I held my finger on the trigger of my railgun, watching the Hive Lord as its eyes bored into me. I only had enough time for one or two uncontested shots. It would close on me too fast to get another one off. If I fired, that would start the confrontation. And I didn’t want to do that unless I had to. I needed to buy time.

A large forked tongue flickered out its mouth, tasting the air. It was completely still now, had been ever since it had shaken the dirt off. But it was watching me, sizing me up. And that was terrifying. I’d never seen an Assimilator do anything but attack its target immediately, with everything it had. But this one, this Hive Lord, was waiting for something.

The Hive Lord was massive. It dwarfed any of the other ones I’d gone up against in the simulator. When it first rose out of the ground, the Assimilator stretched out to a height of twenty feet. Its face was that of a wolf’s, with six bright red eyes. It’s eye ridge had a series of sharp spikes jutting out of it. Its mouth gaped open for a moment, and I saw dozens of teeth the size of my hand lining the interior, layered like a shark, with a long flickering tongue like a snake. From the tip of its nose up the top of its head were a series of large, flat plates of armor, the tendrils so thin and woven so tightly they appeared solid. It looked like those continued back down all the way down the spine to the long, whip-like tail that was slowly twitching back and forth. The Hive Lord stood upright on two legs as thick as tree trunks but hunched over, its powerful arms slightly tucked in under its torso. Claws as long as my forearm curved out from its huge hands.

I didn’t know if could beat this thing. But I could delay it.

Because right now, the monster had stopped inspecting me, and was looking over to where the Red Eagles were. It seemed like most of the rest of the Worms: hellbent on destroying the mercenaries. It didn’t even care that I was there, beyond a cursory look. Something the science team did had drawn the Assimilators’ attention, and if that advance team was any indication, the Worms would stop at nothing until the entire group was destroyed. The Hive Lord tensed up, preparing to spring into a sprint that would carry it to the Red Eagles in minutes. I couldn’t let that happen, not while I called myself a Paladin.

So I did something phenomenally idiotic. I triple checked every reading in my CAS, mentally commanded the red targeting indicator lock on, hefted my railgun, gave a quick prayer to every deity I could think of, and fired a slug directly at the Hive Lord’s head.

Somehow, the giant Worm saw it coming and attempted to dodge, twitching its legs and torso at an incredible speed. But it couldn’t get out of the way in time, not at that range. The slug, moving roughly ten times the speed of sound, clipped the top of the Hive Lord’s head, and the kinetic force tore it, and the area around it, apart. That caught its attention thoroughly, and it whirled to face me, it’s jagged mouth snarling in pain and anger, missing half of its skull. A half second later, another slug from my railgun followed the first, but to my horror it missed. Or, to be more accurate, the Hive Lord shielded its damaged head with an arm, which was blown apart as it redirected the projectile. My Paladin’s optics showed the tendrils growing back at a visible pace, repairing the devastation as if it had never been there. I fired one last shot, this time aimed for its torso. It tried to dodge again, but the round landed at full force, blowing a massive crater into its body. It paused for a moment, then roared in pure rage. Without missing another beat, it started sprinting towards me, moving at an astonishing pace.

I fired my thrusters backwards, as fast as possible, stowing my railgun and pulling my SMGs out. I couldn’t use the unwieldy weapon at close range, despite the usefulness of its stopping power. And this battle would be exclusively at close range. The Hive Lord’s sheer bulk made it less nimble than my Paladin, but it was still wickedly fast, and would catch me in an instant in a straight-line race. Its size would prevent me from taking full advantage of the Paladin’s ability to move aerially; it would snatch me out of the air like an insect if I spent too much time hanging in it.

I skated backwards, attempting to keep as much distance between me and the massive Worm as I could. I opened fire with my SMGs while launching a half dozen anti-matter rockets. The armor piercing bullets simply bounced off the Hive Lord’s tendrils, erupting into futile sparks that fizzled out in moments. The rockets would be more effective. They were madrium-tipped, which let them pierce the beast’s hide. But again, the Hive Lord surprised me. It dipped the shoulder of its already damaged arm like a linebacker, and I watched as in the blink of an eye as the tendrils on its upper arm formed a large armored plate. It tanked four out of the six rockets, taking the massive blue explosions with barely a flinch, even though its arm was ripped almost completely off this time. The other two impacted into its stomach and leg. The rocket to the stomach ripped a jagged hole in it, but was otherwise ineffective. The one to its leg, however, caused it to stumble for the first time, sending it pitching towards the ground.

My sigh of relief was turned into a curse when the Hive Lord caught itself with the remaining arm and leg as it fell, using its own momentum and a powerful thrust from its undamaged limbs to fling itself directly at me. The speed of its launch closed the remaining distance in a moment, and I had to make a desperate fall backwards, propelled by my antigravs, to avoid being snapped in half by its hideous jaw. I landed hard on the ground, facing up at its chin. I took the opportunity to fire four rockets, and then a quick burst of my thrusters propelled me to the right, and I rolled out from under the Hive Lord. The rockets exploded on the bottom of the Assimilator’s body, tearing chunks out of it, and it shrieked in agony but somehow stayed standing. Now clear of the Hive Lord, I popped to my feet, but in the next instant an incredible force impacted the side of my Paladin as the Worm’s tail smashed into me. I went flying a dozen feet, my anti-gravs flaring like mad, but they weren’t enough to save me from smacking into the hard ground and skipping like a rock. As I picked myself up, I checked my readouts. The armor held strong, but there was a crack where the tail had hit me. I’d kept a hold of my SMGs, solely due to the fact that they were magnetically attached to my hand.

