Kadra faced me as I approached.
“Fearless, your adjutant has relayed to me all that has befallen this place of your people. But there are many areas of ignorance. With your permission, I will attempt to remove some of these and inform you of my part in the events that took place here.”
“Please do.” I said. “Any information we can take back to the Confederacy is a bonus.”
“Very well. This is my story.” He sat down on the floor and began to project images straight into our minds, the reason for him asking permission suddenly explained.
We watched the visions unfold with no little awe – even I.
Part 5: Psychotic Zealot
The interior of Kadra’s craft was dark and womb-like, filled with devices we couldn’t fathom the purpose of. Soft blue lights glimmered in the shadows, delineating the locations of control panels. Through thin window slits, the stars were just visible, their light made painfully intense by the contrast with the darker interior. It was quiet, only a rumble softer that a cat’s purr and the wildly spinning star field giving an impression of motion.
The moon’s dark shape slipped into view, growing larger at an alarming rate. At the last possible moment the deceleration thrusters ignited. I was grateful that tactile sensations were limited – the crushing gravitational forces would have cause my squad no little pain, lacking as we were the genetically enhanced physiology of a Protoss Zealot. Around the edges of the view-slits the hull glowed cherry-red with the heat of hard atmospheric insertion. For a few seconds the psionic vision turned black. I assumed it meant that Kadra had lost consciousness.
When sight returned, Kadra began to pull himself out of the small craft. Some unseen command caused the sides of the ship to fold open, letting in the moon’s dim ambient light. The distant sounds of battle filtered into the craft, only to be drowned out by a much close hiss. Scarcely had the Zealot pulled himself out of his berth than a horrific subterranean spike consisting of thick musculature topped with glistened razor-edged bone ripped into the craft, punching through the armour to jab at where he’d been sat moments before.
He dropped down from the side of the craft and rolled across the rocky earth, hearing the telltale hiss of the spike worming its way towards him with unerring accuracy and shocking speed. Kadra dived out the way. The tip of one thrustwing broke off against the hard side of the spike. On the ground, the Zealot had no hope. But in the air… a neural command ignited the thrustwings and they propelled him upwards, seconds before the spike ripped through the earth where he’d lain.
ABOMINATION! YOU DARE TO ATTACK THE BRINGER OF DEATH? THE FIRES OF MY WRATH WILL SCORCH THE UNHOLY FLESH FROM YOUR BONES. BEHOLD THE VENGEANCE OF THE RISEN ONE!
Kadra swiftly located the spore colony – a queasy amalgamation of disparate organs, crouched on a lonely patch of mossy creep which itself covered a lumpy, boulder-strew plain. The Zerg infestation must have once reached to this point, but had since receded as the xenomorphs quested for more advantageous locations. This colony was all that remained. But not for much longer. Amid the freezing winds of this desolate place, Kadra marshalled his thoughts. The construct of insanity that called itself the Avenger was itself possessed by a fearsome rage that amplified its already-formidable psionic powers. Crackling arcs of vivid blue energy streaked between the Avenger’s fists, growing exponentially. All over his armour, spines and protrusions were linked by the riotous power.
A jet of psionic lightening poured out of the Avenger’s open fist. The end lashed wildly around for a second before latching onto the colony. The wash of power thrummed through every cell of the organic structure, shorting them out like so many blow fuses. The colony died as each individual component burst apart in an explosion of blue fire. The Avenger watched the destruction until nothing was left but ash.
He headed in the direction of the battle noises. Several miles to the south, the Zerg hammer moved to crush the Terran force so perilously emplaced against the cliff wall they called the Anvil. Perhaps, among the chaos of war, he could finally free himself from the demon of pain that plagued his mind. Maybe, if he fought long and hard enough, the Risen One could fall…
The Avenger soared over the facility with a screech of jetstream. Down on the ground, the milling Confederate Marines looked up, many of them pointing as he streaked past. He could hear alarms blaring and saw missile turrets swivelling to track his movement. Laughing, a flare of psionic power lanced out to strike several of them, draining them of power. Marines had started firing up but he was too high in the air and moving too fast. Several rounds struck him, failing to penetrate his armour. He laughed again.
