Night was falling across the planet as it completed one of its thirty-seven hour rotations. Up in high orbit, crews manning the System Defence Fleet changed shifts and listened with boredom to the news filtering up from the surface. Wraith squadrons out on distant patrols through the asteroid belt returned to their carriers to let their pilots get some rest, while on frigates on permanent deep station near the system’s LaGrange points, the surveillance teams started new hands of poker or slice, or brought out small bottles of beer to numb their minds to the tedium of sentry duty.

It was my third month at the Governor’s Chateau in the city of New Kanjiro and I was bored beyond belief. Because of an unfortunate incident involving my fist and an asshole commander’s face, I’d been placed under the command of the Chateau Guards, ‘pending an investigation into the incident.’ I knew as well as the Dom high-ups that our forces were too stretched for there ever to be a court martial. So in all likelihood, all I had to look forward to was a career of guarding this dump until I died, was allowed to leave the army, or was blown up by some ugly alien invader.

Right now I was stood outside in the snow, missing my C-400 like you wouldn’t believe. You know what we used call a marine without a suit in my unit? A plucked turkey. And like that imaginary turkey, I was colder than I’d ever been in my life. Even if I could’ve seen the sky of Madrigal, it’d be obscured by white clouds, vomiting out gouts of snow big enough to drown Vultures, never mind naked marines. I say naked, I was actually dressed in really thick bear furs over my civilian skinsuit. But I might as well have been nude for all the warmth it gave me. And my gun was a frickin’ joke. Nine millimetre bullet? – my little toe was longer than nine millimetres! – and they expected us to seriously delay or apprehend any terrorist, rebel, dissident, insurgent, malcontent or whatever other ‘-ent’ as might decided to have a go a getting rid of Governor Simmons. Tell you what, they’d have a job, even without us – I’ve seen that man use a rapier. Now, I’m trained in close-combat, got maybe a dozen routines under my (black) belt but I wouldn’t go up against that crazy guy without my powered armour and a fully-loaded gauss.

I took another suck of my cigarette, grateful for the small glow of warmth it put in my lungs. The pleasantness was slightly spoiled by the hacking cough that followed the drag. The cold weather was getting to me badly, my nose would’ve been running if all the snot hadn’t turned into frickin’ icicles. That hurt like hell when you tried to snap them off. I looked over at Sammy, snoring away without a care in the world. I’d never figured out how he managed to do it – just stand and snooze, unsupported. I’d done it in armour, but without something holding me I’d fall over. I glowered at him, hoping he’d catch pneumonia or something. It’d serve him right for winning all that money off me in the game of slice we had last week. Slice was about the only piece of fun we ever to have round here, and as you might imagine the stakes could be pretty high – guard duty, cigarettes, beers – even women, though not as often. NK’s police militia was pretty effective compared to most Law and Order Divisions, so it was a lot harder to come by women willing to spend the night ‘easing a soldier’s burden’ as the local pimp put it. I’d been saving up for a long night and then Sammy aced my hand.

I dug an elbow savagely into his ribs, startling him into wakefulness. There were a few advantages to not wearing armour – the women, as previously mentioned, and the ability to beat up somebody smug without causing internal injuries.

“No sleeping on the job, kid.” I muttered. “If Sergeant Conner catches you he’ll throw you through yonder brick wall.” I pointed vaguely in the direction of the compound perimeter. The Chateau was situated a few miles from NK’s outskirts and I could see the lights of the skyscrapers in the distance, along with a couple of brighter cargo haulers moving from the starport up to the space platform in low orbit. Where I was standing would have been almost pitch black were it not for the floodlights floating liberally above the compound. Their glaring white shafts turned the area stark and harsh-looking, so even the snow seemed nasty.

The compound, with its perimeter wall of chainlink fencing, odd stretches of brick and four watchtowers, was surrounded by trees, nestled in the hillside, which made it hard to find on foot or in any sort of vehicle. There weren’t even any proper roads leading to it. Newcomers arrived and left by dropship, gathering on the landing pad a few hundred metres behind the main building. The Chateau itself was actually made from ochre stone quarried not far from here, built painstakingly by one of the richer pioneers in the first days of the colony’s founding. Comprised of a three storey central area and two ground level wings, it was a surprisingly sound construction – a few years ago, when a Zerg swarm found its way to Madrigal, many of the colony militia had fled to the Chateau and held off a big bunch of hydralisks from inside. You could still see where the damage done to the sandstone by their spines had been repaired, the thick brickwork refaced with stone of a slightly different shade

For all that it was a lovely building, I still had to wonder at the mental state of a man who’d devote several important years of his life to putting up what was basically a grand house. It wasn’t a surprise that the guy had been forced to sell it in the end. It had changed owners a few times until the Doms appropriated it. Simmons have moved in seven months ago, bringing a load of high tech stuff with him. Since then we’d only seen him in the training room at odd times, practising with that diabolical sword.

