|June 26, 2001
Pocket Book, 272 pages
Bhekar Ro: a bleak, backwater world on the fringe of the Terran Dominion, where every day is a struggle to survive for its handful of human colonists. It is a veritable wasteland—one speck of dust among many in the vast, dark sea of space. But when the most violent storm in recent memory unearths an unfathomable alien artifact, Bhekar Ro becomes the greatest prize in the Terran Sector—the Holy Grail of the Zerg, the Protoss, and Humanity alike—as forces from the three great powers converge to claim the lost secrets of the most powerful species the universe has ever known.
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Pitch-black clouds swirled over the horizon, caught on the sharp mountainous ridge surrounding the broad valley that formed the heart of the struggling agricultural colony. Already, explosive thunder crackled over the ridge like a poorly aimed artillery barrage. Each blast was powerful enough to be detected on several still-functioning seismographs planted around the explored areas.
Atmospheric conditions created thunder slams with sonic-boom intensity. The roar itself was sometimes sufficient to cause destruction. And what the sonic thunder left unharmed, the laser-lightning tore to pieces.
Forty years earlier, when the first colonists had fled the oppressive government of the Terran Confederacy, they had been duped into believing that this place could be made into a new Eden. After three generations, the stubborn settlers refused to give up.
Riding in the shotgun seat beside her brother Lars, Octavia Bren looked through the streaked windshield of the giant robo-harvester as they hurriedly trundled back to town. The rumble of the mechanical treads and the roar of the engine almost drowned out the sonic thunder. Almost.
Laser-lightning blasts seared down from the clouds like luminous spears, straight-line lances of static discharge that left glassy pockmarks on the terrain. The laser-lightning reminded Octavia of library images she had seen of a big Yamato gun fired from a Battlecruiser in orbit.
“Why in the galaxy did our grandparents ever choose to move here?” she asked rhetorically. More laser-lightning burned craters into the countryside.
“For the scenery, of course,” Lars joked.
While the bombardment of hail would clear the air of the ever-present dust and grit, it would also damage the crops of triticale-wheat and salad-moss that barely clung to the rocky soil. The Free Haven settlers had few emergency provisions to help them withstand any severe harvest failure, and it had been a long time since they had asked for outside help.
But they would survive somehow. They always had.
Lars watched the approaching storm, a spark of excitement in his hazel eyes. Though he was a year older than his sister, when he wore that cocky grin on his face he looked like a reckless teenager. “I think we can outrun the worst of it.”
“You always overestimate what we can do, Lars.” Even at the age of seventeen, Octavia was known for her stability and common sense. “And I always end up saving your butt.”
Lars seemed to have a bottomless reservoir of energy and enthusiasm. She gripped her seat as the big all-purpose vehicle crunched through a trench and continued along a wide beaten path between plantings, heading toward the distant lights of the town.
Shortly after their parents’ death, it had been Lars’s crazy suggestion that the two of them expand their cultivated land and add remote automated mineral mines to their holdings. She had tried, unsuccessfully, to talk him out of it. “Let’s be practical, Lars. We’ve already got our hands full with the farm as it is. Expanding would leave us time for nothing but work—not even families.”
Half of the colonists’ eligible daughters had already filed requests to marry him—Cyn McCarthy had filed three separate times!—but so far Lars had made plenty of excuses. Colonists were considered adults at the age of fifteen on this rough world, and many were married and had children before they reached their eighteenth birthday. Next year, Octavia would be facing the same decision, and choices were few in Free Haven.
“Are you sure we want to do this?” she had asked one last time.
“Of course. It’s worth the extra effort. And once we’re established there’ll be plenty of time for each of us to get married,” Lars had insisted, shaking back his shoulder-length sandy hair. She had never been able to argue with that grin. “Before we know it, Octavia, it’ll all turn around, and then you’ll thank me.”
He had been certain they could grow crops high on the slopes of the Back Forty, the ridge that separated their lands from another broad basin and more mountains twelve kilometers away. So the brother and sister had used their robo-harvester to scrape flat a new swath of barely arable farmland and plant new crops. They also set up automated mineral mining stations on the rocky slopes of the foothills. That had been almost two years ago.
Now a gust of wind slammed into the broad metal side of the harvester, rattling the sealed windowports. Lars compensated on the steering column and accelerated. He didn’t even look tired from their long day of hard work.
Laser-lightning seared across the sky, leaving colorful tracks across her retinas. Though he couldn’t see any better than his sister, Lars didn’t slow down at all. They both just wanted to get home.
