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Bane 18: Tribulations
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Written and created by the immortal deadfast

"...It is good to see you...my friend."

My mouth hung open as words failed me. Wracked in relief and sudden exhaustion, my brain refused to function. Finally, with the unreal beast staring up at me, the thoughts came,

"When...how did you find me?"

The hunter killer still didn’t move while it’s telepathic voice spilled into my mind,

"I knew that fate would allow my return someday...yet, I never believed it would take so long–please forgive me."

With that, Bane shifted on the floor, trying unsuccessfully to stand before collapsing with a snarl of pain. Watching this made me wince, and I felt worse than ever.

"I should be the one apologizing," I retorted almost bitterly, "I’m so sorry for what I did to you...I...I’m-"

Bane cut me off as I began trailing,

"Think not of it! You have kept yourself from harm; it is all that matters."

I got to my feet and offered Bane a hand, but the hydralisk promptly waved it off with one blade. This time, he hooked a scythe around the crumpled doorway and managed to haul himself into a standing position.

"Are you going to be okay?" I asked carefully, afraid of what the answer might be.

"Given time, my health will recover."

Although the creature still towered over me, my memory recalled Bane being taller than the hunter-killer before me. I was somewhat confused until I remembered that I was just a kid when I last saw my scythe-wielding companion.

Bane seemed to read my thoughts, announcing what I was about to say before I could put it into words,

"It has been too long, my friend. Many troubles have found your world in my absence."

I gave Bane a cross look,

"What do you mean ‘many troubles’? Sightings of the zerg on Hiemdall are the lowest in the sector; the zerg have practically disappeared since you left."

Bane’s crimson eyes glowed briefly brighter as the answer came,

"The enemy may have vanished, but they were not defeated. Now the threat lies on the mantle of the Protoss. Even as we speak, the first-born wage a losing battle against my species. Our time of destiny is at hand: they must be stopped-"

I shook my head,

"Destiny and the Protoss can wait-we’ve got to get you patched up! Do you think you can make it outside?"

The smoldering monster snarled irritably,

"However formidable was your defense, let not it sway neither your confidence in my ability nor my pride! Stand aside, mortal."

I laughed out loud, finally able to let go of my tension; my old buddy was going to be okay.

"Good to have you back," I announced as I scooped up my C-8 and limped out of the distribution closet, allowing Bane enough room to squeeze through the doorway.

 

I was at odds with myself as I paced down the corridor with my ten-foot-friend at my side. On one hand, I was still in a state of shock and pure content to have Bane back, but on the other, it felt infinitely strange to leisurely stroll down the same hallway where-just minutes ago-we were trying to kill each other.

"So, Bane," I said, trying to break the awkward silence, "Whatcha’ been doing all this time? Where have you been?"

The over-sized hydralisk growled almost thoughtfully as it slithered along beside me,

"My abilities as a cerebrate have been a curse these long years: To be set amongst my brethren only to be found and slaughtered, to awaken with the blood of the innocent staining my blades in mid-battle, and to know that I could do nothing to stop the nightmare from happening again..."

Bane paused as we rounded a corner, only continuing after another long moment of silence,

"...It was enough to make one wish for the peaceful darkness of the void. Only the promise I made allowed me to keep my sanity."

...You have only to stay alive, I shall return for you...

"More and more frequently, I found myself in battle with the Protoss. I resisted my brethren’s motives and aided the doomed warriors where I may, but each passing confront pushed the First-Born back again and again. It is by this witness that I know our time is short. If we do nothing, the Zerg will succeed in their ultimate goal of assimilation, and then all life in the universe shall fall to their ambitions."

"Huh," I mumbled in slow comprehension, "That does sound pretty serious, but how can we stop something like the zerg?"

Bane released a great sigh that swirled the air in the hallway before answering my question with the response I was afraid of hearing,

"I do not know."

We continued in silence until the corridor ended at the ruined catwalk in the reactor chamber. I stopped long enough to really survey the damage for the first time. The warped grating was peeled open like a great can in font of the threshold, and half its perimeter was riddled with rips and holes.

"Wow," I noted in quiet astonishment, "Mich is gonna have a stroke when he gets the collateral bill from these guys-we sure made one hell of a mess!"

"An excellent display of our work," Bane added just before he dropped through the hole he made earlier to the ground floor below.

I made my way around to one of the ladders that remained and began climbing down. Bane was already there to meet me before my boots met the deck.

"While we’re on the subject," I asked as we continued toward the forward hangar, "What happened to the crew?"

The hunter-killer stared into space for a moment before responding,

"I sense they are still alive; huddled in a remote corner of the ship. Upon landing, they were trapped by my brethren."

Next, we reached the elevated platform at the head of the cargo hold. I gestured toward the slain zerg as we passed through,

"What the hell happened here?"

Bane followed me down the ramp, answering again as we slipped among the cargo containers,

"That was the place where I took new life. I awoke with my blades buried in the body of a hapless, unarmored Terran, but when I attempted to let this being go free, I was attacked by my own brood-mates."

"I see now," I announced as we came to the service lift at last, "So that’s how Jim got out alive."

The hunter-killer slithered onto the platform beside me and I hit the descend key. Operating on backup power, the motors whined pitifully. As the lift cleared the bottom hull and approached the ground below, I heard a yell and looked down to find Boss, T.J. and Mosely standing outside. They where fully decked out in their armored suits and combat rifles, and they all jumped with a start as the monster at my side became visible. I stepped in front of my friend as the platform jolted to a stop,

"Wait!" I yelled, holding my hands up, "Don’t shoot!"

They all stood there a moment, watching unblinkingly from behind the sights of their guns. Slowly, Mich lowered his rifle and spoke in a whisper of disbelief,

"You’re shitting me...it can’t be..."

"It hasn’t killed him yet," T.J. noted, "It must be, but...how?"

"I wouldn’t shit you, Boss," I announced, "You’re my favorite turd!"

Boss ignored my joke, still staring as if he didn’t believe what his eyes where telling him,

"Is it...really him?"

"The one and only," I answered proudly, stepping aside to let them see, "The big, bad bug is back!"

Another moment of silence passed as they lowered their weapons and looked among one another briefly, but it was struck down as all three of them practically exploded.

"Biggie!" Boss cried out as he dropped his gun and jumped forward, "Great to have you back!"

T.J. didn’t waste any time adding his bit,

"Where have you been? How did you get here?!"

"What does this mean?"

The hunter-killer backed away some as the procession swirled around him. Bane didn’t bother to entertain any of the questions that I already asked until Mosely spoke up,

"How da’ you feel?"

Everyone was quiet again, waiting intently for the answer. Finally, Bane graced them with a low growl and a few words of his telepathic voice,

"I feel....hungry."

 

The sun’s were beginning to rise as the slanted roof of the Farside diner appeared in the distance, pushing the night sky back with a dome of bright pink from the horizon. With only a few hours sleep in the past day or so, I should have been exhausted, but with my friend back, I felt lighter than air. T.J. rode in the seat next to me and jabbered on about everything that had happened in the past eight years. Bane didn’t say much; he mostly just listened and occasionally reminded us of his hate for flying.

"This is the place, Biggie," T.J. announced as I brought the Consolation down in the sandy lot in front of the Farside, "The best grub this side of Hiemdall, and breakfast is on me this morning!"

I took one look at the hydralisk that occupied half the cargo hold and had to slouch under the ceiling, then laughed.

"Are you sure you can afford that?" I asked while shutting down the engines.

The unsuspecting mercenary shrugged,

"It’s just one hydralisk; how much could it eat?"

In the windshield, Mich’s craft drifted into view as it touched down a short distance away. I gave up arguing with T.J. and unbuckled my harness,

"Alright, man, but don’t come crying to me when Boss has to give Maggie your checks for the next two weeks."

I hit the release for the cargo door and hopped down from the pilots hatch, meeting Bane at the ramp before we joined the rest of the crew in a huddle between the ships.

"Alright, boys and zerg, listen up," Boss announced, holding his hands up for silence, "Maggie is about as sharp as they come; so we’re gonna have to play this just right. Nobody mention anything about a hydralisk. If she asks, and she will, Biggie here is just an old friend from out of town. She’s run into telepath’s before, but..."

Mich paused and looked in Bane’s direction, "She’ll know something’s up if she hears your...voice. So if you have something to say, try to make sure that we’re the only ones to pick it up."

"Very well," the hunter-killer agreed.

 

Carefully, I eased my head into the diner and checked for customers. Luck was with us this morning. It was still early; the bar and tables sat empty. The wooden planks of the Farside’s floor creaked and groaned under Bane’s weight as T.J. and I held the double doors open long enough for the hunter-killer to pass through. We all fanned out and approached the counter as if this was a another morning just like any other. Maggie was at her usual place in front of the grill, seasoning a few dozen steaks at once.

"Good morning Miss Maggie," Boss said casually, "What’s the breakfast special today?"

