their feathers when there’s work to be done.”

“I can imagine,” he said. “Do you think influence from the homeworld will change your culture over time?”

“Settlers will bring their culture and values with them – that’s unavoidable,” she replied. “That said, we will continue to teach our children how to survive, no matter how comfortable our society becomes. The Elders taught us about the civilization that existed here before the collapse,” she continued, taking a longer draw from her cup. “Their values always seemed too optimistic to me. We Kerguela’nay know that all of this,” she said, gesturing to their surroundings. “Society, civilization – it can all be taken away as quickly as the pull of a trigger. The Coalition and the Consensus can’t keep us safe. Only we can do that.”

“That sentiment isn’t as rare as you might imagine,” Bluejay continued as he leaned back into the cushions with his drink in hand. “Most UNN colonies have extensive PDF forces – planetary defense – and they get more capable and better equipped on more remote worlds where the Coalition might not be able to deploy as quickly. You don’t have to rely on the Coalition completely.”

“You got me talking about work again,” she chuckled. “Tell me about this dad. He is your father?”

“Not in the usual sense,” Bluejay began, considering how best to explain the situation to someone from a species that reproduced in pairs. “My father donated his genetic material to my mother – the Queen. From that material, she engineered the Jarilans. My dad’s name is Walker, he was taken prisoner by the hive, and he helped to negotiate their surrender. Now, he’s a naturalist who wanders around in the Jarilan forests cataloging native species, and he shows up in the colony to resupply and to name the latest batch of Jarilans on occasion. He didn’t raise me in the conventional sense – not when there are thousands of children all competing for his time – but he recognized my aptitude for shooting and helped train me. That’s probably why I’m here.”

“But you still respect him a great deal?” Miqi asked.

“Yeah, he’s practically a mythical figure now,” Bluejay chuckled. “He fathered a new species.”

“What do you do for fun when you’re not working?” Miqi continued.

“I haven’t ever really had that much free time,” he replied.

“You know what your problem is?” she added, reaching out to pick up one of the hoses from the hookah. She took a long drag, the liquid inside the vessel bubbling, then exhaled a cloud of smoke that smelled strongly of berries. “You need to learn to relax. You are high strung.”

“Okay, I see what you did there,” he replied. “Is that why I’m here – to learn to relax?”

“Even my people know that there must be balance between work and relaxation,” she continued, taking another puff from her hose. She pursed her scaly lips and did something strange with her tongue, Bluejay watching a neat little ring of smoke sail across the table towards him. It broke against his face, coating his antennae in that fruity scent again. “One cannot run forever. They must eventually rest, even if it might appear to stall their progress. Why do you think we built this lounge?”

“I have a hard time imagining you taking it easy,” Bluejay said, raising a brow plate skeptically. “I’ve seen you beat Bugs to death with a hammer on multiple occasions.”

“Then, I shall say that I take my relaxation time just as seriously.”

“Work hard, play hard,” Bluejay mused.

“I like that phrase,” she chuckled, another wave of pink passing through her feathers. “Do you like your drink? How is it?”

“Good,” he replied with a nod.

“Here,” she added, presenting her hose to him. “Have a smoke. There is no better way to unwind after a difficult assignment.”

“I’m afraid that I’ll have to abstain,” he replied, waving her off. “Spiracles,” he explained apologetically. “I don’t actually have lungs, so I can’t partake, but I appreciate the offer.”

She sat back in her seat, pondering the hose for a few moments, but her disappointment was short-lived. Bluejay watched as she inhaled a deep lungful, setting the hookah bubbling, holding her breath. She rose to her feet, leaning across the table until she was close enough that his antennae could brush her face, then exhaled. The smoke poured from her lips, filling his side of the booth in a swirling haze. He could taste the fumes as they washed over him, the fruity aroma joined by a more intimate scent, something distinctly of Miqi. All he could do was peer back at her as she lifted the hose again, taking a long, slow drag as though savoring its taste. Once again, he felt his belly flutter, her unflinching gaze locked onto him. She sent another puff of smoke his way, seeming to delight in the way that it made him blink his eyes.

“Breathe it in,” she whispered, waiting expectantly.

He did as she asked, his torso expanding subtly as he took in a breath, letting Miqi’s fragrant offering seep into his hemolymph. He had no idea if his biology was even compatible with whatever psychoactive compounds were present in the smoke, but the sheer intimacy of the situation set his heart throbbing. If he was part human, and it worked on humans, then maybe…

“What’s it supposed to feel like?” he asked, still captivated by those striking pupils.

“Mellow, one of the Earth’nay called it,” she replied. “You’re always so tense, Bluejay. You’re so focused on work that it can be hard to find an excuse to get you alone.”

“We’ve been alone plenty,” he chuckled. “We just spent two days alone in the wilderness together.”

“Not alone,” she replied, sending another warm cloud of smoke his way. “My flock were there, too.”

“I thought that didn’t matter to Valbarans?”

“It does if you don’t have consensus,” she explained.

Miqi wasn’t exactly being coy, and Bluejay was starting to build a picture of what was happening here. She liked him a lot more than her flock did, and maybe she liked him in ways that her flock didn’t find acceptable. It was rare for one member of a flock to dissent in such a way, but Miqi had spent more time with him than they had, and they had a different relationship. He knew from experience that it wasn’t enough to just be told about Jarilans by a third party – people warmed to him much faster when they actually interacted with him, when they discovered who he was for themselves. It was his actions that had won Miqi over, and those personal experiences were hard to relay to her flock.

“Don’t neglect your drink,” she added, gesturing to the glass in his hand with her scaly snout.

With a start, he realized that she was hitting on him. This whole date was about getting him away from her flockmates, loosening him up, getting him buzzed to lower his inhibitions. But to what end? He’d never…was he even compatible with a Valbaran?

Fletcher and Xipa couldn’t hide their affection for one another from someone with such keen antennae, and although he would never say as much in polite company, they might as well be smearing pheromones on each other like finger paints. If a human and a Valbaran were compatible, and Drones were made to interact with humans, then maybe…

He was suddenly reminded of his first time interacting with a human other than his father – how uncertain he had been, how thirsty for validation. There was the creature that he had been hatched to serve, to impress, and the idea had made him painfully conscious of his own shortcomings. His attitude towards humans had evolved since, especially during his time on Kerguela, but he felt a little of that old insecurity rear its head again. What was he supposed to do? What if he said or did something wrong? What if Miqi found him wanting in some way? The urge to treat courtship the same way that he treated the other aspects of his life was strong – to excel in his assignments, to make himself useful to others. Yet, he knew that romance was not a zero-sum game. There were no winners or losers.

Maybe he was overthinking it. Maybe Miqi knew him better than he had realized…

As if to illustrate that point, she blew another smoke ring into his face, jolting him back to the present.

“You’re still tense. Let the vices do their work.”

He nodded, sliding his proboscis back into his drink obediently, feeling the cool liquid slide down into his stomach. He’d hoped that it might drown the butterflies, but he could still feel them churning, creating a tickling sensation that wasn’t altogether unpleasant. It got stronger when he looked at Miqi – when she met his gaze. His thorax rose and fell gently as he took in the fragrant smoke that had filled their booth, watching as Miqi brought the end of the hose to her lips again, drawing on it in a way that came across more than a little suggestive.

Attraction was a strange, novel concept to him. Betelgeusians did not need to feel attraction. They needed no motivation to breed other than the order to do so. When a male Drone inseminated his Queen, it was not done out of love or desire, but a purely biological drive. Jarilans were part human, however. They were made from humans, engineered to live and work with humans, and humans were social mammals who experienced things like friendship and love. Walker had taught him how to hit a target with an XMR and how to spot disturbed undergrowth that might betray the enemy, but he had never taught him how to deal with these situations. Maybe he couldn’t. There was no precedent for this, no instruction manual, so he would have to forge his own path.

Romance between humans and Jarilans wasn’t new by any means. It was present at all levels of society on Jarilo, between all castes, from Ambassadors to Workers. Bluejay was equipped for the task, he knew that much, but he had never really considered what might happen if he met someone who wanted him in that way. His life had been short, packed with training and, later, work. He’d never had much time to consider the possibilities.

He took another long sip from his cup, savoring the tangy taste, trying not to look too much like he was examining Miqi from across the table. There was attraction between humans and Jarilans, and between humans and Valbarans, so why not Valbarans and Jarilans? He respected Miqi, he considered her a firm friend, but was there more there? The tightness in his chest, the butterflies that swarmed in his belly when he looked at her under these soft, warm lounge lights – was that what Fletcher felt when he looked at Xipa? If only he’d had a little warning – if only he hadn’t been so hopelessly clueless – he might have taken the time to ask Fletcher for his advice.

“You’ve never done this before, have you?” Miqi chuckled as she blew another wavy smoke ring towards the ceiling. It wasn’t an accusation, rather, she seemed to revel in the idea. She leaned back into her cushions, crossing her long legs, one of her clawed feet bouncing idly in the air.

“No,” he admitted, nursing his drink. “I didn’t exactly train for this.”

“You can’t really train for it,” she replied, shifting positions suddenly. She leaned her elbows on the table, resting her lower jaw in her hands, peering at him as her feathers rippled with amorous pink. She was wearing a loose-fitting tunic, the beginnings of her cleavage visible beneath the low-cut collar, shrouded in just enough shadow to be tantalizing. “Sometimes, you just have to experience something for yourself – rely on intuition rather than try to plan everything out.”

“I never thought I’d hear a Valbaran say that,” he chuckled, the humor diffusing some of the tension that had been building up inside him. “Aren’t you guys all about planning every moment of every day? In fact, I’m pretty sure you’ve been planning this for days.”

“That’s why you should listen to me when I tell you to follow your instincts,” she added with a grin.

“Listen, I don’t even know what kind of instincts I have,” he protested as he set his glass back down on the table. “I’m a hybrid – I probably have some jumbled blend of instincts from both sides of the proverbial family, like a big tangle of Christmas lights.”

She cocked her head at him, not understanding the expression, but something about her curiosity just made him laugh. Perhaps the herb was finally starting to get to him.

“Then, you will have to make your own way,” she said with the feather equivalent of a shrug. “Let me ask you this – do you trust your Queen? Aren’t they supposed to be living computers?”

