Baptism by FireEdit
"Ariel... Ariel! Ariel? Ariel, when are you going to come back out?" asked Daniel as he wandered the halls looking for the ambassador. "Would it help at all if I told you that Zeratul left with the dark ones' fleet?"
"I can still sense his presence, Daniel!" said Ariel from within a nearby cabin.
"Aha! There you are," said Daniel as he opened the door. Ariel was standing in the room, but insistent on looking away from him. "Come on, Ariel, let's stop this nonsense!"
"Go away," she said petulantly.
"Go? Away? Why?"
"No, not until you tell me why you've decided to shun me so," Daniel insisted as he walked up to her.
Ariel backed away with a frown. "I feel like I've been betrayed, by you."
"Oh, Ariel, I haven't betrayed you at all! I'm just doing whatever I can with my limited resources to help win this war!"
"You've done a fine job with the Psi Disruptor. But your allegiance - in thoughts if not in arms - with the dark ones we cannot accept."
"Of course. You cannot appreciate what you cannot understand."
Ariel was vehement. "We understand very well all right. The dark ones tricked us into breaking up our Homeworld Fleet in the vain hope that we could score a quick victory against the invaders. Well unfortunately for us, Daniel, it didn't work out quite as planned, and I wonder why!"
"Well I didn't know either that it wouldn't have worked. But you have to admit, war is not so straightforward as you may be inclined to imagine. Take the psi emitter for example. You, despite all your vaunted technology, had come to the conclusion that the psi emitter you had built didn't work. Well, if we hadn't done that one particular experiment at Loomings, we would never have stumbled upon the technology that is the psi disruptor. We would never have built the station on Braxis."
"Don't be so disagreeable, Ariel. It's kind of obvious 'so'. You tell me."
"I have nothing to say about that."
"Okay, I get the impression I will have a lot of convincing to do."
"It won't work."
"Oh, one thing I have learned being an admiral for so long is that whatever I set my sights on will be accomplished. Mark my words, I'll have you convinced someday."
Suddenly a euphoric Protoss message interrupted their dialogue. <Our nanites report success in improving the Psi Disruptor at Braxis. Its signals have now been greatly amplified. Aiming it at Aiur...>
Suddenly innumerable Zerg became silent in space. Most of them, in fact, with the sole exception of those in Aiur's psionic shadow. This was as very much needed turn for the better for the Protoss, since their numbers had continued to decline at an astounding pace. But now, with the vast majority of the Zerg swarms unable to continue battle, the Protoss had shifted all their fleets to defend Aiur from the only approach vector the Zerg possessed - through Aiur's psionic shadow. Yet the still-active Zerg seemed to be astounding in number. After all, the Overmind was wise enough to predict that the Psi Disruptor could come back online at any moment and had already focused many of the swarms into the umbra. The result was that the active Zerg presence in the star system was a long cylinder-shaped swarm, many trillions of fliers strong, stretching from near Aiur's surface off into the far distance like an inexorable series of waves coming onto the beach. No sand castle could survive for long under that kind of enduring assault.
Daniel saw an opportunity to be of some help. He spoke into his comlink, "all right everyone, the time has come for us to take the fight once again to the Zerg! All ships are to advance and to fight the inactive Zerg."
"Wait... Inactive? What good will fighting the inactive Zerg do for us?" asked Ariel, even as the Harbinger Fleet finally moved in for the kill and wraiths were launched from the decks of the Hyperion.
"That would be because no good thing lasts forever. If that Psi Disruptor were ever to fail, these Zerg would suddenly turn on us again. Although destroying as much Zerg as possible in the next few minutes wouldn't do much in the grand scheme of things if that device ever went offline while we needed it, we would still be reducing the Zerg count by many times our number. And all that, without putting our fleets at risk."
"You would be of greater help fighting the active Zerg in the umbra."
"Yeah, well I'm not that stupid," Daniel said, indirectly accusing the Protoss.
"You know, you were a lot braver when you weren't an admiral," accused Ariel right back.
"Thanks. I take honor in that. Now come on, let's get back to the bridge. We aren't as effective leading the fleet where we are now."
Moments later, they had returned to the bridge. The viewscreen depicted live footage of the umbra, where the battle was now taking place in all its ferocity. Despite all the losses the Protoss had suffered, their vast remaining fleet could easily fill the entire umbra with their beam weapons. One could not navigate through the umbra for a few meters without running into some deployed weapon or ion beam. So much potent battling was underway that most of the attacks being traded were colliding mid-transit, greatly slowing down the battle. The pitch black spheres Daniel had spotted earlier had begun to dissipate, revealing the Zerg trapped inside them. Many of them returned to the scene of the battle, adding to the carnage as the intensity of the dogfighting continued to escalate in the Homeworld's umbra.
