Zalarran stalked angrily along the corridor. The few technicians and off-duty Marines he encountered moved out of his way quickly, and a few service personnel dove into storage cupboards when they saw him coming. The psionic backwash from his anger was so strong it began to short out lights for a few moments as he passed. The ends of his neural cords were twitching with agitation. Kadralas! How could you fall so far? Is it to be the litany of our race, that all our heroes must inevitable damn themselves? Now was the time, he knew. The coup he’d been planning was the only option, and now the Executor’s presence meant he could take care of the corruption sweeping through his race once and for all. As the new Executor, he would cut off all ties to the Terrans and blast this blasphemous abomination they dared to call a starship into the pile of molten scrap it should have been reduced to the first time a Protoss vessel came across it.
Heldax, Padallas and Ritarin had agree to side with him – and the five Zealots they were each responsible for would do what their superiors told them. His own squad would certainly follow. As for Zalnas and Kalzas, he was sure they would follow the majority. No, the only real worry was Lazrala and his Dragoons. He’d seen the reborn warriors laughing with Commander Rico, though he had no idea as to the Dragoons’ political leanings. If they tried to oppose the coup, it would be more difficult. But leg-enhancements and the narrow space meant the Zealots would be in their element. Soon psi-blades would be soaked in alien blood, as was good and proper. The sensation of an enemy’s life essence dripping from the physical manifestation of your faith and your own desire to harm your foes was indescribable.
The internal architecture of the battlecruiser began to undergo a subtle change as Zalarran neared the Protoss sections of the ship. The dark pewter deckplating and heavy structural supports began to give way to black plastic cladding and bracing columns formed from orange force fields. There were only a few humans, their grey boiler suit uniforms looking unduly creased and shabby next to the smooth precision of Protoss aesthetics. More of the workers here were Protoss, swathed in thin robes that only served to emphasise their muscular physique. Purity of form – peak physical perfection. The strongest, fastest beings you could create biologically. Mythic. Heroic – demi-gods of light and force. Next to these muddy, earthy Terrans, the Protoss were flames, burning furnaces, maelstroms of destructive power. An unarmed Protoss was strong enough to take down dozens of unarmed Terrans. Zalarran was irked to have missed the righteous fury unleashed on Madrigal.
He stormed into the communal room set aside for the Zealots onboard the Nevermore. Heldax and four other young Protoss followers sat listening to music, tuning their enhanced senses to appreciate the complexity and speed of the intertwining melodies. This music was wasted on Terrans, who simply heard lightening-fast bursts of noise. Padallas and another Zealot were playing a game the Terrans called ‘chess’, only they had adapted it until it could be played in four dimensions. It was a source of constant shame that Mitchell always defeated them – even with many other rules and nuances added by the Zealots. Zalarran guessed the other Zealots must be in their quarters – the private, cell-like rooms set aside for them, where they could meditate in the Khala’s embrace, freed from the distraction and clutter of every day life.
“Silence, Heldax. The time is now.” Seeing the expression on his face and sensing the emanations of his mood through their neural cords, the Zealots who knew what was going on rose quickly and hurried to the glowing bronze-edged alcoves where their powered armour suits hung silently. As more Protoss began to hurry into the room in response to Zalarran’s summons, Zalnas and Kalzas entered and stood staring the Praetor.
“What are you doing, Zalarran?” Zalnas asked, folding his arms. He was already dressed in his powered armour, indeed he was rarely seen out of it. Kalzas wore soft blue robes that matched his glowing eyes. He was psionically talented and had mastered the new ability of phasing – of transcending mortal boundaries for a few short moments and moving as pure energy, faster than the eye could see. He was also gifted with prescience and had often evaded enemy blows by a matter of inches, seeing them coming before his opponent even thought to perform them.
“The Executor has shown me that his judgement is flawed. He listens to the Terran commanders of this vessel over me and went so far as to rebuke me in front of them!”
“Then you must have been in error, comrade.” Said Zalnas. “But why are you mobilising the Zealots?”
“Because the time has come to take control of this vessel from those who are not worthy.”
“Not worthy? Praetor, you speak like Aldaris did before realising the error of his ways.”
“The Terrans are our enemy, have always been our enemy – though at times we failed to realise it.”