Then Terran lookouts caught sight of the Zerg horde racing towards them across the rocky wastes. The corrupted tide of flesh and fang rapidly approached, causing the Marines to dash towards the trenches, throwing themselves into the questionable safety afforded by them. Heavier mounted machine cannons opened up all along the lines, succeeding only in slowing down the xenomorphs’ advanced. Then Mutalisks wheeled over head, taking advantage of the confusion among the missile turrets. The AIs were unsure whether to aim at the Protoss or the Zerg. By the time most of them decided to swing their launchers in the direction of the Zerg flyers, it was too late. Great gouts of acid poured down on the turrets, dissolving their armour as if it offered no more protection than the walls of a sandcastle before morning tide.
Zerglings poured into the trenches. The narrow passages forced them to bunch up, enabling the defending Marines to take a great toll in their numbers. But behind them, Hydralisks were advancing, peppering the trenches with venomous spines. Several Marines were careless in their stance and died, spines having penetrated armour and skulls with equal ease. Several made a valiant run directly at the central mass of the swarm, throwing whole belts of grenades towards larger targets. They managed to further slow the advance, but died swiftly, gauss rifles continuing to fire as dead fingers convulsed on triggers.
The earthworks were completely overrun in a few minutes, leaving isolated pockets of Marines to be slowly encroached by thronging zerglings. The swarm swept over the base, slaying Terrans wantonly. Into this chaos, the Avenger swooped down. A moment’s concentration formed his psionic blades and he leapt straight into battle, laying about the Zerg and Terrans around him with all the ferocity of a wronged god.
The corpses piled up around him, forcing his enemies to attack from a few certain angles. That made them die all the easier. His blades slick with ichor and blood, the Avenger paused for a moment. But still, his madness refused to be dislodged. He roared aloud, wordlessly. The sound was taken as a challenge by a nearby Ultralisk, which came charging towards him. He leapt atop the behemoth and slashed down with his blades, decapitating the creature messily. Such was its bulk, it continued to run blindly for a few minutes before its body realised it was dead.
Leaving the swarm to work its bloody business against the base, the Avenger used his thrustwings to cross the battlefield and enter the facility. The Terrans there met him with rifles, but his speed enabled him to cut them down before they could fire. He slew all he found, unable and even unwilling to stop himself – except in the deepest reaches of his mind.
The bodies in one corridor confused him. He’d not touched them, and neither had the Zerg. Terrans killing each other? He’d seen stranger things. Walking deeper into the facility, he came at last to a great hall, filled with arcane devices and artefacts of devious complexity. When he’d gone some distance in, the doors leading our of the hall slid shut. Nothing he did could open them. Knowing that other Terrans would be here given enough time, he cloaked himself and settled down to wait. Part Six: The True Face of Horror
“The rest, you know.” Kadra said simply. “I cannot offer enough apologies to condone for the violence I wrought against your kind. I’d fall on my sword, but psionic technology does not allow that. I will fight with you until your mission is complete, and then I will go to my ship.” I stood silently in the aftermath of the visions, unable to comprehend the torture of madness experienced by this alien being. Oddly enough, it was Maya who broke the silence. Clearly her fear was well and truly banished.
“But we still don’t know who flooded the chamber, and who killed those other civilians.” She said. I nodded, still unable to speak.
“I might be able to help you there.” A voice drawled from the shadows. A quiet throb that had persisted ever since we entered the hall now stopped completely and a figure stepped out of the darkness, clad in a dark uniform and carrying a rifle that looked worryingly deadly.
Even though he’d hardly spoken, the Ghost exuded an air of malevolence. I think I would have hated him, had I been able to feel fear. From the look on Tarken’s face, my second-in-command held the same sentiment, though he was actually afraid of the man – and what he represented.
“When the Zerg attacked, they reached this far. I knew I couldn’t let any researchers or scientists be captured by the swarm. So it fell to me to ensure this couldn’t happen. I took certain steps.”
