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  • William Corley

Opening Scene from Changelings: Insurrection

The thump of the assault team’s auto cannon drowned out the battle chatter in Tauran’s implant, and he flattened himself against the side of the tunnel to avoid a blast of superheated air. Just beyond the torn blast door at the end of tunnel, scarlet beams slashed through smoke. He glanced at the chrono displayed on his visor, double-checking his mental count. Forty seconds since the door breach.


Tauran had missed the start of the assault because of his shuttle’s slow descent from orbit. Even now, his pilot’s words dug like a burr into Tauran. “You should be on the Gemini, sir. By regulations, the commanding officer stays off-planet during a ground assault.” Well, slag regs. Regulations wouldn’t stop him from recovering his family. Not this time.


At sixty seconds, he charged his taclaser. The heft of its worn grip calmed the pounding in his chest. Go time.


As Tauran slipped through the shattered blast door, another explosion rocked the cavern. When a chunk of stone struck his chest plate, he pivoted, dropping into a firing position. The practiced maneuver awakened a dormant battle fury, but the berserker in him died at the sight before him. Grav wells! This place is huge.


Flares launched by the clearing team hovered like angry red stars at the roof of the cave, casting shadows around scattered boulders and stalagmites. The cavern was too large for the quick strike they’d planned and too far under an extinct volcano on Ascanius II for scanners to have picked up its size. Now they’d pay for their ignorance in precious time—seconds, minutes even, for shock to turn into resolve, surprise into escape.


Bouncing back to his feet, Tauran threaded around boulders toward the firefight. With shields gone, his platoon made short work of the remaining defenders. Even before he reached the assault team, his XO’s voice sounded sharply in his ear.


“Cease fire, cease fire. No more hostiles. Say again, no more hostiles.”


Tauran skidded to a halt. He disarmed his taclaser and clipped the blocky MaG to his side.

A cluster of disarmed mutants, changelings, knelt in the center of the cavern. Commandos from other sectors were herding more of the deformed humans toward the group. Some of the changelings were bare-chested, protected only by keratinoid scales covering their bodies with organic armor. Others had the more common signs of gigantism, exoskeletal growths, and cranial ridges that marked them as mutants. Field medics moved through quickly, triaging mutants with the worst injuries. Uninjured ones were fitted with cryo-restraints. As Tauran surveyed the scene, he felt scores of gelid mutant eyes following him.


It took Tauran less than a second to dismiss the captured changelings as nothing more than soldiers. So much for his hope of nabbing the leaders and the civilians who traveled with them. The ‘Lings were breathing without helmets, so environment controls must still be up. Good. He retracted his visor. The air was cold as space, but his eyes and ears were better for what he was looking for than the helmet’s sensors. Smoke curling from blast scars seared his nostrils into high alert. Running from boulder to boulder, he blinked away tears from fumes, scouring the cavern for other bodies. Stun grenades in the distance played his ears like a drum.


When commandos caught sight of his hooded eyes and chiseled brown face, most stiffened and turned back to their tasks. Two slipped behind him like ghosts, pulling security. There was no fooling guardsmen who’d followed him for years that he was in the soup with them instead of monitoring the fight from orbit. But even being among his own didn’t relieve the knot in his gut.


Where were they? He couldn’t have been wrong about the DNA signatures they’d found on the surface. His wife and son had to be somewhere in the cavern, no matter how crazy it seemed. Three years he’d been chasing them, almost as long as Lausus had been alive.

Tauran’s heart pounded, and he panted in the thin air. Forcing himself to be still, he tried to take in the whole cavern. There had to be a clue somewhere. He bit his lip as he scanned the room again.


There!


Tauran hurried over to a pile of rags and bedding in a corner and knelt. Scooping the rags to his face, he inhaled deeply. His eyes rolled back as familiar scents triggered images. A woman in tears. A boy not old enough to walk. Shouts, and the faint warmth of lips brushing his own with fire.


