As might be expected, I entered the room first. To me it was just a room, no different to any of the others in the facility. But to the others, the room was a chamber akin to Room 101, where their worst fears played out endlessly. So it fell to me to step through the door, scan each nook and cranny to make sure nothing untoward was skulking in the shadows. As I expected, the lightstrips clinging to the ceiling responded to my presence when I walked in. I’d been expecting a few laboratories, but there appeared to be only one small room.
Then I saw that this room was like an airlock. There was next to nothing inside it. Padded environment suits hung from the walls, seven a grubby white and one turquoise. They were studded with basic equipment and input jacks for more specialised kit. I’d worn one once before enlisting in the Corps, I knew the suits to be adaptable and in some ways superior to our own hardened battlegear. But of course, the lack of armour made them next to useless in a firefight.
Here was yet another mystery… even though the attack had been swift, surely there would have been time for the drowned scientists we’d found to have put on their suits? Unless the room had been flooded before the Zerg attack. But why? I shook my head to clear the confusion. There wasn’t anything I could do about it now. In a situation like this was it important to be pragmatic. I’d only investigate the strange occurrences if they began to conflict with my mission parameters. It was this pragmatism, coupled with my fearlessness, that had led Generals to call me ‘Relentless’, just as my squad called me ‘Fearless’.
I opened the inner door of the room and stopped in my tracks. I’d expected a laboratory, maybe even a small subcomplex… but the hall stretching out before me must have been hollowed out of the mountain itself. I was awe-struck for a moment. Then the feeling passed – a side affect of having no fear. Awe was closely linked with fear, and so the removal of one diminished the other. I looked around the hall, taking in the robust support pillars and heavy contrivances littered around like toys of petulant child. I wondered if the Zerg had even reached this far – there was no sign of infestation, no corpses, Terran or otherwise. “Safe in there, Fearless?” Tarken’s voice crackled over the comm. “Yeah. Though you might be a little surprised at what’s on this side.” I told him.
The others filed in and I watched with amusement as they saw the extent of the hall, stopped dead and were bumped into by the person behind them.
“Hell, Fearless, you could’ve warned us!” Tarken complained.
“I did.” I answered him, chuckling. He glowered with mock anger and said nothing. Maya punched him on the arm; a blow that would have shattered the bones of an unprotected Terran, but with both of them in armour was merely playful.
“Lighten up, stone-jowls.” She told him.
“Stone-jowls? Is that what they call me?” Tarken asked, mildly indignant. “I’ll have you know…”
“Stow it, guys.” I told them. “There’ll be time for chit-chat later. Maya, take a look at these… gizmos. See if you can work out what they do, and if we need to destroy them. Tarken, watch the exit. Corso, you’re with me. I’ll take point.”
With that I headed off into the gloom, followed reluctantly by Corso. He was still afraid to leave the safety of the group, even though the hall was clearly empty.
“How you holding up, Corso?” I asked. “I know everyone’s a bit jumpy with all the stuff we’ve seen, but how are you coping?”
He shrugged, a particularly emphatic gesture in powered armour.
“Ok, I guess. I’ve not got the shakes… not bad, anyway. So long as I can shoot my gun straight, I’m cool.”
“That’s good to hear.” I told him, unsure of what to say. This was one of those innumerable situations where Tarken was useful; I always got into trouble when I started serious conversations with people. “So what number combat drop is this for you?” Even as I said it, I regretted it. I could almost see him playing over the past. Corso was only just old enough to enlist when the Zerg struck. On his first mission, he’d had to cut down crazed citizens. Terrans, infested by xenomorph parasites. He never said as much, but I was sure some of them must have been people he knew.
“This is my third. First was Chau-Sara, then I was dropped straight onto Mar-Sara, only a day’s break in between. After that righteous mess I was sent to a training facility in another system, I don’t know where. After I finished that, I was assigned to your squad. We had that little police action on Kino Moon, I don’t count that as a proper combat mission.”
“What was it like bowling for the Cheetahs?” I asked. His eyes seemed to lighten.
“It was amazing! Some of the guys and girls on my team… they were phenomenal. I’ve seen vids of the older matches, back on Earth… man, we’d waste some of those guys. But it all seems so useless now…what with the war and all.” He seemed to slump in his armour.
“No way, kid, your throwing arm and sporting career was half the reason I wanted you on my team. And if you’d signed up in peacetime I’d send you straight back to your cricket team.” I stopped next to another, larger array of computing equipment.
“It’s the war, isn’t it, sir? It’s thrown everything out of whack.” He asked me.
