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We been rammed by a fucking battleship! Leaf thought as the bamboo crashed down in a monstrous bow wave.
The grasshopper's headplate was smoothly curved and a yard across. The waxy chitinous surface gave no purchase to the hooked foliage, and six powerful legs drove the creature through stems that proved a nearly impassible barrier to humans.
OT Wilding vanished beneath a mat of vegetation that muffled his screams. Yee tried to jump out of the way, but the disaster was too sudden. He got his torso clear, but the stems that cascaded over the trail pinned the gunner's hips and feet to the ground.
Yee lay on his back, yelling as he tried to aim at the behemoth which knocked him down. The muzzle of his rifle was tangled, and its light bullets weren't going to have much affect on the grasshopper anyway.
Leaf's pack held forty pounds of barakite. He had squeezed the doughy explosive into fist-sized balls after he cut it from the second warhead. He reached over his shoulder with his left hand and grabbed a wad; his right thumb poised on his multitool's welding trigger.
He didn't light the explosive. The huge insect was just trying to get away.
The grasshopper's body was much like that of its Earth-born ancestors, but its armored legs were straight and short to carry the mass of its Venus-adapted form. It moved in a succession of tripods: the center leg on the right balancing with the front and back legs on the left while the other three drove forward, then the opposite pattern.
Because the grasshopper was at a full run, the cases of its vestigial wings lifted to uncover the creature's external lungs: fungoid blotches of red, oxygen-absorbant tissue spaced along the midline on both sides of the grasshopper's body. Air diffused through spiracles would not sufficiently fuel the life-processes of so large a body.
The digestive processes in the grasshopper's yellow-striped abdomen rumbled a farewell to K67's crew as the beast vanished again into the bamboo.
Leaf giggled with relief. Then he saw the scorpion.
Yee's heavy pack had prevented him from being thrown flat. "Somebody fucking help me!" the gunner bellowed as he used his rifle butt to lever himself upright.
"Look out!" Leaf shouted.
Yee rotated his head from Leaf
To the new track the grasshopper had smashed through the vegetation
To what had driven the grasshopper off in panic.
The grasshopper had been chewing a path through the bamboo entanglement for days. Leaf and Yee looked down the corridor. New shoots grew from the close-cropped soil at increasing height, in a pattern of pale green/bright green/yellow green.
The scorpion carried its flat belly six feet above the ground. It strode toward the humans with saw-toothed pincers advanced.
Yee screamed and fired the whole magazine of his rifle in a burst that made the barrel glow. Bullets sparkled across the lustrous purple-black head, destroying several of the simple eyes. Jacket fragments clipped tiny holes in the nearest foliage.
"Run!" the gunner shrieked. Bamboo still gripped his legs to the knees. He twisted, then twisted back when he realized he was trapped.
"Geddown!" Leaf bawled. The motorman pressed the stud trigger of his multitool, snapping the arc alight. The scorpion pounced.
Yee dropped the fresh magazine he was trying to insert into the rifle. He thrust the weapon out crosswise as a shield. The scorpion's right pincer gripped the rifle's receiver; its left reached beneath the weapon and caught Yee around the waist. The paired claws were eighteen inches long.
Leaf knew there was no use in running, but he would have run anyway except that the bamboo held him also. He touched the welding arc to his lump of barakite.
He wasn't left-handed. He flung the explosive in a clumsy overhand motion as soon as it started to sputter. Tiny globules flicked his hand and wrist. The intense heat raised blisters instantly.
The scorpion tore Yee out of the bamboo. The gunner was no longer screaming. Blood soaked the waist of his torn uniform and a broad fan across his chest from nose and mouth.
The blob of barakite was softened by its own combustion. It splattered over the arachnid's head instead of flying into the open mouth as Leaf had intended.
The scorpion's pincers thrust the victim between its side-hinged jawplates while the flames roared with blue-white laughter. Sparks flew in all directions. Somebody fired his rifle past the motorman.
Gobbets of burning barakite ignited the load of explosive in Yee's pack.
The spark became the sun
Became a volcanic pressure
That shriveled the vegetation gripping Leaf and hurled him back away from its white heart.
"Wait for us!" Peanut Leaf squealed in a voice that hadn't broken by now, his twelfth birthday, and didn't look like it would be getting any longer to try. The oil-drum barricade spouted smoke and orange flame before any of the retreating 5th-Level war party reached it, and the Leaf brothers were at the end of the rout.
"Yee-hah!" shrilled a 3rd-Level warrior as he flung a spear made of plastic tubing with a metal head.
The point nicked Leaf's thigh; the thick shaft caught the boy a blow solid enough to stagger him. Peanut would have fallen, but Jacko, fourteen and strong for his age, seized his brother's arm and propelled him like a tractor drawing a cart.
"Don't you fall, you little bastard!" he shouted. "They'll kill you!"
Peanut wasn't in the least doubt about that.
Mongo and Race were already downwhich meant dead, unless the 3rd-Level warriors had been in too much of a hurry to make sure by slitting their throats. It had been a ratfuck, an ambush sprung in the air shaft while the 5th-Level war party was just setting out on what was supposed to be a raid.
Now. . . .
Kacentas, War Dragon of the 5th Level, had planned for the possibility of retreat by sliding drums of waste oil across the home corridor. Three hard-faced girls of the Auxiliary were stationed there with torches to ignite the barricade if the raiders were driven back.
The disaster had been so abrupt that the girls lit the drums in the faces of their own warriors, rather than those of the enemy.
The leading warriors cursed and squealed, leaping the drums before the oil was properly alight. The pall of smoke rolled upward and down, following the convection patterns of Block 81's climate control.
An arrow took Kacentas in the air. He tumbled to what would have been the safe side of the barricade.
The Leaf brothers sprinted into the curtain of smoke. Peanut gagged, but the air was clear immediately in front of the barricade. Fuel blasted upward in terrifying columns to mushroom against the corridor ceiling.
The Patrol would arrive within minutes, but within seconds it would be too late.
"Come on!" Jacko cried.
All the other 5th-Level warriors had vanishedexcept Hurst, who lay at the base of the drums with eyes staring upward from a pool of blood. Hurst had managed to run all the way from the air shaft with his jugular torn open by a spearthrust.
Peanut skidded to a halt. "I can't!" he wailed to the barricade. The heat was a concrete presence.
"Come on!" Jacko repeated shrilly.
He picked up his brother by the throat and the seat of his pants. As he turned to hurl the younger boy to safety, a thrown club rang off Jacko's skull and stunned him.
Peanut fell to the floor. He had lost his steel mace back in the air shaft. There were 3rd-Level warriors all around them. His eyes were open, but his mind refused to accept what he saw.
Jacko was still on his feet. Two of the enemy prodded him with their spears. They didn't drive the points home. Instead, they thrust Jacko backwards, into the oil fires.
Jacko screamed. His arms flailed as if he were trying to swim away from the agony, but there was no way out. For a moment, Jacko's torso forced down the flames, but then the orange-red blanket roared up to cover him again.
And he still screamed.
Sirens and strobe lights flooded the corridor. The 3rd-Level warriors were running away, but Jacko did not move. His black arms lifted from the ebbing flames in a hollow embrace, and his skull greeted the Patrolmen with a lipless grin.
Jacko's throat had shrivelled shut. His brother screamed for both of them.
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