With the closure of the second season of Bane, I would like to take a serious moment and reflect on all that has passed since that first, ancient chapter eight years ago.
First, and definitely foremost of all, I would like to thank every single reader out there, past and present, for all the kind words of encouragement that have kept me going through these long years, through the happy times and the sad. Even when I had doubt in myself, you guys, you most awesome, righteous, noble, priceless and otherwise indispensable readers, gave me the strength and drive to go on. To these people whom I have grown to care for so greatly, please know this:
YOU ARE THE HEART. You are the spirit of Bane. Without you, the series would have never been. For all that you have given me, for making my life what it is, for reading even if you've never commented, I thank you all from the very bottom of my heart. For you, I would never give up. For you, I will never quit.
I thank StarCraft.Org, for being the birthplace of the story, for gathering the first voices to carry the series' name. I shall always think back fondly of that first shining year and all those that followed in Bane's first home. May we all meet again one day, and be a great community; a noisy, crowded, arguing, unruly second family once more.
I thank all my old battle.net buddies; chaos, menace, apoco, deadly, mage, banerules, larry, liveon4ever, nolar and all the rest for those 24-hour sprees of melee carnage, for the honor of fighting at your side for only the prize of glory. For all those nights you forgave me for leaving early to write.
Yellow, Nerroth, Deadly and Ead, for putting up with my hours upon hours of Bane-oriented ramblings, for all your advice and help, for waving my random periods of absent-ness, and for always being there when nobody else was. Thank you for being my friends.
Spartan_117 and scififreak90, for humbling me. For DeltaForce's and Ihatezerg's painfully blunt yet highly constructive critiques. And Doctorzetabyte, for your occasional two-page-long reviews.
BSTRhino, AJ, Neo and all the Org staff, for the time and headaches spent in a valiant and selfless effort to keep us all together, for all the countless hours of toil, lost sleep and sacrifice that no one knows or sees.
Now that I look back, really look back, I feel like a single cog in an immense clockwork woven over time. Without the help of so many, there would be no Bane. Everyone had a part to play, and all were significant to the whole. I look forward now to the third season of Bane with new eyes, with a greater appreciation of what it took to reach this point, and I hope to see some of you when we have this talk again at the next finale. To all these people, you have my undying gratitude. Thank you for reading. Thank you, everyone, for being part of the story.
Bane 20: Hero's Burden
For a moment, the only sound was the high drone of the ship’s thrusters. A little slow on her cue, Caryn yelled at us over one shoulder,
“Who the hell is Dramier?!”
Nobody seemed to pay her any attention. Finally, I let the TRA drop from my good hand and looked up to the hydralisk,
“What do we do?”
Even San’Dreale seemed to hang until Bane spoke again,
“Dramier now controls most of Zeratul’s council; so long as he is in command, the first-born are of little use against the might of the swarm. We must free them from this corruption before all is lost.”
I sighed heavily and ran my good hand through my hair. To my surprise, that hand was trembling.
“This just keeps getting better...”
With legs that suddenly felt more like rubber, I turned from the aliens and plunked into the pilot’s chair next to Caryn. I stared through the glass a moment before finally reaching for the mic. In the windshield, the deep blue of the atmosphere was already giving way to the fathomless darkness of space.
“Interceptor Four hailing Mark Three,” I said mechanically, “Mich, we found San’Dreale, but now we’ve got bigger problems.”
Cayrn and I exchanged a nervous glance when the radio failed to respond with anything but static. I repeated the message, more forcefully this time. Still, there was no reply.
“...Something’s wrong,” I practically mumbled, unsure of what to say.
“Mich said they were under attack moments ago,” she offered, “Could they have lost communications?”
“Either that or the Protoss are blocking the frequency somehow,” I replied as I silently hoped for a jammed radio signal and switched on the long-range thermal scanner.
Bane came forward and slouched between Caryn and I to see through the windshield just before the scan began turning out results. The Mark III was twenty clicks out with one nearby Protoss signature, but something was definitely amiss. The combat readouts didn’t make sense.
As we drew closer, that lone alien vessel became visible to the naked eye along with the flashing keel lights of the Mark III. It was holding a steady course, but periodic blue explosions peppered her hull seemingly from nowhere. The only visible enemy was simply following the ship as if to keep silent record of the destruction.
“They’re taking fire!” Caryn barked as we overtook the slower Protoss vessel, passing it on the left.
“I know! I know!” I shot back, cursing the low-frequency scanners, “We’ve got nothing on the scan!”
I looked to my left, at the hydralisk that poked its head between us, “Can you see anything, Bane?”
The hydralisk’s eyes glowed briefly brighter and its rumbling answer was without delay.
“Four Protoss scouts strafe your ship under the cloak of an arbitor. They concentrate their fire on the battle cruiser for now, but Dramier will surely turn them against us when we draw near.”
I worked my bad arm gently, testing the rotation of my shoulder. Still sore, but I didn’t have a choice.
“Caryn,” I said as I took the copilot controls, “Watch the scanner from your end and let me know the moment were being targeted.”
I paused long enough to wrap my fists around the wheel in a white knuckle grip before addressing the hydralisk without looking up,
“Bane, help me see.”
The next forty seconds were among the slowest of my life. My senses shimmered briefly before melding with the combined alien awareness of Bane. The fathomless black depth of space was suddenly alight in a soft blue glow, outlining the swerving Protoss vessels against an infinitely overlapping backdrop of distant celestial bodies.
Aided by the Cerebrate’s evolved senses and the calm mind through which he saw everything, all detail was obvious. Even moving at speed, I could make out every bend and curve in the metal of the Protoss ships and feel the psionic charge just before they loosed another pair of anti-matter missiles.
I vaguely recall Caryn’s voice calling out, as if from a great distance, when two of the fighters peeled away from the attack and turned straight for us.
“They have us locked!”
I didn’t need the warning. The incoming projectiles seemed as big as dinner plates in my eyes and their path to the nose of our dropship was as obvious as if it were drawn with a line. I mentally screamed at my hands to jerk the wheel at the last moment, but my body didn’t seem capable of keeping up with my mind when entwined with Bane’s. It must have only been a split second, but the nose of the ship crawled down and left as the missiles oozed by above.
One of them was foiled entirely but the other just clipped the top of the stern and exploded against the hull with enough force to smash Bane against the low ceiling of the cockpit. Our mental connection flickered as we both struggled to maintain concentration. Caryn yelled and I would have been thrown out of my seat if I wasn’t strapped in.
Despite a wailing hydraulic alarm, the engines didn’t hesitate when I pulled the craft back up, bringing the Mark III in view of the windshield again. Like a ripple on a still pond, a sudden thought from Bane ran across my mind.
“Your brethren know we are here! There is an opening!”
Led by the mind’s eye, I found the craft bay on the port side agape. If we could get inside, there was a chance.
As if on cue, the other two Scouts veered toward us instead of executing another run at the Mark III. I couldn’t see them, but because of Bane, I was able to feel the first pair of fighters simultaneously closing in pursuit. It was a squeeze tactic, and we were dead if it snapped shut on the dropship.
Aided once more by the calm senses and calculation of the alien’s mind and the awareness of my own physical limitations, I saw only one avenue of escape. When the scouts fired, I nearly forgot to give Caryn a brief verbal warning before I goosed the last notch of throttle and leaned into the controls.
The stars spun on a wild axis as the dropship barrel-rolled. Two of the anti-matter missiles missed only by the breadth of our ship’s width as it spun. I pulled the controls right and up, bringing the vessel’s spin to a stomach-wrenching halt, and banked out with everything she had to give.
Although the last set of opposing projectiles missed our dropship, they actually hit each other, detonating beneath the keel with a horrendous blast.
My mental link with Bane was finally broken as the hydralisk was knocked over backwards by the sudden explosion. For a few fleeting seconds, I was lost in vertigo until my own senses returned. When they did, my shoulder blade was throbbing in pain and the master alarm was going off.
As my eyes focused, I suddenly noticed that the windshield was spider-webbed with crackling, jagged lines that were quickly spreading. We were losing cabin pressure and the thrusters were stumbling, making the controls shudder in my hands, but the open craft bay on the Mark III was so close that I could see the rivets in the hull.
Engines coughing, I desperately nosed the dropship toward the bay and the armor plating rushed to meet us. Blue fire blotted out the view just before we passed inside; a pair of last-ditch shots from the protoss that went wide and exploded against the Mark III’s hull.
I jammed the reverse thrusters when the flames washed over the windshield. A terrible screech of steel on steel instantly bombarded the ears as our dropship skidded into the open craft bay, actually bouncing once before grating out its moment in a slide to the rear bulkhead.
Moments after our battered craft heaved to a smoking halt, the bay’s airlock doors could be heard closing with a comforting, muffled drum of steel. Caryn hit the release for the rear cargo door and I cut the power to the stuttering engines. Already, the Mark III began to tremor beneath us as the scouts resumed their attack outside.
“We have to get to the bridge!” I yelled over my shoulder to the alien passengers, “Those things are going to blow the ship full of holes if we don’t start the warp drives pronto!”
Bane and San’Dreale piled out the back, and I would have been right behind them if the buckle to my harness hadn’t jammed in the crash. Caryn noticed my difficulty with a huff and leaned over to help.
I saw a movement from the edge of my vision and looked up through the cracked viewports to see the bulkhead door opening. A tall, alien figure stood on the other side, its body and long robes drifting in the air as if gravity didn’t apply. I had only seen this variation of Protoss once before, eight years ago on Rakeem’s carrier. It was a High Templar.
A brief electrical buzz was the only warning before the very air in the hangar exploded to life with a white, crackling light. I instinctively covered my face as the ruined windshield shattered inward and every instrument among the controls erupted in a fountain of sparks. Flashing psionic tendrils lashed around the opening where the neo-glass used to be, searing long black gashes in the metal. If Caryn and I were outside the ship during the psionic storm, we would have been cooked alive.
The templar attack lasted almost five seconds when the angry bluish energy and its vicious crackle suddenly died out as if someone had tripped over the cord. I uncovered my face in time to see the assailing Protoss grimly drop to its knees and flop forward on the deck, its head missing from a few well-placed hydalisk spikes.
Caryn and I barely had enough time to reach behind our seats and grab our respective weapons before a whole conga-line of Zealots surged around the thresh hold.
The first melee warrior fell quickly beneath a barrage of lead from my gauss rifle and a finishing spike from Bane. Only a second slow, another crumpled to the thundering report of Caryn’s sniper rifle.
Despite the bottle-neck from the bulkhead door and our offending ranged weapons, the mindless Protoss pushed through by the pair and spilled across the hangar toward us with reckless abandon. Caryn and I continued firing through the dropship’s windshield like a make-shift pill box when the zealots closed the distance to Bane.
Two of them came at him from both sides, but the hydralisk only turned to crush the one on the right. Singing through the air as an arc of blue light, San’Dreale’s warp blade fell across the enemy from the left, sending the hapless warrior spinning back to the deck in a torrent of dissipating energy.
Once sworn enemies, the two aliens stood back-to-back and reared their weapons together against the encroaching wave of psionic dismemberment.
San’Dreale’s warp blade cleaved the air again, repelling another zealot that dove at him with its daggers whirling and Bane caught the next in a wicked upper-cut that plowed through the warrior’s charge and sent him reeling over backwards.
Caryn finished reloading her sniper rifle just as my weapon ran dry, and she leaned forward to get an angle at the ring of targets. They were warily slashing and feigning at Bane and San’Dreale, trying to form an opening to attack, when Caryn’s C-7 lashed the ears again. A zealot on the outside of the mob took the round square in the back while another flipped over the whole group and flopped to the deck in two halves; a result of getting too close to the hydralisk in the center.
Half a dozen protoss had been slain or lay dying, but there were twice that many still fighting to get a stab at Bane or San’Dreale.
“Break onto my damned ship, attack my friends?!” I growled as I dropped the empty gauss rifle and awkwardly reached for the C-8 with my good arm, “I clear ships for a living!”
“Bane!” I yelled through the windshield as I leaned out with the shell launcher, “Incoming!”
The wild idea passed to Bane and then to San’Dreale like the leap of spark. In one motion, the Templar slipped behind the hydralisk as Bane braced with both scythes folded in front of his face.
