I hadn’t felt fear all my life and I wasn’t about to now. The fury of the storm in the sky was as nothing to the righteous indignation I unleashed on the zerglings. They were the ultimate cause of the massacre buried in the rock behind me. But though I was angry, I didn’t hate the Zerg. People say hate is impossible without fear, and I think they may be right. I was angry at these Zerg, and I definitely wanted to kill them, but I understood their wish to survive – even if their more immediate imperatives were different from my own.
Within a few minutes, the swarm had begun to thin. But we knew the respite was temporary. The consciousness responsible for the infestation on this world would send a large force, this time with hydralisks. And maybe if we were really unlucky, there’d be an ultralisk or two. I’d take them down as they came at me. The last pocket of zerglings were shattered by a well-thrown fragmentation grenade. Corso grinned at me as I silently handed him my belt of explosives, keeping only the detonator for the charges in the facility.
Kadra returned once more.
“I‘m pleased see that the zerglings did not prevail in my absence.” He said. “I wish sorely to join this fight, but I know I can better aid you this way…” His face seemed downcast. It was refreshing to know there were still some profound differences between this alien and I.
“Corso, you’re next.” I said. He looked like he was about to argue, but I looked him in the eye and he nodded. A flash of light, a rushing noise and they were gone.
“Just a few more minutes and then you can go, Maya.” I said.
“Of course, sir.”
“So… you and Corso?” I said. I could almost feel the second Zerg swarm, closing in. Now they knew there were enemies here they would make haste.
“What about me and Corso?” She said diffidently.
“How serious is it? Don’t bother lying to me, no one’s been able to do it yet.” I told her bluntly.
“We’re being careful with our feelings.” She said. I could almost hear the evasion in her voice.
“That’s what they all say, Maya.” I said. Silence was my only reply. “When we’ve finished this mission, one or both of you are going to have to leave my unit. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Yes.” She answered sullenly. I was sorry that I’d let it get this far, but nothing I’d seen previously had suggested that feelings existed between the two. I was sure if they didn’t, she would have rigorously denied it.
We spotted the outward elements of the next swarm a few moments later. The zerglings scuttled around the broken husks of their fellow creatures, their eyes moving as one until they were fixed on the bunker. I’d turned all the lights off at this point, hoping to buy us some time. But I needed have bothered. The zerglings weren’t stupid. They just thought in different ways to us. And in this case, they could see where their fallen kin had been trying to get to. Now they came scampering towards us, to be met by sharp bursts of fire. We must have gunned down scores of them, only one or two coming close enough to strike at the bunker’s armour with their razor-edged limbs.
The first hydralisk appeared, slithering out from behind a building. We both turned our guns on it. I could see Maya despairing as her bullets ricocheted of encrustations of bone. It opened its chest cavity, revealing the myriad rows of jagged spines within. I grabbed Maya’s shoulder and pulled her down from the firing step, a split second before the hydralisk’s first salvo whipped past our heads. The bunker was taking a pounding, but it would last long enough. I hoped. I knew I needed to buy time if we were going to survive. I snatched Maya’s rifle out of her hand, ripping the leather strap and hauling the bulky weapon into a ready-to-fire position.
“What are you going, Fearless?” She shouted. Before she could stop me, I’d left the bunker, charging from patch of cover to cover toward the marauding hydralisk.
Its ugly head swung to face me as I closed the last few metres, firing both rifles for all I was worth. Once both clips were empty, I threw one away, holstered the other and rolled behind a crumbling wall while spines hissed past. But I was too close for the hydralisk to hit me, now. I pulled the chainsaw from my belt and revved it, grinning. The obscene xenomorph was about to get a rude shock.
