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Bane 19: Wayward Templar
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Written and created by the immortal deadfast

     There was only time for one clean shot at the four goliaths in the front of the formation. The C-8 bucked in my arms, hurling a single shell through the windshield of the war walker and into the pilot’s lap. Bullets pelted the tarmac at my heels and whistled by my ears as I sprinted the last few yards to the cover of my ship. Its delay fuse spent, the explosive round detonated inside the goliath before its fumbling pilot could fish it out of the foot compartment. Instantly, the glass face of the walker blossomed with a plume of fire and energy that accelerated its backwards topple to the pavement.

With just six feet to go, I dove. The Tarmac ground one of my palms raw with the landing and if it wasn’t for the new armor Kip gave me, my knees probably would have been busted open as well.

"I’m so sorry, baby," I crooned to the Consolation through gritted teeth as the ship’s port side absorbed a punishing barrage of lead. When the deluge suddenly dropped by half, I leaned out as far as I dared, flinching from the rounds that still sparked off the nose of the ship. The sheet of gunfire that kept me pinned down was a light drizzle compared to the ballistic cloud that Bane fought through.

My mouth hung open in disbelief as the hunter-killer charged forward with both arms and scythes joined in front of its face in an effort to block out the projectiles. The stream of ricocheting lead and flying particles of carapace formed a blurry haze about my friend. In a span of seconds that seemed like an hour, he reached the edge of the right flank, forcing the small army to break formation in order to maintain a clear shot.

Even from this distance, I could see that Bane was already bleeding in several places as he plunged into the forward squad of marines, raising both blades at the last possible moment. Two armored soldiers were instantly cut down beneath the Hunter-Killer’s steel-rending sickles and the momentum carried behind them. Before the stunned remainder of the squad could comprehend even the sudden dismemberment of their comrades, Bane reared to the left with a brutal back-swing that caught the nearest one of them square on the helmet.

The Terran’s visor shattered in a brilliant spray of neo-glass shards as he cart wheeled to the pavement. Three marines were now down for the count in the blink of an eye, but the other twenty from the platoon and their trio of supporting Goliaths were reacting quickly as well.

The torturous storm of lead had already begun to return against the lone carapaced phenomenon. Impaler rounds were bad enough, but Bane simply couldn’t afford another charge through the devastating torrent of chain-gun fire from the combat walkers.

Blood stained his personal mist of rebounding bullets and pulverized carapace a light, grizzly crimson as Bane speared two of the lifeless soldiers and hefted the combined bulk of their powered suits off the tarmac. Without regard for the final rites of their former bothers-in-arms, the defenders of the Klorian ship yards fired on, mangling the bodies with slugs in attempt to bring down the beast that held them. Hunching low behind his human shields, my alien friend shot me a fleeting glance that bordered on the edges of desperation. One of his eyes poured blood, which could be seen running through the mesh of teeth and joining again to fall from his jaws like water from a broken faucet.

Bane had never asked me for help before, but that two-second stare said it all. He couldn’t do this alone.

With only a scant pair of grunts still issuing suppressive fire in my direction, I hefted the C-8 to my shoulder, taking concise aim for the shifting garrison of marines that rushed into a new formation around the hydralisk. The muzzle belched flame as I jerked the trigger in rapid succession, sending three rounds arching over the tarmac set to impact detonation. Two of the shells landed among the tightly packed soldiers and sent a number of them reeling with the explosions, but the third missed its target, only managing to knock a goliath off its stride with the force of the blast.

My blind-side assault may only have cut the garrison’s numbers by another four at best, but it definitely got their attention. Nearly a dozen marines and one of the walkers practically turned on the spot, leaving the other half of the troops to the hydralisk while they unleashed their weapons against me and the poor Consolation with swift vengeance.

The ship’s curved windshield, only replaced two days ago, was instantly obliterated, followed quickly by the forward view ports. I backpedaled wildly through the brief gale of glass tendrils and huddled midship, where I knew the bulkhead between the cargo and pilot compartments would offer the most protection. My mind spiraled in awe that Bane could withstand the uranium slugs that punched clean circular holes through the hull all around me.

I knew without looking that my half of the troops were closing on the Consolation, intent on surrounding me on the other side with a deadly crossfire. However, the high-pitched chirp of a powerful rifle under the influence of silencer and flame suppressor began ringing out among the concussive rattle of gauss fire and chain guns.

As the troops came in view of the still-open cargo door of the Consolation, Caryn began picking them off with her newly acquired C-7 custom. The stone-cold former mercenary had a lethal combination of drop-dead aim and ruthless efficiency that would be the envy of the most accomplished marksmen in the Terran special ops. She fired two shots in quick succession, landing each round in the precise center of two marines’ face-plates as they lead the charge around the aft end of the ship.

Their skulls were reduced to a gory paste inside their helmets when the armor-piercing rounds hit home, but practically before they could drop lifelessly to the pavement one after the other, Caryn turned inside the Consolation and fired three times again through the shattered windshield.