The hearty kick of the C-8 made my ribs scream, but I ignored it outright and indiscriminately fired all eight rounds into the crowd of zealots in rapid succession. I lost sight of the targets by the third round, their flying bodies and swirling, blue death-auras swallowed by a blossom of fire that billowed to the hangar ceiling.
As the flames dissipated and the smoke drifted back, the smoldering hydralisk was still standing in the center. Not a single zealot was left alive. While I watched, Bane relaxed his brace and the Templar leaned out from the cover of the hydralisk’s armored backside and blinked at the carnage.
Caryn uncovered her ears and shook her head in astonishment,
“Sonofa-bitch, Reece! How did you know that would work?!”
“Because I’ve done it before,” I replied quickly as I jumped up and rushed to my equipment in the cargo hold, “Nobody breaks onto my ship.”
San’Dreale’s foot falls and the heavy thump-slide of the hydralisk shook the grated walkway behind me as I led the aliens through the Mark III at a jog. The corridor lights flickered and the deck trembled with the continued bombardment of the scouts. On every wing, the battle alarms were wailing, but I was determined to make this right. I wasn’t going to let that archon do this to me again. Not this time.
With the C-8 gripped in one hand and my gauss pistols at their places on my hips, I followed the intruders’ path through the main wing. It was obvious that Dramier had acquired some knowledge of Terran ships, because their trail led straight to the bridge.
Every door was locked from the inside, but the zealots had simply carved through the steel with their psionic blades as if they had used cutting torches. The double blast doors to the Mark III’s bridge were open at the head of the next incline, but we all came to a halt at the top.
Five zealots and another High Templar stood at the head of the bridge, and three of them held Mich, T.J. and Mosely hostage at the points of psionic blades.
“Sorry, kids,” Boss apologized as he looked up, “We held out as long as we could.”
Mich was a mess; blood ran down one side of his face and the eye on that side was swollen shut. The zealot was holding him on his feet by one arm and the other was twisted at an odd angle just above the wrist. T.J. was in similar shape, although he didn’t speak when our eyes met. He just grinned widely, blood showing between his teeth. Mosely must have fought like a bear; he was busted, bleeding all over and missing a boot.
“Hang in there, guys,” I growled with clenched teeth, squeezing the C-10's pistol grip with white knuckles, “We’ll get you out of this!”
Caryn swung her sniper rifle up to her shoulder.
“Wait!” San’Dreale’s telepathic voice hissed, “Their shields! We cannot stop them before they attack!”
Dramier’s unworldly laughter came to us through the minds of the enslaved Protoss as they held my friends inches from the searing blades of death.
“...One of the greatest flaws of sentience is the inability to accept sacrifice. How pathetic! The fact that I brought the mighty Zeratul to his knees in the same manner is more satisfying than I could have ever imagined!”
“Cowardly fool!” Bane rumbled with suppressed rage, “You corrupt your own people even as they struggle against the might of the Zerg! You risk all sanctity of life in pursuit of your own petty agenda!”
Dramier’s telepathic laughter escalated before the ghostly choir of his voice lashed out with no warning.
“My agenda?!” The words wailed, “I had presumed Rakeem’s fabled hero would be more insightful! My work here is in effort of a greater cause; pity none of you will live to see it to fruition.”
Bane’s telepathic words shimmered through my boiling thoughts, just a whisper over the turmoil,
“We can stop them, but we must strike as one. When the time is right, use your weapons on the Protoss in the center. I will take the Templar and Caryn the other.”
My own silent response flashed back over the hydralisk’s mental link instantly.
“How will I know when?”
Bane did not reply while Dramier’s psychotic voice continued.
“...My sincerest apologies for keeping you vermin waiting! Just a few more moments now and the rest of my toys will arrive to finish annihilating your feeble battle cruiser.”
“Shoot these bastards, Reece!” Mich yelled as the ship’s range scanner chirped with temporal anomalies; signaling the arrival of more enemies.
I could practically feel the heat churning beneath Bane’s eyes as they burned a fierce crimson, staining the bridge in a red hue.
“No one moves!” Dramier’s pawns echoed, “So long have I waited for this moment; Now that it is here, I will let nothing take it...”
The Archon’s twisted words trailed off as a faint psionic buzz began to float in the air. It grew in strength until the ship shuddered once beneath us. Only when the power on the bridge began to dim did I suddenly recognize what Bane was doing. Lastly, the zealot’s psi blades flickered out just before the ship was plunged into three seconds of darkness.
In spite of my bad arm, I dropped the C-10 and pulled both gauss pistols from their holsters. I was joined by Bane and Caryn with her rifle in a furious hail of thundering lead and whistling hydralisk spines.
When the lights and systems returned, Mosely slumped unconscious to the deck with the ballistic riddled protoss. Without their plasma shields, all of them were rendered temporarily defenseless against our unexpected attack.
Mich dropped forward onto his knees and glanced blankly at the zealot that flopped to the floor next to him. It was the one that held him hostage.
“...It was about damned time! Now help me fly us the hell outta here!”
I jammed the gauss pistols back in their holsters, scooped up the C-10 with my good arm and began crossing the bridge while the secondary perimeter alarm suddenly started blaring. Reflexively, I covered my face in passing as one of the maimed Protoss burned from existence with a brief blue fire.
The holographic scanner projection flashed up as I put my palms on the podium and my heart skipped a beat. A pair of Protoss Carriers and a dozen additional fighters had emerged from warp space in attack formation. We would be lucky if we had a full minute before they closed the distance to weapon range.
San’Dreale was helping T.J. stand and Mich just managed to stumble to the ship’s drive console without falling back down when Bane crossed the bridge to join me. He didn’t have to study the hologram to understand the situation.
“We must go! Now!”
Mich spat and replied from his controls,
“For once, I have to agree with you, Bigg’s! Reece, is the core ready for warp jump?”
I hit a few keys on the console in front of me and read back the display as the deck rocked beneath us.
“Twenty seconds to core max,” I winched as an annoying buzzer began chirping and quickly added to my report, “All bandits have target lock.”
“Where’s our next stop, Biggie?” Mich barked as the engine cores could be heard reaching their crescendo. The telepathic answer came from Bane and San’Dreale simultaneously.
The scanner image revealed half a dozen fighters strafing the Mark III. More of them were falling in as the Carriers began deploying their payload of robotic interceptors. For those few moments before the warp drives reacted, we were helpless as the bridge heaved around us with the ever-increasing bombardment.
There was a brief sensation of weightlessness as the stars suddenly stretched out to reach by us, akin to the feeling of falling. Then just as quickly, everything returned to a resemblance of normal as the hysterical perimeter alarms died off. Dramier’s stolen fleet was already a half-million miles behind us, but it would be a twenty-seven hour jump to Shakuras and we didn’t even know if the Mark III could still complete the trip.
“Bane,” I said over my shoulder, having breathed a wary sigh of relief in our fragile window of safety, “Help San’Dreale take the guys to the medical bay. Caryn and I will do a quick damage assessment and I’ll be down to help.”
The hydralisk responded with a short nod and a growl before moving to scoop Mosely up with booth scythes like a living fork lift. TJ and Mich leaned on Rakeem’s old student and they all filed silently off the bridge.
Once I was reasonably assured of the Mark III’s immediate stability, I left Caryn to watch the bridge while I went to help with the guys. There were times when one of us would get hurt on a job, but now Caryn, Bane and San’Dreale were the only ones left uninjured. Next time, we would be heading straight into the maw of the beast and the consequences would be worse. Much worse.
And it would be my fault.
I nearly stopped in mid-step. Mich and the gang took me in and raised me after Bane died on Rakeem’s carrier, despite how easily they could have dumped me off at any backwater settlement in the sector. They taught me to fight, gave me transportation and a place to live, and were the closest thing I’ve ever had to a real family. I would never forgive myself if something happened to one of them while fighting my battle.
And what of Bane? The noble creature had already sacrificed itself to save me more times than I cared to remember. Yet, if it came to the decision once more, I knew he would do it again without hesitation.
Mich was right all along. I was being too careless, too wreckless. I would have been dead a dozen times over if it wasn’t for the intervention of those I cared about, and sooner or later, one of them would end up paying that price in my stead. I shook my head to clear my thoughts.
Never again, I thought as my pace quickened, I would never let it happen again.
Mosely was laid out on the triage table and, with Mich’s instruction, San’Dreale was already starting the bio-grafts and regeneration accelerators. T.J. was in the next-to-worst shape and I drained almost half a TRA cell getting him on his feet again. Boss already had most of his flesh wounds sealed up, but he was still cradling his arm. All totaled, they were very lucky to have escaped a brawl against nine-foot aliens with only a few bad bruises, cuts and a couple broken bones.
After T.J. was able to finish his own bandaging, I helped Mich set and wrap his arm, which had fractured just above the wrist. Finally, the stuttering warp drives became too much for Boss and he sent me away.
“Go take care of damage control on the bridge before this thing blows up beneath us, Reece! We’ll get the rest of this under control and meet you there.”
I was hesitant to leave at first, with Mosely still in bad shape, but San’Dreale looked down at me with an assuring look in his dark eyes.
“He is correct, Young One. Personal aid here means nothing if this vessel is left compromised.”
I nodded and glanced to Bane before turning to leave for the bridge again,
“Stay here for me, Bud, just in case they need something.”
The hydralisk mimicked my nod with a low growl and I left the sick bay at a jog.
After running every automated diagnostic, the damage report was official. The short bought with the Protoss left us with three auto-turrets down, multiple hull breaches on both the port and starboard sides and one burned-out warp reactor. The steerage hold had to be remotely sealed off due to a complete compromise of atmospheric pressure and I actually had to bring the ship out of warp long enough to power up an auxiliary drive and shut down the scorched one.
By moving from console to console and pecking away for the better side of four hours, I was able to finish the task that usually went to six crewmen. All the while, Caryn kept a watch on the scanners and engine integrity, occasionally even helping with the repetitious chore of rerouting the laundry list of damaged power and life-support systems.
If I expected lectures or snide remarks from her, I was stunningly mistaken. Caryn carried about the tasks before her with a soft, silent efficiency I did not know she possessed. Eventually, I literally became concerned about her and stopped to ask if she was alright.
She said she was fine, just a little shaken up, but that didn’t seem like the wildfire of a girl that took pleasure in striking me with metal objects. When I stole glances at her eyes, she was the same Caryn, but something was different. I could only chalk it up to weariness or, perhaps, the two near-misses with the Protoss had sobered her just a little bit.
Mich startled us both when he stepped through the door to the bridge, his bad arm in a sling.
“How’s Mosely and T.J. doing?” I asked as I turned back to the console in front of me. Boss limped across the bridge, stopping to check Caryn’s monitor.
“T.J. is going to be back in my hair in no time flat, but Mosely took a real beating. We’ll have to work carefully with the carbon grafters to sate some internal bleeding, but that Protoss pal of yours has a real knack for patching up busted Terrans.”
Mich left Caryn’s console to push me out from in front of mine,
“You kids go get cleaned up and try to get a little rest. I’ll finish up from here.”
“No way,” I protested in vain, “What if something goes wrong? You’ve only got one good arm and if-“
Boss wasn’t going to hear any of it and interrupted me in mid-sentence,
“Even with one arm, I’m better than you’ll be on your best day, kid, and I’m still the captain of this ship. Now I order you, both of you, to go take some down time; you look like hell.”
For lack of energy to fight, I backed down and looked to Caryn, who seemed relieved that I was accepting the opportunity for a break.
“Care for a drink?”
For the first time since we left Braxis, Caryn cracked a smile.
“It’s about damn time you offered one.”
The Mark III’s cantina was cluttered with keepsakes from different fights and jobs that Mich, the crew and I brought back over the years. Dented squares of various armored plates, shattered combat helmets and commandeered weapons lined the walls. A loop of slow, drawling country songs began playing over the jukebox when I flicked on the lights and stepped behind the bar.
Fully crewed, the Mark III took a team of twenty people and the cantina had ample seating for that many and more. The only shame was that it was rarely used as more than a trophy room and a mostly-empty lounge when the crew and I had off-time between jobs. Things were going well enough to begin hiring additional crew members, but that’s when the Hiemdall Defense Core seized the ship as a stolen craft. The bottles had sat on the shelves for two years since and now I had to rub the dust off the labels to read what they contained.
