And we left DuQuesne and Carl in a rather sticky situation...
DuQuesne forced himself to his feet. So did Carl, but he was clearly sagging under what was at least one and a half gravities. Two more Molothos emerged from the jungle behind them, the third wounded one trailing by a short distance. "So what are you waiting for?"
The Molothos leader shrieked. "Your speech will be silenced. You have killed many of my people, and I will have recompense for that. We have claimed this Sphere, and your intrusion is cause for war! If your repulsive species values its life, you will offer a Sphere or two in tribute!"
"You're on the only Sphere we have, you monster," Carl said. DuQuesne said nothing, for he was coming to the realization that he stood at the brink of a precipice, or at the edge of apotheosis, and he was at once both petrified and elated. Of all the ways things could have gone, I end up here, in this place, at this time.
A low hiss came from the surrounding Molothos. "Scout Master Maizas… there was no sign of a ship here…" one pointed out. The leader, Maizas, studied them with heightened interest. "Is true…? First Emergents, then! A stroke of perfect luck, almost worth losing a few troopers," the leader said finally. "An open Sphere for the taking, new knowledge of another race. Good, then, that we have not yet killed you, though twice the order was nearly given. You shall tell us what we need to know, give us entry to your Sphere, and in return I may even permit a few of you to live."
DuQuesne felt strangely lightheaded; something inside him was rising towards the surface and inevitable breakthrough. And why not? It's too late now. Nothing left for me or anyone if the monsters finish this. "Sounds like not much of a deal. What if I tell you to go straight to hell?"
Maizas hissed contemptuously. "You care for your fellow creatures, one would hope; you may be animals and less than animals, but even such creatures care, even if with less delicacy and sympathy than we for our own. In this case, you – seeming the leader – shall do as I ask, or we shall kill the other. Very slowly and painfully."
The Molothos had drawn closer, snaring them in a ring of armored monstrosities. "Here in the area we claim, you are in gravity half again what you knew. You have no more weapons save those you hold in your hands and will be slow and easily slain by my warriors. You will talk, for we can make you do so, and you will be begging for your life to end sooner, if you make me wait much longer."
That is it. The absolute living end. Torture Carl to get me to talk so you can kill me later? No way in hell! As he thought this, he finally let go of all the restraints, the fear and the control he'd spent so many decades to hammer into place, let loose everything he'd feared, all the difference that had separated him from the rest of the world.
For a moment, he felt both as though he stood outside himself, and that he was suddenly more himself than he had been in fifty years, both terrified and transported by what was happening. I'd forgotten… forgotten what I was. I was so good at repressing the memory, at denying my own past, that I'm now almost unable to grasp who I am. What it feels like to be… what I was.
It feels… good.
His head snapped up and he glared straight into Maizas' yellow-glowing eye. Something in his stance and gaze registered even with the aliens; the troopers raised their weapons and Maizas took a slight step back.
Marc C. DuQuesne sneered at Maizas, holding the alien's gaze. "That would be a good trick, if you could manage it," he said contemptuously. "But you've got the whole thing just… exactly… backwards."
With a sudden movement, he leapt into the air, two hundred kilos in over one and a half gravities doing a standing jump that took him three meters into the air. As he'd expected, Carl dropped to the ground, obviously shocked at what DuQuesne was doing but equally certain he needed to be out of the way. One of the troopers, hair–trigger reflexes overstrained, fired, spraying his compatriots with bladed death. The wounded one went down in a fountain of blood as the flechettes found the chinks in his armor. DuQuesne landed squarely on Maizas' back, the impact driving the body to the ground. The troopers hesitated, fanning out but afraid to fire with their commander in the way. "Your mistake, you pea-brained overbearing pompous crayfish, is that you think you have any idea of what you're dealing with."
As Maizas struggled to rise, he took advantage of that, bounding with the alien's own strength aiding him from Maizas' back to the next trooper, catching the striking claw as he descended and then twisting his body just so, wrenching the claw around, hearing both tech and natural armor creak and split under the force. He brought both heels down as hard as he could in landing, the concussion transmitted through the armor breaking the carapace underneath. The Molothos gave an unbelieving agonized shriek as DuQuesne vaulted from him to the next arachnoid creature, tearing the gun in its tendrils away so forcefully that one tendril stretched and tore apart.