The heavyset woman kept her back to us as she worked and answered over her shoulder.

"Good marnin boyz; todee eas steek an’ eegs-half preece for you."

"Sounds good Miss Maggie," Boss replied cooly, "Start us off with five plates."

Without a seconds hesitation, Bane reached between us and jabbed Mich in the back with a closed scythe-joint.

"Make that six orders," he corrected.

Bane jabbed again.

"B-better make that seven!" Boss stammered as the force of the second blow made him stagger forward.

Maggie replied again without turning from her work,

"I be wit ya soon, boyz. Have a zeat."

We were almost home free, but as we began to slip by, Maggie suddenly turned around and approached the counter while wiping her hands on her apron.

"Reeze," she proclaimed suddenly, "Who’s yer new fren?"

We all visibly winced, but Boss and the rest of the crew offered no help, abandoning me for a booth in the back corner.

"H-how’d you know we’re friends?" I stuttered, trying to buy myself time. Maggie only laughed,

"I may be blind, Reeze, but I con see de strong connection. Whey don you introduze us?"

"Well, I...you see..." I rambled, searching for the right words. Without warning, Bane’s voice penetrated my spiraling thoughts,

"Reece, we are found. This large Terran stares directly at me."

I had to stop myself from answering out loud, and instead tried to focus the words in my mind,

"Don’t sweat it, Bane. She’s blind."

Apparently, the trick worked. The hydralisk’s astounded response didn’t hesitate,

"Blind? This creature has eyes yet lacks the ability to see the world?!"

"You got it," I thought back, "But don’t underestimate her; she’s an awesome shot with a plasma cannon, even though I have no idea how she aims the thing."

Bane didn’t reply. Instead, I only felt a wave sorrow and pity.

"Eif you have aye cold tongue, boy, I con ask for meself," Maggie announced suddenly, "Whatz yer name, strenga?"

"He can’t tell you!" I suddenly burst out, "He...he’s a mute."

Maggie huffed in exasperation and put her hands on her hips,

"I con tell yer hidin’ somethin, but eats not my business to pry. Have a zeat child, and yer nameless frien’ as well."

"Whew!" I whispered as we moved to join Boss and the rest of the gang, "That was a close one."

"Real smooth, Reece!" T.J. laughed as I plopped down in my seat.

"Shuddup," I grumbled, "You guys were a real big help."

"What’s the matter kido?" Boss asked sarcastically while he opened his daily news paper, "I thought you preferred going solo."

Unwilling and probably incapable of sitting at a booth, Bane simply stood over us and drooled more than usual as the aroma of the frying steaks filled the building. We waited on our order in silence, but it wasn’t long before Maggie approached, arms loaded with steaming plates up to the elbows. She casually slid a platter in front of each of us, but stopped at the last three with a quizzical look on her face.

"The bar will do Miss Maggie," I answered quickly, "My...friend prefers to stand."

She simply nodded and set the remaining plates down on the bar beneath Bane’s eager maw before leaving us to our meal.

Mich, T.J. and Mosely dug right in, but I watched Bane curiously. Very gently, as not to shatter the porcelain, the hydralisk stabbed the closest steak and jammed it into its mouth, bone and all. Bane chewed slowly, crunching the bones without effort, before finally swallowing with a deep, satisfied growl. If Maggie heard it, she showed no signs.

"Absolutely incredible!" Bane exclaimed with obvious pleasure, "Such taste! Such flavor..."

I couldn’t suppress another laugh,

"Beats the hell out of frozen chicken, doesn’t it?"

"If there is one thing Terrans truly know," the hydralisk added while it mercilessly attacked the next portion, "It must be this."

 

Thirteen plates later, Bane finally began slowing down. We had all long since finished our own breakfast and watched in amazement as the hydralisk hungrily devoured steak after steak until the empty plates began pilling high on the bar. The final count ended at twenty, when Maggie flatly refused to bring another one.

"Reeze, yer frien eaz an animal!" Maggie said in disgust as she began to haul the dirty dishes away by the arm-load. As if to confirm her statement, the hydralisk unleashed a ghastly belch mixed with a gratified snarl,

"I demand that you give this wondrous creature my gratitude for the best meal I have ever had the pleasure of receiving."

"Sure thing, buddy," I chuckled as we all stood to leave at last.

"My friend gives his most sincere compliments to the chef," I announced to Maggie as we passed the counter and headed toward the door. The heavy woman only scoffed, dumping the load of dishes in a sink in the corner. Boss and Mosely opened the doors for a stuffed, wavering hydralisk, but I hung around long enough to watch the color drain from T.J’s face after Maggie handed him the check.

 

"Well, Reece," Mich announced as we regrouped in the sandy lot outside, "Me and the boys have a little business to take care of, but I want you to take the day off."

"No arguments here," I agreed with a yawn. Boss nodded and looked up to Bane,

"Biggie, it’s good to have you back. Is it safe to assume that you’ll be resuming your services for our little organization?"

"As I recall," the hydralisk answered matter-of-factly, "It is you who owes service to me. As much as it would please me, I am not here for food in exchange for fulfilling your agenda. The Protoss home-world and her twilight sister, Shakuras, are under siege from the swarms. I require a ship that we might go to the aid of the First-Born."

Mich was caught off guard by my friends response. He hesitated for a long moment, nervously rubbing the back of his neck before he was able to look Bane in the eye again,

"Well, you see, Biggie...It’s not that I’ve forgotten everything you did for us; the problem is the ship. It would take a major cruiser to reach that sector of space--all we have are light craft."

"Will not the ship I helped you to take suffice?!" Bane suddenly growled.

"That’s just the problem," Boss stuttered, "The salvage laws on Hiemdall have changed a lot since I was last here. It didn’t take any time at all for the authorities to figure out that the battle cruiser was stolen. Me and the boys escaped the most severe consequences, but Hiemdall defense is still holding the bird over my head in exchange for our services."

"What services?" The hydralisk’s telepathic voice hissed with agitation. Suddenly, Boss perked up again,

"Glad you asked, Biggie! The Defense’s list of chores always seems to find a way of growing faster than we can whittle it down. However, I happen to know that they’re in a major bind right now over the Ellison’s illegal weapons trade. If you can help us close their little business for good, the Defense will happily return the ship."

"There is no time for this!" Bane snarled angrily, "Do you not care that all life is at risk of being extinguished?!"

Mich backed away a few paces as the hydralisk advanced on him, holding his hands up in surrender,

"E-easy there, Biggie! We can’t just take the ship back! It’s under guard by some really nasty hardware, and even if we could get past that, they would blast us out of the sky before we even reached low orbit. I’m telling you; this is the only way I can help."

Bane stopped, growling in frustration as he considered our options. Finally, with a rumbling sigh, the hydralisk admitted defeat,

"So be it! However, know this without doubt: if there is any further delay I shall make you wish for the swift wrath of my brethren."

Mich smiled nervously, but his wit didn’t fail,

"Don’t you worry your pointy, brown head, Big’s. Help us take down the Ellisons, and the ship and our services will be as good as yours."

Just then, one of the Farside’s doors swung open and T.J. slowly meandered into the group with a mixed look of shock and grief on his face. I couldn’t pass up the chance for a good laugh as I slapped him on the back,

"I tried to warn ya, buddy! You can’t exactly expect a half-ton alien to be a light weight at chow-time."

"Well," Boss announced, "We better get going. I’ve got to make a lot of calls to make to get this plan off the ground. You two get rested up and we’ll start to work on the Ellison’s first thing in the morning."

 

"We’re here, Bane," I announced over my shoulder as the Consolation settled into the sand a short distance from the tree line. I hit the release for the cargo door before climbing out through the pilots hatch, but the hydralisk failed to meet me outside.

"Bane?" I asked in confusion as I paced around to the back side of the craft. My friend had only moved a few feet out of the ship and stopped, staring out over the ocean. I tried to see what he was looking at until the telepathic words spoke up in wonder,

"Where...what is this place?"

"It’s the beach," I answered dully, "You know; where the ocean meets the land?"

"I have never witnessed such serenity," Bane stated with a sense of awe, "You live here?"

"Sure do," I nodded, "Pretty sweet, huh?"

The hydralisk didn’t answer me, and, instead, continued gazing out to sea.

"Well," I yawned, "My place is the bunker just past the trees, in case the sun starts to get to you. I’m beat, so I’m gonna hit the sack."

Bane only mimicked my nod without breaking his deadlock on the surf.

 

I unlocked the bolt to the door of my bunker and stumbled inside, peeling layers of tactical armor off as I made my way to the sink. A haggard reflection met me in the mirror. One eye was slightly bruised and dried blood caked my hair. Boss had loaned me his TRA to fix my slashed leg and busted scalp before we left for the Farside, but it didn’t do much for my appearance. I sighed and turned on the faucet, cupping my hands and splashing my face with the cool water until most of the dirt and blood was gone.