“Why’d you wake me, Dav? I were having a nice dream…” Sammy grumbled.

“Shut up and get your eyes working.” I told him.

Several metres to my left the bushes rustled. I peered through a part of the wall that was just chainlink fencing but I couldn’t see anything – outside of the floodlights, it was very dark. Madrigal didn’t have a moon and the clouds were too thick for there to be any starlight. I clicked the button on my illuminator and waved the beam over, but whatever had made the noise was hidden by the thick greenery. I didn’t feel like walking outside the compounding in the dark, but if someone else reported the noise later I’d be quizzed – or Sammy might use my lapse as blackmail material.

“Wait here, Sammy. I’m going in to talk to the Sergeant.” I said, walking off before he could argue. Even though moving out of the sheltered spot where I was stood let the wind blast my clothes, I was glad to be going inside. Too frickin’ cold, by half…

I passed a few other guards, flicking them sluggish hand signals. Despite the thick fibres of my gloves, my hands felt like unsculpted lumps of lead. The others didn’t bother to respond, except Vargi, who raised him arm in a slight wave. I trudged up the path, the ice-rimed gravel crunching under my boots. The nearest entrance was the door to the East Wing, which meant climbing the stone steps carved into the side of the tiered gardens. This side of the Chateau compound sloped down sharply, or would have done were it not for the landscaping done when they built the place. The gardens had three levels to them, which I now had to climb all the way up.

I stopped to rest against a statue of a leering gargoyle. The menacing effect was slightly spoiled by the graffiti my fellow guards had sprayed onto its face and haunches. I was too exhausted to read what this one said. As soon as I got my breath back, I started moving again. Guard duty wasn’t good for marines. I’d been fit, well-muscled before I got shoved out here. Now I must have put on at least three stone in weight due to lack of exercise. I didn’t want to end up as a lard-arse, but I simply couldn’t stay active enough when I was expected to hold the same post for at least six hours each day. I was starting to put on blubber. I’d need to go on a serious fitness programme if I ever wanted to fight in the Dominion Marine Corps again.

People kept telling me I was better off assigned to a world like this, unlikely to be troubled by either of the marauding alien forces currently pitting their wits against humanity. But none of them had ever had to stand six hours straight in the same spot, freezing cold, with a pistol that couldn’t even stop a drone. Hell, one single Marine with his C’s could probably take out everyone in the compound without breaking into a sweat. Thinking back to the sound I’d heard in the bushes lent me a fresh burst of energy and I struggled up the steps, moving a little faster.

Warm orange light spilled out of the windows of the East Wing, the pools of illumination crosshatched into diamond by the lead lattices. I nodded to the guard on the door – Jonesy, I think his name was – and stepped up onto the long covered patio that ran the length of the wing. Looking along it, I could see sentries in varying states of wakefulness – some stood upright, others slumped against walls or even on the tiled floor.

I hauled open the door, which took some effort. When the Doms appropriated the site, they decided it could do with some improvements. The genuine oak doors were hollowed out and filled with titanium plates, leaving only a thin veneer of polished wood. They were also frickin’ heavy – what the Dom high-ups hadn’t bothered to do was install mechanised hinges. Real considerate of them. I slammed the door shut behind me and shook my head, snow drifting down onto the plush carpet from where it’d lodged in my hair. Having no power armour meant there was little point in keeping my head shaved, so now I had some dark tangles. Handy for keeping my ears warm, at least..

I moved down the corridor running from the door to the main block of the Chateau. On either side of me were doors leading to various rooms. Through some of the open doors I could see technicians sat at desks, working their computer terminals or poring over printed documents. Other doors were closed, with only strange humming noises coming from them. I never questioned what was going on in the Chateau, merely kept my eyes open for trespassers. It might be a dull job, but it was mine and I was damn’ well going to do it. Half of me wished I hadn’t hit that officer, and the other half – well, let’s just say that if I ever meet the guy again, I’m going to struggle not to lay the asshole out all over again.