“That’s right, kid. Which is why we have to fight to get it back to normal. The sooner this is all over, the sooner we can go back to being proper Terrans again. You can take up sports, Mitchell will probably get a job in computer science.” I tried to put conviction into my voice. It wasn’t hard. My capacity for hope was sufficiently far removed from my capacity for fear that it had been unaffected. If anything, it seemed my hopes were all the brighter now they were untempered by forebodings of any kind. Most people who thought about the future worried about money, or friends – something always got in the way of the vision. But not for me.
“And Tarken will give speeches, and Maya’ll become an artist or something… something that needs good hand-eye-thing.” Corso continued.
“Hand-eye-co-ordination, yeah.” I corrected him.
“Or maybe she’ll be a model or something…” He said, in the air of a person revealing a secret.
“A model, eh?” I teased. ‘You sweet on her or something?”
“A bit.” He admitted, a red tinge coming to his cheeks. “But I know to be careful.” He paused for a moment. “What about you, Fearless? Surely you ain’t gonna stay in the army?” He asked.
“Why not?” I said. “I’m a good soldier and things’ll get even easier in peacetime. It’ll just be odd police actions. And having no fear may not cow any Zerg, but it’ll have a hell of a lot more effect when rebels or rioters hear I’m coming. That’s if I stay fearless, of course. I might have a shot as a normal Terran. No brain tinkering.”
“No way, sir… you can’t not be Fearless… it’s who you are!” He said, quietly but emphatically. “In or out of the army, it’s one damn-useful… thing.”
“Maybe…” I said, turning towards the computer terminal. “Anyway, let’s get to business. Watch my back.”
“Yes, sir.” He raised his rifle, holding it ready. I saw his stance in the reflection of the terminal screen, smiled to myself. I felt like I’d given him some much-needed confidence. Feeling a little happier with the emotional state of my team, I concentrated on the task at hand. I connected a jack cable from my suit to one of the terminal’s ports and started to interface, seeing the visual representation on my HUD.
The system I accessed was mostly garbled. Someone had unleashed a self-replicating eater-Wyrm into the cybernetic architecture of this secure network. It had chewed through a huge percentage of the stored data. Most of the information pathways were completely inaccessible, greeting me with multiple error messages when the suit tried to follow them. The few files that I could actually read were incomprehensible lists of numerical data, equations and theorems I scarcely understood. I considering copying everything onto my suit’s own network, but my orders were to destroy the data, not retrieve it. I deleted all the files I found, then searched out any backups and erased them as well. Lastly, I released a military-grade retrovirus into the system, with the purpose of eradicating every last scrap of readable data and causing further confusion amongst all the gibberish that was already present.
Part Four: Dark Ally
I turned around to find Corso gone. I called to him over the comm, but there was no reply. Then I shouted with the suit’s external amplifiers, but there was no sign of him. I signalled Tarken and Maya, ordered them to meet up with me. There were no signs of violence around where I was standing, no drag marks on the floor. He must have walked away for some reason – I’d been engrossed with the network for quarter of an hour.
The others came hurrying over. Tarken instantly saw that Corso was missing, caught my eye and went straight to search for him. Maya walked up to me, looking worried.
“Fearless, what’s wrong? Where’s Corso?”
“I don’t know. I told him to guard me while I took care of the computerised records. When we’ve found him, we need to blow the machine and then get to Mitchell. After that, we can wait for the shuttle to come and pick us up.” I said.
“Where could he have gone? I take it his comm isn’t responding.”
“No. There’s no sign of any struggle.” I told her. She seemed to shudder, not that I could see through her powered armour. But her breath grew a bit ragged.
“You think…” Her voice trailed away, unable to finish the sentence. Or, I suspected, the thought behind the sentence.
“I’m not thinking anything. He must have seen something and gone to investigate. Maybe there’s an EM jamming device, I don’t know… I’m not getting any readings over the biomonitor. Nothing. If he’d been injured it would have told me.”
Maya flinched as Tarken’s shout came over the comm – whatever he’d found, it had made him forget the speakers made it sound as if we were stood next to each other. Maya and I hurried towards his transponder signal. He’d gone a considerable distance in the short time that I’d spoken to Maya. We broke into a run when the sounds of gunfire filtered through our external sensors. I used the suit’s vision amplification, but without infrared the hall was just too gloomy. And IR sensors wouldn’t work with the amplifier activated. My biomonitor
I was so focussed on running I had to skid to halt when I reached Tarken. He’d been flung into one of the pillars. Biomonitor told me he was unconscious, but otherwise unharmed. The pneumattock was grasped in his hand; he hadn’t had time to swing it at whatever tossed him about like a sack of coal. I instructed his suit to inject him with increasing amounts of adrenaline, until he came round. That done, I turned to scanning the shadows with Maya. We searched the area, but couldn’t find anything.
