Pilot First Class Shadow swerved his craft around a large icy rock, as the Wraith Patrol passed through one of the denser conglomerations in the system’s asteroid belts. The interior of his vessel was dark and peaceful, lit only by the glowing blue data visible on Shadow’s HUD. He shifted slightly in his leather seat, lifting his breathing mask to scratch at his stubble. Regulations stated that all Wraith Pilots were to be clean-shaven, but as a PFC, Shadow could afford to be slightly lax with regulations. He’d proven his ability to fly better than anyone else in the system, and besides, it was insulting to be landed with these milk run assignments.
“Yo, Shady!” Rannyl, Shadow’s second called over the communication frequency. “You watching the razorback fight later?”
“Maybe, if we finish this run quick enough. Only got a few more hectares to cover. But I ain’t betting.” He yelled, eliciting raucous moans from ten of the other pilots. The twelfth, Marcus Nadir, was new to the squadron. “What?” He called, when the shouts had died down. “I don’t get it!”
“Aww, shut it, Marcus!” Rannyl yelled. “You frickin’ noob!”
“Marcus the Carcass, squad noob!” Tarrick, the Squadron’s third pilot yelled.
“Carcass doesn’t get it ‘cause he weren’t here last time the Razors tussled.” Ninth pilot Dominskev answered.
“Yeah, and what happened?” Marcus asked again, pulling his craft in a tight loop so it was level with Shadow’s. Annoyed at his persistence, the Squadron Leader banked away, executing a stunning manoeuvre through the squad that left several pilots speechless.
“What happened was Shadow’s boar got frickin’ roasted by fourth squad’s!” Eight Pilot Warrell yelled, rousing even more cheers and shouts of derision. Wraith Squadrons were always rowdy, it was the only way they could cope with the monotony of their patrols.
“Aright, enough with the boar fight taunts!” Shadow yelled. “Let’s do some flying. Helix manoeuvre.”
“Yeah! Now we’re talking!” Dominskev replied. He looked out of his energy-reinforced viewport as the engines on Shadow’s Wraith flared.
The eleven others followed Shadow’s tight spiral. Once he was sure they’d worked out his pattern, he led them in a flight of ever increasing complexity. The Navigator Schools on Shadow’s long-dead homeworld used to call these exercises ‘progressive practice’ – even though some of Shadow’s practices would have put a great many other PFCs throughout the Dominion to shame. Shadow’s squadron had all been flying with him for over a year, apart from Twelfth Pilot Marcus and the strangely-silent Eleventh Pilot Gathicus. Gathicus was alone among the pilots in the squadron because unlike the others, he’d silently endured the taunts and jibes during his time as ‘squad noob’. But he was a competent flyer, following Shadow’s most chaotic turns with a deftness that made the leader wonder if his Eleventh wasn’t almost as good as he was.
He began to gradually tone down the difficulty of the pattern once they reached tenth level practice, taking them back up through the levels until they were flying at a standard twentieth.
“That was awesome, sir.” Rannyl. “We’ve covered the hectare, so I guess we can head back now.”
“Yup. Let’s go.” Shadow said simply, banking his craft back until the glowing orange nav-pointers lined up, signalling that he was facing the landing platform orbiting serenely around Madrigal - several AU away.
A minute passed before Shadow’s HUD began to chime softly but insistently. He looked at it in consternation, his trained eyes picking up the source of the disturbance – his radar had pinged off a metallic object several thousand metres away, while his upgraded energy-sensors had detected a source of warp radiation coming from the same place. Characteristic fluctuations in the field immediately identified it as Protoss. Shadow immediately pressed the system alert button, but the transmission would take several minutes to reach the communications array, and then it would take even longer before an investigation fleet could form up and advance.
“Shadow, what’s going on?” Rannyl asked. “I’m picking up Protoss…”
“Yeah, I’ve hit the system alarm. Rapid Response should be here in ten minutes.” Shadow told him.
“Ten minutes and they could be gone. We should go challenge them.” Rannyl argued.
“And get blown out of the sky?” He countered. “This is why you’re my sub, Rannyl.”
“Aww, sir! You picked a rotten day to go chicken on us!” Dominskev protested.
“Yeah, Skevvy’s right!” Marcus called, ever the sycophant.
“Shut up, creep!” Someone retorted.