Olde Earth brand scotch was the beverage of choice and I poured two glasses with just ice. Caryn thanked me quietly as I handed her a glass and plunked down on a stool next to her at the end of the bar. There was a large port-hole style window at this wall and I stared at the passing stars with heavy sigh.
Now that I finally had time to simply sit and think, all I wanted to do was sleep. With a start, I realized that I was still wearing all my ammunition and gear. Unexpectedly, Caryns arms fell over my shoulders as she hugged me from her seat on the stool behind me.
She made no move to grope at me, nor I her. Both mentally exhausted, we simply hung like that for several minutes before I felt her soft breath on my hair.
“How did this happen to you?”
That question was the last thing I expected from her, or from anyone, but I felt too weary for surprise. Instead, I laughed lightly and spoke to her without breaking my stare on the sliding view of space.
“That’s a long story, Princess. Remember? And you have to ask nicely.”
“And it’s a long ride to Shakuras,” she whispered and kissed my neck, “Please. I want to know.”
I was quiet for a while longer. Despite the countless times I had relived it all through memory, it became suddenly difficult to convey it in words. Caryn hugged me a little tighter and laid her chin on my shoulder, as if to encourage me. Finally, I decided it was best to start where it began.
Caryn hung on my shoulders in silence as I told her what was, essentially, the story of my life. I began with how I was shipped to the Rusty Bastard to work for captain Clem as a child, how I learned to maintain, then repair small craft and eventually fly them. I even included some brief stories of Jill, Mike and Randy that worked there with me, and the foggy memory of my parents before they were drafted and declared missing-in-action four months later.
It all changed as I came to the day that I had an ore shipment to Korhal on my supposed time off. I told her how I first met Bane as a Zergling in that besieged compound, and of the first few occasions in which he had saved my life; so often at the cost of his own.
I recalled in awe when I first laid eyes on the alien’s intimidating Hunter-Killer form. With a sense of wonder and nostalgia, I told her about my terrifying and exhilarating flight on the back of a Mutalisk when we escaped the wraiths and crashed in the canyon.
Sometimes, the story was fast and my voice gained strength with the tales of narrow rescues and escapes, each more outlandish than the last. Currently oblivious to my bad arm, I gestured with both hands in attempt to explain the events in greater detail.
A rogue chuckle occasionally forced its way up as I caught myself getting side tracked by the finer points of top-speed zergling riding over uneven terrain or the unique difficulties of teaching a hydralisk to read.
All too often, the words were few and sad, like when I told her of the night I spent sheltered from the rain beneath a mutalisk’s wing, watching the red lamps of Bane’s eyes flicker out as he fought a losing battle against death; when he took the monstrous form of the lurker to drive off Dramier’s stolen fleet, knowing he condemned himself in doing so. Then, how I nearly killed my friend when we met again on that merchant ship eight years later.
When there was, at last, nothing left to tell, Caryn kissed me on the neck again and whispered softly.
“Thank you, hero-boy. That was quite a story, but you left something out.”
“What’s that?” I asked, snapping back from my memories.
Caryn stood up and ran her hands down my chest, seeking my lips with hers. I could not deny them. After the kiss, she answered.
“You forgot the part where you get the girl and save the world.”
“I’m working on it,” I grinned sheepishly and seized her chin, stealing a kiss of my own. She didn’t object, and instead, slid around the side of the chair and onto my lap without breaking contact.
In that precious time, we forgot our fear, doubt and weariness through each other. It was not the fleeting, hasty lust like before, in the dropships, but something slower and infinitely sweeter. Those moments were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. They were something more.
At a point, Caryn stood up, drawing me with her by hand and lips. I was physically powerless and utterly unwilling to resist; I could no more give her up in that moment than I could my own life. With the dexterity of a thief, her free hand found the buckles to my ammunition belts and weapon holsters, leaving them to drop on the deck behind us as we left the cantina together.
For a few minutes, I just watched Caryn as she slept. The transformation was mind-boggling. Her face looked soft and relaxed, showing no trace of the scrutinizing scowl she seemed to wear every waking moment. I wanted to sleep as well, but the cold feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach would allow me no rest.
I had no comprehension of what lay ahead on Shakuras, but the urge to turn back grew with every passing moment. After all, I had what I wanted now; my friends, Bane and Caryn. We had a ship that could take us anywhere in the known four sectors. It would be all too easy to alter the course of the Mark Three for another backwater planet and start over again somewhere.
And then what?
My shimmer of hope was struck down by that thought like the rebound of a hammer. It would all simply happen again. Like a curse, Bane’s curse, the Zerg would follow us to any world. It had been happening all along and I refused to see it. There was no running from this. The only true solution was to face it; face the swarm. At last, I slipped quietly out of Caryn’s bunk without waking her.
Treading in my socks, the only sound I made was the hiss of the pneumatic door as I left. I backed out of Caryn’s quarters carrying my boots in my good hand and turned around once I was sure the door was shut. When I did, I took one step and came face-to-armored-face with a drooling, ten-foot monster. I would have visibly recoiled, had I not been half expecting it.
“Hi, Bane. How are the guys doing?”
The Hunter-Killer moved aside as I walked forward, answering as if it took a moment to remember who I was talking about.
“Your Terran brethren will live. The one you call Mosely must rest, but he shall recover as well; thanks in no small favor to the machines.”
The corridor at the end of the crews quarters ended at a viewport of the stars drifting by outside, and I stopped to lean against it with a sigh,
“That’s good, buddy, real good.”
I could feel the red glow of Bane’s gaze intensify, but I focused on the abyss of space instead. When I didn’t meet the hydralisk’s seeking eyes, it moved to stand next to me with a low growl.
“Something troubles you, mortal. I can feel it like a weight on your mind.”
After a long moment, I finally looked up at the crimson lamps of the alien, still unsure how to explain what I felt.
“Bane, I-I know that...” I began with a stutter, before exhaling slowly to calm my thoughts, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
The hydralisk hardly moved. Somehow, he knew that I hadn’t found the right words. My friend silently waited until I continued.
“What I meant to say was...” I paused again in defeat, “I’m afraid, Bane. I’m really afraid...of what it might cost to stop the Zerg.”
Neither one of us spoke again for a while. I leaned into the viewing glass, trying to listen to the dull thrum of the reactors more than my own racing thoughts.
“Fear is not a thing of the Zerg,” Bane began with the reply I knew by heart, but quickly changed tones, “However, in the time I have spent among your species, I have learned many things. To learn to...care for life, even my own, was also to know fear.”
When I looked up again at the hydralisk’s burning eyes, the truth of its words shocked me.
“In all my sentient memory of existence, Reece, I have never known fear such as this. I am also...afraid.”
Once again, we both fell silent. I was in a state of near disbelief; I had always seen this creature as a living boulder of resolve. Unshakable, unmoving, Bane’s strength was always the single constant in my mind. To know that such a being could feel the same fear took the edge off my own. I almost smiled as I thought of this; my friend would save me from anything, even the haunting voices of my dread.
With my mind slightly more at ease, another, entirely different thought crossed my mind. What if I was worried about nothing? What would happen, if by some odd twist of fate, this whole hair-brain plan worked out and we were finally safe from the swarms?
“Bane,” I spoke up with an air of curiosity, “If we live through this–both of us...would you be...free? What would you do then?”
Now it was Bane’s turn to avoid my gaze; he surprised me by doing so in the first place and again with the swiftness of his answer.
“Freedom is not a thing of my species, Reece. Even with the aid of your mind, the concept is foreign to me. Can one not understand freedom and yet still be free?”
We were both quiet for a time when an idea came to me.
“It ultimately boils down to choice, Bane. You could have given in to the Overmind, but you chose to stand against it. Nothing can truly take away the freedom of another as long as they still have a choice.”
I paused for a moment, letting the words sink in.
“Now, if there was nothing left to fight, what would you choose to do?”
Bane remained silent and still for a long time, as if the question had never occurred to him. As easily as the alien could gauge my mind, I could also see his across our mental link. I saw my friend as he saw everyone; the body only as a translucent puppet worn by a heart and mind that betrayed true emotion and intention. I saw twisting uncertainty and cold emptiness sheathing thoughts left half-finished. The fathomless genetic knowledge of the collective Zerg species, gathered through the eons in pursuit of perfection, yielded absolutely nothing in the ways of freedom.
“I have never been without a known purpose,” the hydralisk spoke slowly with its mind, “What is a weapon without an enemy?”
A weak smile pried its way onto my tired face as I stooped down to lace my boots. As I did, I suddenly noticed that I was ravenously hungry.
“That’s the thing about having a choice, Bane. You don’t have to be a weapon,” I said as I stood up again, strangely feeling much better despite the shadow of Shakuras hanging overhead.
“Just be a friend.”
Out of all the Terran concepts Bane did not understand, one of them rang through like a beacon parting the darkness. The hunter killer was still again for a short while, its mind turning suspiciously with my answer as if it couldn’t believe the key to something so cosmic could be so... simple.
My insides groaned hysterically, reminding me that I’d better eat something before we reached Shakuras or I’d have to face the swarms–and possibly the Protoss–while tired and hungry.
“Think about it for a while,” I said as I threw a sideways punch at the hydralisk’s arm, grating the skin off two knuckles in the process, “I’m going to the mess hall for some grub; You hungry, too?”
Without hesitation, Bane’s eyes burned with all their usual ferocity and his growl shook the deck beneath my boots.
“Immensely! Let us make haste.”
Another idea hit me as the hydralisk and I left the crew wing side by side. This one would really throw the alien’s world for a loop.
“...You know, Buddy, Terrans have thousands of different ways to prepare and flavor animal proteins, and you’ve only tried three or four.”
Mich, Mosely and T.J. joined Caryn, Bane and I on the bridge shortly before we exited warp space for Shakuras. Everyone but the hydralisk and San’Dreale were in CMC combat suits. I didn’t object to the bulky armor this time; they could be the only things to save us if we lost atmospheric pressure in battle.
The armored combat-plates were in place over the forward view ports behind San’Dreale as he gave us the breakdown on the situation we faced.
“Dramier now holds over half the Shakuras High Council mentally captive, essentially granting him full control over their standing fleet in addition to the warriors and ships already directly under his influence. Such manipulation cannot have come with more unfortunate timing; although Dramier seems to be mobilizing much of the Fleet in an effort to stave off further Zerg advancement, he is using his influence over the council to over-rule any direct assault. My friends, this crisis can wait no longer.”
San’Dreale had to stoop over slightly to gesture at the holoscans of the planet, which TJ carefully manipulated for him as the Templar continued.
“The Swarm front encompasses half the western hemisphere and their onslaught presses forward without cease. This is the battle of Auir all over again save for one difference: It is only by the uneasy unity of the Templar castes that my people have been able to hold off total destruction until now. Granted we are able to free those enslaved to Dramier, any counter-offensive now seems hopeless against so many.”
I was at a loss for ideas, but I knew Bane would speak up quickly.
“I shall provide a window to strike at the Overmind, but we cannot prevail without aid. Dramier must be stopped or all is forfeit.”
The course computer at my console chimed and I began cutting power to the warp drives as I interrupted with the news.
“We’re nearing the end of the jump.”
“Bring her out in high orbit,” Mich added nervously, “I want to get a good look at this turd before we decide where to step in it.”
Everyone fell suddenly silent as the dull hum of the reactors wound down. When they reached a steady idle, Boss spoke up again.
“Run a low frequency scan, T.J. Just take a nice quiet peek around, to see what’s out there.”
“Already ahead of you, Boss,” the bruised and bandaged mercenary spoke without looking up from the hologram podium.
A sea of red and blue dots covered the sphere like moss and swirled around it in long clouds.
“There are so many damn signals out there that the computers are having trouble making heads or tails of it. Our big concern right now is a large swarm of Zerg Scourge in high stationary orbit. We’ll be passin’ over them shortly, but we best keep a safe distance.”
T.J. squinted at his screen as he suddenly scrabbled away at the keys,
“We now have a strong Protoss signal five clicks out, Boss, but there’s a lot of distortion.”
Mich glared at the hologram impatiently as it began layering over with blotches of red and blue.
“Isolate the signal.”
