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In the darkness, there was order.
Her haven was inviolable. She was queen of all she surveyed, and her vision was vast.
What those who served her unquestioningly knew, was her knowledge. What they saw, was her sight. What they felt, were her feelings. Unity, complete and utter, shivering along her nerves, racing in her blood. A unity that began with the lowest and most base of her creations and ended with her.
"All roads lead to Rome" was a saying she remembered from when she was weak and fragile, her mighty spirit encased in human flesh, when her heart could be softened by such things as loyalty, devotion, friendship, or love. It meant that all paths led to the center, to the most important thing in the world.
She, Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades, was the most important thing in the world of every zerg who flew, crept, slithered, or ran. Each breath, each thought, each movement of the zerg, from the doglike beasts to the mighty overlords, lived but by her whim. Lived to service her whim.
All roads led to Rome.
All roads led to her.
She shifted in the damp, dark place, flexing wings that were sharp and bony and devoid of membrane as she might have rolled her neck to ease tension when she was a human woman. The walls pulsated, oozing a thick, viscous substance, and she was as aware of that as she was of the larvae hatching in the pods, as she was of an overlord on a distant planet assimilating a new strain into the whole. As she was of her own discontent.
Kerrigan rose and paced. She was beginning to grow impatient. Before her arrival as their queen, she knew, the zerg had had a mission. To grow, to absorb, to become perfect, as their creators had wanted them to be. Their creators, whom they had turned on without so much as a breath of conscience. Sarah Kerrigan understood the idea of "conscience." There had been moments, even in this glorious new incarnation, where she had had twinges of it. She did not see such a thing as a weakness, but as an advantage. If one thought like one's enemies, one could defeat them.
The zerg were still on that mission under her guidance. But she had brought something new into the mix: the pleasure of revenge and victory. And for too long now, she had been forced to rest and recover, lick wounds, and fall back on the original mission. Certainly, she had not been idle over the last four years. She had rested here on Char, had found new worlds for her zerg to explore and exploit. The zerg had thrived under her leadership, had grown and advanced and improved.
But she hungered. And that hunger was not sated by moving from planet to planet and simply re-creating and improving zerg genetics. She hungered for action, for revenge, for pitting her mind keen even as a human's, awesome in its ability now against her adversaries.
Arcturus Mengsk, self-styled "emperor" of the Terran Dominion. She'd enjoyed playing with him before and would again. It was why she had let him survive their last encounter, why she'd even tossed him a few crumbs, just to ensure he'd make it.
Prelate Zeratul, the dark templar protoss. Clever, that one. Admirable. And dangerous.
Unease fluttered inside her, quickly quelled. Once, before her transformation, she had cared for the easygoing marshal. Perhaps she had even loved him. She would never know now. It was enough that thoughts of him were still able to unsettle her. He, too, was dangerous, although in quite another way than Zeratul. He was dangerous for his ability to make her...regret.
Four years of waiting, gathering strength, resting. She had been sick of slaughter, but no more. Now that she
Kerrigan blinked. Her mind, processing at light speed, sensed something and latched onto it. A psionic disturbance, far, far distant. Of great magnitude it would have to be for her to have picked up on it from so far away. But then again, she herself had been able to telepathically contact Mengsk and Raynor when she was undergoing her transformation touch their minds and cry out for aid. Aid which had not come in time, and for that, she was grateful, of course. But what was this, that sent ripples out as if from a stone tossed into a lake?
It was fading now. It was definitely human. And yet there was something else to it, a sort of...flavor, for lack of a better word. Something...protoss about it.
Kerrigan's mind was always on a thousand things at once. She could see through any zerg's eyes, dip into any zerg's mind as she chose. But now she pulled back from all the ceaseless streaming of information and focused her attention on this.
Human...and protoss. Mentally working together. Kerrigan knew that Zeratul, the late unlamented Tassadar, and Raynor had shared thoughts. But they'd created nothing like what she now sensed. Kerrigan hadn't even realized such a thing was possible. Human and protoss brains were so different. Even a psionic would have difficulty working with a protoss.