“Everybody stow it.” Shadow said, putting on his dangerous voice. It was a tone the squadron had all come to instinctively respond to by instantly shutting up. “We’re going to all follow the approach vector I’m downloading into your nav-systems. We’re going to talk to the Protoss.”
“Well, it’s better than nothing.” Rannyl said. “I’ve got your wing, sir!”
“Aright, squad, let’s go.”
“Woot! Woot! Let’s go!” The cries rang through the squadron.
The squadron moved towards the lonely Protoss craft at a sedate pace, making no attempts at stealth. Shadow didn’t want to antagonise the aliens into attacking unnecessarily, though at the same time he wondered what the craft was doing here. He hoped the alien pilot would have a good explanation. As the squadron approached, he began to send out transmissions, hoping that this was one of the Protoss craft fitted with the necessary equipment to receive human radio signals.
The golden hull of the Protoss ship swung to face the approaching squadron. As one, they brought their Apollo reactors online, ready to cloak at a moment’s notice. They could all see the elegant lines of the craft, its shiny plates reflecting the light of Madrigal’s ancient sun. It had two backswept horn-like protrusions, around which Shadow’s naked eyes could see strange blurry movements. He called up the classifier, waiting anxiously as it searched through the database. Then it flashed the vessel specification up on his HUD, and Shadow’s heart sank.
“Arbiter.” He muttered. They never travelled alone – the exotic radiation his energy sensors were picking up told him it was actively generating the occlusion field, hiding the other ships in its splinter fleet.
The Protoss crewing the Arbiter weren’t about to turn back now, their dedication to the cause ahead of them bordering on the fanatical. Snug in their berths, protected from any possible amount of buffeting by cushioning fields, they readied their systems in preparation for the assault on the planet. Previously dormant holographic displays now shimmered into life, signalling the machinery they controlled was preparing for activation. The womb-like darkness of the Arbiter was now much brighter, the ghostly green light provided by the displays just enough for the crew to see each other. They ignored the transmission from the lead Wraith, instead focussing on the scans coming in from the cloaked Observer drones nearby. This squadron of stealth fighters were completely alone. But before the Praetor in command of the vessel could issue an order to any of the other hidden ships in the splinter fleet, his craft was rocked violently by an explosion.
Shadow watched in astonishment as Gathicus’ Wraith shot forwards, engines flaring. His manoeuvring thrusters hissed wildly as the Wraith spun into a fifth-level practice pattern, flying wrings around the slower Arbiter, using its burst lasers to damage. Disrupter fire from the Protoss vessel followed it, unable to hit the madly-spinning attacker. Even so, the Wraith soon came under fire from the ships accompanying the Arbiter. Cone-shaped projectiles flashed through space on trails of brilliant blue thrust, exploding with the tell-tale white light that marked them as antimatter missiles. However, Gathicus’ initial strikes had done their work. Now, beneath the final shots of his burst laser, the Arbiter began to break apart, its energy reactors detonating. The cold shapes of Protoss Scouts began to appear, only to be thrown into momentary disarray by a strange, red-streaked missile that detonated in their midst.
“What in all hell are you doing!” Shadow finally yelled over the comm frequency. He didn’t really expect Gathicus to respond, so he was surprised when the rampant pilot’s cold visage appeared in his viewport.
“By the command of the Chimeric Security Force, I order all units to attack.” He said.
“Belay that!” Shadow yelled. “You can’t just take over my squadron without so much as a ‘by your leave’!”
“I can. Besides, if you don’t attack, the Protoss will kill you. It’s your decision.” With that, the Chimeric broke communication, continuing his erratic flight pattern. He cloaked his vessel and began to unleash sprays of missiles, causing more chaos among the Scouts. The Protoss fighters were just beginning to come to life after Gathicus’ EMP missile momentarily disabled their systems.
Swearing loudly, Shadow ordered the rest of the Squadron to cloak and engage. They entered into a tight, vicious dogfight, burst lasers flaring in response to the pulse-cannons of the Scouts. Missiles exploded everywhere, confusing the Wraith’s radar equipment. Even so, there were so many Scouts it was a simply a matter of keeping moving and loosing their payload. Shards of curved bronze armour began to litter space around the squadron, the expanding clouds of debris mixing with the larger fiery wreckage spreading out from where the Arbiter had been. Through this destruction the Wraiths flew, looping around the Scouts, dodging blindly fired missiles with barrel rolls and vertical thrust jumps.
