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Bane 16: Fate's Intervention
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     Bane 16: Fate’s Intervention

 

"So what say you, Rakeem?" Dair’Sar repeated, prodding the normally kind and forgiving teacher for the reason behind his continued hostility against the Terrans.

At last, the stubborn Templar backed his decision with sudden, spiteful words that broke the sublime calm of the Kalimar’s command deck,

"Those creatures are a traitorous species! I cannot allow our mission to be jeopardized by the possibility of an unfounded attack-even if the cerebrate see’s merit in their company."

"And what of the Terran child?" San’Dreale added, unsatisfied with his master’s answers once again.

"The child shall remain under our protection to ensure Bane’s freedom from the Overmind’s influence," Rakeem said almost offhandedly, but the student interrupted, continuing to push the subject,

"I sense something odd about that Terran, Rakeem. When the child ran from me, it flew through the corridors of the ship, straight to the cerebrate-like knowledge of the Kalimar’s layout is commonplace!"

"Either that," Dair’Sar cut in jestingly, in spite of the Templar’s typically logical personality, "Or you were outwitted by a single Terran child."

"Outwitted?!" San’Dreale snapped in his own defense, "That little creature moved as if it were possessed!"

The familiar, pointless squabbles of his students softened the teacher’s harsh temperament, but only enough to provoke San’Dreale further,

"Yet your orders were to stem any trouble that arises; why could you not simply escort the Terran back to the hangar, once you found where it had gone?" This made the young Templar go wide- eyed; astonished that his teacher would bother asking such a question,

"Taking the child WOULD have been a simple task, indeed," San’Dreale responded sarcastically at first, before turning a more serious tone with his telepathic voice, "But, dare you honestly ask me to challenge Bane’s strength single-handedly in order to do so?"

"Although such news may bring pause to this highly productive exchange, I must announce our arrival in Mar Sara’s orbital space," Dair’Sar announced sarcastically, quickly returning to the endless chore of technical duties. This revived the eldest Templar’s resolve more still, and his next words rang with new purpose,

"Excellent work; begin thermal scans of the planet for zerg activity."

"I am already ahead of you, sir," the quick-witted being reported, "Sensors are reading the surface as we speak."

The Kalimar’s bridge fell silent as the three awaited the results of their search, yet, San’Dreale refused to let the former subject die, speaking again only a few moments later,

"Was it not Terrans that managed to cheat fate and restore the use of your body?"

Both students were thinking the same question, but it took a fool’s courage, on San’Dreale’s part, to actually present it. However, the young Templar was rewarded with success, instead of the due punishment for persistently challenging his master’s decision. Finally defeated, Rakeem dismissed the bothersome student with an exasperated wave of one hand,

"Very well! Find Teilon and go to the wretched Terran’s; give them my compunctions! If they are unarmed and willing to present themselves as civilized beings, then they are welcome to join us on the bridge and be briefed on the situation."

"Without delay," Dair’Sar replied almost modestly before turning promptly, retreating to the safety of the main corridor to complete the command. For a few seconds more, silence returned, only to be broken again by a last minute comment from Dair’Sar,

"I believe you are growing soft in your old age, Rakeem."

***

"That’s it! We’ve waited around in this stinkin’ tub long enough!" The Terran leader finally roared, jumping up from his seat on a half-empty supply crate that was unloaded days ago.

"Whadaya mean, cap’n?" Kip yawned after having been startled out of an uneasy nap in the open rear of the dropship. Boss stormed up the ramp, spouting orders and nearly stepping on the sleepy mercenary before he could get out of harms way,

"I mean get off your ass and fire up the navigation computer! Find out where these alien dim-wits have taken us; we’re getting outta here!"

"What about the kid, Boss?" T.J. asked, stammering up the incline in the shadow of his superior.

"Forget the kid!" Boss blurted as he dropped into the pilots seat, "He’s got his pet hydralisk back now, so we’ve done our good deed for this decade. I’m gettin’ us outta here before these lunatics fly headlong into another planet full of zerg!"

Kip was right behind the two, and slid into the copilots chair, flipping switches, to bring the Interceptor II online. The main screen flashed to life and he whistled before summarizing the initial diagnostics,

"It doesn’t look too swift, Cap’n. This might not be a good time to say I told you so, but you probably shouldn’t have passed that last orbital Stop-n-Rocket just outside Korhal. There’s enough juice to get us off this ship and around in space for a spell, but the chances of a controlled re-entry anywhere look grim at best."

"How about the scanners?" Boss asked impatiently.

"No good," returned Kip’s negative answer once more, "The array failed to penetrate the hull; I can’t tell you squat about where we are."

"What’s goin’ on in here?!" The forth member of the group finally joined the others after abandoning his guard shift, leaving only Mosely outside.

"Shut up, Joe!" Boss barked, and seemed about to say something more, when the youngest mercenary spoke up again, interrupting another argument,

"HOWEVER, motion sensors are flickering back some occasional readings and there’s enough to tell that this hulk is slowing down; maybe even stopping."

"Master Rakeem shall explain everything, provided you needn’t your weapons to hear it."

The templar’s telepathic voice was enough to take all the Terrans by surprise, but the sudden presence of the eight-foot alien warrior materializing among them caused a moment of shier panic.

"Do you blue bastard’s make a habit of sneaking up on people?!" Joe barked as the group got its breath back.

"Why should we trust you?" Boss practically spat the words, "Your high-and-mighty ‘Master Rakeem’ wanted to throw us out like common space-trash and then left us here to rot for three days!"

The calm-faced Protoss wasn’t phased by the verbal attack, speaking again with the same tone from before,

"Rakeem has also sent his apologies for his initial hostility; although I find it to be expected when your first action before him is a threat with your weapons."

"Look, buddy, we’ve already been through enough without more of your holier-than-thou attitudes!" Boss quickly began to lose patience again, and his voice gathered volume as it went,

"So, unless your big leader was planning to cough up some intel’ about our current location, get off my ship! We’re ditchin’ this flying, yellow freak-show!"

Once more, the Templar was not dissuaded from his orders; presenting only the same stone face all the while, until T.J. barged in after his leader’s last comment,

"I think what the cap’n is trying to say, is that we’d be glad to shoot the breeze before we pull out."

"Very well," Dair’Sar spoke again at last, "Has the child been in good care?"

"How should we know? He’s been with the hydralisk all day," Boss still had some steam left, but then Joe spoke up too,

"That reminds me, Boss: the kid came back once a few hours ago; wanted to know if we had anything to write with."

Boss was taken back by the first half of the statement, but more so by the later,

"Why the hell would he need to manually write something for?"

"Dunno’ really," Joe coughed , "Said’ some hogwash about...teaching Bane to read."

The other mercenaries exchanged cross looks before a snicker leaked out from someone, causing the remaining Terrans to relent and erupt in laughter.

"Thanks, Joe!" Boss panted, wiping a tear from one eye, "I needed that! Teaching a hydralisk to read-that’s rich!"

 

***

 

"...Planet," the hydralisk answered telepathically, adding emphasis with a low, verbal growl.

"Wow!" I exclaimed, "You’re right again!"

Once we overcame the problems one runs into when trying to teach the verbal sound of each letter to a being that communicates by thought, Bane started learning at an accelerating pace. What most people would consider, at first sight, to be a mindless monster that only knows one thing, my friend was already mastering the basics on the first lesson, and teaching the hydralisk became incredibly simple; like feeding information to a computer.

"Okay, Bane, here’s an easy one for you," I announced to the attentive armored beast that towered over me, "-More steam, please."

With another lung-full of hot air, Bane re-fogged a great spot in the long window of the Templar’s training room and I began scribing the next letters on the makeshift chalkboard with one finger. However, even before I could finish the word, the hydralisk came up with the answer, and a half-hearted snarl of agitation,

"Machine!"

Without my asking, Bane fogged the window again, hastily destroying the troublesome combination vowels and consonants. I laughed,

"Hey, I thought you’d like that one!"

"Unless it dispenses food on command or heals mortal wounds with a flashing light, no metal contraption impresses me," the hydralisk reported, motioning for me to continue the lesson with one scythe.

"Alright," I chuckled, starting the next word, "But this one’s gonna be tough."

Without warning, Joe’s rough voice echoed across the training hall, followed by a round of laughter from the rest of the mercenaries,

"Well lookie’ what we got here; ya’ sure don’t see this every day!"

They were all suddenly there, escorted by a pair of the tall, deadly Templar, who failed to conceal their cross expressions at the sight of a four-foot child teaching script to a ten-foot hydralisk.

"Oh yeah?" I rebounded in Bane’s defense, "Gimme a few more hours, and the aid of an information terminal, and this hydra’ will be smarter than all of you clowns put together!"

"I’m afraid that is not possible," announced the telepathic voice of one of the Protoss, seeming almost frail in comparison to the one I’m used to intruding my thoughts, "Rakeem has requested word of everyone aboard immediately; we have arrived at our next destination."

