<...And that is why I took the course of action that I did,> concluded Daniel at last. The entire explanation hadn't taken long, and his mind, which was used to thinking just about nonstop for hours on end every day, wasn't very tired out either. The gist of the argument had been along the lines of that since the light ones, with their vast majority of the Firstborn population, had been unable to defeat the Zerg after hundreds of years of warfare, other, more unorthodox methods were clearly needed, and where better to get such blatantly new ideas than to allow there to be some organizations not Bound to the collective? That, and a bundle of other arguments that Daniel had hastily used to buttress it, had carried the day, and satisfied, Executor Tealdarin decided to leave him alone without taking any more revenge out on him or his people.
Daniel was seated on the bridge of the Hyperion, gazing with steely eyes out at the two slowly revolving chunks of debris, each half a mile long, that were the wreckage of the Mengsk's Legacy, one of only three Hyperion-class battlecruisers in his fleet. All its armor and size was no match for a single pulse from that powerful weaponry he had come to view with awe, the Phased Ion Cannon Array. Though he felt sorrow that there were quite a few who had died from the sudden outburst from allied Protoss, he was at the same time elated that, over the course of the next month, practically every position in his fleet would be fully automated and remote controlled from his base on Korhal IV, thereby significantly reducing battle fatalities.
Standing right beside him was Ariel, who looked up to him with a smile. "You've done it," she commended him.
"Today you've proven that you've been able to resist an official attempt at mind reading by a High Templar, which basically means that your mental barrier has been tested and proven resilient. That's wonderful," she replied cheerily.
Daniel smiled back. "Thanks to you for all your advice and the practice you gave me in Commencement," Daniel replied. "And that Khaydarin crystal; I could feel it activating. Couldn't have done it otherwise."
"Of course. Now that you can resist mind reading by the best, you may come visit our Homeworld, Aiur, provided that you keep the Khaydarin crystal on at all times from this point onward. Interested?"
Daniel's eyes lit up with an inside light. "Of course! That would be wonderful!" He took a deep, elated breath. "I could certainly do with some vacation into an exotic world, and get away from having to tend to this base for so long. When can we depart?"
"Immediately," Ariel replied with a glorious smile, taking Daniel by the hand. Right next to them, a miniature ellipse of shimmering light appeared - a localized hyperspace window, by the looks of it - that quickly went straight through their bodies. It seemed as if that same moment the exit had swept past them as well, and suddenly the two were back in Ariel's bedroom chamber aboard the Carrier. Before Daniel had a chance to turn his head around, the shrinking hyperspace exit had vanished.
"Wow, you never told me your people could do that," he said, letting his surprise show.
"At least, we never said we couldn't," replied Ariel. "I had assumed that you would assume that we were capable of everything. Don't you think that's a better idea?" The next moment what had been white walls reformed into window-like viewscreens, like they were separated from space by just a pane of glass.
Something suddenly shot out from the Carrier, quickly reaching a point in nearby space before detonating. Except, unlike just about every other explosion in space, it wasn't yellow, white, or blue. It was black. Within seconds the blackness had enlarged and began to take up a swirling pattern, which Daniel quickly realized was a vortex. Moments later, astral dust seemed to form what resembled a doughnut around the miniature black hole, and an orange glow came out from the other end, tinting the revolving dust clouds purple. The entity was now clearly that of a wormhole, and continued to grow, its glowing aperture gradually widening.
"How'd you... what is that?"
"As I told you before, our polarion beam technologies allow us to scan and thus to analyze anything physical as long as there are no polarion blockers in the way. In that manner we have assimilated just about every technology the Zerg have ever used against us, most of all that of their Nydus wormholes, which bend the very fabric of space-time. They are far superior to blinking for distances greater than fifty light years but far inferior for much shorter distances. That is because it always takes five minutes to traverse a wormhole, regardless of distance. Crossing the galaxy would be akin to going at ten billion times the speed of light. See, this wormhole's aperture is already twenty kilometers wide, and the dust clouds a hundred times as wide."