I reached the door at the end of the long corridor that led into the central part of the Chateau. As per Dominion regulations, a holorec of one of Emperor Mengsk’s interminably lengthy speeches played itself out on an endless loop, ‘for the edification of our fine legions’ according to Dominion Propaganda. If the Dom high-ups thought anyone actually stood and listened, they were badly wrong. I blocked out the slow, meandering drawl of his recorded voice and knocked on the door. As per regulations, the guards on the other side opened it and scanned my retinas with a handheld photon emitter. Then they stepped aside to let me in.

I spotted Tarken on the other side of the hall, sprawled haphazardly over an upholstered couch. He was sleeping soundly, giving out great snores that echoed throughout the hall. I walked over, ignoring the pain that was just starting to creep into my extremities and grinned evilly to myself. Moving round behind him, I got a good grip on his fur coat and tipped him rudely off the bench. He was an ex-marine, like me – here for the same reasons I was, or so he said. His training was just as good as mine – nothing like these other pitiful ‘local security forces’. He was on his feet in an instant, looking around wildly. Then he saw it was me and glowered. Even frowning, he had this strange air about him, and it wasn’t just the odour of those foul cigars he always had in his mouth – here was someone I’d be happy to follow the orders of. Not for the first time, I wondered what a soldier of his calibre was doing on this backwater planet.

“You always have to spoil people’s fun, don’t you Dav? These marble tiles are hard.” He said, his breath smelling of sweet tobacco. I merely grinned in response. “Watch it.” He warned, wagging a finger at me. “One day I might just take it upon myself to put my fist through that ugly mug of yours.”

“It’ll never happen!” I laughed. “You’d have to get up early to catch me unawares.”

“Right.” He said, sceptically. “What’re you doing inside, anyhow? I though you were third watchdog for this shift.”

“Yeah, but I heard something out in bushes, down in Second Quadrant. Thought I should go and tell the Sergeant.” I explained. Tarken raised an eyebrow in mock surprise.

“Dav, you’ve changed… I never thought of you as a work-proud man.” He said, keeping his face straight.

“Shut up. You know I do my job regardless. Anyway, Sammy was stood next to me, so I had to go report it or he’d use it to twist my arm.”

“Like Danno did last month?” It was his turn to wear the evil grin.

“I thought we’d agreed not to talk about that.” I said, annoyed that he’d brought the incident up yet again.

“You agreed. I never agreed to anything. Well, this time your waking habit must have backfired, mustn’t it?” He jibed.

“What do you mean?”

“If you were stood next to Sammy, he was most likely snoozing – but you just had to wake him, didn’t you?” His smile stretched even further. I said nothing, just glared at him until he burst out laughing at my expression.

“Ok, get thee gone, Dav. You’d better go see the Sergeant – though it’s probably just a Bengaalas that’s strayed up from the jungles. They’re only couple of dozen miles south of here.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. See you, Tarken.”

He settled himself back down on the bench as I walked away cross the hall, leaving a trail of droplets as the ice finally melted from the warmth inside the Chateau. After the freezing cold outside, it was like a furnace inside. I shifted three of my furs to let a bit more air get to my skin. The portable thermo-emitters here were as good as you might expect to be heating the house of a planetary Governor. I paused momentarily at one, holding my hands over the glowing red bar.

The doors to the Sergeant’s office were located at the far end of hall, down a narrow passage. I walked up to them and knocked gently, loud enough to be heard without annoying the man on the other side.

“Come in.” Connor called through the door. I stepped into his office, looking up at those disgusting stuffed animal heads. The original owner used to have something of a hunting fetish. Why Conner kept the things up I don’t know. He probably felt like a frickin’ noble… pretentious bastard. He was even drinking his beer from a teacup when I came in, his boots resting on the paper-strewn desk. He kept it untidy to cultivate the image that he was actually working on something, but I knew for a fact most of the paper was scrap, or prints he’d downloaded from certain blacksites on the Information Network. He loved his pictures of women, that was for sure.

“Report, Guardsman Davinsky.” He said wearily, swinging his feet down onto the floor and leaning forward, elbows on the desk. Noble, my ass. “And you better have a damn good reason to be in here.