Finally, one of those blue weirdo’s said something interesting, and I couldn’t help asking,

"What destination?"

 

 

"Mar’Sara’s surface has been completely compromised," The lead Templar announced to the mix-and-matched group of Terrans, Protoss, and one zerg specimen that stood above the rest, "Our estimations are all too true; the zerg had arrived here long before us, and already, their forces occupy a substantial majority of the planet’s territory and resources."

"What do they want?" I asked out loud as soon as the long-winded alien paused. Despite my expectations, the answer came in the form of a grim telepathic response from Bane,

"They’re eliminating any Terran presence that could pose a threat to the Overmind’s ultimate goal; while using the spoils of their planets to rebuild the swarms."

"Precisely," Rakeem agreed, "The peril to the new Protoss home world is undeniable now; Zeratul and his council will have no choice but to pay heed to this looming danger."

"Hey," Boss spoke up, still sour about having been cooped up in the hangar for three days,

"What about us? I’m still out a cruiser because of this whole fiasco; not to mention the Terran race is being wiped off the map while you blue-brainiacs sit on your hands! What’s going on out there?"

As if by silent cue from Rakeem, Dair’Sar stepped in front of the group briefly, activating a hologram that showed a miniature, multicolored version of Mar’Sara.

"The zerg landed in this vicinity, and now control a majority of the planet, as indicated territorially here," Rakeem used one hand to indicate different areas of the red coloring that covered most of the globe before rotating the hologram and highlighting the few and scattered blotches of green, "The Terran military presence on this planet was the weakest of the three. Based on the magnitude of the attack on Tarsonis, we believe that the initial zerg landing, alone, crippled any chance of a successful retaliation."

"What happened to all those people?"

The Protoss described the situation as if they were reading a flat statistic; I didn’t care if I was interrupting. Again, Dair’Sar stepped forward to the controls; causing the hologram of Mar’Sara to shrink as the picture zoomed out. Two nearby moons became visible, as well as a number of tiny, scattered objects orbiting around the planet itself. Rakeem continued,

"We have scanner confirmation that many of the inhabitants may have escaped; remaining Terran aircraft in the area and on the planet are practically non-existent, despite sufficient facilities left to support them."

"What about those?" Joe asked, stepping forward and pointing out a still group of specks with a lone orbital platform that looked almost untouched, or as much as it could for how small it appeared in the hologram.

"We believe it is a remnant of Mar’Sara’s orbital fleet," Dair’Sar answered the final question, "Biological read-outs on the platform are inconclusive, yet no life was detected aboard the ships themselves."

"Are you thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, Cap’n?" Kip piped up after having been as quiet as Mosely all this time.

"I’m already ahead of you," Boss replied, speaking over my head, "How fast could you get one of them operational again?"

Kip wasn’t wasting any time; he didn’t even look up from the array of tools and electronics hanging off himself to respond,

"Depends on a few things, Cap’; condition of the reactor and power reserves, hull integrity, initial security level...about an hour tops."

"Betcha twenty credits that you’ll eat those words," Joe intervened briefly, sounding almost cheerful in comparison to his mood since we left Korhal.

"It’s settled then," Boss announced, "We’re blowin’ this popsicle-orbiter; get the Interceptor II ready to go as soon as we get back."

"But Boss, we only gots’ four suits!" Mosely said something at last.

"Damn it, Mo’, you’re right. This means we’ll be a man down, and three guns ain’t much more than a pin-prick if we run into real trouble..."

The Mercenary leader trailed off as he turned to the group behind him and stopped when he reached Bane. Suddenly, everyone’s eyes were on the hydralisk, who ultimately looked to me for an answer.

"Well," I practically croaked, "If you guys are just gonna leave me here, I could use a few supplies to tide me over..."

Boss didn’t hesitate to take the offer,

"If Biggie can get us through that ship safely, you’re welcome to anything on-board."

Finally, Bane shifted his gaze to Rakeem, who answered without the question having been asked,

"I have no further doubt in your judgement, Cerebrate; should you feel that this is the right path, you may go."

 

 

"Aw, C’mon, Boss! Can’t we do two out of three?" The Mercenaries drew straws to see which one would be left behind, and TJ wasn’t happy about waiting on the Kalimar while Kip took his spot. I looked away from the argument, focusing my attention on Bane once again.

"You already understand, don’t you?" The familiar telepathic voice trickled through my thoughts. Bane was right, I already knew what he was going to say next.

"Yeah," I piped, having to crane my neck to speak face to face with the hydralisk, "I kinda guessed that you would want me to stay here. Just bring back an extra dropship with the supplies and we’ll call it even; I’ve never had one of my own."

"Consider it done," came Bane’s swift response, accompanied by a soft growl.

"And Bane," I broke down and said at last, "One more thing,"

The hydralisk rebounded with it’s trademark, "Yes, mortal?"

"Be careful out there," I began to say more, but Boss walked over at this point and interrupted,

"If you two are done with your big, mushy good-bye, we gotta go while the going’s still good."

I couldn’t help giving the pushy mercenary leader my best ‘eat-shit’ look for being so inconsiderate, yet, he replied with a grin.

"It was nice knowin’ you, too , kid! I might have to warn the rest of the groups about you; they’ll have a little fire-ball on their hands in a few years-that is, if you don’t get yourself killed hangin’ out with these aliens, first."

With Boss suddenly displaying some level of understanding, I was left speechless for a few moments before I found a suitable reply,

"I’ll take my chances."

The engines of the Interceptor two suddenly whirred to life, signaling an early end to an already-short conversation. Almost instantly, I began to feel sick; despite my best efforts to suppress the churning ball of anxiety. It must have showed on my face, because Boss spoke up once more, having to yell over the sound of the engines,

"Don’t worry about it, Reece! We’re pro’s at this; we’ll bring your pet Zerg back for good before you know it!"

Unable to find to words or the will to argue, I only nodded and offered a quick "Good luck!"to the departing mercenaries and their borrowed hydralisk escort. As I watched them turn from me and begin filing into the dropship, I couldn’t shake the foreboding feelings that washed over me. However, I swallowed my instincts and waved a hand in the air when Bane stopped at the door and looked back at me. The hydralisk mimicked my movement with one scythe, making me laugh, before ducking out of sight through the low cargo door of the Interceptor two.

***

"Approach trajectory is good and power cells are holding; Scanners don’t show anything that shouldn’t be there," the youngest Terran informed from its place at the ships complicated controls , next to Boss,

"Bring er’ in slow;" the Terran leader ordered, "There could still be zerg waiting out here. Speaking of which, you pickin’ up anything that we should know about, Biggie?"

Deeply entangled in thought, I hesitated to answer the distant, verbal command given by the impatient, little creature, until it asked again,

"Hey! Are you asleep back there, or what, Bane?"

Alas, there was no further use in resistance; I broke my concentration long enough to offer the Terran what information I knew,

"Although the Overmind’s direct will may be easily sensed, the broods in this sector are under control of a cerebrate. It is...difficult to determine it’s motives with certainty. If any of my brethren remain on this platform, they are well hidden."

"Outstanding..."the lead Terran said sarcastically, before giving another order to the pilot, "Bring er’ down over there, right on the welcome mat; I don’t want to have to hike to this thing."

Boss released himself from the grip of his seat restraints and stood, speaking directly to the remaining mercenaries and I,

"Alrighty, boys and zerg, this is it. Stay sharp out there and stick together. I’m assuming that you’ll have no problem talking to us in a vacuum, Biggie, but we’ll be out of communication with you until we get inside. Even so, if something begins to smell out-of-place, give us a ‘heads-up’."

I simply acknowledged the creature’s commands by means of a short growl and an imitation of their nodding gesture that indicates I understood.

With an abrupt screech of it’s stubby, metal feet, the ship lurched to a clumsy halt beneath my tail and the other Terrans stood as well; fully clad in their unwieldy armored suits.

"You got everything, Kip?" The Terran leader barked over one shoulder while picking up it’s frail, metal weapon.

‘Kip’ was already waiting, holding a crude cloth sack stuffed with his collection of contraptions and gadgetry, "As I’ll ever be, Cap’n."

After a moment’s hesitation, Boss finally gave the next order,

"Visor’s down!"

Upon command, the mercenaries actuated the face-plates on their helmets and the reflective domes slid into place with a hiss, serving as both their vital barrier and a fragile window to the outside. The Terran commander put one gloved hand to the ship’s controls and an obnoxious buzzing noise sounded before the end of the craft opened to the unforgiving vacuum outside.

There was a brief roar of wind as the seal broke and the air rushed from the vessel, and my lungs, in a great cloud, long before the door was visibly open. Then, the ramp swung silently down to the steel grating of the platform below, and sound ceased to exist as the Terrans began plodding forward, out of the ship. As I followed the short, metal shrouded creatures into this new environment, I stopped to survey the area from the top of the incline.

