I watched the man’s jaw visibly slacken as I told him who I was. It made me laugh heartily for the first time in months. My human crew weren’t in the habit of making jokes – to be honest, who could blame them? – and when had anyone ever heard a Protoss tell a joke? Granted, Lazrala had a black sense of humour, but chatting with a giant golden crab wasn’t high on my list of good entertainment. We needed new crew members badly, simply for morale if nothing else. And to have a first-class Wraith pilot on board, complete with a functioning vessel would be a blessing. Admittedly the Wraith’s armaments were depleted and I’d have to get someone to unlock the virus controls, but the craft’s engines and Apollo generator worked fine. Even if we couldn’t get hold of any armaments, we’d quickly be able to use the ships for covert surveillance.
As I stepped onto the bridge everyone snapped to attention, the sound of booted feet hitting the ground together setting off my headache again. I groaned aloud and held my hand over my eyes.
“How many times, guys?” I asked wearily. “How many times? We don’t need salutes or attention or anything, ‘cause if I’m going to distract you from your duties I’ll have to stop coming here. Jeez.” I strode across the raised walkway in the centre of the room, threw myself down in the leather control chair. The bridge was like a big backwards triangle, with my chair at the apex. There were no windows or view ports, merely a selection of small and mid-sized screens watched by sensor techs and one large screen covering the opposite edge of the triangle from my leather throne. My Adjutant, Lamarr, sat on my left, plugged into the systems of the Nevermore. I waved at him, then remembered when he was sat in that neural embrace all he could see was pure data from the sensors, correlating radar imagery, optical resolution equipment, passive laser scans and hundreds of other little gadgets that I didn’t understand and probably never would. And aside from that he was a miserable bastard who wouldn’t have waved back anyway.
Lieutenant Farranson came over to me with his data slate. His eyes still held that haunted look they’d had ever since the horrific murder of the Nevermore’s previous Captain, not two metres from where we were standing. If one looked closely enough, there were still dark stains from where Tarken and I had unleashed our rage on his Chimeric killers, butchering them with pneumattock and chainsaw. We might have scrubbed the decks for hours with chemical cleaners, but no amount of scrubbing could clean out those images from Farranson’s head. I felt sympathy for him, but I couldn’t really relate to what he felt.
“Nothing to report, sir.” He said nervously, handing me the slate.
“Eric, I’ve told you, it’s Tom, or Rico – or Fearless if you really have to be formal.” After saying that, I regretted it. Farranson kept to his formality because it was something he could cling to. Hell knows, in these turbulent times we all needed something to keep the fear and the chaos from overwhelming us. Well… just the chaos, for me. There were hell-spawned monsters, religious fanatics, totalitarian dictators – and that was just men. The Zerg and the Protoss represented the ultimate fear – the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable. Occasionally I wondered what it would be like to have those fears – but I certainly didn’t envy the men who had them. It was my job to lead them, to show that fear didn’t have to rule their lives.
The communication we’d received from Tarken was a blessing. He had the charisma in our partnership. Though he was technically my second-in-command, I thought of him as standing alongside me. The supporting pillar of my captaincy. Without him at my side I’d struggled to keep the morale of the crew up, especially since all we had to do was wait – avoiding both Dominion patrols and Protoss elements that might not know about Kadralas’ deal with us. We needed him back as well, although now he was Executor that day would be a long time in coming. The fact of the matter was we needed a better liaison between my Marines and crew and the Protoss Zealots onboard. Relationships were frosty, and I feared a coup - with Praetor Zalarran as a focal point.
Now that Tarken was coming back I’d be able to do something about it – talk to the alien contingent and calm their fears about us. Because that was what it all boiled down to – almost every action of anyone famous throughout what had once been Confederate and was now Dominion space had been motivated by one of two things. Greed – for fame and power, not just for material stuff – or fear – for their religion and culture with the Protoss, the men and women fighting under him for Raynor, somewhere out in the howling cold. For her own survival and control of the Zerg broods for Kerrigan, or so I guessed.
So that left me. My motivations – I was damned if I knew what they were. I didn’t fear for the lives of my men and women, but many of them were firm friends and as such I wanted to keep them alive. So far I felt the most expedient way to do that was to forge alliances with the Protoss and keep as far away from the Zerg as possible. Beyond staying alive for the next few years, I couldn’t really think of any goals. Of course, there was this new business we’d sniffed out after raiding a few Dominion research stations, but that was all very vague – unless Tarken had something a bit more concrete. I wondered vaguely about concocting some big, grandiose plan to save humanity out here in the Koprolu Sector, but to be perfectly honest I simply couldn’t be bothered with all that thought. Not to mention the fact that having thought stuff like that through in the past, I’d come to the conclusion that such a plan would put unnecessary risks on my crew. On my friends. I’d fought that battle ever since my mind was altered – walking the fine line between fearlessness and suicidal bravado.