“Watch out for the boulders!” Octavia said, her piercing green eyes spotting the hazard as rain slashed across the windows of the impressive tractorlike vehicle.
Lars discounted the rocks, drove over them, and crushed the stone with the vehicle’s treads. “Aww, don’t underestimate the capabilities of the machine.”
She snorted indelicately. “But if you throw a plate or fry a hydraulic cam, I’m the one who has to fix it.”
The multipurpose robo-harvester, the most important piece of equipment any of the colonists owned, was capable of bulldozing, tilling, destroying boulders, planting, and harvesting crops. Some of the big machines had rock-crusher attachments, others had flamethrowers. The vehicles were also practical for traversing ten- to twenty-klick distances over rough terrain.
The hull of the robo-harvester, once a gleaming cherry red, was now faded, scratched, and pitted. The engine ran as smoothly as a lullaby, though, and that was all Octavia cared about.
Now she checked the weather scanner and atmospheric-pressure tracker in the robo-harvester’s cabin, but the readings were all wild. “Looks like a bad one tonight.”
“They’re always bad ones. This is Bhekar Ro, after all—what do you expect?”
Octavia shrugged. “I guess it was good enough for Mom and Dad.” Back when they were alive.
She and Lars were the only survivors of their family. Every family among the settlers had lost friends or relatives. Taming an uncooperative new world was dangerous, rarely rewarding work, always ripe for tragedy.
But the people here still followed their dreams. These exhausted colonists had left the tight governmental fences of the Confederacy for the promised land of Bhekar Ro some forty years before. They had sought independence and a new start, away from the turmoil and constant civil wars among the inner Confederacy worlds.
The original settlers had wanted nothing more than peace and freedom. They had begun idealistically, establishing a central town with resources for all the colonists to share, naming it Free Haven, and dividing farmland equally among the able-bodied workers. But in time the idealism faded as the colonists endured toil and new hardships on a planet that did not live up to their expectations.
Nobody among the colonists ever suggested going back, though—especially not Octavia and Lars Bren.
The lights of Free Haven glowed like a warm, welcoming paradise as the robo-harvester approached. In the distance Octavia could already hear the storm-warning siren next to the old Missile Turret in the town plaza, signaling colonists to find shelter. Everyone else—at least the colonists who had common sense—had already barricaded themselves inside their prefabricated homes to shelter from the storm.
They passed outlying homes and fields, crossed over dry irrigation ditches, and reached the perimeter of the town, which was laid out in the shape of an octagon. A low perimeter fence encircled the settlement, but the gates for the main streets had never been closed.
An explosion of sonic thunder roared so close that the robo-harvester rattled. Lars gritted his teeth and drove onward. Octavia remembered sitting on her father’s knee during her childhood, laughing at the thunder as her family had gathered inside their home, feeling safe….
Their grandparents had aged rapidly from the rigors of life here and had the dubious distinction of being the first to be buried in Bhekar Ro’s ever-growing cemetery outside Free Haven’s octagonal perimeter. Then, not long after Octavia had turned fifteen, the spore blight had struck.
The sparse crops of mutated triticale-wheat had been afflicted by a tiny black smut on a few of the kernels. Because food was in short supply, Octavia’s mother had set aside the moldy wheat for herself and her husband, feeding untainted bread to their children. The meager meal had seemed like any other: rough and tasteless, but nutritious enough to keep them alive.
Octavia remembered that last night so clearly. She had been suffering from one of her occasional migraines and a dire sense of unreasonable foreboding. Her mother had sent the teenage girl to bed early, where Octavia had had terrible nightmares.
The next morning she had awakened in a too-quiet house to find both of her parents dead in their bed. Beneath wet sheets twisted about by their final agony, the bodies of her mother and father were a quivering, oozing mass of erupted fungal bodies, rounded mushrooms of exploding spores that rapidly disintegrated all flesh….
Lars and Octavia had never returned to that house, burning it to the ground along with the tainted fields and the homes of seventeen other families that had been infected by the horrible, parasitic disease.
Though a terrible blow to the colony, the spore blight had drawn the survivors together even more tightly. The new mayor, Jacob “Nik” Nikolai, had delivered an impassioned eulogy for all the victims of the spore plague, somehow rekindling the fires of independence in the process and giving the settlers the drive to stay here. They had already lived through so much, survived so many hardships, that they could pull through this.