This place was a dark, desolate one, hovering silently in the planet’s shadow. The sprawling steel terrain felt lifeless and barren, despite the scattered pieces of unidentifiable wreckage and the uncountable number of pits from the Guardian’s acid raids. Although having obviously been assaulted and devastated by my brethren, I was still awestruck by the shier size of the platform. The colossal mass of orbiting metal was so huge that it produced a force of gravity, however weak, all it’s own.

Set on the edge of this gloomy, artificial world, an immense Terran ship loomed before us. It sat very close, ominously towering above with black windows and it’s multitude of prone weapons.

Without warning, a series of images flashed across my thoughts, shattering any concentration on the area around me. Brief glimpses of the Terrans from different angles, turning and shifting with their guns, passed my mind’s eye in an instant. Some of the foes appeared to remain at a distance, while others were closer still, but they all seemed to be staying any immediate attack.

Full focus on my own reality returned as quickly as it left, and I found myself still at the top of the ramp, with the mercenaries staring up at me.

"They are close," I explained, scanning the platform again for any sign of motion, "They watch our every move, yet, something holds them back."

The Terrans, although unable to respond to my words, radiated a sense of comprehension, thus I continued,

"The ship will provide some level of protection; Go, Now!"

Showing no further hesitation, the mercenaries turned from me and began the short race to the giant vessel a short distance away. Displaying surprising speed for creatures wrapped in metal, the Terrans leapt ahead without looking back, and I lunged down the ramp to catch up.

Silence and darkness were the only foes to cross our short path, yet I could feel the gaze of my brethren keeping us in constant check. The entrance to the battle cruiser lay just beyond a stubby, wide bridge that jutted from the platform to the shroud of a massive door, which remained locked tightly in place even as we approached.

The steel appeared to be impenetrably thick; too strong even for my blades. Kip, who was at the center of our escort, ran ahead, flinging his pack down and ripping it open. As I watched one of the other mercenaries help him pull a pair of metallic objects from the bag and attach them on either side of the door, the brood made it’s move.

"The zerg approach!" I warned when the mental images from the zerg began to stir. The Terrans spun around with a start, surveying the area from behind their weapons. Kip still worked frantically, assembling the complicated array of machines required to gain access to the ship, while the remaining three watched and waited

Despite being outnumbered and unable to retreat, the Terran’s portrayed little fear as they raked the mouth of our bridge with suit-lights beaming through the darkness that surely blotted their poor vision. Here, in the face of certain adversity, were creatures staying their ground when countless others would have faltered through panic and terror alone.

Perhaps there was still some valor left among Terrans, after all.

I moved forward, once again scouring the pitted terrain for some hint of carapace among the dull metal, yet, my brethren were careful not to be seen. Joe, Mosely and Boss followed me at a distance, sweeping back and forth with their lights. The bridge itself offered a slight advantage in the form of a bottle neck, but this would only buy a few seconds time at best.

A final, unnerving moment passed uneventfully, as if the zerg may actually stay at distance. However, such good fortune was not to be.

In an instant, members of the brood were everywhere, racing into view by the pair with bloodlust clouding their minds. The Terran’s weapons flashed to life without a sound, seeming out of place as they silently spewed streams of hot led at our charging foes. Dozens of zergling stormed the bridge, head-long against the angry sheet of fire. The ones unlucky enough to be at the front of the assault were the first to meet death, taking the initial brunt of the mercenaries defense before being trampled beneath the claws of their brethren.

I let my needles fly, choosing only the closest targets in order to delay the inevitable melee battle. One enemy after another was torn by the bursts of poisonous spikes, sent spinning and tumbling in the low gravity environment, but the zerglings were gaining ground and a group of hydralisks appeared in tow, nearly in range to launch projectiles of their own. If one of the Terran’s were assaulted, it would open a hole in their defense and the others would surely follow; an outcome I could not afford in the least.

Forgoing the time for a last shot, I lunged forward to meet the anxious claws of the brood with my own scythes outstretched in mid-strike. As my blades plunged down, crushing the first zergling to the unforgiving metal grating at my tail, I delved into the depths of my essence, recalling the roaring voices which were, before, only a whisper beneath the buzz of my own thoughts; the only chance to keep the mortals from harm.

*****

"Nope; no fives," I reported almost mechanically as I stared at the colored metallic cards in my hands, "Go fish."

T.J. reached forward from his seat on the floor to the hap-hazard stack on the empty supply crate between us, and picked up another card from among many others, all with that strange word ‘Blizzard’ etched on the back side.

"Where’d you find these things, anyway?" I had to ask, curiosity had finally gotten the best of me after three rounds.

"They’re Joe’s lucky cards," T.J. replied, studying his new hand, "He picked em’ up somewhere on Tarsonis a few years back."

"Is that so..." I asked absent-mindedly while I focused on the game again, "Got any Tassadar’s?"

One Templar, Teilon by the fiery eyes, had remained in the great hanger even after the others left for the bridge. The tall alien observed the entire proceeding almost intently, and finally had something to telepa-communicate, interrupting T.J.’s ‘Go Fish’,

"Explain to me, the motive of this sport. Skill of any form appears to be irrelevant."

"That’s the gust of it, Blue," the mercenary announced with enthusiasm, "It’s all in the luck of the draw!"

"So much is more than obvious, yet, I still find no merit in the effort if-" Teilon’s words halted abruptly and he turned away from us, staring off into the empty space of the great hangar. T.J. and I exchanged a confused look before the Templar returned to it’s senses, speaking again, but in a different tone,

"The cerebrate has landed upon the target platform; Rakeem invites you to observe it’s progress. Hurry, we must move quickly!"

Despite having been there once, the twisted paths that wound through the carrier still evaded my understanding as the swift-legged Protoss warrior led T.J. and I to the bridge for the second time. Unlike any other passage in the ship, the threshold to this area was guarded by a translucent blue energy field that disappeared as Teilon approached and remained down to allow us passage before flashing back to life. Our escort stalked ahead, joining the rest of the Protoss around the hologram podium. I followed slowly, with the mercenary in tow, until I stood among the towering aliens.

"What’s going on down there? Are they okay?" I asked, staring in confusion at the three dimensional image of a Terran docking platform just like any other.

"We have tracked your vessel to this quadrant," Rakeem’s telepathic words pushed their way into my thoughts while the Protoss adjusted the view, bringing a small portion of the orbital platform into focus.

This area appeared to be a total wreck; heaps of debris and numerous craters in the metal made it almost impossible to distinguish the lone dropship from among the terrain. The only things that stood out with any real contrast was a set of colored blips, four green and one red, that wove through the wreckage.

"Is that Bane?" I asked, leaning over the edge of the podium to point out the lone crimson dot in the hologram.

"Yes ," the Templar answered with obvious agitation when my hand distorted the picture, "All energy signatures are accounted for and active..."

Rakeem paused as the image was zoomed back out once more, revealing a virtual ring of red that sealed the area, trapping the mercenaries and their hydralisk escort on the docking bridge for the dormant battle cruiser they intended to commandeer,

"Though not a single foe was detected before, multiple zerg signals appeared as the Terran vessel approached. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the brood has not made a move to attack as of yet; but surely even this small grace cannot last."

T.J. matched my ‘You have to help them!’word for word, although the concern present in each voice was for different members of the party.

Dair’Sar, usually the most docile of the Templar, joined the exchange with telepathic words of his own,

"The Kalimar is closing the distance to interceptor range at maximum sub-warp speed, however, if the zerg attack now, our weaponry would be of little use."

"Hey," I piped, noticing a change in the hologram, "They’ve reached the ship; they stopped!"

Suddenly, all eyes were on the map, watching helplessly to see what happened next-and something did.

Three of the green blips turned back, following Bane, the red one, to the mouth of the dock.

" Bane knows the zerg are there," I whispered, surprised at the confidence in my own voice, "I can feel it."

My heart dropped as the line of zerg signatures unexpectedly lurched forward in unison. We all flinched at the sight of this, but not a word was said; there was nothing we could do to help. Those few, agonizing seconds dragged out as the blips closed in, then, inexplicably, the hologram began flickering.

The Protoss looked among each other in bewilderment when the lights and alien navigation equipment faded before suddenly blacking out completely. A few unsettling moments passed in total darkness before the power started returning to normal.

"What happened there?" T.J. complained, "Did we trip a breaker or something?"

"It is the same energy from before, on Korhal," Teilon commented out loud, ignoring the blabbering mercenary.

"Indeed," Rakeem replied urgently, eyes burning an intense blue, "Prepare all interceptors for immediate deployment; target the swarm as soon as the Kalimar draws within range!"

*****

The OverMind’s will whipped and tore at my locked mind, fighting to take control whilst I gathered a piece of its raw hate for myself, flinging it against the broods around me. Though my senses were left dull and muffled after the brief mental struggle, the effects of my efforts immediately became apparent. The organized charge of my brethren instantly dissolved as they turned for me with eyes alight in a blind rage, ignoring the Terran weaponry outright and practically trampling one another in an insane mass attack.