Just as we all began moving in to take a closer look at the holoscan, the image began to flicker, prompting T.J. to grumble something inaudible and smack the podium with one hand.
With no further warning, every light and screen on the bridge went dark and the deck heaved beneath us as if we’d run aground against a mountain. Mich yelled when he fell on his arm and I groped in the darkness for the drive console, bracing against it as the Mark III rocked around us.
The reactors could he heard dropping off completely as the lights on the bridge haphazardly flicked back on and the trembling slowed to a stop.
“What the hell was that?!” Mich yelled as Mosely helped him up, “Screw stealth! Give me a full scan of the immediate area and get that reactor back online! We’re a sitting target up here!”
T.J. began rapping at the hologram podium again and I stepped back to my own controls, but nothing was responding.
“Everything’s locked up!” T.J. exclaimed, swearing when his commands were ignored by the computer, “Nothing’s working!”
“Same here,” I added quickly, “The drives have been shut down and the weapon systems are offline!”
Then the room fell dark again when the lights dimmed and the hologram podium flashed back to life as if on its own accord. The swirling, fiery image it produced stained the bridge red and brought with it a telepathic laughter that seemed to scream, moan and whisper all at once. Caryn gasped and covered her ears despite what little good it would do.
“Dramier...” Bane growled low in his throat as he approached the gloating hologram. The rest of us fanned out around the hydralisk, but stayed behind him as if it offered some protection from the malevolent entity.
“My dear Hero,” the voices wailed in kind, “I must honestly pronounce my surprise that you were able to escape my last little trap. It will not happen again.”
The very sight of the creature that had cost me my friend eight years ago instantly brought my blood to a rolling boil. Before I was conscious of my own actions, I pushed in front of Bane and all but spate at the hologram.
“Remember me, you cowardly red bastard?! You’re not going to get away with this any more, you hear me?!”
I felt Caryn’s hand fall on my shoulder, as if to hold me back, but I shrugged it off,
“You will not do this to me again! This ends here!”
The creature glared back at me through the hologram, its laughter suddenly sated. On their own, the armored plates over the forward bridge view-ports began sliding back, revealing the dark, battle-scarred sphere of Shakuras. Shimmering blue-white lights lit the windows as a blockade of Protoss warships materialized from beneath the cloak of an immense vessel larger than two Carriers combined. They held a tight semicircle formation before our prone Battle Cruiser; even if we were able to fire the warp drives again, we would not escape their weapons a second time.
“As you can all see, young defiant one, you are correct.” The voices cried out again, “This will end here! I have come to stamp out this problem personally; Your pathetic craft is now slave to my will. The Cerebrate’s telepathic prank may have been enough to save you before, but now it will avail you not! You shall all die here and there is nothing you can do to stop me. NOTHING!”
Dramier’s nightmarish words left the bridge in silence, but I sneered at the hologram and drew a gauss pistol with my good arm.
I jammed the trigger, pelting the hologram podium with lead until it blinked out again in a fountain of sparks.
Mich shoved me after I holstered my weapon and turned around,
“Why on good Earth did you do that?! You know how expensive those damned things are to replace!”
I ignored Boss outright and looked straight to my alien friend.
“Bane, call the Zerg.”
The whole crowd aside from the hydralisk rang out in simultaneous protest, but Bane silenced them all with his response.
“You know what it is that you ask, mortal?”
“You’re damn right I do,” I shot back, striding away from the smoking hologram to sweep a hand at the wide view of Shakuras,
“We’re passing over a huge flock of orbital scourge right now and if they come for us, they’ll have to go through Dramier’s fleet first.”
“That’s suicide!” Caryn suddenly yelled at me with all her old scorn, “They’ll kill us too!”
“We have to try,” I fired back, “Dramier is on one of those ships, and if he goes down before us, we’ll get control back.”
As if to add emphasis to my statement, multiple targeting locks chimed from the battle computers; Dramier was preparing his weapons to attack. For a fleeting moment, nobody said anything. Then, Mich nodded slowly.
“The kid’s right.”
“No way!” T.J. burst out, “Boss, tell me you aren’t actually gonna do this?!”
Mich ran his metal-shrouded hand through his thinning hair and practically growled in helpless frustration,
“I don’t like the damn fool idea any more than you do, but if you’ve got a better one, then you’re welcome to jump out an airlock and try it! We don’t have a single ship left on board that’s still space-worthy anyway, so I say we bring the Zerg.”
Always a man of few, often-wise words, Mosely finally spoke up after Boss’s retort left T.J. silent.
“We know we die if we do nothin’. We git em’ before he gits us, we got a shot.”
San’Dreale nodded with Mosely’s words and stepped forward.
“With such might at Dramier’s disposal, we will get no better chance. Let it be done.”
It was settled. The hydralisk shut its eyes and exhaled slowly. The rumble of its breath made the only sound. When Bane opened his eyes again, they burned like twin crimson hearths as he offered a brief telepathic warning.
“Everyone to a station!” Mich ordered as Bane turned to face the open forward viewports,
“If this works I want Mosely, Caryn and T.J. on forward turrets! Reece, you’re on emergency start-up and navigation with me! Blue, take the fourth turret station and make like the others; they’re point and shoot!”
The power on the bridge began failing again as we rushed around the still hydralisk to take our posts. Our lights blinked out entirely and the Protoss warships shimmered blue in the view ports as their plasma shields reacted to the telepathic disturbance.
Moments after power returned to the bridge, the city-sized flagship of Dramier’s fleet could be seen shifting in place, turning to face us flat-on. The monumental Khaydarin crystal at its core gathered lashing tendrils of energy from others on the perimeter and focused them into a beam that all but enveloped the Mark III in a shaft of intense white light.
“Hey Blue?” Mich practically croaked, “What is that...?”
The light became utterly blinding, filling the bridge as the Templar answered mechanically.
“It is a Protoss Mothership; this weapon is called upon to incinerate planetary Zerg infestations that have grown beyond conventional means of purification. When the charge phase is complete, the graviton cannon will fire.”
Even with my reflective visor down, I had to shield my eyes with one hand until the light suddenly receded. For a moment, I struggled to comprehend what was filling the panoramic view ports of the bridge. Yet, once my eyes focused again, there was no mistake.
The Zerg had arrived.
Nothing short of a primal force of nature, the oncoming curtain of scourge surged through space like a living tidal wave and broke headlong upon the unsuspecting Protoss fleet. Dozens of scouts, six carriers and even Dramier’s mother-ship all but disappeared from view beneath countless billowing explosions of greed acid and bursts of blue flame.
“Something better give soon!” Mich growled as he repeatedly toggled the emergency power, “There’s a damned shit-storm of em!”
Aside from a slipstream behind the sinking bulk of the flagships, the oncoming cloud of scourge washed around the stricken fleet and quickly began filling our view. Running over Dramier’s ships was merely an inconvenience; now they were coming for us.
My heart leapt as the Mark III’s deck shuddered beneath my boots and the instrument panel under my shaking hands suddenly glowed to life. The console in front of me began reading gradual acceleration, a valiant effort by the emergency thrusters coming online.
“It worked!” I yelled triumphantly, “She’s ours again!”
“He’s right!” Caryn whooped when she swung around to take the triggers of her turret station. The viewports quickly began flashing with air-to-air laser fire as Mosely, T.J. and Caryn sprang into action. San’Dreale hesitated, but only for a moment, and four swaths of green explosions raked back and forth across the oncoming numbers of scourge.
The defensive turrets stemmed a fraction of the flow, but the suicidal creatures streaked through by the pair and arched into the Mark III”s hull in rapid succession, causing the bridge to heave and tremble around us. Red flags began popping up on my screens like an infectious disease.
Out ahead of us, the scourge swarmed around Dramier’s burning mothership in a great, churning cone; we would be overwhelmed in seconds if it kept pulling away.
“I’m going to cold-start the reactors!” I called over my shoulder to Mich, “Follow that bastard in–it’s our only chance!”
If Boss didn’t like the idea, he didn’t waste any time objecting as he steadied himself at the flight console and barked a quick change of orders.
“T.J., Mose! Switch to aft turrets!”
I initiated the safety overrides and the drives stumbled to life, offering another burst of speed. Dramier’s falling mothership filled the windshields and the scourge started chasing our ship from behind as the ones that didn’t slam headlong into the colossal wreck were forced to turn around.
“There’s too many of them!” T.J. yelled a warning as he frantically swivelled his turret controls. Bane fell forward and lodged his scythes in the deck and I was practically thrown from my station when the floor quaked violently with several brutal collisions.
“I’m losing her!” Mich grunted, fighting with the controls as the power flickered and faded.
I glanced back and forth between my console and the viewport. Both primary port thrusters were failing; the mothership was beginning to break up as it entered the atmosphere ahead of us and we were falling helplessly closer to the mass of burning debris. Ignoring the risk, I began powering up the last functional drive to charge the yamato capacitors.
“What the hell are you doing Reece?!” Mich growled with the red lights from his console staining his face, “You’re going to stall the reactors!”
“Thrusters are failing–we have to punch a hole in that thing!” I yelled back as the decked rocked again with another series of wild impacts.
T.J. swore as his turret station went dark with a brief burst of sparks,
“Dammit! Aft turret down!”
Dramier’s mothership rapidly grew in detail, filling every forward viewport. The Mark III trembled, struggling to obey Mich’s frantic commands to veer away as the collision alarm began blaring. Caryn yelped from her turret station,
“Here they come again!”
With the remaining wave of scourge closing like a swarm of angry, explosive bees and the burning mass of Dramier’s mothership looming ahead, Mich finally cut reactor power from the engines at the last possible moment.
The Mark III seemed to convulse around us with the effort as the lights and systems fell dark. For a few terrifying seconds, the rising pitch of the yamato capacitors made the only sound. The yellow hull of Dramier’s ship seemed so close that we could see the separate metallic plates.
“Visor’s down!” came Mich’s booming command, “Brace for impact!”
With no further hesitation, the world blew up around us. The orange glow of fire was everywhere and I had only a vague recollection of being hurled to the deck in my clumsy powered suit. When the yamato cannon unleashed its nuclear payload at point-blank range, Dramier’s burning Mothership erupted in a monstrous blast of fire and debris. The scourge flew headlong into the flames with our ship, culminating in an chain reaction of explosions visible from the surface of the planet.
The bridge groaned and wrenched around us like the twisted iron throes of something being tortured. By some miracle, the battle-grade neoglass remained intact despite the flames lashing at every viewport. The hellish chaos only seemed to intensify; I was sure the ship would come apart around us at any second, when suddenly, the firestorm broke.
Half-ablaze and trailing a cascade of black smoke, the Mark III fell through the spreading, fiery debris of Dramier’s Mothership.and plummeted into Shakuras’ upper atmosphere. Like a ray of hope, the view ports suddenly cleared, save for two great worms of smoke that poured over the front of the ship. The deck was still quaking steadily beneath me, but I managed to get a hand hold on the reactor console and haul myself up.
A quick glance around confirmed that everybody appeared to be unharmed for the moment, although Bane was the only one able to stay in place so far. I turned to the dim controls in front of me.
“Emergency power is failing,” I stuttered, finding it difficult to see the readout with everything shaking and dark, “Drives two through six are down and all thrusters are offline!”
Mich pulled himself together at his podium and rapped the controls before replying with dread in his voice,
“I’ve got nothin’ kid, she’s a dead stick! It was a good plan until now.”
Already, the view of the outside began fading again beneath a wash of bright red heat; the ship was entering the atmosphere almost broadsided. We would be lucky to get a thruster or two back online at all, much less in the minutes we had before the Mark III crumpled on the face of Shakuras like a scorched, empty beer can.
“Forget the engines!” I called as I gathered my ammunition belts with one arm, “Everyone on your feet; this is where we get off!”
“What are you talkin’ about?!” T.J. argued as he braced against his turret station in order to stand, “We don’t have any more ships!”
It suddenly felt as if everyone’s eyes were on me, but my reply didn’t hesitate.
“We’ve still got one ship left.”
“Oh no,” Caryn’s voice scolded in disbelief, “Not that ship!”
“Bane and I patched it up some; we’ll ride this crate in as far as we can and the Consolation should take us in the rest of the way.”
“Will that shot-up shit box actually fly?!” T.J. asked with a mix of hope and disbelief.