“She tends not to make mistakes,” he conceded. Her point was obvious enough. The Queen probably wouldn’t leave these things to chance. There was purpose in every allele, every chromosome, every strand of his DNA. He had been manufactured with careful and deliberate purpose.

“Do you like me?” Miqi cooed, cutting straight to the point. She leaned back again, reclining on the pillows, giving him a better view as though presenting herself to him. There was no ambiguity about her intentions now, and he felt emboldened to really take her in, letting his eyes wander across her figure without reservation for the first time. Her tunic was loose, but the way that it hung off her narrow shoulders revealed the subtle outline of her chest, his eyes drawn to the perfect hourglass created by her pinched waist and the flare of her hips.

Valbarans were bottom-heavy creatures, and Miqi’s hips were broader than her shoulders, her thighs so thick and packed with muscle that they rivaled the girth of her torso. She was wearing a pair of what would best be described as bike shorts – some kind of elastic fabric akin to spandex that clung to her, leaving nothing to the imagination. He could see the dimples that her muscles carved into her skin, the black material transitioning into the emerald green of her hide just above her knees, her lustrous scales shining beneath the lounge’s soft lights as though glistening with moisture.

Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe the herb was having some sedating effect, but he found that his brain had stopped spinning in circles. Instead, his attention was solely focused on Miqi, his racing thoughts quietened.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, not sure what else to say. He couldn’t really articulate it, but something about those curves stirred him.

Miqi smiled, a flush of pink filling her headdress. She sprang back to a sitting position, using her long, prehensile tail to grip the hem of one of the nearby curtains, pulling it closed to seal off their little booth from the rest of the lounge. It blocked some of the light as a side effect, what still made it through taking on a crimson hue as it was filtered through the red fabric. They were shielded from prying eyes now.

She climbed onto the low table, crawling across it on her hands and knees, pushing the hookah aside. The collar of her loose tunic was at eye level now, giving him scant glimpses of her swaying bosom. Miqi came to a stop beside his glass, kneeling there as she leaned down towards him, taking his face in her hands. He could feel her testing the texture of his carapace, perhaps not expecting it to be quite so yielding – more like soft plastic than the armored shells of the Drones that she was used to handling. Her fine scales were surprisingly soft, so smooth as to be almost imperceptible, her touch sending a pleasant shiver rolling through him.

“Can you feel me?” she asked, perhaps unsure of whether his carapace even had nerve endings.

“Yes,” he replied, prompting her to draw closer.

Her scaly snout brushed against the base of his horn, where a human’s nose would have been, Miqi nuzzling affectionately. Humans kissed with their mouths, but Valbarans had snouts, which made them hard to interlock in the same way. Was this how they did it? Bluejay wasn’t sure how to reciprocate, so he leaned into her awkward embrace, letting his antennae brush against her face. He could get so much information from human and Jarilan pheromones, but Miqi was harder to read. She was truly alien to him, and her body used different chemical signals to communicate, ones that he had no way of assigning to any particular emotion. Instead, he relied on his eyes, the vibrant pinks of her feathers giving him clues as to what she was feeling.

After a few moments, she slid into his side of the booth. He drew all four of his hands inward, afraid to touch her, but she didn’t give him much of a choice as she lowered herself into his lap. Her weight pressed down on his codpiece as she straddled him, planting a knee to either side of his hips, her tail trailing between his legs beneath the table. She weighed fifty, maybe sixty pounds tops, just enough to sink him into the nest of cushions. She leaned him back, resting her hands against the dividing wall behind him, rubbing her scaly snout against his face insistently. She was making out with him, like the human couples he had seen in the bars back on Jarilo.

“You’re more like our boys than you realize,” she chuckled wryly. “You don’t have to be afraid. You can touch me. I want you to…”

She leaned back, reaching for one of his upper hands, guiding it closer to her. She lifted the hem of her tunic just enough to expose her midriff, sliding his palm against her scales. Bluejay’s eyes widened as he felt her satin-smooth hide against his fleshy fingers, her underside covered with a mosaic of fine, beige scales. He could feel the two rows of toned muscle beneath her skin, sculpted by a lifetime of hard living, tensing at his touch to become as firm as stone. She let his fingertips wander between the channels that they carved into her otherwise flat stomach, watching him with those violet eyes, wetting her lips with her tongue as her feathers flashed amorous pinks and covetous reds.

Emboldened, Bluejay brought the rest of his arms to bear. He slid his lower hands up her thighs, finding them just as smooth and as muscular as her belly, tracing their contours with his questing fingertips. He reached the elastic hems of her tight-fitting shorts, feeling the way that they cut into her soft flesh, sliding his fingers beneath them. There was an irresistible layer of fat that clung to her thighs, making them even fuller and softer than they had first appeared, their texture begging him to probe deeper. Hard muscle rose to meet his digits, creating a delightful contrast.

His fourth hand snuck around behind her, groping one of her pert cheeks through her clothes, gliding on the smooth fabric. Her ass was packed with brawn, the rubbery tissue resisting him, more butter-soft flesh spilling between his fingers when he tried to grab a handful. Miqi was nothing like the soft, delicate creatures that he had overheard humans describe when they talked about their females, nor did she have the exaggerated physique of a Borealan. She was velvet-soft in some places and as hard as his carapace in others, Bluejay’s heartbeat accelerating as he explored her.

“That’s more like it,” she whispered, biting her lip. “Take what you want, don’t waste any time. That’s how we do things on Kerguela.”

Bluejay wanted to compliment her, but he wasn’t quite sure how. He had no idea what her people’s standards of beauty were or what might come off as inappropriate. All he knew was that his erection was straining against his codpiece like it was trying to break through his armor in a bid to reach her.

“Y-you’re amazing,” he stammered, watching a flutter of yellow join her vibrant pink as she laughed at him.

“I’ve seen you take on a whole army of mealworms without so much as flinching – you don’t have to be afraid of me,” she said as she lifted his hand higher. He froze up as something as soft as wet clay filled his palm, a firm nub of flesh pressing into his skin. She arched her spine as he squeezed gently, feeling that wonderfully yielding meat melt between his fingers, like liquid flesh was engulfing his digits. Beneath it was springy, firm tissue, Miqi growling appreciatively as he probed it. All he could see was the outline of their hands moving beneath her tunic.

He felt her claws find his torso now, exploring what to her must be strange anatomy in turn, roaming down his shoulder plates and across his chest piece.

“The last time I de-shelled a mealworm, I was preparing it for dinner,” she chuckled as she gave him another toothy grin. “Why don’t you show me which parts are supposed to come off?”

Bluejay reluctantly drew his hands back, bringing them to his chest plate, releasing it from its attachment points so that it popped off to expose his torso. He set the piece of armor on the cushions beside him, feeling Miqi’s eyes wander down to examine him, filled with a different kind of hunger.

“Well,” she mused, wetting her scaly lips again. “This is unexpected.”

Like an open dress shirt, the vulnerable flesh of Bluejay’s chest and belly was exposed, framed by the interlocking organic plates that served to protect him and to help anchor his muscles. He had defined pectorals, and beneath those, a row of abdominal muscles not too different from Miqi’s. Like her scales, the waxy sheen of his skin almost made it look wet or oily, his complexion giving it a greenish hue. It transitioned to a V-shaped piece of chitin just below where his navel would have been if he’d had one, and then to his codpiece.

“The Kerguelan Drones weren’t like this?” he asked. “Even when you pried them open?”

“Not like this,” she said, the bright pink of her feathers betraying her arousal. She brought her clawed fingers to his chest, testing the texture of his skin, pressing down as she examined the firmness of his muscles. He had a lithe build, with little body fat to speak of, and she seemed to appreciate that. Slowly, she dragged her claws down across his belly, enjoying the way that her touch made him flex. “My god,” she muttered – a phrase that she must have picked up from one of the Marines. “Your skin…it’s so smooth. I feel like I’m stroking the belly of some preening dancing boy who spends all of his tips on scale wax.”

“I’m assuming that’s a compliment,” he chuckled nervously.

Unable to help herself, she brought her snout to his chest, extending her pink tongue to drag it up towards the ruff of fur on his neck. Her flesh was warm, slick with her saliva, the sensation surprising enough to elicit a yelp from him.

“So sensitive under all that armor,” she purred. “Here. Let me do you the same courtesy.”

Bluejay watched as she hooked her fingers beneath her tunic, raising it slowly, exposing her scaly belly inch by inch. As it reached her chest, he beheld her breasts for the first time, his heart throbbing at the sight. They were perfect teardrops, firm and shapely, just the right size to fill his cupped hands. Between her beige scales, he could see a pair of pink nipples standing erect. Something about the shape of them – the way that they jiggled softly as she moved – ignited a fire in him the likes of which he had never felt before. It was like a switch had been flipped in his brain.

His upper hands were on them before he even knew what he was doing, kneading her velvet flesh, the way that she writhed in response only encouraging him. His hunger for her couldn’t be sated – he couldn’t get enough – his eyes locked onto her breasts as the flawless globes deformed in his grasp like he was molding putty. Whenever he relented, they sprang back to their original shape, her thighs tightening around him like a vice whenever he brushed her swollen nipples. His lower hands found her midriff, stroking her scales, the way that they caught the dim light accentuating her bulging six-pack.

“How your hands wander, and you have so many of them,” she giggled as she tossed her tunic aside to join his armor. “It’s almost like having two boys at once…”

“Shouldn’t we go somewhere more private?” he hissed, glancing at the curtain warily.

“Nobody cares,” she chuckled, turning his head so that she could nuzzle him again. “We’re not exactly used to having a lot of space and privacy down here. Now, let’s see what else you’re hiding under all that armor.” He felt one of her hands roam down towards his codpiece, wandering across its contours, mapping its shape. “Don’t keep your boys caged.”

Boys? What exactly was she expecting to find? He felt a pang of insecurity again but reminded himself that this situation – this pairing – was so hopelessly strange that it hardly mattered how big he was or what he looked like down there.

One of his hands joined hers, and she peered down, watching eagerly as he unfastened his protective codpiece. He slid it off, along with the two plates that protected his inner thighs, leaving him about as nude as it was possible for him to get. Bright shades of surprised yellow joined the pink of her feathers, Miqi’s eyes widening as she saw his member for the first time.