A pair raced in; the next to meet both blades in the brunt of mid-swing. One was dealt swift death while the other reeled from the combined weight of the assault and the reeling slain. However affective the offense, I was left only time enough to bring my scythes back again, cleaving into a new group of foes that hastily replaced the fallen.

My swing stopped short, bogged down by the wall of carapace and blades that tried to flatten me. I staggered, nearly toppled beneath the momentum of the charging brood and the grating pain of their scythes stabbing and scrabbling at my carapace. Heaving with all my strength, I hurled a number of them aside, but I found one arm arrested, clamped in the jaws of the zerglings that managed to stay afoot.

Blocked by the tangled, thrashing mob of their brethren, zergling began leaping over one another, manic to fulfill their bloodthirsty urges.

To my relief, timely streams of flying led pelted the airborne assailants, pushing them off course for a crash landing among their fellow brood-members, but spines from the hydralisks rained down in volleys now, chipping and piercing my armored exoskeleton as I faced the next wave of zergling with one arm still locked in the grip of the first.

Even as I reared my free blade against the small, fierce creatures, I knew that I could not stand against their numbers for long; soon they would succeed, finally satisfying the mad impulses that clouded the Over Mind’s commands. Yet, this was not my fate.

A hot, white light consumed my senses, but I could feel the pain and outrage of my brethren as my wits returned. I found myself on my backside, among the mangled bodies of the zerglings. A wing of yellow craft circled overhead, firing orbs of blue energy into the frothing brood, where they exploded into plumes of fire. Despite the devastating barrage from the interceptors, the surviving zerg still held fast to the blind rage, rushing around the columns of flame and over the slaughtered to finish me.

I tried to rise once more, to face the enemy even though my vision still spun from the blast of the Protoss weaponry and pain wracked my mind from injuries I had yet to be fully aware of, when a set of metal-shrouded hands suddenly gripped me under each arm. I remember having enough bearing to be surprised as the Terrans dragged me away from the battle, back towards the ship.

Boss strafed out, between the pursuing zerg and I, firing his weapon frantically at the hydralisks that tried to follow us, until, at long last, a massive pair of steel slabs slid into place, locking the chaos outside.

The blades of my brethren fell on the doors like rain, resounding noisily as the area filled with air again. As if on cue, the Terrans opened their suit visors, revealing panting faces damp with sweat,

"What..." Boss choked, jerking a clip out of his weapon and letting it clatter to the floor, "...What the hell happened back there?!"

"I dunno, Boss," Joe gasped in reply , "I thought for sure the zerglin’s were gonna come right for us, then they just lost it!"

Using their combined effort, Mosely and Joe, who had initially towed me to safety, helped me stand, but a searing hurt erupted from my shoulder. Although I could not see it myself, I could sense the poison from the needle spines pulsing through the vulnerable muscle fiber there. I hadn’t the energy to suppress a snarl of pain and the Terran leader noticed the source,

"Mose!" Boss barked, pointing at me, "Give Biggie a little first aid, would you?"

When he was sure I could stay upright on my own, Joe stepped to one side, to let Mosely inspect the pair of barbed spikes lodged in my body. The Terran fearlessly moved closer, and seemed about to reach up and grab the spines with both metal gloved fists, when it stopped briefly and looked up to me first,

"Diz’ might sting some..."

Then, without hesitation, the quiet mercenary grasped the end of the needle spines with both hands and jerked with startling speed and strength.

I snarled involuntarily when the studded, green projectiles were violently ripped from of my carapace. Warmed blood oozed from the puncture wounds, running down my tail, but the throbbing wound eased and rational thought returned once again,

"My gratitude is yours..." I growled, recovering my composure.

The stone-faced mercenary studied the spikes in his hands for a moment before letting them drop to the floor, replying nonchalantly,

"Anytime."

"You gonna be alright, Bane?" A glint of concern leaked through Boss’s strictly-business attitude as the Terran watched me rise to my full height again.

"Do not trouble yourself with my safety," the words came slowly at first, taking extra concentration as I forced the last of the pain to the back of my mind, "Time is of the essence; we must move forward."

"Very well," the Terran leader announced, hefting his weapon to the ready position once more, "Joe, you and Mose’ get to reactor control. We need juice on the wire and we need it fast-take Biggie with you. Start the emergency power and double-time it to the bridge; we’ll meet you there."

Responding with a ‘You got it, Cap’n’ and a nod, respectively, the said mercenaries stood aside as Boss and Kip trudged by, disappearing down the main corridor. At last, Joe looked up to me and asked the final question,

"Can you still do that can-opener trick?"

"I shall not repeat myself," I growled, irritated with the continued doubt in my well-being.

"Fair enough," Joe showed little notice of my heightened aggression, turning to lead the way, "Let’s go!"

 

Screeching with the rip of tearing metal, the third hatch gave, mangled from its hinges by my blade’s edge and the force of my strength behind them.

"Great work, strong-arm!" Joe laughed, watching as I heaved the dispatched door to one side and jerked my scythes free in a single motion, letting it crash to the grated floor, "That should be the last one-take five; we’ll handle it from here."

The mercenaries stepped past me once more, entering the new area with suit lights sweeping into the darkness. I followed, only to discover with much distaste, this room to be the most cramped little Terran enclosure yet, rivaling even their wretched elevator boxes. Bulky, lifeless equipment occupied most of the free space, lining each wall and even hanging from the low ceiling that I was already forced to slouch under.

"Let’s see here," Joe mumbled, searching among the instruments and machines for something; completely oblivious to my obvious discomfort, "It’s gotta be here somewhere-damn Mar Sarian cruisers! Mose! You found the emergency power yet?!"

"Nope..." the near-silent Terran reported calmly while shifting from one panel to another. Trapped in this tiny place and my promise to help, I could only growl in exasperation as the fumbling creature’s groped around for what it was they sought.

"Ah-ha!" Joe announced, not a moment too soon, "Here it is!"

The Terran reached to a set of complicated controls, just like any other, and pulled down a single lever. In an instant, the multitude of machines surrounding us flashed to life, humming as their lights flickered and screens glowed with torrents of irrelevant information that, thanks to Reece’s lesson’s, I could now catch glimpses of and decipher.

Without warning, the floor seemed to lurch beneath my tail. A sudden movement from the left caught my attention and I found the wall there to be made of glass. Beyond it was a huge space with an enormous hulk of machinery as its centerpiece. It was riddled and tangled with hoses and cables that led away, deep into the reaches of the ship. Something inside of it slowly spun to life, and as it did, lights everywhere began flicking on, eagerly drawing from the mounting power.

"That’s that," Joe reported, picking up his gun from where it was previously propped against one wall, "The reactor’s online-let’s see what the Cap’n and Kip can do with it."

I backed out of the tiny room, as I was unable to turn around inside, allowing the mercenaries to lead the way once more. They passed without a word, taking the same paths from wench we came, yet I remained for a moment more.

Still awed that the fragile, precariously balanced mechanism actually works and the fact that all Terrans place their lives in the same clumsy metal hands, I lagged behind and stared down the complex array of controls wedged in their impassable crack in the wall.

As I brewed over this, a new thought spoke up, countering all my judgement of the defenseless creatures who so depend on their steel shells and hapless contraptions:

‘You now rely on those metal hands as well.’

I growled again, turning to join the mercenaries, but I could not stop a more familiar phrase from crossing my mind first,

"I hate machines..."

 

 

"I hope you’re not short on cash, old man-those twenty credits are as good as mine!"

As soon as the elevator doors parted, revealing a large, dimly lit room, Kip was already gloating, but Joe’s counter did not lag,

"We’ll see about that, boy! There’s only nine minutes left for you and this tub hasn’t moved yet."

"Would you two give it a rest?!" The mercenary commander reprimanded with crossed arms, which looked almost comical when one considers the constrictive powered suit.

Tuning out the quarrelsome soldiers, I focused on this new area of the ship. The bridge appeared to be a Terran version of the one onboard the Kalimar. More confusing controls filled every podium and panel, all facing forward where a wide window offered a panoramic view of the deep reaches of space outside.

The orbital platform was not visible, however, silently hanging some distance away in the cold void, Rakeem’s carrier waited, hidden by the San’Sor’s cloak but revealed through my keen cerebrate-senses.

Kip was on the floor, laying half inside one of the machines and tangled with its innards,

"That should be the last bypass," the youngest mercenary announced confidently while wriggling free of the clinging wires and cables, "Give it a shot, Cap’n."

Boss unfolded his arms long enough to reach over and throw a number of switches, feeding life to the control deck.

"Damn," Joe swore as the lights flickered on and the numerous screens frantically displayed their information.

"Don’t take it too hard, Joe," Kip laughed as he stepped to one of the terminals, "You would have won if you didn’t use Bane as a skeleton key."