Mich didn’t wait for my response as he hit the emergency release for the hangar air locks.
“Everyone to the craft bay! We’re jumping ship!”
I was suddenly grateful that Dramier’s zealots had carved a path through the ship as we made for the hangar with all possible speed. The malevolent archon inadvertently left us an avenue of escape; even with Bane’s help, it would have taken an hour to crack every door without power. The turbulence was relentless, threatening to throw any number of us to the deck or against a wall, and it often succeeded. Aside from our suit lights and the dim, crimson glow of Bane’s eyes, the corridors were blacker than pitch and filling with smoke. Somewhere in the belly of the ship, the Mark III groaned continuously against the dull roar of re-entry outside.
It was a wordless, terrifying trek. Nobody spoke over the suit radios or otherwise. I kept waiting for the hallway to collapse or the floor to split open beneath us, but we survived to reach the sealed doors at the hangar bay.
Without being asked, Bane promptly tackled the metal slabs with both blades and began wrenching them apart. When the seal broke, the air pressure equalized with a blast of vapor and we hastily joined the hydralisk when the gap became wide enough for hand-holds.
Mich’s ship was where we left it the day before, busted and broken on the forward end of the bay. The consolation sat in the last stall near the aft bulkhead; still awaiting the rest of her repairs. Over the course of the last week, Bane and I had addressed many of the mechanical problems and replaced some of the glass, but her hull had more holes than a dominion defense contract and she was running on fumes.
“You’re sure this thing will fly?” Caryn’s voice doubtfully crackled through my helmet speakers as we crossed the heaving, open craft bay at a stumbling run.
The double airlock doors were open to the atmosphere outside and the noise of the roaring air was tremendous; even with the suit radios, verbal communication was nearly impossible.
“We’ll soon find out,” I replied as we tromped around the small craft and began piling up the ramp two-by-two. In truth, I wasn’t sure myself if the Consolation would survive the turbulence of a jettison-take off or if her bandaged flight systems could handle a full load. The interior lights flicked on when I followed Mich through the cargo hold and hit the power breakers, offering at least some reassurance.
“Alright,” T.J. called forward when the hydralisk and templar squeezed on board last, “Light this candle!”
“Gladly,” I mumbled, flicking the familiar levers to feed power to the repulsors.
However, nothing happened when I hit the ignition switch. I tried again. Nothing.
“Why the hell aren’t we moving?!” Caryn scolded nervously, but I didn’t have time to answer. My mind was churning at breakneck speed: What could we have forgotten? Was there something I left out? Then it hit me.
I left the ignition relay harnesses unplugged as a simple safety precaution.
“Bane!” I yelled over one shoulder as I tore my seat belt back off and kicked open the pilot hatch, “I need a lift!”
“Where do you think you’re going?! Get back in here!” Caryn called after me when I jumped outside. I all but ignored her again while Bane joined me at the Consolation’s port side,
“This will only take a minute!”
The small craft’s passengers yelped in surprise and stumbled to one side of the cramped hold when the Hunter-Killer hooked both blades under the curved hull and heaved the Consolation up on her edge.
I dropped to the deck on my back and kicked my way under the ship without hesitation. The junction panel was still open, but just reseating the small plastic connectors was a struggle with the clunky augmentation of the powered suit and the floor quaking beneath me.
A great wrenching noise moaned from the very metal beneath me; it sounded as if the armor plating was being twisted off the girders and the hangar rocked enough to make the Consolation bounce on her skids.
“Hurry Mortal!” Bane growled.
Without warning, a beam came crashing through the hangar ceiling and buried itself in the deck somewhere behind Bane, bringing down a cascade of steel tiles and a twisted web of cabling. Caryn’s voice screeched from inside the transport.
The last jack was in a space too small for my suit’s metal hand; with a grimace of determination, I twisted the robotic glove off and just managed to push the terminal home with the tips of my bare fingers.
The moment I slid out from beneath the Consolation, Bane let her drop on her skids and I jumped to my feet like I was being shot at. By the time I climbed back on-board through the pilot’s hatch and plunked into my seat, the hydralisk was already in the cargo hold and everyone held their breath as I jammed the ignition switch once more.
This time, the Consolation’s keel thrusters responded with a healthy blast and her floor lifted obediently beneath us. To a brief chorus of cheers, I leaned firmly on the worn controls and the hangar began slewing around in the new windshield.
The turbulence on the Mark III was escalating wildly; it took every shred of my concentration and coordination to counteract the heaving deck and line the ship up for an exit. The intense curtain of smoke washing by the open hangar door was a only grizzly reminder of how much worse it was about to get. I gave everybody one quick warning before goosing the throttles.
“Hang on to something!”
The open bay door lunged to meet us and the surging airstream seized the Consolation instantly. Akin to a leaf caught in a gale, the dropship rolled in the sudden torrent and the clouded horizon tumbled in the windshield. The thrusters wailed as I desperately fought to steady the ship.
With a long shudder, the Consolations engines finally caught up with her spinning inertia and the Mark III settled into view. I could hardly recognize the battered, blown-apart hulk as it sank away below. Both her primary and port engines were now gnarled, open craters of twisted metal and the entire starboard wing was nothing more than burning ruin. Her armored hull looked as if it was attacked by a cosmic scatter-gun; the scourge had utterly finished what Dramier’s ambush began on Braxis.
As I veered out of the Mark III’s smoke trail, Mich’s voice sounded almost sad over the suit radios.
“That’s makes two cruisers you owe me now, kid.”
I tapped the instrument panel with my un-armored knuckles, frowning when the gauges appeared to be working properly.
“You’re welcome to put it on my tab if I don’t kill us,” I nervously replied while cutting the throttle, “We’re running on an emergency power cell and its fading fast.”
Caryn’s sharp retort made the speakers in my helmet squeal,
“Hey,” I said calmly, trying to mask my own fear with half-hearted spite, “I didn’t even get a week to work on this thing; I’d like to see you do any better. Everyone just stay cool and help me look for a place to set down.”
As if on cue, the cloud layer suddenly broke and the ground became visible. I was shocked by what I saw.
We were coming down over an active alien war zone. More Protoss than I knew existed sprawled in a snaking defensive line that stretched to the horizon; rows of cannon structures and legions of ground troops of all sizes and sorts were battling tooth and nail against an even greater force of Zerg.
Thousands of carapace-clad beasts, far too numerous to count or tell apart, churned against the Protoss defenders like a primeval tide of scythes and claws. A twisting storm of aerial fighters from both sides clogged the airspace above, exchanging fire in a single massive, overlapping fur-ball.
Down and slightly out ahead, the falling hulk of the Mark III forced a trough through the airborne combatants while it dropped to the battlefield below us in with a delayed, pillowing explosion that lit the interior of the Consolation. Mutalisks and scouts coursed by the windshield, most seemingly intent just to get out of our way. As the war-laden surface of Shakuras swelled to meet us, a pair of mutalisks veered in from the front, intent on launching a head-on glauve wurm attack. Short of cutting all power and dropping out of the air, we were helpless to evade; it was taking the last wisps of energy from the emergency cells just to slow us to approach speed.
“Everyone hang on!” I yelled, gritting my teeth as the Mutalisks lined up for the shot.
Just when I thought they would attack, the zerg fliers suddenly exploded in twin clouds of red mist and tumbling, dismembered wings. Their gore stained the windshield a shade of red when we flew through it and a pair of Protoss Corsairs overtook us on each side. They flew out ahead, waggling before resuming a steady coarse out in front. Another set of mutalisk’s approached to intercept, yet the Corsairs held their position and they all exchanged fire in passing.
The winged flyers disintegrated once again, but not before taking one of our unexpected escorts with them. A spray of metallic shrapnel peppered the Consolations hull when the fighter craft was hit with the acidic, biological projectiles and plummeted down, out of our view trailing a ribbon of blue flame.
As the Consolation descended into the frothing battle, the individual combatants took on detail. A river of zerglings flowed into the waiting blades of the zealots and the air above was a deadly crossfire of needle spines and explosive orbs of energy.
A wave of oozing, foot-long spikes pelted the ship’s port side, half of them punching through the damaged plating like soggy cardboard to protrude half their length into the cargo hold. The Consolation’s controls shuddered in my hands and the reverse thrusters instantly began stumbling. With startling speed, the ground rushed up to meet the nose of the vessel.
There was a tremendous initial impact that jarred open every compartment on the ship and killed what power remained in the systems. A mixed screech of steel on rock and carapace rang out as the Consolation ground out her momentum in a wild skid through the heart of the battle. Countless Zerg bodies crunched against the nose of the craft, some actually rolling over the front and off the windshield, leaving huge cracks behind.
With a stomach wrenching turn, the ship met a rise in the land and violently flipped over before finally coming to rest on its side.
I opened the visor on my suit, gasping for fresh air,
“Is everyone okay?!”
To my relief, Mich’s voice groaned from the dark cargo hold to the jumbled thuds of untangling combat armor.
“We’re alive for the moment, but the doors jammed!”
I hung suspended above Caryn by my crash harness and she was favoring her right leg as she fought with her own belts.
“Get me out of here!”
“Hold on,” I said calmly as I wriggled around to get a foot-hold on the center console before releasing my harness, “I’m coming to help.”
Without warning, a screeching zergling lunged against the cracked windshield, spraying drool as it snarled and scrabbled at the dirty glass. Caryn screamed again as it was quickly joined by more and the little scythes began drumming against the hull like the start of a downpour.
I pulled the release for my belts and all but dropped against the center bulkhead. One zergling blade after another punched through the windshield as I drew my combat knife with my bare hand and slashed Caryn’s harness straps.
Even with just one good leg, she practically climbed me to get away from the monsters breaking into the ship and I fell backwards when I pulled her out of the pilot’s compartment by the arms. We spilled over into the cargo hold in a tangled heap, where T.J. and Mich hauled us to our feet as Mosely and San’Dreale shut the hatch to the cockpit.
Moon-light was already streaming into the cargo hold where the zerglings breached the pressure-hull and the impacts of scythe on steel were relentless.
Boss and I exchanged a white-faced glance in the cramped hold,
“What’s the plan now, kid?”
“If we get trapped in here with those things, we’re dead,” I answered quickly, gesturing with my arms, “Give Bane and Blue some room at the cargo door; we’ve got to make a hole before they do!”
Suit lights flashed in the half-darkness of the hold as everyone rearranged to allow the hydralisk access to the jammed rear door when the hatch to the pilots compartment practically fell off its hinges. Immediately, a zergling tried to leap through the thresh-hold and was momentarily halted by its gangly limbs. I drew my gauss pistols and T.J. joined me with his rifle, pelting the thrashing creature with slugs until it fell back outside. My clips ran dry and T.J. fired on alone as another Zerg instantly took its brethren’s place.
“This is it!” I hollered over the thundering gunfire, “Break for the Protoss lines! Nobody stops for anything!”
The Consolation shuddered around us as Bane forced the cargo door open with a screech of grinding steel. San’Dreale activated his warp blade with a crackling blue light and Mich fed a new clip into his rifle.
It was a poor defense against what wait outside. It would be a miracle if we managed to make ten yards from the ship. Yet, when Bane crushed the doors aside, there was no flood of alien scythes.
Dozens of zealot warriors battled with their very lives to hold back the tide of ravenous zerg. As we watched, scores of zerglings leapt over the line to get a chance at our crippled dropship, only to be met by second regime of defenders that formed a half ring around the cargo door. Then, before we could see more, a towering Protoss in armor emblazoned with the symbols of Auir stepped into view and shook my mind with the strength of its telepathic voice.
“COME WITH US!”
I was counting on the Protoss to give us some level of protection from the Zerg, but I did not expect them to come to our aid outright like they did. The moment we were hauled away from the Consolation, the lines there fell back, abandoning her to the zerglings. It was then an endless shoving match as we were literally pushed by stone-faced warriors and rushing machines until we were brought to a tall triangular structure.
The ongoing battle against the Zerg was still well in ear-shot over the rise, but its sound vanished completely beyond the open threshold of the Nexus as if held back by an unseen force. Inside, the building was surprisingly elaborate; built with columns and stone floors in reminiscence of the old design of the Khala. There were two corridors on either side just past the entrance, but our zealot escorts lead us straight through to a large open chamber with high ceilings.
