"But you're not just going rogue on me," Ortiz went on. "I want you to scout forward as fast as you can to that theater and hold off the enemy until we get there. I guess it goes without saying that you should avoid contact with the other Marines and don't scare the shit out of civilians if you can help it." She reached out and took his arm. "Then we all get off this tub together. I've had Marines die under my command, but I've never left one behind. Understood?"

Bowing his head, Reza said, "Yes, lieutenant."

"I'll go with him," Eustus volunteered. "He needs someone to watch his back."

"No, my friend," Reza told him, glad that Eustus had offered. You have more courage than you know, he thought. "Not this time. I can move faster on my own."

Turning to the deck plan, Ortiz focused the attention of the Marines on the way forward. "If I'm reading this right, we're going to have to go up two decks to the solarium, cross that and the shopping plaza, then drop down five decks to the theater. What do you think Reza?" She turned around. "Reza?"

He was gone.

"What the hell?" Walker gasped. "He was just standing right there!"

Eustus sighed. "Get used to it. He does that all the time."

***

Sai-Kel led her warriors aft through the angular passageways of the ship. She could not understand how the humans could build things that were so offensive to the senses. All around her were straight lines and sharp angles, utterly lacking in the grace found in even the simplest creations at the hands of the builders. This ship, and the others she had boarded in the past, had no sense of beauty or grace. One cannot expect such of soulless animals, she conceded.

Worse was the smell. Humans smelled bad enough, with their sour sweat and the strong perfumes they used to mask it, but their ships were worse. The stink of the humans mixed with the noxious chemical odors of the materials from which they made their ships sometimes caused Sai-Kel's nose to bleed. The worst, however, was the smell of their fear. It made her stomach roil with nausea. She was near to vomiting now, so overpowering was the reek in the passageways and compartments. She would far more have welcomed cloying smoke, which was now beginning to seep through the air ducts from the wreckage of the ship's engineering section.

Pausing in her advance, she nodded to a quartet of warriors who stood by, a pair on either side of the passageway near the endless rectangular doors along the passageways that led to sleeping quarters. One warrior of each pair sliced through the door's locking mechanism, the other warrior kicked it open, then the first stepped through. It was a process they all had performed many times in the past. The humans cowering within screamed in terror. Sai-Kel cringed, the sound clawing at her brain. The screams ended quickly, silenced by the swords of the warriors. Humans who did not stand and fight were killed quickly. Her Children did not delight in making animals suffer.

The warriors quickly returned from their bloody work, taking their places now at the rear of the phalanx attending her. Each would take her turn at the slaughter, which was part of Her will but was not something in which any of Her warriors took pride. No, they longed to find human warriors that would offer resistance, who would give battle that would glorify the Empress. Alas, aside from two humans who had given good accounts of themselves in hand to hand combat, all she and her warriors had thus far come upon in this ship were the weak and the helpless.

Raising a hand, indicating a halt, she looked at the ship's deck diagram, one of many that were affixed to the walls throughout human ships. She had always marveled that the animals could not find their way around without such things. Reaching out, she traced a path with an ebony talon toward a large compartment not far aft of her current location. Humans typically gathered when threatened, like terrified meat animals being hunted by a genoth, and she suspected that many would be there.

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