"I’m going to knock your heads together if you two can’t stifle it," the Terran leader practically yelled, losing patience, "Kip! Gimme a status report; how long until the engines are warmed up?!"

The youngest Terran proceeded to rap at the buttons before him, spouting the results as they came,

"With the exception of a few door locks in reactor control, everything checks out okay. The navigation and avionics systems are nearly online and-hey! Check these out," Kip tapped on the glass with a metal-gloved finger, signifying his find,

"She comes fully loaded with a complete hangar set, including four class-A armored transports, two remote recon’ units and a matching wing of upgraded wraith fighters-even though none of us can competently fly one."

"Unbelievable!" Boss exclaimed, jumping over to read the facts for himself, "We’ve hit pay-dirt, boys n’ zerg, great work!"

Apparently trying to ignore the excitement, Kip continued to read out loud,

"Warp drives are starting up, but the core won’t be hot for a least twenty-"

The young mercenary stopped short, as did we all, when an unexpected flash of light consumed the senses.

Where the San’Sor once was only moments ago, an angry mass of blue fire erupted next to the Kalimar. Two unknown carriers moved to each side of Rakeem’s ship, all three with plasma shields rippling they absorbed the shock and debris from the explosion. I turned from the sight; I need not see anymore, and my own fiery glare shone back at me through the eyes of the mercenaries,

"Take me back!"

*****

"What happened-what’s going on down there?!" I asked again, my voice growing in volume. Three Templar, and even T.J., watched the hologram without blinking. Nothing was moving, and the silence was driving me mad. I reached across the high podium as far as I could, waving my hand through the image to break their deadlock on it,

"Hey-I’m still here," I shot back as everyone finally noticed me with looks of annoyance, "What’s happening?!"

"During the confusion of the attack, the Terran energy signatures became obscured and vanished shortly after, along with that of the cerebrate," Rakeem answered at last, turning back to the hologram, "Dair’Sar is scanning the interior of the nearby ship for the missing energies. However, what eludes me further, is the reason why, despite sufficient forces to do so, the brood made no attack against our interceptors-not a single hit."

"Indeed," the Protoss across from me agreed, adding to his teacher’s words, "It’s as if they were uncontrollably attracted to something..."

"Bane..." The name that was burned into my mind seemed to utter from everyone at once, catching me by surprise,

"W-what do you mean?" I stuttered, even though the answer was right in front of me, "Are you saying that Bane is some kind of zerg-magnet?"

"That’s what it looks like, kiddo," T.J., usually the noisiest single entity in any given situation, spoke up after an unusual stretch of silence, "And if I had to guess, I’d say that it saved the boys from some pretty nasty scratches, too."

"From certain death," Rakeem corrected, and seemed about to say more, when Dair’Sar interrupted with the news we were all hoping for,

"Scans of the ship are complete, and all five energy signatures are accounted for and active-four Terran and one zerg!"

If protoss could sigh, they would have loosed a big one just then.

"The Khala be blessed; they still live!" The Templar leader exclaimed as the image of the Battle Cruiser blew up and became transparent, revealing the individual blips inside.

Without warning, everything turned white. The angry light seemed to be everywhere, blinding me as I held my hands up in attempt to block it out. Slowly, it began receding and my eyes adjusted to the intense body of blue fire that lit the bridge and filled the Kalimar’s wide view of space. An obscene little alarm rang out several times, adding to the sudden chaos of bridge, second only to Rakeem’s booming telepathic voice,

"What happened-where is the San’Sor?!"

"Gone," Dair’Sar replied with the same shock and confusion as his commander, "It’s sensors last reported huge fluctuations in the energy reserves before the signal-"

Then, after doing a prefect Protoss-double take, real fear was more than prevalent in Dair’Sar’s next statement,

"The Nekrethal and her sister ship have been detected in our airspace-they’re moving alongside and broadcasting on the command range!"

Rakeem was taken back by this unexpected news, actually hesitating before giving the next command,

"...Accept the transmission."

The fire from the explosion dissipated into the void of space, and an eerie silence prevailed briefly before the hologram of the battle cruiser vanished, instantly changing to a dark, mouthless face, shrouded in swirling, red energy. It resembled something Protoss, or something that once was Protoss, but was now left twisted by the touch of some unworldly power.

"Dramier..." Rakeem paused once more, searching for the words, "Only you have such talent for appearing at the most inconvenient of times."

The Zerg had their own highly-affective form of direct intimidation-with their rows of jagged teeth, metal piercing blades and some with hulking size to back it up, but even the biggest bug couldn’t match this. Just its voice was enough to invoke terror; it was like two protoss speaking in near unison, but between them, the words seemed to scream, moan, and whisper all at once as they rang through my mind, leaving hot trails of malevolence in their echoing wake,

"Only you, Praetor Rakeem, have such lack of respect and abundance of heedless wit in the face of authority. Do you not realize that you and your students are charged with treason for disobeying direct orders from Zeratul himself?!"

"Dramier, please listen to me," Rakeem spoke slowly and calmly, trying to reason with this fiery creature, "We have witnessed widespread destruction fall on this sector at the hands of the zerg in only a matter of days; action must be taken now, while our own people are still able to strike!"

The Templar’s plea bounced harmlessly off the being now known to me as Dramier like so many bullets from Bane’s carapace. It’s expressionless face remained unmoved as it spoke again,

"Unlike you, I shall not be dissuaded from my orders and lead innocent others down the same path on the basis of wanton lies and deception."

"Deception?!" Rakeem scoffed back, "How can one who tricked a young, ignorant Templar into the sacred rites of melding just to gain the power and rank of the Dark Archon speak to me of deceit?!"

Again, this ‘Dramier’ maintained its composure, but the eyes burned intensely, hinting at the raw malice contained inside,

"Tell me, Praetor Rakeem," the angry entity practically spat the word ‘Praetor’, "Before I take permanent control of the Kalimar, myself, and storm the ship with every standing warrior, has your mad quest come to an end? Have you found something besides the two miserable vermin I see before me-this...free-willed cerebrate, as you claimed?"

Rakeem paused for a moment, looking to each of his students in turn, then finally, to me, before facing the hologram once more and answering calmly,

"No... No, I have not."

The Archon glared through the picture, its scorching eyes reduced to slits as it considered Rakeem’s claim with chilling words,

"If you lie, I shall see that you regret it, Praetor; for soon, your every living memory shall be mine! ANY attempt to escape or resist shall result in deadly consequences."

Just as suddenly as it came, the unnerving image of the Dark Archon blinked out unceremoniously, leaving the bridge in a cold silence. Only after a long moment, the eldest Templar finally broke the calm once more,

"You have known, my students, of this possibility long before our mission began, yet I offer the choice again. There may still be a chance to save creation from the zerg, but should you still decide to follow me, we may never witness another moon rise on our home planet; if you wish to surrender to the judgement of the council, the time is now."

The Templar exchanged slow, solemn looks before Dair’Sar spoke for all three pupils,

"Such a choice was made long ago, Master Rakeem, and since we have bore witness to the feats of this Hero...of Bane, that choice is only made more resolute, and we stand behind it with our lives."

"Then it is settled," Rakeem announced gravely, "Though it means turning blades against our own brethren, we fight-or all may be lost!"

"But how?" T.J. finally said something since the San’Sor first exploded, and again, the bridge was struck speechless when it suddenly hit me. Then, the words seemed to leave my mouth on their own,

"We go to them."

The sudden pressure of all the eyes that turned my way made me hesitate, but I soon found my voice once more,

"There’s only one way on board this ship-I say we go to the hangar and take the fight to them."

Despite my expectations, the first question didn’t test my strategy, but my knowledge of the carrier, and Dair’Sar was fast asking it,

"How do you know that?"

Brief images from my memory hinted at the clear, vivid picture of the universe and then the Kalimar that Bane shared with me. With the immeasurable fathom of space as a backdrop, every bend and curve of the looming vessel was blatantly obvious.

"I got a real good look at it," I fired back confidently, yet, the Templar still seemed appalled that I even said anything in the first place. Teilon spoke next, stating what everyone was about to yell at me,

"Were you not paying attention?! Dramier is going to take control of the Kalimar-our cloak will be nullified by the carrier’s interior sensors and we would be hopelessly outnumbered by the militia alone; much less while facing the crippling power of a Dark Archon!"

The alien’s harsh telepathic words crashed against my thoughts, but I didn’t flinch under the bombardment, rebounding with a strong reply of my own,

"Bane will come back, and soon-if not before this Dramier shows up. Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’ll have a better chance if we fight together!"

I could still feel the doubt and fear in the others around me, but something different edged Dair’Sar’s tone as the Protoss added its thoughts,

"Drameir is coming aboard expecting confrontation; perhaps the alternative will be such a shock that it will buy enough time... "

Before long, that something found its way to Rakeem, who replied with renewed hope,

"Reece is correct, my students, if there is any possibility of challenging Dramier, it is with the cerebrate at our side!"