As I was getting my bearings, the Hive Lord was hobbling towards me surprisingly quickly, recovering from the damage I’d dealt it. My heart sank as I realized that its leg was already almost back in shape. I noticed that its arm was still a mess, and I saw that it was growing back at a much slower rate. Maybe it could only rapidly regenerate one part at a time? I tossed a quick plan together in the scant seconds I had left before it went on the assault again. Every Hive Lord had one ganglion in their head, and between two and three more scattered throughout their body, depending on the size of the Worm. Even if just one of them were destroyed, it would slow the Assimilator down considerably. So I needed to do just that.

I had the what to do down. The how to do it was still a work in progress.

I didn’t have time to think farther, because the Hive Lord suddenly flung itself in my direction, accelerating at an unbelievable pace, swiping its undamaged left arm at me. I shot to my left, getting out of the way of the blow, and fell right into its trap. The arm that had been torn apart a moment before had partially reformed as the Hive Lord attacked, and sped at me head on. Even though I managed to see it out of the corner of my eye and change my direction, one of the claws still caught the outside of my leg. I felt a flash of fiery pain and realized that it had pierced the Paladin’s armor. But I ignored it, and spun around the side of the Assimilator, peppering it with SMG fire, skimming over the ground with my anti-gravs. It looked like the flank of the creature was less armored than the front, because small burning holes appeared, not enough to do any damage, but enough to seriously piss it off. It roared again, and I narrowly dodged a whip of its tail, then stored my SMGs as I propelled myself up as far as main thrusters would take me, and landed on the hide of the Hive Lord.

My anti-gravs blazed bright blue to keep me stable as I ran up the back of the Assimilator, struggling to stay balanced as it writhed in an attempt to throw me off. My CAS was warning me about something, but I didn’t have to the luxury to worry about that right now, because I was too busy ducking the tail that was attempting to flick me off the back. I fell flat on the spine of the Hive Lord, and I deployed the blades in my fists and sank both my hands deep into the tendrils of the Worm to anchor me, and this time the screech of anger was so loud that my Paladin had to limit the noise coming through. The Hive Lord whipped its head back to try to snap me off, its eyes burning with hatred. And then I fired the rest of my rocket pod into its face, all nine missiles slamming into it and detonating in massive blue explosions. I grinned in satisfaction as I felt the monster begin to fall, and flipped off its back, slowing my descent with the anti-gravs. I’d destroyed the head, now I just needed to-

In midair, I was smashed by the back of the Hive Lords clawed hand, hard enough to be spiked into the ground before I could even react with my anti-gravs. I felt the chest plate of my Paladin crack and I had the air knocked out of my lungs as my back slammed against the inside of the suit, the inertial dampeners unable to act fast enough to compensate for the blow. A mass of bright red warnings was blaring on my HUD, but before I could read them I was distracted by the nightmarish sight of the headless Hive Lord, its tendrils writhing and wriggling as they wove themselves back into shape, staggering in my direction like a drunkard. It was completely blinded with no sensory organs left, but it had somehow hit me out of midair and knew where I was. My best guess was that Assimilator had predicted the path of my fall based on how I pushed itself off of it, and had gotten a lucky hit. If that was the case, then I still had an advantage until the head grew back. The Paladin had limited reactive repair capability, and could patch minor damage like the gash to my leg and the cracks in the chest with a very thin layer of metal, just enough to maintain structural integrity. But that meant I had a brief moment where I was in better shape than the Hive Lord.

I pulled out my railgun again. I needed a clear shot at it, a way to hit it in the exposed neck. It wouldn’t be armored on the inside, and if I could fire a slug down its throat, I’d be able to do some major damage. Unfortunately, that meant getting closer to the terrifying monster, so I fired my main thrusters on full again, and arced into the sky. I reached the zenith of my flight, and hovered there for a half second, long enough for the CAS to get a lock. I fired the railgun as my anti-gravs gave out, and the slug slammed into the shoulder of the Hive Lord instead of the remnants of its head.

I fell back to the earth, the blue lights on my suit flickering desperately. Power. I had run out of power.

I crashed into the dirt, and the railgun crumpled under me, unable to withstand the weight of my Paladin. I left it on the ground and scrambled to my feet, looking over my HUD desperately, trying to figure out what I had to work with as the Hive Lord advanced on me, each step rumbling the ground. Suit damage: Acceptable. Weapons: rockets depleted, railgun destroyed; SMGs, wrist shotguns, knuckle blades still functional. I could only engage at close range. And my power reserves wouldn’t recharge fast enough for me to use the thrusters for more than brief, rare, bursts.