It was getting larger faster and faster, but that was because their ship was hurtling toward it. Soon the space around them was clear of stars, and there was once again nothing to see beyond the ship other than a pervasive, reddish-orange glow.
"Yes, now I remember, you've told me that before. I take it we're going to use such a wormhole to go from here to Aiur in five minutes, which would imply that Aiur is at least fifty light years away - of course, I knew that much to begin with. Just how far away is it?"
"Aiur is roughly fifty thousand light years away, deep in Protoss space. Look, we're almost at the exit."
"What, how? I thought it took five minutes!"
"True. But since a wormhole bends not only space but also time, you don't experience close to that long while you are in one. You can't really hold a conversation with anyone not in a wormhole, you see, because processing times will be so different. That's resolved by the collective, however - the moment you exit a wormhole you immediately gain information regarding just how much time has passed."
Suddenly the reddish-ness of the surrounding wormhole faded into orange, then into purple and black. The relatively narrow passageway opened up at its mouth to one many times larger, taking them back into real space.
"We have cleared the wormhole and we have spent 312 seconds inside it."
Daniel turned to look backward. The Carrier had fired another projectile, which exploded into a white hole. The orange-violet color rapidly departed the whirlpool of dust. The wormhole's vortex quickly closed up, spiraling in from every direction, like a closing iris door. Then it vanished altogether, with the innumerable stars behind it coming back into view.
"Daniel, come look! We're approaching Aiur," said Ariel.
He turned to look at the front, and his breath was stolen by the majestic scene he saw, drawing ever nearer. The Earth-sized homeworld of the Protoss was a beautiful, pristine orb of teal, without any variation across its surface. In geostationary orbit all around the world and arranged like a planetary ring were around a dozen little circles, each of them at rest in space and by itself. As the carrier drew closer, these little circles continued to grow, and grow, and grow, until the closest one took up almost half of his view. They were gigantic golden rings, immeasurably wide, with a sparkling field of blue within the central gap. As the Carrier approached them, he realized that it didn't come close to spanning even the thickness of the ring. They looked so utterly perfect - there were no lines embossed or engraved on them, no hatches or any other markings. From within, tiny like mites compared to the rings themselves, came out endless streams of golden vessels, such as the oft-seen Needleships and Carriers, traveling but a short distance before entering any of numerous other wormholes.
"What are these ring-like constructs?"
"They're Stargates - they serve as assembly sites for our warp rifts, which we use to build all our vessels from nothingness. Each one has a ring thickness of fifteen kilometers, is 25 kilometers deep, has an opening 90 kilometers wide and a total diameter of 120 kilometers. Each takes up 283 trillion cubic meters of space. They are composed almost entirely of nanites - a billion billion nanites to a cubic meter - you can imagine just how many nanites are needed per Stargate. If it's any consolation to you, Stargates are just about the largest structures we ever build. On average, one can churn out about a hundred Needleships per hour."
"A hun-- I can't even imagine just how much that is. Just how big is the Protoss fleet?"
"That is classified information. Even I don't know what the magnitude is, but I'd guess it's in the trillions."
"H... h... h... " Daniel was hyperventilating at that kind of numbers.
"You can see why I've been insisting that you don't try too hard fighting Zerg. No matter how hard you try, no matter how great your victories may be, you still wouldn't make a dent at all in the grand scheme of things."
"I'm feeling faint... That's an awful lot of ships, is all I can say. Wouldn't that be like, half the mass of the galaxy?"
"Not even a drop in the bucket," replied Ariel. "The Milky Way is, I'd say, a hundred thousand trillion times more massive. Yeah, I was surprised myself."
"Okay, I get the point."
"Yeah, this numbers exercise really puts everything in perspective. I'd feel insignificant compared to that as well. That's the result of five centuries of preparing for war and seeking the utmost in efficiency. The Stargates are very... resilient. They constantly repair themselves, so that they never break down, and we never have to tend to them. They show up en masse on all of our Forge Worlds - Aiur being one of them. But Aiur, being also the Homeworld, can also afford to be a certain bit more welcoming for certain visitors. Come."
