The brutish, geometric shape of the battlecruiser look ungainly next to the sleek Protoss shuttle. It was a source of constant amazement for Executor Kadralas. How had these woefully-primitive humanoids come to be such a thorn in the side of an species as perfect as the Protoss? He found it astounding that they’d ever made it into space. They consumed without thought, trampled over everyone and everything in their desperate scramble for resources. He often felt himself start to be swayed by the arguments from the New Conclave, that the full might of the Protoss military should be brought to bear, crushing the Terran infestation for the greater glory of Auir. And yet… and yet he’d fought alongside the Terrans. They were adaptable, skilled in their own way, brave – some possessed traits that would be lauded in a Zealot. When their lives and the people they cared about were threatened, they fought tooth and nail just to hold back the onslaught long enough for others to escape. If the first Conclave had opposed the Zerg with such ferocity, the unholy monsters might never have ransacked Auir. But he could scarcely voice such thoughts in the New Conclave. Judicator Tandarlas would want to have him ritually flayed, and that would lead to civil war – where there was no glory, and no victory.
Elnix stalked up on his four golden legs behind him, his eyepieces clicking and blinking as they changed from one mode of sight to another. He looked through the fieldpane, calculating range and telemetry for the battlecruiser. A spit in the ocean against that monster of a vessel. Only a Protoss carrier beat it for size, and a battle between the two would depend on the number of interceptors carried by the first and the number of ship-to-ship nuclear missiles carried by the second. A massed group of the new Immortals could take down a battlecruiser in low orbit – but it was pointless debating all this. Because as much as it made his mortal remains twist with annoyance within his cold metal shell, Elnix knew they hadn’t come to fight the puny Terrans.
“Executor?” A Zealot approached, his armour suit burnished so it shone in the dim light of the shuttle. His psionic cords sprouting from the back of his head swung gently in zero-G. “Communication from the en- from the Terran vessel.” Interesting, Elnix thought. That warrior nearly said ‘enemy’. We are not so unanimous of thought as Kadralas would have us believe. The Immortal watched the Zealot, sensing his identity through the Khala. No one important, though this one did show signs that he might one day learn to phase. Then he turned his attention back to the Executor, who appeared to be lost in thought. Elnix sent a gentle psionic pulse to the Protoss leader, bringing him back to the here-and-now.
“Play it.” He pointed to the holo-emitter. The Zealot nodded, tapped a few commands with his long fingers and stepped back.
“This is Commander Thomas Rico of the CNBC Nevermore. I sure hope that’s you, Executor. Our docking bay is open to receive you – we really need to talk. About what was going on down on that planet.”
“Confirmed, Nevermore. We are moving into position.” Kadra sent back.
The shuttle’s engine ports flared with cold blue light as they pushed the craft forward, toward the cavernous docking bay. This battlecruiser was significantly larger than most, built in the forgotten days of the Confederacy – when the Protoss were mysterious, unreachable and the Zerg little more than horror stories told by returning exploration teams. Built when James Raynor was just a middling Marshall on Chau Sara, not some demi-mythical hero figure, master tactician, feared warrior and beloved by his men. No, this vessel was old – by Terran standards, at least. Strange that a race could fall so far in so little time. But Kadra had to remind himself of the terrible things that had happened while he was lost in the void – the destruction of Auir, the return of the renegades… The Protoss had fallen far themselves. There had been no innovation for centuries. We believed ourselves perfect, Kadra thought, and look where we find ourselves. Scrabbling for resources and power with people we could have crushed if only we’d listened to reason. Ah, Tassadar, how we need you! But he was gone, along with so many other heroes. And his sacrifice had gained only a temporary respite at best. Kadra’s fist tightened and his anger nearly ignited his psi-blades, but he forced them into quiescence. He had to be calm. He had to be like water – because water could flow as a gentle stream, but it could also crash, with a force to split the very bones of the earth.
