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Chapter 5.


Red fire-hammers slammed into the makeshift barricade. Being made of E-steel torn from the bulkheads behind us, it only gave a little, but even that little was too much. As the glare and smoke faded, I saw the sinuous chitin-covered forms winding with deceptive speed down the corridor. Zchorada. Five of them. I sighted on one antlike head, saw it was helmeted, shifted my aim to the ten clawed legs. "Jearsen!" I shouted. "A line of Shockwave charges, range 35, fast!"

She moved almost before I called the order. A staccato roar of destruction burst out thirty-five meters away, showering our armor with debris and shattered Zchorada fragments. I saw the second wave of the five-meter creatures withdraw, repulsed for the moment. "That's what I like about you Guards," I said. "You're so good at mindless destruction."

"That's because you Navy vacuum-heads are so good at giving mindless orders. Do you realize how close we just came to hole-through?"

Damn right I had. With the bulkheads gone behind us, we could have blown through to the level below or above, decompressing another entire section. "You know of any other way we could have stopped that rush?"

She shook her head, an action barely visible through the tinted faceplate. "Of course not; if I had I'd have told you."

I squinted out through the smoke. No movement yet. "Damn. Why did they have to hit our section?"

"Bad timing, I guess. Be glad we were already in our armor for that practice session." Jearsen drummed her metal-clad fingers on the barricade, a sound like hail on a metal roof. "I just can't believe they could have dropped in that close, even with the interference work. Sasham, aren't the imaging backups supposed to alert us?"

"Yeah," I said. "They had someone seeding the area with dimensional transponders so they could push the interference; stands to reason someone—maybe even a psispy—got in and messed with the cameras somehow."

There was a screeching vibration through the hull. My sensors showed movement behind us. "Diorre, keep eyes front." I aimed the Flarebolt rannai cannon down the Radial. A thin atmosphere existed in here, probably from the Zchorada breacher unit—enough to permit drifting, thin, wispy smoke to obscure vision. The armored safety door seemed to be rising. I tightened my grip, forced myself to relax, repeated the White Vision meditation focus, looked carefully.

Our comms suddenly crackled. "Varan? Commander Varan?"

"Commandant! Is that you?" I eased off on the grip and returned the Flarebolt to face our real opponents, gesturing for Jearsen to take over the heavy packeted-plasma weapon. She slid into the control seat as I vacated it.

"Yes, it is. Commander, we have secured you a fallback."

"No can do, unless you've got the men to spare to hold this area."

"We are willing to cede—"

"We cannot, Commandant. Right now we have this group pretty well boxed in—the doors sealed off Outring on Port and Starboard sides, and from the little chatter I've gotten the other boarding missions are being held for now. But if they get into the pressurized section back where you are, they'll have five directions to go. If you want to try holding both ends of Vertical One, both sides of Midring, and this radial, fine, but give me a fast flight out first!"

I heard Tels curse under his breath. "Couldn't we seal these doors up again?"

"Commandant, we could, but there's at least fifteen or twenty of them left, and what happens when we leave them alone… with our own auxiliary armory?"

By the way he froze, halfway to us, I could tell it had just dawned on him that the armory was a blade with two edges, and one was facing us. "Tell me there are no weapons in there designed for Chakron use."

He was hoping that, of course, because the Chakron were virtually identical to the Zchorada. "I wish I could, sir. However, there are quite a few. Including one Shockwave 7."

What he said then did border on blasphemy. "Sink it, Commander, I don't have the soldiers to spare. Most of them are on our ships, trying to hold off the main invasion force." I could tell by the tilt of his head he was trying to study his deployments in his main display. "I might be able to … all right, Commander, I'll take two men from each of the current Outring deployments and send them—"

"Commander!" shouted Jearsen. "The --"

Crimson slashed the air to slivers. A bludgeon of red caught Tels in the chest, hammered him backwards and into the now-closed blast door of Radial One. Whining shrieks spat from the Flarebolt in accompaniment to the blue-white hell Jearsen was returning down the corridor. I scuttled forward in a crouch, trying to make the most of the barricade's cover.

An insistent, warning buzz snapped my attention to a telltale I had never seen lit in all the years I had been in the Navy. I felt nothing—yet—but in horror I saw Diorre freeze, trying to fire, yet unable now to move.

These Zchorada had a psi with them!

I charged forward, knowing their charge had already begun. Just as I reached the Shockwave, Zchorada poured in a weaving, clattering horde over the barrier, mandibles and legs slashing.

They got Jearsen that way, frozen in place by another's will, her non-powered armor unable to carry a psi-screen like mine. Four of the ten-legged monsters grabbed her, dragged her off the cannon's saddle, and tore her to pieces, armor and all. I heard her screams for minutes after she was dead, realized the screams were mine as I fired without aiming into the segmented alien mob. They withdrew, having lost… only two of their own. I heard a shuddering clang and another muffled detonation. A second breacher had arrived. Reinforcements…

And the buzzing warning continued. There was no defense against psionics except a psi shield, and when my suit's power failed—and it would, soon, with this drain—I would stand there helpless, like Jearsen…

Affirmation. Stand still.