We came forward, to the head of the large, rounded room where a long half-circle podium held a little over a dozen Protoss. Most of them appeared to be Templar from the Light and Dark caste, and all apparently waited just for us.
San’Dreale bowed deeply when he noticed the occupants of the chamber with a start. The rest of us were clueless to the identity of these aliens until one of them stood up. It was Rakeem.
In brief, it was explained that nearly half of all Shakuras denizens were held in check by Dramier’s cruel mind. They saw, through his own eyes and those of his fleet, how we destroyed the malevolent Archon and inadvertently brought freedom to the entity’s telepathic prisoners. Rakeem, who had been sealed in a stasis chamber for nearly six years, was immediately released and all available reinforcements were warped to our calculated crash zone to secure a safe arrival from the Zerg.
As I stood before the Shakuras High Council with Caryn and Bane at my side and the gang at my back, I saw no discord in the burning eyes of those Protoss. I felt in them only a sense of detached weariness, as if having woken after sleeping far too long. Beyond that haze, I saw something I have only glimpsed occasionally in Rakeem and his students. It was hope.
It had not been twenty minutes since we were all but dragged away from the turmoil of the front lines and already talk turned to a counterstrike against the Zerg Overmind. One of the Dark Templar that sat towards the center stood to speak and all the others fell silent. This one was cracked with age, older than Rakeem by far, but I could also sense his power was ancient and great; obtained through the centuries. His telepathic words were slow and deliberate.
“Noble friends of Praetor Rakeem, my people owe you heavy debt. However, in this hour of darkness, we have need of your aid once more. Our standing forces have been cut by half in this long struggle against the onslaught of the Zerg; I fear that if we do not strike soon, we will be overrun.”
For a moment, this Templar paused as his gaze halted at Bane and I.
“The psionic call you used to bring the Zerg against the wayward Dramier...Are you capable of repeating it at will?”
I said nothing at first and glanced sideways at Bane. When the hydalisk answered me with an almost-undetectable nod, I looked back up to the old Protoss,
When I replied, a wave of telepathic murmurs traveled around the circular table like the stirring of leaves in a sudden breeze. The eldest Templar held a hand up for silence and addressed the one sitting at his right.
“Executor Artanis, how much time will you require to prepare the necessary fleet?”
This Artanis was obviously younger by half and he spoke with a spirit and energy that blazed like the core of a fire,
“At your command, Patriarch, all available warships and Dark Templar shall be gathered by dimensional recall. My personal fleet of arbitors stand ready.”
Once more, the old Templar turned back to us.
“If you are ready, heroes, we must move while there is still a means to strike.”
I hesitated and looked over my shoulder at Boss and the guys; they never looked so tired and beaten and I imagined I must look the same. This was not their fight, it never was, yet here they were with me despite all it had cost them.
Caryn looked slightly worse for wear, but her eyes betrayed only uncertainty and fear. By blackmailing me into bringing her along, she had jumped head-first into a situation she did not expect or understand. She didn’t belong here anymore than Mich, T.J. or Mosely.
With a heavy sigh, I gave my answer.
“Bane and I will go, but I demand that the rest of my companions be kept safe. They have sacrificed too much already and I will not put them in danger any more.”
I could feel the stares boring into the back of my skull, but my friends remained quiet as the old Templar nodded slowly,
“A wise and noble request, young Terran. Consider it so. Make what preparations you and your...companion may require; your transport shall arrive soon.”
The moment we were led back outside to await the shuttle, Caryn and the guys let me have it.
“What the hell are you thinking, kid?!” Mich hissed, trying to keep his voice down among the Protoss. Caryn didn’t seem to care who heard her,
“You’re going to get yourself killed!”
I was hardly deterred from my decision by their words; it only strengthened my resolve and it must have shown on my face. A hush quickly fell over them when I failed to reply with some sarcastic backlash. When I did speak, the words felt clear and sobering,
“I’m sorry, everyone, for all I’ve put you through, but it’s time for me to stop running. Bane and I will take care of this one; you guys have done too much already.”
“You can’t do this alone,” Mich tried again, sounding more like his old self than ever.
“It’s in the hands of the Protoss now,” I countered solemnly, “All we can do is give them a window to attack.”
For a long moment, nobody said anything as the constant flow of alien warriors and machines coursed around us, heading out to replace those that were steadily falling at the battle front. Finally, Mosely broke the silence by pulling his last clip from his gauss rifle.
“We ain’t gonna talk you out of it, so here; Take my bullets.”
As the typically-silent mercenary held the clip out to me, T.J. and Mich followed suit and I reached to take the rounds.
“Thanks, guys. For everything.”
Mich waved it off and reached out to shake my free hand.
“Good luck, kid; for all of our sakes.”
When T.J. and I shook, he gave the shoulder of my bulky powered armor a slap.
“If there’s anybody that can solo this bug job, its you champ.”
Mosely and I exchanged only a nod when we were suddenly blasted by a torrent of wind. The shuttle due to carry Bane and I circled once overhead and came to a hasty vertical landing nearby, buffeting us with its thrusters. As the craft’s doors opened wide, it suddenly felt as if every Protoss in eyeshot were watching.
Lastly, I looked to Caryn. Her familiar scorn was replaced by worry, fear and something else I couldn’t quite place. The idling thrusters of the shuttles seemed to make the only sound as we just stared into each other’s eyes for one short, sweet moment. Then, Caryn threw her arms around my neck.
I’m not sure how long we hung that way, but all too soon an alien hand fell on my shoulder and San’Dreale’s telepathic voice intruded my mind.
“Reece, time is short.”
When Caryn released me from the hug and we held each other at arms length, I was shocked to find her face stained with tears. My heart ached as our hands fell apart; I had no idea she cared about me so much. Ever so softly, her lips breathed a few silent syllables.
The roar of battle coming over the rise was growing with every passing second; a constant reminder of what we were to face. I could see the fear of it, fear for me, in her pleading eyes. In them, I also saw why I had to fight. Drawing strength for us both, I conjured my old, wry grin.
“I still have to save the world, remember?”
She looked away for a moment; at which point I almost expected her to shove me and storm away in another huff, but this time she stayed. When our eyes met again, I saw faith, like the faith I had in Bane. At last, the barest of smiles crossed her lips.
“Then go. Go get em, hero-boy.”
I took one last look at Mich and the gang, at Caryn, and turned for Bane’s shuttle with my C-8 still gripped in my bare hand. All this while, the hydralisk silently stood by and watched the procession unflinchingly, only moving now to follow me up the craft’s ramp. When I reached the top, I turned to wave at my friends before the doors could close them from view. There wasn’t another time in my life when I wanted them with me more, but stronger than that was the desire to protect them. This was the only way to keep them safe.
As the hatched slammed home and the Protoss engines sang to life, I suddenly realized how Bane must have felt when he was forced to make similar decisions with me. I glanced up at those glowing red lamps and became disgusted with myself as I recalled how I selfishly cursed him for leaving me over those long eight years. When I didn’t meet his eyes again, the hydralisk’s telepathic voice rumbled into my mind.
“Do not blame yourself, Reece.”
I shook my head in attempt to clear my thoughts and methodically began checking the clips that Mosely and the guys gave me. As I worked, more so to keep my mind occupied, I looked up to my alien friend,
“Do you really think we can stop this?”
When the hydralisk responded with a low, solemn growl, it created more questions than it answered.
“If all else fails, only you will have the strength to save all that is from the swarms.”
The journey in the shuttle was sickeningly short. It didn’t seem like we were airborne for more than an hour when the thrusters began winding down for a landing. The roar of alien combat returned ten-fold when the hatches cracked open; an unwelcome, familiar sound of intermixed roars and screeches, the report of psionic weapons and the whistling rain of hydralisk spikes. San’Dreale was waiting outside, beckoning desperately. However, I came to an involuntary halt halfway down the ramp.
The shuttle had brought us to the spewing mouth of hell itself.
We had landed in a battle-stricken forward base set on a high plateau, overlooking what appeared to be a fathomless, infected wound in the planet’s crust. Monstrous, twisted things jutted into the air at random intervals, stretching out of view into a dark haze below. My stomach churned as I realized what they were; nightmarish living structures that swelled and breathed, sustained by an endless purplish mass that blanketed the entire valley and reached up the pass nearly to within range of the Protoss lines.
The ranks of the Zerg emerged from the mists without cease, milling between the immobile mutations of the hive structures or swerving around their tall spires by the swarms. They came fourth in countless waves, drawing together in great streams that reached into the distance in what seemed to be every direction.
It was an infestation the size of a Terran capitol city, and it was taking all the might of Shakuras just to contain it. There was one pass down into the immense crater of a valley, and it was blocked entirely by a small village of cannon defenses and intermingled warriors in constant struggle against a relentless tide of zerglings.
Numbly, I resumed walking and was further amazed by the Protoss entrenchment here. I counted nine separate buildings actively warping in reinforcements for the constant battle and craned my neck to see the ominously floating bulk of four carriers in formation overhead. The defensive lines we saw from the Consolation met this base on one side and continued across the plateau on the other, effectively bottlenecking everything in the vicinity through this single fortified pass.
San’Dreale stood with half a dozen High Templar and a platoon of waiting Dragoons outside our shuttle. As I crossed the ten paces of churned dust to meet them with the hydralisk at my side, I stole one last glance at the grotesque, sprawling organism of the zerg hive clusters. When I did, a miraculous clearance in the distant mists made the breath stop in my throat.
Like a pulsating, shadowy mountain ringed with clouds of winged monsters, the Overmind itself was momentarily visible before fading again in the eerie fog.
“Entaro Tassadar, heroes! It seems our arrival was most timely!”
San’Dreale’s telepathic voice boomed into my mind as Bane and I stopped before the waiting procession of Protoss soldiers and machines. Once again, it suddenly felt like all idle eyes were on us. I still had my visor open, despite the abrasive atmospheric cocktail of Shakuras, and I practically had to yell to overcome the ever-present static of battle.
“So what’s the plan?”
Lacking the need to speak over the noise, San’Dreale retained his composure as he gave a brief explanation.
“When our remaining reinforcements arrive via warp matrix, all will be ready.”
The templar paused briefly as he nodded at Bane,
“Then the time will come to issue the cerebrate’s psionic call. To ensure we draw every possible defender away from the Overmind, these members of the Templar caste will attempt to amplify your telepathic signature, Bane.”
My alien friend and the High Templar group exchanged a silent glance before San’Dreale continued.
“Once we have the greater bulk of the Zerg occupied, the Dark Templar fleet under command of executor Artanis will warp to the Overmind’s location. Adun willing, they shall bring an end to the vile abomination before its minions overwhelm us all in their blind frenzy.”
I thought about this strategy a moment and a question came to me.
“Even without the Overmind, what about the swarms themselves?”
Once again, San’Dreale gestured to the hydralisk with his eyes.
“To the extent of our knowledge, victory today would make Bane the sole surviving cerebrate and heir to the broods.”
I was visibly taken back; it felt like someone had hit me in the face with a bucket of ice-water. After a momentary delay, my mind absorbed this statement and I turned to my friend.
“Is that true, Bane?”
The hydralisk’s long growl seemed more like a sigh in my ears before the beast’s burning eyes met mine.
“With exception to a means of ending their carnage, sovereignty over my brethren holds little more value than dust to me, Mortal. But yes, that outcome is possible.”
As I looked again at the river of carapace and claws flowing up the pass, I was stunned that such destructive power could be wielded by one being, namely an ill-tempered alien that happened to be my best friend. Although Bane was not one to be provoked, I knew he would never use the swarms unjustly. It would finally be an end to the interplanetary Zerg threat; an end to the slaughter.
A series of shifting, blue lights suddenly caught my attention and I turned, as did Bane and the nearby Protoss, when the rest of our reinforcements arrived on the scene. It took only a moment for the shape warriors and machines to appear. More High Templar and Zealots, a dozen Dragoons with Reaver support and a complete wing of hovering Corsairs appeared to compliment the defenders already deployed at the pass. An entire second alien army had emerged from the shimmering wall of psionic energy, more than doubling the standing forces on the plateau.
“...Incredible...” I mumbled as I craned my neck to watch the Corsairs move into position over the cannon defenses. With the new arrivals on foot marching around us, I looked back to Bane.