Her fingers came up to touch her face, trailing along the spines that lay like Medusa locks on her head. She had been remade. Part human, part zerg. Maybe Mengsk had done the same thing with a human and a protoss. She wouldn't put it past him. She would put very little indeed past him. She herself might even have been the one to give him the idea.
She'd been what was known as a ghost herself, once. A terran psychic, trained to assassinate, with technology that enabled her to become as invisible as the ghost for which she was named. She knew that people who trained in this program were made of stern stuff; the people who put them through the training, heartless.
Ripples in a pond.
She needed to go to the source.
What had gone wrong?
Valerian Mengsk couldn't believe what he was seeing. His ships were just...sitting there in space while the vessel with Jacob Ramsey and Rosemary Dahl aboard made a successful jump. They were gone. He'd had them, but now they were gone.
"Raise Stewart!" he snapped. His assistant, Charles Whittier, jumped at his employer's words.
"I've been trying to," Whittier stammered, his voice pitched even higher than usual in his agitation. "They're not responding. I can't raise anyone at the compound either."
"Did Dahl's ship manage to emit some kind of electromagnetic pulse?" It was a possibility, but not a likely one; all of Valerian's ships were well protected against such things happening.
"Possible, I suppose," Whittier said doubtfully. "Still trying to raise "
Eight screens came to life at once, with nearly a dozen people talking simultaneously. "Talk to Ethan," Valerian ordered, leaning down to mute all the other channels. "Find out how it is that he managed to let them slip through his fingers. I'll talk to Santiago."
Santiago did not look like he wanted to talk. Valerian would go so far as to say the man looked positively rattled, but the admiral managed to compose himself. "Sir," Santiago said, "there was...I'm not sure how to explain it some kind of psi attack. Ramsey rendered us all completely unable to move until he jumped."
Valerian frowned, his gray eyes taking in images of the others on the vessel. They all looked shaken in one way or another, but was that young woman over there smiling?
"Let me speak with Agent Starke," Valerian said. If somehow Jacob Ramsey and the protoss inside his head had indeed been able to send such an attack against his best and brightest, Devon Starke would know the most about it.
Agent Devon Starke was a ghost, one who had come perilously close to becoming a literal one a little more than a year ago. That was when Arcturus Mengsk had decided that the ghost program needed a serious overhaul.
"They are useful tools," Mengsk had said to his son. "But they are double-edged ones." He'd frowned into his port. Valerian knew he was thinking about Sarah Kerrigan. Mengsk had helped Kerrigan escape the ghost program, and for that he'd won passionate loyalty from the woman. Valerian had seen holos of her; she'd been beautiful and intense. But then when Kerrigan had outlived her usefulness, started to voice questions, Mengsk had abandoned her to the zerg. He thought they'd kill her for him, but they had another idea. They'd taken this woman and turned her into their queen. Thus it was that Mengsk had unwittingly created the being who was now probably his greatest enemy.
Valerian was determined to learn from his father, both the good lessons and the painful ones. A ghost who was loyal to you was a good thing; letting one out of your control was not.
So when Mengsk decided that he would terminate in a controlled environment this time fully half the current ghosts in his government, Valerian had spoken. He'd asked to have one.
Mengsk eyed him. "Squeamish, son?"
"Of course not," Valerian said. "But I'd like one to help me with my research. Mind reading is a useful thing indeed."
Arcturus grinned. "Very well. Your birthday's coming up, isn't it? I'll let you have your pick of the litter. I'll send their files over to you tomorrow."
The following afternoon, Valerian was perusing a data chip containing the files of two hundred and eighty-two ghosts, two hundred and eighty-one of which would be dead within thirty-six hours. Valerian shook his head at the waste. While he understood that his father was dedicating all his resources to rebuilding his empire, it seemed a poor decision to Valerian to simply terminate the ghosts. But it was not his place to challenge or even seriously question his father on such decisions.
Not yet anyway.
One file in particular stood out. Not because of the man's history or his physical appearance neither was remarkable but because of an almost offhand notation about Starke's area of specialization. "#25876 seems to excel in remote viewing and psychometry. This predilection is counterbalanced by a proportionate weakness in telepathic manipulation and a less efficient method of termination of assignments."
