Sensing their approaching reinforcements, the zerglings turn and swarm the firebat, trying to flank the mech suit and forcing it back against a cliff face. They scrape at the armor, and although they do not pierce it, they weigh the warrior down, making targeting with the flamethrowers harder. The second group moves in. A zergling jumps up on one of the flamers, and the firebat switches that one on, roasting the creature and one beyond it. “Zerg! They plump when you cook ‘em!” he crows.
“I don’t know about this guy’s brain,” Lilly mutters as she continues to narrow the gap, trying to get close enough for her shotgun to be useful. A handful of zerglings peel away from the firebat and charge up the steep hillside at her, moving swiftly across the creep. They get in her personal space, clawing at her, and one of them latches onto her arm. Imogen shoots at that zergling, and it flinches away, releasing Lilly and turning its attention to the new threat. It makes a shrill noise, and the other group of zerglings down on the firebat respond. They leave their current target and close on Imogen; one of them clamps its teeth down on her leg. The Umojan panics, never having seen zerg so up-close before. This is not the same as sitting in a truck watching a zergling off in the distance. The creatures surrounding her are the size of large dogs and have thick hides and sharp tusks. One of them takes another swipe at her, knocking the gun from her hand into the creep.
Lilly blasts the zerglings near her with her shotgun, silencing the whining one, and the firebat lumbers up the hill, spraying the same group with fire. Lilly leaves them to him and slams into Imogen, getting right up close in order to use her shotgun as a lever to pry the zergling off the younger woman’s leg. It stumbles back toward the firebat. Imogen fumbles at Lilly’s holster, drawing the new sidearm. She unloads a clip at the rest of the zerglings around them. They fall back from her and right into the firebat’s flames. He roasts most of them, but one last zergling gets close enough to claw at his densely plated suit. Imogen keeps shooting, panicked. Lilly lines up a shot more carefully and blasts the final zergling to pieces, then looks around to see if there are any more groups nearby.
The firebat steps up to the corpse and scorches it to ash. “We’re grillin’ and killin’,” he says. “I’m a-gonna flip you over, make sure you’re done on the other side.” Then he looks up at the new arrivals, tiny flames licking from the nozzles of his weaponry. He flips back his visor revealing a bald head with dark skin.
“Are you daft, man?” Imogen demands.
“Much thanks,” he responds. “Probably wasn’t in any danger, but always appreciate a helping hand.”
“What are you doing out here?!”
“Purifying the land. Purifying the soul. Name’s Sam. Sam Aran.”
“Oh. You were a patient.” Imogen realizes this must be the success story Maria told them about.
“I was, but I have seen my purpose in life. I been listening to the ground, and I know the danger’s a-coming, and I gotta stop it.”
Lilly thinks this guy sounds crazy, but she also knows he is not wrong. After all, some zerg are found underground. She continues to keep watch.
Imogen, still shaking a bit, looks down at the gun in her hand and realizes it is not hers. She returns it to Lilly before delicately extracting her own pistol from the creep. Up close, the slime looks like more than just goo, like it might be alive itself in some way. She tries to clear the creep off her weapon, but she does not want to touch more of it than she has to. She holds the gun out to the firebat and asks if he can burn the creep off.
“I can purify anything,” he replies.
“You might want to unload it first,” Lilly advises.
Imogen does so and then hands the weapon over to Sam. It definitely gets cleansed of creep, but once she has let it cool for a bit, she finds that it now makes a clicking noise it never did before. She will have to repair it later, when there are time and materials.
Lilly looks over their new acquaintance as he stomps around, re-flaming the zergling husks and burning out the creep. Firebats tend to come in two stripes: resocialized criminals or pyromaniacs. Also, the gas tends to leak into the suit and drive them a little batty, so Sam’s behavior is pretty standard compared to what she has seen in the past. And if he was at that clinic… Yeah, this all adds up.
Imogen leans over to Lilly and says quietly, “I think I have enough information to write my report now.”
“All right,” Lilly replies and turns to start picking her way back up the hill. She stops when she hears the firebat address them and Imogen respond to him.
“I appreciate the help, but I may need a little more. I don’t know if it might be too much to ask.”
“What are you thinking?”
“There’s a zerg presence here. You can see the creep everywhere. I think they’re coming for the clinic. They know that it’s purifying the land, and they can’t have that. I want to blow them up from under the ground, make sure they can’t get there.”
“You want to blow up some sort of underground nest?”
“It’s not just a nest,” Sam insists. “They’re coming to attack, I’m sure. I’ve been trying to arm myself, but I’m only one man.”
“Have you been stockpiling the gas or only taking what you’re using right away?” Imogen asks. Just what resources are available for this madcap idea? she wonders.
“I’ve sort of been siphoning vespene off to build a bomb. That’s how I’m going to collapse the tunnel in on itself so that the zerg can’t get through. If we can see them on the surface, we can stop them, but not if they’re traveling underground.”
When Sam mentions this, Imogen tries to verify his claims and psionically senses half a dozen lifeforms beneath their feet. She panics, shouting, “They’re under us right now!” and starts shooting at the ground.
Lilly looks down at the scorched earth. “Where?” She sees evidence of burrowing in the landscape around them. The dimensions of the diggings mesh with the size of zerglings, and there is a larger one that could go with a hydralisk. This is a thing that she knows zerg can do, burrowing in the ground and laying an ambush. Without the proper equipment, though, there is no way to know how far down the creatures have dug. Lilly unloads a few shells at the ground around them in solidarity with Imogen. When there is no movement in response, she stops.
The firebat tells them that he has tried this as well, but the zerg are down too deep. Then he points farther along the cliffline, saying that off in that direction there is an entrance to the cave where their nest is. His plan is to plant the bomb deep inside that, but every time he has tried, he has been swarmed by too many zerg, so he thinks some sort of distraction could be helpful. Also, his bomb is not as powerful as he would like it to be.
Imogen feels it would be daft for the three of them to go up against a colony of zerg, particularly when they do not have the know-how to help with bombs. She wants him to hold off on his plan for a bit so she can see what other resources they can bring to bear. The firebat insists the threat to the clinic is imminent and needs to be taken care of in the next couple hours.
“I won’t let that clinic be taken out. You don’t understand; it’s not just some zerglings. They got a new kinda zerg… what do people call it? Banelings! They explode. Bad time. Real bad time.”
That catches Lilly’s attention. She has never heard of these before. “What now?” she asks. “There’re exploding zerg now?”
“Yeah,” the firebat confirms. “It’s real bad. They suicide themselves. They’re planning to use them to crack the side or foundation of the clinic and then swarm in.”
Lilly points out that there could be someone in the clinic right now who has experience with demolitions. Imogen asks Sam if he has talked to the clinic directly about the problem, since it threatens them. That had not occurred to him, so Imogen offers to handle that.