“Do you think it will be enough?”
The hydralisk stared out over our lines toward the hive clusters in the distance before answering.
“It will buy time. We can only hope it is enough.”
San’Dreale stepped away from the squad of High Templar and joined Bane and I with a quick word,
“Our available aerial fleets have been cut by half. Dramier took the majority of the squadron with him in orbit, including the last known Mothership. The remainder of our forces are gathered for the assault on the Overmind itself.”
Our personal army of Zealots stood at the ready and their Dragoon counterparts formed a half ring between us and the cannon defenses. Behind them, most of the High Templar omnisciently floated in place, watching the swarms and waiting. The other four drifted into a circle around Bane and I, making the air fairly hum with psionic energy. Then finally, the five cumbersome Reavers finished the long crawl to their places among the Templar.
“All is ready,” San’Dreale proclaimed quietly, “The attack will begin on your mark, Cerebrate.”
“Very well,” Bane growled in simple response.
Rakeem’s old pupil hesitated once more before stepping down to join the Templar.
“If the coming battle should claim either of us, allow me to say now what an honor it has been to fight at your side, heroes.”
The hydralisk responded with a nod and I with a smile, then San’Dreale bowed graciously and moved to join his brethren.
My heart felt as if it were suddenly trying to hammer its way through my ribs and the C-10 felt ungainly as a sack of bricks in my hands. If it wasn’t for the CMC combat suit I still wore, I could have sworn that everyone present could see my knees shaking. When the eerie calm of Bane’s mind touched mine, I mentally clung to it like a drowning man to a buoy.
“Listen carefully, Mortal,” the hydralisk’s telepathic words echoed into my thoughts alone, “It is beyond my power to draw so deeply on the Overmind’s hatred and yet keep my will from its wrath. Only you the strength keep me from such influence. Do you understand, Reece?”
My throat had long since gone bone dry and I found it difficult to swallow as I replied with my mind’s voice.
“I’m ready when you are.”
My senses wavered briefly and went totally numb when I opened my thoughts to Bane, as I had a dozen times before as a novelty and in need. Only now, the pull was stronger than it had ever been; the sound of the broods turned to the faintest whisper in my ears and the terrible view of them faded to black in my eyes. I could no longer feel my own panicking lungs heaving with the inadequate air of Shakuras. For the breadth of a heartbeat, all turned fathomlessly dark and silent.
When our minds met, they interlocked like a brilliant alloy of iron and living fire and the world returned three-fold. Even without seeing it, I was aware of the frothing battle at the pass in every motion and detail, of every stir of a foot among the warriors still waiting to fight before us. Petty things like fear and doubt, pain and exhaustion were cast aside as a shadowy memory. There was only this battle, and what we must do.
Like a hell-sung hymn, the Templar took up the ghostly psionic call as Bane dropped his mental defenses against the roaring inferno of the Overmind’s fury. It came rushing in as a vicious, boiling flood of purest malice and hit our intertwined minds like the blast of an explosion. Only vaguely, I recall collapsing to one knee as the Protoss structures flickered and fell dark.
With simultaneous eruptions of snapping, blue energy, the nearest pylons suddenly exploded in the wake of the telepathic shockwave that issued forth. Like a million mirrors, I could sense the swarms reflecting the Overmind’s rage as the insatiable call overwhelmed them.
The cannon defenses sprang to life again when the power returned and the river of oncoming zerglings instantly became a flood. Like a voice echoing from a great distance, San’Dreale thundered For Shakuras and the entire valley of Zerg turned inward on itself. The organization of the separate legions and swarms utterly dissolved as every last member of the brood abandoned all purpose save for one thing.
The bottleneck of the valley pass seemed as small a set of iron sights before the rearing, primal might of the swarm. The very ground quaked with the pounding of countless claws and clouds of red wings blotted out the heavens.
And still, the Overmind’s fury grew stronger. It ripped and lashed at our interlocked minds with the crushing weight of eons. I could sense it searching ruthlessly, tearing for an opening to rend us apart. It was like no pain or power I had ever felt. As it took more and more of our combined strength to hold fast against the overwhelming consciousness, Bane’s senses began fading as well. With them went all awareness of the world around me.
We were plunged into a suffocating darkness that went ever deeper. All my simple human fears and regrets came unlocked, returning to burn me alive. Voices howled into my thoughts, malevolent and snarling, screaming at me to let go. I began struggling to keep them apart from my own thoughts as they mocked me and defiled me in voices from my memory; with Caryn’s voice, with Mich’s and Bane’s. Even my own.
I could feel my friend’s mental grip fading. Our golden meld of iron and fire was fissuring beneath the immeasurable fury of the Overmind. The voices roared in anger and desperation when it felt the connection slipping, doubling the telepathic assault to finally tear us asunder.
Slowly, painfully, I pushed back against the grinding power of the Overmind’s will. Dredging the last reserves of energy from the stump of my mind, I clung to memories of simple, familiar things like the view of the sun setting over the Hiemdall Sea and the smell of Miss Maggie’s diner in the morning. I thought of T.J.’s worn-out laugh and the taste of cheap liquor, of Mich’s verbal scolding sessions and the hum of the Consolation’s controls in my hands.
I remembered the first time I saw Caryn smile and how it felt to have my best friend back.
We spiraled further and further into the smothering darkness. When at last the Overmind had swallowed all else, the only thing I had left was Bane. The hellish nightmare became a whirlwind of frustration and madness around us; I could feel the final barriers of my will breaking down at last. What awaited me was a fate worse than death. So entangled was the telepathic double helix of our minds that if Bane fell to the Zerg, so would I.
It all unexpectedly ended when the mountainous strength of the Overmind’s will shattered like an immense crystalline mirror. The roaring fury of its many voices splintered, fading individually into silence just before the presence of Bane’s mind slipped from mine like water through my fingers. Then, something hit me like a wall.
My ears rang mercilessly and I could taste blood in my mouth again. Gradually, I became aware of the feeling of the CMC combat armor around my body and the blurry image of rock six inches in front of my face. Despite the monumental effort required, I brought my hands forward and pushed my chest off the ground.
As if I had been near an explosion, the ringing in my head gradually died out as I fought my way to one knee. The first thing that my numb brain registered was a deathly silence. My own panting seemed obnoxiously loud in my ears as I looked up to Bane.
The hydralisk was slumped forward on both scythes, as if something unseen weighed heavily upon him.
“Bane?” I gasped between breaths, “Are you okay?”
If he heard me, he didn’t show it. I couldn’t feel the presence of my friend’s mind at all and he remained as still as a stone.
With fingers that cracked, I picked up my C-10 and had to summon the energy to stand. I never felt so drained in my life. My vision finally focused as the whining servos of my powered suit all but propped me upright. What I saw left me dumbstruck.
The Zerg were stopped. Literally. Hundreds, thousands of them filled the pass, cliff to cliff, from the valley floor all the way up to what remained of the photon cannons. A thunder-head of pumping red wings hovered lazily overhead; some so low that I could have hit them with my canister launcher.
It was as if the entire swarm had lumbered to a halt in mid-battle. The cannon defenses were all but destroyed, remaining only as a few burning humps scattered among the stunned Protoss. The plateau was scorched black from psionic lightning and stained blue and purple from the blood of fierce combat. Roughly half the original Zealots remained. I spied San’Dreale dragging one of his maimed brethren from beneath the motionless claws of six zerglings who were, moments ago, undoubtedly about to rip the warrior apart.
The air defenses were hit the hardest. My quick count tallied two smoldering carriers and a scarce handful of surviving corsairs. Most of the dragoons were smashed and lay burning where they faltered in the onslaught of gluave wurms. Only the Templar were relatively unscathed, having stayed behind the lines with Bane and I until the very last.
We couldn’t have been mere moments from being run over by the furious swarm when they stopped. However, the most peculiar detail about the scene by far was the light.
The valley walls, the pass and even the reeling Protoss defenders before me were utterly bathed in an unearthly red glow. Like an unblinking ocean of crimson lamps, the countless Zerg stared back at us with bright, burning eyes. Bane’s eyes.
With an sudden, sharp snarl that echoed over the silent pass, the hydralisk at my side finally moved.
“Bane!” I exclaimed as I turned around to face my friend, “We-”
The words fell flat in my throat; something was wrong with my friend. The beast was trembling and drawing inward, dragging two troughs through the dirt as he convulsively pulled both scythes in.
“Bane?!” I said again, taking a step closer, “What’s wrong?! Talk to me!”
The hydralisk released only a strained growl and hammered one closed scythe-joint against the gravelly earth, as if he was still fighting something deep inside himself. I slid the C-8 over my shoulder and let it hang from the sling as I reached one hand out towards my friend.
With speed I didn’t know he possessed, Bane lashed out laterally with the flat edge of one blade. It hit me in the shoulder and plowed me off my feet so quickly that I hadn’t fully realized what just happened until I finished sliding to a halt on my back. If it wasn’t for the armored suit, the blow would have broken my arm.
In that moment, the swarms erupted around us in a living bomb of fury and wrath.
All at once, the Zerg filling the pass surged forward again and the mutalisks swerved from their idle positions. Only a few seconds slow, our crippled Protoss defense reacted in kind. Sheets of psionic lightning crashed into being, forming a lashing, angry barrier over the mouth of the pass and clogging the airspace overhead. Despite the consuming storm of psionic power, zerglings still raced through, some of them on fire as they met the courageous zealots in a stampede.
Gone was their blind fury, replaced now by an individual cunning and skill that I had rarely witnessed. Hydralisks were strangely absent, but the zerglings in combat with the Zealots parried and dodged attacks, with many striking back as one and all from different directions. As combat space became scarce, the zerglings in the back slid almost to a stop before springing forward in arching leaps over the entire line. Any hope of maintaining a bottle-neck was lost.
In seconds, every warrior and remaining machine was outnumbered, no matter where they stood in the lines. Only the blast of an occasional reaver’s scarab offered any reprieve to the first-born defenders, but still they were falling, screaming in telepathic shame and agony as the limitless flow of efficient, methodical monsters cut them down and pressed forward. I knew fighting like this, and I knew only one creature capable of it.
“Stop!” I yelled desperately as I pushed to my feet again, “Bane, you have to stop this!”
My friend was standing upright now, omnisciently staring out over the closing maw of destruction as if told to keep witness. Twin flashes of blue light came from above and I looked up to see the carriers falling, drifting down to the ridges of the pass. As the immense, burning hulks sank to a fiery landing beneath the continued bombardment of the churning mutalisks, the ground began quaking violently under my boots.
Wide cracks snaked across the plateau as I tried to stumble my way back to Bane. An incredible crash of splintering rock rang out and the very ground heaved up beneath me. I fell over backwards, landing on my side with just enough sense to roll out of the way of the stone slab I was standing on seconds ago.
A huge, armored worm the size of a bus burst free of the ground, peeling aside layers of rock as it emerged like a runaway tunnel boring machine. Launching a plume of dirt and rocks into the air, the thing bellowed with a blood-curdling roar and slumped forward before Bane with enough force to shake the ground. That is when the hydralisks arrived and the one-sided battle ended swiftly.
I was helpless to do anything but watch in horror as the giant worm opened its gapping, razor-edged maw, unleashing a steady stream of ten-foot killing machines. The fading screen of psionic lightning protecting the pass dissolved as the hydralisks closed on the High Templar from behind with a sheet of deadly barbed spikes. They were mercilessly mowed down as they tried to retreat, some of them collapsing to the dirt with mortal wounds while others vanished outright in short columns of blue mist. The zerglings yielded to the powerful beasts as they met the zealots in combat, finishing the exhausted warriors with crushing blows.
I squeezed my eyes shut tight as I pushed to my knees; I just couldn’t watch any longer. These Protoss were all fighting and dying because of me; because they believed in me, and trusted Bane, and there was nothing I could do to help them. Their telepathic screams in those few seconds haunted my mind long after the battlefield fell eerily silent.
When at last, the only thing I could hear was the pounding of my own heart, I opened my eyes and looked around. The Zerg were the only things left standing; staring back at me like an audience of red lights. Slain Protoss and trampled machines were everywhere, but there was no sign of San’Dreale. A thick haze of black smoke hung low over the torn plateau.
Why, I thought in a mixed state of numb nausea , was I allowed to live while everyone else perished?
