A monster in my head, rising unbidden from the dark recesses of memory. My mind burning with an unstoppable sensation that froze me in place, rooted to the spot like a zergling caught in the searchlights of a siege tank. Oh, god… how did the others cope with this? This unknowable feeling of uncertainty – I could die! I could be torn limb from limb and lie screaming as my blood poured out through horrific wounds! It took all of my effort to remain standing, not to curl up into a sobbing ball. I was being stalked by an emotion I’d never experienced, and there were no defences I could raise in its hellish path through my memories. It was predatory, carnal, filled with deadly promise.
I was afraid.
For a timeless moment I was lost in the confines of my skull, screaming silently in the dark places. But even when the fear receded and my implacable confidence crashed back into place, I couldn’t function. I didn’t trust myself to speak. The others were already picking themselves up and moving, but I stayed where I was. With the knowledge of fear, could I even really escape its grasp now? What if my programming was broken, weakened somehow? That thought brought me a measure of reassurance, because I realised I wasn’t afraid if it was damaged or not. It was just a troubling blip now, dwindling in its importance – something to be filed away, remembered and possibly taken into account at some point in the future. It had been a horrible interruption in my ongoing process of constant self-examination, but I was recovering. All the same, I was going to have words with Tarken when this was over.
I was still confused as to who we might actually be going to see. Tarken had mentioned that I’d be surprised but pleased, so I was anticipating… something, not exactly sure what it was. When I saw the command centre and its impressive array of weaponry and armour, I had an odd sense of déjà vu, like I’d seen it before. I felt a lot better once the guns dropped down, because I knew we were faced with possible death and I wasn’t worried in the slightest. Corso and Tarken came to stand beside me.
“You okay, Bossman?” Corso said over our private channel.
“Fine, Corso.” I said, turning so he could see me grinning in the face of the autocannons. “But Tarken is going to get it later.”
“Boss, I’m s-” Tarken began.
“Save it for later. I don’t have time to get mad now.”
“I swear, I didn’t-”
“I believe you, Tarken. But now’s not the time. What it is time for, is for you to tell me who this guy is.”
But he didn’t need to. The yellow and black striped hatch at the top of the ramp hissed open, revealing a figure silhouetted by another set of powerful lamps.
“Likes light, does he?” Corso muttered. I snorted with laughter, but bit it back when I saw the grizzled old rogue at the top of the ramp. He was leaning on a metal staff clearly ripped from a bulkhead somewhere and wearing a tatty set of robes. His face was disguised by a breathing mask, but it couldn’t disguise his identity.
“Dravere…” He said nothing, just beckoned us inside. He was probably freezing out here, but like mine, his skin could resist extremes of temperature and decompression for a short time. He turned on his heel and went back into the centre. We followed, my fingers trembling as they grasped the barrel of my gauss. Dravere! It was actually him! I hadn’t been this excited in a long while.
“Vik, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tom… When Dravere left, he wanted to be left alone. He didn’t want us to come – he still doesn’t want us here.”
“I know, I know… I remember him leaving.” I stopped, uncomfortable. “You knew where he was the whole time. And you never told me.”
“He made me swear. And I didn’t want him to die trying to steal all that stuff, so I helped him and promised never to tell anyone.”
“But why didn’t he ask me to help?”
“Tom, he didn’t even ask me to help him. I just followed him around, didn’t let him out of my sight. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. Every time you asked after him I had to bite my tongue. I gave him my word, Tom. You know I would have told you if I could.” He sounded genuinely upset. And though I wanted to be angry, I understood. I would have done the same if the tables were turned.
Dravere led us down a narrow grill-floored corridor lined with support struts and laced with exposed cabling. It opened out into a large entry hall where there was room for the dozen of us could stand comfortably. We opened our helmets as soon as atmosphere had issued into the chamber.
“Master.” I said respectfully, once Dravere had removed his breather.
“Dammit, Tom! You know I hate you calling me that!”
“Fifteen years and I don’t even get a ‘hello’?” I said, looking him in the eye as I’d never dared to when he was my training instructor.
“Why should anything have changed?” He said wearily. “The very fact that you two have shown up here means things must be just as shitty as they were before.”