Translation #25876, known now by his birth name of Devon Starke, didn't much care to plant mental orders for suicide or murder, and didn't like to kill with his own hands. Devon Starke could do these things, certainly, which was why he had not been terminated before now. Mengsk wanted tools he could use immediately. Later, when the empire was firmly established, there would be a place for those who could, say, tell who had held what wineglass and where their families might be hidden away. But that was later, and at this moment Mengsk wanted to keep the best assassins and at the same time send them a very firm message about what would happen to them once they were no longer useful to him.
Valerian knew well what had happened the last time Mengsk had a ghost who was "problematic." Mengsk did not want that to happen again.
So for his twenty-first birthday, the day he had come of age, his father had given him another human being as a gift. #25876 had been freed from the cell where he had been awaiting death. The neural inhibitor that had been deeply embedded into his brain as a youth was removed, and Starke was permitted to remember his identity and history. He was also permitted to know why he'd been spared, and who had chosen him.
He therefore was utterly loyal to Valerian Mengsk.
Starke's face appeared on the screen. Devon Starke was, like Jacob Ramsey, someone you wouldn't give more than a passing glance. Slight, shorter than average, with thinning brown hair and an unremarkable face, the only memorable thing about Devon was his voice. It was a deep, musical baritone, the sort of voice that immediately caught and held one's attention. And because being memorable was not exactly what being a ghost was all about, Devon Starke had gotten used to seldom speaking.
"Sir," Devon said, "there was indeed a psychic contact from Professor Ramsey. But I wouldn't call it an attack. A delaying tactic, maybe, to allow them time to escape." A pause. "Perhaps we should continue this conversation in private? I can step into my quarters and have you patched through."
"Good idea," said Valerian.
At that moment, Charles Whittier turned and looked at him, visibly upset. "Sir I think you should hear this. Someone named Samuels; he says it's urgent."
Valerian sighed. "One moment, Devon." He punched a button and turned to the screen Charles had indicated.
Samuels, dressed in medical scrubs and looking a bit panicked, was gesticulating. The sound came on in mid-sentence. " critical condition. They're operating on him now but "
"Hold on a moment, Samuels. This is Mr. V," Valerian said, using the false name he had adopted when working with most underlings. Very few knew his true identity as the Heir Apparent to the Terran Dominion. "Calm yourself and speak clearly. What's going on?"
Samuels took a deep breath and ran his hands through his hair in what was obviously a nervous gesture. Valerian observed that Samuels' hands were bloody and that the man's fair hair was now clotted with the substance.
"It's Mr. Stewart, sir. He was injured when Ramsey and Dahl escaped. He's in critical condition. They're working on him now."
"Tell me what happened with Dahl and Ramsey."
"Sir, I'm just a paramedic, I don't know much about what went on, only that we have wounded."
"Please, then, find someone who does know, and have him or her contact me at once." Valerian nodded to Charles, who continued speaking with the flustered paramedic. Briefly, he permitted himself to wonder why someone who was trained in handling life-and-death situations was so upset by what had happened.
He switched back to Starke, who was alone in his quarters. "Do we have privacy?"
Devon grinned. "Yes, sir." Devon had, of course, read the minds of the rest of the crew to make certain that their line was not being tapped. Having a ghost was so terribly convenient.
"Continue." Valerian placed his hands on the table and leaned down closer to the screen.
"Sir...as I said, it was psychic, but it wasn't an attack. There was nothing hostile or harmful about it. Somehow, Ramsey managed to link our minds. Not just mine to his...all of our minds. Everyone in this immediate area. And not just thoughts, but...feelings, sensations. I "
For the first time since Valerian had known the man, Starke seemed at a complete and utter loss for words. Valerian could easily believe it, if this was indeed what had happened. This was protoss psi-power, not human. Only a tiny fraction of humanity had any psychic ability at all, and only a small percentage of those could do what the ghosts could do. And from all accounts, even the most gifted, most finely trained human telepaths were pitiful compared to an ordinary, run-of-the-mill protoss.
He hungered to hear more, but he could tell that Starke was in no real position to tell him. Pushing aside his impatience and burning curiosity, Valerian said, "I'm recalling your vessel and two of the others, Devon. We'll discuss this more when you've had a chance to gather your thoughts."