For several minutes the Wraiths had the upper hand, taking a great toll in the numbers of the Protoss fighters. But then Shadow’s HUD flagged up a sensor anomaly in one corner of the screen. A telltale flicker of radiation that meant an Observer was somewhere nearby – feeding the location and telemetry of each enemy Wraith straight into the Scouts’ navigational computers. Shadow knew that soon the superior shields and armour of the Protoss ships would see the Wraiths badly outclassed – were it not for their cloaking fields, the squadron would be nothing more than a few random metallic particles and wafts of exotic radiation.
He pulled on his controls savagely, twisting straight into a level five practice pattern, ordering the others to follow him. At this level they had little hope of keeping up with the pirouetting, almost drunk-looking stealth fighter, but they all tried their best. Shadow hoped to make it back to the asteroid field where the giant rocks could be used as cover. But out in open space, they were outnumbered and outclassed.
Pilot Marcus was the first to go, his screams filling the radio link as murderous blasts of photons tore his vessel apart. Dominskev died a few minutes later – unable to keep up with the pattern, a dozen antimatter projectiles locked onto his exhaust emissions and detonated. Unlike Marcus, he died silently. He’d been a good friend of Shadow’s and the uncaring aliens had gunned him down without a moment’s hesitation. Shadow restrained himself from spinning his craft around and rocketing straight towards the enemy. There was heroism, and then there was suicide. He currently had little interest in the former and absolutely no interest in the latter. Shadow was a pragmatist at heart, and currently his agenda consisted of escaping from the marauding Scouts unscathed. His biomonitors sensed the adrenaline flooding his system and lowered the cockpit’s internal temperature before he started to sweat. In response to his shortened breaths, the monitors instructed the Wraith’s oxygen filter to change the composition of the air. Despite all this, Shadow still felt tense. Even though the thin, porous gloves he wore should have absorbed all the moisture from his hands, the control grip still felt slick in his grasp.
Four more pilots were killed before they came in sight of the asteroid belt. The first valiantly threw his craft towards the Protoss formation, firing everything he had. He crashed his ship into a Scout, buying the squadron a few precious minutes. The next two – pilots Tarrick and Warrell - perished when Shadow flew a particularly difficult manoeuvre. Unable to avoid each other, their Wraiths collided, detonating their remaining munitions. The fourth to be so cruelly extinguished was Rannyl. And his death would haunt Shadow for a long time to come, as it heralded the passing of so many others.
A strangely modified Scout streaked out of formation, its engines leaving a trail of loose blue plasma. Shadow’s pattern flight allowed him to shoot twice with his burst laser and fire a missile, but the resulting bloom of light told him this craft’s shields were incredibly tough. When they cleared, a cam-drone on Shadow’s hull showed him an aperture opening in the side of the strange craft. A suited, masked Protoss figure was just visible inside. The figure pointed a gnarled hand towards the squadron. The next thing the squadron leader saw was his best friend’s craft jerk and begin to fly on a level trajectory. Leading the squad around Rannyl’s Wraith, Shadow’s eyes were fixed on the cam-drone’s viewpoint. Even a hundred metres distant, they could all see that every inch of the Second Pilot’s viewport was daubed in red. Shadow retched once before getting himself back under control. The biomonitors in the cockpit sensed his anxiety and tried to administer a low dosage of mind-calming drugs, but Shadow angrily struck the injector’s cancel function.
Then he watched in horror as the craft-borne Templar spread his hands and slew the rest of the squadron, one by one – no explosions, no screams, no detonations. The Wraiths all gave mild shudders and then flew in straight lines, picked off with ease by the following Scouts. Shadow screamed aloud on the open radio frequency, pulling his craft rudely into a first level pattern. The Protoss Scouts following him stopped dead in space, their pilots apparently appalled by such a convoluted manoeuvre. In vain they fired missile after missile, the blasts illuminating the asteroids which he was fast approaching.
For several minutes, the intense concentration needed to carry off first pattern lifted Shadow’s mind from the battlefield. Somewhere far away he was flying for his life, but the chaos and adrenaline infusing his body seemed to be separated from his mind by an intangible barrier of thought. The shock of the deaths of his friends was like a distant tidal wave, doomed to crash down on him at some point, but absent for the time being. He wondered for a moment if he would ever see her again, but then she disappeared from his mind – as all ghosts of the past do.