With bed so close, I felt more tired than ever. I left my armor and boots on the floor where I dropped them in a trail from the door. Only my C-8 and the gauss pistols got special treatment in the form of their pegs on the wall. Finally, I collapsed on the bunk, ready to end the day before it ever really began. I gave one last thought to how great it was to have my friend back and was fast asleep in seconds.

 

It was the same dream from before; I recognized it instantly. The dark shapes of the zerg surrounded us, but didn’t make a move to attack. They seemed to be watching intently as a shadowy, winged being stepped from their ranks. Bane was there again, as well, but I could sense something that I’d never felt from the steadfast hydralisk. Fear and uncertainty clouded the air like a dense fog. Lightning fingered across a turbulent sky, briefly illuminating the menacing antagonist before us. Though brief, the image burned into my memory like a hot coal.

This thing was once human long ago, but it was left twisted and mutated by the touch of the zerg; a Terranoid figure patched over with carapace and ugly blades that oozed with venom. It’s hands were more like claws, and a pair of skeletal wings protruded from somewhere on it’s back. Only the face was left mostly unchanged, except the skin had adopted a pale, ghastly shade of green. The sickly, pupil-less eyes were perhaps the most malevolent feature, glowing a fierce, piercing yellow in the darkness.

Like the wailing cry of a thing possessed, the creature spoke with a mouth full of jagged, fangish teeth. I didn’t want to listen, but the syllables drilled relentlessly into my thoughts. However horrifying the voice may have been, the words it spoke struck me to the core,

"...You have done well...My pet..."

I sat bolt upright from a sound sleep. I had no idea what awoke me until a familiar sound rattled the peaceful evening: gunfire. It was close, only a few dozen yards away, toward the beach. Then a series of shouts and automatic fire mixed with the not-so-distant roar of a feral beast in mid-battle.

"Bane!" I gasped, leaping out of bed. I gave no thought to my armor or even my boots as I snatched the C-8 from its pegs on the wall and slung my ammo box out from under the bunk. The chaos outside grew in volume and intensity as I hastily filled the shell launcher to capacity and burst outside, into the cool night air.

I could see the collective muzzle flashes between the trees as I rushed forward, crashing through the brush like a wild man. As I reached the edge of the jungle, I spotted a second craft parked on the beach just a stone’s throw from the Consolation. Four soldiers in armored suits stood shoulder to shoulder at its rear door, all firing in unison at the shadowy hulk that was my friend. Another pair were a few paces forward and to one side with their backs to me, adding their rounds to the barrage.

Two bodies already lay motionless in the sand as Bane charged through the crossfire toward the ship, blades reared high. The men scattered in panic, diving off to either side as the hydralisk plunged into them, but one was too slow. An agonized scream pierced the night air and Bane held his impaled victim high, growling fiercely. Despite the rounds that sparked and bounced from it’s carapace, the hydralisk turned and hurled the hapless fighter to the sand, shifting to face the remaining soldiers that regrouped at his flanks.

I stood awestruck for a moment while Bane staggered through the deluge for another attack, but the soldiers retreated as the hydralisk advanced, allowing more time for their comrades to pelt the hydralisk with lead. I had never even pointed a weapon at another Terran before, but now I was left without a choice. Dropping to one knee, I switched the C-8 to impact detonation and took careful aim for the powered suits that still had their backs to me. For a moment, I hesitated, unable to pull the trigger, but a snarl of pain from my friend was all the encouragement I needed.

The C-8 belched flame as I let the canister fly. A split second later, a crackling ball of fire engulfed my target and illuminated the beach. I instantly felt sick as gory, smoldering pieces of the slain marine rained down in all directions. The other was launched a short distance away by the blast and lay slumped in a heap on the sand. Surprised by the sudden assault from the trees, the remaining gunmen backpedaled wildly for the cover of the Consolation, desperately feeding round after round to the angry monster that bore down on them.

I jumped up and sidestepped through the jungle, trying to beat the soldiers to the other side of my ship, but they stayed too close the craft to allow another shot without damaging the Consolation. Then, the tell-tale sound of a magazine running dry mixed with the chaos, and the last two soldiers abandoned their friend as he fumbled with a new clip. Now without bullets to slow his movement, Bane lunged forward, crushing the panicking assailant to the ground in passing, and continued to pursue the last two marine’s as they tore off up the beach.

Hindered by the dense sand, Bane couldn’t match their speed as they disappeared into the night. Yet, just before they could break into the trees, the hydralisk’s spine cavity whipped open in the blink of an eye and its body convulsed, sending a cluster of deadly spikes whistling through the air. A distant cry confirmed a hit, and one of the silhouettes toppled onto the beach while the other vanished into the jungle.

Bane stood panting, watching the spot where our last would-be assassin disappeared, while I stepped from the trees. Gleaming in the moonlight, a few trails of blood seeped from the hydralisk’s lightly armored tail and began forming little pools in the sand.

"You okay?" I asked as I approached, shifting my gaze back and forth from my friend and the tree line.

"Save for mere scratches," Bane growled, still trembling from adrenaline, "Who were they?"

"I dunno," I admitted, "When did they get here?"

The hydralisk never abandoned it’s watch while it’s telepathic voice shimmered among my own thoughts,

"They came after night fell. I did not know if they were acquaintances of yours until I saw their weapons. Upon my approach, they attacked."

I stepped around my friend and trudged up the ramp to the Consolation, frowning as I found holes in the hull’s port side from the firefight. A moment later, I located my flashlight and returned to the scene to inspect the bodies. Their mismatched armor and weapons told the story.

"The Ellisons..." I grumbled, rolling one of the marines over with my bare feet. Then, my eyes ran across the gory remains of the rebel that took my C-8 round in the back. I immediately broke out in a cold sweat as another wave of nausea swept over me. I turned away in disgust, taking a seat on the Consolation’s ramp before my quivering knees could dump me on the sand. Satisfied that the lone enemy would not return, Bane approached and noticed my discomfort.

"What troubles you, mortal? Were you injured?"

"No," I gagged, "It...its just that I’ve never killed anyone before. I...I’m..."

I trailed off as words failed me, but my friend seemed to understand.

"Fret not of it," the hydralisk growled softly, "These creatures would have held no such regret over your death. Your involvement came on the stead of necessity."

"Yeah, I know," I replied with a sigh, trying to regain my bearings, "But that still doesn’t make it right. I...I wish there was another way."

Bane didn’t have an answer for that. The hydralisk only watched in silence as I panted, fighting to keep from spilling my guts. At last, I was able to stand and think again.

"They may have turned tail for now, but they’ll be back," I stated cooly, "It’s no longer safe to stay here. We better lay low for a while."

I took one last glance at the corpses before looking back to Bane,

"The Defense core won’t like this. Take the bodies up the beach a ways and drag them into the trees. The last thing I need is to be locked up for interrogation."

The hydralisk nodded with a growl and turned to its grim task while I paced warily back to my bunker to collect the rest of my weapons.

"Meet me back at the ship," I announced over one shoulder, "We’ll head to the Farside early and wait for Boss and the crew."

 

The clouds drifted out to sea and the stars shone bright in the clear night sky as the Farside’s transponder began drifting into the scanners range. To my dismay, an unfamiliar ship already sat in the parking lot as I brought the Consolation down to the sandy earth.

"Better wait here," I told a disappointed hydralisk as I unbuckled my harness, "It looks like Maggie still has some lingering patrons."

"Open the door," Bane suddenly declared as I reached for the com-link.

"Why?" I asked in confusion.

"If you are ambushed again, I do not wish to further damage your ship in order to provide my assistance."

The hydralisk’s logic was correct; I could barely afford to have the new bullet holes patched, much less replace a cargo door, too.

"A good point," I agreed, punching the button for the rear door, "But you’d best hang tight until the place clears out. Maggie’s no joke with that plasma rifle."

I cut the power to the engines and snatched the communicator from the Consolation’s dash and dialed it to Mich’s frequency.

"Hey Cap’n," I hailed, "You out there? We’ve got a little problem."

I was surprised when Boss’s voice came back only a few seconds later,

"What’s happening on your end, kid?"

"It’s the Ellison’s," I reported nonchalantly, "They paid Bane and I a visit earlier this evening. Looks like our secret’s out; they came packing heat."

There was a moment’s hesitation this time before Mich’s response came,

"Sounds serious. Did you clear outta there?"

I sighed and rubbed my eyes; I was still tired from the day before,

"Yeah, we’re holed up here at the Farside now. You in the neighborhood?"

"We’re about ten clicks out and closing," Boss said quickly, "Head on in and grab a table; we’ll be there shortly."

"Can’t right now. Maggie’s still got a few customers buzzing around. Me and Bane are just gonna wait them out until..."

I trailed off as I glanced over my shoulder and found the cargo bay empty. I sat upright and turned around in my chair,

"Bane?" I asked the vacant hold.

I whipped around and my eyes snapped wide as I spotted the hydralisk on the front porch of the diner, pushing its way through the double doors as if it’s name was on top of the guest list.