Before he had known it, the Carrier had already landed on the planet surface.
"Wait, can I even go out into the open here? I don't think the Protoss and I have the same breathing needs."
"It's not a problem. The air here is highly toxic to humans, but your nanites will take care of that just fine. In fact, you'll feel like you're breathing nothing but fresh air," said Ariel simply. She walked toward the wall of the Carrier, and suddenly it parted as if it were actually a sliding door, and suddenly Daniel had his "to-the-skin contact" with the air of Aiur, as well as a true look at what the planet looked like from the surface.
He had been wrong in imagining the planet to be simply an endless teal field. Rather, there was not any green at all. There was no vegetation to be seen anywhere, at least not anything he would have recognized. Instead, royal-blue, crystalline skyscrapers, embellished with what looked like golden ornamentation, rose up from the ground. They were arranged in grid formation, and stretched on as far as the eye could see. Upon a second look, he realized that these bore a closer resemblance to a filing cabinet, or data block, of massive proportions. Far off in the distance, as the individual towers became too small to see and all blended together, the gold and blue combined to take on a teal color.
He took a step out. Then realized, belatedly, that he hadn't made sure that there was solid ground under his feet. There weren't any, and he fell. Just as he was about to gasp out for help, however, what appeared to be wings sprang out from his body, and he found them easy to control, using them swiftly to rise back up to the entrance of the parked Carrier (which he realized was now being parked over the roofs of multiple such towers), to Ariel, who was likewise lazily fluttering through the air like a butterfly.
"This day is just full of surprises," remarked Daniel, exercising and examining his new, membrane-like wings.
"Come on, I want to show you the Nexus up ahead," goaded Ariel, indicating one particular tower in the distance. It was different from the others in that it was topped with a golden pyramid construct instead of having a flat roof. Immediately, the pair took off in that direction, quickly leaving the Carrier behind.
Daniel whistled at just how extremely fast and maneuverable he was, now that he was capable of flight. "So, all these buildings... what are they?"
"They're pylons. They power and remotely service the Stargates and all the other contraptions on the planet. Warping in may be incredibly efficient, but it still takes a tremendous amount of energy to operate. The blue crystals utilize heat to generate usable energy - without 'consuming' any of the heat."
"You can make energy from entropy?"
"It's called a molecular turnstile, but that's going into details. And the golden servicing nodes tap into this energy, generating a localized deflector shield or beaming them to any allied vessels in orbit. A single Guardian can use this power to generate a bubble shield that can hold off a massive swarm of Zerg indefinitely."
By now they had reached the Nexus - a pyramidal, temple-like structure. At its pinnacle, golden claws propped up a perfectly round, glowing orb that seemed to be almost alive, ecstatic with all the energy that had built up within it, its lively ripples shimmering in the sunlight. It was, very clearly, an otherworldly experience.
"I wonder where the welcoming committee is?" asked Daniel, wryly, as a fresh gust of wind blew past him. He breathed deeply, taking his time as the air entered his adapted lungs, giving him a sudden sense of bliss.
"Sorry, but you won't be getting one - other than me, that is. Through the Khala, the Protoss can derive the pleasure of welcoming you to this world directly from us, whether you are aware of it or not. Here we are! The Nexus is a focusing device. It stabilizes interplanetary psionic signals, thereby allowing us to create things where none existed before, though at considerable energetic expense. We can use this method to instantaneously create a new copy of you all the way back at Korhal, for example. However, doing so would cost us about as much as another Carrier, which is a very unprofitable exchange. Similar limitations apply to our other methods of creating and transporting things, which dictate why we do things the way we do."