The entry bay was huge, filled with yellow-plated construction servitors and heavy loading equipment. Numerous empty SCVs were parked in alcoves along the walls, ready to be manned in a moment’s notice. Along both sides of the route to the modified docking clamps where the shuttle was headed, red-striped Goliath walkers raised their lethal autocannons in salute – or possibly just to keep watch in case these Protoss turned out to be anything other than friendly. Kadra wasn’t sure – he knew Rico wouldn’t be afraid of any kind of incursion, but at the same time the man was sometimes overly pragmatic. His fearlessness hadn’t come from a lifetime of training and study of the Khala, it had come from surgery early in life. He’d grown up not knowing what it was like to have terror in one’s heart, and Kadra couldn’t help but wonder how that had affected the man. One thing was certain – given a little training, he would make a most excellent Zealot, more so than many of the seasoned warriors under Kadra’s command. Though what that had to say about his species, the Executor didn’t like to think.
Executor! Now there was strange thing all by itself. Surely there must have been someone on the New Conclave who knew why he had vanished for so long! But no, clearly the records had been lost. The entity of rage known as the Avenger was long forgotten – but not by Fearless and his men, and certainly not by Kadra himself. How many centuries had he wandered the void, possessed of nothing but violence and hate? And when he returned, he was welcomed with open arms. His own (admittedly powerful) psionic abilities were by no means a match for the fallen Tassadar’s, but among the weakened people he returned to he was like a god. It remained to be seen whether or not the daemon within him would return. But his people had needed guidance, and who was he to refuse them? He had wrested Templar control from the Judicator Caste and forced the New Conclave to concern itself only with protecting the young and the weak; and with the preaching of the Khala – albeit with a few alterations for these turbulent times.
The clang of the docking clamps as they gently grasped the sleek bronze hull of the shuttle shook Kadra from his reverie. He pulled his red robe tighter around his ancient suit of power armour and thumbed the controls on his wrist plate, lowering his plasma shields. It was a gesture of trust that he made each time he came here, and he was sure Rico noticed it. After all, didn’t the man himself always walk out to meet him alone and unarmed? So he, mighty Executor, master of a thousand vessels and untold millions of warriors, could do the same.
He strode down the solid-state energy ramp, his duralloy boots ringing when he stepped onto the metal walkway. Then it was just a short lift ride down to the floor of the entry bay, where Rico waited. His arms were folded loosely. He wore the white shirt and jeans that would provide no defence against bullet or blade. Dressed like this, he walked out onto the streets of Pranada and talked to the rioters, calmed them down and convinced them to put down their clubs and stones. Dressed like this, he carried a combat shotgun and faced down three mutineers dressed in suits of C-400 power armour. Dressed like this, he’d stood and directed soldiers against scouting parties of zerglings, heedless of his own safety. Brilliance, or stupidity? The line was a thin one.
Kadra strode forward, grasping the outstretched wrist of the man in a firm grip.
“It’s good to see you once again, Tom.”
“You ain’t such a sore sight yourself.” Rico smiled. “Been having some Protoss problems. I think I can handle it, but all the same… it’s good to have you back. How’s things going with the Conclave?”
“Badly.” Kadra said. He shook his head in a gesture he’d learnt from the Terrans.
“I’m sure you’re doing what’s best.” Rico assured him. “Come on, Tarken and Mitchell are in the conference room.” He waited for the Executor to move and then walked alongside him – a mannerism the captain had picked up from the Protoss. It established the two as equals – neither superior. Kadra wouldn’t have faulted him if he had walked off first, but it was still pleasing to see that his Terran companion was making an effort. He silently told his honour guard to stay with the shuttle. The Zealot took a step forward, but Elnix reached out with a heavy golden limb and pulled him back. “We do as the Executor says.” The younger Protoss’ face contorted into a frown, but he stayed where he was.
They walked along several corridors and stepped into a small conference room where the bolted metal deckplates had been covered in a red carpet. The walls were covered in wood panelling, through which protruded the necessary structural supports. A sizeable darkplastic table sat in the centre, lined with simple open-sided metal chairs designed to seat both Terrans and Protoss, both in power armour and in normal clothes – or robes, in the case of the off-duty Zealots.