“How’ve you survived all this time?” I asked, slightly incredulous. “And who ordered you to kill those men and women?” The Ghost walked towards me, his steps menacing. In the corner of my eye, Tarken, Maya and Corso were trying to move into the best positions to take the man down. I didn’t give any signal, though the Ghost would probably be able to decipher it anyway. “In answer to your first question, there’s a supply room with some efficient cold storage equipment hidden nearby. In answer to your second question…” His eyes now held a cold gleam. I met them, trying to face him down. His lack of fear came from advanced conditioning from an early age. It might be breakable, but I wasn’t going to be the one to do it.
“No one gave me any orders. The command cadre were in absolute disarray. Someone had to do something. Those civilians were going to die at best and become infested at the worst. Anyone with any knowledge of the projects here had to be culled.”
“Culled?” I said with disgust. “Innocent men and women slaughtered? How is that ever necessary?”
“Don’t give me the high and mighty, Fearless.” He replied. I was momentarily shocked. “Yes, I know all about you and your illustrious career. I know about the little police action on Kino Moon – you and the kid had to make an example of the ringleaders, didn’t you?”
“They were guilty of crimes against the Confederacy – of murder. They were responsible for five hundred deaths because the chaos they caused delayed the evac. So yes, I’ll give you the high and mighty, Ghost, because the only people I’ve ever killed were murderers. And I’ll be reporting you to the Confederacy.” I said, keeping my voice level.
“Well, no matter. The whole issue is moot anyway. There’s no way I can leave you alive… the sensitive information you might have been privy to is highly classified, so I’m afraid you must be dealt with.” He raised his rifle.
I looked around at the three Marines and the Protoss Zealot, thinking the Ghost must be insane. The five of us against him… no matter how powerful that rifle was, he’d only have time to train it at one of us before the others cut him down. I think he underestimated me, pointing the rifle in my general direction. He thought ‘Fearless’ was just a figure of speech. When I dove for the rifle, he certainly was ready. I managed to grasp the barrel and twist it upwards, rendering the gun useless.
I was close enough to hear the hiss of an injector dropping a load of volatile chemicals into his bloodstream. At first I thought it was suicide device of some kind, but then I realised it was in fact a stimpack – I couldn’t possibly understand the depths a man must sink to in order to pump those destructive enzymes into his own veins. And I knew I had to act quickly, or the strength afforded by the drugs would be enough to snap me in half, power armour and all. I pulled his arms into a basic lock, moments before he snapped his head backwards, cracking my faceplate. I swung a leg around his, trying to use some of the elementary judo I’d learnt from my father’s books.
It was no use – running high, the Ghost’s superior training made him unstoppable – in close combat at least. I delivered a stunning forearm blow which enabled me to back away several metres from him. Three gauss rifles barked murderously, aimed at a Ghost who was no longer there. He vanished, appeared behind Maya and struck her soundly across the back of the head. Her rifle flew out of her hands and skidded across the smooth floor. The Ghost’s own weapon spat a virulent bolt of light - plasma technology? – at Corso, who staggered back under the impact. Then the Zealot joined the fray. He swung a psionic sword with blistering speed, stabbing right through the Ghost’s ribcage and emerging the other side. That didn’t stop him. The Ghost landed three solid punches on the Zealot’s face, causing milky life fluid to spray from patches of broken skin.
My eyes met Tarken’s across the hall. We’d known each other long enough not to need words in hand signals in certain situations. We were like brothers. As one, we reached for the close combat weapons at our belts. The pneumattock screeched above the chainsaw’s throaty roar as we raised the weapons and charged at the Ghost, still impaled on Kadra’s psionic sword. The hammer thundered into the Ghost’s skull at the same instant as my weapon passed straight through his torso to clatter impotently against the alien warrior’s suit.
My stomach churned. Through the wreckage of the Ghost’s skull, I could see cybernetic components sparking as they attempted the futile task of keeping their host alive. Incredibly, he still had some flickers of consciousness. I felt empty inside. This man was about to die, and no purpose was achieved by it. I could feel depression about to drag me down into its dark suck. And nothing I told myself was going to help. Duty? Self-defence? It changed nothing.
“Why?” I shouted, despair giving way to anger. “Why did you have to fight us? A single Ghost against four Confederate Marines and a Protoss Zealot… What hope did you possibly have?”