Moving together into an empty prefab dwelling at the edge of Free Haven, Octavia and Lars had rebuilt their lives. They made plans. They expanded. They tracked their automated mines and watched the seismic monitors for signs of tectonic disturbances that might affect their work or the town. The two drove out to the fields each day and labored side by side until well after dark. They worked harder, risked more…and survived.
As Octavia and Lars passed through the open gate and drove around the town square toward their residence, the storm finally struck with full force. It became a slanting wall of rain and hail as the robo-harvester ground its way past the lights and barricaded doors of metal-walled huts. Their own home looked the same as all the others, but Lars found it by instinct, even in the blinding downpour.
He spun the large vehicle to a halt in the flat gravel clearing in front of their house. He locked down the treads and powered off the engine, while Octavia tugged a reinforced hat down over her head and got ready to jump out of the cab and make a break for the door. Even running ten feet in this storm would be a miserable ordeal.
Before the robo-harvester’s systems dimmed completely, Octavia checked the fuel reservoirs, since her brother never remembered to do so. “We’ll need to get more Vespene gas from the refinery.”
Lars grabbed the door handle and hunched his head down. “Tomorrow, tomorrow. Rastin’s probably hiding inside his hut cursing the wind right now. That old codger doesn’t like storms any more than I do.”
He popped open the hatch and jumped out seconds before a strong gust slammed the door back into its frame. Octavia exited from the other side, hopping from the step to the broad tractor treads to the ground.
As she ran beside her brother in a mad dash to their dwelling, the hail hit them like machine-gun bullets. Lars got their front door open, and the siblings crashed into the house, drenched and windblown. But at least they were safe from the storm.
Sonic thunder pealed across the sky again. Lars undid the fastenings on his jacket. Octavia yanked off her dripping hat and tossed it into a corner, then powered up their lights so she could check one of the old seismographs they had installed in their hut.
Few of the other colonists bothered to monitor planetary conditions or track underground activity anymore, but Lars had thought it important to place seismographs in their automated mining stations out in the Back Forty foothills. Of course, Octavia had been the one to repair and install the aging monitoring equipment.
Lars had been right, though. There had been increasing tremors of late, setting off ripples of aftershocks that originated deep in the mountain range at the far side of the next valley.
Just what we need—another thing to worry about, Octavia thought, looking at the graph with concern.
Lars joined her to read the seismograph strip. The long and shaky line appeared to have been drawn by a caff-addicted old man. He saw several little blips and spikes, probably echoes of sonic thunder, but no major seismic events. “Now that’s interesting. Aren’t you glad we didn’t have an earthquake tonight?”
She knew it would happen even before he finished his sentence. Maybe it was another one of Octavia’s powerful premonitions, or just a discouraged acceptance that things would get worse whenever they had the opportunity.
Just as Lars formed another of his cocky grins, a tremor rippled through the ground, as if the uneasy crust of Bhekar Ro were having a nightmare. At first Octavia hoped it was merely a particularly close blast of sonic thunder, but the tremors continued to build, lurching the floor beneath their feet and shaking the entire prefab house.
Lars tensed his powerful muscles to ride out the temblor. They both watched the seismograph go wild. “The readings are off the scale!”
Astonished, Octavia pointed out, “This isn’t even centered here. It’s fifteen klicks away, over the ridge.”
“Great. Not far from where we set up all our automated mining equipment.” The seismograph went dead, its sensors overloaded, as the quake pounded the ground for what seemed an eternity before it gradually began to fade. “Looks like you’re gonna have some repair work to do tomorrow, Octavia.”
“I’ve always got repair work to do,” she said.
Outside, the storm reached a crescendo. Lars and Octavia sat together in weary silence, just waiting out the disaster. “Do you want to play cards?” he asked.
Then all the lights inside their dwelling went out, leaving them in pitch blackness lit only by flares from the laser-lightning.
“Not tonight,” she said.
Copyright ? 2001 by Blizzard Entertainment
|May 21, 2002
Pocket Book, 256 pages
All Ardo Menikov ever dreamed of was to live in peace on the verdant colony world of Bountiful. But when the vicious Zerg Swarm attacked the colony and annihilated his loved ones, Ardo was forced to wake from his dream and accept the brutal realities of a war-torn galaxy. Now a confederate marine, charged with defending the worlds of the Terran confederacy, Ardo must come to terms with the painful memories of his past—and the unsettling truths that may dominate his future.
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Chapter 1: Downfall
That was his word for it, that rare…, perfect day that warms the soul with a golden glow of joy. There was peace in a golden day.