“Heard some noises in the bushes outside the compound, sir. Though I’d best report it.”

“And have a nice sojourn inside whilst you’re at it, eh, Guardsman? I know your game.” He turned and opened the silver data companion, his leather chair creaking. Sergeant Connor wasn’t the lightest of men, it had to be admitted. He’d been here for several years now, and it showed in his ample frame.

“No, sir. The safety of Planetary Governor Simmons is my only concern, sir.” I gave the standard answer, putting on a look of faux piety. He grunted, not looking up. “Time of disturbance… oh-twenty-five hundred hours and five minutes. Disturbance reported by… Guardsman Davinsky.” He mumbled as he typed, his fingers moving rapidly over the keypad. It never looked good when a man typed faster than he could run.

“Right, then.” He told me. “I’ll order somebody to check it out. In the meantime, I want you to take this document to Governor Simmons’ office. He’s entertaining a guest at the moment, so make sure you knock before going in.” He unlocked a drawer and took out a big sheaf of paper, held together by nothing but a tightly stretched rubber band. It looked like it was about to snap at any moment. I took it gingerly in both hands. I didn’t mind the errand, so long as he didn’t –

“After you’ve done that, you can return to your post.” Bastard.

I walked out of the office, slamming the door behind me. The governor’s office was on the second floor. I couldn’t be bothered walking all the way to the stairs so I got in the nearest lift. When I stepped out, the corridors were strangely quiet. Usually you could hear the bustle of people in adjoining rooms moving around, or the clicks of hundreds of clerks using keypads, but today it was almost silent. I didn’t see one person on my way to the office. Normally I passed a few people in the corridors, on their way to somewhere else, or leaning against one of the rare patches of wood-panelled wall that didn’t have artworks hanging from it. Not this time. My fingers actually strayed to my gun, it unnerved me that much.

As I approached the Governor’s office, I could hear him talking to his guest. They’d not turned on the privacy field, for one reason or another. Either that or he was shouting, which was odd to say the least. Governor Simmons was a man of icy calm. He never broke into a sweat when he practised with that infernal rapier, even when he did the most complex routines. It was scary to watch. But I could definitely hear his voice, which meant something wasn’t right. My natural curiosity came to the fore and I stopped outside the door, training my ears on the sound.

“What do you mean, ‘failed’? We don’t even know if he’s still in the system! And with our work here reaching a critical juncture I can’t afford to waste resources chasing ghosts.” That was Simmons, without a doubt.

“We informed you that the CNBC Nevermore had been sighted not three parsecs from here. I am at a loss to understand how this system’s Defence Network managed to misplace a whole battlecruiser – even if it is a Confederate relic that can’t have seen upgrade or indeed overhaul in at least two years, and is captained by an outlaw who is little more than a glorified pirate!”

This voice was leaden and metallic, as if the speaker’s throat wasn’t made entirely of flesh.

“The inability to locate the Nevermore speaks ill of your ability as Governor of this world.” That clinched it for me. Whoever the speaker was, he must be Chimeric – the elite secret service that had once served the Confederacy, originally known as the Cerberus Corp.

Cerberus operatives were both feared and respected – feared for their ruthless dedication to carrying out their orders no matter what the cost, and respected for their ability to do just that. As far as I knew, the Cerberus had never failed to complete their missions – apart from one incident I’d read about, but forgotten. When the Confederacy collapsed and the Dominion started up, the Cerberus Corps simply upped and left, joining the Doms and changing their name to a more accurate reflection of their nature – Chimerics, a mix of men and crazy gizmos surgically implanted into their bodies. They gave me the creeps, with their staring eyes and those metal bits sticking out of their faces like piercings gone wrong.

“You just don’t understand the man we’re up against. His nicknames aren’t just nicknames, they’re descriptions. This… ‘glorified pirate’ is everything they say he is and more. I’m not surprised the troops guarding the installation defected as soon as they heard he was coming. Hell, if I heard he was coming here I’d be thinking twice about our plans and turning my mind towards escape.”

“Really? You would sacrifice a chance to gain a critical edge over the technologies possessed by both Protoss and Zerg to run like a cowardly dog from a single man?” The Chimeric now sounded irate.

“There are worse enemies in this sector than the Zerg or the Protoss…” Simmons answered mysteriously.

“And this ex-marine is not one of them!” His visitor yelled. That comment made me think, of both myself and Tarken, slumbering down in the hall. But they clearly weren’t talking about either of us – especially since neither of us possessed a battlecruiser.

