The First and Second BornEdit
The second battle for Aiur had been going on for four minutes nonstop. As Daniel continued to look at the viewscreen, he suddenly saw the Guardians' shields fail. The bubble shields collapsed together, and their bluish glow - which had been the only thing keeping the Protoss out of harm's way - was now gone. And although the Zerg had lost a major portion of their swarms, they still had an immense advantage in numbers, hundreds to every one Protoss vessel. Now that the shielding was offline, the dam had broken, and the swarm fell upon the Protoss. Immediately the Protoss fleet seemed to have tripled in size while at the same time rearranging itself - a spectacle that many officials on the Hyperion's bridge had never seen before but which Daniel immediately recognized as their attempt to use hallucinations to absorb additional enemy fire. Real fleets and destructive weaponry now mixed in with ones that were virtual but seemingly just as real.
"Look at that," was all Daniel could mutter. Everyone stopped whatever activity they were doing to look at the viewscreen as the two fleets seemingly collided. All the golden vessels, which had been hovering inanimate in mid-space, suddenly began taking evasive maneuvers, and what had been rows upon rows of interceptors now broke into a yellowish swarm, swiftly intermingling with the far vaster dull red swarms. Interceptor and dracolisk chased each other in a massive dogfight in space, flooding space with their deadly projectiles as innumerable white ion beams continued to lance throughout the system, shredding scores of enemy starcraft with each sweep.
The Zerg had brought in their more massive crab-like subspecies. These cancerlisks, as they were called, quickly began a long-range bombardment of the arranged Protoss vessels with what seemed to be yellow balls of plasma, detonating on their targets like fireballs with almost enough strength to mimic a mini nuke. The smaller, much weaker deflector shielding on many ships flickered for but an instant under a concentrated barrage before vanishing. A Protoss ship without shielding could survive for mere milliseconds before being violently ripped apart by all the weapons fire assaulting them. All along the fronts, golden debris scattered forth from the destruction of numerous vessels. Interceptors were mercilessly chased down by swarms of dracolisks, or outright subverted by the nanite-laden sprays of damselisks. Meanwhile, protective walls of anemonelisks continued to lash out with their spindly tentacles to intercept and absorb incoming attacks.
Ariel suddenly cried out in dismay, causing others to look at her inquiringly. "The Protoss are suffering great casualties! The shielding on many of the vessels have fallen within seconds, and they were quickly destroyed thereafter. We have to do something to help them!" she pleaded.
"I'm thinking, I'm thinking," Daniel staved her off. "Just give me a minute... Never mind that, I know just the thing! Computer, activate the beacon for Zeratul's fleet!" A soft beep indicated that the computer had already performed the requested action, sending the proper signal throughout space via ansible.
"Wait... Zeratul? Who's that? You never told us that you had other connections... least of all with the dark ones!" exclaimed Ariel, hurt.
"Well, there are some things I can't exactly tell you light ones without getting you two at each other's throats, can I? Especially since you're all busy defending the Homeworld."
"But... at least... Oh, never mind! I just hope you know what you're doing. It would be very bad to attract another enemy."
"Ariel, I'd bet you that the dark ones wouldn't be the slightest bit interested in fighting you. Why? Because they're Protoss as well, and they have their roots in Aiur as well, and their worst enemies are the Zerg, not you, even despite all your vaunted differences."
A shining window to hyperspace opened up right next to the Harbinger Fleet, revealing a small dark ones' fleet. Suddenly, a luminescent personal hyperspace window opened up in the middle of the bridge, causing the officers to dash away in surprise. From it emerged another Protoss, clearly of the Templar caste but with radically different clothing. It was Zeratul.
< I have come as I have promised,> proclaimed the dark Templar, nodding to Daniel. < I see that the Homeworld is in grave need, and so we are recalling all of our fleets from far-flung locations.>
<Your presence is truly needed,> said Daniel. <Please, tell us what you know about the Zerg that may be of help to us.>
<Of course. Not too long ago we realized that the Zerg were being controlled, not by the Overmind, but by "lesser brains" which we have called Cerebrates. These are the size of some towns, highly immobile, but with the ability to warp between worlds. It is they who command the individual broods which we fight, one to each. Though we don't know how many of them exist, we do know what happens when they are slain at last. If we were able to slay one of them, all the Zerg in its brood would become leaderless, rendering them harmless to us. Our approach worked with spectacular success on Char with Tassadar as the expedition's leader. If we were able to do the same to many other Cerebrates, then the swarms fighting right now would go on a riot, fighting each other and granting us victory. Additionally, this may be a herald to the ultimate victory we have all been seeking.>
For Daniel, it all seemed to come together at last. Here was proof that having different factions tackle the same problem in different ways could pay off in the long run. Here was the explanation for what he had witnessed back on Char. And here was hope for defeating the Zerg outside of killing the Overmind.