His organ was about six inches long, starting thick at the base where it protruded from his sheath, then tapering into a dull point at its tip. He had seen human penises before – there wasn’t a lot of privacy in the Navy – and their anatomy seemed to have very little in common with his own. It was colored the same dull green as the rest of his flesh, with subtle veins that were visible through his almost translucent skin. It was prehensile, shaped more like a tongue than anything resembling a human organ, his erectile tissue making it harden as Miqi brushed it with her fingertips experimentally. He pressed it against her palm, another pulse of pink and yellow rocking her. For the first time, she seemed speechless, and he began to worry.

“Is it…”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she mumbled, her eyes fixed on his loins. “Its shape is similar to ours, but we have two, and this is…larger. Oh my god, can you move it?”

To answer her question, he coiled it around one of her fingers, her eyes seeming to glaze over.

“Oh…wow,” she mumbled, following up with some kind of curse or exclamation in her native language that he wasn’t familiar with. Whatever she thought of his equipment, the reaction seemed positive. She slid her hand down his shaft, trying to grip it, but it seemed to be more flexible than she had been anticipating. The stimulation made him throb, and he firmed up again, another flush of yellow betraying Miqi’s surprise. For once, she was the one on the back foot. She seemed fascinated, unable to tear her eyes away from it. “I can tell that you were engineered by a woman…”

“I was made to be compatible with humans,” he replied, wincing as she gave him a tentative squeeze. “I don’t know if we-”

“Oh, this will do just fine,” she cooed. “You’re going to be fun, Blue…”

She brought her other hand to bear, starting to stroke, running her smooth scales up and down his length as she sat in his lap. Her touch was gentle, tentative – she was still figuring him out. Her confidence grew as she gauged his reactions, those violet eyes watching him carefully, her grip tightening. Once again, his flexibility seemed to be giving her trouble, as though she expected him to remain rigid. Instead, his erection moved with her, the muscular organ pushing against her in search of more stimulation. It was like she was trying to contain some slippery sea creature in her hands, but he couldn’t have kept still for her if he had tried.

His heart was racing, making him throb in her grasp, her gentle touch sending shivers of pleasure coursing through him. Was he supposed to be this sensitive? He was so aware of her fingers as they danced up and down his length, like she was mapping him out, testing his rubbery flesh with each squeeze.

As entranced as he was by her slow handjob, he kept finding his gaze wandering to her torso, his eyes taking in the chiseled contours of her abs and the subtle swaying of her pert breasts as she moved. She noticed, grinning at him as she took his hand, encouraging him to touch her. He slid his palm up her toned stomach, feeling her muscles tighten beneath it, lifting it to cup one of her breasts. She started to squirm in his lap as he kneaded, trapping her engorged nipple between his fingers, squeezing it gently. It was wonderful to see her body in motion – the way that her slow writhing made her scales catch the light, her developed muscles shifting just beneath her hide. Somehow, it made her touch all the more intense, and he found himself rising off the cushions in a bid to thrust into her hands.

“Can you not keep from wriggling?” she chuckled, and he shook his head apologetically. “Let me try something.”

He watched as she began to unwind the prehensile feather sheaths on her forearms, the two appendages snaking out towards him like tentacles, wrapping his member in their scaly coils. They were long enough to engulf him completely, the odd sensation giving him pause, and he turned his eyes to what looked like a pile of scaly garden hose that was now sitting in his lap. She squeezed, the tightness taking his breath away, and she chuckled as he sank back into the pillows.

“Now I have you…”

She began to alternate their tightness, her smooth coils shifting and slithering, giving her more control than when she had been using her hands. Her scales were as smooth as glass, such that there was almost no friction, even though they were dry. Just like his own carapace, they were softer than one might have anticipated, hard to distinguish from silky skin. As good as it felt, Miqi seemed to grow bored, soon relenting. She uncoiled her sheaths, revealing his member again, a bead of excitement welling at its tapered tip.

“This is kind of awkward,” she admitted, cocking her head pensively. “I think I have a better idea.”

She paused for a moment, turning to fumble for one of the hoses, the hookah bubbling as she took a long drag. There was something about watching her smoke while only wearing her shorts that made him smirk, and she rewarded him with another cloud of fragrant fumes, exhaling into his face.

Bluejay shifted positions to get a little more comfortable as she slid off him, kneeling on the soft cushions beside him, one of her hands coming to rest on his thigh. Before he could ask her what she was doing, she brought her snout down towards his lap, his member flexing as he felt her warm breath on his skin. Guiding his organ in her hand, she pursed her lips, planting a kiss on his shaft. They were even softer than her sheaths, their warmth surprising him. He tried to glance down to get a look at what she was doing, but was rewarded with a face full of pink feathers, her erect plumage tickling him. Leaning over a little to get a better view, he watched the first couple of inches of his erection vanish into her mouth, a shiver rolling over him as he felt her tongue circle his tip.

It was so warm, as smooth and as soft as anything that he had ever felt, coated in a sheen of her slippery saliva that painted his skin as she began to lick. Like a bawdy kiss, his organ moved with hers, the two intertwining and coiling around each other. Careful with her sharp little teeth, she pursed her lips around him, swallowing a few more inches of his length. Bluejay found himself sagging back into the cushions, the unfamiliar sensations assailing him, his antennae starting to curl involuntarily.

She began to bob her head slowly, sliding her lips up and down his shaft, teasing him with her tongue all the while. He was completely enclosed by hot, damp flesh, what felt like wet velvet greeting him wherever he moved. The roof of her mouth was ribbed, and it felt amazing against his member, Bluejay pushing against her palate as she sucked and lapped. She lurched, then pulled away, wiping a stray strand of saliva from her lips with the back of her hand.

“Stop that!” she giggled. “It tickles.”

“S-sorry,” he stammered. “It just feels really good.”

“That’s the idea,” she added, the way that she glanced up at him making his heart miss a beat.

She returned his cock to her mouth, Bluejay doing his utmost to resist the urge to stroke her palate, contenting himself with the doting licking of her tongue. Like a pair of mating mollusks, their organs coiled and swirled around one another, the wonderfully warm and slippery sensation making his head spin. He was glad to be sitting down, or his legs might have given out.

He reached a hand down to stroke the mass of pink feathers on her head, running the vanes between his fingers as she played the tip of her tongue across his sensitive flesh, her lips wrapped around his base. Waves of pleasure rocked him, and it was all that he could do to keep himself focused. The feathers were layered, more colors revealing themselves as he pushed them aside. So that was how they worked – a complex web of muscles in her sheaths moving the desired hue to the top of the pile.

He shuddered as she delivered another teasing lick, the agility of her tongue keeping him guessing. The absurdity of the situation suddenly dawned on him. This woman had been ready to kill him on sight a few months ago, and now she was giving him a blowjob in a smoke-filled lounge booth. This was not where he had expected to end up when he had left Jarilo. He thanked his stars for the sedating effect of the herb, or he would probably be trembling like a leaf right now, too nervous and flustered to process what was happening to him.

Instead, he lay back, watching Miqi as he enjoyed the sensations that she was subjecting him to. That tension inside him was building, ribbons of pleasant warmth spreading out from his loins, his extremities starting to tingle. Not only had he never been with a female of any species, but he’d never had an orgasm before – he’d simply never had the time or the inclination to explore his sexuality. This must be what it felt like.

“Tell me if you’re getting near,” she said, pausing her licking for a moment. “I want it in me, not on me. I don’t want to walk out of here with goo in my feathers.”

When she returned her snout to his lap, her pace was even greedier, Bluejay gripping the edge of the table as though he was in danger of floating away. He lay one hand on her head, feeling her bob and move, massaging her smooth scales with his fingertips.

“Fuck, s-slow down,” he stammered as her slimy tongue wrestled with his member. The sensations were becoming too intense, each delicate stroke of her organ making him feel like the room was spinning, strands of her saliva escaping her lips to drape themselves over his thighs.

She did as he asked, drawing back, Bluejay feeling a pang of disappointment. It was replaced with another throb of desire as he watched a fat strand of saliva link her pink tongue to his shaft, his green skin glistening with her drool. She flashed him another grin and a flutter of pink, swinging a leg over him to straddle him again, cupping his face in her hands as she nuzzled his face affectionately. He let his lower hands rest about her wide hips, the upper pair roaming across her chest, a trilling moan emanating from deep within her throat as she reacted to his touch.

She began to crawl lower, moving down his reclining body, plunging her nose into the fluffy ruff of fur that formed a collar around his neck. Apparently enjoying his scent, she breathed deep, rubbing her cheek against the delicate strands before continuing her slow journey downwards. He flinched as he felt her press her lips against his bare chest, her tongue flicking out to sample his waxy skin, gentle nibbles from her insectivore teeth keeping him on his toes. Something about the way that her hands explored his muscular belly filled his heart with tingling warmth. He had never been desired in this way before – he’d never even imagined himself in this situation. For so long, he had labored to be accepted, and now he was being coveted.

Miqi pressed closer to him, the pert little handfuls of her breasts compressing against his midriff, sliding down over his thighs. He parted them as she dipped below the edge of the table, kneeling between his legs, putting her snout level with his twitching cock. She dragged her tongue over her soft lips conspicuously, threateningly, watching him with her unblinking eyes. Her tail snaked up beside her, the chubby appendage probing for one of the hookah hoses, dragging it into her waiting hand. She took another generous lungful of the fruit-scented smoke, holding it for a moment to amplify its effects, then exhaled an obscuring cloud. Bluejay breathed it in, enjoying the way that it dulled his usually sharp senses, relaxing him.

His smirking partner opened her jaws and extended her tongue, giving him an admirable view in this new position, lapping at his tapered shaft. Each stroke was imbued with such desire, her eyelids drooping as she reveled in the pleasure that she was inflicting upon him, drawing shapes on his sensitive flesh with her agile organ. Like a Worker assembling a circuit board with inhuman precision, she seemed to know exactly what she was doing, every lick purposeful and measured. He winced as she caught his tip with her lower lip, its texture incomparably soft.