“Dravere, if you knew half of the shit that’s fallen on innocent heads these past years…”
“…I wouldn’t give a flying fuck more than I did back on Tarsonis.” He must have seen the look in my eyes, because his scowl softened. “I’m sorry, Tom. I knew when Tarken contacted me that you’d want me to come with you on some grand crusade across the Koprolu sector. But the last attack squad I trained before leaving the Academy was ordered to gun down civilians protesting against the rule of a Colonial magistrate. I gave them the skills they needed to put down the revolt. I was responsible for over a thousand deaths. Never again.”
“Tarken said you’d help us.” Corso spoke up. “So if you don’t want our company, help us and we’ll be on our way.” I shuddered – I’d never talked to Dravere so disrespectfully. But Corso had never met the man. And he was young enough not to know the stories we knew.
“And who’s this young upstart?” Dravere swung to face Tarken, who lowered his head apologetically.
“My name’s Corso. But you can call me Lieutenant.” It was technically the rank he held, although we didn’t hold strictly to such things on the Nevermore. I thought it created too much distance between the officers and the grunts. The young marine stepped forward, towering over the renegade. He laughed in Corso’s face.
“I’ve got a dozen security weapons trained on you, kid. They’d rip you apart before you could touch me.”
“You can call me Lieutenant.” Corso hissed, raising his gauss rifle fractionally. “Or you’d better hope those guns are damn fast.”
“Hah! You’d kill me for a little name-calling?”
“No. I’d kill you for the fucking principle.” Corso’s face was deadly serious. I wondered if he might actually do it – he was certainly troubled enough.
“Tom, is this… man serious?” Dravere pointed a gnarled finger at his chestplate.
“Yeah, I’d say so.” I said. The old veteran was silent for a moment.
“Then he’s a braver man than I ever was.” He whispered, so quietly I almost missed it. Then, suddenly more brusque: “Your marines can wait here. Vik, Tom… Lieutenant. Come with me.” He walked away down another corridor, only just big enough to admit the three of us. If Mitchell’s work on adapting some of the recovered Protoss armour to make super-light suits was successful, I’d sure as hell be buying one off him. Mobility and defence coupled with the ability to fire crippling bursts of gauss spikes would make us nigh-on unstoppable.
The next large room we entered was clearly Dravere’s living space. Faded tunics and one-piece suits were scattered everywhere and most surfaces were buried in statues from ancient history, while practically all the walls had priceless artworks hung on them. The lighting here was soft and the air very dry – I spotted a dehumidifier in the corner – obviously to preserve the pieces. On a worktop across from me I spotted the discarded packages from hundreds of pre-frozen meals, piled up a messy heap. Dravere noticed my gaze and swept them into the waste chute next to the worktop. He clearly didn’t clean up very often, and it felt odd that man with such a tidy mind as he would be so messy in real life. Then again, it was nothing compared to the cluttered chaos of Mitchell’s quarters – he was in a constant state of high creativeness, endless making little working models to scale, often abandoning projects midway through to work on something more interesting. The relics of his past designs littered his floor in a carpet of mechanical detritus. Here, Dravere’s litter mainly seemed to be reprocessed food packets. There must have been a hell of a lot of rations in deep freeze for him to have survived out here for so long. Eventually he’d have to go back to civilisation just to buy food. Assuming of course he hadn’t died of old age or something shocking like that.
Soldiers of his calibre deserved glory. And he’d forsaken that because of his principles. Would I do the same? I knew I’d done some pretty bad things in past times, but that just made me want to make up for my mistakes. Maybe Dravere feared that he might make things worse by taking up his rifle again. Even if he didn’t fight for us, his tactical and strategic advice would be invaluable. Or would it? I had to remind myself that he’d been out here for years. Tactics had advanced a long way since his time. And he didn’t know jack all about the Zerg or the Protoss. Not to mention some of the new vehicles the Doms were producing. Maybe, like most of our equipment, he was obsolete. Outdated. A relic of former times – no. I couldn’t think that about him. His absence had built up his figure to almost mythic aspects in my mind. There had been a few times when I’d sorely wished he would come swooping down out of the skies in a dropship, a team of hardened soldiers with him to lay waste to the enemy. But such wishful thinking was pointless.
