The three of them scrambled immediately, backing off from the elevator in formation with Rachelle covering their retreat. Adree finally reloaded her rifle, taking out another Taugen as it made a break for the doors, but as two more immediately appeared she knew at once her rifle wasn’t going to cut it. Slinging it onto her shoulder, she drew her sidearm and fired as Robbes did: one of his shots missed but the second took one of the Taugen in the eye.

“Rachelle, drench it!”

Rachelle slapped a lever on the side of the biothrower and depressed the trigger again. Instead of a spray, biomarker gel streamed out of the biothrower into the elevator shaft and across the floor. She kept a steady, even pressure, covering the floor between them and the elevator until the biothrower’s canister bleeped its empty warning. Adree could hear the screams and moans of the Taugen in the elevator shaft, and the pool of glowing gel would catch any more that came out.

But they’d lose their biothrower trap once they got off this level. And if experience had taught her anything, it was that the Taugen were both adaptable and damnably lucky.

“Commander Aeslin?” asked Robbes.

“Fall back! The lapidtalos can’t find us if we’re dead!”

Ember damn the Taugen! Why now? Why here? They were ruining everything!

Adree let her rage build as Rachelle threw the empty biothrower away and kept firing at the howling silhouettes pouring from the elevator, let the anger grow ripe and red in her chest. It was like someone else was guiding her arm as she covered her team to the stairs — three shots in quick succession sent three Taugen skidding dead across the floor. Adree was about to follow them when the clarity of rage made her stop and focus.

In the soft, unearthly glow of the biomarker gel, the outflung arm of one of the dead Taugen was clad in… something. An elbow-length gauntlet with spring-loaded tips to the fingers, already sprung from the impact of the creature’s death. The tips were sharp, a glistening alloy that Adree recognised as Ancestral. So, the Taugen had been messing with Ancestor technology again? That explained how the damn things had been able to climb up the inside of the elevator shaft without CBP — Ancestor alloys could penetrate through steel like butter, and then you just had to be light enough to climb.

“Adree!”

More Taugen were swarming from the elevator shaft, some easy to spot from their patches of glowing colour, others leaping through the shadows towards her. Adree kept firing as she ran but then she was at the stairs, and it was either stand and die or get to safety.

She sprinted down two steps at a time, following the sound of her team. They went down four floors to their command post: it was the closest thing to a fortified position that they had, and their remaining gear was here. Adree glanced once at the Scorpieth’s scar — if the Taugen could climb a sheer elevator shaft they could climb the side of a building — but there was no time or equipment to fortify it.

Rachelle was breathing in quick, rapid gasps. “Where did they come from?”

“I don’t care. Take point on those stairs, Rachelle. Now!”

The young lieutenant snapped out of it. “Yes, ma’am!”

“How long, do you think?” asked Robbes. His hands were already busy tearing out the transmitter; standard procedure in the event of an attack so their communications weren’t compromised, but after all their effort it was a saddening sight.

“We’ve got a few minutes. They’ll try and get their wounded out of the biomarker gel first.” Adrenaline was kicking in, sweet and strong, allowing her to reload her sniper rifle with trivial ease. If Robbes was right and this was a storm, she was right in the eye of it now, in the calm of it. “Don’t forget, Robbes. Standard procedure. If I get mauled, one shot to the head and the same goes for Rachelle.”

“Myself too, ma’am,” said Robbes at once. “I don’t want the banru to brainwash me either.”

Adree clapped him on the shoulder. “Good. Just hold that thought if it comes down to it.”

“How many do you think there are?”

Adree kept working on her rifle. She had already asked herself that question and it was preying on her mind. The biomarker gel must have killed at least a dozen in the elevator but she had seen plenty more, and that was very bad. Taugen attacked in groups of four or five. They sent out hunting parties, not armies. They never mounted assaults like this, they attacked from —

There.

The part of her mind that analysed and parsed everything finally got her attention. Why were the Taugen here? They wouldn’t have risked so many for no reason, and it would have to be something important. And they attacked this building, after she had sent her transmission, which meant they had intercepted it. They had come for something specific, and that meant one of two things.

One possibility — one which sent a shiver down Adree’s spine — was that the Taugen had come for her personally. Her carcass would be a perfect trophy, especially if it was sent back to the Evinthei as Padrin Telcane’s broken body had been. But they must know the risk they were taking. Any Evinthei, even those idiots in the Central Forum, would fight to the death for any officer with her rank.

And if they hadn’t come for her, what did that leave?

Well, there was only one other thing worth risking so many for. The lapidtalos. And if the Taugen got hold of it, they’d have all the data it contained, not to mention perfect leverage over the Evinthei.

Adree finished reloading her rifle and snapped it closed. The hell with that.

“Commander Aeslin!” Rachelle ran back into the guard post, deftly catching the magazine Robbes threw to her. “They’re coming down the stairs!”

 

 

 

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