The other tendril and striking claw caught at him, and the shredding mouth seemed far too close; instead of biting, though, it shrank away, closing up. Interesting, he thought, as the thing tried to pound him to pulp with the striking claws; instead, it found the human catching the other claw and holding it immobile while forcing the first claw back.
The other two Molothos troopers closed in from behind, and DuQuesne dropped to the ground just as four claws ripped through the air. Rolling to the side he went underneath the third trooper, then with a sudden effort grasped the underside of the carapace and rose to his feet in a single fluid motion, heaving the Molothos into its companions like flinging a sack of grain. As the three aliens tumbled and scrabbled to right themselves, he yanked the power pack from the alien weapon – the location of such a pack seemed obvious to him – and pitched it down the throat of the middle creature. Spiked lamprey-teeth contracted convulsively, and the superconductor storage cell paths were suddenly and disastrously disrupted; a sun-bright concussion blew DuQuesne four meters away as he tucked and rolled.
Rising to his feet, he glanced at Maizas, who was staggering backwards, disbelief written plainly in the alien body language, trying to make it to the low, long vessel behind him. He caught one of the alien's legs and yanked it backwards, so hard that it dislocated, and dragged the Scout Master right back where he'd come from. "Oh, I don't think so, Maizas," he said, feeling the cold, hard, freeing certainty once more, the knowledge that he was doing the right thing and that nothing in all the universe could stop him. "I told you you hadn't any idea what you were dealing with. I was raised in gravity more than half again yours. I was built by people so insane they didn't realize what kind of a monster they designed, and I've spent half a century hiding what I am." Peripherally he was aware of Carl's wide-eyed stare. "You brought it out, you son of a bitch. You made me let it out, and I don't know if I'll ever find myself again." He spun Maizas to face him, caught the two striking claws in his hands and squeezed hard, feeling the armor bending under the force. Hard black eyes reflected dimly from the surface of the wraparound yellow eye of the Molothos, but he could feel a quiver run through the creature, and not one of simple rage.
"You are going to tell me exactly and precisely everything that I need to know, and you are going to do it now, and you will not try to lie to me. Or else," he said, and grinned savagely, "you will find out how very much worse things can get."
"I… I am not afraid of you. Or of death." The translated voice shook slightly. "Let me go."
"There's worse things than quick death. And you're damn well afraid of me, unless you are a hell of a lot stupider than I think you are. Don't try to lie to me, I don't have the time or the patience for it. If I let you go and leave, the first thing you'll do is run over to your ship and either call for reinforcements if you've got any, or head back home with our coordinates if you don't."
The creature snarled-spat and rasped at him. "Not the first thing, no. For we are not uncivilized monsters such as you. The first thing I would do would be to properly bid farewell to our fallen people, and either bury them or with ceremony reduce them to ash, that they not be defiled either by your … witch-doctors who may call themselves scientists, or by the mindless beasts of this world. Then I would call the reinforcements." It looked at him with defiant arrogance. "Consider that to your advantage. You would have some time to flee and fortify before we came to take your world. Perhaps you might even retain the interior." It hissed contemptuously. "But you have nothing to threaten me with. Death a soldier will face a thousand times, and you have already killed all of my men. You have no one to hold hostage."
Carl came over to him. "Um… DuQuesne…"
"Don't worry, I haven't become a monster. Not too much, anyway, I hope."
"Look, he may be right. That ship… I don't think it's large enough for any long-range travel even in the insane conditions of the Arena. He's got to have a larger ship nearby, probably with a lot more people on board. If he's telling the truth…"
"Which I think he is, in this case. Yeah, it'd give us a good chance to get back and lock down. But then we're losing in two ways. First, we're conceding the surface of our Sphere to these jokers, which just doesn't sit well with me, and second, we're losing the only source of power, food, and other resources we have to stretch out our time here. We can't afford to lose here."