Currently it was occupied by four figures. The Praetor responsible for the Protoss contingent on the Nevermore, sat next to the head seat of the table. Though his lithe form was swathed in luxurious golden robes, he still wore his psi-projectors on his wrist. Kadra found that troubling. Next to the Praetor was the ferocious warrior known as Tarken – the very man responsible for banishing the Avenger back into the depths of Kadra’s psyche. He wore a blue shirt beneath which the insanely huge muscles he needed to operate Terran powered armour bulged like so many pythons. His hair was short and dark, his brow lined with years of concern. Beneath that forehead, pale eyes glittered in the light from the glowstrip on the ceiling. And from the small, scarred mouth beneath it his habitual cigar protruded, in defiance of the numerous signs Kadra had seen all over the place. On the other side of the table sat Lamarr, Fearless’ distastefully cyberneticised adjutant. And just beyond him sat Mitchell, the genius man. If more Protoss were born with minds like that human’s, their technology would be lightyears ahead. The plasma shields on this vessel were stronger than they had any right to be by an order of magnitude. Kadra had a sneaking suspicion that it had something to do with Mitchell’s propensity for tinkering.
Rico waved carelessly to his men, nodded respectfully to the Praetor and waited for the Executor to seat himself before taking his own place at the head of the table, between Zalarran and Lamarr.
“Wow.” Tarken said. “It’s hard to believe we’re all together again. How long’s it been?”
“Too long.” The Executor said, using less psionic energy in his mental communication. When he first met the man, in the grip of madness, he had hurt them with his mental speech. “But we aren’t all here.”
“Corso’s down in the training hall, running some of the new recruits through the programme he came up with. He’s some soldier.” Tarken told him.
“Yes.” Kadra replied. “A shame, in one so young.”
“War makes old men of us all.” Said Rico, quietly. “Only in battle are we young.”
“That a quote?” Tarken asked.
“No, not that one.” Rico shook his head.
“If you’re quite finished, I believe this meeting was supposed to have a purpose.” Zalarran’s words dripped with bitterness. “You Terrans waste so much time in nonsensical conversation.”
“And how long did Aldaris spend nonsensically pursuing Tassadar?” Kadra admonished. “Don’t belittle my friends. If you’d fought in half as many battles as these two have, you’d be halfway to having the respect I have for them.”
“I find it distasteful, Executor.” Zalarran spat.
“You forget your place, Praetor.” For a sickening moment Tarken feared the worst. The two Protoss stared at each other, eyes glowing brightly. The silence stretched out – until it was broken by Rico, laughing.
“Somethin’ funny, Tom?” Tarken asked.
“Oh, just remembering one of the times I had an argument with a Confed official.” He smiled. “Anyway, if we’re boring the good Praetor…” He received a vicious scowl in return. “We can get onto business.”
“The signal trace.” Kadra said.
“The very same.” Mitchell spoke for the first time. He tapped at a panel inlaid in the table and systems buried within it began to project a three-dimensional image that looked oddly like Terran DNA. “Basically, the Chateau where I sent Tarken had some heavy duty equipment installed, high-tech stuff I heard tell of that’d been lifted from Tarsonis just a few weeks before the Zerg hit it. Seems Mengsk knew more than anyone ever suspected.”
“What is this ‘signal trace’, Executor?” Zalarran put in, the moment Mitchell paused for breath. “And why was I not informed of it sooner?”
“Do not push it, Praetor.” Kadra warned. “Count yourself lucky to be privy to this war council.” The Zealot glowered, but fell silent.
“Anyway, this stuff sniffs out neutrinos. This signal can be found all over the Koprolu Sector if you know where to look.”
“But what is it?” Zalarran’s fists clenched in frustration.
“We don’t exactly know. But it’s important enough to have Dominion high military personnel in a tizzy. Rumour has it even Mengsk’s beard has been ruffled by this, and there’s a significant mobilisation going underway that practically no one knows about.”
“So how did you find out about it?” Kadra asked.