“It’s not about hope…” he croaked. “It’s about obedience…” Before he could explain the cryptic comment, his neural implants finally lost integrity and dissolved into a sick, silvery mass. The light was gone from the true face of horror. I sorely wanted to throw up, but the first view of the facility’s interior had emptied my stomach.
“Looks like… ha… he gave up the ghost…” Corso said shakily, getting to his feet.
“That’s not funny, kid.” I said through gritted teeth. But I understood why he’d said it.
“Sorry, sir.” He said quietly.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, Kadra.” I said. The Zealot simply hung his head. I think he was too ashamed of what he’d witnessed to say anything.
“Maya, get your rifle. Let’s get out of here and blow the facility when we’re clear.” I spoke tonelessly. Reaching to my belt, I pulled off three explosive charges with high EMP ratings. These were guaranteed to fry any hidden systems and destroy all the devices in this room. I also unclipped the detonator.
We walked silently through the facility for the second and last time. Kadra looked almost pale when we passed the corpses of the men and women he’d slain. I said nothing, not daring to meet his eye. When we finally left the facility, a rainstorm had sprung up. Dry and warm in my suit, I couldn’t help but appreciate how the rain seemed to wash things away. It might never wash the memories from our souls, but we’d find ways to live with them. I looked over to see Tarken’s faceplate open, his rugged features illuminated by the orange glow of the characteristic cigar. Some of us already had ways.
Part Seven: Holding Action
Mitchell was waiting at the foot of the missile tower. Even at this distance, I could see the damage to his armour – great rents and gouges. I broke into a run, followed swiftly by the others. Mitchell took one look at Kadra, shrugged and saluted me.
“Mitchell, what happened to your armour?” I asked.
“Hydralisk. No trouble. Got too close.”
After he’d said it I wondered if he meant he’d got too close to it, or it to him… I knew Mitchell was dangerous, but I’d never really know how dangerous.
I wondered about telling him what we’d found in the facility – the massacre, the crazed Zealot, the homicidal Ghost. Then I decided he didn’t really care. If Mitchell wanted to know something, he’d ask. Now it was time to contact the Confederate ship in orbit and get to safety. We’d all feel better once this mission was behind us. The Confederacy owed us all several weeks of shore leave. We were going to take it together – even if I had to order Mitchell to come along. Some sun and fresh air on one of the more pristine colony worlds would do us a lot of good.
“Let’s get on the line to the cruiser, Fearless.” Tarken said. I agreed.
The message sent back through the array Mitchell rigged up from components from his suit nearly sent Corso into convulsions. Only my iron-calm prevented me from smashing the receiver. I couldn’t begin to comprehend the nightmare the others were going through now. The message read like this: NO EVACUATION POSSIBLE AT THIS TIME. ENGAGE IN HOLDING ACTION AGAINST ANY ZERG FORCES. A SHUTTLE WILL BE DELIVERED WHEN AN ORBITAL INSERTION WINDOW OPENS.
“No way…” Tarken kept saying over and over again. When he read the glowing screen holding the message, his cigar had dropped out of his mouth. Maya’s hands began frantically working over her rifle, but the magazine slipped from her fingers. Mitchell simply rolled his eyes and changed his prayer into Mandarin Chinese. But we had to hold Corso still until he’d calmed down.
“We’re screwed. We’re totally screwed.” He began to mutter.
“Quit it, both of you. You sound like stuck records!” Maya snapped. I couldn’t tell who was the most unsettled out of this group.
“I must apologise, I do not understand your written tongue… what have these markings told you?” Kadra asked.
“We’re not being rescued. The Confederacy cruiser in orbit is too scared to send a shuttle for us. They’ve told us to hold this position.” I explained. A long silence followed.
“It must be difficult for you, to be so betrayed by your kind.” Kadra said.
“Yes. Difficult. But having to kill that Ghost was more difficult. I can only be ashamed of how my race must appear in your eyes.” I said.
“On the contrary. I saw the madness in the Ghost’s eyes. The ability to strike down a brother is sometimes necessary – I am proof that even the Protoss have done this in the past.” He said.
“You must feel the way I do.” I said. “It’s strange. When I was young I never thought aliens could feel the same feelings we do. But here we are, united by circumstances.” I laughed bitterly at my grandiose words. But Kadra merely nodded.