Something swept by, knocking me off my feet. I saw nothing more than a patch of shimmering air that vanished as swiftly as it had appeared. Maya screamed and fired blindly, terror seizing her.
“Maya, get a grip!” I shouted. I couldn’t get up for fear of being hit by hyperkinetic uranium rounds. She’d completely lost it; I could hear her screaming over and over on the open channel. No words… just an endless vocalisation of what she was feeling inside. My mind latched onto an idea…
“Trooper, take your rifle apart now! That’s an order!” I yelled, doing my best drill sergeant’s impression. It worked. Maya stopped firing and had her rifle stripped and its separate components laid out of the floor a few seconds after I’d spoken. I breathed a sigh of relief; thankful I hadn’t had to shoot her to make her stop. I’d seen it happen with other squad leaders.
“Now put your rifle back together, trooper!” I barked.
“It’s okay, Fearless. I’m back.” Maya said, her voice quavering. “I goofed out for a bit… I’m sorry.”
“S’alright, Maya. Come help me up.”
Once back on my feet, I had my suit fire sonar pulses in every direction. I didn’t expect to find anything – whatever was beneath the shimmer could easily be hiding behind a pillar – but I had to try. IR scans also revealed nothing. The generator producing the cloaking field must have sucked in all the heat to help power it, or it could have carried a cryo-arithmetic device of some kind. I’d read about them in some of the older novels in my father’s library. A trick of computation caused them to drain heat instead of giving it out like most computers did. I’d learnt never to question anything I found on my missions, just accept the impossible and work around it. Or use it to my advantage, if necessary.
The cryo idea presented another possibility to me. I changed the settings on my IR sensor, looking for patches of cold. One presented itself to me instantly, moving towards us rapidly.
“Maya: field of fire, three o’clock. Aim for waist height. No questions.” She obeyed before I’d even finished speaking. Though her military training might vanish on rare occasions, when it functioned it was a force to be reckoned with. Our first mission together, dealing with insurgents had been very short. A group of rioters had charged us. She’d singled out the leader and dropped him with a non-lethal shot to the shoulder. After that the rabble scattered, went back to their homes. Now, watching Maya calmly take aim at a patch of shimmering air, I knew I’d done the right thing choosing her for my squad. Fear was her worst enemy, but she could beat it.
Fire spluttered from her rifle for a split second. Then the shimmer was brightening, unravelling in front of our eyes. Corso’s recumbent form dropped to the floor, but my eyes barely flicked toward it. We were focussed on the shape appearing before us. It seemed to be coalescing out of chains of smoke and dust. I’d once seen a Ghost operate his cloaking device, watched a spherical shield appear around him and then mimic the landscape behind it, but this shape of this cloak appeared to be congruent with the emergent form.
That meant one thing… Protoss. The entity in front of us was clad head to toe in burnished armour, its colour somewhere between bronze and gold. Iridescent metal wing-shapes adorned its back, likely incorporating thrusters of some kind. They made it look like a space-age angel. Beautiful, functional and deadly. Even in my powered armour it was broader and taller than I was. Maya was just starting to whimper next to me.
“Maya, rifle.” I ordered. A few seconds and the gauss rifle was in pieces. Another few seconds and it was back together, pointed at the ground. The Protoss stood silently, eyes fixed on us. Even from a few metres away I could see the disfiguring scar etched across its mottle skin. It had no mouth, just like the stories said. I’d never met a real Protoss before. Hopefully, this one would be more concerned with the Zerg than with a few Terran Marines.
I AM THE AVENGER, THE RISEN ONE. MY PATH TO DESTINY IS LINED WITH THE CORPSES OF MY ENEMIES. I AM THE LIGHT AND LIFE WHO BRINGS DEATH AND DARKNESS. I AM THE RISEN ONE, THE AVENGER. I WILL PUNISH ALL THAT DARE STAND AGAINST THE FURY OF THE STORM. I AM THE LIVING THREAT, MORTAL SWORD OF THE GODS OF DESTRUCTION.
I shook my head to clear of the psionic backwash that rippled through the hall. This Protoss appeared crazed. I wondered if trying to communicate was a wise idea, Protoss were unpredictable at the best of times. I took a tentative, slow step toward Corso, watching the creature for any sign of movement. It turned to be a bad idea.