Two more soldiers crumpled to the ground in mid-stride and the armored goliath visibly mis-stepped from a sudden puncture in the lower center of the glass cockpit. Its twin auto cannons wound up and thundered madly in my direction, nearly on a line that would have canceled my cover, but its torso swung to the right and up at an odd angle just before pilot error caused it to miss the next step entirely. The delicate balance of the bird-like machine was lost and it crashed to the tarmac with a groan of the complaining hydraulics and a clamor of metal plating. The walker churned on the ground like a dying animal, but only because the pilot’s body lay slumped against the controls inside.

Faced with this new threat, the remaining soldiers wheeled in retreat and continued to pelt more holes in my pitiful dropship. I made a mental note to be a little slower to push Caryn’s buttons before one final idea struck me.

I jerked my gauss pistols free of their holsters and dropped on the cement. Although she had begun to list to port from a shot-out hydraulic line somewhere, the Consolation sat high enough on its landing skids for me see the turning metal boots of the back-pedaling marines. Pressed flat on the ground, I took aim through the gap under the ship. The dual weapons reacted a split second after one another when I jammed the triggers, determined to unload both clips downrange. The concentrated barrage of light automatic rounds took only a moment to find a chink among the pounding armored boots.

A muffled wail rang out as a pair of the soldiers tripped to the pavement, their feet unexpectedly turned to mangled stubs inside their suits by my low-flying impaler rounds. I grimaced when the hapless soldiers fell into the stream, where I proceeded to finish them off.

The instant my clips ran dry, I sprang to my feet once more. Seeming almost out of place, the sound of bullets peppering the Consolation abruptly came to a halt. When I tried to pull open the riddled copilot door, it fell off it’s hinges and flopped pathetically to the pavement. I ignored the spectacle and jumped inside the battle-stricken craft, nearly getting my head blown off in the process.

Caryn whirled around the moment my face appeared inside. She was favoring one leg, where a stray round had lodged in the meaty part of her thigh. She had a number of other grazes, evidence of several near-misses with the uranium rounds from the Goliath, but I didn’t even bother to throw her a glance as I hurled myself into the pilots chair and began flipping switches.

"C’mon, baby, we only need five minutes..." I crooned to the gasping ion thrusters. I didn’t have to cast an eye towards the myriad of hysterical gauges and flashing red lights among the controls to know that my bird was mortally wounded.

"What about the damned battle-cruiser?!" Caryn swore as she feverishly slid fresh cartridges into the breach loader of the C-7.

"Can you fly?" I demanded without so much as heeding a thought about her question.

"Yeah," Caryn barked back while she jerked the bolt on her combat rifle with a grimace, "But I have my doubts about this thing!"

"Get her airborne!"

I frantically replaced the clips in my gauss pistols and rushed through the cargo hold. Caryn grabbed me by the shoulder as I charged out of the rear door, but I knocked the offending hand away in passing.

"What are you doing?!" She snapped, "Let’s get the hell out of here!"

"Not without Bane!"

     Despite its grievous wounds, the Hunter-Killer had fought on while we we’re pinned with the Consolation. When our return fire drew half the garrison off, Bane was able to go on the offensive once more. His human shields quickly evaporating beneath the ballistic maelstrom, Bane surged against the combined firepower of the two goliaths and five huddled marines that stayed to fight him. Having learned from the deaths of their fallen piers, the soldiers scattered in plenty of time to keep their distance from the charging monstrosity, but the cumbersome combat walkers were slower to react.

Carrying his own momentum plus the added weight of the bullet-minced marines with them, Bane heaved both blades against one of the eight-ton war machines. A spectacular spray of metal plating and neo-glass marked the moment of impact when the bodies collided together like a ship-wreck. The heavy Goliath reeled from the ferocious blow as the hydralisk’s scythes cleaved through the mass of alloy and composites to emerge free on the opposite side. In the split-second the walker teetered on one foot, Bane brought his blades back and down again, tripping the precariously balanced machine over backwards to the pavement.

Despite the impaler rounds that began pelting his armored backside, Bane brought both sickles up and plunged them into the Goliath’s cockpit, sealing the fate of the Terran inside. Yet, before he could pull them loose again, retaliation fell on him in the form of the churning metal legs of the final walker.

Driven into a rage by the loss of his comrades before his eyes, the pilot stormed the freakish monster with his machine. The combat walker was nearly six feet taller than the battle-ravaged Hunter-Killer and five times as heavy. Its blind-side tackle hit Bane like a runaway truck, sending him sprawling to the tarmac beneath the thing’s crushing weight.

Miraculously, Bane landed on his back and instinctively threw both arms up just before an immense cleated foot could grind him into the pavement. With an ear-splitting screech of metal, both blades pierced the great steel hove as the Goliath pilot bore down on Bane with the full weight of his war-walker. Snarling with exertion and trembling with the effort, the Hunter-Killer fought the enormous mass of the machine. Ever so slowly, death’s descent groaned to a halt with a shudder of laboring hydraulics and began to reverse, but the trap was already set.