I leapt over the wall, flinging myself across the space between my and the hydralisk. I could see the horrific details of its exoskeleton – this hydralisk had killed Terrans. Swathes of Terran skin hung from its deadly front arms. They scythed at me, only to be met by the shuddering chain of my saw. I stumbled back from the sheer strength of the impact, but in the time the creature took to swing its arms again, I’d circled closer and driven my weapon’s churning edge into the hydralisk’s face. Once more, my faceplate was drenched in gore and Zerg brain matter. The giant creature began to twitch violently. I withdrew the chainsaw and swung it against the hydralisk’s neck, holding the bucking tool in place as it chewed through chitin and cartilage. I didn’t have time to finish the stroke, for more zerglings charged at me. I laid about them with my chainsaw, but there were too many – claws were skittering across my amour and it was only a matter of time before the inhumanly strong creatures peeled my suit from me like so much tinfoil.
Then, like the most heavenly gift imaginable, Kadra crashed down like a god’s meteor, gutting the zerglings in a matter of seconds. That contained, precise and devastatingly swift violence was unlike anything I’d even seen. I’d fought alongside some heroes in my time, but the ruthlessness with which the Zealot dispatched his targets surpassed a great many of them.
“Quick – get to the bunker before more of them come.” I said. We ran back to the sunken building. The moment I stepped through the door, Maya jabbed my armour with an SCV utility tool. I didn’t have a chance to shout before my powered armour shut down – it’d need several minutes to reset.
“Take him, Kadra. The Confederacy needs him more than it needs me. Go. Now.” She said, taking the rifle from my shoulders. Kadra clearly understood, for he acquiesced to her demand, removing me rudely from the battle-torn base.
As we flew overhead, I saw more Zerg forms moving towards the base – ultralisks among them.
Part Eight: Strategic Withdrawal
The moment my suit came back online I had to fight the urge to shout at Kadra. He wasn’t under my command, he didn’t even have to be helping us. But I couldn’t believe Maya would do something like that. I’d never thought of her being so selfless. Her mastery over her fear had advanced to the ultimate – she had no fear of death. Death was the ultimate unknowable, one of the few incontestable realities of this weird existence. Often I felt like my parents had cheated with me, taking away one of the key emotional boundaries of their eldest son. But Maya had conquered that fear without drugs, without surgery or implants. And I would never know how she’d done it.
The moment my feet touched earth, Kadra jetted straight back into the sky. Corso looked at me in surprise. He’d expected me to wait until last.
“Maya immobilised my suit with an SCV tool.” I said, before anyone could talk. “But she’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“Glad to hear it.” Tarken said. “It’s been quiet here.”
“No sign of any zergies?” I asked, more to keep talking than anything else. My fists were clenched so tightly I could feel my nails digging into my skin.
“Not a peep.” He answered. “But I’m still glad you’re here. And Maya did the right thing, making sure you got here first.”
“That’s not going to stop me chewing her out when she gets back here.” I said. “The decision was mine to make, wrong or write.”
“Why are you so angry? She saved your life, Fearless!” Corso argued.
“It wasn’t hers to save, kid.” I retorted. “I give you guys an huge amount of freedom compared to what you’d get in a normal squad. But if you abuse that freedom, I’ll have to tighten up. And nobody wants that. I don’t know how Maya expected to get away with striking a superior officer – she can’t just expect me not to report it!”
“Maybe she didn’t expect to get away with it.” Tarken said. His voice had taken on the dangerous tone I’d heard twice in all the years I’d known him. The first time had been on Chau-Sara, when he told a lieutenant exactly what he thought about the orders to abandon a low population town. I’d been slightly taken aback with how powerful his words had seemed. The next time had been when talking to a high-up general planning to dispatch a whole battalion just as a diversion – to send hundreds of men to be chewed up by the Zerg, just so a planetary government could be safely evacuated. I can’t described the sensation with which I awaited Tarken’s next words. Maybe my surgery wasn’t perfect and this was something akin to what normal people felt as apprehension, honestly didn’t know.
“What do you mean, Tarken?” Corso cut in. I think he understood even before I did.