“What do you call this?” she asked, pausing to gesture to his member with her snout. She must have never heard a phrase that described someone’s manhood before. What should he say? Should he be polite and clinical, or vulgar? After a moment of consideration, he decided that vulgarity better suited Miqi, and that it would excite him to hear her say it…

“That’s called a cock,” he mumbled.

Cock,” she repeated, rolling the word around in her mouth. “I love your cock, Blue…”

She giggled as he twitched in her hand, his member coiling around her finger. In one smooth motion, she took it into her mouth again, her snout long enough to engulf it completely. She kissed his base, her pillowy lips brushing his sensitive sheath, Bluejay throwing his head back as she resumed her cruel pace. His prehensile organ and her slippery tongue spiraling around one another, locked in a sordid dance, slimy membranes greeting him wherever he moved. She buried her face in his crotch, Bluejay laying a hand on her head, watching her swallow him to the hilt.

The pleasure was growing too intense now, and he couldn’t stop himself from moving, his hips pushing into her waiting mouth with a mechanical rhythm. It made her scaly nose bump against his belly, Miqi gripping the chitin plates on his hips for leverage. A pressure was welling inside him, inexorable, growing harder and harder to suppress.

“You can let it out,” she chuckled around his length, the vibrations making him take handfuls of the silk cushions. Could she sense his mounting tension? “I want to taste it.”

“I…I feel like I gotta move faster,” he grunted, the corners of Miqi’s lips curling into an eager smile as she nodded her permission.

With his lower pair of hands, he cradled her elongated face, his upper pair reaching for the feather sheaths on her head like they were handlebars. He waited for her to protest, but she just let her jaw slacken, her tongue lolling in tacit invitation. Seeing the anticipation in her violet eyes filled him with renewed excitement, like she had kindled a fire inside him, his reservations melting away as he began to move. He set the pace now, pulling her face into his lap, feeling his erection slide on the velvet cushion of her tongue. It was intoxicating, and something about the way that his body moved as he thrust deeper felt right, satisfying. It felt like flying, like it was something he was supposed to do.

She couldn’t close her jaws to purse her lips without catching him with her teeth, so she let the glistening strands of her saliva leak from her mouth as he pulled her into him, the wonderful sensation of her ribbed palate sliding along his length irresistible. Her tolerance was remarkable for someone who was usually so terse and impatient, her eyes watching him, Miqi smiling around his cock.

The pressure became unbearable, and a sharp jolt of pleasure rocked him, a tingling electric current shooting through his body. The sensation forced him to double over, and he pulled Miqi’s face into his lap as her eyes widened in alarm. Rather than pull away, she let him dictate their pace, a few more desperate thrusts all that it took to send him over the edge.

Ecstasy the likes of which he had never felt burned through him, each wracking throb making his member jump between her lips, hot ropes of his seed draping themselves over her waiting tongue. She lurched as she felt his fluids fill her mouth, spilling past her scaly lips, mingling with her saliva to create a bubbling web that drooped to his thighs. Her initial surprise subsided, and she seemed to relax a little, gently teasing his sensitive member in encouragement. Bluejay’s nerves were alight with sensation, like pulses of blinding light shooting down optical cables, each new wave of pleasure forcing his eyes closed. It just kept going, the frequency and intensity of the throbs gradually subsiding, his faculties returning to him like he was waking from a dream. He gasped as Miqi gave him one last doting lick, then withdrew, the trembling Jarilan relinquishing his hold on her feather sheaths.

He gazed down at her to see pearly strands hanging from her jaws, thick and gelatinous. Her mouth still ajar, she ran her pink tongue through the gluey substance, the vibrant pinks and yellows of her headdress giving him some idea of what she was feeling. His cock throbbed again as he watched a droplet of his fluid seep down to her chest, a residual flare of pleasure piercing his growing euphoria, afterglow and herb mingling to make his mind hazy.

Miqi swallowed conspicuously, making sure that Bluejay could see the bulge travel down her long neck, her agile tongue cleaning away what globs still clung to her lips. She reached for his drink, downing the contents of the glass, shaking her head vigorously as the alcohol hit her.

“Sorry,” he said apologetically. “I didn’t know that would happen…”

“It’s a lot…thicker than what I’m used to,” she replied, wiping away the droplet that had fallen to her breast with her finger. “There was a lot more of it, too. It tasted a little like honey,” she added, the realization seeming to surprise her. “Almost sweet…”

She gave his cock one last stroke, grinning as a bead of his seed welled at the tip, his head spinning as she licked him clean. When she was done, she climbed up from beneath the table, straddling him again. Her snout brushed against his face as she kissed him, nuzzling contentedly, the scent of his pheromones on her breath. A Valbaran probably couldn’t smell them in the way that a Jarilan could, but he had painted her scales with his lust, and the smell emanated from her like a sordid perfume.

Despite his wracking climax, he found that his desire for her had not diminished in the least. He was still erect, still pulsing, his heart hammering in his chest. He ran his hands across her naked torso, tracing the long dimple that her muscles carved in her spine, cupping her perfect breasts, sliding a hand beneath her clinging shorts to probe the meat of her butt.

“You like touching me, don’t you?” she whispered, her sultry voice making his antennae curl. “Here,” she added, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Time to turn the tables.”

Before he could ask her what she meant, she rolled over, pulling him along with her. He found himself lying on top of her as she settled into the nest of cushions, Miqi releasing her hold on him, lying back. He propped himself up with his four arms, his eyes lingering on her chest, admiring the way that her breasts bounced gently when she shifted her weight.

“Your turn,” she insisted, gripping his horn and forcing him lower. She parted those thick, muscular thighs, and Bluejay soon found himself kneeling between her and the table. The crotch of her shorts was at eye-level to him now, his antennae brushing her toned belly, alien scents clogging his pheromone receptors. There was a wet patch on the black fabric, the sight of it somehow renewing his excitement.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he admitted, glancing up at her for guidance. “I don’t even have a mouth…”

“Figure it out,” she chuckled. “You aliens are supposed to be good at improvising, right?”

He reminded himself that the goal was just to make her feel good. He could do that. Slowly, he reached for the elastic waistband of her shorts, Miqi biting her lip as he hooked his fingers around it, dragging the garment down. It was a struggle – the thing might as well have been painted on – the way that it cut into her soft fat making his heart throb. She lifted her legs over his head, closing them to help him out, Bluejay marveling at her athleticism and flexibility as her toes pointed at the ceiling. That dark material inched up her thighs, a shimmering strand of her excitement joining it to a pair of flushed, scaly lips. She tossed the garment aside, then lowered her legs again, laughing as he stared – transfixed by the sight of her loins. They were beautiful, the fine scales that coated her labia shining with moisture, their beige color given a pink hue by her rushing blood. Between them was a sliver of rose-colored flesh, beads of her juices misting it like dew.

“Like what you see?” she chuckled, lounging on the pillows in a decidedly unladylike manner. He lurched as he felt something crawl up his back, realizing that it was her tail, Miqi tugging him closer with surprising strength. “Come on, Blue. Pretend it’s a ripe, juicy slice of fresh fruit.”

He leaned in, her lips an inch from his face, glancing up at her for reassurance. He was a little concerned that Miqi seeing him open up his face plates would spoil the mood, but she wasn’t giving him much of a choice. Slowly, he opened his mandibles, the plates peeling back to expose the green flesh beneath. He extended his long proboscis, the organ snaking towards her. When he looked up at Miqi again, there was no disgust in her expression, only eagerness.

Encouraged, he reached out to part her lips with his fingers, finding them just as soft and as squishy as they had looked. They were hot, too, almost feverish. He exposed more of that pink flesh, watching her opening twitch at his touch, her muscles winking and clenching. His proboscis was a lot thinner than her tongue, and he wasn’t sure if it would have quite the same effect, but he was willing to experiment. She shivered as his organ glanced her vulva, dancing across its moist surface. Miqi’s reaction was stronger than he had expected, her clawed toes raking at the carpet as he traced her folds, her surprisingly heavy tail draping itself over his shoulders like a scarf. She used it to guide him closer, her scaly thighs sliding against his face, her soft flesh cushioning him.

The tip of his proboscis probed her opening, the powerful muscles in her legs tensing against his cheeks reflexively. He didn’t know if she had ever killed a Bug by crushing its head between her thighs, but after what he’d seen, he wouldn’t put it past her. Slowly, he pushed his organ deeper, probing her insides. The walls of her tunnel were even warmer and wetter than her mouth had been, flesh like velvet soaked in honey bearing down on him from all sides, soft enough to put even the silk pillows that she was sitting on to shame. It was at once impossibly smooth, and textured with folds and wrinkles, butterflies swarming in his stomach again as he imagined those folds caressing his member. She was constantly in motion, shifting and clenching, squeezing his proboscis to the point that it was almost uncomfortable. She bucked as he roamed deeper, sliding inches of the appendage inside her, a gasp escaping her throat.

“Okay, stop that,” she giggled as she placed a hand on his forehead to ease him away. “All you’re really doing is tickling me.” Before he could stammer an apology, she reached out to take one of his hands, running her thumb across his palm. “Use your fingers,” she cooed. “They’re softer than I was expecting.”

Bluejay obliged, her taste lingering as he slid his proboscis back into his head, bringing a finger to her clenching opening instead. He slid it between her puffy lips, reveling in their soft texture, wetting his skin with her slimy fluids. She was right – he had no protective plating on his digits with his armored gloves removed, no nails, no claws.

He drew back, his stomach fluttering as he watched a fat strand of her fluids join his fingertip to her rosy flesh. Her arousal was palpable, those beautiful muscles in her belly tensing as he stroked her, rising from her scaly skin to catch the light. Slowly, he slid his finger down her vulva, pressing it against her opening. A tight ring of muscle narrowed around it, her loins clenching with surprising strength, blocking his progress. She almost seemed too small, and he feared that he might hurt her if he pushed too hard, but she gave him a reassuring flutter of pink.

It was only the slippery fluid that coated his skin that let him slide past the obstacle, Miqi gasping as he inched deeper, Bluejay feeling her cushiony walls squeeze his digit. He had to shift his position a little, drawing closer to her, steadying himself with a hand on the cushions beside her thigh. With the extra leverage, he began to move, watching her carefully to gauge her reaction as he probed gently. Her tunnel resisted him, pushing back almost as though it was trying to expel him, the firm muscles beyond her impossibly soft flesh kneading and clenching. Those wonderful wrinkles and folds raked against his skin, even more apparent when felt with his finger, her slimy insides undulating around it.