“You speak nonsense, Praetor. The Zerg are our enemy. Perhaps also the United Earth Directorate, though they are scattered and defeated. But Commander Rico is a comrade. I will not stand by and let you perform a coup. And neither will the Executor.”
“Then you will both die.” Zalarran ignited both his psi-blades, seeing with alarm that Zalnas had already done so.
“I foresaw this, Praetor, though I begged that I was mistaken.” Suddenly, Zalnas began to choke as Tratanul floated forward, his red eyes glowing and his neural cords writhing as the High Templar concentrated his power on the Zealot.
“Release him, High Templar!” Kalzas ordered. But he knew Tratanul had made his choice. Three other Zealots stepped in and slashed their psi-blades into Zalnas’ body, stabbing repeatedly until the horrifically bright light of his escaping psionic pulse burst into the room, dissolving the Zealot’s body in a blue flame shot away and vanished through the internal bulkheads of the battlecruiser. Kalzas cried aloud and moved to leave the room, only to find the exit blocked by two Zealots, their armour fully activated. Even with his psi-blades activated, he couldn’t have killed them quickly enough – their plasma shields were up, flickering faintly at the edge of visibility. Still, there were other ways. Even as he dodged a lateral slash from Zalarran, he began to phase…
Kalzas reached inside himself, finding the core of self which remained ever disparate from the psionic gestalt that was the Xel’Nagas’ gift to the Protoss so long ago. He located the psionic pulse encased within his mortal flesh and began to manipulate that orb of glowing mental power, until it spread through his neural pathways and down into his body, turning matter into energy, flesh into holy sapphire light. It was the most unifying process a Zealot could undergo – he was one in himself and yet many, the backwash of psionic power creating ghostly echoes of himself as he moved, much like the way it did in High Templar. The sheer force of his presence knocked down the two Zealots in his path and threw all the others against the walls of the communal hall. He dashed towards the door, rearranging his own structural wave-forms until he passed through it and out into the corridor. He didn’t have long – in real-time, his phasing could only be held for a few seconds. Too long, and he risked being dispersed by the powerful forces of magnetism and gravity around him. He shot down the corridors in a steak of light, instinctively avoiding any humans that passed.
The door to the conference room flew open and the glowing figure was inside the room before Rico could so much as croak a syllable of surprise. All the Terrans in the room stared at the coruscating patterns of psionic energy swirling around the entity. They’d heard tales of a Zealot’s higher abilities, but none of them had ever seen one phase before. He collapsed back into mortal form moments before the Terran wave-patterns could obscure his own from existence. For a instant, he had sensed their emotions. Mitchell and Tarken were almost paralysed by fear – but Rico had been staring in wonder unfettered by any concern for his own safety.
“Kalzas?” The Executor stood up in alarm. “Is there a problem?”
“Rebellion, Executor. Praetor Zalarran has turned against us! He seeks to overthrow both you and the commanders of this vessel.” Instantly Tarken began to speak into his comm-unit, ordering Corso to bring a squad of Marines to the conference room and send another two to secure the bridge and the engineering halls. Rico and Kadra continued to press the Zealot for information. The horror in his emanations as he spoke of the murder of Zalnas weighed heavily on the Executor. He’d done everything in his power to prevent Protoss from ever harming their own again. Though Zeratul was missing, he’d done his best to keep relationships open with the Dark Templar. Even after the death of the Matriarch and young Praetor Artanis, he’d offered them warriors to bolster their defence and resources to help maintain their military forces. But now Praetor Zalarran was trying to undo those years of hard work. His eyes flared with light.
“I swear to you, Commander, I will not let this mutiny come to pass. I will prevent Zalarran from ever leaving this battlecruiser!”
“I’m just glad you’re on our side.” Rico nodded, his face grim. Battles onboard starship were never pretty affairs – the tight confines made them short, fast and brutal to the extreme. The Zealots could well inflict many casualties on his Marine squads.
All over the battlecruiser, security stations were manned, automated defences prepped and armour donned. It took only two minutes to suit up a trooper, and Rico, Tarken and Mitchell were ready to fight just ten minutes after Kalzas gave his warning. The nerve centre of the battlecruiser wasn’t the bridge – a fact which many pirate militias had failed to realise, to their cost. In event of an emergency, all ship systems could be controlled from the Operations Centre, and it was outside this well-defended strongpoint that the rebel Zealots gathered. Praetor Zalarran stalked past the groups of Protoss warriors and turned to address them.