“Maybe she didn’t expect to get away with it because she knew she wasn’t going to make it back if she stayed.” Tarken’s words made me feel cold inside, not because I thought Maya was going to die, but because I knew they were true. No single Marine could possibly take down the alien variants I’d seen approaching the bunker. We stood in utter silence until a sonic shriek heralded Kadra’s return.
His arms were empty.
He set his feet down on the rock and walked over to us.
“I searched, but I found no sign of your companion. The Zerg have overrun the entire complex. They are making their destruction complete, this time.”
We were interrupted by a dull roar. The ridge to the north suddenly dissolved before our eyes, revealing the sickening visages of two mutalisks. Their membranous wings flapped, skin pulsating in a gruesome manner. Acid was still spewing from their gullets, only cut off once they had a clear path leading to us.
“They must have followed me!” Kadra shouted, forming a psionic sword. He jumped at the first xenomorph as we turned our rifles on the other, forcing it back with concerted fire. It took less than a minute to kill them both, nevertheless long enough for them to contact the commanding intelligence of the infestation. We’d have visitors within half an hour.
“Kadra, how long is it going to take to get your ship back online?” I asked.
“It is undamaged. However, I need to initiate the recharging process to bring my engines back to functionality. I will do so now.”
Only then did it come to my attention that I’d not seen the ship Kadra had spoken of. I looked around for it, but I saw nothing even vaguely resembling a space-capable vessel. Surrounding us were endless peaks of jagged mountains and deep crevasses, all of the same dark grey rock. The ground beneath my feet was treacherous with rubble. There was nowhere I could see where even a ship could have landed, certainly not one large enough to carry four Confederate Marines and a Protoss Zealot.
Once again, I was amazed by the capabilities of alien technology. Kadra opened a panel on his arm and tapped in a sequence of commands onto a pad I couldn’t see. Then a ridge I’d seen earlier began to shift and dissolve, the rock flowing away to reveal the sleek golden lines of a Protoss starcraft. It was everything I’d expected a race as advanced as them to possess. Everything was smooth, lacking the utilitarianism of Terran craft. I felt a passing thrill – I was about to become one of the few Terrans to see the inside of a Protoss craft, and join the even smaller number of those who had actually flown in one. This was one of the better times for having no fear – others might find the enjoyment tempered by the fear of the unknown.
Kadra walked up to one of the long hatches and pulled himself into the darkness. Soon, the craft began to purr gently, just it had in our vision. Kadra reappeared.
“It is done. But it will take a while before the engines can again lift this vessel. Several minutes.”
“Ok. In that case, can you fly up and keep a look out for any swarms heading in our direction?”
“I will endeavour to do so.” With that, he was gone.
“Good idea, sir. We don’t want a bunch of zerglings creeping up on our asses.” Tarken said.
For the next quarter of an hour, I stood alone, immersed in my own thoughts. Despite the intentional distance between us, we’d been friends. Not having the click of her gauss rifle being put together and taken apart was like a missing tooth – something small that should nonetheless be present. Losing her was a failure on my part. I should have sent her first, or gone myself. I cursed quietly, incessantly. Her death was on my hands, mine alone. As much as I wanted to shift the blame onto someone else, or onto the circumstances we found ourselves in, I’d made a bad command decision. I knew years ago that squad command wasn’t for me. I’d gained such high scores at the Academy because I nearly always accomplished my objectives, despite often-horrendous odds. But I’d only done that by being ruthless, with both my own life and those of my men. In the training simulations I’d sent Ghosts to their deaths, knowing they’d have just enough time to paint the target for the nuclear missile. Once, I’d even broken an attacking force of zerglings by shooting one of my own firebats – he’d got himself surrounded and was bleeding from dozens of wounds. But my bullet had killed him. Or would have done in real life. On the battlefield I fought a secondary war against my own ruthlessness, struggling against the desire to treat men and woman as tools, good for accomplishing a task and nothing else. I didn’t think the Confederacy would ever realise what a mistake they’d made.