"Oh good lord, no!" I gasped, fumbling with the latch of my door, but it was too late. Before my boots ever met the gravel, a series of piercing screams split the night air and I could vaguely hear a young woman cry out ‘ZERG!’. Seconds later, a handful of people poured from the Farside’s back door and bolted towards the craft sitting a few paces away. Bane had already disappeared inside, but not for long.

For a brief moment, I could just hear the high-pitched charge from Maggie’s weapon of choice before a series of bright blue flashes lit every window of the Farside and illuminated the parking lot. Three shots later, the double doors shattered off their hinges as the hydralisk sailed out backwards, riding a wave of hot energy. Bane landed hard on his back in the dirt and slid to a halt, kicking up a plume of dust in his wake.

I rushed from the ship and fell to my knees next to my friend. The hydralisk’s had taken the plasma bolts directly in the chest, and it’s carapace was once again a charred mat of smoldering embers.

"I tried to warn you!" I panted, "Bane! Speak to me!"

Bane writhed on the ground and growled in disorientation,

"...Did you get the number of that carrier?"

Just then, Maggie appeared in the threshold with plasma cannon in hand, swearing malevolently,

"Damnable beast!" She howled as she held the butt of the weapon to her shoulder and took aim again, "Ar’ll learn you ta’ crash MY diner!"

"Maggie, NO!" I cried, diving off to one side as the large, enraged woman fired twice more. The punishing beams of energy blotted out my vision when they hit home, lighting their target and the dark night with plumes of intense, white fire.

Fortunately for Bane, and consequently all life that depended on him, Maggie’s weapon chimed dully as it ejected a spent plasma canister and she could fire no more. She swore again and dug in her apron for another charge while the hydralisk lay motionless on the rim of a small crater in the parking lot. I jumped to my feet as Maggie began crossing the lot, running to get between her and my hapless friend.

"STOP, Miss Maggie! Please! It’s not what you think, this is my-"

I was stopped short as Maggie promptly shifted in mid-stride and backhanded me so hard I saw stars and fell to one knee. I could taste blood in my mouth as I tried to regain my bearings, but she was already standing over the partially aflame hydralisk with a new canister loaded. At this point, I was ready to tackle the woman to the ground in attempt to save my friend, but she already had the weapon trained and her finger on the trigger. To this day, I still don’t know what kept her from finishing Bane, but she didn’t fire.

Nothing moved. In the background of the unnerving scene, Mich’s ship drifted in from over the tree line and settled to the gravel with a whine of its thrusters. Boss, Mosely and T.J. piled out of the craft and jolted to a stop with wide eyes. They looked at Bane and Maggie, then to me, still on one knee with blood running down my chin, then back to Maggie.

"D-Don’t do it, Miss Maggie!" Mich finally stammered, having taken in the situation.

"Geave me ONE reason why I shouldn’t!" She yelled back, never flinching in the least.

"He’s my best friend," I said, trying to remain calm as I got to my feet, "He’s saved our lives more times than you’ll know! PLEASE, Maggie! Give him a chance; he loves your cooking!"

Time seemed to hang in place. Soon, the only sound came from the bugs in the night and the crackle of Bane’s smoldering carapace. Then, too my horror, Maggie jerked the bolt on her plasma rifle and it whined as the weapon charged to full power. Yet, out of the blue, Bane managed to save himself.

Trembling with the effort, the hydralisk lifted it’s head and faced the woman behind the cold barrels. It’s eye’s glowed a brighter shade of red as a familiar telepathic twinge shifted the air, yet Bane’s voice did not accompany it. I was at a loss for words; dumbfounded when Maggie suddenly dropped her weapon in the dirt and backed away with a gasp. She fell to her knees and her hands shook as she brought them to her mouth. Without warning, tears began streaming down her cheeks.

"...I..." Maggie practically whispered; totally in contrast to her anger from before. After a seconds hesitation, she continued, almost sobbing,

"...I’ve heard de people speak of tem...but not even in my dreams, could de stars...look so beautiful..."

 

By sharing his mind and senses with her, as he once did with me, Bane was able to give Maggie the priceless gift of sight and offer her the first glimpses of a world she had never seen before. Fortunately, Mich had the TRA on his ship recharged earlier that evening and we were able to repair some of the damage that Maggie’s plasma cannon had inflicted. After words, Maggie and Bane spent the better part of an hour strolling slowly around the Farside, where he showed her images of the sky, the ocean and her own diner. We waited inside until they finally returned, Maggie still with tears staining her face. She constantly apologized for the assault, forcing Bane to stand still while she delicately swabbed at his remaining wounds with a wet towel.

"So Reeze," Maggie asked when she was finally satisfied that Bane was cleaned up to the best of her ability, "Thez was de fren’ you brought yesterday, right under me nose?"

"Yes, ma’am," I answered from my seat at the bar, "Sorry we didn’t tell you about him before-we didn’t think you would understand."

Maggie moved around to her place behind the counter and started scrubbing her hands clean at the sink,

"You were reight, chile; I still don’ unda’stand–but dat doesn’t matta’." Maggie paused when she finished, turning to the corner where Bane still waited,

"Bane, precious, what would you lieke me fix?"

"The meal from yesterday would be glorious," the hydralisk answered without hesitation.

Maggie nodded and turned to the cold storage for the requested supplies. T.J. looked my way with a stark expression on his face and pulled his pockets inside out, proving that he was still broke from the last sitting.

"How are we going to pay for that?" I asked Maggie as she returned with a box of frozen steaks in her arms. She brushed the question off like a mosquito,

"I’d lieke ta see de sun come up; dat’ll be payment plenty."

I laughed when T.J. slumped forward and banged his head on the table. Always in the mood for business, Mich waved me over to their booth with a more serious expression on his face. I left my place at the bar to stand in front of the them. A moment later, Bane was there with me.

"I pulled all the strings I have, but there’s still a little snag." Boss reported, "It seems that the Defense’s informant skipped town shortly after their meeting, sadly, without telling them a key point of information."

My thoughts started to drift as Caryn’s image resurfaced from my memory, but Mich began again and brought me back to reality,

"The boys in Defense want the weapons trade shut down now if there’s any hope of getting the Mark three back. They figure if we can hit their communications hub, it’ll leave the rest of em’ scatter-brained long enough to round them up without too much trouble. The problem is, nobody knows where this place is."

Flashes of the underground bunker complex, with its entrance hidden below the trees, sifted through my thoughts. That had to be the place.

"No," I interrupted suddenly, "I know where it is."

 

Shortly after Bane finished his sizable meal and ‘paid’ for it in full, I led the crew to the same spot Caryn had taken me the day before. We set the ships down in the same clearing and Mosely stayed behind to watch them while the rest of us began the long trek through the jungle. My tactical armor was more forgiving to the clinging underbrush than the guys’ powered suits, but it didn’t seem to matter. Bane made enough noise for all of us.

"Are you sure this is the place?" Mich asked doubtfully as he fought the cumbersome vegetation.

"Quiet!" I hissed, "The entrance is just up ahead. There will probably be armed guards outside; be ready with your rifles in case they hear us coming."

"Too late for that," T.J. whispered, pointing ahead with the barrel of his gun, "I think our secrets out."

He was right. A short distance through the trees, glimpses of dark armor could be seen as a number of the rebels closed towards us, slowly swinging their own weapons from one side to the other as they scanned the forest. Boss made a fist, signaling us to lay down. They were moving slightly off to our right, but there was no way we could remain hidden for much longer. As they drew closer, I counted three of them in powered suits. We couldn’t risk a direct firefight with them; one injured man and our plan would be shot.

I put my hand to my headset, my words barely more than a breath with syllables mixed in, "It would be best to give them the wrong idea. They’re expecting a terran assault; a zerg attack would catch them off guard."

Mich nodded from his prone position, waving a hand toward the advancing soldiers,

"Sick’em Biggie!"

 

The rebel patrol stopped short as the jungle suddenly came to life around them. Something huge was crashing through the trees like a deranged bulldozer, but they could do little to react as the hydralisk fell upon them with a malevolent roar and blades reared for battle. Muzzle blasts and shouts could be heard briefly, but the chaos died out as quickly as it started, leaving the forest eerily silent once more. A moment passed before Bane emerged from the trees again, blood staining his scythes and carapace,

"It is done," he announced flatly. I shuddered as I rose to my feet again, thanking my lucky stars that such a creature of destruction was on our side. We met no further resistance as we came to the clearing with the concrete bunker that served as the entrance to the under ground complex. I tried to give little thought to the guards that would have been here to stop us, had they not lay slain in the forest. The thick blast doors were sealed tightly shut, now standing as the only opposition between us and the ballistic carnage that awaited inside.

"Shit..." T.J. swore as he inspected the control panel, "It’s gonna take me an hour to crack this thing; better go to plan B."