“What do we not fear?” He began. “DEATH!” The Zealots roared. “Why do we not fear it?” “BECAUSE THE KHALA IS OUR STRENGTH!” “And will we fail?” “NO! OUR STRENGTH HAS NO END!” They chanted in unison.
The sound of dozens of psi-blades igniting simultaneously made a loud rasp that filled the wide corridors in this part of the ship. Zalarran walked over to a wall terminal and entered commands into the Terran computer with distaste at the crudeness of their technology. He tapped into the communications network with some difficulty, learning that Ritarin’s and Padallas’ Zealots were fighting near to the bridge, having encountered resistance in the form of some of Corso’s hand-picked Elites. These troopers were well-quipped, several with flame-weapons that could tear down a Protoss plasma shield in a matter of seconds, allowing their comrades’ uranium-238 rounds to puncture the powered armour and slay the Zealot within. Zalarran could imagine the stench in those corridors – the ozone smell from the powered armour of the Terrans mixing with the stench of blood that misted through the air whenever a Zealot managed to close with a Marine and eviscerate him. Worryingly, Lazrala’s Dragoons were nowhere to be seen. They were among the last of their kind, created before the ravening of Auir. Now Dragoons throughout the Protoss sphere of expansion were naming themselves ‘Immortals’ and converting their weaponry with the new technologies. Maybe Lazrala was avoiding the battle out of fear for the safety of his ancient warriors…
Elnix stared down the corridor, his powerful plasma-lances fixed in position. He was surrounded by several Marines – if any Zealots got past his field of fire, as some undoubtedly would, their weapons wouldn’t activate his shield and he would be vulnerable. Still, his Immortal form was a marvel – the four heavy legs supporting the metallic torso sculpted into the form of a Protoss warrior, the ‘arms’ altered to support the energy weapons he carried. At Rico’s request he had dialled down the yields for his lances – after all, he didn’t want to put a hole in the side of the battlecruiser.
The air stank of sweat and fear, the lights had gone out and the heavy torch beams on the shoulders of the Marines provided the only illumination. Terror. Waiting for battle, mechanical hands grasping the oversized barrels of gauss rifles. These were mostly seasoned veterans – but the fear never decreased. They probably would have broken at the first charge if it weren’t for the presence of Fearless, his massive chainsaw bolted onto the side of his armour. The diamond-edge of the weapon could cut through an Ultralisk’s carapace – had done so, if Tarken’s tales of the original meeting was Kadralas were to be believed. Fearless was strolling idly back and forth among the squads of troopers, chatting with them about anything and everything. He was completely unafraid, even though he knew that he might lose his life in the battle. He was a hero among his men, though he claimed that they were greater heroes than him.
“Me?” He would say, when they talked to him about it. “I’m just a man. I got no fear, that means I just do what I have to do. But you guys…. you’re still afraid – and yet you still fight. That makes you more heroic than I’ll ever be.”
Tarken was also an inspiring presence, his unquantifiable charisma holding his men together. Twenty Marines, rough, dirty fighters, veterans of countless conflict – and yet they hung on his every word like avid pupils at an education centre. In one hand he hefted his modified ‘Impaler’ rifle, in the other the ugly piston-covered length of killing steel that was his infamous pneumattock.
Executor Kadralas gazed at the weapon, the tool responsible for returning his sanity to him. And now that same blessed thing was going to rip into the bodies of misguided Protoss Zealots, ripping them apart. He looked at the psi-blades of his own loyal bodyguards, seeing every swish as they sang through the air. The tension was uncomfortable for the humans, but for the Protoss it was almost unbearable. Above all, he wanted to take the fight to the enemy. Because there was a chance that if he dealt with Praetor Zalarran, he could stop the mutiny before too many lives were lost. He wished for a single Dark Templar. An assassin’s blade in the darkness would end this rebellion before more lives were lost.
At the other end of the long, wide corridor leading the Ops Centre, glowing blue eyes began to appear, standing still in the darkness. Several Marines looked over at Tarken, their huge forms turning so they could face the commander. He shook his head – if they fired too soon, they might not hit the Zealots, and if they had to reload in the middle of a melee battle they were as good as dead.