My heart skipped a beat as an unmistakable feeling of deja vu washed over me. I had seen this before, in my dreams. Bane was in the same place, to my right and slightly in front and we stood in the same living colosseum of Zerg. Every detail was there, even the feeling of paralysis as I got up on wobbly legs. Then, as if the twisted figure had stepped straight from that nightmare, she came.
All the Zerg, including Bane, seemed to turn and watch as something new emerged from the drooling maw of the nydas worm. A chill ran down my spine as I watched the crooked, skeletal wings approaching over the heads of the Zerg. They parted for her, stepping back and slithering aside as she approached.
It was the malevolent entity, the evil heart of my childhood nightmares in living flesh.
Kerrigan was taller than me by at least a foot, even with the added height of my armored suit. Rigid carapace plates partially covered her mutated body like some sort of freakish fashion design, set in leathery skin that was a pale, ghastly shade of yellow-green. Oozing blades protruded from every joint, even the ends of her fingers, and her hair was replaced with thick, black tendrils that protruded like mutated growths from her filthy scalp. She smiled sadistically, her teeth showing as curved fangs and a sickeningly sweet look of satisfaction was set on her puss-colored face.
I had the sudden urge to pull the C-8 from my shoulder and let her have a face full of grenade, but she locked eyes with me the moment the thought entered my brain. I was no telepath, at best I could garner bits of insight by eavesdropping on my best friend. However, I did not need Bane’s help to sense the wicked psionic strength behind those glowering yellow eyes. I knew then that my hand wouldn’t even reach the stock before she killed me on the spot. She saw that I knew, and her wretched grin returned.
Bane still did not move, watching her approach until she practically strolled to a halt ten feet away. When her jagged fangs parted and she spoke, the sadistic tone rang in both my ears and my mind.
“You have done well, my pet.”
To my horror, the hydralisk at my side actually acknowledged her with a low growl. It was then that I realized what had happened; this was Kerrigan’s plan all along. Bane had no more control over himself than I did over the situation laid before me. The death of all those Protoss was her doing.
Speaking of my own will seemed to take an incredible effort, but the words finally burst forth as she began striding closer with all the grace of a runway model.
“What have you done to Bane?! Let him go!”
Kerrigan stopped before Bane and reached one clawed hand up to scratch the hydralisk under the jaws with her curled fingers. At first, she replied without looking at me.
“This creature is my creation. It is my design. It bends to my whim alone. It appeared to care for you and your miserable race because I allowed it.”
Her voice rose in pitch and strength, but quickly stepped back to its previous, malevolent tone as she let her hand drop slowly
“The fool Rakeem was not entirely misguided. He saw in this creature a means of ending the wretched Overmind once and for all. And that was true. However, Bane suffered from the same fault against the Hive Mind as did I. Neither of us can resist the full wrath of its will.”
Kerrigan began stepping towards me, and I suddenly found myself powerless to move away, powerless to speak against her. It was akin to standing against Dramier’s maelstrom.
“Which brings us, at last, to you. I have waited in the shadow of that damnable abomination since long before you drew breath, a prisoner of in my own mind. Yet, an insect such as you was able to bring pause to the beast’s influence...”
Her yellow, almost cat-like eyes narrowed to slits as she stopped in front of me. With all the speed of an arrow leaping from a bow, her gnarled hand shot out, through the open faceplate of my helmet, and slapped closed around my throat before I had even comprehended movement.
I reflexively grabbed at her rock-like forearm with my armored hand when she released her hold on my mind, but she promptly hefted me into the air as if the bulk of my combat suit were no heavier than a trinket.
Spots instantly formed in my vision with the weight of the powered suit hanging on my neck and Kerrigan’s livid voice hissed like acid as she shook me by the throat.
“What makes an insignificant worm like you capable of such strength?!”
Struggling to maintain my grip on her wrist, I forced the only answer I had through my pinched throat.
“Because...” I wheezed honestly, “...He’s my friend!”
I was on the brink of passing out when Kerrigan growled in exasperation and shoved me back. The strap to my canister launcher snapped and the weapon skittered away when I hit the rock on my side. My vision briefly doubled as I watched the Queen of blades turn and walk away from me, her skeletal wings twitching in irritation.
“Your friend?!” she scoffed viciously, “I will show you what you have chosen as your friend.”
Kerrigan strolled to a stop in front of Bane and wormed her way under his arms so that she was facing me with the blades hanging over her shoulders.
“Bane, my pet,” she said in a tone of near boredom, “Before we return to the hive and scour this blasted world of life, I need to learn something about your friend.”
Panting for air, I sat up as Kerrigan paused to grin at me once more.
“You may kill this one now. But do be gentle; I need his brain intact.”
“You’ll regret...” I choked, finally able to speak again, “...not killing me yourself.”
The Queen of Blades folded her arms over her chest and watched while the imposing form of the hydralisk moved around her and immediately started closing the gap to me. Doggedly, I climbed to my feet again as Bane approached with both scythes poised to strike. I knew my old friend was still there, trapped in a prison of his own body as Kerrigan was trapped by the Overmind. He could still stop this; I still believed in my friend.
Only you have the strength to keep me from such influence.
Bane’s words echoed fresh in my memory as I shot a glance at my canister rifle and drew a gauss pistol from its locking holster at my hip. I could no more win against the hydralisk than I could kill Kerrigan, but I wouldn’t have to. I saw then what I needed to do. It was the last hope for all on Shakuras and all those yet in the path of the Zerg. It was the last hope for my friend.
I had to free Bane.
With a monstrous roar that made the hair stand on my neck, the hydralisk suddenly lunged forward, both scythes outstretched to rend me in half. Only a split-second slow to react, I rolled forward, under Bane’s arms. The blades whistled over my head so close that they took a layer of paint off my helmet and threw me off balance when I rolled back to one knee next to my canister rifle.
I fought the urge to look away and jammed the trigger on one gauss pistol while dropping the other to reach for the C-8. The light rounds shattered and ricocheted off the beast’s exoskeleton as it spun around to charge at me again.
“Bane! Stop!” I yelled desperately instead of firing a grenade from the hip, but the hydralisk ignored my voice. I jammed the stimulant injectors on my powered suit and leapt to my feet just when Bane reached me with a series of vicious swings.
Even with the artificial adrenaline surge of the stim-packs, each attack was closer and closer to disemboweling me. This was nothing like fighting him in the belly of a merchant ship; there were no tactical advantages to that unforgiving rock, no place to take cover. Out of reflex, I fired the canister launcher before the last swing could cleave into my torso.
The resulting blast was immediate and devastating, scorching the exposed skin of my face and hand as the fireball launched me over backwards. If it wasn’t for the combat armor, I would have been dead from shrapnel alone before I hit the ground.
My ears were ringing and my bad ribs felt like they had been broken again, but Bane was hardly phased by the explosion. He emerged from the smoke and flame with both scythes brought high over his head. I narrowly avoided being crushed by rolling to one side and back to my feet. However, the hydralisk seemed ready for this and brought its left scythe around in a brutal back-swing that narrowly missed my chest and obliterated the canister launcher in my hand.
I tried to reach for my second gauss pistol before Bane turned with the other blade, but I was just too tired. Too slow.
I recall the harsh screech of the scythe piercing the chest of my armor like an immense saber and a brief, white-hot pain in my stomach, but then it passed as if someone flicked a switch. All that remained was a rising tide of blood in my mouth and the peculiar sensation of the sickle protruding through the middle of my spine.
My legs instantly failed me and the hydralisk took my weight by the scythe in my chest, snarling malevolently as it pulled me in to lop my head off with the other blade. Even as the spiky, black tendrils of death crawled from the edges of my vision and Kerrigan’s maniacal laughter rang in my ears, I still believed in him.
As if of its own accord, my trembling right arm rose up when the hydralisk’s armored face drew near. It took all the strength I had left to uncurl my hand and rest my bare palm on Bane’s skull between his eyes. One last time, I called out to my friend with my mind and my heart; with my very soul.
I shut my eyes as the hydralisk’s left scythe cleaved the air and the sound of parting metal and shattering neo glass assaulted my ears. However, I never felt the icy blade reach my neck.
It became a strain just to open my eyes again, but when I did, a bloody smile painstakingly crossed my lips. Bane’s scythe was stopped short, only partially buried in the steely neck of my powered suit.
Ever so slowly, the familiar, eerie calm returned to my numb brain and I could sense Bane’s mental presence again for the first time since our struggle against the Overmind. He was suddenly all around me, radiating like heat from the surrounding brood. Then, the blazing lamps of his eyes snapped wide open with the onset of full consciousness.
The strength drained from my arm and it slid back to my side as my senses began to blend with those of the hydralisk. I could see my friend again, and he was shaken to the very core by what he had awoken to. I saw a frantic maelstrom of confusion and fear spinning over a plummeting ocean of guilt. The anguish I felt building in him was beyond the capacity for any words. So, I spoke first.
“...I-it’s alright, Bane...it’s going to be alright...”
My voice couldn’t have been more than a breath with syllables, but my friend understood perfectly across our restored mental link.
“No...No! NO!” Bane’s telepathic voice actually cracked in my mind, “Not like this!”
Time seemed to drag down to a crawl in my eyes as I mustered an attempt to comfort him.
“...Please, Bane...I need you to be strong for me right now...it...it wasn’t your fault...”
The hydralisk tried to speak, but the words fell short before they could even form images in my thoughts. I silently wished for more time, time to help him sort it out, but I could already feel everything slipping from my grasp. With all my being, I pushed back against the comforting, sucking pull of darkness.
“...Please...don’t blame yourself...You came back, you saved me...so many times.”
A searing grief spilled over the mental link as a convulsion shook my body, but I continued through it with my mind’s voice.
“...You saved me...in more ways than you’ll ever know...And you’re going to do it again...you can stop her.”
At last, my friend was able to form a single, almost inaudible reply.
“Two minutes,” I attempted to lie for Bane’s sake; I knew I would be lucky to last more than one.
“...I can give you...two minutes from her influence...I...I need you to finish this one for me.”
I could sense hesitation in my friend, he knew withdrawing his scythe would only cause more damage. However, I pushed that aside as well, gathering the will for one last sarcasm.
“...It’s okay, Bane...I think my spine is severed...I can’t feel a damned thing...”
As my own vision began fading, finally giving in to those jagged black tendrils, I clung to the last bitter-sweet image of those fiery red eyes. Their crimson glow seemed to be coming from all directions. For the final time, I reached out to those burning lamps, to my friend,
“...Remember...what I told you about...what it means to be free...”
Vaguely, I recall grinning again as Kerrigan’s distant laughter abruptly halted in my ears.
“And please...take care of Caryn for me...Will you Bud?”
Kerrigan’s psychotic laughter trailed to a stop as the silent broods suddenly began moving from their idle watching positions. The great mass of them slowly closed in, forming a ring of carapace and blades around the three combatants in the center. Mutalisks drifted down from the air, settling to watch on the rises of the pass. Nearly twenty zerglings approached the lone hydralisk, offering up the blunt edges of scythes and claws to take the weight of its friend.
The Queen of Blades was outraged; her shrill, demonic voice lashed the still air as she flung her will forth like a whip,
“What are you doing?! I command you to kill him! NOW!”
Kerrigan actually staggered as the diamond chain of her will was hurled back at her mind like discarded garbage. Her cerebrate, her creation, was blatantly ignoring her whim. Psionic power crackled about her as she broke her stance with an inhuman snarl and began striding towards the insubordinate beast.
Slowly, Bane withdrew his scythe as his zergling counterparts lowered the body gently to the rock. Kerrigan was nearly halfway there when her pet finally turned to face her with blood soaking one blade. The Zerg, a blazing ocean of angry, crimson eyes, turned to face her as well, bringing pause to her in mid-step. The blind could have seen the absolute fury welling up beneath those eyes. It grew and grew, pressing on Kerrigan’s mind like the boiling wrath of star until it erupted into physical being around her in an explosion of molten rage and pure sorrow.
All as one, the roaring timbre of the swarm joined together, shaking the very crust of the planet in furious thunder heard by terrified Protoss defenders for hundreds of miles. Only now, at the end of her arrogant reign, Kerrigan, the infamous Queen of Blades, knew true fear.
To Be Continued...