Shadow found himself cruising among the asteroids. In a grouping this tightly packed, the clusters of rocks were causing havoc for the navigational AIs in the Scouts, but Shadow’s piloting skills were such that he was unfazed by the lumps of ice hurtling around his craft. Behind him, three explosions occurred almost simultaneously as the NavAI in each Scout failed. Still, the fleet would divert more Scouts here sooner or later – or even a Carrier. Shadow didn’t want to bet against the fact that the Protoss were single-minded enough to take apart this whole sector of rocks in order to find him. That was if they thought he was still around… Shadow’s mind worked hard for a few seconds before he came up with a plan. It was dangerous… but if he succeeded, the Protoss would find themselves in no small amount of trouble.
Praetor Ursus of the Seventeenth Scout Wing in the Force for Righteous Judgement watched in astonishment as the Hiding Vessel dove into the side of a large asteroid, fire blossoming as it impacted with such force that the pilot must have died instantly. He commanded a nearby Observer Drone to perform a sweep of the area, but it found nothing. Satisfied that the renegade Hiding Vessel was destroyed, he signalled back to the main body of the Force for Righteous Judgement, informing them that the invasion could take commence.
Shadow finally managed to stop his hands shaking. At the cost of just a single missile, he’d fooled the Protoss into thinking he was dead. He watched the Scout Wing fly past, his cockpit in darkness. He’d powered down all his systems after lodging his Wraith into a crater on one of the larger asteroids. It was getting cold, and he knew if the Observers weren’t all gone in under an hour, he’d freeze to death. Of course, he had no way of knowing if the robotic watchers were still present, being as they spent all their time permanently cloaked. And he was also assuming that they’d all be at the forefront of the invading fleet, instead of strewn throughout as humans would place them. Still, the Protoss were almost predictable in their arrogance. Before meeting the humans, they would never have expected someone to do something so dishonourable as attacking their defenceless flights of shuttles. Since encountering them, so many years ago, and due to all the backstabbing and betrayals that had taken place, they’d become more wary as a race.
But Shadow hoped they could still be outsmarted. When dealing with brute force they were in their element – Shadow could see that as the huge, almost-organic forms of the carriers floated serenely past, their grace only serving to emphasise their destructive potential. Shadow couldn’t help but imagine the sleek rows of interceptors berthed within the hulls of the gigantic starcraft. He shivered, wondering where the RR group he’d requested had got to. He couldn’t risk even a passive radar pulse, the Protoss would be swarming over him in seconds. It was tempting to cloak and attack the carriers, which would have no chance against him, but it was more than likely that there were Observers among them. And the carriers would detect the reactivation of his Wraith’s systems.
The fleet was passing by slowly, travelling at only a few hundred metres a second – a snail’s pace in interplanetary terms. They were clearly taking no chances after the significant losses the Scout Wing had incurred against the Wraith Squadron. Ever cubic metre of space was being scanned before any non-cloaked vessel moved into it. Arbiters were also being brought forwards, generating their occlusion fields and making many of the carriers vanish from sight. Half an hour slipped away before Shadow felt safe enough to reactivate his Wraith. There was no sign of any offensive craft or Arbiters, merely long lines of shuttles carrying the ground troops. In his mind’s eye, Shadow saw the alien faces of his enemies, mouth-less and covered in grey-purple scales, their eyes glowing like beacons from within their skulls.
With trepidation Shadow ignited his Apollo Reactor, bring the Wraith’s systems online as swiftly as possible. As soon as his field generators were working he cloaked his vessel, then moved it slowly away from the asteroid as his engines and thrusters came back online. The shuttles gave no indication that they were aware of his presence – made no attempt to flee or change course. Shadow’s radar alerted him to the presence of a single Scout, which also made no move toward him. He flew his craft into position behind the Scout, wondering how best to take it out. He smashed his elbow into a panel to his right, exposing reams of circuitry and complex wiring. It took a few short minutes for him to find the suppresser wire linked from his controls to the bust laser on the down-stretched tail section of his craft. He ripped it away, tearing both ends and putting the wire into his pocket so it didn’t fly around later. After carefully replacing the panel, he turned his attention to the Scout. His Wraith began to hum as the power built in the burst laser. It actually started shaking as the laser neared critical temperatures. Shadow had it locked directly on the Scout’s main exhaust port, currently glowing blue with the energy it was expending.