“Because I’m a genius. But you can see it – odd ships moved to different sectors, a few platoons of Marines getting new orders, several combat armadas being re-routed through odd star systems. There’s a staging ground somewhere.” He tapped again at the controls and a three-dimensional star map flared into existence. “Here.” The projection zoomed in on a system only a few dozen parsecs from Madrigal. “The data Tarken brought us told me they must have cracked the code on this signal trace, and I for one want to know what it says.”
“And why is that?” Zalarran asked acidly.
“Because the Protoss don’t usually go for a full-scale assault to capture a planet just because a code’s been broken.” Mitchell folded his arms and stared into the Praetor’s glowing orange eyes, heedless of the wrath burning in the mind behind them.
“The New Conclave said nothing of this.” Kadra assured them. “I opposed them at every turn, but they wouldn’t listen.”
“The wisdom of our Judicator brethren-”
“-verges on the non-existent sometimes. There was a reason, Zalar, that I removed their influence over the Templar. Now, if you will let this man continue – without interruptions…”
“There’s not much more to say. A conversation Tarken brought back from the Chateau points to an installation called Jakarta-Quintos. The Planetary Governor is heading there in a cloaked battlecruiser. Now, I can’t pretend to know or guess why, but it’s the best chance we’ve got to snatch-and-grab whatever they’ve got.”
“And how exactly does one go about performing a… what did you call it? A ‘snatch-and-grab’… on a cloaked battlecruiser?” Zalarran asked, injecting a strong pulse of deprecation into his mental speech.
“With difficulty.” Rico admitted. “But with some of the shiny new tech you guys have installed, we should be able to spot them, and the shields’ll mean any fight is definitely gonna go to us.”
“This ‘shiny new tech’ is advanced Protoss engineering! And that is a fact your technician does not seem to respect.”
“That ‘technician’ is a member of my command cadre.” It was Rico’s turn to stand up to Zalarran. “If he can improve it, I don’t see why it’s a bad thing. But if you don’t like him tinkering with it, there’re more respectful ways to convey those sentiments. You’re a guest on this here starship.” He was adding the drawl to his voice, Kadra knew, and spacing out each word to make himself sound simple. It was a habit he indulged in only when he was stressed. Kadra suspected it probably turned up a lot more in Rico’s speech these days.
“Respect? A guest? I was ordered – nay, relegated here, Terran, and I will show you respect the very same day I bow the knee to the Queen of Blades herself!”
“Maybe I made a mistake.” The Executor put in quietly. “I was proud of you, Zalarran. Your devotion to the Khala was unswerving. I know how much you sacrificed.” He held up his hand as Zalarran began to protest. “No, don’t tell me Xentara left you, I know that’s not the truth. I put you here because I thought I could trust you to perform your duty unswervingly. But part of your duty is to be respectful to whoever has authority over you – no matter their race. And since you couldn’t realise that yourself, I’m afraid I will have to reassign you.” Following the Executor’s words, there was a long silence. The aura of psionic emanations surrounding Zalarran at that point were so powerful even the telepathically blunt Terrans could sense his rage plain as day. The Praetor made as if to speak, but instead stood up, crashing his chair into the wall with such force that it cracked the panelling. His robes swirled as he turned on his heel and stalked out of the conference room.
“I’m sorry, Rico. Putting up with him for these past months must have been… difficult.”
“It’s no sweat, we would’ve done it for you.” Tarken reached across the table and slapped the Executor gently on the shoulder. A Protoss face could be remarkably expressive considering it had no mouth, and even the silent Adjutant could tell the Executor was profoundly upset. To Rico’s surprise, he chose that moment to speak, unplugging himself from the constant flow of data to interface with Terrans instead of computers.
“The failure of a protégé in no way reflects on the man who taught him. I learned that the hard way with my own son. Don’t worry, Executor. Just be glad for the wisdom you’ve given to your friends and comrades.”
“Y’know, that’s the most words I’ve ever heard you say at any one time.” Rico said.
Lamarr simply shrugged.