“Because of this unity, I will fight alongside you.”
“We’ll need all the help we can get if the Zerg notice we’re here.” I said, grateful.
“My ship will easily carry us all. If we can get to it…”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen…” Tarken said, his voice ringing with a note of finality.
“Do I even want to know?” I asked wearily. I almost wished for a wisp of cowardice, just to take my mind of the despair of being abandoned.
“No.” He said bluntly. “But you have to. There’s an encroachment of the Zerg infestation right between us and the direction where we saw Kadra’s ship land in the visions. It’d take us days to go around, assuming we can avoid the defence colonies.”
“I can fly you there… if the Zerg haven’t taken control of my craft, we should have no trouble getting you inside. I can only take one at a time, though.” Kadra told us.
“Kadra, you’re a legend!” Corso said, a tear rolling down his cheek.
“Corso’s right. I’ll write a song about you if I survive this.” Tarken said.
“Oh, please, no… I’ve heard you sing.” Maya teased him, rolling her eyes.
“And I’ve heard your song lyrics before…” I joined in. “Right. I want Tarken to go first and secure the site – if it’s safe. If there’s any xenomorph presence, hightail it back here.”
“I will do as you say, Fearless One.” Kadra said. He walked over to Tarken. “I’m afraid I’ll have to carry you.”
“I’ll live with that.” The Marine said. The Zealot placed his golden forearms in the armpits of Tarken’s powered suit. The thrustwings flared, lifting them both into the air.
“Go.” I ordered. They roared up into the turbulent skies, soon lost among the flashes of lightening and thundering rain. I turned to Mitchell, pointing to a bunker close to the missile tower that I’d glimpsed on the way in. It was miraculously unscathed.
“In a few minutes I want to try and turn on that turret in case any Zerg decide give us a visit, but first get some juice flowing to that bunker. If they come, we want somewhere to run to.” Mitchell nodded and sauntered away. I faced Maya and Corso. “I want you both to find a high up spot. If we have to leave the bunker, you go to the spot you chose and wait until Kadra comes back. Understood?”
“Understood, sir.” They chorused. I left them looking around the deserted buildings.
The lights came on in the bunker and Mitchell emerged, a smile on his face. That told me he’d done something exceptionally difficult – enough to earn him a field promotion. Several commanders had tried before he was assigned to my unit, but he never accepted –always tore the marks off. In the end, they stopped trying.
He now led me inside the missile turret, or at least into the small alcove that housed the main computed. I gave him a sideways look, which he returned indifferently.
“You sure this works?” I asked.
“Yes.” He sounded slightly contemptuous of the fact that he might have made a mistake.
I shrugged and activated the turret. Red indicators began to glow and clanks from within the structure told me its mechanics were working at the very least. As for the AI, the first indication I had of anything being wrong was its missile launch – straight into the sky. I watched, cursing my stupidity for not disabling the loading mechanism before ascertaining the AI’s mental state. Mitchell prayed louder as he watched the missile rising straight up, a beacon to any Zerg within miles of the base.
Then I realised that once the missile ran out of fuel, it was going to fall back down onto our heads. And there was nothing I could do – no manual detonation, nothing. I watched the speck of the missile vanish from sight for a few moments. Then it reappeared again, falling so fast the nosecone housing the warheads began to glow.
“Take cover!” I yelled, dashing away from the doomed missile tower. If my own life hadn’t been at risk I might have found the situation funny… but there’s nothing remotely funny about a package of death screaming its way towards you. Still, I couldn’t stop laughing – maybe being denied fear meant I could only laugh at such ineptness. Then I looked back and with a cold shock discerned the figure of Mitchell, stood staring up at the falling missile. Anyone else would have wrestled with indecision, but not me. I ran straight back, yanked the crazy Marine off his feet and ran for the bunker.
I glanced over my shoulder and stopped dead in amazement. Maya, perched atop the gutted shell of a supply depot had lifted her rifle to her shoulder and dropped to one knee. I saw what she was trying to do, but no one could hit something moving that fast… could they? Thankfully, as it turned out, I’d underestimated the woman’s accuracy. Her first fusillade missed completely. She dropped her rifle, took it apart and reassembled it in five seconds. The next shots detonated the missile, which couldn’t have been more than a hundred metres above the tower.