Shadow discharged the laser and pulled his Wraith up simultaneously. On the view from the cam-drone he saw the luminescent rod of orange light intersect with the blue energies spilling out the Scout’s exhaust, followed by an explosion of such brightness that the cam-drone momentarily whited out. Now the shuttles began to panic – but it was too late. Shadow moved among them vengefully, loosing his missiles in a continuous spree. The shuttles had no chance – the nearest armed fleet elements were half an hour away, and that was assuming they had observers with them.
Shadow swore with each kill he made, blasts erupting in the void with the beauty of deadly roses. He barely had to aim, so thick was the fleet. He grinned as he thought of the terrified zealots crammed into their acceleration berths and flooding the psionic network with their screams, the Templar fiercely collecting their energies to no avail – whilst several survived the destruction of the shuttles carrying them, it was only to face the violent horrors of explosive decompression.
A carrier came into view, hurrying towards the disturbance. Its interceptors were flitting around it in a frenzy, searching for an enemy to target. Shadow banked his craft, following a graceful curve until the sleek golden curves of the immense craft’s hull passed in front of his crosshairs, which began to pulse a malevolent crimson. Shadow had always thought that the images he saw of Protoss carriers had resembled tulips. And he was about to prune this giant ship.
Its shields flared under the onslaught. Shadow stopped firing his missiles and switched to the burst laser, charging it up until the weapon simply couldn’t hold the charge any more. The laser beam was strong enough to make the entire shield of the carrier light up, leaving patches where the defensive fields had failed. Shadow fired his missiles into the shield breaches, moving his craft away from the scything portions of hull material, panels and Protoss crew. On his next pass, he fired his missiles into those breaches, causing even more damage inside the carrier.
The immense ship was now doomed, its interceptors began to fly off in random directions as the crew lost control of the AIs. Fires took hold, fed by the oxygen rushing out of the hull breaches and the volatile chemicals involved in the generation of Protoss shields. Conflagrations rushed up and down the length of the carrier which began to plough into the lines of milling shuttles. When the damage finally became critical, the carrier’s destruction touched off a large number of secondary explosions as shuttles that couldn’t move out of the way fast enough were consumed by the expanding cloud of plasma, fire and debris. Shadow checked his ammunition counters, seeing he had both very little energy and few missiles left in his reserve chambers. He turned his craft away, satisfied with the carnage he’d caused. It certainly wouldn’t be enough to save Madrigal from the coming invasion, but neither would the Protoss be forgetting it in a hurry. It was an event that would come to known as the Hidden Massacre. Shadow knew the Protoss would be after him soon. And this time they wouldn’t be fooled by an explosion.
Already his sensors were showing him the approach of Arbiter vessels. These would be accompanying the elite elements of the invasion fleet – craft equipped with sophisticated detection gear and much more powerful weaponry than the ordinary Protoss vessels. Shadow realised he had nowhere to flee. To go back to Madrigal would be suicide, even if he managed to avoid the main bulk of the fleet that currently stood between him and the space platform. All of the picket vessels out on permanent deep station had undoubtedly been destroyed. He’d scarcely flown more than a few hectares from the site of the massacre when he received an incoming transmission, audio only. It bore none of the code markers or identification algorithms commonly found in Terran Dominion military communications. And there was very little time-lag, which meant that whoever was sending it was nearby. He instructed his onboard computer to play the transmission to him.
“This is Commander Rico of CNBC Nevermore to DNW Silence.” Shadow was even more confused. The commander had identified his ship as CNBC. So it was a battlecruiser. But part of the Confederate Navy? The last Confederate fleet was defeated in a space battle by Dominion forces above Iadrinar Tertiarus. Still, Shadow figured as his pragmatism came to the fore, a Terran ship was a Terran ship. They’d save him from the Protoss. Or at least, he hoped they would.
“This is DNW Silence. If you’re about to offer me a lift, I’ll be glad to accept, Nevermore.” He said. Shadow was usually wary of broadcasting on unencrypted, wide-area channels but at this stage, he couldn’t care less about Dominion Security Protocol.
“Got it in one, Silence. Come to these co-ordinates. Nevermore out.” The transmission ended with a burst of navigational data. Shadow fed it into his nav-comp and followed the pointers that flared into life on his HUD. He soon left the security of the asteroid belt, heading to the outer reaches of the system. He always hated the emptiness he travelled through. So cold and desolate, filled with nothing but dust. And nothing to listen to but the echo of lonely voices calling out in the darkness. Of course, since he was still within the confines of the star system, so there were navigational satellites, asteroid defences, waypoint beacons, communication relays and all manner of tiny devices strewn throughout space. But without the squad behind him, all the electronic voices which usually trickled through his comm system seemed much quieter and forlorn.