Without another word, T.J. and I moved to stand against the wall on one side of the door while Boss took up a position opposite to us. Bane slithered up to the door, tapping it here and there with one scythe joint, testing it for structural weaknesses before he deftly jammed both blades between the steel slabs. With a snarl of exertion, the hydralisk wrenched the doors open. The metal sheets crumpled into the door frame with a shower of sparks from the shorted pneumatics and an alarm suddenly blared from the inside.

"Let’s move!" Mich barked, jerking the bolt on his gauss rifle as he followed Bane into the compound. I nodded, checked the safety on my C-8, and stepped inside after him with T.J. bringing up the rear. Just inside and down the first flight of stairs, the doors to the crews quarters on either side of the hallway flew open. Men in jump-suits, probably awakened by the blast of the alarms, rushed to the doorway only to skid to a stop, staring wide-eyed at the monster that waited in the hall.

Bane looked from one side to the other, his growl rumbling as a warning to the petrified soldiers. Boss stepped into one doorway while I moved to the other, weapons poised to fire. The unarmed men backed into their quarters again slowly, holding their hands up in surrender.

"We’re just here for a little business venture, fellas," Mich announced before hitting a button on the control panel next to the door, causing the hatch to slide shut once more. I did the same on my end and smashed the panel with the butt of my rifle to keep them from opening it again once we were past.

Red lights flashed from their mounts on the ceiling, throwing their crimson glare on the cement walls as we continued deeper into the compound unhindered. All the doors were automatically locked by the time we reached the terminal room where Caryn had taken me last time.

"This is it," I gestured toward the thick steel hatch with the barrel of my weapon, "Their computer core is just inside."

Boss stepped by me and tried the handle, swearing when it didn’t budge,

"You’re up, Biggie," He said quickly, stepping aside to allow the hydralisk to do its work. Bane punched both scythes through the door and promptly twisted it from the frame with a snarl of effort, and that’s when the trouble arrived.

The gunfire suddenly exploded around us, echoing like thunder in the confined passageway. A team of rebels had organized at the T-junction down the hall and opened fire in a concentrated hail, taking us by surprise. I was never so glad for Bane’s bulky size as the cloud of lead rained down the corridor, bouncing and ricocheting off the hydralisk’s dense carapace and the concrete walls.

Moving faster than anything so large should be able to move, Bane whirled around to face the enemies and hefted the steel hatch that was still stuck on his scythes, using it as a shield against the sheets of rifle fire. I hunkered behind Bane as he flinched and growled with the impact of the rounds while Boss and T.J. ducked into the terminal room. Mich looked to me from the safety of the doorway and cupped his hands to his mouth, yelling to overcome the thundering gunfire,

"Go take care of them, kid! We’ll mop up in here and be right behind you!"

I nodded, gripping the C-8 like a childhood toy, but failed to make a move just yet. Despite having already done it once, I still didn’t like the thought of firing a weapon directly at another human. However, it only took a single bullet whistling by my ear to change that: it was either them or us. I aimed the barrel towards the wall at an angle and jerked the trigger twice, sending a pair of rounds bouncing off the cement towards our enemies ahead. The explosions were deafening in the confined corridor and half the lights burst from their sockets in the ensuing blast wave.

Having taken cover from the grenades, the rebels’ storm of lead ceased briefly. This was all the cue Bane needed. He lunged forward, nearly making me stumble over when he suddenly moved. Just before the hydralisk reached the junction ahead, the firing continued, but Bane charged headlong into the sheet of gauss fire, oblivious to the slight damage it caused. The hydralisk reached the corner and turned with the steel hatch, slinging it into the mob of stunned mercenaries to his right. They toppled to the floor as Bane then turned left and charged for the others with outstretched blades and a snarl of fury. I was right behind him, resisting the urge to look away when I drew my gauss pistols and emptied both clips into the men on the floor.

The muzzle flashes dazzled my eyes as the rounds pelted their armor full of holes. Still hunkering in Bane’s shadow, I let the empty clips clatter to the floor at my boots before I dug in my ammunition belt for fresh ones. Behind me, the fighters backpedaled wildly before the wrath of this unexpected alien threat. The hunter-killer bore down on them like something escaped from a nightmare; the stray rounds the rebel squad managed to fire as they retreated only enraged the monster further.

One of them tripped while the rest rounded a corner and Bane wasted no time in slashing him aside. This time, I had to look away when the hapless soldier cried just before the blow came, nearly tearing the body in half as it was hurled against the wall.

Suddenly, a metal-sheathed hand grasped my shoulder and I instinctively spun around with both gauss pistols trained on the spot. TJ yelped and Boss pushed the weapons out of his face irritably,

"The charges are set in the terminal room!" Mich still had to speak up over the report of gunfire that echoed from just around the corner, "We’ve got five minutes to place the rest and clear out!"

I hesitated, looking back the way Bane had gone as TJ slipped by me, but Boss punched my arm in attempt to bring me back,

"Don’t worry, kid: Bigs can take care of himself! We still have to find the com-hub and get back outta here before we go up with the place!"

With that, Mich stepped over the bodies of the rebels at my feet and followed TJ around the next bend. I stayed a moment longer, listening to the chaos behind me fade into the depths of the compound before I hurried to catch up.

The next corridor was surprisingly barren of life except for the three of us. Only the sound of our boots pounding on the cement floor accompanied the synthesized voice that repeated over the loudspeakers throughout the compound,

"Zerg signatures detected in sector two. Level three lock-down initialized. All personnel prepare for combat."

As we turned the next corner, a security checkpoint came into view. Two soldiers stood at each side of a large door and threw their weapons to their shoulders the instant they saw us. Then, one of them yelled "Freeze!".

Boss and TJ glanced at one another before hefting their own guns and jamming the triggers. A brief exchange of lead ensued until I leaned out from behind the bulk of TJ’s powered suit and fired a round from my C-8. The explosive was set to impact detonation and when it hit the door between the guards, the blast sent them crashing to either side of the hall with deadly force.

Before the smoke cleared, TJ ran forward and relieved the dispatched gunmen of their key cards. However, Mich lagged behind, favoring one arm.

"I’m hit!" He grunted as I moved past him and took one card from TJ’s outstretched hand, "You two finish up in there and I’ll watch the door!"

I nodded and TJ said a quick "Right, Boss," before we moved to the panels set in the wall on each side of the door. It took us two try’s, but we managed to swipe our cards simultaneously, unlocking the way to the communications room. TJ hit a button on his side and the doors parted ways, revealing a spacious area jammed with rows of terminals facing toward a large electronic map on the back wall. The unarmed technicians frantically running the equipment all turned to face us as if someone had blown a horn.

"Listen up, ladies! This is a raid!" TJ barked, waving his gauss rifle left and right.

"Last call for resignations," I added as I stepped in beside him, "Everybody out!"

We moved aside to keep our distance as the confused, frightened people abandoned their posts and rushed for the only exit. In seconds, we were alone with the humming electronics. TJ flung a pack from his shoulder into the center of the room and jerked his head towards the door,

"Job’s done. Let’s go!"

Before we could turn around, Mich unexpectedly crashed against us and sent us toppling to the floor in a heap. A split second later, gunfire erupted from down the hall and lead peppered the stations before us. I rolled hard left to escape the lethal torrent while Boss and TJ took cover on the right. A new squad of rebels had caught up and taken position at the front of the hall, trying to pin us in the com-hub with suppressive fire. I glanced at my watch, flinching as the bullets sparked off the door jam just a foot from my head.

"We’ve got less than two minutes!" I yelled over the booming gauss fire, "There’s no time for this!"

TJ tried to hold his gauss rifle out in the ballistic downpour and fire blindly at the soldiers around the corner, but his weapon only managed half a dozen shots before chattering pathetically.

"I’m out!" He yelled, ducking behind cover once more. I attempted to do the same, but the gunmen doubled their efforts with stim-packs, forcing us to stay hidden behind the edges of the door.

"Where the hell is plan B when you need him?!" Boss hollered, still cradling his injured arm. I shook my head,

"Keep your suit on! He’ll be here!"

As if on cue, the tell-tale roar of the beast rose above the crackle of gunfire. Fully concentrated on keeping us pinned down, the rebels were taken by complete surprise when Bane fell on them with vengeful blades. A series of screams rang out as the raining lead suddenly ceased, allowing me to flip around the corner and let fly with both gauss pistols. The soldiers had their backs to me now, vainly trying to subdue the monster that shrugged their rounds off and crushed one man after another with brutal swings of both scythes.

My own rounds pelted their armor, bringing a pair of them to their knees as Bane impaled their squad leader and hurled him against the rounded concrete ceiling. Without skipping a beat, the hydralisk brought its scythes down between the last two soldiers and shoved them against each side of the hall with enough force to shatter their visors and cleave their armor practically in half at the waist. In seconds, the hydralisk was the only thing still standing at the scene of carnage in the corridor.

After a moment of silence, TJ gave me a stunned looked and asked me in disbelief,

"And you actually stopped this thing yesturday?"