A low pallet sat in the corner, piled with blankets and pillows. It wasn’t too surprising that he’d taken the time to make himself comfortable. But on the ceiling above him was a collage – all of peoples’ faces, hundreds of them. I couldn’t see it clearly from where I was standing – yet it was fairly obvious who they were. I couldn’t imagine being confronted by my mistakes each morning. For me, errors of judgement were to be learned from and not duplicated. I didn’t fear making a mistake simply because it would be an opportunity for me to learn something. A little nugget of wisdom that Dravere himself had taught me. The best advice was hardest to follow if you were the person that gave it. It made you too aware of your own shortcomings. Maybe that was why he’d fled – he couldn’t face his own mistake. And now he was regretting that decision – forcing himself to reap the harvest he’d sowed every morning when he awoke.
He brushed litter from a slanting surface to reveal a control panel of some sort, lined with heavy switches. After throwing them in a certain order, one of the walls slid back into a recess and revealed a set of descending transport chutes. At his direction we stepped into them and waited while he fiddled with the control panel. With a rush of air, the chute capsules dropped – and kept dropping. We must have descended for a good five minutes, at great speed. They jerked to a halt and then opened up to reveal darkness. I switched on my shoulder lamps, as did Corso and Tarken. We stepped out of the transport chutes and walked forward, but there was absolutely no light and we were clearly in an underground cavern of some kind – pressurised and filled with breathable air. We decided to stay where we were and wait for Dravere. He followed shortly afterwards.
“Come on.” He walked into the darkness, now wearing a pair of goggles. They weren’t IR – our suits had IR sensors built in – but on one of my auditory monitors I picking up the faintest clicking sound. Sonar goggles, but at a higher frequency than our suits used. Well, that made sense. We used low frequency sonar to help reduce the chances of detection, but Dravere wasn’t in danger of being found, so he’d made his picture acuity sharper by increasing the frequency of the sound pulses. Adaptation. That was reassuring to see, although he’d probably made them a long time ago.
We advanced into the darkness. I fired off a few of my own sonar pulses and got no return. The rock of the cavern walls was absorbing them. Dravere stopped at a column up ahead and pulled on a chunky lever. With a loud crackling noise, banks of floodlights embedded in the roof of the cavern switched on and bathed everything in harsh white light. The four of us were stood in the middle of several rows of old-fashioned dual tracked vehicles each armed with two quad-mounted burst lasers. AIS-70s…. I hadn’t seen these a long, long time. The Confederacy abandoned their development because the company contracted to build the capacitors was forcibly collapsed by a Magistrate who feared their influence. They were advanced infantry support units – each laser was capable of frying a Marine with just a couple of blasts and they could fire twice a second for two minutes before needing to reload. Their disadvantage was their light armour – but those dual-track chassises and small-scale plasma engines made them speedy and manoeuvrable enough to run rings around current makes of siege tank. And though their armour was light, it was bonded plasteel and reinforced with titanium struts, making it quite capable of soaking up a decent amount of small arms fire. I recalled the newscasts concerning the theft – it had been blared over the airways for as long as it could be milked for anti-Confederate feeling by certain destabilising elements. The fledgling Sons of Korhal had also added it to their propaganda efforts – before becoming the Dominion we fought today. There must have been thirty or forty of these machines here. I didn’t have time to count them, because my eyes were fixed on the monster at the end of the hall.
It was huge – the height of ten or more marines – and broader than I could estimate. Bedecked with firepower – bristling with cannon barrels, missile tubes, laser emitters – and fitted with a defensive matrix generator. It looked like a giant, hunched-over ape, its arms both ending in twelve clusters of autocannons. A large portion of the thing’s interior must have been devoted to ammunition storage and brute force servos for moving the limbs of the thing. It had no head, as such, just a slight bump where heavier armour indicated the location of a command centre. It was ugly, geometric, functional and painted a dark metallic red. The colour of war. The colour of blood and destruction and flame. This was a machine with only one purpose – to kill and to keep killing in an unending orgy of violence.
“Behold, Project Ragnarok, la-de-fucking-da.” Dravere waved his hand lazily at the gigantic war machine. I’d never seen anything so manifestly destructive. Corso couldn’t speak, but Tarken didn’t seem fazed by the thing.
“You knew about this?” I asked quietly.