"Very... exotic," remarked Daniel. He didn't know what to say; it was just all too breathtaking, and it had left him speechless. Here was a true Ecumenopolis, a world-city, so pristine and orderly it was just unbelievable. And their utter beauty - the crystals of the pylons seemed to shine with their own life, their own inner spirit, giving Daniel the feeling that this highly artificial city was more filled with vivacity than the wildest of jungles ever could be. And yet, there was hardly a soul in sight. The entire place was summarily tranquil with barely a sound; however, it did not have the slightest feel of being a ghost city. He could easily imagine countless Protoss individuals living their lives within each of the bluish crystals, could sense the potent energies being transferred along the golden structures which he had originally mistaken for lavish ornamentation. And overhead, a cloudless, green-blue sky seemed to sparkle with the twinkling lights from countless patrolling starships.
Floating in the air beside him, Ariel likewise gazed upon the incredible scene, captivated by such an enchanting scenery. It was just about the most beautiful place she had ever been to or seen, and it warmed her heart to be here. It seemed very much like it was calling out to her, telling herself that this was Home.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Ariel asked softly and dreamily.
"Oh, yes indeed, this place is amazing," Daniel remarked. "A sanctuary of achievement and... and Existence... in the great void of space. An oasis of life..." He was so caught up in the absolutely stunning sight that he didn't notice Ariel nudging right beside him.
"Are you happy here?"
"Very much so," Daniel replied, continuing to stare off into the distance as if in a trance. There was no way he could get enough of a view like this. He had to experience it as much as possible.
"Earlier you were complaining that there wasn't a welcome wagon. Do you still feel alone, like there's something amiss?"
"No... No, everything seems to be here... This place may be devoid of people but it is teeming with life and joy! I feel like... like someone is here. Bringing me an inexplicable joy. Right here, with me..."
"Yes, of course; that would be me," chided Ariel, wrapping an arm around Daniel's waist.
"Ooh, how silly of me. Of course you're here and... You're awfully close to me right now--" Daniel remarked, at last noticing how she had snuck up on him. She had already gotten too close to him, too entangled, for him to break away. He didn't know how to respond, what to do - a fish out on the beach. Meanwhile, Ariel looked like she was comfortably in her element.
"Really? I don't think so; I think we aren't close enough," Ariel replied, softly resting her head on his shoulder and subtly pulling him close.
"Umm... Ariel? Why -- why are you doing this?" He was starting to go frantic. No one had ever behaved like this before, and he didn't know if it was the scenery or the nanites that had gotten into either his or her head.
"Hmm, isn't it obvious? This brings you joy, does it not?"
"Well... yes... I mean, I guess..." he sputtered. He felt an elated sense of dizziness, a bit like he had been drinking too much. In reality the two of them were now tumbling upward through the air and flying at the same time, as if they were lost in space.
Ariel drew him real close, and pecked him on the lips before looking at how he'd react.
Daniel was quite stunned. By now he had realized what emotion was consuming Ariel's heart and mind, and he would have none of it. But then, he had no idea how to convey it to her, and so telepathy was clearly not the way to proceed. "Hey, uh, Ariel, look, I... um, don't think this is right--"
"Why not? What did I do wrong?"
"Oh, nothing, just--"
"Nothing? It must have been something. Am I not... not good enough for you?" asked Ariel, tears swelling up--
"No! No, that's not what I mean!" said Daniel, shocked and dismayed. He had clearly not expected this move. In fact, the whole thing seemed utterly wrong - men were supposed to be chasing after women, not the other way around... And now how could he come up with a response to Ariel's doing THAT? Then, there was an old saying that went like "First, cry, then scream, then suicide." Women could be such pushers at times - and now he kind of wanted Ariel to be Protoss and not human - at least something like this wouldn't have happened. Or maybe this all happened because Ariel was exercising her ambassador's tricks? He no longer knew what to be thinking.
Finally, Daniel mustered the courage to just break away, leering defiantly at the lady's teary eyes. "Look, you're pushing it, all right? I just can't do it - I don't know why just yet, but I can't. It'll have to wait, okay? I need to get my thoughts in order. And..."
But he didn't want to say the next thing on his mind. It was too cold, too terrible a thought to hold in the midst of this impassioned situation.
And I have a war to win.