He was jerked out of his reverie by his radar, which was screeching dire warnings. A huge blot had appeared, mass-sensors were telling him it could only be a battlecruiser and radiation emissions meant that its weapons were charged up – easily enough to destroy his Wraith in its weakened state. His Apollo reactor was almost drained from constant usage – he’d had to de-cloak some time back and he doubted the reactors had enough juice to get him hidden again. The question of what to do next was decided for him. The next transmission he received from the battle cruiser was a military-grade retrovirus which took over his controls, one subroutine at a time. The security systems installed in the Wraith’s computer systems fought back, re-routing and altering its command pathways, but to no avail. The retrovirus was self-replicating and had the processing power of a battlecruiser’s linked network behind it. The beleaguered Wraith computer, much of its power drained, tried desperately to keep control of the vessel in its pilot’s hands. But it was fighting a losing battle. Each part of the processing system it vacated to make way for a vital subroutine, the retrovirus moved in on, its battle algorithms making short work of any firewalls erected in their path. In the AI equivalent of desperation, the Wraith’s computer mind constructed a series of one-way data gates in its cybernetic architecture, but the retrovirus simply went around them, subverting system after system as the mind retreated onto smaller and smaller information pathways, like a snake swallowing its own tail. Eventually, unable to sustain itself, the computer mind collapsed into random conglomerations of code which had once had a purpose. The retrovirus swallowed it all with ease.
All this took place in mere milliseconds. The first Shadow knew of the cyber war was when he abruptly lost control of his Wraith, which began to move towards the battlecruiser on a slow, safe approach speed. For the first few seconds he was terrified, but gradually it dawned on him that if they wanted to kill him, the crew of the battlecruiser could simply order his craft to self-destruct. He gave up wrestling with the unresponsive interfaces and turned his attention on the ship he was approaching. It had been strangely modified – and some of the alterations didn’t even look Terran. There were odd extrusions of golden metal that looked like the sort used for the hulls of Protoss ships. And he was sure he could see the faint impossible flicker of plasma shields. The biggest change, however, was to the structure of the battlecruiser. Sections had been added to the topside and underside of the vessel, clearly intended to be used as Wraith launch bays.
It was towards one of these lit apertures that Shadow’s Wraith was being drawn. He could already see the huge claw-like docking clamps unfolding to pull his ship within the megalithic battlecruiser. His darkened viewport was illuminated from without by the lines of powerful lamps. Then the claws closed shut on his Wraith, briefly shaking the vessel until dampening fields came online. Then the massive bay doors began to grind shut behind him, and Shadow began to shake with fear. He smashed another panel, pulling out a small pistol. Not much use if he was met by armoured Marines, but if the ship carried only Navy personnel then he might have a chance of fighting his way clear. A small chance, but a chance nonetheless. Then Shadow thought it through – even if he did evade or kill the first boarding party, he’d be stranded on a Confederate battlecruiser, with who knew how many trained guards. He might be the best pilot in for ten parsecs in any direction you cared to choose, but Shadow knew when he was outclassed. He holstered the pistol, aware that these people might have taken control of his craft because Wraiths were capable of taking on fully-armed battlecruisers, trouncing them with ship-to-ship missiles and precision laser bursts. It was only reasonable to take control of any potentially hostile ship on approach, especially as any missiles detonating within the craft would be much more damaging.
Air began to flood into the bay and more lights came on, along with machines and equipment. Navy servicemen entered and started to connect cables and piping to the Wraith’s input jacks. The hatch hissed open and a man in a dark blue uniform wheeled a tall lift unit over to the craft, the bottom wing of which was suspended two metres above the metallic floor bay. Shadow stayed in his leather seat, only moving to disconnect the tubes leading into his mask, no longer needing the oxygen-rich air they fed him. Then he unclipped the mask itself, stowing it in the compartment beneath his seat.
Another man wearing a casual white shirt and grey trousers sauntered into the bay, followed by a Marine in light armour. Both fellows were powerfully built, the one in light armour bearing scars that looked like they had once been the sites of surface implants. The man in the white shirt appeared to argue with the Marine, who seemed to back down after a short debate. Shadow couldn’t hear what they said from where he was sitting. But the man walked over to the lift, stepping on. Shadow lost sight of him, but he could hear the hum of the lift’s motors and the faint vibration it created in his Wraith.