"What were those things?" he inquired.
"That would be a time bomb. All units within are frozen in time. Only now are they once again able to join the battle and as you can see, many of them were brought back into the current time, but at a place within the reach of the Psi Disruptor."
"Let's just hope everyone else knows what they're doing, since I don't," muttered Daniel.
"It seems that the Protoss have found the perfect strategy for fighting the Zerg in this narrow corridor we call the planetary umbra," said Ariel, projecting an image in Daniel's mind. "The Protoss have established a cylindrical formation all around the umbra, allowing them to inflict maximum harm on the Zerg as they attempt to get through. Given the much longer ranges of our ion cannon and photon torpedo weaponry, the Protoss fleet would be able to strike at the Zerg with relative impunity. The Motherships have all been dispatched at the front of the gauntlet, where their subversion beams and time bombs would be most effective against the concentrated numbers of Zerg."
"Yes, beam weapons do have the wondrous property of being able to strike at targets more than ten thousand kilometers away," recalled Daniel. "But... doesn't that put your planet and its Stargates in a very compromised position?"
"Our Stargates are not as significant a threat as our assembled Fleet. Since we do not know the full extent of the Zerg Swarm, we must do all that is in our power to conserve what we still have. If they destroy Aiur, well, we do have other Forge Worlds to keep producing our fleet from. But if we lose our fleet, we will not be able to replace that loss."
The Harbinger Fleet's vessels and starfighters were racing through the clouds of the now mindless Zerg, doing their best to slaughter as many of the helpless creatures as possible before the battle could go any further south. But no matter how much havoc they wreaked, it was not enough to make a dent in the swarms' numbers. Added onto that was the fact that all the ships had already depleted their missile and rocket magazines. Zerg targets outnumbered the Harbinger Fleet's kinetic weaponry by millions to one.
The Protoss had already assembled into their cylindrical formation. The Zerg swarms were rapidly advancing toward the surface through this column, using their gravitic drives to run the Protoss gauntlet within seconds. Although the golden vessels never ran out of targets to strike at, their rate of fire was just too minimal and the Zerg were constantly getting through. Already the four Stargates were coming under fire from the Zerg; the Protoss hoped that this would buy their fleet some time.
"Computer, focus on the nearest Stargate."
The titanic ring loomed into view, mostly occluded by the massive and growing swarms that surrounded it, circling around and striking at it simultaneously. There were no flickering shields left around the ring. Explosions were coming out of it from every angle; the front face seemed to be filled with nothing but explosions. And yet, each of these explosions seemed minuscule - a glaive wurm's detonation on a Stargate, for example, was far smaller than a similar one on an unshielded interceptor. Add onto that the fact that the rings were many kilometers in each dimension, and it was clear that each could sustain a breathtakingly large number of hits before they could be destroyed.
"Those are some really grand structures you have," remarked Daniel, watching with yet another flurry of amazement as the damaged portions of the Stargate seemed to reassemble and reattach with remarkable rapidity. So fast did the golden nanites on the Stargate repair the damaged hull, that for a while it seemed as if the swarms' attacks - even with the ferocious cancerlisks at their disposal - were futile. It was amazing how resilient this Protoss construct had turned out to be. A starport back on one of the human worlds would not have lasted seconds against a similar-sized Zerg assault. And all the while, an endless stream of Needleships continued to emerge from the center of the Stargate, gradually adding to the Homeworld Fleet's size.
"How long is that Stargate going to be able to hold out?" asked Daniel. It seemed that it was impossibly tough; many billions of attacks were now pounding away nonstop at the Stargate, keeping its entire surface white-hot and slowly corroding it away.
"Around three minutes," said Ariel matter-of-factly.
The officers were still gazing at the hologram (and the mainframe still showed 0 Terran robot casualties) when a seemingly very satisfied Christopher and Sarlena returned hand-in-hand in their uniforms. Everyone turned instinctively to look at them, and instantaneously their faces turned beet red, their hands quickly parting.
Trying to remedy the situation, Christopher blurted out bashfully, "did we miss anything?"
Daniel gave them a smile. "Nope, you missed not a thing, though a sizable chunk of the entire Protoss navy was shot down, and I think we all missed a lot of what happened in your room--"
Christopher and Sarlena stole startled glances at each other, but Daniel smiled. "So... You had your fun, yes? Maybe when this battle's over I'm going to turn on a psi emitter, I'll feed it some positive vibes and then replay it over and over while I trance myself in its bliss," he replied, not a bit embarrassed. "And, I'm sure, everyone else here had plenty of fun taking over for me and tending to me while I was kept hostage the last time around?" Several other officers blinked, embarrassed as well.