Daniel told the clueless officers around him about this new morsel of knowledge. "We're after something city-sized called Cerebrates. Cerebrates are monstrosities that directly control whole hordes of the alien minions. It turns out they use the same telepathic signals that ghosts like Kerrigan and Daniel use, which therefore has to be the same signals that psi emitters, the Overmind, and the Protoss use. Too strange to be mere coincidence, I'd say, but there you are. At any rate, these cerebrates each control what is known as a brood of Zerg, which leads to the conclusion that killing a cerebrate would be akin to disabling a limb of their war apparatus. If we take out enough of the broods that way, making them oh-so-mindless, the Protoss should be able to secure victory."
Everybody was holding their breaths, and now didn't know if they should release it. As sighs finally came out, Ariel asked, "well, how are we going to take out those Cerebrates? We don't even know where they are!"
"Actually, I think we already know where they are," said Daniel. "Computer, display all locations of unusual psionic activity detected upon activation by either the psi emitter or the psi disruptor in the past few minutes." The hologram before them was suddenly replaced by a 3-D galactic map, filled with "marker" stars, with some star systems glowing extra bright. Beside each highlighted star system was a trio of numbers representing galactic coordinates in a polar coordinate grid. The nearest one was in an asteroid belt but twenty light years away.
Ariel walked up close to the hologram, gazing at it all the while. Standing close beside her, Daniel could sense her transmit these coordinates to the Protoss. Suddenly a sizable chunk of the fleet vanished through a luminescent hyperspace window.
"Are they headed for this Cerebrate?" asked Daniel, though he already knew the answer. The Protoss would be stupid not to pursue their target.
"Is there anything else we should know about the Cerebrates before engaging them?" asked Ariel.
<That is all,> replied Zeratul.
He began to receive a kind of mental feed from the Protoss headed towards this new unnamed asteroid field. Even though Daniel was nowhere near the dispatched fleet, he could see what they were seeing. They were surrounded by the dismal blackness of hyperspace, already well on their journey...
The Protoss fleets remaining in the solar system had for the most part withdrawn to Aiur, where they hoped they could focus enough firepower to keep the swarms at bay. Forming a solid barrier around the planet, they continued the interminable destruction they had been doing for the duration of the battle. The pylons covering the planet's surface were beaming up inestimable amounts of energy to help regenerate the Guardians' shields, but they invariably collapsed within seconds of their activation. With the hallucinated fleet, comprised of trillions of vessels, soaking up two thirds of the lethal attacks rushing at them, the Protoss kept losses down to a minimum. Yet, as the minutes continued to progress, their numbers continued to dwindle.
<The Protoss need our assistance. We are moving in with our fleet,> declared Tealdarin. <En Taro Adun!> Suddenly the Expeditionary Fleet that had been with them had vanished into the far distance, right into the maw of a Zerg swarm far more massive.
As Daniel and the others watched, the Protoss drew close to the Zerg within seconds and immediately lashed out with everything they had. The Zerg mass continued to approach, taking numerous losses. But the damage Tealdarin could inflict, even with his thousands of starships, was insignificant compared to an enemy force many magnitudes more powerful. As the cluster of cancerlisks fell upon them, the crab-like minions fired their balls of plasma, instantly disintegrating the shielding of any vessel it hit. A second strike took out many of the Needleships. The Carriers lasted but milliseconds longer, but they too were overcome as space all around them became opaque with the yellow and brown of Zerg attacks. The interceptor screen was lost in the crossfire as waves of scourge rushed into them, time-bombing them into another reality. The flagship on which Tealdarin resided detonated in brilliant displays of light; the light Templar went down in all the glory he could possibly have wished for in the defense of his beloved Homeworld. Mere moments later the rest of the fleet was consumed by the roiling brown mass before the latter continued on its inexorable advance.
Daniel looked on with stunned silence. Tealdarin, for a while a constant annoyance in his side and to him a bigger-than-life alien admiral of sorts, had been vanquished just like that and with barely any effect on the juggernaut of a force he had sacrificed his life fighting against.
Almost two minutes had passed. The fleet dispatched to hunt down the Cerebrate fell back into real space and quickly disposed of the token Zerg force defending that region of the asteroids.