“I’m not hurting you?” he asked, feeling a shudder roll through her.

“No,” she purred, pinching her lower lip between her teeth as she watched him. “Rub me. Yes,” she trilled, throwing her head back as he began to massage her. “Like that…”

Bluejay curled his finger inside her, rubbing it against the walls of her tunnel, making slow circles. It was such a wonderful sensation – to feel the way that her body responded to him, to watch her scales shine as she bucked and writhed, to feel her burning flesh twitch around his buried digit. He had an admirable view from where he was kneeling, her lithe, toned body splayed out on the cushions before him. He let his antennae wander across her belly and thighs, taking in the unfamiliar scents. Was it possible for him to learn her pheromone signals – to use context to guess what they might mean? Either way, she smelled wonderful, like the fragrant smoke that she had filled the booth with.

Bluejay lurched as he felt her grab one of his wrists tightly, her feather sheath coiling around his arm as her hips rocked, pushing back against his hand. He guessed that she wanted him to increase his pace, so he began to slide his finger inside her, matching the tempo of her thrusting. She was trying to take him deeper, burying him up to the knuckle in her seizing loins, droplets of her nectar seeping out around his digit.

“You’re so good with your hands,” she chuckled.

That gave him an idea. He had four of them, didn’t he?

Keeping one hand between her legs, he brought the rest to bear, sliding one of them up her inner thigh. She responded strongly, arching her spine off the cushions, letting out a comely sigh that made his lingering erection throb. She seemed sensitive there, so he redoubled his efforts, running his fingertips up the smooth, beige scales between her hip and her knee. He couldn’t help but delve them into her supple flesh, feeling the iron muscle beneath the inviting layer of velvet fat flex, dimples appearing in her skin.

Another hand found the base of her tail, which was covered in the same fine mosaic of sensitive scales. It was as girthy as her thigh, far too large for him to get his fingers around, but his palm glided easily on her burnished hide. He skirted the little bud of pink just beneath her drooling loins, moving lower, watching with satisfaction as her feathers started to go haywire. The solid colors were broken up into nonsensical patterns, like a broken tablet computer that someone had dropped on its screen.

“Are you alright?” he chuckled.

“I’m fine,” she replied, breathless. “But you won’t be if you stop.”

He pulled his wrist away from her tight grip, then pressed his palm against hers, interlocking their mismatched fingers as best he could. Holding her hand, he redoubled his efforts, massaging her inner thigh and the base of her tail as he pushed his finger deeper. Her sheath wound its way up his forearm again, splitting open with explosions of colorful feathers intermittently, the display mesmerizing him.

“You’re so incredibly beautiful,” he murmured. “Like some kind of…tropical bird, or a hallucination. It’s blowing my mind.”

“Keep talking like that, and I might have to fuck your brains out,” she giggled. “Do me a favor and pass me a hose.”

He did as she asked, using his one remaining hand to grip the nearest hose, tugging the hookah a little closer so that she could reach. He passed it to her, and she took a generous drag, relaxing back into her nest of pillows as she exhaled another hazy cloud towards the ceiling.

“I haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” she trilled, squirming contentedly as he curled his finger inside her. Bluejay brought his fourth hand to her belly, slowly sliding up towards her chest, admiring her bulging six-pack as he followed their contours with his fingertips. Miqi cooed happily as he cupped one of her breasts, kneading it like a baker shaping a ball of fresh dough, her hard nipple stabbing into his palm. Curious as to how she might react, he leaned a little nearer, extending his proboscis. He coiled it around the swollen nub, teasing it, his damp flesh sliding against the sensitive protrusion.

“You aliens really are creative,” she grunted, stifling a lurid moan that might have carried out of their little booth. “God, how are you moving all of your hands at once like that?”

“I dunno,” he mumbled, giving her thigh a generous squeeze. “It’s just something I can do.”

“Both boobs,” she added as she raised two fingers, giving him an eager flash of pink.

He let go of her hand, bringing another to her chest, climbing a little higher onto the cushions until he was half-sitting beside her. His eyelids drooping, he massaged her breasts in his hands, rolling her yielding fat between his fingers. He kept a hand nestled between her clenching thighs all the while, using his remaining one to dance his fingers lightly across her belly and tail. In that moment, all he could think about was maximizing her pleasure, her writhing form captivating him.

“Fuck, Blue, you’re gonna make me…”

She trailed off, perhaps not knowing the right phrase to use.

“Make you come,” he suggested, his heart racing at the prospect. “That’s what we call it.”

“You’re gonna make me come,” she moaned, gazing up at him with a look in her eyes that bordered on desperation. “I want to finish like this,” she added hurriedly. “Hold me closer, Blue.”

She reached out to him, wrapping her arms around his torso, lifting her upper body off the cushions as she plunged her face into the soft ruff of fur around his neck. Her flashing feathers filled his field of view, her soft plumage tickling his face. With two of his arms, he supported her trembling form, pulling her tight against his chest in a hug. Keeping one hand between her legs and another cupping a perky breast, he increased his pace. Miqi began to roll her hips as though she was simulating lovemaking, fucking his finger, one of her clawed hands rising to cup his cheek affectionately. She seemed to enjoy the texture of his fur, nuzzling, rubbing it against her face.

“I’m so fucking high,” she giggled, panting between intermittent bouts of chuckling. “Oh, I feel like I’m gonna melt.”

“D-do you want me to-”

“Just keep going,” she hissed. “Oh, please, Blue. I need it faster.”

He couldn’t refuse such an earnest plea, and he began to push his finger deeper and faster. Slowly, her powerful tail began to coil around one of his legs, her thighs closing around his wrist to the point that it was almost painful. He could feel the tension that was building up inside her, every twitch of her muscles, every breathy pant betraying her mounting ecstasy. With a start, he realized that he was the source of that pleasure. Only minutes ago, he had been worried that he wouldn’t be able to satisfy her, that she might find something about him too strange or repulsive. Now, she was clinging to him as though her very life was tied to the rhythm of his fingers.

Fuck,” she grunted, her loins gripping him with fresh ferocity. “Close my snout, Blue, or they’re gonna think I’m being murdered.”

“Huh?” he stammered. “You want me to, just-”

“Close my snout!” she repeated. He did as she asked, reaching up to wrap his fingers around her elongated jaws, holding her mouth shut to stifle the pained whine that was rising in her throat. His eyes wide, he felt her tighten her grip on him, one last thrust of her wide hips sending her over the edge. He returned her embrace, holding her close against his bare chest as her climax rocked her, her small frame shuddering in his arms. She kept pushing against his finger, so he kept it inside her, easing out the pangs of pleasure with his rapid movements. His digit was starting to ache, but he couldn’t let up now.

Her long tail lashed out, knocking the table with enough force to topple his empty glass over, making the hookah bounce. Bluejay felt her snout vibrate in his hand, Miqi letting out a groan that might well have had the other patrons of the lounge come running if it hadn’t been muffled. Her feathers went crazy, nonsensical patterns flashing, her muscles seizing as she rode out the throes of her orgasm.

Bluejay slowed the pace of his stroking as he felt her start to relax again, Miqi almost seeming to deflate as she leaned into him, her body going limp. Still wary, he released her jaws, and he was rewarded with an amorous chuckle that made his head swim with desire for her.

“That was…perfect,” she sighed as she pushed her nose into his collar. “Fuck, you have no idea how much I needed that. Stuck out in the bush with you for days, no opportunity to get you away from my flock, no chance to sneak away and fill myself with tail.”

She was still so receptive, her climax leaving her even more sensitive to his touch, Bluejay reveling in the way that she twitched and sighed as he ran his hands across her heaving body. He stroked her back, running his fingers up and down the curve of her spine, helping himself to generous handfuls of her sculpted ass as they lay in the cushions together.

“I had no idea,” he mumbled.

“I know you had no idea,” she replied with a flash of annoyed red. “I’ve been interested in you for months, and you were too dense to realize it. That’s why I had to get you alone and relax you a little – try a more…direct method.”

“Well, it worked,” he chuckled.

“Oh, I can tell,” she cooed as one of her hands trailed down his belly. He realized that his erection was resting against her stomach, and she took it in her hand, giving him an affectionate squeeze. “You want to be my boyfriend, right?”

“Huh?” he stammered, wincing as she ran her fingers up his shaft.

“My boyfriend – is that the right word? I want to take you as my lover.”

“Yes!” he replied, startling himself with his own candor. “But, what will your flockmates think? Isn’t this something that you have to decide together? Consensus?”

“They like you, but some of them are – what do the Earth’nay say – on the fence about inviting a Jarilan into our flock. They don’t know you like I do. I think I can convince them to give you a test drive, though,” she added with a smirk.

“I can barely handle one of you,” he chuckled nervously. “Maybe the humans have rubbed off on me, but I don’t know how comfortable I am entering into a relationship with five other people. I don’t have the same feelings for them that I do for you.”

“We’ll ease you into it,” she replied, her tone more serious now. “We can take things slow, give you the time you need to get acclimated. For a Valbara’nay, our flocks are extensions of ourselves – inseparable.”

“A package deal,” he mused. “Of course, I’ll give it a try,” he added. Miqi’s headdress flushed pink and yellow, and she batted her eyes at him, perhaps surprised that he had come around so quickly. “Hell, I’ve liked everything else about your culture so far.”

“I promise I’ll ask them to be gentle,” she added with a distinctly sinister giggle. “Feels like you’re ready for more,” she continued, Bluejay wincing as she squeezed his erection in her hand. “Want to go another round?”

“Yeah,” he replied, his heart starting to race again as Miqi swung a leg over him. She rolled him onto his back, straddling him, sinking him deeper into the plush cushions with her weight. Her powerful thighs closed around his hips, the soft meat of her ass settling in his lap, his erection rising to press against her taut belly. She was so strong for her size, muscles like tempered steel lurking beneath her layers of pillowy, inviting flesh. She reached down to guide his member closer, pressing it against the smooth, cool scales of her stomach. At four feet and change, she was small, even compared to him. His member passed her navel, and he wondered if he was even going to fit. He’d barely been able to get one finger inside her.