Corso moved over to me, his footsteps even heavier than usual. His faceplate was open, the wind drying his tears.
“Why does it hurt so bad, sir?” He choked back sobs. “We never crossed that line…”
“But you both wanted to. And you both planned to once this was all over.” I waved my hand expansively, indicating that ‘this’ took in the whole conflict with the Zerg.
“But…” He began.
“But nothing!” I snapped. “Being careful doesn’t work. You have to be beyond careful. You have to never put yourself in a situation where you care for any one person that much.”
“So you don’t care about us?” He retorted.
“That’s different, kid, and you know it. I have to care so that I don’t blithely send you to your death. I have to care for each and everyone of you.” I said.
“How can you care? I bet fear wasn’t all those scientists took away from you.” He’d crossed the line. My fist thundered into his cheek, knocking him backwards. I was careful only to use a fraction of my strength. I didn’t want to break the kid’s neck.
“If I didn’t care, kid, I’d send you out right now to go and face down the swarm that’s most likely heading our way. I’d do it for the few minutes of time it would gain us. But I care, kid. I care about your lives. I don’t want to be the one that has to turn up at your parents’ house. I may be fearless, but I’m not a cold-hearted… hell, you get the picture.” I finished.
“Yes, sir. I… I’m sorry, sir.” He mumbled, slightly dazed.
“It’s alright now, Corso. You can still call me my name.” I said.
The zerglings reached us a few minutes later. They came pouring down from the north, frenzied and hostile. The rocks around us forced them to come down a narrow passage between two ridges, which gave us an excellent choke point. At this point we were too annoyed to take the enemy seriously. I stayed lounging against a rock, firing my rifle with one hand. I never missed a shot. Tarken was stood with his pneumattock ready, taking down those few beasts which managed to leap over the heap of their slain brothers to come at us. Above us, Kadra floated, keeping watch for anything more dangerous. Corso fired his rifle intermittently, his thoughts still wrapped around Maya. Again, I cursed myself for not having seen the signs – and there would have been signs. Covert glances, softer words, the occasional touch that was anything other an accidental. I’d missed them all.
“Fearless! I see darker foes approaching!” Kadra shouted down. Darker foes. That meant hydralisks. Or worse. As the ground began to shake with in response to a rhythmic pounding, I realised that there were at least two ultralisks charging at us…
“Tarken and I’ll take the one on the left. You and Corso spill the other sack of guts.” Someone said to me. For a moment, I couldn’t work out who’d spoken to me. Then I realised it was Mitchell.
“You ain’t praying anymore?” I asked.
“Prayer’s finished. Time to kill stuff.” He grinned ferociously. Completely insane – but I wouldn’t have traded him for ten vultures.
We met the ultralisks head on, moving away from the Protoss craft. Hopefully they’d concentrate on us and not spot it. Corso and I charged at the baying juggernaught, diving out of its unstoppable advance at the last possible moment. I slashed open its sides with my chainsaw while on the its right, Corso lodged a grenade behind a spiny ridge. Before the ultralisk could even being to slow its advance, the explosive detonated. The shockwaves pulsed through the creature’s body, forcing its innards out of the slash I’d made. Kadra swooped down to finish it off.
I looked over to see Mitchell and Tarken. They’d somehow managed to get on top of the other ultralisk. Mitchell was firing his gauss rifle into a space between thick folds of bony armour while Tarken repeatedly brought his pneumattock round to hammer the brute’s unbelievably thick skull. After the third or fourth blow, and Mitchell’s second clip, both the ultralisk’s brains and internal organs were pulped beyond recognition. We cheered half-heartedly when we were certain they were both dead, but the triumph felt hollow without Maya. A pyrrhic victory at best.