HOLD FAST, ENEMY OF THE AVENGER. ROOTED TO THE EARTH SHALL YOUR STEPS BE, LEST MY HOLY FIRE ILLUMINATE YOUR SOUL. MY ARTEFACTS ARE TO YOURS AS THE TOOLS OF AN ADULT TO THE POSSESSIONS OF CHILDREN. I AM THE RISEN ONE.
I hated these unspoken words. Written in my head… carved into my skull. It was incredibly disconcerting. I could see one of Maya’s eyes rolling inward, a sure sign her brain was struggling with the Protoss’ brutal discourse. The Protoss was levelling at me an ornate weapon of some kind, most likely the sort of high-order energy cannon that scientists fantasised about building.
“I’m not your enemy.” I broadcast through my external speakers. “I’m here to fight the Zerg. Same as you.”
DO NOT THINK YOU CAN POSSIBLY COMPREHEND THE PURPOSE OF THE AVENGER. I HAVE WANDERED ALONG AMONG THE STARS, LEAVING MY TRAIL OF MAYHEM. SUCH WAS THE BETRAYAL, I HAVE SWORN TO AVENGE THEIR CRIMES SEVENFOLD. THE RISEN ONE WILL NOT BE DENIED.
“Believe me, we’re not planning to.” I promised him, holding out my empty hands. I’d stowed my gauss rifle on the rack on my backplate, in a gesture of peace. “Now, are you going to let me see to that Marine you just dropped?”
THE ONE YOU INDICATE INITIATED A DIRE FOLLY IN RAISING HIS SPEAKING ROD AGAINST THE AVENGER, THE RISEN ONE. FOR THAT, I WILL EXORCISE HIM. HIS SOUL WILL NOT RESIDE IN ITS CORPOREAL SHELL FOR ONE MORE MOMENT.
He swung to face the unconscious marine and I watched in amazement as a blade slid out of nowhere – a blade crackling with blue energy. Before I could intervene, something caught the Protoss warrior a terrific blow from behind. As it fell to its knees, winded by a blow that would have eviscerated a Terran, Tarken stepped around from behind it.
“You might have gadgets we can only dream about, but they do nothing for a guy who turns his back on a Confederate Marine.” Tarken told it. “Now, let’s have none of this ‘exorcise business’. Tell my commander what you’re doing in a Terran facility and I might decide not to take your head off with this here hammer.” He swung the pneumattock in a swift circle, with all the dexterity one would expect to use with a broadsword. I noticed that the Protoss blade had retracted, or powered down. If it was one of the fabled psionic swords, it would be a potent weapon against Terran or Zerg. As much as I wanted to strip him of his armour and tie him up – assuming that were even possible – I knew with him on our side our chances were a lot better.
“I’m sorry for Corso’s actions.” I said formally. “He was expecting to see Zerg so much that when you appeared, that was what his mind saw. We mean you now harm.” I looked over at Tarken. “No further harm.” I corrected myself.
The Avenger leaned against a pillar after pulling himself upright. Tarken kept the pneumattock ready while Maya trained her rifle on the only weak point visible in the Protoss armour – the exposed helmet. The alien within shook his head several times and moved away from the pillar, standing unsteadily. Then he began to fall, with all the inevitability of a felled tree.
In situations like this there are two possible reactions. The path of fear is to leap out of the way, or shoot whatever weapon you’re pointing at the thing falling. But the path of fear for me was forever closed. So that meant my only action was to step up to the alien and catch him, powered armour straining to support that bulk. I was close enough to see my reflection in the polished plates. This close, the smell of the alien reached my nostrils through olfactory sensors. The bizarre tang of his armour and the burnt-plastic odour of his energy systems were almost overpowering, but around it filtered the smell of the being himself – a sweet scent akin to freshly mown grass, or fresh sea air.
THANK THE FOREFATHERS… THAT BLOW… I MUST APOLOGISE. I WAS INJURED LONG AGO AND CAST AWAY FROM MY PEOPLE, BECAUSE THE INJURY DAMAGED MY MIND. I AM WHAT YOU WOULD CALL… INSANE. BUT THAT BLOW RESTORED MY SENSES… THIS IS THE FIRST TIME IN THREE CENTURIES THAT I’VE BEEN ABLE TO THINK FOR MYSELF. I CANNOT THANK YOU ENOUGH, TERRAN.
“You’ll excuse me if I’m a tiny bit skeptical.” Tarken growled. “You kidnapped a squad mate and threw me into a pillar. And you were about to kill that Marine.”
