Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The corridor is just far enough off-true that it messes with your vision and balance if you’re not careful. Or if part of you relies on an exoskeleton to function.
“You okay there, Zeno?”
I flick a glance and grin towards Leroy.
“I’m seventy-one, godammit. Been doing this war shit for nearly fifty years, and it still sucks.”
He chuckles under his breath.
“I hear that, and I’m only eighteen behind you. When did the old guard get so old?”
Susan comes back to us at a fast lope, exoskeleton humming as she jumps the hole in the floor in front of me.
She lands. The floor gives way. The exoskeleton whips my arm out in time to catch her flailing hand. It pulls her up, over, and past me before both exoskeletons release our bruised limbs from automated rescue responses.
I slowly stretch my abused shoulder. A couple of degrees more and the damn rescue would have dislocated my arm. Then again, if it’s that or lose another of us, it would be a cheap price to pay.
Leroy helps her sit up. She grins at me.
“Your shoulder objecting to moving as fast as you used to?”
I grin right back.
“Like yours isn’t.”
There’s a shrug, then she brings a finger to her lips and points to our right. Leroy and I crouch down, bringing weapons round with care. Sure enough, her uncanny hearing has saved us from a sneak attack.
Without another word, we kill our sensor packs and move with aching slowness to take up positions either side of the two places Susan indicates. She does a finger countdown from four.
Three. Two. She closes her fist: pause.
Her eyes widen. She points to the section by Leroy with one hand, making the sign for him to drop with the other. He obeys.
The mandibles of a Scortan come through the wall either side of where he’d been but a moment before. He reaches up and grabs their outer edges, using the ridges to keep a grip as he slams his boots against the wall to trap it.
I step back, then lunge through the door. Rotted wood explodes outward as I correct my aim and shoot the grey horror in it’s armoured head.
Partially deafened by the noise of my antique 8-gauge in a confined space, I turn a slow circle with the hammer back on the other barrel. When a second centipede/scorpion hybrid doesn’t charge in, I allow myself to relax.
Susan peers round the door.
“You blew that up good. The mandibles came off in Leroy’s hands.”
“Handy. I’ve wanted a Scortan machete for a while.”
Leroy steps into view, curved mandible in each hand.
“Machete nothing. You seen these? I’m thinking scimitars.”
Susan moves down the room, cuts the stinger from the armoured tail, then brandishes it at us.
“Scortan tail stabby thing for me.”
“That a technical term?”
“The technical term is khanjar, but I didn’t want to confuse you with long words.” She points to the mandibles. “Scimitars are definitely what you’ll get from those.”
Leroy looks down at the Scortan.
“Real shame the only way to stop them is to destroy the bit we need to defeat them.”
I lean over and look at the torn wires and unidentifiable components amidst the bloody ruins of the head.
“We’ll get one. Burying it under rocks is the current plan. Until then, we need to stay lucky.”
Susan chuckles.
“Absolutely. I want to have a long, violent talk with whoever infested the Earth with these.”
She’s not alone in that.