I sat and looked over the logs, as I always did. There remained the chance that my profoundly different mind would sniff out some seemingly inconsequential piece of data that would tell me something it didn’t tell others. No one knew the depth of change the lack of fear brought to my mind – how much of an effect it had on my other thought processes, how deep it went. All I knew was that since my very early childhood, I’d never, ever been scared. So when I looked at the data, I watched for patterns that others might miss, possibilities that could be exploited. During one engagement with an incursion of Zerg Guardian variants, I’d surveyed the projected vectors of an immense volley of acid spores and manually piloted the Nevermore through the exploding conflagrations and around the mutalisk escorts – which the automatic computers had concluded were too risky for the vessel to be near. We’d survived unscathed, long enough for a search-and-destroy Wraith patrol to slaughter our attackers. There had been other times when I’d saved lives, during some of our more heavy engagements.
Still, there had also been occasions when I’d got myself into a scrape, only to be saved by Tarken. Like when I thought a single squad of marines could storm a security satellite. We’d taken casualties against the satellite’s automated defences. My own suit had been compromised and if Tarken hadn’t rushed to my aid with reinforcements, I would’ve died. I’d long since lost count of the number of times we’d saved each other.
Of my original cadre of rebels – the squad sent down to a lost outpost that fateful day – four of us remained. Maya had died down on the planet, and I don’t think Corso ever really recovered from that. It always hits you harder when you’re young, the death of a loved one. Kadra had been granted the rank of Executor about a year after my little insurrection and his return to the Protoss had heralded an era of co-operation between both the disparate tribes and my crew.
Mitchell had thankfully stayed talkative, though his endless prayer returned when he got stressed. I’d made him the Nevermore’s chief engineer and he’d worked wonders at refining our systems. It was refreshing after years of enforced Confederate maintenance doctrine to finally have someone with a little ingenuity looking out for us. He’d made small changes to our armour when we were just a special operations unit, but now I’d been able to give him a free reign. He’d improved our weapons, our communications, our engines and had worked tirelessly to integrate the new Protoss technology. Still, he never seemed happier than when he was armed with a gauss rifle, dressed in his C-400 – a suit of powered armour that had seen so many modifications its original designers would hardly recognise it. Much like the Nevermore itself.
I pressed a stud on the armrest of my seat, watched a thin holoscreen shimmer into existence and began to tap at it, linking into the wide area radar. I told one of the sensor techs to risk a ping of the local hectare. If any Dominion or Protoss ships were in the area they’d know we were hiding out here, but I’d positioned the Nevermore in a spot not covered by standard Dominion Patrol patterns. And the Protoss fleet had passed this position some time ago. Still, it was with some trepidation I gave the final order and watched the main liquid-crystal screen. It lit up with a large green sphere. Then a pulse of lighter green spread out from the centre as the ping went out, like three-dimensional ripples in a spherical pond. At the very edge of the sphere, the computers flagged the faintest of returns and then the sensor techs focussed optical lasers on it. The outline of the object appeared on my holoscreen, traced by the lasers. To my disappointment, it was simply a stray chunk of debris floating this way from Shadow’s little destructive spree. From its size, probably part of a Carrier. As it passed by I had IR sensors trained on it, but there were no life signs revealed.
Thinking of the massacre, I realised I’d have to be very discrete about mentioning it around the Zealots. If Praetor Zalarran caught wind of the fact we had the Wraith pilot responsible on board, nothing would stop him from attacking short of the Executor’s direct command. It was something that had completely slipped my mind as a possibility. A lapse I hoped I wouldn’t have to pay for. I couldn’t help but wonder myself at the fact that I was harbouring a man who was effectively a mass-murderer. I’d slain fair numbers of my fellow men, countless Zerg and even a few Protoss in my time as a Confed marine, but always face to face, in combat. On the other hand, if I’d been in Shadow’s position would I have done a similar thing? If someone killed every member of my crew, would I retaliate in such a brutal fashion? Truth be told, I simply couldn’t imagine what it would be like. I wasn’t immune to sadness and despair, anger or rage. Whatever Shadow’s response had been, mine would most likely be worse – a hundred fold. Because my rage would be unfettered by any instinct for self-preservation. I’d had to spend time learning how to look after myself and I sensed it wouldn’t take much to knock down those manual instincts. My first few years after the operation had seen me constantly shadowed by operatives of my father, always on the lookout for my personal safety. When they (and he) had decided I knew enough to protect myself from stupidity, I’d been left to my own devices.
All these questions that I’d probably never know the answer to. For now, I decided I couldn’t make a judgement on Shadow’s actions. Choosing not to choose was something of a copout, but I needed both Shadow and his Wraith. My thoughts turned to Mitchell, whose palms were probably itching at the thought of a new craft to play with. A quick check on the internal sensors showed his transponder in the quarters I’d assigned for guests. Presumably he was filling Shadow in on the little details of the Nevermore’s colourful history.