Some days were gray, hung with leaden clouds and rain punctuated by brilliant flashes of burning white and rolling thunder. Other days were a vibrant cold blue arching over the frost-encrusted domes and sheds of the settlement. Some days were even red—the evening sky painted by the dust in the spring winds before the crops had gotten their own hold on the soil. Some days even extended into the night with a velvety cobalt blanket across the sky.
He liked those autumn nights when he could leave his world behind by staring up into that rich darkness. God had put pinpricks in the dome of the night, he imagined, so that His light could shine through. As a child he had searched the stars, hoping to see through to the other side and catch some glimpse of this Creator. He had never stopped looking, even though he had reached his nineteenth birthday and had thought himself too mature for such things.
Each day held different colors for him. He had experienced them in all their hues. Each held a memory and a place in his heart. Yet none in his experience could compare to a golden day. It was the color of the wheat fields that rolled like waves across the low hills stretching out from his father’s homestead. Golden was the warmth of the sun on his face. Golden was the glow he felt within him.
Golden was the color of her hair and the sound of her voice.
“You’re dreaming again, Ardo,” she whispered playfully. “Come back to me. You are much too far away!”
He opened his eyes. She was golden.
“Melani, I’m right here.” Ardo smiled.
“No, you aren’t.” She pouted—a formidable weapon in getting her way. “You’re off dreaming again and you’ve left me behind.”
He rolled onto his side, propping his head up on one elbow so that he could get a better look at her. She was just a year younger than he. Her family had arrived back when Ardo was nine years old, another group in a long line of religious refugees that fell from the sky to join with other Saints in Helaman Township.
Refugee survivors had been gathering from nearly all the planets of the Confederacy back then—reluctant pioneers of the stars. Many devout religious groups had been among the first to be outlawed by the United Powers League on Earth back in ‘31. It was not a new story to Saints and Martyrs. Throughout humanity’s history, those who did not understand the faithful had driven them from place to place and home to home. That they should be driven from planet to planet, then star to star, was beginning to sound painfully repetitious in their Heritage classes. Now, exiles once more, families of the faithful were scattered among the ill-fated transports of the ATLAS project, and when that mission ended in such cataclysmic failure, those families who survived searched desperately for their brothers and sisters. When communication was finally established between worlds, the Patriarchs chose an outlying region on a world they called Bountiful for their new home. Soon, Orbital Dropships were landing at the Zarahemla Starport daily. The newly arrived families would then make their way to the outlying settlements as best they could. Arthur and Keti Bradlaw, with their wide-eyed daughter, were one of five families that arrived that day. Ardo had joined his father as the entire township came out to welcome the new families and get them settled.
Ardo could not remember much about Melani then, although he had been vaguely aware of the stick of a girl who seemed awkward, lonely, and shy. He first took real notice of her when her fourteenth year brought some rather remarkable changes. The “stick girl” seemed to burst into his awareness like a butterfly unfolding from its chrysalis. Her features held a natural beauty—body painting and makeup were frowned upon by the Patriarchs of the township—and it had been Ardo’s great good fortune to have been the first to approach her. His heart and soul fell into her large, luminescent blue eyes.
The nimbus of her long, shining hair played softly in the warm breeze drifting over the wheat fields. The wind carried the distant hum of the mill and the faint scent of the bread at the bakery.
“I may be off dreaming, but I’ll never leave you behind,” he said to her, smiling. The wheat rustled about the blanket where they lay. “Tell me where you want to go. I’ll take you there!”
“Right now?” Her laugh was sunshine. “In your dreams?”
“Sure!” Ardo pulled himself up to kneel on the heavy blanket he had spread out for them.
“Anywhere in the stars!”
“I can’t go anywhere.” She smiled. “I have a test in Sister Johnson’s Hydroponics class this afternoon! Besides,” she said more earnestly. “Why would I want to go anywhere else at all? Everything I want is right here.”
Golden. Who could ever leave on such a golden day?
“Then let’s not go anywhere,” he said eagerly.
“Let’s stay here… and get married.”
“Married?” She looked at him, half bemused and half questioning. “I told you, I have Hydroponics class this afternoon.”
“No, I mean it.” Ardo had been working himself up for this for some time. “I’ve graduated, and things are working out really well on Dad’s agra-plots. He said he was thinking of giving me forty acres at the far end of the homestead. It’s the sweetest place, right up near the base of the canyon. There’s a spot there next to the river where… where… Melani?”