It was at that point Rico spotted the glowing red eyes of the High Templar, floating behind the mass of shadowy Zealots.
“Kadra, we may be in trouble.” He warned the Executor.
“No. I know Tratanul. He is gifted, but he has not the strength to oppose me. See – he attempts to now.”
A roiling mass of destructive psionic force began to wash down the corridor towards the defending Marines. Its phosphorescent brilliance illuminated the ranks of Zealots charging behind it, their augmented legs blurred as they raced toward the entrance to the Ops Centre. The clang of bionic duralloy limbs hitting the neo-steel deckplating was almost deafening and many of the Marines closed their helmets, cutting out the noise altogether. More terrifying though, was the buzz of hate audible over the lower sounds. Not one Marine along the line expected to survive – but then Executor Kadralas roared aloud. The hairs on every Terrans’ arms stood up as they felt the indignation growing within him. His own blast of psi flared out from his open hand, rushed down the corridor and slammed into the oncoming psionic storm. The energies merged, cancelled each other out and with a hollow clap of displacement. Then another burst rippled out from the Executor’s hand, whistling through the oncoming Zealots and dispelling many of their plasma shields. When they were a few hundred metres away, Tarken’s order came over the comm system and the Marines opening up, picking a single target and blowing it apart with dozens of bursts of bright orange gauss rounds. Their visors darkened to protect their eyes against the light of unleashed psionic pulses and they continued to fire.
The first group of Zealots got close enough to attack and began to slash wildly at the Terran armour, their psi-blades passing through the neo-steel as if it were no more than just thick wood. Severed limbs still grasping guns flopped onto the deckplates as their owners fell back in shock. Milliseconds later their armour began injecting them with painkillers, and they slammed their oversized fists into the nearest assailants – only to be gutted by the Zealots’ superior melee skills. Their entrails spilled out from enormous vertical gashes, bright red and slimy as they slopped to the floor.
The Zealots began to gain a foothold, near enough to dissuade other teams from bracketing them with concentrated volleys of firepower. At Tarken’s signal the beleaguered Marines fell back, their exo-limbs carrying them faster than any unsuited human could run. The following Zealots were met with lance fire from the Immortal, some of them thrown off their feet by the concussive impact of super-hot plasma. The recoil shot the Immortal’s lances back in their bracers until the sustained fire systems slid them back into position. Within his cold robotic shell, Elnix shuddered at the violence he was unleashing. If the Executor proved unworthy of this carnage, then he would find his bodyguards suddenly turning into judges. Several more Zealots died as the Terran crossfire swept over them, but they simply couldn’t bring enough guns to bear on those that still had operational shields.
Fearless’ group was the next to be hit and the commander switched to using his massively-oversized chainsaw the moment the Zealots cam within reach. He slashed at the first, ducking under the lightening-fast punching attack of its psi-blades and jamming the chainsaw into its abdomen, revving the blade twice and grimacing at the torrent of blue ichor that spilled out. The Protoss collapsed into hot ashes, but the next two were already upon him, shields flickering as gauss bursts hit them from another squad. Fearless jabbed his chainsaw at their armoured chestplates, the blade jerking as it pierced the weakened shields and pulling up as it scratched along the golden metal protecting their bodies. He threw himself to one side as their psi-blades lashed out towards him and hacked at their feet, bringing one down with a terrific crash. As the other struggled to advanced under the weight of fire being layered on it, he jabbed down with the chainsaw and lodged it through the weak spot in the Protoss armour. The Zealot was consumed by psionic energy, which travelled up the blade and remained there long enough for Fearless to use it to block his second attacker’s next strikes. He brought the weapon high over his head and slammed it down on the Protoss’ slender skull, spraying his visor with brain matter. For a few moments he struggled to see, but when the miniature wiper flicked across it he could see Tarken hammering the next three Zealots with his pneumattock. A single blow to their shields was enough to stun them, while swings that landed on armour pulped their insides. The deckplates were soon littered with blacked shreds of ornate armour and larger golden shards that were thrown in the explosions of any attacker struck by Elnix’ plasma-lances.