"You've already lost, DuQuesne creature." Maizas said. "If we do not report in … a short time, our main vessel will either send more to investigate, or may come in closer to inspect directly – and how well will your freakish speed and strength fare, I ask, against weapons meant for combat between the stars?"
"All the more reason for me to get you to talk now."
"What are you going to do? Torture him?" Carl looked apprehensive.
"In a way. Not by breaking his legs or burning him or anything. I don't think he'd break easy that way, if he would at all. He's a tough customer, Maizas is, and he wouldn't be leading scout expeditions if he didn't have some of what it takes." He was surveying the other bodies, found the catch, peeled the armor off of the one he'd killed through that double-heel impact. "So… yeah, take a look at that."
Carl looked where he was pointing. "Yeah, he's got one hell of a nasty mouth."
"More than that. Look at those teeth. Look at the musculature, and the… well, bone or something behind it. You're an engineer, think about the structure there, how does it work? And way down there, you see?"
Carl studied the dead Molothos' mouth more carefully. At a faint sound behind them, DuQuesne said "Don't even think about it, Maizas. If you so much as twitch again, I'm coming over there and tying your legs in knots. Which, since they aren't meant to bend much, won't be much fun for you, but will keep you from going anywhere. Oh, and by the way, I'm jamming any short-range transmissions, so if you think you can do anything by remote, you've got another think or two coming." The alien let out a frustrated hiss.
"Man, I see what you mean." Carl Edlund said finally. "It's like a garbage disposal – grabs, holds, and feeds straight into a grinder. Looks like it might be organic diamond plated or something, but nasty. But … so what?"
"You'd think that would be a hell of a weapon in hand to hand, wouldn't you? But instead of taking a bite at me, the one pulled away, sealed right up. Seems to me, a creature with a one-way mouth has to be damn careful about what it eats, because it can't spit something out once it realizes it's made a mistake. So reflexively they don't bite anything they don't really want to, and especially not anything that might be poisonous or sickening. Like unknown alien creatures."
Maizas buzz-snorted. "A reasonable show of deduction for a monster, but what point your waste of time?"
"Oh, just this little point," DuQuesne said, heaving the body up and moving it a little closer to Maizas. "You've got yourself some real civilized rituals and tastes. Maybe even a religion of purity, something along those lines. I figure I have one thing I can threaten you with."
Maizas' limbs shrank into themselves slightly, as he started to realize that DuQuesne really did have some kind of a plan. "What… what do you mean?"
"I mean that I can make sure you never want to call back in again. Because if you don't start answering my questions double-quick, Maizas," he reached down and tore one leg from the dead trooper, "I am going to stick this in your mouth. Since you can't spit stuff out, anything you can bite into you have to grind up and swallow once it goes in, or you choke or starve to death." He saw a shudder run through the alien's frame as he finished, and the cold grin came back. "If you don't talk – or if you lie – I will be feeding your troopers to you, one bit at a time. You'll be the defiler – and I'm betting that's even worse than leaving the bodies for us aliens to cut up." His grin widened as he saw horror in Maizas' contracting stance, like a dying spider. "Isn't that right, Maizas?"
A moment passed, and he saw from the pale expression on Carl's face that the horror was not just on one side. Then the Molothos spoke, this time in a low voice filled with loathing, but tinged with fear and without any of the prior arrogance. "Ask your questions, you void-spawned demon. Ask them. You… you have found your key in abomination." It shuddered again. "Ask, and I… I will answer."
"Better," he said, knowing that the cold, unmoved tone was translated as well as his words, and also knowing how it must be affecting his friend, but knowing that he could no longer concern himself with that. "And remember that I will know when you are lying. Make no mistake about that. I can smell it. And if I hear a single lie, why, you get to take a few bites. And if you're still lying, I'll feed you this guy's brain. Or whatever part of him I think you find most sacred, private, or disgusting." He sat down on the dead trooper's carapace. "Let's start with your ship…"
Ah, so THAT'S how...