I tried to scream, realized I couldn't. Terror spun in infinite circles through my brain. Their psi was impossibly powerful, maybe an ultra—he was actually getting through the shield!

I felt my muscles becoming sluggish, as though sleepmist was being pumped through my air supply. If they rushed now, I was dead. But I'd still get a couple… so the Zchoradan was calmly, coldly waiting until he had me completely immobile.

I had to get to the Flarebolt. I had to! The scream oozed past my lips in a pathetic whine, the sound of a wounded, helpless animal. The immense, substanceless pressure on my mind rose another notch. I saw a wavering, spectral image of a Zchoradan Hive-Master, jewel-insets glittering, mandibles waving in their macabre equivalent of a grim smile.

Give in. Death is quick by blade or bolt. Death by mind is an eternity of pain.

Panic was going to get me killed, but…

I remembered, just before Tels had arrived. Maybe… worth a try… at least it was something…A meditation. White Vision, the clearness of mind, the purity of white light reflected from an ocean…

You have a good mind, but no power. Without power, your will is mine. A sense of amusement, mingled with respect for a doomed adversary and a burning hostility towards all the Empire.

I clamped down on terror, denied it, even as I knew my movements towards the Flarebolt continued to slow. And only minutes before the psi-screen drained my suit's reserves. …reflected from an ocean… the infinite variations of white in the heart of a sunlight cloud…the movement that cannot be seen, yet is there in the corner of the eye… sensing that which is not to be known by the conscious senses…

Stand still. Your body obeys my commands. Your will is gone. The echoing non-voice seemed somehow muffled, less emphatic. Perhaps the strain of pushing through a psi-screen constantly was wearing him down? I pushed hope away, too.

The purity of white, erasing all distractions. Now, focus, inward, deeper, to the center… inward, then upward, to the High Center. The image of the Hive-Master seemed to fade…


In the Center I reached out, and my hands responded. The alien voice began to shout at me, twitches shook my arms, but I moved. I moved!

Holding the transcendent feeling of High Center in my mind, I sprinted for the Flarebolt, vaulting into the saddle so heavily that the seat cracked under the impact of the powered armor. I squinted through the haze and saw the invading force starting its charge, the psionic realizing that things had gone badly wrong, and I could see him, SEE him, at the rear of the first charge, the same jewel pattern on the mandibles and foremost segment armor. Without the need for thought I knew I had him, locking the heavy rannai cannon onto him, and he saw it, and then the world SCREAMED.

It was a thousand flaming needles driven through my mind, boring through the flimsy wall of discipline that I'd thrown up, blasting through the psi-screen in a panic-driven blaze of hate and fury and—as it felt, through me, my hand spasm on the trigger—terrified despair which ended in a detonation of black agony and nightmare images as the walls seemed to open up and an uncounted horde of mandibled, blade-legged horrors erupted all around me.

They really were coming, too, and I tried to fire, but they were everywhere—everywhere! On the ceiling, one flickered and disappeared, but I'd swung the Flarebolt high to engage, and a real Zchorada was there, lunging towards me. I swung hysterically.

The power-amplified blow pulped the huge-eyed ant's head, and actually feeling one die brought back some measure of sanity. The revulsion and terror were still there, but my training had taken over. I fired, swung, kicked, threw grenades. Bladed legs ripped the air and I ducked, grabbed, and threw the centipedal monster into a barrage of its allies' shots. A metal tube came to bear on me; my armor's Thunderbolt vaporized the tube's wielder. Two chitin-armored forms rushed me, slammed me into the wall. The back of my head smacked the inside of the helmet, orange-red pain blurred my vision. Claws pulled on my armor, and a memory of Jearsen seared away the mental fog. I pounded fists and feet into anything that moved, stumbled away from the ruins of flesh that had been my attackers. My leg was stiff and hurt when I moved it, but as a Zchorada reared up through the drifting smoke I spun and leaped in a Tor kick, crushed its second thoracic segment, flung it away. Metal glinted as one aimed at me, I turned. raising my pistol. Red beam crisscrossed paths with blue bolts, fire washed down my right side.

Then it was over, and I was standing alone in the radial corridor. At least ten Zchorada were sprawled lifeless across the barricade, in pieces on the deck, slumped against the shattered bulkheads. Smoke filled the tunnel in eddying clouds, swirling like blood in the orange emergency illumination. I almost fell as my weight pulsed; the gravity generators were going, or maybe it was just my balance. My eyes weren't cooperating and the Flarebolt drifted in and out of focus as I hobbled towards it. The armor was starting to lose power, and it was an effort to drag the alloy legs forward, push, drag forward again. I could hear through my one working microphone a rattling rustle as the rest regrouped for another assault. Two cracked ribs I hadn't known were there filled each breath with flame as I pulled myself up to the saddle. In the dim lighting I saw the dark, serpentine shadows begin a charge. Then I touched the trigger and hurled horror back at them with blue-shrieking light.

They tell me they found me like that, firing incessantly at the crawling shadows cast by the smoke in the orange light. All I remember is seeing a shadow move behind me, swinging the cannon about, and letting darkness claim me as I saw that the figure stood on two legs.

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