“Hang on,” Miqi said, turning around. Once again, he marveled at her flexibility, her hips staying in place as her torso twisted towards the table. Her pert breasts wobbled gently with the motion, Bluejay’s eyes wandering down to the hourglass curve of her waist, drinking in the contours of her chiseled midriff. She retrieved her hose, inhaling deeply, then exhaling more fruit-scented smoke into their booth. “Alright – let’s do this.”

She placed a hand on his belly, lifting herself off him, her other hand reaching down towards his pulsing member. He shivered as she ran her fingers up its length experimentally, almost as though she was considering, gauging its size and shape. He wanted to tell her that she could still back out if she wanted to, but he’d be lying if he said that he wasn’t holding his breath in anticipation of what was to come. Her lips were still flushed pink, glistening with fluid from their previous encounter, strands of it clinging to her thighs. The droplets shone against her matte scales like little diamonds as they caught the light, the sight mesmerizing him.

“Is it alright?” he finally asked.

“I can handle it,” she insisted, though the flutters of purple that joined the pink in her headdress cast some doubt on her confidence. “Okay, here I go…”

She guided his member between her legs, sliding his tapered tip between those soft, puffy lips. His sensitive flesh glided against hers, her vulva slick with her anticipation, its heat surprising him. She was dripping, burning, swollen with desire. Cautiously, she tried to press his tip against her opening, but Bluejay couldn’t help but flex in her hand. He stiffened, then softened again, his member brushing against her loins like a tongue lapping at her nectar.

“S-stop that,” she giggled, shivering at his touch.

“Sorry, it’s a reflex,” he stammered.

Despite his efforts to keep still, his member was still softer and more flexible than whatever she was used to, and she seemed to struggle to find a good position. Finally, she succeeded, Bluejay tensing up as he felt that narrow opening greet him. The shape of his organ helped ease him in, his senses overwhelmed by the sensation of those satin-soft walls of pillowy flesh enclosing him, molding around him like liquid latex. It felt like the lining of her mouth, or like her tongue, but somehow even warmer and more inviting. Silky smoothness soon gave way to exciting textures as he inched deeper, her insides raking against his skin, Miqi’s loins pressing against him so tightly that he could feel every exquisite fold with delicious clarity.

She paused as his shaft began to widen, splaying her open, Bluejay fighting the impulse to buck into her as he felt the muscles in her twitching depths grip him in a reflexive clench.

“Fuck,” he growled, Miqi tearing her eyes away from their coupling to glance up at him.

“Did I hurt you?” she asked, worried purple joining her pink.

“No, no,” he replied hurriedly. “It’s just…you feel amazing.”

“We’re barely getting started,” she chuckled. “Now, hold still, and let me…”

They shuddered in unison as she took him deeper, her sopping, spasming insides fighting against him every step of the way. It was wonderful to feel her body struggle to accommodate him, his rubbery flesh pushing against hers, every twitch and flex creating a shared wave of pleasure that made them gasp. Finally, he felt her round cheeks flop down into his lap, the impact making every soft part of her lithe figure quiver. The last sliver of his green shaft vanished inside her, her thighs trembling as she hilted him, her hands reaching out to grip his shoulders in an effort to steady herself.

“Are you alright?” he asked, wincing as the iron grip of her loins tightened in a shiver.

“Oh yeah,” she chuckled. “You’re a little big for me, Blue, but it helps that you’re flexible. Now, we just-”

Bluejay flexed inside her, his prehensile member shifting, spreading apart her narrow insides with that same licking motion. It was involuntary, not something that he could help, but it drove Miqi wild. She threw her head back, staring past the ceiling with unfocused eyes, her feathers flickering with a nonsensical pattern of colors.

“I never thought I’d be praising a Queen,” she muttered as she struggled to regain her poise. “You’re a work of art, Blue.”

“I-I am?” he stammered, unaccustomed to such compliments.

“Just try not to move around too much, or I’ll be a shivering, leaking mess before I’ve had a chance to get you off.”

She started to move, holding onto his shoulders as she began to rock back and forth, lifting herself at the apex of her arc before pushing back down again to drive him deeper. Her movements were slow, almost imperceptibly slight, but he could feel every subtle shift and gentle thrust like his nerves had been wired up to a generator. Her clinging passage was always in motion, grinding against him, squeezing and rippling with teasing muscle contractions. He moved in turn, his member flexing and wriggling inside her, stroking her walls.

Miqi’s pace soon became erratic, each throb and curl of his cock making her falter, her thighs starting to tremble as they gripped him ever more tightly.

“Ah!” she yelped, her breathy voice petering out into a needy whine as she leaned into him. He wrapped his arms around her as she collapsed against his chest, pressing close to him, burying her face in his fluffy collar. “This isn’t going to work the way I expected,” she admitted, the wavering in her voice only making him more excited. “It feels like you’re licking me from the inside.”

“Let me try something,” he said.

“What are you doing?” she asked as he slid his lower pair of hands down her back, cupping her ample cheeks.

“What feels right,” he replied. “Relax, and let me do the hard work.”

His fingers sinking into the supple meat of her ass as he held her steady, he began to thrust, wrapping his upper pair of arms around her torso to hug her tightly. She seemed resistant to the idea of being a passive participant at first, but she gradually began to relax, pleasure dulling her sharp edge as she leaned into his embrace. Knowing Miqi, she had probably envisioned herself riding him into the pillows, blowing his mind with her athletic prowess. Especially for a Valbaran woman, it took some humility to allow a male to take the reins.

Bluejay began to push into her, finding it easier to keep the muscles in his member tensed when he was dictating the pace, his shaft firming up. He had more control over the organ than he had realized, having never had an opportunity to really experiment before now.

Miqi sighed and shivered as his member pushed against her quivering walls, filling her incomparably tight passage, spreading her apart with each thrust. It felt as though her wet, pulsing flesh was always trying to close up, to push him back out again. It conformed to his every contour, pouring around his cock like a hot liquid, leaving no space unfilled. She fit him like a glove, her powerful grip only augmenting the sensation of those wonderful wrinkles and imperfections as they raked up and down his length, gliding on a layer of her slick fluids.

As his confidence grew, he decided to try something new, curling his shaft against the roof of her passage on his way out. It was a simple movement, akin to a human rolling their tongue, but it rocked Miqi’s tender little frame like an earthquake. She yelped into his collar, her feathers going haywire, her spine arching in a desperate bid to augment the sensation. Her body was responding to him, moving with him in a way that was almost subconscious, instinctual.

“Don’t ask me if I’m okay,” she whispered, her voice trembling. “Just keep doing that. Fuck, I can’t believe I put this off for as long as I did,” she added, sounding genuinely annoyed with herself. “I could have been fucking you for months.”

“We have nothing but time now,” he replied. “We can take it slow.”

He resumed his lazy rocking, lifting her off the cushions with each thrust. Miqi was moving too, seemingly unable to help herself, rolling her wide hips to change his angle of penetration. He was so attuned to her, anticipating what she wanted without her having to ask, shifting his muscular organ to match her movements. Like a tongue, he dragged his member around inside her, pressing it into her sensitive flesh. Rings of taut muscle wrung him in response, a contraction massaging his length, Miqi trilling as though he had hit some kind of pressure point.

It seemed to reinvigorate her, and she started to push back with more urgency, lifting her snout from his collar. She sat up a little straighter, beginning to bounce slowly, her perky breasts quivering each time she came down on him. He could feel the cushion of her ass clapping against his thighs with a delightful weight, ripples spreading through her cheeks, the muscle beneath her fat as springy as rubber. He let his lower hands rest around her hips now, admiring her body in motion, marveling at the idea that it was now his to explore and enjoy.

He lay a hand against her belly, feeling those sculpted abs shift and flex, her gleaming scales making her look as though she had been carved from a block of jade. Maybe it was the drink and the herb, or maybe it was the arousal that was turning his brain to mush, but Miqi almost looked unreal as she danced in the dim light of the lounge. He almost feared that he would wake up in his bunk and that this would all be revealed to be a dream.

Miqi responded in kind, bringing a hand to his torso, trailing it down across his waxy skin as she admired his physique.

“You’re so smooth,” she sighed, her eyes losing their focus again as he flexed inside her. “I love it…”

As they moved in tandem, Bluejay’s flexible organ probing her depths, he brushed something firm. It felt like a small, swollen knot of flesh, buried in the furthest reaches of her loins. Miqi reacted as though she had been electrocuted, making him flinch as the smooth muscles of her passage wrung him with a violent contraction, squeezing his shaft with all the strength of an angry fist. He knew better than to ask her if she was alright now – the random patterns that had overtaken the pink hues of her feathers telling him all that he needed to know. She shivered, collapsing into his waiting arms again, turning her head to the side as she lay her face on his chest.

“Blue, listen,” she murmured as another tremor wracked her. “I need you to do something for me…”

“Anything,” he replied, glancing down at her as he cradled her trembling form.

“The little nodule that you just felt? Stroke it, lick it.” She was almost struggling to get the words out, as though the prospect had her so excited that she could scarcely think straight. “And, Blue?”

“Yes?” he asked, her feathers brushing against his face as they erupted into a display of rosy pink.

“Be ready to hold my mouth shut again. This may get loud.”

Bluejay wrapped all four arms around her, tugging her close, her burnished scales pressing tightly against his skin. He could feel those soft, supple breasts compressing against his chest. She returned his embrace, clinging to him, her thighs squeezing his hips almost as though she was afraid of what came next. Once again, he took full advantage of the opportunity to stroke her, his fingertips trailing down the curve of her spine towards the two little dimples just above the base of her tail. The appendage was oddly pleasing to the touch, completely alien to him, but just as soft and as inviting as her thighs.

“Get off my tail,” she chuckled, arching her back as he pressed down on the base of her spine.

“I like the way it feels,” he explained, moving lower towards her pert cheeks. He sank his fingers into her butt, pulling her closer, shifting his hips on the cushions to get as deep inside her as he could. Miqi gritted her sharp little teeth, closing her eyes as she thrust towards him, her burning need palpable. She wanted this so badly that she was shivering.