Starke gave him a grateful expression and nodded. His image blinked out, replaced by that of the vessel floating serenely in space.
Valerian tapped his chin thoughtfully. Now he understood better why the paramedic he'd spoken with seemed so shaken and distracted. If Devon had the right of it and knowing his ghost, Valerian was certain he had then the man had just undergone what was possibly the most profound experience of his life.
Not for the first time, Valerian wished he had the freedom to have been present when these miraculous things were happening, rather than hearing about them secondhand. To have been with Jake Ramsey when he finally entered the temple. To have felt this strange psychic contact that Devon was certain wasn't an attack. He sighed. Noblesse oblige, he thought ruefully.
"Sir, I have a Stephen O'Toole who says he's now in charge," Whittier said. At Valerian's nod, Whittier put the man through.
Valerian listened while O'Toole related what had happened. Rosemary Dahl had managed to take Ethan Stewart hostage, using her former lover to get to the hangar in Stewart's compound. Once inside the hangar, fighting had broken out. Apparently someone named Phillip Randall, Ethan's top assassin, had been killed the witness said by the professor. Ethan himself had gotten a round of slugs in the chest from Rosemary. Fortunately a team had been on hand with sufficient time to get Stewart into surgery, although the prognosis was not good.
Valerian shook his head as he listened, half in despair, half in grudging admiration. Jacob Ramsey and Rosemary Dahl were proving to be more than worthy opponents. The problem was, he'd never wanted them to be opponents at all. None of this was supposed to happen. Rosemary, Jake, and Valerian should have been together in his study, sipping fine liquor and discussing the magnificent archeological breakthroughs Jacob had made. And perhaps that would yet happen.
It was a pity about Ethan. Valerian had poured a great deal of money into financing Ethan Stewart. If he died, it would be quite the loss.
"Thank you for the update, Mr. O'Toole. Please keep Charles apprised of Mr. Stewart's condition. I've recalled three of my vessels but am leaving the others there for the time being. I will be in contact."
It had been touch-and-go for a long while. Ten more minutes and it would have been too late. As it was, Ethan Stewart was a mess. Whoever shot him had done so at close range, but had been a bit impatient, which had meant he hadn't stopped to make sure he'd finished the job. Paramedics had snipped off just enough bloodstained clothing to get an IV in one arm and lay bare the bloody chest, impaled with several spikes. The chief surgeon, Janice Howard, had deftly removed the spikes, and they lay in a glittering crimson pile on a table near the bed on which Ethan rested. One had gotten too close she'd had to suture up a slice to his heart. But Ethan was incredibly fit and apparently as strong-willed in an unconscious state as he was while waking, and against all odds, they'd saved him.
She was closing up the chest cavity, daring to think the worst was over, when suddenly a harsh, wailing sound cut through the air and the room's lighting changed from antiseptic white to blood red. Howard swore. "Hit the override!"
For a second, her assistants just stared at her. She knew what the sound meant, and so did they, but Janice Howard had taken an oath, and even if the base was under attack she wasn't going to stop in the middle of a life-and-death operation.
"Hit the damn override!" she yelled, and this time the assistant obeyed. The sound of the Klaxons dimmed and the light returned to normal. Howard gritted her teeth, calmed herself, and returned to the delicate job at hand. She was almost done. A few moments later, she'd finished stitching up her employer like a cloth mannequin and let out a long sigh.
"Someone find out what's going on," she said. Samuels nodded and began trying to raise someone from security. She wasn't overly worried for her personal safety or that of her team; the compound was complex and well guarded and the medical wing was located deep inside. Of more concern to her were the casualties elsewhere on the base. They'd already weathered one attack today; she wondered how many people they'd have to stitch up when it was all over.
She stepped back, peeling off her bloody gloves and disposing of them while her assistants cut away the rest of Ethan Stewart's bloodstained clothing.
"Can't raise anyone," Samuels said. "Everything's down."
"Keep trying," Howard ordered, fighting back a little flutter of panic.
"Huh...this is weird," Sean Kirby said. Howard turned to look at him and her eyes fell to Ethan's left wrist.