I looked up from my HUD and stared down the approaching monster. The tendrils of its eyes were binding themselves back together, and as each formed they rolled to glare directly into mine. It paused, and we both stood still. The sun was starting to set behind the Hive Lord, and it was framed in a golden glow.

It roared at me again, the massive bellow drawn out, and I could see every one of its hundreds of teeth as it slammed its clawed hands into the ground, causing clouds of dust to be flung upwards.

And then the Hive Lord burst forward, its claws flashing out at me. I dodged, and dodged again, relying solely on my own abilities to avoid the blows. It brought its jaws down to snap at me from above, but I spun around them and fired my shotgun into the side of its face, directly in the eyes. It pulled its head back and lashed out with a flurry of blows. I tried to dodge out of way but it was too fast, and I felt a hole punched in my forearm as one of the claws caught me and sent me spinning away. Before I could take stock of the damage it was already on me once more, and I flung myself forward in a roll to avoid a hand being slammed down at me. I came up from the roll and lashed the blade on my fist out at one of the legs, hamstringing it and leaving the huge Worm staggering. I pulled my SMGs out, but before I could do anything with them I felt something wrap around my waist, and I was wrenched backwards from under the Hive Lord. I was caught by the tail, and suspended me in midair and constricted around me. The metal of my Paladin started to bend and my ribs began to crack. I fired at point blank range with both guns into the thinnest segment of the Assimilator’s tail, and rather than sit there and take it, the Worm slammed me against the ground three times, then flung me away.

I hit the ground and skidded until I stopped my momentum by digging my hand into the dirt. I’d lost my SMGs this time, somewhere along the way. My body was screaming at me and so was my CAS. That last exchange had damaged both heavily. But I pulled myself up again, and faced the Hive Lord. It wasn’t sprinting at me anymore, instead stalking slowly towards me, its tongue flickering out rapidly. I realized that the parts of the Worm I’d damaged hadn’t perfectly grown back. They were a crooked rush job, and parts seemed to be stuck in their torn apart state. I grinned ferally, swallowing back the blood in my mouth. I’d hurt the fucker. And it was afraid, at least a little bit, of getting hurt more.

As it neared me I turned the Paladin’s PA to full blast, and waited. When it lunged at me, like I knew it would, its horrific maw gaping open, I screamed into the coms, and the sound tore out, causing the Hive Lord to flinch in surprise. I took that moment to use most of the power that had recharged and fling myself upwards, landing on the smooth armored plates that ran up its head, my left hand using the ridge above its right eye as a hold. I heard something in my coms but I dismissed it, instead slamming my right fist straight into its forehead, digging deep into the tendrils. The Assimilator pulled up roughly, but I clung to it like a burr, punching again and again, then grasping and ripping out chunks of it as it writhed around in agony. I fired both barrels of the shotgun on my right arm into the hole I’d torn open, blowing it even farther apart.

I was torn off its face by one of its hands, and it spiked me into the ground. I bounced as I hit, my vision going dark for a second. I managed to turn the fall into a roll, and came up in time to see a massive palm descending on me. I caught it with both arms, and the servos in my suit whined and whirred as the incredible weight of the Hive Lord pressed down on me. The armor was starting to tear apart where it had been compromised earlier on my arm and leg, the thin metal failing rapidly. My body was starting to break down from the strain. I wouldn’t be able to hold it much longer, I needed to do something quickly. And then I felt a sharp pain in my side, like one of those spears of light from so long ago, and I realized that the Hive Lord had simply clenched its hand. One of the claws was at the right angle to catch me. I gritted my teeth at the pain and focused everything into staying standing, into preventing the damn Worm from crushing me. My vision was turning white and my ears filled with the triumphant snarls of the Hive Lord.

And then the low, powerful hum of anti-grav engines filled the air, and I briefly supported the Hive Lord’s weight with only one hand as I desperately flung an elbow back, twisting my Paladin as hard as I could. By sheer luck I smashed into claw embedded in me, breaking it off at the finger, but I felt the bone crack in the arm that was holding the Worm up. I gave a burst of my thrusters, enough to get me out from under the Hive Lord’s claws, and I saw the Merlin flying straight at the Assimilator, the cannon on its nose firing with a deafening thrum. The oversized bullets smashed into it, driving it backwards, pinning it down but not doing much damage. I backpedaled as fast as I could, trying to get as much distance from it as possible.

“Sam!” yelled Adelaide into my coms, “I only have one torpedo left. Once I fire, get on board!”

She didn’t wait for a response, instead flaring the engines of the Merlin and bringing it between myself and the Hive Lord. The Worm was covering its face with its hands, but was steadily moving forward. I saw it tense its legs to jump forward, but at that moment a long missile shot out from under the Merlin’s front wing. In the half-second between when it launched and when it hit the Hive Lord, the Assimilator managed to brace itself. With a roar of blue, the torpedo detonated, sending the massive Worm flying like a ragdoll, its arms completely destroyed and the front quarter of its body ripped to shreds.

Adelaide brought the Merlin down, ramp lowered. I used the last of my power to fire my main thrusters and assist my jump towards it. I landed on the ramp with a loud crash, and stumbled into the Merlin, the broken claw of the Hive Lord still in my side.

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