He probed around inside her, having to rely solely on his sense of touch, his member worming its way deeper as her quivering passage fought him for every inch. She twitched and sighed as he stroked her tender walls, exploring her inner folds.

“Those little noises you make drive me fucking crazy,” he grunted, his arousal getting the better of him.

“I can’t help it,” she trilled, the lurid tone of her musical voice only making him want her more.

“I didn’t say that I wanted you to stop,” he added. She responded with another exaggerated moan, teasing him, the Valbaran chuckling under her breath as he gave her another stern thrust. The pointed tip of his member brushed that firm nub again, and her laughter abruptly stopped, skipping like an old vinyl record. The little fleshy bead was on the roof of her tunnel, right at the back, but he was more than endowed enough to reach it now that he knew where it was. He bottomed out inside her, curling his member upwards, glancing the strange organ.

Miqi’s long tail wrapped around one of his legs, and she rocked in his lap, thrusting desperately as though trying to sate a terrible itch. Bluejay was more than happy to oblige, creating a kind of ridge with his muscular shaft, a little bump that was perfectly situated to grind against her sweet spot.

“Oh, fuck!” Miqi grunted as she rose off him again. She planted her hands on his chest, her claws pricking his skin, but he endured the discomfort as he watched her tuck her head towards her bosom. She let it hang as she moved, thrusting mechanically, a strand of her drool escaping her lips as she lost herself in this new ecstasy. Bluejay pushed up, squashing that little bead, dragging his smooth, wet flesh across its surface in a gentle lapping motion. Miqi went as stiff as a board, then drooped into his embrace again, Bluejay catching her as she fell into him with a rolling shudder.

“Tell me what you need,” he prompted, his heart racing as his panting lover struggled to formulate her reply. God, he was going to come before she did at this rate – her insides were milking him ruthlessly, and she wouldn’t stay still. “Faster? Slower?”

She mumbled something incoherent, trying again when he asked her to repeat herself.

“Just keep rubbing like that…”

Her rhythmic thrusting was actually counterproductive, but she didn’t seem able to help herself, her beautiful body gyrating and contorting of its own accord. He did his best to hold her in place, Miqi struggling in his arms, something about her writhing making him even more excited. He ran that ridge across her sensitive bud, feeling every buck and shiver as though it was his own. His organ rubbed it, glancing it gently, teasing it with quick flurries. He circled the throbbing nub, painting it, inspired by the way that Miqi had pleasured him with her tongue.

“This is ridiculous,” Miqi mumbled, her voice rising in pitch with each stroke as she trailed off into her native language of chirps and trills. Her spine arched, her muscles stiffening with her mounting tension, like pressure building before an explosion. Like waves lapping at the shore, her very being was linked to a rhythm, one that grew faster and needier as it built towards an inevitable crescendo.

“Oh, Blue!” she wailed as her feathers erupted into a fireworks display of colors and patterns. He quickly gripped her snout, forcing her mouth closed to cut off her lustful cry, holding her head close to his chest as she started to climax. Her trembling thighs gripped him with alarming strength, her tail anchored to one of his legs, her arms wrapping around his torso. She rocked back and forth, each frantic thrust pushing her higher, the muffled sounds of her pleasure filling the booth. Bluejay struggled to focus, matching her pace, keeping his shaft in that ridged position so that she could grind against it to her heart’s content. Bluejay could feel the waves of her orgasm crash over her, each fresh pulse of pleasure accompanied by a flutter of colorful feathers and a stifled whine, her seizing depths squeezing him in a merciless tempo.

After a good minute or two of impassioned bucking, her spasms became less frequent, her labored breathing starting to grow deeper and more regular. He felt safe enough to release her snout, Miqi rewarding him with a low, sultry chuckle that filled him with desire for her. She was exhausted, her limited Valbaran stamina all but drained, her aching muscles twitching with rapturous aftershocks that made her take in sharp little gasps.

“We were only supposed to fool around and have a little fun,” she sighed, nuzzling his chest. “You weren’t supposed to change my fucking perception of reality, you little tease. I’m seeing stars…”

“I’m glad you like me,” he replied, stroking her scaly head affectionately. “It wasn’t a given.”

“You might say that I am quite partial to you,” she giggled, leaning into his hand as she enjoyed his attentions. “I’m so glad that I get to keep you,” she added, her tone becoming salacious. “I don’t think I’d be able to live with just a taste of what you’re giving me.”

“For what it’s worth, this has been amazing,” he continued as he held her close. “You’ve been amazing. You really made this experience special for me.”

“You talk as though it’s over,” she replied, giving him a toothy grin that was accompanied by a flush of pink.

“Aren’t you done?” he asked, cocking his head at her. “I don’t mind if you’re too tired to continue. I know that your people don’t have the stamina that we do.”

“And you expect me not to rise to such a challenge?” she asked, feigning outrage. “Listen, boy. Just because you fucked me into a stupor, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be so selfish as to leave you wanting. We’re not leaving this booth until your every desire and curiosity is satisfied. Is that clear?”

“Well, it would be rude of me to disobey my host,” he replied with a shrug. Miqi chuckled, rising off him, Bluejay relinquishing his hold on her as their entangled loins separated. That wonderful warmth and wetness was abruptly absent, and he glanced down to see a sagging web of her fluids seep from her rosy lips, joining them to his shining member. He was soaked in her juices, droplets of it trailing down her inner thighs, dripping to his belly.

“I don’t think I’ve ever come like that before,” she sighed, having to reach for the edge of the table to steady herself on her trembling legs. “I could use another drink to steady my nerves, but I don’t want to call Chatli over right now,” she continued as she stifled a laugh. “No, don’t get up!” she added with a giggle. “I didn’t mean that I wanted you to go get me one. You’re in as much of a state as I am.”

She reached for the hookah hose instead, the device bubbling audibly as she took a shuddering drag, holding the smoke in her lungs for a few moments before exhaling slowly.

Yeah,” she mumbled to nobody in particular, closing her eyes as she savored the sensation. “Fuck, that’s even better after a good lay.”

“We need to have a conversation about your language at some point,” Bluejay chuckled, watching as she took another puff. There was something incredibly erotic about her casual nudity, Miqi standing there with the hose in her hand, her breasts wobbling gently with the rise and fall of her chest. “You seem to be finding the most foul-mouthed Marines to mimic.”

“Don’t be such a pussy,” she replied, the two of them sharing a bout of laughter. “Here,” she added, blowing a cloud of fragrant smoke in his direction. “We don’t want that buzz to wear off, do we?”

Miqi flopped down beside him in the pillows, tossing the hose aside, shifting her weight to get comfortable. She extended her arms above her head, letting her tail trail down beneath the table, sighing contentedly as she relaxed. Bluejay sat there beside her, still erect, his anticipation mounting as he waited for her to give some indication of what might happen next. With a comely glance in his direction, she spread her sticky thighs, then beckoned to him with a feather signal that he had seen her use to call over her flockmates during a hunt.

“What are you waiting for?” she cooed. “Do you want the invitation in writing?”

She smirked at him as he practically leapt out of his seat, taking up position between her and the table. Her covetous gaze lingered on his cock as it throbbed in the air, still wet with her fluids, making his smooth shaft glisten.

“I bet I could see my reflection in that thing,” she giggled, biting her lip at the thought. “Here’s what’s going to happen,” she continued, her authoritative tone giving Bluejay pause. “You’ve tired me out and thoroughly satisfied me, so now, it’s your turn. I’m all yours,” she purred, reaching down to part her lips with a three-fingered hand. “Whatever you want to do with me, whatever it takes to satisfy you, go ahead. Enjoy me.”

Trembling with anticipation, he drew closer, laying his lower pair of hands on her smooth thighs. Her body was laid out before him like a buffet, and he didn’t know where to start. His eyes wandered between her pert breasts, her toned belly, the enticing sliver of pink between her labia. Miqi reached for the hose that she had discarded on the cushions beside her, having a leisurely smoke as she watched him, wallowing in his admiration with a smile on her lips. Slowly, she snaked her long tail behind him, giving him a gentle pat to guide him between her open legs. She was a little lower than was convenient for him, so he reached for a couple of nearby pillows, cupping her cheeks to lift her as he stuffed them beneath her butt. His pulsing member was now level with her loins, his shaft close enough that he could feel the heat that she radiated on his skin.

He dragged his erection between her puffy lips, still soaked with the juices from their previous bout of lovemaking, leaving her deliciously wet. She exhaled a puff of smoke through her nostrils as his green flesh slid against her delicate folds, her clawed toes curling. Bluejay brought all four arms to bear, filling his hands with her sculpted ass, gripping her wide hips for leverage. He maneuvered his prehensile cock, licking her, circling her opening with his tapered tip. There was no need to prime her – she was more than ready, his eyes lingering on a fat glob of her warm excitement as it dripped down to the underside of her tail. It lit a fresh fire in him, a sudden aggression welling, and he pulled her onto his shaft.

Miqi’s feathers flashed pink, her eyes losing their focus as he impaled her, her scaly ass clapping against his thighs with a sound like a wet towel being dropped on a tile floor. Her body tensed, then relaxed, his partner sinking back into her nest of pillows with a drunken smile on her face. Her burning passage welcomed him back with a spasm, firm muscle coiling around him through the medium of damp flesh, as soft as the most lavish silk. He couldn’t help but groan, leaning over her, watching his lover wet her lips as he flexed inside her.

“You’re not too sore?” he grunted, wondering if he should try to rein in the bestial lust that was building in him.

“Fuck yeah, I’m sore,” she chuckled as she rolled the end of her hookah hose around in her mouth. He could hear her sharp teeth clicking against the metal as she spoke. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Goaded on by her bawdy statement, he began to move, reveling in the sensation of her inner folds sliding up his shaft. Her flesh was clinging to him like a second skin, her muscles fighting him all the way, creating a teasing suction as though her body was trying to prevent him from leaving. When he eased back into her again, his tapered cock split her narrow passage apart, pushing her walls aside as it glided on a slippery layer of her fluids. He soon found a comfortable pace, finding it much easier now that Miqi was lying relatively still. The meat of her ass and thighs quivered with each stroke, his thrusts sending beautiful ripples through her lithe body, making her breasts bounce like little mounds of jello.