“Listen to me, Commandant Zeiyfor. I consider him to be one of the greatest threats to the Dominion. And Mengsk agrees with me.” Simmons said, regaining his usual calm demeanour.

“Which is why we want him caught!” Zeiyfor hissed. “All I’m saying is it shouldn’t be that difficult to find him.”

“Well, we’re trying our best.” The Governor responded. “You can’t ask of more when you’re forcing me to pit fresh recruits against a force comprised of the most highly-trained, veteran soldiers and crewmen around.”

“Can you not drown him in numbers?”

“In open combat, certainly. Easily, in fact. But I wasn’t kidding when I said he’s like a ghost. Worse, a shadow. He flits from place to place, never openly assaulting our forces unless the odds are stacked in his favour.” Simmons told him.

“In that case - ” The Commandant paused, and not for the first time I wondered who it was they were talking about. The Dominion’s approach to propaganda meant that news of dangerous rebels rarely reached the ears of people of my status, so it could be any one of a dozen men set on bringing down the Dominion. I decided I’d best knock at this point, before one of them came out and found me eavesdropping. Still, it was some of the most interesting gossip I’d heard in a long while – a man so dangerous even Emperor Mengsk was afraid of him.

I raised my fist to knock on the door when it opened, to reveal the semi-mechanical face of the Chimeric. I recoiled involuntarily, nearly dropping the papers I carried. Half of his jawbone had been replaced with amplification and communication apparatus, and it stretched up to his left ear – presumably this meant he could shout incredibly loudly and hear the tiniest sounds, which was how he knew I was at the door. The augmentation looked like dark pewter, reflective unlike the matt black leather of his uniform. His expression was threatening to begin with, and made doubly so by the gleaming silver orb of his right eye, which was veined with red in a travesty of its flesh brother. The real eye wasn’t much better – beady and dark, sizing me up like a piece of meat. I hadn’t met many cyborgs, but I frickin’ hated the ones I had.

“What are you doing here, Guardsman?” He asked, his voice strangely liquid, and edged with a buzz I hadn’t picked up through the door.

“Sergeant Connor sent me to give you this.” I told him, my eyes fixed firmly on the floor. I lifted up the sheaf of papers. In a flurry of movement, his bionic arm whirred up to grasp them, the suddenness of the motion making me jump. Without another word he spun on his heel and walked over to stand beside Governor Simmons, who he handed the document to. I stood to attention, waiting for Governor Simmons to dismiss me.

I’d never seen the interior of his rooms before. The luxury of his furnishings was kept wisely concealed from the guards, who got jealous easily. He had a roaring fire in a grate on the north wall, which was hung with pictures of Simmons’ ancestors. On the mantelpiece stood several statues, which I guessed were antiques. The room’s carpet appeared plush and springy, and the velvet-upholstered chairs looked the same. It stung me to know that I’d been freezing my buttocks out in the cold while this arrogant so and so was sat in doors, warming his hands on a real log fire and relaxing in a comfy chair.

Although Simmons didn’t look too relaxed. The conversation I’d just heard must’ve really ruffled his feathers. His uniform – usually very neat and smooth – looked rumpled, as if he’d not changed it in some time. It was at that point I noticed the active equipment in the room – a holocommunicator and real-time display interface gleaming in one corner, their regular edges partly hidden by several potted plants.

“Ah, this is the personnel report I asked Sergeant Connor for. Three days ago.” Simmons said to himself, slightly angry. Then the anger left, the colour drained from his face to be replaced with a look of horror. “Commandant, I was right. What we discussed last month, my suspicions… they were correct.”

“There really is a member of his command cadre amongst the ranks of your guardsmen?” Zeiyfor answered, apparently heedless of my presence. Simmons looked up at him, shocked that he would divulge something so confidential with a guard like me in the room.

“What are you doing, talking about it with him here?” It was his turn to hiss at the Chimeric, who shrugged indifferently.

“He is of no consequence.” In one smooth movement, the Chimeric pulled out a gun and shot me.

For a second I actually looked around to see who he’d shot at, before looking down at my own chest in astonishment, more at the lack of pain than the sight of the two red wounds that had appeared in my torso, dripping incessantly. Then the agony came clawing up to rape my mind and drag my consciousness down into the darkness.

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