“I helped him steal the fucking thing.” He said, through gritted teeth. “But I sure as hell wish I hadn’t.” I was surprised. Tarken didn’t usually use such strong language – for a trooper, he was surprisingly well-spoken. I raised an eyebrow quizzically, making sure he could see my face. “It’s hot.” He said, by way of explanation. “Carries a dozen.”
“A dozen? What yield?” I could hardly believe it.
“Ten megatons, give or take.” He shrugged.
“Ten- holy shit.” I breathed. That was an appalling amount of firepower. Dravere must have heard me, since he turned.
“You asked for it, Vik. Planning on vapeing a few cities, eh?”
“Full spectrum dominance. You trained me.”
“Aye, far too well.”
“Well, you could come with us, correct your mistakes…” I said, trying to affect innocence. Dravere laughed loudly.
“You always were a canny one, Tom. Even before they mind-fucked you.”
“Being fearless doesn’t make me-”
“It does in my book. You should have been a damned Ghost.”
“Well, maybe if I’d had more than an ounce of psionic potential I would’ve been one.” I said, clenching my fist. Canny bastard always knew how best to rile us. He must have discovered how many times I’d taken the test, applied for further training. In the end I’d reached special operations, been a commando, an elite among elites – a god among soldiers. And I would never be as strong or as fast as those deadly, talented individuals. That rankled me more than I cared to admit – which was maybe why know I fought the urge to punch Dravere in the those. We could do without him decapitated, so I restrained myself.
“Anyway, I pinched this monster because it was far too deadly for Confederates to handle. Set their project back centuries.” He grinned proudly.
“Actually, I heard a rumour. Something called Thor, being produced by the Doms.” Corso put in. “Looks like they got the project started up again.”
“Sure does. This thing was even code-named ‘Thor’.”
The Ragnarok thing made sense now. Twilight of the Gods in Norse mythology, which was an interest of mine. Armageddon. The final battle at the end of the universe. This ‘Thor’ was truly a weapon of the end times. And since it was carrying nukes, it was decently equipped for them too. But I was damned if I was going to use them. Of all things I feared the political repercussions the least (well, actually everything was about equal in terms of my level of emotional apathy, but there you go.) but the consequences of detonating a nuclear weapon appalled me. One of the many, many times we went on the run from massed squadrons the Nevermore took refuge in a shattered system known as Ghast. Some unknown cataclysm had ripped through the system's eight worlds, tearing most of them to shreds and scattering the asteroid belt across space. One of the worlds was still viable, and it had been populated because it was an easy warp jump to make from Tarsonis. But the Zerg arrived there. A small swarm – only a few thousand organisms, more of a splinter-horde, really – attacked and was defeated by the PDF. The citizens rejoiced even as mushroom clouds blossomed in their atmosphere. A Confederate battleforce fleeing the destruction of Tarsonis had nuked the planet, fearing an infestation. The world went from a planet with a thriving biosphere to a blasted lump of rock, scoured by hot winds and inhabited only by the souls of the slain. Two million dead, and for no god-damn reason. The war against the Dominion necessitated that we adopt new weapons and tactics when and where we came across them, even monsters like the Thor. It didn’t mean we had to become monsters ourselves.
“So you’ll give us this thing to wage war with, but you won’t come with us to make sure we don’t misuse it?” Corso sounded incredulous, and truth be told I sympathised with him. I couldn’t for the life of me discern Dravere’s motives in this. Then again I wasn’t used to dealing with such a pinnacle of cynicism.
“It makes no sense to me neither, Corso.” Tarken said. “But after we’ve glassed Hai’saan-Mekhmet and put down that uprising I’m sure we’ll forget all about the old man.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Dravere stopped dead and swung to face his former student. “You’d glass a planet after everything I’ve taught you? I thought you respected me.”
“And I thought you didn’t give a flying fuck.” Tarken sneered. “I should’ve realised it from the start – you’re just a doddery old fool who left the military because he started shitting himself when he went into combat.” He spat the words with distaste. I had to hand it to Viktor. He was very, very good at manipulating people’s emotions. I think he did it subconsciously sometimes – certainly he’d never been able to quantify the vague aura of charisma that surrounded him and made soldiers want to emulate his behaviour – but when it came to sowing an idea in someone’s mind he was a master. “We should’ve just dropped straight on your head, wiped you out with our Yamato cannon and taken this stuff.”
“You bastard!” He growled. The veteran reached down the side of the column and removed a weapon – a blade made of a dozen mono-edged knifes melted and hammered together. It was quite capable of killing a man in powered armour if the wielder was skilled enough – and Dravere had demonstrated his skill numerous times. He thrust the mono-sword with deadly speed at Tarken’s faceplate, only to have the weapon clang loudly as its fatal trajectory was intercepted by Tarken’s pneumattock.
“I think I’ve made my point.” Tarken returned his own close combat weapon to the clips on his shoulder guard. “I’m not so stupid as to think it’s going to make you join us – but maybe it’ll make you think about things a little differently.”
“Unlikely.” Dravere muttered, realised what Tarken had done.
“We live in hope.” I said brightly. “Now, are we going to get this stuff loaded up?”
Over the next few days dropships shuttled to and from Shathal’s surface, each one carrying two of the AIS-70s. The Thor was harder to move – in the end we had to evacuate the Nevermore’s shuttle bay, bolt down everything we could put somewhere else and bring the battlecruiser down into low orbit before pulling up the death machine with four magnetic grapples and all six of our transport craft. Once it was tucked inside the bay, there was more work to be done. It had to be firmly secured, and I spent countless hours in an SCV suit checking the damn thing myself. Then its capacitors had to be charged, missiles loaded, ammunition feeds connected, internal plasma reactors subjected to a lengthy set of diagnostic procedures. We weren’t taking any chances.
It was only the day before we left that I had a chance to talk to Dravere alone. Unsuited, we sat and talked inconsequentially over a number of strong alcoholic beverages.
“You remember that day I reprogrammed the simulators?” I said, chuckling.
“How could I forget? Cadets were screaming for weeks… and at least two instructors refused to go in until the whole thing had been sorted.”
“And when we got that male stripper for Chief Instructor Harley, only ‘he’ turned out to be-”
“Oh, god, don’t even go there!” Dravere roared with laughter, his face creasing until tears ran from his eyes. “And when ‘she’ suddenly leapt on Tarken-”
“Who started screaming ‘sexual revolution’ at the top of his voice and leapt out of a two storey window-”
“Into the mud pool we’d planned to throw Harley and the stripper into in the first place!” The two of us doubled up, recalling Tarken’s horrified face throughout the whole sequence of events, and imitating it when we could stop laughing for long enough to move the right muscles.
“It was good seeing you again, Ma-” I halted the word on my tongue. “It was good seeing you, Ivan. Sorry for disturbing your peace.”
“Truth be told, I’m not as displeased as you might think. But you dare let Tarken know that and I’ll hang you from the ceiling by your own entrails.”
“My lips are sealed.” I snapped off a salute, only too hard, and whacked myself on the side of the head. Words dissolved into laughter once more.
Final goodbyes were said – Corso shook Dravere’s hand, who nodded respectfully to him – and then we were off again, cruising through the system on ion drive, closely followed by our Protoss escorts. Kadra didn’t ask us about Dravere – a fact for which I was thankful. Mitchell didn’t ask either, and I didn’t feel need to tell either of them who we’d been to see. Mitchell had been transferred to my original spec-ops unit after being trained elsewhere – Chaglia, I think. He was just delighted with more toys to play with, having finished modifications to Shadow’s wraith. Right now he was familiarising himself with the Thor’s controls, running simulations with the help of its surprisingly-advanced AI.
And I needed to talk to Aaron. Find out if he was going to help us or not, if he could be trusted. Because the tactical and strategic value of a Wraith with a working stealth cloak was incalculable. And he would only have a week to learn the new tricks his craft could pull. At the end of that week, we’d be arriving in the Theridar system to visit Jakarta-Quintos. I was looking forward to it – a nice honest raid after the brutal slaughtering of the Zealots. Back to what we were used to. Slip in under the Dominion’s nose, wreak havoc in its belly and then withdraw into the night like so many elusive phantoms. With all the new gadgets we had, I was beyond confident that nothing would go disastrously wrong. We were going to hand the Doms’ own ass to them, stomp their faces into the curb.
It was going to be fun.