The clothing on the right arm had been cut away so they could insert the IV, but they'd ignored his left arm until now. The wrist was encircled by a small bracelet which had been taped to his skin. No, not a bracelet, a collection of wires and hardware
"Shit," moaned Howard, darting forward, blood still on her upper arms. She grabbed at Ethan's hair, knowing now that it wasn't hair at all, hoping she wouldn't find what she knew she would, and tugged off the hairpiece.
A delicate netting of fine, luminous wires was wrapped around Ethan's bald pate, held in place by small pieces of tape.
Damn it! There'd been no time to check for such things, he'd been within minutes of death when they'd found him and the surgery had begun almost immediately. It'd taken six hours. How long had he been wearing this thing before then? What kind of damage had it done? Why was he wearing it anyway, Ethan was no telepath
Gunfire rattled in the corridor. All heads turned toward the doorway. All heads but Janice Howard's.
"We're medical staff; they won't kill us, whoever they are," said Howard, hoping to calm them. Howard did not look at the doorway, instead bending over Ethan and starting to remove the tape that fastened the softly glowing wires to his cleanly shaven scalp. She didn't know much about these things. Every instinct told her to just rip it off, but she feared that might damage him further.
More gunfire, and screams. Horrible, shrill, agonized screams. And a strange, chittering sound, a sort of clacking.
"What the...," whispered Samuels, his eyes wide.
Howard thought she knew what it was. She was pretty sure everyone else in the room had guessed as well. But there was nothing to be done, except their jobs. There were no weapons in an operating room; no one had ever expected they would need them. And if the sound came from the source Howard thought it did, it was unlikely that any weapon any of the doctors and assistants could wield would do anything but make them die slower. They had a patient. He came first. With hands that did not shake, she continued to unfasten the tape.
The screaming stopped. The silence that followed was worse. Howard removed the last piece of tape and gently disengaged the psi-screen.
A bubbling, liquid sound came from the door and a harsh, acrid odor assaulted her nostrils. Coughing violently and holding the psi-screen net in her hands, Howard turned. The door was melting into a steaming puddle, the acid that had dissolved it now starting to eat through the floor. Framed in the hole that was now the doorway to the operating room were creatures straight out of nightmares.
Her team stood frozen in place. The zerg, strangely enough, also did not advance. There were three of them that she could see, standing almost motionless. Two of them were smallish; she'd heard the term "doglike" used in training to describe zerglings, but now that she beheld them, they were nothing so pleasant. They waited, incisors clicking, red human blood shiny on their carapaces. Above them, its sinuous neck undulating slightly, towered something that looked like a deranged cross between a cobra and an insect. Scythelike arms, glinting in the antiseptic light of the operating room, waited, presumably for the order to slice off heads.
The zerglings drooled, fidgeting a little, moving slightly into the room so as not to be standing in the puddle of acid. The medical team backed up as if the creatures were indeed dogs, sheepdogs from old Earth, herding them into the corner. They went, terrified into obedience, confused that the creatures they were told would rip them to pieces on sight were not doing so. Thinking that maybe they might be deemed unimportant, and live to talk about the encounter over a beer somewhere someday.
Howard hoped that too. But she knew in her gut she was wrong. The zergling in the lead was staring at her intently, and Howard knew without knowing how she knew that someone other than the creature was looking through its eyes. Those black eyes, flat and emotionless, went from her face to her hands to the prone form of Ethan Stewart on the bed.
The cobralike thing hydralisk, that was the name; somehow it was important to Howard to use the proper term for things, even now when the properly named hydralisk was about to kill her and the thought made hysteria bubble up inside her reared back and spat something on Ethan. It was a strange gooey substance, and as she watched, it spread, rapidly encasing him in some kind of webbing or cocoon.
Attacking her patient.
"No!" Howard cried, the paralysis broken. A saver of lives to the last, she sprang forward. The zergling whirled on her, chittering with excitement, happy to be freed from its command to sit, to stay; by God it really was like a dog, wasn't it
She heard the screams around her as she hit the ground, and after that, heard nothing more. Copyright © 2007 by Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.