"Shuddup’ you moron!" Mich barked before I could say anything, "Let’s get the hell outta here!"

TJ and Mich ran ahead, following Bane back towards the main exit while I backpedaled with the C-8, guarding our escape. In places, the compound was a slaughter house; mangled CMC power suits lay sprawled in the floor and slumped against the walls of the passageways. I had to fight the urge to throw up until the steps for the front door came into view around the last corner. I glanced at my wristwatch once again. Less than thirty seconds now-this was going to be close.

Bane lunged up the steps with a single thrust of his tail and the guys clambered up after him. I was the last to leave the compound, panting as I made a break for the door. Boss and TJ were already in the trees by the time I made it outside, but Bane had waited on me. I only made five steps in the grass when the hunter-killer suddenly bear hugged me from behind. A split second later, the blast of the explosives quaked the ground beneath my boots and a cone of fire and shrapnel erupted from the open doorway of the underground complex.

The hydralisk growled doggedly as it shielded my body from the shockwave and flying debris. Flame coursed by on either side, scorching Bane’s bullet-pocked carapace while bits of concrete rained down around us.

Bane released me as the smoke cleared and the crack of the explosion echoed into the distance. I turned to stare a moment at the ruined complex. A great column of black smoke was already rising into the sky and choking the clearing around the entrance. A shudder crept over me as I thought of the human life we took. No wonder, I thought, that despite our technology, the Protoss still considered Terran civilization to be primitive. Even after thousands of years, people still killed each other in the name of ‘peace’. I jumped involuntarily when Boss called from the trees, snapping me from my thoughts,

"C’mon, kid! Are you waiting for the cavalry to show up or what?"

I shook my head, trying to convince myself that it was unavoidable, but I couldn’t help taking one last look before I turned on the scene and ran to catch up with the rest of the crew.

 

"Head straight back to your place and pick up the rest of your gear," Mich hissed between clenched teeth as TJ handed him a set of surgical hemostats. The left arm of his combat suit lay on the ramp next to him in pieces, leaving the structural frame and the limb itself exposed from the elbow down. I averted my eyes when Boss sucked in his breath and dug in the wound for the bullet lodged in the meat.

"...How primitive," Bane growled, tilting his head to one side as he watched without blinking.

"We can’t risk hanging around for a counter attack," Mich winced as he stared at the blood-soaked bullet he had extracted with the glorified tweezers. He flicked the round to the dirt while Mosely approached with the partially charged TRA, "We’re gonna head to the shop and load up everything there. We’ll meet you at the Farside before we all pull out together for the Klorian Reserve Shipyards in the morning."

"Sounds like a plan," I agreed with a nod, "Are you getting Kip in on this, too?"

"If we can pry the little prick away from those high-dollar commission jobs," Boss snorted as he began reassembling the pieces of his suit-arm, "I planned on making a run by his shop to fuel up and make a few repairs."

Mich paused again to point at my feet, where my shin plates hung on in duct tape-reinforced tatters, "You should consider doing the same."

"I might just do that," I added before I turned towards the Consolation and gave the attentive hydralisk next to me a punch in the arm, "Let’s roll, Bane."

 

The evening suns were beginning to drift toward the ocean by the time we made it back to my bunker. I set the Consolation down on the sand in her usual spot and hit the release for the rear cargo door.

"I’ll only be a minute," I called over my shoulder to Bane, "Stay here and guard the coast while I get my stuff. If you smell anything suspicious, let me know."

Just before I opened the pilots hatch, I turned back to the blood-stained hydralisk,

"And do us all a favor: take a romp in the surf to wash some of that crap off. You draw enough attention as it is without being covered in gore."

"As you wish," Bane growled in response as I unbuckled my harness and climbed outside. On the way into the trees, I swapped the clips in my gauss pistols for my last set of fresh ones. I had no idea if some of the Ellison’s had come back here after the assault or not, but I wanted to be ready for them if they did. The bolt on the door was still locked as I warily approached the salt-worn bunker. Inside, everything was just as I’d left it earlier that morning. I sighed and slid my weapons back into their holsters, satisfied that nobody was around.

I methodically replenished my used clips before returning them to their places at my ammunition belt and topped off my supply of C-8 charges. Once that was done, I pulled a tired old duffel bag from under the bed and stuffed it with the remaining ammo. Almost as an after thought, I filled a second sack with a few extra changes of cloths and my toothbrush; there was no telling when we would be able to stop at another Terran settlement.

I took one last look at what had been my home for the last eight years and thought about how long I waited for this day. Only now, did I actually begin to ponder about what might come to pass after word. I shook my head and snatched the duffel bag off my bunk. With the other hand, I slung the sack containing my cloths over one shoulder and left without a word.

The jungle seemed calm and serene as I stepped outside and glanced around. I pushed the door shut with my shoulder, but the moment I turned around again, I took one step into the cold barrel of a gun.

I was rendered temporarily stunned and cross-eyed by the weapon that was unexpectedly thrust between my eyes and pressed against my forehead. Then, I focused on a familiar face scowling at me from behind the sights.

"Caryn?!" I gasped, unable to move, "What the hell are you doing here?"

"You!" She practically spat at me, "You brought a bunch of your mercenary friends to the com-center and trashed the place!"

I dropped my bags and held my hands up slowly, "What’s the problem? I thought you were done with those guys!"

"I would be if you weren’t stupid enough to pull that stunt!" Caryn hissed at me, "Now the bastard’s are after me, too!"

I actually began to sweat despite the cool evening air, but I still tried to reason with her, "Then what’s this about? How would shooting me help anything?"

"It might just be good enough to clear my name," Caryn said coldly as she drilled into me with her piercing, blue gaze. I stepped back involuntarily, still holding my hands up in surrender, when Caryn’s silenced pistol suddenly exploded in her hands.

We both jumped instinctively when Bane’s well aimed needle spine obliterated the stamped-metal firearm. Pieces of it showered everywhere as Caryn whirled around to face the hydralisk that was now barreling through the trees towards us, growling and snarling like a thing gone feral.

"What the fuck?!" she swore in total shock and bewilderment. Before I could stop her, she reached out and expertly snatched one of my gauss pistols from my belt. I lunged to stop her, but she managed a quick burst of rounds before I could push her arm skyward and divert the gunfire. Despite the damage he still bore from the raid, Bane hardly flinched from the light automatic slugs as he charged towards us.

"What the hell are you doing?!" Caryn screamed as I struggled to wrestle the weapon from her grasp, "You’re going to get us both killed!"

Finally, I tore the gauss pistol from her hands and spun around just as the hydralisk closed the distance with both scythes reared for destruction.

"Bane! Stop!" I yelled, waving my arms as I stood between Caryn and the charging alien. Bane came to a lumbering halt at the last moment and lowered his blades slowly. His crimson eyes still glowed brightly with the lingering adrenaline of battle when I heard Caryn breathlessly repeat her previous swear, only with a sense of confused awe this time.

"Who is this treacherous mortal?" Bane growled angrily, leaning over and around me to glare at the girl that uncharacteristically hunkered in my shadow.

"Holy shit," Caryn gasped again, "...It talks?!"

"Yeah, it talks," I barked at her over my shoulder, "And I wouldn’t try that again if I were you! I don’t know how many times I can stop him like this."

"Him?!" She scoffed in disbelief, "What are you talking about? What the hell’s going on here?!"

I sighed and stepped aside, allowing the girl and the hydralisk to see each other face-to-armored-face for the first time.

"Caryn," I paused to gesture towards Bane with one hand, "Meet Bane. Bane, this is Caryn."

Caryn took a fearful step back as the hunter-killer moved towards her. After a full minute of staring at each other, Caryn finally reached out gingerly with one hand and touched Bane’s rock-solid face with the tips of two fingers.

"This thing...is a hydralisk...a zerg hydralisk! I’ve never seen one in person before; are they all like...this?"

"Unfortunately not," I answered while nervously rubbing the back of my neck, "I still don’t understand it, myself, but it’s okay-we’re old friends. This one won’t hurt you...I think."

"That depends on future circumstances," Bane growled in warning, surprising Caryn into snatching her hand back when he suddenly spoke again. Her scowl returned as she glanced at me briefly before turning her attention back to the ten-foot monster an arm’s reach in front of her.

"Where did this thing come from?" Caryn asked again. Apparently, she had no shortage of difficult questions, "How the hell did you find it?"

"That’s a long story that I might tell you later if you ask nicely," I said with an exasperated sigh. Caryn frowned as she stared at the mangled shards of metal scattered at her feet,

"You could have warned me about your pet zerg! That wasn’t a cheap gun; you owe me."

"Owe you?" I laughed half-heartedly, "Considering I could have let Bane split you down the middle, I’d say that makes us even. Besides, Bane’s more fun with an element of surprise."

"I am no one’s pet," Bane interrupted sternly, but I shrugged them both off and picked up my luggage once more.