The hull of the Protoss craft was now gleaming. We bundled inside, somewhat squished in our armour, but we managed to all fit in without dislocating anything. The feeling of calm and relief inside the craft was palpable and came so suddenly it led me to suspect that the ship was focussing magnetic fields on our brains, altering the electrical activity to create the desired feelings. I couldn’t help but think if the Confederacy got hold of technology like that, it’d end up in interrogation rooms within months. We’d leave our prisoners in abject terror for a few days and by the end, they’d be begging to tell their captors what they knew. The Confederacy would never use something like this to make people feel comfortable, I was sure.
The pressure on our chests as the engines fired was strong but comfortable, despite the fact that we were going faster than any Terran shuttle.
“Kadra, can you fly us over the facility?” I called forward to where he lay in a flight berth. In response, he made an alteration to a control panel next to him and the pressure shifted, indicating we were moving in a perpendicular fashion. I twisted myself round until I could see out of one of the window slits. We were being pursued by mutalisks, but the craft’s shields were holding – visible as a blue phosphorescence that faded if you looked directly at it. Several plasma turrets were firing back, knocking our pursuers out of the sky.
The moment the facility entered my sight I triggered the explosives I’d laid there. They touched off all the supplies of fuel in the installation, ripping apart in a series of tumultuous conflagrations. The bright orange fireballs that rippled outwards engulfed many of the xenomorphs still involved in levelling the base. My thoughts were focussed on the fact that down in that fire, the body of the crazed Ghost was being incinerated, along with all those slain by Kadra in his madness. Then we were shooting upwards like some demented comet, until we passed through the clouds and the stars began to blaze through each of the view-slits. Once we’d entered the screaming cold wastes of space, kept alive only by a few thin layers of metal, plastic and energy, it was the work of a few moments for Kadra to home in on the cruiser that had brought us here. It locked weapons as we approached – standard protocol for any unidentified ships that came near a Confederate cruiser. After several tense moments of negotiation, they agreed to let Kadra dock. No one wanted a war with the Protoss.
We stumbled out of the craft into the harsh light of a loading bay, surrounded by navy ratings. They looked ridiculously small next to our hulking forms, dressed in their shiny uniforms. Their guns were also puny in comparison to ours – under-powered shotguns made to lower the risk of a hull breach. They couldn’t penetrate our armour at point-blank range.
“Step out of your armour, please.” An officer asked, one I didn’t recognise. Across the loading bay, a new ship caught my eye – a Cerberus unit. Sure enough, two of Cyborgs stepped forward to retrieve our weapons. I was strangely reluctant to comply, something wasn’t quite right about the situation. I felt the same indefinable unease I’d felt when first exploring the facility. Still, I did as I was instructed, triggering the open codes. For the first time in five hours, the HUD shut down. I could hardly believe it’d been that long. Five hours, in which two people had died needlessly. Maya, and that psychotic Ghost. I wasn’t going to enjoy my report for this mission.
“Sergeant Thomas Raven, the Captain would like to see you on the bridge.” The officer informed me. “Praetor Kadralas, our diplomatic xeno-correspondence workers would like to talk to you. Will you come this way?” He gestured. Praetor Kadralas turned back to me. They hadn’t dared to ask him to remove his armour.
“Our time together was short, Fearless. But I feel like we have shared something. Until next we meet, mighty hero.” He knelt in front of me. I clasped his arm and lifted him up.
“You saved our lives, Kadra. You’re just as mighty a hero as I am. No past deeds need mar your name.” I felt foolish talking so formally, but Kadra seemed moved. He stood, clasped my hand once more and walked away with some of the other officers.
We were ushered along swiftly, still accompanied by the navy ratings. Two walked behind us, carrying my chainsaw and Tarken’s pneumattock. I was surprised not to see any officers that I recognised from the journey here. I knew the cruiser had been seconded to my unit for the mission, but I couldn’t see why they’d change their whole crew. And there seemed to be a disproportionate amount of Cerberus personnel, watching over everything. They were all dressed in uniforms of black leather, cybernetic augmentations exposed and flouted. Their expressions were a mystery to me – how could anyone be so devoid of feeling?