<We have located the Cerebrate,> declared their leader. This was accompanied by mental images of their drawing close to the target: a city-sized giant slug, attached to the space rock and resting immobile. From it was coming an overwhelming flood of psionic commands. < It is clearly a brain for the Zerg war machine.>
<Good, now give them all you have got,> Daniel cheered them on.
The Protoss launched a phase disruptor torpedo nearly at point-blank. The next second it had detonated, causing the entire asteroid, as well as the Cerebrate, to become blindingly brilliant. It began to bubble from all over, like boiling water.
<We have destroyed the Cerebrate. Report to us if you notice any swarms suddenly lose control.>
And sure enough, the adjutant reported moments later, "Admiral, one particular swarm has ceased assaulting the Homeworld Fleet."
The viewscreen depicted the individuals in the swarm maddeningly attacking each other, quickly reducing their own numbers. The Protoss had, upon realizing that they were no longer a threat, ceased attacking them and focused their fire elsewhere.
Everyone cheered. It was yet another great victory for the humans on board the Hyperion.
"It must have been that particular Cerebrate's brood! Well, Ariel, I guess the Protoss had better dispatch their forces to all the other marked locations of the Cerebrates. It's far more effective than trying to destroy the swarm critter by critter, don't you think?"
<Actually, it is not effective at all,> Ariel suddenly replied with a frown.
<Why, what's up?>
< It didn't work. Those Zerg have re-united and are attacking the Protoss fleet once again. The Executor we dispatched has stated that the Cerebrate survived their phase disruptor and continues to send off strong psionic emanations. Nothing we have ever encountered before has been able to stave off the power of such a device. We are currently trying to figure out how that is possible, but such research may not come to fruit in the next few minutes.> This was accompanied by images of the boiling Cerebrate's body drawing itself back together and cooling itself down by millions of degrees per second until the abnormal entropy elevation had disappeared. There it was, just like new, resting on a still blindingly radiant and bubbling asteroid and not taking any harm.
<May I suggest-->
Zeratul's comment was cut off by an angry Ariel whirling on him, pointing an accusing finger. <We knew it! We knew that you were up to no good here! We don't want to see your like again, and if we do we'll destroy your forces as punishment for this treason! Get out - get out now!>
Zeratul just looked at her darkly and when she had finished ranting, he slowly asked, < Indeed?>
<Look, you two,> thought Daniel, <This is not the time for petty arguments. Zeratul, might you know why the attack has failed?>
<You're asking him, a dark one and a traitor?> exclaimed Ariel in disbelief. <After all the hospitality we give you, the best thing you can think of is to join with their kind?>
<Calm down, Ariel-->
< I can't! We're in the middle of the most important battle ever in our history and you're helping to ruin it! Do you have any idea how many Zerg the fleet we have dispatched could have killed if it had stayed to protect Aiur? But no! You had to trick us into dispatching him to take on a Cerebrate! A Cerebrate, might I add, that can't even be killed! This is infamy!> A snarling Ariel turned and stomped out the room in impotent fury.
<Very cooperative,> Daniel said to Zeratul as she left their sight.
< Indeed. We had no idea that this was going to be an unsuccessful mission. When we had attempted it, it was a clear success, as you very well remember. We don't know what has changed - perhaps some Cerebrates were able to obtain an upgrade rendering them invulnerable - but we must continue to seek ways to destroy them. Otherwise the Homeworld Fleet will soon be crushed by the might of the swarm.>
As Daniel looked at the hologram, he saw that many of the golden blips, each representing billions of starships, had already disappeared. The Zerg offensive, meanwhile, continued seemingly without a stop.
<What do you suggest?>
< It is simple. We will try to go and destroy the Cerebrate using the same methods as we did earlier. Perhaps it will give us more luck in our attempt to finally destroy this abomination.> The dark ones' fleet vanished into a shining window.
Meanwhile, the Protoss fleet continued their overwhelmingly unfavorable fight against the Zerg. Dense clusters of Zerg all around Aiur were suddenly consumed by spheres of the purest black, trapping them. But even with so many of them put out of action by this newest ability that the Protoss were demonstrating, they simply couldn't do enough damage to keep the Zerg at may. More and more leaked through with every passing second, laying waste to whole golden fleets within seconds like the juggernaut they were. Individual attacks had become so insignificant now; only the general picture gradually developed: the Zerg were surely gaining the upper hand in this confrontation. If this was all the Protoss had for a fleet, then they were in deep trouble. Already nearly a quarter of the Protoss forces had been vanquished in what they considered an honorable battle to the death.
Honor in battle. What a pity that the Protoss still uphold this belief, thought Daniel, watching as billions of Protoss continued to die for an outdated belief. The reason I'm still alive is because I knew when that honor had to be tossed away.