"It’s nice to see you again, princess," I grumbled as I slung the sack of cloths over my shoulder again, "But we do have prior arrangements to attend to. Now, if you’ll excuse us-"

"Hold it right there," Caryn jerked me to a stop by the tactical armor on my back as I attempted to leave her by the bunker, "There’s a price on my head because of you. You can’t just leave me here!"

I gave Bane an annoyed glance, prompting the hydralisk to reach between us with the flat side of one blade and slap Caryn’s offending hand away. Now that I knew I had held the cards for a change, I turned around to face her with a gloating look in my eyes,

"Why shouldn’t I? The last few times I tried to help, you tried to bite my hand off."

For the first time, Caryn was actually at a loss for words. She stumbled a moment before she could come up with a reasonable response,

"Well," she snapped suddenly, "You promised my uncle that you would keep me safe from the Ellisons in return for fixing your precious ship!"

"Give me a break, sister," I laughed again, "If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have needed those repairs in the first place."

Without warning, Bane interrupted our argument again with an agitated snarl before leaving us in front of the bunker.

"Too much time has been lost already, Reece. We must depart immediately."

"Get back here!" Caryn, obviously becoming infuriated, stamped her foot as we turned on her and began moving back towards the beach, "Where the hell do you think you’re going?!"

"To save the galaxy," I called back sarcastically as I hurried to catch up with Bane.

 

I climbed back onboard the Consolation through the pilots hatch and pulled it closed with an exaggerated sigh. The ship shifted beneath me slightly as Bane hauled himself up the ramp and into the cargo hold. Then, the hydralisk’s telepathic voice intruded my thoughts while I hit the switches to start the engine and close the cargo door,

"Do all females of your species behave in this manner?"

"God, I hope not," I shook my head as I buckled my harnesses again. To my surprise, the co-pilot door swung open and Caryn climbed inside.

I rolled my eyes as she plunked down in the seat next to me and began buckling up,

"What is it now?"

"You’re pathetic," Caryn scoffed, "If you seriously want to parade around the sector playing hero-boy with your pet zerg, you’re going to need someone around to keep you from getting yourself killed."

"You do understand that we’re leaving the planet and might not make it back?" I glared at her with my best no-bullshit face, but she wasn’t phased by it,

"Suits me," Caryn said nonchalantly as she pretended to inspect her nails, "I can’t stay here anyway. Just keep Big n’ Gruesome in line and we won’t have any problems."

Out of frustration, I pounded my fist on the controls, "You’re actually serious, aren’t you?"

Caryn looked up from her nails just long enough to nod as if she was confirming what she wanted on a pizza. That’s when I lost it.

"Well that’s just too damn bad!" I barked, suddenly unable to contain myself, "Because I’m being serious, too: You aren’t going! Get off my ship!"

My anger must have translated itself to Bane, because he suddenly snarled loud enough to make the windows rattle as he reared up as high as the ceiling would allow,

"Begone, miserable wench, lest I tear you apart!"

"You stay outta’ this!" Caryn shot back as she sat up and became serious again.

"Listen here, boy," she glared at me with all the malice she could muster, "If I’m stuck here with the Ellisons, I’m as good as dead. And if that’s the case, I’ve got no compunctions against telling them where you’re going to be the moment you pull off this beach."

"You’re full of it," I grumbled, "You have no clue where-"

At just the wrong moment, the radio crackled to life as Mich’s voice chimed over the speaker,

"What’s keeping you, kid? Tell Bigs to pinch it off, already! The Klorian Shipyards won’t be open all night!"

My foot was so far in my mouth I could taste the synthetic leather as Caryn just smiled at me with a grin that stretched from one ear to another.

"Mich isn’t going to like this..." I sighed as in defeat as I pulled on the throttle and brought the Consolation out of the sand. Behind me in the cargo hold, Bane made his annoyance known with a low growl,

"That makes two of us."

 

Kip’s place doubled as a home and a workshop where he crafted many of the specialty weapons and prototype designs for the defense. However, it looked more like a small fortress. Set on the outskirts of town, it was the size of a hangar with stone walls along the perimeter. One of the three landing pads was occupied, and flood lights illuminated the area as I guided the Consolation down next to the other craft.

"You two just sit tight and try not to kill each other," I said as I snatched up my damaged armor, "This shouldn’t take too long."

"The hell you say," Caryn snapped, unbuckling her harness, "I’m not stayin’ alone in here with that thing!"

Before I could protest, Bane stepped in with his opinion as well,

"If that mortal goes with you, so shall I."

"Alright, alright!" I threw my free hand up in defeat and hit the release for the cargo door, "Have it your way, kids! Everyone goes!"

The hydralisk lumbered out of the open craft as Caryn joined my other side from the co-pilots hatch. Next to a pair of shop doors large enough to accommodate a dropship, the front entrance was sealed by a double-riveted steel barricade with no windows. I walked up to it and hit a button on a panel to the side. An obnoxious buzzing noise rang from a speaker there before I spoke into it,

"Hey, Kip! Open up; I know you’re awake in there!"

We waited a few moments in silence. Only the sound of the bugs in the night and the low rumble of Bane’s breath made any noise. Finally, I pounded directly on the door with my closed fist,

"Get out here, you worthless lab rat, or I’ll break the door down!"

"I highly doubt that," Kip’s voice finally responded through the panel on the wall, "Just give me thirty-eight seconds: I’ve almost got this."

I looked up at the hydralisk that stood on my right and whispered,

"Could you?"

Bane studied the door a moment before answering with a confident growl,

"It would be no obstacle."

At last, the electronic bolts could be heard sliding open and the metal slab moved aside. Bright lights assaulted us from the interior of the building and it took my eyes a moment to adjust enough to see Kip standing there. He grinned at me from behind a comically large set of goggles that were built into a whole helmet full of optical enhancement equipment,

"You can’t rush micro-circuitry, kid, even you know that. What’s so important that you had to stop by tonight?"

"Me and the crew are pulling out soon and I need a few things; mostly ammo and some replacement armor," I said before I held up my mauled leg-plates. Kip slid the goggles back out of his face in order to inspect the armor,

"Throw those things away, they’re trashed. C’mon inside, I’ll get you a new set."

When Kip looked up again, without the lenses obscuring his vision, he nearly jumped out of his tool belts,

"W-what the hell?!" He stammered as several hand tools and instruments clattered to the floor around him, "You could have warned me, Reece! When d-did your alien buddy get back in town?"

Caryn laughed beside me as Kip picked up his equipment, "You were right: it is more fun when it’s a surprise."

I ignored Caryn and answered Kip as I stepped inside, "It’s a long story, I’ll catch you up on it later. Right now, I just need those shin plates and a fresh stock of the usual grade."

Kip was temporarily fixated with Caryn while she walked in behind me before he shot me a wry smile,

"It’s about time you found a girl, kiddo! We were starting to worry about you-"

"I’m not his girl!" Caryn barked the statement as if it were spring loaded, taking Kip by surprise.

"That’s an even longer story," I sighed when he gave me a confused look. At last, Kip shrugged it off and waved for us to follow as he turned and walked briskly into the shop,

"You really ought to upgrade to the newer set," he called back to me while Caryn and the hydralisk followed on my heels, "This stuff’s out-dated these days. You should see this new alloy I’ve been working with."

"No fancy crap," I shook my head as we maneuvered between benches and racks jammed with parts from weapons and armor to electronics and wiring assemblies, "Just the usual stuff."

We came to a stop in front of a set of lockers and Kip promptly used a ring of keys from his belt to open one of them. He pulled a new set of shin plates from a stack inside and turned to me just long enough to snatch the old pair from my hands and throw them in a dented metal garbage can in the corner.

"Here," he held the new armor pieces out to me, "They’re on the house if you can keep Bane from knocking anything over."

"I’ll see what I can do," I laughed, following Kip as he took off again.

 

"You know, if you could just give me fifteen minutes to take some dimensions, I could make some really awesome stuff and have it shipped to you when it’s finished."

Kip had been studying Bane intently while he filled a few boxes with fresh ammunition for my weapons, and his creative curiosity finally got the best of him.

I glanced back at the hydralisk that waited patiently outside the small ammunition closet before turning back to Kip,

"For him? I don’t think so. Bane doesn’t think too highly of terran technology."

"That’s a shame," Kip shook his head, "There’s a lot of possibility there."

"Nice combat rifle," Caryn cooed from the opposite corner of the armory, where she stood inspecting one of the weapons on the rack, "How much would you take for it?"

"If you can convince your boyfriend to let me measure up his pet zerg," Kip said while raising an eyebrow, "I might consider letting you walk away with it."

"You stay outta this-" I tried to shoot Kip down, but Caryn was suddenly hanging off my side,

"C’mon Reecie’, just five minutes! I promise, it won’t take long."

I swallowed hard as she squeezed herself against me and I stuttered despite myself,

"H-hey, Bane. Would you do me a favor?"