Miqi remained a relatively passive participant, though she seemed no less taken with him, puffing on her hose intermittently as she enjoyed the attention. As her pleasure mounted, she began to push back to meet his thrusts, encouraging him to go deeper.

“You look like you’re concentrating so hard,” she giggled, blowing a smoke ring that drifted towards his face.

“I’m just trying not to come too soon,” he grunted, eliciting another bout of chuckling from her. “I want this to last.”

“By all means, take as long as you like,” she purred as she settled into the velvet pillows contentedly. “There’s something to be said for a boy who can outlast me. You might even stand a chance of satisfying the whole flock before you collapse.”

He increased his pace, making her headdress flutter with appreciative pink, pushing her further into the pile of cushions as he leaned more of his weight on her. Now that he could dictate their pace, he could go as slow or as fast as he wanted, and Miqi was encouraging him to take his fill of her.

One of his hands left her hip, slowly sliding up her belly, Bluejay enjoying the way that her chiseled abs flexed beneath his palm with each thrust. The texture of her hide was sublime, the fine scales almost imperceptibly small on her stomach and inner thighs, somehow even smoother and silkier than skin. He couldn’t take his hands off her, Miqi tightening as he reached her chest, taking a greedy handful of her supple breast. Each gentle squeeze made his fingers sink into her quivering fat, the velvety tissue bulging between his digits, just springy enough to provide the perfect amount of resistance. It was amazing how her harsh, physically demanding lifestyle had left her so lean and muscular, but that so much doughy fat could still settle in the most inviting places. Her body was like a playground to him.

Bluejay felt that engorged bead of flesh brush against his shaft again, and he changed his angle to better stimulate it. Miqi’s relaxed expression vanished, and she gritted her teeth, a flicker of random patterns spreading through her plumage.

“Y-you don’t have to do that for me,” she gasped, gripping one of the pillows tightly in her free hand.

“It’s no inconvenience,” he replied. “Besides, I love seeing you this way. It makes me feel…aggressive.”

“If that’s what you want,” she replied with a flutter of anticipation, seeming to brace herself as he resumed his steady pace. She might be taking a more passive role, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t pleasure her all the same. He wanted to hear her musical voice again, her stifled cries and her moans of delight. He wanted to watch her shining body buck and contort in the dim light of the lounge. There was nothing more exciting to him than that prospect.

Miqi was tough in spite of her stature, and he felt comfortable leaning more of his weight on her, increasing the tempo of his thrusting. He rocked into her, the pillows absorbing much of the impact, the audible slapping sound of their increasingly heated coupling filling the booth. He could feel her matching his pace, pushing back more forcefully, the patterns in her beautiful plumage letting him know that she had become an active participant once again. She arched her spine, rolling her hips, the relentless kneading and squeezing of her fever-hot depths bringing him closer and closer to the edge. The hookah hose had been forgotten now, discarded on the cushions beside her.

“I can feel you holding back,” Miqi said, her voice wavering in time with his rutting. “Didn’t I tell you that I wanted to be sore? Go for it, Blue.”

He leaned over her, letting out an uncharacteristic growl of desire that surprised even himself, planting two hands on the pillows to either side of her head as he gripped her narrow waist with the lower. There was only excitement in Miqi’s eyes, and she reached up to grip his forearms in her hands, her feather sheaths winding around them possessively. She looked like she was strapping into a crash couch before a combat drop.

Not one to disappoint, Bluejay decided to indulge that burning urge, letting his instincts take over. Guided only by the need to sate his lust, he began to fuck her without reservation, Miqi’s headdress flashing yellow in surprise as he came down on her like a hammer. Her alarm soon turned to hunger, her feathers flushing pink, Miqi chewing on her lower lip as she gazed up at him with a sordid invitation in her eyes.

“Harder,” she hissed, grunting as he drove her into the cushions again. “Sending me back to my flock unable to walk straight will sway them more than words ever could.”

Bluejay moved his hips mechanically, driving his throbbing cock as deep as it would reach, his organ curling back on itself as he bottomed out in her depths. The motion stimulated Miqi’s hard little bud, every nerve in her twitching body seeming to ignite like a flare each time he touched it, the adorable little trills and gasps that she made only goading him on.

They moved as one organism, the barriers of skin and scale that separated them seeming to break down, as though their very nerves were becoming a tangled knot of wires. She was so wonderfully reactive, groaning and bucking as her tender walls raked up and down his length, the stimulating folds and wrinkles making points of light dance before his eyes. The jolt of each thrust made her contort as her muscles tensed involuntarily, her feathers putting on a mesmerizing display for him, like wordless cries of passion. Some of that prior desperation had crept back into her movements now, her trembling thighs gripping him tightly, the violent rolling of her hips growing erratic.

Bluejay leaned closer, pinning her between his heaving body and the plush cushions, bringing his face down to the nape of her slender neck. He had no lips with which to kiss her, no tongue, but he imitated the way that she had nuzzled him earlier. His panting lover seemed to appreciate his efforts, bouts of giggling interrupting her labored breathing, and she returned his affections as she plunged her nose into his furry collar. He let his antennae trail across her scaly skin all the while, taking in her pheromones, savoring the unfamiliar scents. If he was going to be with Miqi – live with her, share a bed with her – then he wanted to learn her body’s signals. One day, he might be able to know what she was feeling even before she did.

“Are you enjoying me, Blue?” she purred as she gazed up at him. She draped her arms around his neck lazily now that he was close enough to reach, her snout bobbing in time with his movements to make it look like she was dancing to a beat.

“This feels…I can’t stop myself,” he stammered.

“Don’t hold back on my account,” she whispered, one corner of her mouth lifting in a sly smile. “You already got me off again, if you were too distracted to notice.”

On the home stretch now, he brought a hand behind her head, cradling it as he buried his face in her shoulder. Each powerful thrust that rocked his groaning partner brought with it a fresh surge of pleasure, folds of wet flesh like pleats of silk scouring his tender shaft, her muscles milking him in a relentless stroking motion that made his head spin. Bluejay allowed himself to get lost in his fugue now, his fingers sinking into the welcoming flesh of her hips and butt as he fucked her like a beast in heat, more of his hands wandering across her smooth scales as the two lovers moved together. He felt as though he couldn’t rest – couldn’t be satisfied – until every inch of her writhing body had been mapped by his fingertips.

“Fuck, I can feel you swelling,” she moaned as he felt her clawed fingers scrape against the chitin plates on his back and shoulders. “Come on, Blue, you don’t have to play the well-mannered Jarilan anymore. I didn’t invite you into my booth for your social graces – I invited you so that we could fuck like animals.”

One more punishing thrust was all it took, and Bluejay felt the pressure that had been building inside him release, Miqi’s feathers flashing in alarm as he extended his gossamer wings. He slammed into her, burying his throbbing cock as deep as it would reach, his flexible shaft curling back on itself again as he ran out of room in her delightfully narrow passage. An ecstasy even more powerful than the first overwhelmed him, pleasure searing his nerves as it washed over him in waves, tied to the aching pulses of his organ. His member moved inside her like an extra appendage, its muscles flexing, each surge of sensation accompanied by a stifled cry from Miqi as it jumped inside her.

Bluejay pinned her beneath him, lifting her springy ass off the cushions to leave her almost upside-down, his hot seed flooding her. He could feel its heat spreading through her, the tightness of her clenching passage giving it nowhere to go, forcing the soupy concoction back out of her in pearly spurts that seeped down her inner thighs and the base of her tail. Unable to prevent himself from moving, he fucked the mess deeper, a lurid squelching sound that would have made even the most ill-mannered Marine blush filling the booth as their obscene coupling dragged on.

Miqi’s jaws were clenched, her lips pulled back to expose gritted teeth, her thighs gripping him so tightly that it was uncomfortable. Her tail coiled around his waist like a fat boa constrictor, holding him there, her arms wrapping around his neck.

“Fucking fill me,” she growled, her plea coming across more as a threat. “Don’t you dare pull out.”

That was the last thing he wanted to do, the intense, sharp stabs of pleasure gradually morphing into a satisfied euphoria. It felt like being immersed in warm water, as though every muscle in his body had suddenly released all of its accumulated stress, melting out of him like the juices from the steaks that Fletcher cooked on his barbecue. It was blissful – more powerful than the alcohol, more powerful than the herb. It left him even more sensitive, and each squeeze and flex of Miqi’s cushiony walls drew out another spurt of his emission, wringing him of every last drop.

“I can’t believe how much you gave me,” she marveled, her voice dripping with carnality. “I can feel it leaking out of me…”

“It’s your fault for being so goddamned tight,” he grunted. “I feel like I’m overfilling a vial of honey.”

“Shut up, you love it,” she chuckled as she nuzzled his collar. He finally ran out of strength, collapsing onto the inviting pillows beside her. Miqi didn’t relinquish her hold on him, her thighs and her powerful tail keeping him close, his member still lodged inside her. They lay there for a couple of minutes in a tangled, sticky heap, catching their breath as they recovered from the fading embers of their shared climax.

Finally, she relinquished her tight hold on him, unclenching her stout thighs and uncoiling her tail to let him slide out of her. Another wave of pleasure rocked the pair as his member rubbed against her tender insides on the way out, the sordid blend of their fluids that he had been plugging inside her escaping to pool on her thigh.

“Are all Valbaran girls as aggressive as you are?” he chuckled, draping one of his arms over the beautiful curve of her hip. “Not that I’m complaining, of course.”

“You’re gonna find out soon enough,” she replied, her tone sly. “When there are seven females born for every male on average, a girl can’t be shy about making her intentions known. Somehow, I don’t think the Jarilans are going to have as many problems integrating into Kerguela’nay society as I anticipated,” she added with a smirk, Bluejay shivering contentedly as she curled one of his antennae around her finger gently. “I just hope that your girls aren’t quite as skilled as your boys, or there might be some heated competition.”

“I don’t think your males will complain,” he chuckled.

“Now, keep still for a while,” she added as she shifted her weight to get more comfortable. “I’m going to take a nap, and you’re going to hold me until I wake up. Then, we’re going again.”

“You’re the boss,” he conceded, not sure whether to be aroused or frightened by her appetite.

Miqi shuffled closer, burying her nose in his furry collar, Bluejay cradling her with all four arms. She really was exhausted, but