He appeared at the top of the lift, level with the now-open cockpit. Instinctively, Shadow pulled out the pistol and aimed it at him. At this distance, he’d have no trouble putting a bullet through the man’s eye.
“Sorry about that business with the retrovirus.” He called out, his voice calm but powerful. “We’d heard that there was a Chimeric in your squadron and we couldn’t take the risk. But thankfully you aren’t him.”
“Who the hell are you?” Shadow called back. “What is this ship?”
“Oh, sorry. My name is Rico. And this-” he gestured around expansively. “-this is the good ship Nevermore. You might have seen some of these new battlecruisers the Dominion’s churning out by the dozen, but let me tell you – they don’t build them like this anymore.” He laughed for a moment as if someone had told a joke. “Comparing this ship to the modern Dom crap is like comparing Enterprise E with B.”
For a moment Shadow was confused. “Enterprise?” The man laughed again, apparently heedless of the fact that Shadow was still training a pistol on him. “Sorry, you’ll have to ignore me when I start talking about stuff I’ve read… it annoys the hell out of my second in command. What’s your name again?” He asked.
“ I’m PFC Aaron Shadow. I command…” He stopped, struggling to hold back his grief. “I used to command Second Squadron’s Wraith Patrol. We were returning to the orbital platform when we spotted a Protoss vessel. An Arbiter.”
“I see.” Rico said. “That must have been… unfortunate.”
“I was in the middle of contacting them when my eleventh started shooting. Turned out he was a Chimeric, under classified orders. By the time we worked this out, the Arbiter was dead and Scouts were appearing everywhere. Had no choice but to fight. Or die.” Shadow told him, his face grim. At the man’s request Shadow recounted the entire tale of his destructive venture into the Protoss fleet.
“Kadra’s not going to be happy.” Rico muttered to himself, before looking back up at Shadow with his commanding stare. “Well, you’ve answered all my questions.”
“And now it’s time for you to answer mine.” Shadow said, swinging round to face him, holding the gun level. Now the initial rush of adrenaline had receded, the pilot was left with rock-hard reserves of calm. The man merely laughed at the compact instrument of death pointed his way.
“I’m not afraid of you.” Rico said, still smiling, completely unconcerned. “For various reasons, but one of them being you don’t dare shoot. You’d be stuck in a hostile battlecruiser, and this isn’t Star Wars – there’s no simple override to the docking clamps.”
“I could still kill you, though.” Shadow threatened, but even as he said it there was no way he could kill this man. Still, he had to keep up the bluff.
“Yeah. And then Mitchell’s going to have to clean up the gooey remains of your corpse.” Rico replied, as if it were of no consequence. He gestured up to a high gantry where the lightly-armoured Marine had moved, lining up his gauss rifle. A single burst, designed to penetrate armoured targets, would tear his soft flesh apart.
“I guess we’ve reached an impasse.” Shadow said, standing up. Rico shook his head, still grinning.
“No, I don’t think we have.” Before the pilot could even think about shooting, Rico stepped forward and knocked the gun out of his hands. Shadow watched it follow a graceful trajectory through the air, before plummeting to the reflective floor of the bay.
“How the hell did you…” Shadow trailed away. Rico smiled all the wider.
“When you’re not afraid of anything, there’s very little you can’t do. Leastways, there’s very little you can’t attempt to do.” When Rico said those words, Shadow’s eyes widened.
“You… there’s no way in hell you can be who I think you are…” He began.
“One of our many mottoes here is ‘nothing is impossible.’ You’d do well to remember that.” Rico said. “Come on down out of this Wraith. My crew will explain how things stand.”
The lift ride was short and soon Shadow was standing a few metres away from the man Rico had called Mitchell. The Marine was no longer pointing the gauss rifle at him, having instead picked up the pistol. But he still contrived to look threatening. Looking at the crew, Shadow realised these were all veterans – some actually had grey hair, which spoke volumes for Rico, if he really was the commander of this vessel.
“You still haven’t told me who you really are.” Shadow said. Rico nodded.
“No, we haven’t. Well, in that case, welcome to the Nevermore, Shadow.” He paused. “They call me Fearless.”