The girl with the golden hair did not hear him. She sat up, her blue eyes squinting toward the township. “The siren, Ardo!”
Then he heard it, too. The distant wail, rising and falling across the fields.
Ardo shook his head. “They always sound it at noon…”
“But it isn’t noon, Ardo.”
The sun was eclipsed in that instant. Ardo leaped up, wheeling around toward the darkened sky. His mouth fell open as the lengthening shadow surged across the yellowed fields of wheat. Ardo’s eyes went wide with the rush of fear. Adrenaline roared into his veins.
Enormous plumes of smoke trailed behind fireballs roaring directly toward him from the western end of the broad valley. Ardo quickly reached down and pulled Melani to her feet. His mind raced. They had to run, find shelter… But where could they go? Melani screamed, and he realized that there was nowhere to go and no place safe to hide.
The fireballs seemed so close that both of them ducked. The flames arched over them, the thunderous sound of their fury quickly drowning the distant warning siren. The shadow of their wake covered the entire valley. Five enormous columns crossed overhead, their fingers reaching over Ardo and Melani toward the clustered buildings of Helaman Township. Then the fireballs wheeled as one, lifted over the township, and descended in roiling flames into Segard Yohansen’s instantly ruined fields, about a mile past the center of Helaman.
Ardo shook—whether from fear or excitement he could not tell—but at least his stupor had ended. He clasped Melani’s arm and began pulling at her. “Come on! We’ve got to get into the town before they shut the gates! Come on!”
She needed no further urging.
He could not remember how they got into town.
The golden day had turned a muddy brown fading to gray from the smoke that still coated the sky overhead. It was an oppressive color, slate and cold. It seemed so out of place here.
“We’ve got to find my Uncle Dez,” he heard himself say. “He has a shop in the compound! Come on! Come on!”
Ardo and Melani struggled to move through the center of the township, now crowded with refugees. Helaman originally had been nothing but an outpost in the far reaches of Bountiful. Its town center was the original fortress compound with the defensive wall encompassing the main buildings. Since then, the town had grown well beyond those central walls. Now more than ten thousand people called Helaman their home—and nearly all of them had poured into the safety of the old fortress compound.
He could just see the sign “Dez Hardwarez” across the packed central square.
The rattle of automatic weapons clattered suddenly from the perimeter wall. Two dull explosive thuds resounded, followed by even more chattering machine guns.
A cry arose from the crowd in the square. Ardo felt more than heard the fear in the seething mob. Shouts rang out, some strident and others calming. The smoke overhead cast an oppressive veil over the surging mob.
“Please, Ardo!” Melani said, “I… Where do we go? What do we do?”
Ardo glanced around. He could taste the panic in the air.
“We just need to get across the square,” he choked out, then, seeing the look in her eyes. “We’ve done it hundreds of times.”
“It isn’t any farther than it was before. Just a little more crowded, that’s all.” Ardo looked at the tears welling up in those beautiful blue eyes. He squeezed her hand tightly. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right here with you.”
Somehow, they were halfway across the square when it came.
A sheet of flame erupted beyond the fortress’s outer wall. Its crimson light flashed against the blanket of smoke that hung oppressively over the town. The blood-red hue electrified the panicked crowd in the square. Screams, shouts, and cries all tumbled into a cacophony of sound, but several disembodied voices penetrated Ardo’s thoughts clearly.
“Where are the Confederacy forces? Where are the Marines?”
“Don’t argue with me! Get the children! Stay together!”
“It can’t be the Zerg! They couldn’t have penetrated so far into the Confederacy…”
Zerg? Ardo had heard rumors about them. Nightmares, so he thought, to scare children or keep outsiders from settling in the Outer Colonies. He could not remember all the whispered tales, but the nightmare was here now, and very real.
Another voice penetrated his thoughts. He turned toward her.
“Ardo, I’m frightened!” Melani’s eyes were wide and liquid. “What is it? What’s going on?”
Ardo opened his mouth. He could not answer her question. No words came out. There were so many words he wanted to say to her in that moment—so many words that he would regret never having said for uncounted years to come. But no words came out.
A light flared. He felt the heat on his back. He turned, holding Melani behind him.
The eastern wall had been breached. The old rampart was being pulled down from the other side, dismantled before Ardo’s eyes. It seemed as though a dark wave was breaking against the breach, an undulating silhouette. Then details lodged in his mind: a gleaming purple carapace, red-streaked ivory claws sliding from a colonist’s limp body, the arching, snakelike bodies writhing across the broken stone.