Their discussion was suddenly cut short when a powerful blast of psionic power traversed the cosmic tapestry, throwing Daniel, Ariel, and Zeratul into unconsciousness. A shocked Sarlena rushed just in time to save him from cracking open his skull on a computer monitor. "Oh my goodness, oh-- what could have caused this? Stroke, heart attack--" she panicked.
"Computer! Activate emergency medical hologram!" ordered Christopher. Moments later a holographic Doctor appeared right beside him. As the Hyperion turned its sensors inward, the Doctor sighed and turned to look at Christopher warily.
"Is he going to be okay?"
"Psionic shocks aren't any established specialty. That said, Admiral Travincal should be in good shape, but his mind was clearly overloaded. There's no telling if he might awake with considerable retrograde and/or anterograde amnesia--"
"Just get to the point, will you, Doctor?" interrupted Christopher.
A pause, before responding, "He might come out a changed man."
Silence filled the room. He and Sarlena both pondered the meanings of those words, recalling their shared experiences so long ago. Daniel had been a pleasant man, authoritative when necessary, highly intelligent and flexible; the list went on and on. This conclusion from a Doctor seemed nigh close to a death sentence for the soul that was within the unconscious figure, the clear leader of this fleet. Without him, everything could soon fall apart, especially relations with the Protoss.
Christopher was pumped full of anger. "It's all the doings of the Overmind," he burst out suddenly, allowing his mind to succumb to the raw energy that swelled within him. "It's time we started doing something about all this. The deaths on Tarsonis, the planet-cracking of Antiga Prime, the invasion of Aiur, and now this - it's all the Overmind's fault! And Daniel won't even let us engage in battle against our worst enemies! I'll just go and shoot them down--"
"And what, Chris!" challenged Sarlena, shouting out of worried despair. "What are you going to be able to do about it?"
"I'm going to KILL THEM ALL!" Christopher emphasized with an upraised fist.
"Chris, think about this rationally. You've seen how many of them are out there. You've seen what they are capable of. What are you going to do, blow them all up?"
Christopher was hyperventilating. "Well, I'm going to kill it, I swear, and it may not be now, but someday - it'll happen. I'll see to it that it goes down. Meanwhile--"
"Now what?" asked an irritated James as he finally returned to the bridge.
"Right now I'm going to go shoot up some aliens!"
"NO" shouted several voices alongside that of Sarlena and James. "You don't know what you're getting into!"
"Oh, I don't, do I?" Christopher challenged. "Are you just going to sit on your hands and let the Overmind get away with knocking Daniel into a coma? Are we going to just wait while the Zerg rip the planet to shreds? Is that what this race has become, cowards? Since Daniel's been put out of action, I, as the rear admiral, am now in command of this fleet. I order us into action to the battle at Aiur's umbra; that's where the fighting actually matters."
"While he was still capable, Daniel gave us orders not to engage the Zerg. The situation hasn't changed since then," Sarlena fought back. "As colonel I'm going to belay that order."
"What-- Sarlena, how could you!" Christopher had the appearance of a man who felt he had been cheated.
"Daniel has spent months putting together this fleet. I'm not going to just let you get this fleet destroyed in a few seconds because of some desire for revenge of yours."
"It seems you're all against me, huh? A mutiny, is that it? Fine then, I don't want to challenge you any more, Sarlena, and I don't want to put you in danger, so you and your fleet can just remain parked here. I've made my mind; it's set. No one can change it. And Sarlena, you've no right to get in my way."
"But Chris!" Sarlena protested. She would not allow him, her lover, to go into that endless battle and get himself killed. She just couldn't, and instantly she shut that scary thought out of her mind. "Listen to me!" She tugged and pulled on his arm, but the man continued resolutely to the docking bay of the battlecruiser. "You've never taken aerial combat training lessons with Wraith fighters before, you'll get killed!"
"Not now, Sarlena," Chris replied steely, doing his best to ignore her.
"You can't go out there - you musn't!" she pleaded with him, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears. "I... I don't want to lose you!"
Christopher turned to Sarlena with a steel expression on his face. "I'm a man, Sarlena. I have to do this."
"Otherwise, I'll feel like I'm only a shell, a shadow of my former self. I can't stand to allow this injustice continue. You, of all people, should know that! I have to do this."