A corridor led away from the loading bay, towards a heavy blast door. It looked oddly clean, as if someone had scrubbed it recently. The hydraulics hissed and pulled it open, allowing us to walk onto the bridge. The door closed behind us, like the slamming of the lid of a crypt. My hackles were up. Finally I spotted a familiar face – Captain Hadrian, of the Confederate Navy. I didn’t know him well, my journey had mainly been spent honing my skills – a fact I was glad of, considering the events on the surface of the moon so far below us. Now as I looked at Hadrian, I could see he was sweating profusely, and his uniform looked rumpled.
“Relentless, I’m glad you’re back in one piece.” He said. “I’m sorry our boys couldn’t come and get you.”
“I was meaning to ask about that, sir.” I said, as respectfully as I could. “But… sir, is something wrong? On the ship, I mean?” I was unprepared for what followed.
“I only have a few moments to tell you this.” He was talking rapidly. I could see Cyborg officers moving closer. “The Cerberus corps arrived a few hours ago. They threatened to kill me. They said I wasn’t to send a shuttle, that you were not to come back from this mission. They’re going to kill you!” He hissed. “And there’s nothing I can do.”
He gasped, stiffened and fell backwards. A Cerberus officer in a commander’s uniform stood behind him, a sickening portion of Hadrian’s spine grasped between his mechanised digits.
“What the hell is going on here?” Tarken shouted. The commander smiled. His expression could not have been more deprecating. Or more evil…
“The Captain disobeyed direct orders from his superiors. He was not to inform you of our kill-order.”
“Kill-order? Against us?” I asked. Things were moving too fast… I sensed violence creeping up on me like a thief in the night, unwanted.
“Yes. In case you lifted any sensitive information from the facility.” He said. There was no trace of emotion whatsoever in his voice. Here was another who would have no fear.
“What information?” Corso asked, confused.
“You think that matters to these people?” Mitchell spoke up. I still couldn’t get used to the idea of him speaking of his own accord. “I used to work for them. That’s how I got so good with machines. I’ll tell you now, it’s the principle that matters to them. Nothing more. Even if we had video evidence that all the computers had been wasted, they’d still try to kill us.”
“Correct.” The commander said, still holding the grisly relic. “I brought the two ratings in with your weapons because I thought you might like to die by them. I have little amusement in my job, so I take what I can.” He grinned evilly. I think I preferred it when he was emotionless.
“And what’s to stop us using these against you?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t dare.” He laughed. “I can kill you with my bare hands. They call you Fearless, but here I have you unable to reach to defend yourself. I’m going to execute your squad and that ridiculously ugly Praetor. He’s a breach of intelligence, and that I cannot allow.”
“You’re just as sick as that crazy Ghost we found on the planet!” Corso shouted.
“If you’d done your homework properly, you’d know that Fearless wasn’t just a nickname.” I told him. I spun on my heel, grabbing the two heavy weapons. I tossed the pneumattock to Tarken and revved the chainsaw, shouting at the others to take cover. They were already running, even as Cerberus guardsmen closed on us.
Tarken and I tore them apart. My own cutting tool took the life of the commander. He seemed utterly surprised by my actions. “Never underestimate me.” I hissed, as he slid from the chainsaw. “I am Fearless.”
As I expected, they failed to kill Kadra. We finished off the guardsmen, armed ourselves and methodically cleansed the ship of the inhuman traitors. The crew rose up against them, joining with us. Many among them had been made examples of when the Cerberus unit first arrived – for no reason other than to assert the supremacy of the Cyborg intelligence corp. Within hours, they were defeated, dead or in holding cells and the event that would become known as the Fearless Incident was finished. Kadra and I stood on the bridge of the cruiser I’d suddenly found myself in control of. I’d never dreamed that this could happen. And while I knew the repercussions of what I’d done today would return all too soon, I faced the future as I always faced it: