Several days had passed. Chris had been dutiful with making sure everything about base construction was going smoothly. Already a number of supply depots had been built, and SCV's were ferrying resources from the fusion cutters to these food-producing facilities nonstop. The base printer - the cubic, mostly hollow structure that replaced construction workers - was working on yet another supply depot. The construction method of the base printer was something that had been developed only within the past few decades, but it was a marvel. It gradually produced a building from left wall inward through the center, then to the far side, and finished construction at the far wall, all the while using its innumerable moving parts to hold the structure erect. Because it didn't follow the construction algorithms followed by builders of past centuries, waiting for one side to finish before adding on another part, it could operate remarkably quickly and with incredible efficiency. One of these things working alone could build approximately two supply depots a day, and this one was being worked day and night.
Daniel was alone in his quarters. He had his eyes open, looking at an incredibly long roster of the names of those who had died at Tarsonis that were part of the Sons of Korhal. Out of an initial 10,850, there were 6,336 names on this grim roster. He had promised that he would say them all out at least once - if nothing else, then as a gesture that he would in the future do as much as he could to keep his men alive. So he remained sitting in his chair for two hours, letting the endless list of names roll of his parched tongue. At first he imagined that they each had their own personalities, or combinations of them. But toward the end, he found that that too had become repetitive. All the personalities he imagined for them blurred together into the same melting pot of ideas in his mind. They were just names - so many, many names, with countless first-name repeats. By the end he could have sworn he had seen at least a dozen names a dozen times over each. They sort of all blended together into the same thing - clumps of letters. They were no different from anyone else, and no different from the stereotypical soldier grunt, there to do what they could in battle. They were a mere statistic after all.
Toward the end Daniel found himself repeating endlessly in his mind a desire not to ever have to utter the names of those who had died. There were simply too many of them, and he found the process doing more to dehumanize these people in his mind than it did to humanize these names. Added onto that was the fact that it was simply too mentally taxing.
The moment Daniel fell asleep, the Overmind returned to his dreams--or nightmares, if that's what you'd call it--and addressed him:
<Daniel Travincal. What have you done?>
<Now what, Overmind?>
<By allying with the Firstborn, you have forfeited any possibilities of our coexisting peacefully, maybe perhaps with the exception of abandoning that race at the earliest opportunity you get.>
<Get out of my mind then!>
<You Terrans overreact to situations, unrealizing the true impacts of everything.>
<Oh? And what do you know?>
< I am the Overmind. I have watched over the Swarms since time immemorial. I have fought the Firstborn since our first encounter->
<Your Salutation gone bad?>
< I never had any intentions of it going well. The Swarm and the Firstborn are the creations of the Xel'Naga...>
<A race so powerful that it thereafter got destroyed?>
< Indeed. It was their great experiment--to create the ultimate race.>
<The Firstborn were gifted with purity of form, but the Xel'Naga gave up hope of their becoming powerful in exchange for another concept. The Swarm is that second concept, the Secondborn, gifted with purity of essence. We shall see which purity dominates in the end. But I can tell you right now, that the Firstborn are valiantly fighting a losing battle, despite all their advanced technology. For no matter how many the Firstborn may be able to kill, the Swarm is much, much greater. In the end of all things, only the Swarm shall triumph, and all who stand in its way--let it be Firstborn, Terran, or otherwise--shall supplicate before it and become assimilated. On the other hand, we follow the policy of live and let live. That is my covenant with the Swarm.>
<Why should I believe any of this? You have already destroyed so much of Terran space.>
< Indeed, the Swarm has overcome six of the thirteen Confederate worlds in Koprulu-->
<What?!? So many so fast?>
<You have no one to blame but yourself in ordering the dropships to head to the other worlds. None of their magistrates had the wit to have their men hold fire, and of course we meet fire with fire. Even now the last of those resisting forces are being overcome.>
<You!> Daniel was seething in anger.
<Why should you believe all this? Even if you do not, you will become convinced in due time by the events yet to happen.>
<You will not triumph over the combined might of the Protoss and Terran!>
<Ah, so that's your term for the Firstborn? You are however incorrect. It is unfortunate that you would form an alliance with them. They are not what they seem. You shall see... We shall see...>
The dream ended abruptly as Daniel woke up with a start, fingering the amulet with his khaydarin crystal. I really have to start taking psionic lessons from the Protoss, he acknowledged fate. Otherwise, something bad could happen to him in his dreams, or whatever else that was possible in these nighttime telepathic messages. But could the Protoss be his dream mentor? There was only one way to find out, but his mind was intent on wondering what it may be like. He kept telling his mind to shut down, but of course even thinking that to your mind only activates your mind all the more.
Only an hour later did he finally fall asleep, all the while pondering what he would learn from this new race...
He didn't autonomously wake up that morning. He was brought out of his slumber by a psionic call, and when he opened his eyes he saw the smiling face of someone looking down at him.
Daniel burst out of bed, pulled a pistol out from under his mattress and aimed it at the intruder into his personal cabin - only to see that she was none other than Ariel. She didn't look particularly threatened by the gun, but then she could be so tranquil that it was hard to tell. "What's the matter? What are you doing in my room?" challenged Daniel.
"Did you have a good sleep? You've overslept."
"Didn't you learn from someone - anyone - not to enter my quarters? And how did you get in here? I was sure I locked the door--"
"No, actually, you left it open. I just came in when you woke up, by the way. And no, no one told me that you didn't like to be awakened so startlingly like that, but I knew it all the same, and besides it's payback for when you burst into my room and caught me off my guard," Ariel replied with a smile.
"You - I could shoot you right now, and that'd be payback."
"Well then it seems that you don't know yourself as much as I do. It certainly wouldn't be wise to shoot the Protoss ambassador," said Ariel, while at the same time swaying and bending her body in a way that made her look enticing. "You wouldn't, would you?"
Daniel didn't know how to react to that; however, his subconscious did. He returned the pistol to his belt without even knowing what he was doing, then quickly got properly dressed, blushing all the while. "Okay, whatever. Just why are you here? It's not because I overslept, is it? There's 40,000 other humans here that you can bother if you wanted to."
"No actually, today you are to begin your training. Telepathic and mental training."
Daniel squinted his eyes at her. "You knew what kind of dream I had last night, didn't you?"
"Of course. Your mind has been penetrated. That is something we must not allow, considering your importance to your fleet. Consider this yet another gift for you."
Daniel eagerly jumped out of bed, switched into his day clothes, did his daily ablution, then met up with Ariel in an open square right outside his battlecruiser. As usual there was the large dome shield that the Protoss had erected over the area to stave off radiation.
Daniel was quite surprised to find about a dozen other individuals--all human--waiting for him there. "Why are you guys all here?" he asked.
One of them replied, <To take lessons.>
Oh crap, thought Daniel. They are telepathic too! Well, actually that might be a good thing at times...
Ariel walked to a place where the others could all see her, and immediately thrust her mind and her message into the minds of those arrayed before her. It was evident that she had a strong psionic affinity. <All right, guys. You have all been selected for Commencement - think of this as Telepathics 101, which it is - due to your psionic abilities--for some, merely telekinesis. For others--> and she looked at Daniel--<this may include more potent abilities. But before we actually begin training, we must first undergo the Commencement ceremony.> At this point, a Judicator, not the same individual as the one who presided over Salutation, walked into view from down an alleyway. <A Judicator shall be here to record the successful completion of this ceremony. Some of you shall fail, but it is our hope that most of you will succeed. For those who fail, rest assured that as your psionic powers grow, you shall have future opportunities to accomplish what you fail today. Now. Are we ready?>
<Yes,> replied Daniel along with the others. However, it turned out he wasn't going to go first, but rather, third. Ariel gazed at the first waiting human, and all was silent as the others looked on. The human's eyes glazed over, and Daniel could tell that suddenly a surge of internal stress was washing over the man's mind, as he began to bit his lip, blink rapidly, clench his teeth, and make sporadic jerking motions... Then, mere seconds later, it was over: the man appeared utterly relieved, but also depressed and irritated. The other humans looked on at the first one, wondering just what to prepare for, what to expect.
<You have failed, first test subject. Next.> Ariel walked to the next in line, as the first human's legs gave away, collapsing onto the ground in humiliation and defeat. Suddenly, the second human flinched, gripping with his own mind, as if trying to think as hard as he can, before relaxing and keeping his eyes closed; he closed his fasts, making swinging motions, and tried shaking his head...
But that too was futile. Moments later, the human sighed with relief as Ariel dropped her glare and declared, <you too have failed, second test subject. Next--Daniel.>
Daniel kept himself from gulping as Ariel walked up to face him, staring intently into his eyes. Nervously, unknowing what to expect, his hands closed around the crystal worn about his neck, as it emanated a sense of reassurance.
Suddenly, Daniel felt his mind practically explode as a psionic entity assaulted it, boring deep into his cerebrum, groping about for information and rapidly processing the information held in his mind. It all went flashing past his mind, uncontrollably, subconsciously: his first mental encounter with the Overmind, helping James recover from a fit of anger, turning on the psi emitter, feeling the psionic draw and repulsion of the instrument, aiming his Gauss rifle at a zergling, analyzing the various displays aboard the Hyperion, watching as the Protoss structures appeared, following marines into an underground black market, threatening the captured adjutant on Antiga Prime, staring out into the depths of space aboard a dropship...
Daniel realized what was happening: Ariel was probing his memory. He knew at that moment that this was the test--to see if he could resist this mind-reading procedure. He realized that he had to stop the intrusion, to push the second mind out of his, to regain control of his brain--
...meeting Sarlena the day he joined his first fire team, promotion to lieutenant, seeing the reapers in action, the sudden end of over two hundred Zerg in a fiery cataclysm, dracolisks swarming over Antiga, raining a storm of acid...
Daniel tried to shut down his memory part of the mind, but he had no experience with that response, and the result was that his mind gave away information even faster:
...tricking the crew of the Hyperion into letting him out by claiming to be God, Sarlena making her first kill, seeing the first Protoss with his very eyes, holding his prized khaydarin crystal, meeting with the Red Wolves leader, briefing soldiers for the defense of Mar Sara...
Daniel shook himself, as it that would help, clenched, and tried to think of something irrelevant. He focused on happy, innocent thoughts, such as when he was celebrating his fourteenth birthday, when he was playing chess with his friends, when he was still a toddler and rolling around on Halcyon's grassy prairies--
Yet another part of his mind was leaking all sorts of information-- another meeting with the Overmind, meeting Christopher inside the command center, Sarah suddenly stating "you pig!", ambushing the guard at the Antiga Prime airport... Everything was coming out of his memories, spilling into the invading presence's sponge-like mind.
Infuriated with the inefficacy of his attempts, Daniel let out a roar, sending his psionic reserves to the Khaydarin crystal he clasped; his mind touched with that of the Khalai's spirit; together, it seemed, his powers had increased multi-fold. Now, he knew, he had a chance of resisting Ariel. They concentrated on the probing force that the ambassador had sent, rather than on the signals; the Khalai seemed to be teaching him about the ways of keeping the secrets of the mind safe.
...Education in the barracks, a trip to his family, fixing a Goliath--
Then the flow of information slowed, turned into pockets of leaked information, then the stream ceased altogether, as the two minds simultaneously struck back at the investigating mind, squeezing it away, forcing it back, denying it further information, indeed, even the privilege of remaining within Daniel's conscious.
Ariel lashed out with another attempt, which was able to draw out only a slight bit of information before that too was choked off, successfully resisted... Ariel realized that the mental battle was over, and withdrew her mind.
An exhausted and panting Daniel collapsed onto the hot desert ground as a barely fazed Ariel let her mental assault withdraw, the khaydarin crystal still pulsating from its burst of activity. She mentally congratulated him: <You are the first human to have successfully completed this first stage of Commencement, though that was because you had been helped by your khaydarin crystal. Keep your guard up--we're not done yet, and now remove that amulet.>
Daniel groaned. He had had enough of this oppressive squeezing-out of information; he didn't like the idea of the whole of the Protoss race knowing the various situations he had experienced or actions he had committed... Reluctantly, he took off the amulet, knowing that he had only succeeded this time because of the Khalai's help.
Ariel had meanwhile walked over to the next human, and struck into his mind. On the surface, nothing seemed to happen; within, however, potent psionic streams were lashing out throughout his mindscape, consuming whatever information they could retrieve; moments later (but which seemed to be minutes to Daniel), she withdrew, announcing to the exulting human, <Congratulations to you, you have passed Commencement, and have done so without the help of a khaydarin crystal.> Daniel felt his face blush in embarrassment, even as the lady progressed to her next test subject.
<How did you do that??> Daniel asked the person right next to him, who had withstood Ariel's test with ease.
<Oh, easy. I'm what people call Ghosts.>
<Not that I know what a ghost is, but it seems to me like they specialize in psionic stuff.>
< Indeed,> replied the man. <Ghosts are elite specialists in the Confederacy. But some of us have decided to tag along with this organization, since it offered us the hope of survival and perhaps victory that the Confederacy couldn't give. And yeah, the ghosts are all telepathic, and some of them have nice abilities that are rare even among ghosts. Others simply have the standard set of psychic abilities that are required to get through Ghost Academy.>
<Oooooh. Sounds hard. Like what, exactly?> Daniel further inquired of this ghost.
<All ghosts have to master telepathic communications, telepathic invasions, blocking telepathic invasions, and perform alternate-target telepathy. We also have to be able to convince others into believing obvious falsities through obfuscating the mind. Not all that bad, if you come to think of it--those tricks can surely come in handy in situations like right now.>
At this point Ariel had finished testing her sixth subject, and without warning struck back at Daniel's mind, probing into him again. And this time, Daniel didn't have the power of the amulet to protect his secrets. They started spilling out again:
The time lag from jumping to opposite sides of Mar Sara, painfully slow barracks construction, the barrage of multiple siege tanks, missiles streaking to the air and impacting a wraith, his super-short prison term in Los Andares...
He tried to resist, but futilely. At every point at which his mind stood up to the wave of assault that best characterized the Protoss telepathic invasion, it turned out that the Protoss was stronger, and Daniel's mind had to give way, the same way a flexed muscle is forced to bend in the opposite way by pressure--painfully. His mind quickly went numb after about a dozen confrontations taking place within a mere two seconds, and his consciousness retreated into the dark recesses of his mind, unable to fight to preserve the integrity of his knowledge.
Ariel had extracted as much information as she wanted from Daniel to prove to the Judicator looking on nearby that Daniel had failed his test. The lady withdrew her probing psionic assault, a back-sting so strong that it had a physical manifestation: tossing Daniel backwards onto the scorched desert. Daniel's unclosed and weakened mind gave him no psychological protection, and he cried out in pain as he hit the ground. Only with the help of the Ghost right next to him was he able to finally erect himself and slowly recover from the arduous conflict.
A minute later, Ariel had finished testing the remaining members of the group. Only two had made it through Commencement out of the dozen individuals; they were both former Confederate Ghosts. The others' minds were in various stages of trauma, defeat, and devastation.
A few minutes later, after Daniel's hyperventilation had stopped and he had for the most part recovered from his hope-shattering defeat, Ariel returned, carrying Daniel's amulet in her outstretched arm. Daniel stared at him for a moment, still a bit languished, before grumpily snatching the amulet out of her hand. Daniel hastily put it back on his neck, and its soothing psionic signals alleviated much of his suffering.
How could I have failed?? Daniel kept on questioning himself. For all he knew, he had been an outstanding psychic as far back as on Tarsonis, where he had convinced a crew member to free him from the on-board prison. But such things were probably not going to happen again with as much usefulness, he realized; the Protoss psionic capabilities were just too strong. Well, at least the Ghosts have a chance...
Just then he saw Christopher and Sarlena approaching, and felt like he suddenly had to vent all his frustration on the two, at one point grabbing the unfortunate master engineer by the collar and threatening to do something lethal if he didn't feel better about it quickly--and it came to having the marines nearby restrain him, preventing him from taking any action that would have shattered the until then nearly flawless leadership dynamics.
"Peace, Daniel," said Ariel. She softly took his hand and pulled him away. "You know better than that."
"Daniel, once you have calmed down, we can decide on a name for the human base on this planet," Sarlena remarked quietly after a minute of silence.
Still perturbed, but temper soothed by Ariel's touch, Daniel took the opportunity to lash back with "Call it Hell!"