A quiet hum alerted me to an object that had just showed up on a sensor tech’s screen. It was broadcasting on a frequency most battleships didn’t scan for. I sat up in my chair and instructed my adjutant to relay the signal to the main viewing screen. Three red bars flashed across the darkness and then a haze of fuzzy shapes appeared on the screen, blurring a little before resolving into crystal clear images of Tarken and Corso, crammed into a tiny shuttle pod.
“Sergeant Tarken reporting in, sir!” He grinned at me. I felt something akin to relief at having him back. Now I could get something done about the Protoss. But Tarken would need to rest first.
“Good to have you back, Vik.” I said, grinning back. He wasn’t just a useful soldier, he was probably my closest friend – we were like brothers.
“You keeping my chair warm?” He jibed.
“Hah. Funny. Much more of that lip and you’ll be having an all-expenses paid vacation to the brig.” I warned mockingly.
“You can put this madman away but leave me the hell out it!” Corso interrupted. “He tried to take on the whole lot of the Chateau Guardsmen. I had to save his skin!”
“What, again?” I jibed. Tarken looked affronted.
“With all due respect, sir, shut up and snag us with the magrap. We took some damage on the way out, and incredible as I am, docking a shuttle pod with no engines isn’t one of my specialities.”
“Don’t sweat, Vik. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”
From the command chair I gave the relevant orders and the Nevermore began to coast though space slowly, driven by pale bursts of gas from the manoeuvring thrusters rather than the tokamak drive used during combat. We were less likely to be noticed this way, although by all accounts both forces in the system were occupied with each other. Once I’d picked up the men I’d try and find out the situation on the surface. Protoss troopers had to be landing by now, and although I knew Executor Kadra would do his best to minimise deaths, the other Protoss would not be doing the same.
A dull thunk sounded as we latched onto the escape pod with our magnetic grapples, reeling it into a docking bay. In the cameras I could see SCV-suited men rushing to catch the damaged pod. I ordered the piloting crew to hold position and made my way down to the bay. The battered metallic hulk of the pod, like some strange fruit made of chrome and black steel and piping, was lowered slowly to the deck. The SCVs moved forward, rotating the multi-tools on their utility arms until the heavy metal cutters were in the active position. The mono-molecular blades began to vibrate and sliced into the pod’s side, cutting through great swathes of metal. Gradually pieces of the pod were carried away by other SCVs and dropped in big metal containers where they could be melted down and used to fix the Nevermore. Occasionally bright blue sparks would flicker as the cutting blades encountered some tougher material within the hull. The air smelled bitter. Soon a dark hole appeared in the side of the pod and two figures tumbled out, wearing one-piece skin-suits of beige, tan and grey. Theirs were blacked, presumably from a fire that had broke out in the cabin that they’d been a little slow to put out. Both were unharmed, though, springing up onto their feet and pushing away the instruments of the waiting medics who clustered around them. I flashed a few hand signals to the medics and they drew back, forming a slightly sullen line behind me. The SCVs moved in and picked up the pod, working together to move it away to somewhere where they could finish the job. Twenty marines filed in, raising their rifles in salute to the two returning warriors.
“It’s damn’ good to see you again, Vik.” I stepped forward, embracing the man and slapping him soundly on the back. He returned the friendly blows and then I stepped back, clouting Corso on the shoulder. “You didn’t do so bad either, kid.” He nodded, and I was struck by how old he looked now, compared to when I first met him so many years ago. The death of Maya had aged him and the constant warfare had made him increasingly bitter and cynical. Hopefully I’d be able to snap him out of it, but I guessed that would only happen if we had some victories soon.
“Right, you guys are to go and get some rest.” I ordered. “We’re going to rendezvous with Kadra and find out what’s happening down on Madrigal.”
The Nevermore set off once again, heading to the pre-arranged co-ordinates Kadra had encrypted into his last transmission to the Protoss fleet. We’d been monitoring the comms traffic and reports were starting to come in – New Kanjiro in flames, Dragoons stalking through the streets and destroying any military vehicles brought against them, Scout squadrons blasting down dropships trying to flee and Zealots butchering defenceless civilians in their hundreds, gutting them like fish. High Templars had apparently been dropped from shuttles close to all of the planet’s military bases, covering them in blankets of deadly psionic power. I could almost feel the pain of the marines as they were tortured within their hulking suits of powered armour, unable to bring any of their weapons to bear. I’d been narrowly missed by a psionic assault once before and it had left me in agony for days. It was tempting to give into the anger, but I suppressed my xenocidical thoughts out of respect for Kadra. Suppressed them, even as thousands were mown down by Scarab munitions – soldiers and citizens alike, all torn apart by the awesome destructive energies unleashed by Protoss Reavers. Spy drones sent us images – piles of human bones crushed beneath the golden treads of the Reavers, Zealots with human heads impaled on their psi-blades. The space platforms in orbit were burning bright with colour as various chemicals combusted, fuelling the inferno. There was so much material that even the cold vacuum of space wouldn’t be able to douse this conflagration for a long while.
In the end, I turned off the screen and set it to inform me if any human or Protoss ships came near us.