Seeing they’d become separated from the rest of the Marines, who were retreating down the corridor, Tarken nearly panicked. But Fearless’ mechanised gauntlet landed gently on his shoulder and with disciplined spats from their rifles, they slowed the Zealots long enough to start running back. The royal blue ichor sprayed all over the walls was mixing with the bright red blood spatter from the Terran Marines. Severed limbs were everywhere, twitching as the electrical discharge in the air was transmitted down their nerves. Many were still enmeshed in fragments of the over-sized exo-skeletons that enabled them to control their armour. As soon as Rico and Tarken made it back to the Marines, they saw soldiers looking pale through their open helmets, obviously pumped full of pain-suppressants by their armour.
The main mass of Zealots now began to attack, scores of them tightly bunched as they charged down the corridor. A great many illusions surrounded them and a large number of gauss spikes went through these psionic phantasms to ricochet from the neo-steel bulkheads. But mere seconds before they would have crashed into the Terran lines and ripped the defenders apart, a huge section of wall exploded outwards. Through the thick smoke loomed giant golden crabs, their armour decorated with complex Protoss sigils and tribe markers. Beneath their low-slung bodies, their disrupter weaponry rotated menacingly. At the head of the group, a black-marked Dragoon could be heard cursing uproariously.
For a tense few seconds, Fearless gripped his gauss rifle and prayed to anybody listening that he wouldn’t have to fight Lazrala. But then bolts of disrupter fire began to lash the tightly-packed Zealots, ripping through their shields and bursting against their armour. In the confines of the corridor – even one as wide as the one leading to the Ops Centre – disrupter weaponry was positively lethal. The Zealots began to flee, but the Dragoons cut them down.
“Traitors to the Khala, one and all.” Lazrala declared, his synthesised voice blared from his speakers. “It is a crying shame.”
“It is more than a shame. It is a tragedy.” Kadralas said quietly, his voice heavy with grief.
“But we won!” One of the Marines blurted out. Fearless fixed him with a stony gaze, but it was Kadra that spoke to him.
“When you fight your own kind, there is no victory. None. You have merely survived, where they have not. For you, perhaps, having tested yourself against the Protoss, there is some conflict or insecurity that has been resolved. But for me… I have just committed murder.”
“Bullshit.” The Marine grunted.
“That’s enough, soldier.” Fearless snapped. He was friendly most of the time, but when someone toed the line, his fire emerged quickly enough.
“The hell it is… sir!” The Marine stood up straight and clasped his huge, armour-encased arms behind his back. “These.. Zealots were trying to kill you, sir.” He addressed the Executor. “How’s it murder if you try and kill ‘em right back?”
“Because there is not a single member of my race that I could not subdue without violence. If I were truly a hero, like Tassadar or even Adun himself, I would have stopped them without killing them. But I killed out of convenience, to avoid harm to myself.” The Executor said.
“Well, sir, I think that’s bullshit. You killed to protect us – ‘cause we sure as hell couldn’t subdue no Protoss without violence.” The Marine saluted. Kadralas raised his finger to emphasise a point he was just about to make, then stopped.
“You may have a point there, Terran.”
“Apologies if I spoke outta turn. Sir.” The Marine stepped back, glancing at Fearless. The Terran commander looked at the Executor, who nodded slowly.
“Alright, you get away with it this time, Garry.” Fearless said. The Marine breathed a sigh of relief.
Fearless stared the devastation with a hollow feeling. Both Garry and Kadralas were right – they had slain the Zealots to save each other, but there was still no victory. Even the Dragoons were somewhat perturbed by the slaughter they’d unleashed, but Lazrala had angrily slapped the first one to complain with his strangely organic forelimb. He had explained that enemies of the Khala deserved no mercy. Even as reports came in from the other vital areas of the battlecruiser, it was clear that the Zealot rebellion had been fought off – though at great cost. Scores of Marines were dead, their insides liberally scattered over wide areas of the ship. Still, all fifty Zealots on the ship were dead, along with two of the Templars. Tratanul had died to the Executor’s psi assault, while Dartanis had be killed by Corso in hand-to-hand. Exactly how that had happened Fearless couldn’t guess, but he’d find out next time he talked to the young Marine.
Wearily, Fearless contacted cleaning crews and told them to get to work. As he walked away from the battlefield, his foot crunched a blackened Zealot skull and he swore viciously. He really could have done without this.