"The risk is so great," San’Dreale considered telepathically-out-loud, "But it is the only option; tell us what we must do!"

"Our time is short now, thus I’ll be breif," the Templar leader explained hastily, "Once Dramier has control of the Kalimar, speak nothing of the cerebrate, and stay any attack until the very last. Come, let us act now, while the path is still free,"

Rakeem paused once more, motioning for us to follow before turning from the hologram and finishing,

"And above all else, protect the child at any cost."

The sobering trek back to the hangar seemed like the longest five minutes of my life, and second thoughts jammed my mind like rush hour traffic. Would it have been better to hide? Or to take the chance and flee? What would happen if everything went wrong? How would we escape?

Only one thing held it all together and forced me to put one foot in front of the other: The hope that Bane could, somehow, make it right.

The great, open space of the carrier’s bay came all too soon, making my stomach wrench into tight knots of dread. The place was empty yet, and it sat in eerie silence with robotic assembly line and interceptors motionless. Just to our right, in the middle of the floor, an empty supply crate still served as a prop for T.J.’s rifle and held the hand of cards we threw down before following Teilon to the bridge.

Without warning the Kalimar rocked beneath my boots, threatening to topple me to the floor as a wave of energy rushed against my body like a gale. Every limb turned to rubber and I began to black out, however, reality never really drained away completely. Despite my expectations, I found myself still on my feet, albeit weaving, when my vision returned, but the ship seemed to be in the last stages of distress. Many lights in the hangar faded and flickered and the deck trembled underfoot. Then, just as suddenly as it began, everything apparently returned to normal.

I heard some movement and was surprised to see T.J. had fallen to one knee, and his speech was slurred as he rose shakily to full height,

"Whathe’ hell was that?"

"It is done," Rakeem answered grimly, "The Kalimar is no longer ours."

The other Templar only nodded silently, not giving anything away to the ship’s now-traitorous sensors. I was simply awestruck that a single being could possess such power, even for the likes of the Protoss, but Dair’Sar’s next statement quickly rekindled the fear,

"They approach already..."

"Impossible!" Teilon blurted in disbelief, "Mind control depletes the reserves of even the greatest Archons; surely Dramier would not risk coming aboard without energy and shields!"

"He would not," Rakeem’s telepathic reply put the chilling reality of the situation into words that everyone knew, but no one wanted to hear,

"Something is not right."

Much to our dismay, Dair’Sar’s senses proved correct. At the very end of the hangar, where the launch tunnel turned to the open space outside, a yellow vessel appeared in the distance. In moments, another came into view, followed by a third and a forth. At first, they were so far out that I could hardly recognize the objects as ships at all, but the shuttles approached at high speed, growing in detail and filling the bay with the whine of their engines as they closed on us rapidly.

The crafts passed the interceptor bays and lined out to our left, buffeting me with their combined thruster blasts and unbearable noise before finally hovering down to rest with their main doors facing us. At last, the turbulence relented when the shuttle’s engines died out, but it brought no comfort. My insides ground against itself and my feet shuffled nervously beneath me, ready to bolt on their own at any second; everything in me screamed to hide, yet, whether I wanted to or not, it no longer mattered. Time was up.

The main hatches broke their seals and parted simultaneously on each shuttle, releasing their deadly cargo. Although the tall aliens that stormed out in battle armor and formed a perimeter with psionic weapons gleaming somewhat resembled Rakeem and the other Templar, something was amiss about them. They lacked the usual effortless grace of the Protoss; moving with jerky, almost mechanical steps and expressionless faces that stared ahead without blinking.

All counted, thirteen double-bladed warriors lined up before us, leaving only four or five paces between their ranks and ours. Without a command being given, they began parting, revealing another Protoss being in long, ceremonial-looking robes that trailed a foggy apparition of itself as it drifted ahead, and, finally, the creature from the hologram in all its terrifying power.

Encircled in a swirling mass of unearthly flame, Dramier ghosted forward with gloating words that scrabbled against my mind like a driven rain,

"I would not believe the likes of this had I not witnessed it myself! Could it be that the wayward Praetor Rakeem has turned back to the light after so many moons of searching for what cannot be found?"

Floating in its bubble of fiery, red energy, this thing, that could compete in height with Bane, terrified me, yet the stalwart Templar leader didn’t seem to be phased by the malevolent, piercing words,

"Only three to one, Dramier? I thought you would have come on board with better odds than this."

The weight of the Archon’s mind lifted briefly as its foul laughter rang through my head,

"Does your wit have no end, Praetor? Rest assured, I have more than enough at my disposal to bring you and your fledgling Templar to justice."

Dair’Sar spoke up this time, scoffing before his teacher had the chance to do the same,

"How can one so shrouded in evil speak to us of justice?"

"Evil?!" Dramier’s telepathic voice shot back, rattling the thoughts, "What evil have I done?"

"You are steeped in treachery," Rakeem responded calmly, but coldly, "Even now, as I look into the eyes of the once-noble warriors before me, I see only your dark intentions."

"Well met," the Archon replied with some kind of twisted sarcasm, "Is there anything else?"

"Yes," Rakeem added, "Even that High Templar you have in tow is enslaved to your will."

"Very good," Dramier sneered, "But you failed to note the full purpose of this being."

"No..." Rakeem practically gasped with his telepathic voice, "You cannot employ the light energy of the Khala in substitute for what you lack of the dark; the mix of power is too great for any mind to control!"

"WRONG!" the dark Archon’s reply crashed against my thoughts, nearly making me stagger as the gnarled words flooded in, "You are just like Zeratul’s beloved council; doubting even until the very last! I’ll show you-I’ll show them all!"

Dramier’s outburst took everyone aback, leaving Rakeem with only one thing to say,

"You have already gone mad ..."

"Have I?" Dramier shot back, raising one arm toward us, "Perhaps a demonstration of my control is in order!"

Without hesitation, a wave of energy surged against us and San’Dreale buckled, grabbing his head with both hands. The angry power that raged against my mind must have been overpowering for the young Protoss it was targeting, but Rakeem’s voice struck out, against the mental noise,

"We have no choice; fight, my students!"

Activating long, crackling blades, the three remaining Templar leapt forward to meet Dramier’s zealots in mid-swing, but their blows were never to connect. The psionic buzz in the air suddenly lashed out, tearing at my senses in a single, collective burst until I could feel, hear or see nothing. When the world began to fade back into my vision, I found myself laying on the deck, unable to move beneath some great energy that rendered my limbs lifeless, yet, I was startled more to find Rakeem and his Templar pinned as well. I couldn’t move enough to see T.J., but I could tell by the swearing that he was also suffering from the same mental barrage I would come to know as maelstrom.

Held in a kneel by the telepathic assault, Rakeem struggled to look up as Dramier left the ranks of his zealots and stood above the Templar leader with gloating laughter,

"You have my gratitude, Praetor, for further justifying my actions in the eyes of the council with the likes of your vain attack, but now, you shall watch as the minds of those who follow you are crushed into the abyss of oblivion!"

Rakeem’s eyes blazed with a furious light as he grappled with the Archon’s greater psionic strength, fighting for the ability to move a single arm for a strike at the enemy that was so close. Then, without warning, San’Dreale grew still and stood slowly before calmly moving to join Dramier’s line and stare back at us with the same flat gaze and pale, featureless eyes of the zealots.

I should have been utterly petrified to a new, horrifying level, but, an eerie calm held my thoughts together and gave me courage. Suddenly, renewed hope surged up, fighting against the numbing barrage of the Dark Archon as I realized what this meant.

"You see, Praetor," Dramier began again, "There is no merit in resisting, for I-"

The Dark Archon stopped in mid-sentence, staring off into space before turning back to Rakeem with a new tone to it’s telepathic voice,

"So, you are not above treachery, yourself, Rakeem! It seems that you have found more allies than meets the eye..."

Without ordering any one in particular, Dramier made the critical decision that held the outcome of our makeshift plan in the balance,

"Tell the interceptors to hold their fire; it would not be courteous of me to exclude any of Rakeem’s guests from the proceedings."

I could hardly believe the words that barged into my mind, but Dramier seemed to remain totally confident, still bragging over Rakeem’s still, but struggling form,

"Tell me again, Praetor," the Archon began once more, "What else have you found on your wayward journeys? More scum of the likes I see before me?"

Rakeem didn’t answer, or if he did, I couldn’t pick it up as the Templar’s eyes only burned ever brighter.

"Very well," Dramier turned from us, moving to join his growing number of followers, "I shall know the truth soon enough."

Because I was still pinned to the floor, the whine of the dropship’s engines could be heard long before it was visible over the squad of zealots and rows of machinery occupying most of the bay, but the high pitch of the thrusters was unmistakable; they were closing in fast and didn’t appear to be slowing down. At last, the ship came into view, however briefly, bee-lining for the Dark Archon and it’s minions as it crested the end of the interceptor assembly line.