Starting to feel slightly shaky with all the adrenaline that had been pumping in and out of my system, I looked up at the roiling cloud of flame with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Over the communicator, I congratulated Maya. But as I told everyone – if the Zerg hadn’t noticed our presence before, they certainly knew we were here now.
A light in the sky and a roar of jetstream signalled Kadra’s return. He descended regally on a plume of thrust, landing next to us.
“The Zerg haven’t found my craft. I’ve left Tarken there. But you should know I spotted a large swarm heading in this direction.” He said urgently.
“What’s in the swarm?” I asked.
“It appeared to be mainly zerglings, with a few mutalisks for air support. They were moving swiftly.” He said. “Can you hold without me?”
“Don’t underestimate Confederate Marines, Kadra. We’ll hold. Mitchell, you’re next.”
Once again his thrustwings flared and they left the base. Now it was just a tedious waiting game. Maya and Corso came back to stand with me, the latter clearly fraught. What was a boring time for me was an unbearably anxious wait for both of them. The poor kid was shaking so hard it was visible through his armour. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know how he’d react – especially if I embarrassed him in front of Maya. The silence was tense, uncomfortable. I could guess what they were thinking. They probably wanted transfer to a different unit, one where their leader understood what they felt on every mission – instead of standing around dumbly like some mute super-grunt. They should have made Tarken the leader of this unit. Without a doubt. He would have known what to say, what to do to make these Marines feel, if not safe, then at least confident that they would survive. He would have been able to harden their resolve. But not me.
How can I battle a feeling as old as our species when I don’t even know what it feels like? My mind feels strange, sometimes. Like someone else is in there, poking around all my memories, trying to see what makes me tick. I’d passed all the necessary psyche tests long ago, pass with flying colours no less. And yet… and yet… I regretted the decision to send Tarken ahead, but who else could go? Mitchell wasn’t the sort of Marine you just let loose unless there’s a very good reason to. If I’d sent Corso or Maya, they’d both spend the whole time worrying about each other. I knew how these things worked, I’d seen it so many times before. And there was no way I could go, because I needed to be where the Zerg were sure to come, not where they might possibly be. No, Tarken was the only viable choice. But anyway, it was too late now.
“Fearless, can you say something?” Corso asked.
“I dunno, something… inspirational. Something to make us feel better. Make me feel like I’m going to live through this.” He sounded like he was on the verge of tears.
“Corso, I could preach Confederate spiel at you until the stars themselves freeze over, but I can’t make you believe you’ll survive. That has to come from inside. I’m Fearless, through and through. I honestly don’t know what words to say. But I know that somewhere inside you is a little place where you can be fearless too. Maybe not quite like me – but there’ll be something that helps. You just have to find it. It may not come to you this mission. But I swear, I’ll do everything I can to protect you. I’m not afraid to die, Corso. I’m not afraid to lay down my life for you, or for anyone in this squad.” I stopped, realising I’d gone on a bit. But through his faceplate, I could see Corso smiling. A certain determination had settle across the kid’s face.
“You’re good to us, Fearless.” Maya said. “I wouldn’t change any of this.”
“That means a lot to me.” I said.
It was at that point the missile tower suddenly began firing. I followed the smoky trails of the projectiles, saw the demonic shadows illuminated by the explosions. The zergling swarm had reached us. My mind snapped into military programming.
“Everyone into the bunker. Now!”
Against the ferocious fire of the missiles, the mutalisks could make no headway. Soon the tower ceased to spew its payload, even though there were hundreds of missiles left. All the mutalisks were dead. Which just left…
“Zerglings, on our six!” Maya yelled, firing her rifle out of the gun port. We joined her, poking out rifles from the adjacent slots, opening the fiery maws of our gauss rifles into the slobbering tide of monsters. Shards of purple carapaces were flying everywhere while ichor was beginning to coat the ground, slipping up some of the zerglings that came careening across the landing pad towards the bunker. Several got close enough for me to see their malevolent eyes, glowing in the darkness.