It was unthinkable…. The nightmare had come to Bountiful.
The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in the square roared their deep fear and turned to run from the breach. There was nowhere to go. Zerg Hydralisks had already crested the opposite wall, cascading into the street like black drops from a greasy spill. Within moments, hideous cobra-like hoods had unfolded above their razor-sharp talons. They arched their tails upward. Armored spikes exploded from their serrated shoulder sockets and darted with deadly effect into the western edge of the crowd.
Those facing the new threat suddenly tried to reverse direction, crushing back into the surging crowd behind them.
Ardo heard Melani gasp behind him. “I can’t… I can’t breathe…”
The mob was crushing them. Ardo looked desperately around him, trying to find a way out.
Movement overhead caught his eye. A bloated, bulbous form like a disembodied brain drifted over the colony wall. Tendrils hung like viscera beneath it, quivering with activity. It was reaching down for the center of the crowd. Ardo had heard tales in which the Zerg had captured colonists and taken them alive to a fate that could only be worse than death.
Tears flooded Ardo’s eyes. There was nowhere to go and nothing left to do.
Suddenly the Zerg Overlord drifting above the colony shuddered and slid sideways. Several explosions erupted from the side of the hideous beast. The Overlord exploded in an enormous fireball. The Zerg Hydralisks entering the compound suddenly hesitated.
A wing of five Confederacy Wraith fighters ripped through the smoke overhead, the scream of their engines nearly drowning out the cries of the terrified crowd below. Twenty-five-millimeter burst lasers pulsed repeatedly as the Wraiths wheeled through the air, the bolts slamming against targets on the far side of the crumbling fortress wall.
One of the Wraiths wavered suddenly, then exploded under a hail of ground fire from the outraged Zerg.
The Zerg who had entered the compound were pressing their attack, killing some and dragging others off without apparent distinction. They had corralled the humans; now all they had to do was harvest them from the edges of the crowd inward. A second flight of Wraiths tore through the smoke blackened sky. Then a single Confederacy Dropship ripped through the air, spinning in a rapid breaking maneuver and descending toward the square. The downblast from the engines created an instant hurricane on the ground. Trees bent over nearly double. It was impossible to hear anything over the roar of the engines. People all about Ardo tumbled to the ground, shielding themselves from the gale.
Ardo blinked through the dust. The Dropship continued to hover but managed somehow to lower its transport ramp into the square. He could see the silhouetted figure of a Confederacy Marine beckoning to them.
Everyone else in the square saw the Marine also. Mindlessly they charged the ramp. A human tide pulled Ardo along.
He lost Melani’s hand.
“Melani!” he screamed. He tried to fight against the crushing press of the panicked crowd. His words were lost in the roar of the Dropship’s engines. “Melani!”
He saw her behind him. The Zerg were pressing their attack with anger now. The Dropship was depriving them of their prize. Ardo was appalled at how quickly the large crowd had been sundered—harvested like blood-red wheat in the field. The Zerg were already nearly at Melani’s side.
Ardo clawed and fought. He screamed.
Three Hydralisks grasped Melani at once, dragging her back from the edge of the crowd.
“Please, Ardo!” she wept. “Don’t leave me alone!” The mindless mob pushed him farther into the ship.
Zerg claws suddenly rang against the sides of the Dropship. The pilot had played out all the time his luck would afford. The ship responded instantly to his command, lurching upward away from the Zerg and bearing Ardo away from his home, his life, and his love.
“Don’t leave me alone!” Those were her last words to him, pounding through his mind and soul, louder and louder, threatening to burst his skull…
Ardo’s world went black. It would stay black for a very long time.
Copyright ? 2002 by Blizzard Entertainment
An original tale of space warfare based on the bestselling computer game series from Blizzard Entertainment.
Driven by the living memories of a long-dead protoss mystic and hounded by the Queen of Blades’ ravenous zerg, archaeologist Jake Ramsey embarks on a perilous journey to reach the fabled protoss homeworld of Aiur.
Seeking a vital piece of protoss technology, Jake finds that Aiur has been overrun by the zerg. Descending into the shadowy labyrinths beneath the planet’s surface, he must find the sacred crystal before time runs out—for him…and the universe itself.
Yet, what Jake discovers beneath Aiur is a horror beyond his wildest nightmares—Ulrezaj—an archon comprised of the seven most deadly and powerful dark templar in history….
EXCERPT – CHAPTER ONE
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.
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