"Not on your life," the hydralisk growled from outside the ammunition closet, apparently having heard the entire conversation, "There is no possibility of you or any other mortal convincing me otherwise."

 

"Hold still, Bane, you’re only making this take longer!" Kip complained as he balanced on a ladder with a tape measure. Caryn giggled as she loaded fresh cartridges into her new, sniper edition C-7 and watched the whole procedure unfold. Bane growled in annoyance with the tape measure draped over his head and tangled around one arm. The hydralisk flinched every time Kip applied one of the motion capture sensors to different points on its carapace until he finally stood back and adjusted the camera,

"One last recording, Biggie," Kip promised as he jotted a final measurement down on a jumbled pad of paper, "Give me the left scythe joint this time-full range of motion."

My friend grumbled in aggravation, but complied, finally satisfying Kip’s scrutinizing appetite for detail,

"That should do it, Reece," He piped with childish excitement, "This thing’s gonna be some of my best work. One day, you’re both going to thank me for this, you’ll see!"

"Yeah, yeah," I yawned as I cradled the full ammunition crates under each arm, "Knock yourself out. Just don’t get too carried away; you might not even be able to find us again."

"You just leave that up to me," Kip grinned before glancing to Caryn, "Take care of that C-7, I made er’ myself."

Caryn answered with a simple nod and I called back to the hydralisk as we turned to leave, "C’mon Bane, you’re all done."

The sensors all popped off at once as the hydralisk suddenly lunged forward and stretched them to the end of their wires, leaving Kip behind with his maelstrom of cords and numbers.

 

With some help from Bane, I managed to persuade Caryn into staying hidden on the Consolation when we met Boss at the Farside. The only way Mich would allow her to come along would be if he could no longer do anything about it. Maggie could tell that something was up, but we convinced her that we would just be leaving town for a few weeks until the worst of the Ellison’s were rounded up. She gave us all hugs after we had our last meal there, but only Bane received a special gift in the form of a very large to-go bag.

Although she couldn’t actually see us leave, Maggie stood in the parking lot and waved one of her huge arms feverishly as we pulled away.

"I still do not understand why we could not tell her the truth," Bane growled quietly from his place in the cargo hold. I shook my head,

"She can be tough when she wants to, but that old bird is very sentimental. Sorry, Bane, but if I told her that we might not come back, we’d never be able to leave."

"Big deal," Caryn groaned from the co-pilot seat, "What’s so important about that fat, old hag anyway? You guys kept me waiting in here for two hours!"

Bane’s eyes glowed fiercely as he suppressed an enraged snarl and I practically choked,

"You talk about her like that one more time and I’ll let Bane heave you out the back door! Have some respect; she’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to a mother!"

For once, Caryn’s ice cold shell showed a brief glimpse of warmth,

"You don’t know your parents?"

The Consolation swerved beneath us as I did a perfect double take, but I turned my eyes back to the windshield before I offered a response,

"Only vague images and bits of memory; I think my mom was a brunette. If you really must know, I was a war-orphan."

Caryn was a little slow to reply with a simple "Oh," before she finally turned away from me to stare out her window. The rest of the trip went on in silence until we began passing over the city. Boss’s voice crackled over the radio, snapping me back from my thoughts,

"The shipyard is just up ahead. Follow me in over the small craft pads; our bird is the third one on the left."

"Roger that," I replied mechanically after I picked up the mic. Just ahead, the residential district ended abruptly as the Defense’s shipyard drifted into view. Tall fences surrounded a huge compound cluttered with large buildings and a field of various ships all sitting on their landing gear. Marines in powered armor walked the perimeter and stopped to stare at us as we flew overhead. Stationed at multiple points, missile turrets rotated silently among the aisles of craft, guarding the sky with their sensors. Across the tarmac, a line of empty goliath war-walkers stood silently in front of the barracks.

Mich brought his ship down to the first in a row of vacant pads while I led the Consolation to the second. Moving at a jog, a pair of soldiers approached from their posts at a shack nearby. Mich climbed out of his craft without shutting down the engines and met them halfway. I couldn’t hear what they said as I jumped down from the pilot’s hatch, but everything appeared to be going smoothly until Boss handed them the release forms.

"There must be some kind of mistake," Mich yelled over the rush of the ship’s engines as I walked up to them, "I had prior agreements with the Marshal at arms!"

"There’s been a change of plans," One of the husky guards barked back, fingering the rifle he held in his hands, "New orders just came in: You and your boys are to be detained until further notice."

"What’s going on, cap’n?" I yelled over the rush of the engines from our waiting dropships.

"Shut up!" The other guard ordered as he hefted his weapon to the ready, "You are both hereby under arrest on two counts of unauthorized vigilante action! Hand over your weapons!"

For a moment, I actually considered obeying the MP’s, but then I thought of what they would do once they found Bane. Even if we were eventually released from our charges, there would be no telling what they might have in store for my friend.

Almost of its own accord, my hand found one of the gauss pistols at my side and jerked it free of the holster.

"Over my dead body," I growled at the guards from behind the sights of my gun.

"Don’t be stupid, kid!" One of them warned, "You don’t have a chance!"

While we held each other at gunpoint, more soldiers approached, surrounding Mich and I on all sides.

"You got any other bright ideas, Reece?" Boss looked around nervously as the men closed in.

Without warning, a body threw itself over my outstretched arm and forced my gun down. In that instant, the marines dog-piled on us at once. My gauss pistol was wrenched from my grasp as a soldier in a heavy armored suit tackled me to the pavement. I had a vague recollection of Mich hitting the ground somewhere beside me just before the metal boots rained on us.

I tried desperately to reach for my other gun, but a metal-sheathed foot buried itself in my stomach. Before I could begin to recover, another hammered the back of my skull and smashed into my ribs. I began to lose count of the kicks that fell on me until it was suddenly over as quickly as it began. Of the marines that stood above me, one of them hefted his rifle in the air, intent on delivering the knock-out blow.

"This’ll teach you scum to mess with-" The soldier’s threat was unexpectedly cut short as the point of one blade burst through the chest of his combat armor with a spray of blood. In the same instant, he was hurled off his feet, clearing me completely, and crashed landed into arms of the soldiers on my other side.

"ZERG!" Somebody bellowed as the soldiers scattered in panic. Bane stood over me with blades spread wide in challenge as he roared malevolently at the marines who still fumbled with their gauss rifles.

"Open fire!" One of them barked as they regrouped on either side. I covered my face with my arms when the deadly crossfire exploded just overhead. Bane snarled angrily as the bullets pocked and chipped his armored shell, but he didn’t hesitate to charge after the gunmen on the left. As the hydralisk closed the distance and brought its scythes down on the next marine, the other group shot at my friend’s open backside.

"Chew on this!" I grimaced as I pulled the C-8 from its holster and fired from a prone position. Totally focused on the rampaging hydralisk, my shell took the soldiers by complete surprise. It hit the tightly packed squad center-mass and exploded on impact, engulfing the men in the blast. The soldiers parted like bowling pins when the detonation hurled them to the pavement. I watched their smoldering bodies a moment to be sure they were gone before I rolled to a sitting position.

An alarm began wailing over the compound as the hydralisk chased down the last of its victims. Now the sole remaining member of his squad, the marine backpedaled towards the barracks, firing indiscriminately at the hydralisk that pursued with vengeful blades. Not willing to expend the energy of the chase, Bane stopped amidst the barrage of lead just long enough to counter-attack with a spray of his deadly spikes. The studded projectiles riddled the soldier’s armor and knocked him to the ground.

"C’mon, kid! We got to get the hell outta here!" Boss’s voice snapped me back to reality as I watched Bane turn back towards us. I looked up to see his outstretched hand offered to me and blinked in confusion before taking it.

"Get to the Mark three," I yelled as I regained my senses, "This is going to be our only chance!"

"They’ll blast us into the stone age before we can take off with it!" Boss yelled back, but Bane was already standing with us again,

"Do as the mortal says," the hydralisk growled, "We shall buy you the time you need."

"You’re just as crazy as the kid!" Mich called as he ran for his ship.

"Just make it snappy!" I called back before he climbed onboard the Interceptor four and tore off between the rows of docked ships.

"So," I said nervously as I watched the soldiers mobilize from their patrol routes along the perimeter and take up positions across the runway from us, "How did you get off the Consolation so fast?"

Bane remained silent a moment as the goliath pilots rushed to their machines and the engines roared to life,

"Caryn..." my friend said at last, as if having difficulty remembering the name, "Caryn opened the door for me."

I routinely checked the detonation setting on my shell launcher as the overwhelming military force coalesced before us. At last, with all their weapons trained on the hydralisk and I, someone called out with the aid of a mega-phone,

"You there, with the alien!" The voice echoed over the tarmac, "Drop your weapons and hold your hands above your head!"

Bane and I exchanged a glance almost casually before we suddenly parted ways, triggering an eruption of gunfire from the small army.

To Be Continued...

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