PLEASE UNDERSTAND, WHEN THE MADNESS TAKES ME THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO TO COUNTER IT. FOR COUNTLESS DECADES I HAVE WANDERED WHERE THE MADNESS TOOK ME, UABLE TO EXERT THE BAREST INFLUENCE OVER DESTINATION. ALL I SEEK IS TO RETURN TO MY CRAFT.
What the Protoss said seemed plausible. Worryingly plausible. The Terran-recorded actions of his race certainly appeared extreme enough to banish from their society one who was effectively a raving lunatic. And he’d made no threatening moves since I stopped him from falling. I propped him back up, making sure the exoskeleton was supporting him.
THANK YOU, TERRAN.
“I take it you don’t realise you’re shouting?” I said.
The Protoss appeared to not understand the word.
“When you talk… it hurts our heads.” I told him. “It’s unsettling.” He nodded and banged the side of his blue metal collar.
“Is that better?” He said. His voice now issued from a speaker set into the collar. It was deep, rolling, like I imagined an earthquake to sound. This was a voice that had once been accustomed to giving orders. And having them obeyed.
“Yeah. What do we call you, Protoss?” I asked.
“Many lifetimes ago I was Praetor Kadralas. I am no longer worthy of that title.” He seemed to sag within his exoskeleton. “Now, I wish only to be known as Kadra. By rights I carry the rank of Zealot.”
“In that case, you can call me Fearless.” I said. If I extended the hand of friendship to this alien, I hoped I wouldn’t find his own hand grasping the haft of a blade forged from pure psionic energy.
“Fearless? That sounds like a description, rather than a name.” Kadra replied.
“I guess it is, in a way.” I flicked a hand signal to Maya, who bent down to bring Corso around.
“If you’ll excuse me for a moment, my armour must be tended to. Your companion’s blow had a certain… emphasis… to it. When he smote the armour, several systems went offline.” He knelt and produced what looked like two metal needles. Then he set to work repairing his power suit.
Tarken walked round to stand beside me, arms folded, pneumattock once more hanging from his belt. He had the look of a man who had no choice but to accept what was happening around him and go with the flow, as it were.
“Well, ain’t that something?” He said, mostly to himself.
“Our mission suddenly looks a bit more achievable, doesn’t it?” I said.
Tarken nodded. “But I’m still concerned. If he reverts to insanity…”
“We’ll deal with that problem if and when it becomes a problem.” I told him. “Though I don’t think you cured centuries of madness with a single strike of a hammer… it’s not like it’s Mjolnir…” I joked.
“It’s not what?” Tarken asked, confused.
“Mjolnir… Hammer of Thor?” I said.
“Who’s Thor? Is another one of those really old books you always quote and expect me to have read?” He said it in such a tone of scorn I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Come on, Tarken. This is a real piece of Norse mythology!”
“I ain’t no history nerd.” He said.
“No, you’re an untutored Philistine.” I taunted back.
“There you go again, proving my point.”
I was about to respond when Kadra lumbered over. Corso was on his feet now, looking groggy.
“Corso, say hello to Kadra.”
He blinked a few times, swaying as if intoxicated. “Hi.” He said blankly. The alien warrior knelt down, head bowed. “I ask for your forgiveness, Marine of the Confederacy. My attack on you took place in the throes of insanity. Rest assured, it will never happen again.” I think Corso still wasn’t in possession of all his mental faculties, but he smiled blankly.
“Hey, s’ all cool with me.” His words were slurred.
“I would know the history of your race’s presence on this sphere, if one of you will tell me.” Kadra said, standing up to his full height and turning to me.
“Of course.” I said. “Tarken, fill him in on the details. You know what’s appropriate to tell him.” Tarken nodded and began to converse with the alien.
I moved away from the group. It was long past the time when I should have contacted Mitchell. We’d been in the facility for over an hour now. While I didn’t think he’d be getting worried, I knew it wouldn’t be good to get out and find ourselves surrounded by slavering zerglings, or worse. I activated the comm and spoke into it.
“Mitchell here.” He said sullenly. “Nothing to report.”
“What’s your position, Mitchell? Have you attempted to repair the missile tower yet?” I asked, feeling bad for forcing him into conversation. He was probably terrified out there.
“I’m in the generator building. No.” He answered bluntly.
“Go and fix it now. Make sure it’s functional. But don’t arm it until I give the command. Understood?”
“Understood. Mitchell out.” Before the link cut off, I heard the endless prayer start up again, backwards this time. That meant he was really scared. I was just wondering if I shouldn’t have left him alone on this particular mission when I suddenly realised we still didn’t know who was responsible for the deaths of the civilians outside the lab and the flooding of the entry chamber. Confident that we’d be meeting up with Mitchell soon enough, I walked back the group.