"No, please! Won't you stay behind, just for me?" Sarlena supplicated, trying futilely to drag him away, while the crew on board watched in surprise. "Not even for me?? ... Comrades, stop him!" she ordered the onlookers, but they made no move to stop them at all, absorbed as they were with gaping at the two in continued surprise.
"No, Sarlena, I won't allow my love to get in the way of my duty," Christopher responded adamantly, before resolutely shoving her to the ground and stalking off, leaving Sarlena in her lovely, useless dress prone on the walkway, wailing her heart out in her despair and longing, as he walked over to a parked starfighter.
"Sarlena, if ever you think that I am dead, remember that your eyes can deceive you, and do not give up hope. I've come this far already; this heart is much more resilient than you may think."
That was the only thing preventing her from committing suicide.
She didn't know at the moment how prophetic those words were.
The crew members clustered around her. "Are you... okay?"
Sarlena's exhausted tears rolled down easily; she didn't even bother to get back off the ground. The stress in her was very evident. "He... he left me... he left me to fight in a war... Why couldn't he fight the war from here!?!" she shouted, not expecting an answer.
The crew tried to assuage her suffering. "He's going off to do something noble, colonel Aeryth. You're intelligent enough to recognize that."
"No, no," muttered Sarlena between sobs. "There is a saying that goes, 'Hold troops for one lifetime, use troops for one time.' No, I'm sober enough to see what that means. No, he's not going off to do something noble..." She broke down completely, slamming a fist onto the floor tiles. "He's going off to die."
When Sarlena had finally recovered from her outpouring of woes, she began walking back to the bridge. It was just fine; after all, she needed some solitude to reflect on the state of things, both external and internal. As she swooped down to take a sip from a drinking fountain, she thought she heard stealthy footsteps behind her.
Military instincts taking over and doing their best to push away the emotional residues of Christopher's departure, Sarlena whirled around, right hand on the gun in her holster - and found herself staring into a nearly expressionless Michael, who seemed to have just walked out of the psychiatric wards, and who had a hand outstretched toward her. Outstretched, as in holding a murderous blade to her neck and pinning her to the wall.
"Mike - What is this, what are you doing?" Sarlena's terrified voice came out trembling.
"Sarlena, these past few months have been just unspeakably horrible for me. All the suffering, all the guilt. And no one ever feels compassion for me, NO ONE, do you hear? Everyone else just goes about life as if it were absolutely normal. Do I even matter to any of you? What am I but a vegetable laying in sickbay, untreatable? Is that the life I want to live? NO!"
"Mike, are you still thinking about the death of that girl back on Mar Sara?" That one girl - Michael was now hopelessly outdated. Things had moved so swiftly since then. But for one person at least, that famous paradox still held: innumerable deaths may be only a statistic, but a single one was far, far worse. Yet, to think that he Still hadn't gotten past it - this post-traumatic stress disorder was eating out his soul.
And worse, there seemed to be no remedy for it. Sarlena could only wish that his suffering could end soon, to allow him to live a blessed life... but it was so far away.
Michael was angry, his eyes' stares threatening beyond comprehension; maniacal. Totally wasted away and twisted by the months of tormenting solitude. "That wasn't just a girl, Sarlena! She had a life of her own, a soul - and all that was taken away from her! And you, you stood right next to me back then, and what did you do? Nothing!"
"What now, are you blaming ME for her death? You know that I had no part in it!" By now Sarlena had understood why Michael was behaving this way: the torment of holding full responsibility for having accidentally killed someone was just too much for him to bear. He could only hope to keep his sanity by throwing the greater part of his guilt on someone else, someone who could at least plausibly be held accountable. And in the process, he had unfortunately become the maddened, insane zombie he had tried to resist becoming.
"Yes you did! By your very act of doing nothing, you are guilty. You should have stopped me from doing what I did!"
"But it looked like you were about to hit the lisk, how was I supposed to know that you would have miss--" The cold of the blade pressing into her soft skin caused her to stop speaking, now absolutely terrified.
"You refuse to acknowledge your guilt? You refuse to?! How dare you! You are even more responsible than I am for that debacle!" Sarlena did not protest as he continued. "And now, so that I can say to the girl's soul in heaven, that I exacted vengeance, I'm going to-- Ah--" The flow of blood-curdling words abruptly stopped, time seemed to stop, as Michael seemed to all stiffen up and fall backward onto the ground, revealing James standing in the doorway, tranquilizer in hand.
Sarlena's relief at being saved from an untimely death brought far greater euphoria than everything - and that was everything - else that she had experienced in her life. It was so much for her that she blacked out.