Dramier flung his mental energies forth yet again, crippling the sensitive circuitry that kept the craft aloft. The would-be battering ram sputtered twice and dropped out of the air like a brick in the carrier’s artificial gravity, all but nose-diving to the deck of the Kalimar. Sparks erupted in a brief, brilliant fountain and the ear-piercing screech of armor plates shredding one another rang out on impact as the ship skipped once before coming down for good, grating the last of it’s momentum away in a long slide. Silence prevailed for a moment or two after the hapless dropship rolled lazily onto her starboard side with a final gasp of inertia, only a dozen paces from Dramier and his waiting squad of zealots.

Once again, the mindless sentries moved without any noticeable signal from their twisted leader; five remained with Rakeem and the Dark Archon and the remaining eight marched to form a half ring at the rear cargo door of the craft. Because the ship had turned slightly before flipping over, I only had a profile view of the unfolding action, but it was just as well; immediate ballistic aggression was a certainty.

"Let us see what else you have found," Dramier stated sarcastically, releasing the maelstrom enough for the dropship to regain power. Seconds later, the whimper of the cargo door could be heard as it opened sideways, but the passengers weren’t here to talk.

The moment the hatch slammed home, gunfire belched from the open craft, spraying the zealots with led just before they charged in unison. Boss and the mercenaries stepped out of the dropship, two by two, firing their rifles indiscriminately and plasma shields responded with ripples of dull blue; absorbing round after round as the double-bladed aliens closed the short gap in a few strides. Even with the element of surprise, four Terrans didn’t have a prayer against so many zealots, however, the mercenaries were not alone.

Half a ton of bad news surged out of the overturned dropship with needle spines flying and scythes reared for battle, but it wasn’t a second too soon. The mercenaries backpedaled, bolting for the relative safety of the dropship just as the deadly psionic weapons lashed out for them. Bane crash-landed into the frothing mob with all his momentum behind his blades, bringing them down on a single, unlucky warrior in the center. From among those flickering in time to the constant gunfire, the bright flash of a dead. plasma shield dazzled the eyes and one of the Zealots sprawled to the deck on its backside, bearing a pair of long, cavernous gashes in it’s body armor.

For a fraction of a second, the Protoss actually hesitated while the single mind that controlled them was temporarily stunned; until the victim of Bane’s assault dissolved in a whirlwind of blue energy. Then, the seven remaining zealots attacked from all directions.

Bane had only enough time to defend one side, bringing both scythes back to the right, where they clashed against psi blades and shields alike. Three zealots staggered beneath the hydralisk’s ferocious swing, but the others lunged for Bane’s unprotected side. A timely barrage of concentrated gauss fire from Boss and the crew pelted the offending zealots, slowing them down more than dealing damage, but the meager seconds it bought was all that my friend needed.

Turning faster than anything so big should be able to move, Bane spun around, throwing one scythe against the flurry of psionic weapons in a wide horizontal slice with the other right behind in a wicked uppercut that broke through the middle.

A second zealot toppled to the floor, but with a gory canyon parting its neck and mouthless face this time. Then, Dramier’s temper suddenly returned,

"ENOUGH!" The Dark Archon’s torturous telepathic voice boomed as it’s energy swept forth once again. The maelstrom could almost be seen; resembling a shockwave in the air, and it plowed the mercenaries over like a spring-loaded trip line. They could be heard clattering to the floor of the dropship in their power suits-someone’s gun even tumbled out of the craft’s open hold. However potent the mental attack, it totally failed to affect Bane, who narrowly slung his blades in the path of the first trio of zealots that had returned to burry their searing daggers in the beast’s exposed side.

Following another silent command from Dramier, the remaining sentries joined the fray, racing to replace those who had fallen as the hydralisk fought on alone. Without the storm of flying led to hamper them, the reinforced number of zealots practically dog-piled on my friend in a great, cohesive frenzy of psionic weaponry.

I couldn’t stop flinching as blood flew in little sprays while the aliens ravaged the hydralisk’s carapace, yet, the bright report of a failing plasma shield met the eyes once again. Despite the pain of his mounting wounds, Bane could be seen amidst the flurry of psi blades with another foe speared on the end of one blade with the other poised for the deathblow, but Dramier seemed to be waiting for this.

In an instant, all ten zealots tackled the hydralisk, diving on it’s arms and back in a sudden attempt to hold it down. Bane tried furiously to sling the enemies off, but my friend was already battle-worn before even arriving here and his strength was draining. Finally, with the entire squad of Khala warriors bearing on it, the hydralisk all but collapsed forward, still fighting the weight by holding itself off the deck with both scythes.

Multiple zealots reactivated their psi blades, quickly bringing them to my friend’s skull and neck, but the horrible demise stopped short, inches from its unthinkable outcome. Dramier’s telepathic laugh rang out once again, searing my mind as the Archon drifted over to Bane with all but curious words,

"So, Rakeem; your mad ranting before the council contained an element of truth after all..."

The great knot of zealots suddenly heaved as Dramier got too close to the snarling hydralisk, and he backed away a short distance before continuing,

"A Zerg warrior breed with the mental prowess of a cerebrate, and the attributes that it entails, no doubt."

"Though your abilities have fared you well, foul creature," The Archon spoke directly to Bane this time, "They shall be the means of your end!"

My friend didn’t offer the evil entity even the grace of words; the hydralisk only growled a new, deeper pitch. Then, under Dramier’s powerful control, San’Dreale stepped forward to join the Archon’s side and my heart skipped a beat as the Dark Templar drew its crackling warp blade.

"You taught your students in the dark energies of the Khala for the purpose of defending this being, Praetor," Dramier’s words boomed malevolently, "How ironic that you must now watch as your great hero is put to death by your own hand!"

Though still pinned beneath the maelstrom, Rakeem’s energy could be felt in the air like the heat from a fire as he desperately struggled to break free of the Archon’s power, but it was in vain. T.J. and the mercenaries in the ship hurled obscenities to the best of their ability and I should have been going insane, but the serene calm from before suddenly returned ten-fold. Time itself seemed to slow down and my view of the horrendous scene began taking on new colors while my friend’s urgent telepathic voice broke the hold of the maelstrom on my body,

"...Reece-listen to me; run!"

Suddenly, my arms and legs would obey my commands again as Bane shared his mind with mine once more. The inverted hues of the hydralisk’s vision and the acute detail of its hearing dwarfed that of my dull human senses; even the number and pain of its wounds could be felt clearly. However, I did little to move, yet.

"Run where?" I didn’t have to speak the words out loud, the thoughts seemed to jump between us like a spark, "They will find me and kill me just the same."

"If you do not run, they shall kill you," came Bane’s grim response, but I wouldn’t be excluded from the fight-not this time,

"I’m tired of running! I won’t turn my back anymore while you sacrifice yourself again and again!"

My friend tried to say something more, but I forced my mind to shut the words out and groggily got to my feet. The dizzying clarity of the world with the senses of a cerebrate confounded my brain, but I encouraged my legs into a clumsy jog. With all Dramier’s available troops now occupied in restraining Bane, no one seemed to take notice of my movement; the empty supply crate to the right still served as a prop for Joe’s lucky cards and T.J.’s gauss rifle.

"Do you still believe I have lost control, Praetor?" Screened through the hydralisk’s powerful sensory perceptions, the maddening chorus of the Dark Archon’s words seemed hollow-almost childish, "Now that I have all control, enlighten me; now that there is nothing left to help you."

The weapon should have been awkward and heavy, yet in that state of mind, the firearm’s weight was hardly even noticeable. This was literally my second time holding a gun and would be my first time firing one, but I had seen the mercenaries operate them enough to know I had only to release the safety and jerk the bolt back. Bracing one foot behind me in anticipation of the impending recoil, I leveled the barrel out to center mass on the swirling aura of the Archon and fired from the hip.

The rifle responded instantly; winding up to speed briefly before unleashing its payload of armor-piercing rounds with healthy belches of flame. The psionic buzz in the air snapped to a different pitch as Dramier whirled around to face me with plasma shields alight from my assailing bullets.

"FOOL!" The alien consciousness boomed as it hurled the maelstrom against me again, causing me to let the barrel drift up with the recoil of automatic fire. However, Bane’s mind shielded mine from the raging mental attack once more and I found my target again.

Then, the Archon suddenly came for me despite the volley of led, looming up with startling speed. I couldn’t risk back-pedaling; it took everything I had just to keep hold of the hulking weapon and continue firing without tumbling over. Dramier towered above me as he raised an arm that was longer than I was tall and brought it back like an enormous club.

I vaguely remember being smashed off my feet when the Archon backhanded me into the air, but the maelstrom took hold again quickly as the pain scorched across my mental link with Bane.

The wind was knocked out of me when I hit the deck and rolled to a stop, yet the furious, thundering roar from the hydralisk shall always resound in my mind. Pinned once more beneath the Archon’s power, I strained to see what had happened, but it was difficult to make sense of the chaos.