Beneath armor, a flush of warmth spread across his chest. So close and yet . . . He stood, his wife’s torn scarf trickling from his fingers. Every muscle in his face tensed to keep the evidence of disappointment inside. Turning to the soldiers who’d formed a cordon behind him, he asked, “What happened?”


The commando closest flashed a look at the other.


“Intel didn’t say they had a personal transporter, Commander.”


“Dec’ing intel,” Tauran swore without heat, as if explosive decompression would do anything to the AI they used for predictive analysis. “Why’d they have time to use it?”


“Cave is big. We pushed through double-quick, but—” The man hesitated. “The last ‘Lings destroyed the transporter instead of defending themselves.”


Tauran grunted and followed him to the mangled transporter. It was too sophisticated to have come from a changeling world. Its control panel was completely seared away, leaving the computing core no more than a puddle of slag. No chance of ripping destination coordinates from it. A dead changeling sprawled next to the transporter, his face contorted into a fierce smile of agony and triumph. Tauran reached down to close the mocking eyes.


Behind him, a throat cleared. Tauran turned to find a tall commando in battered armor. Like him, the commando’s visor was up. Sweat steamed from Palinura’s hard-featured, grimed face, and fell on her pursed lips. She tapped the ragged scar on Tauran’s chest plate.


“You’re a little early for the debrief, Commander. Didn’t trust your XO to follow the rules of engagement?”


Tauran grimaced. “Rules aren’t what worry me.”


“Obviously.” A storm raged in the soldier’s eyes. “Sensors show only two escaped.”


“Only two,” Tauran repeated, his hands balling into fists. His lip started to twitch as a howl rose up inside. No, no, no! Why had he let himself hope this time would be different?


Palinura’s expression hardened, and she dropped her eyes.


Groans came from a mutant attended by two medics. The sputtering flares revealed other dying and dead changelings scattered around the cave. They had no armor other than the bony extrusions and scales given by their mutations, no weapons more dangerous than welding irons and gas-powered slingers.


Palinura swept her arm to take in the entire cave.


“They never win, and yet they fight. Why?”


Tauran scowled. Because we attacked them, of course. Wouldn’t you fight? ‘Lings almost always kept to the defensive, too wary to engage Commission forces directly. Tauran would have been happy to leave them alone if their independence didn’t threaten the interplanetary supply lines all humans relied on for survival. The mutants didn’t need to attack to hold the rest of the Commission hostage.


“You think we’re winning?”


Palinura grunted noncommittally, avoiding a question Tauran regretted asking aloud. “We had no casualties beyond a few burns from the blast when their defense shields overloaded. The only dead ‘Lings were shooters. A lot are more humanoid than usual. Must be first-gens. Two’ve got no cranial or exoskeletal growths, and either aren’t changelings or are too early for deformities to show.”


“Could also be ‘Ling sympathizers or relatives,” Tauran replied.


Palinura flicked her eyes away again. “We’ll gather samples for testing, of course.”


He was making a hash of this. Pali had every right to be offended. Dismissing her back to mop-up operations, Tauran crossed over to the makeshift changeling command center. A mound of defensive plans smoldered on a crate, all pointless now. He scattered singed fragments as he dug through the pile. Near the bottom, he uncovered a mostly intact drawing, so crude it must have been made by a child: a stick figure with an oversized star on its chest, not unlike the insignia of a Guard Corps commander. It was faceless, either by design or because it was incomplete, distinguished by a badge of office more than by eyes or mouth. Despite smudges and quavering lines, its deep markings gave evidence of considerable care.


Was Lausus already drawing? At what age do kids begin to draw?


He slipped the paper into a pocket beneath his chest armor and looked back at the slagged transporter. Had he been five seconds away from recovering his son? Ten? Whatever it’d been, now it would be a million or more.


The whomp of another stun grenade snapped Tauran back into focus. Palinura gave him an expectant smile before she snapped her visor shut. Nothing like a good fight to speed forgiveness, eh? He nodded affirmation and dropped his visor too. Motioning to the other commandos, he charged back into the tunnel that led to more battle.



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