Two more zealots lay in their death throes; one bearing a great, open slash in it’s chest and the other was all but beheaded. Somehow, my friend had broken free, spilling zealots onto the floor and slaughtering those that remained afoot to oppose him. Bane repelled the next enemy that recovered, thrashing its spinning psionic weapons aside with one scythe before impaling it with the other and hurling it into San’Dreale just before the Templar connected with it’s warp blade.

The two protoss crashed to the deck together as Bane turned to face the next assailants with scythes at the ready. Then, without warning, the blast of alien engines could be heard as the Kalimar’s fleet of interceptor’s, under Dramier’s control, began lifting out of their bays in the background of the battle.

"I cannot be stopped," the Archon’s crazed telepathic words blared while the remaining seven zealots charged for the hydralisk again, "Not by you; not by ANYONE!!"

Bane spun with both blades as the ring of enemies closed on him again, but there was nothing he could do to stop the interceptors as they lined out overhead and fired a consecutive volley from their pulse cannons.

The resulting explosion engulfed the entire group of combatants, scattering them in a blinding plume of blue fire. Dramier’s zealots got blasted in all directions, but four of them were spared by their plasma shields while the hydralisk had only its charred, broken carapace for protection. Because of his greater weight, Bane wasn’t launched as far by the shock wave, but, instead, absorbed more of its lethal energy before he slid to a stop in front of the first interceptor bay on his backside.

At first, Bane hardly moved, but then, slowly, the smoldering, bleeding beast rolled over and pushed itself off the deck, growling doggedly as it rose to do battle once more. Even so, Dramier wasn’t willing to lose any more zealots. Instead, I watched in shock while the interceptors fired again, in another collective shot. Bane seemed to be waiting for this, and rolled to one side just as the ships released their charges.

The detonations were close; shrapnel from the deck peppered the hydralisk’s carapace, but then the interceptors began firing again and again. Instead of going for cover, Bane charged back towards Dramier and his remaining zealots as he ducked and dove through the streaming pulse fire.

"Die! DIE!!" Dramier’s telepathic voice shrilled in outrage as he suddenly sent one interceptor after another rocketing down range. A single fighter may have been enough, but with four crafts now bearing down on him among the raining, blue energy, there was nothing my friend could do to save himself.

For a split second, Bane was still visible, but after the interceptors flashed by in a torrent of yellow alloy, the hydralisk was gone. The ships hurled into the first interceptor bay together, instantly reducing to a twisted mass of broken metal and blue flames in a single, explosive impact.

An eerie silence prevailed as my brain refused to accept what had just happened; even Dramier was silent for a moment, as if the Archon itself didn’t believe that it was really over. No matter how hard I tried to hang on, the presence of Bane’s mind on mine slipped away; it was done.

The affects of the maelstrom pressed down on me harder than ever and the Archon’s excruciating telepathic words defiled the air as it turned toward Rakeem once more,

"I hope you enjoy the accommodations of your stasis cell, Praetor!"

Dramier actually gave orders to his last four zealots and San’Dreale in the form of words this time, waving them forward,

"Take the Praetor and his remaining students onboard, then destroy these wretched Terrans!"

Still under the influence of the Dark Archon’s power, the Templar were helpless to resist while the zealots extinguished their psi blades and began dragging them away, toward the waiting shuttles. Dramier, with his High Templar-battery still at his side, unexpectedly drew near again,

"How were you able to stand against my power, mortal?!" The Archon’s mental voice pierced ugly holes in my thoughts as it stood high above me, but I was no longer afraid of it,

"Only one alien calls me ‘mortal’," I practically spat, "And it sure as hell isn’t you!"

"Ever the little fighter," Dramier teased malevolently, holding one fiery palm open towards me, "No matter-I shall see for myself!"

Suddenly, every sense blazed to life in agonizing pain as the Dark Archon’s mind raged against the seams of sanity and logic that held my own together. Unworldly voices began howling into my thoughts and I could already feel myself losing ground. Everything went black as I struggled to keep a grip on reality, but it was an act in vanity. Any second, the walls of mind would collapse and my life would end as the Dark Archon forced my essence from my body, but this was not to come to pass.

Even through the chaotic energies that pulled and tore at my locked mind, consuming my senses, I could feel the Kalimar quake beneath my body. The Archon’s power relented suddenly, releasing its strangle-hold on my brain. Simple things like sight and sound returned slowly as Dramier hovered away, facing the first interceptor hangar again. With Rakeem and his students locked somewhere inside, the four zealots reappeared from the open shuttles and broke stride to join their master when it happened again.

This time, the heaping mass of debris that filled the bay began shifting outward and huge pieces of wreckage broke lose from the top, rolling out into the main hangar. Dramier guided the carrier’s remaining fighter craft into a new formation, gathering his defenses for whatever attack might come next. However, the terrifying thing of destruction that emerged would be stopped by no such means.

There arose a deep, monstrous growling that reverberated through the Kalimar’s deck briefly before the noise suddenly erupted into a trumpeting roar that assaulted the ears. Huge, smoldering pieces from the crashed interceptors practically exploded from the hangar, reeling through the air and tumbling away in a shower of yellow metal as the hulking form of a Lurker burst from the burning wreck, tearing free with its gargantuan scythes.

This creature that my friend had become charged ahead on huge, bladed legs that, by themselves, compared in height with the zealots. The interceptors fired madly as Bane closed the distance in seconds, but the individual blasts from the pulse cannons dissipated harmlessly, leaving only a slight char on the lurker’s reinforced carapace. Dramier sent another pair of the ships racing ahead again, but Bane swatted them aside in time with great, arching swings of each colossal scythe.

The light crafts crumpled against the blades when they met in mid-air, exploding into balls of fire and shrapnel as the behemoth heaved them overhead. Then, the zealots foolishly stood their ground as the nightmarish mutation bore down on them with a single, devastating sweep of one scythe.

The Protoss warriors were slaughtered instantly as Bane’s merciless attack sent them spinning into the air, some in two halves. The zealots vanished in flares of blue energy and Dramier fled, leaving San’Dreale and the High Templar behind in a dash for the safety of his shuttles. With the source of the Archon’s power left bare, Bane reared both immense blades high and brought them back down on the High Templar like a falling mountain.

The hapless Templar disappeared as Bane’s scythes buried themselves in the metal deck of the Kalimar. The last two interceptors fell out of the air when Dramier lost his control over them, but he was already onboard the second shuttle. San’Dreale collapsed, crumbling lifelessly to the floor as the lurker surged past, breaking for the retreating Protoss ships, but it was too late.

Bane lunged for the shuttles as they gained altitude and sped away, but they were just out of reach. The effects of the maelstrom drained and I was able to stand and watch, as Bane did, while the three shuttles accelerated back to the distant tunnel at the entrance of the Kalimar’s hangar.

Slowly, the mercenaries emerged from their overturned dropship, T.J. and San’Dreale got to their feet and everyone joined me as I stared up at the unreal being that had saved us again. I cannot remember how long we stayed like that, with my friend just staring back down at us, but finally, the Lurker broke the calm,

"You must leave this place," Bane’s telepathic voice in this new form sounded raw and powerful, but, at its core, the words were ragged and steeped in sadness, "That creature still has control of Rakeem’s carrier; even now we are sinking to the planet and to the swarms there."

"But how..." Boss began to ask, but trailed off as the lurker turned from us and slid both scythes under the dropship, flipping it back onto the right side. Suddenly, with the beast next to the cargo vessel, my heart dropped-Bane was far too big to fit inside the ship with us.

No one made a move toward the dropship; even the stone-hearted mercenaries weren’t so quick to leave Bane behind this time.

"You’re one hell of a bug, Biggie," Boss said solemnly to my friend, "Don’t ever believe anything different!"

"Indeed," San’Dreale added, still somewhat in a daze from Dramier’s mind control, "Master Rakeem’s tales of your heroics hardly do you justice."

"Please," Bane snarled, motioning toward the dropship with both massive scythes, "There is little time, you MUST go!"

San’Dreale and the mercenaries hesitated for a moment still, but then the urgency Bane conveyed seemed to take hold, and they began jogging back to the waiting craft. Yet, I stayed.

"Reece..." Bane began, but I couldn’t take it. I ran ahead and threw my arms around one of the Lurkers front legs, burying my face against the cold, bone carapace. The bladed limb ripped my sleeve and sliced my arms, but I didn’t care,

"I don’t want you to go," I sobbed, "It’s not fair! I can’t lose you again!"

Bane didn’t say anything; he only watched and waited while my emotions poured out,

"...Please don’t leave me again..." the words tore at my insides, making my throat ache in sorrow.

At last, I looked up, despite the unbearable hurt I knew it would bring, and gazed into those fathomless, crimson eyes once more. Then, my friend spoke the words that would echo in my memory for the rest of my life,

"You have only to stay alive; I shall return for you."

 

To Be Continued...

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