Servos whining, the Goliath’s auto cannons pivoted down on their mechanical joints and wound up to firing speed. Bane’s strength was fading; worn down by two days of combat and drained away through wounds too numerous to count. The merciless barrage of high-velocity spikes could have been the final sling of arrows that killed the beast, save only for a single, well-placed C-8 charge.

The timely blast caught the Goliath high on the backside, shattering the glass cockpit and the walker’s fragile balance as it tried to crush my friend. A half-second after the first impact, a second followed in its path and the ensuing explosion sent the machine toppling over Bane to crash headlong into the cement. The remaining squad of soldiers were taken back by my unexpected assault and spun to face me as I raced onto the scene with both barrels blazing.

Gauss rounds from my automatic pistol pelted the left-most marine full of holes before he could turn around and the C-8 bucked again as I simultaneously loosed its final round. The center marine caught the explosive canister in the chest and was instantly engulfed in a plume of fire that scattered the stunned soldiers with the shock wave. Only one marine was left standing and we fired our weapons at the exact same moment.

Two shots from my gauss pistol reduced the soldier’s skull to a bloody soup, but to my bewilderment, his body didn’t make a sound as it flopped lifelessly to the tarmac. With mild curiosity, I slowly discovered that sound ceased to exist at all as I watched my friend doggedly push into a standing position. Only when I began to feel a warm liquid running down my chest did I realize that I had been hit.

I felt no pain as I looked down and was shocked at what I saw. There were three neat, round holes in the upper left side of my tactical vest, a hand’s width below my shoulder. Blood was already soaking through the fabric and I could taste it in my mouth. Suddenly, I felt very afraid.

I vaguely remember Bane’s telepathic voice crying out as my strength vanished like a wisp of smoke on the breeze. Jagged black tendrils loomed from the edges of my vision while my failing mind registered that I was now lying on the ground. Soaked in blood, my outstretched hand groped in the air at the image of my alien friend standing over me. I tried to speak, but my throat only produced a nauseating gurgling noise.

"Reece?!" my friend roared, fear and concern evident in the words, "Reece!"

Then with startling speed, the world went dark and numb.

 

     Sunlight shone through my closed eyelids, staining my vision pink. I opened them slowly, as if waking from a deep slumber, and found the open dome of a clear blue sky. No sun was visible in the flawless atmosphere above, even though my surroundings were bathed in the intense light of mid-day. Detached thoughts of Bane and Caryn crossed my mind, but they seemed like a distant memory from somewhere far away, in a different time. Finally, I put my hands to the ground and sat up, startled to find a healthy bed of long grasses between my fingers.

With a gasp, I remembered being shot and frantically groped for the wounds, but found only my old slave tunic from childhood on my chest. When I held my hands up in confusion, I suddenly noticed that they were not my own, at least not anymore. These hands were small and soft, like those of a little kid. With slow realization, I found that the rest of this strange body matched the hands, right down to the grubby bare feet that stuck out in front of me.

I was left utterly dumbfounded. Where was I? How did I get here?

The plush grass I sat on was everywhere, covering rolling hills as far as the eye could see. As I gazed around, a flock of birds flapped overhead, chirping in time with each other while they drifted lazily by.

"Is this some kind of dream?" I pondered out loud with a voice that was a pitch or two higher than the one I had grown accustom to. Although it was the best explanation, it couldn’t be right. I never had dreams like this; it was all too peaceful, too serene.

Suddenly, I could feel a presence there with me. Foot steps approached from behind and I turned to see a man and woman walking towards me. The man was tall and lean, with a mop of scrubby black hair and a clean-shaven face. His green eyes looked intense and strong, but a soft glint hinted at a gentle kindness beneath. The woman was a brunette with hair grown far beyond her shoulders, wreathing a face that returned my stare with a gaze that bordered on love.

They held hands as they approached, seemingly out of nowhere, until they reached me. With agonizing slowness, their clasped hands slid apart as if they might never meet again. Then, they finally sat down on either side of me.

"Who are you people?" I stammered in my childish tone, "Where are my friends? Where’s Bane?"

The couple didn’t answer me, and instead, gazed for a long while out over the open plain. At last, when I least expected it, one of them spoke,

"I’m truly sorry, my son."

I looked up at the male figure with a start. The voice seemed so deep and booming that it might as well have come from God himself.

"We’re both very sorry, but you cannot stay with us any longer. They...they will come to take you from us soon and there’s nothing we can do except be brave and have hope. You must be brave as well, son. Promise me you will be brave."

Although I had no idea who this person was or what he was talking about, I felt strangely obligated to answer.

"I...I’ll try," I stuttered, surprised at how difficult it was to say.

Then the woman spoke, and I was shocked to find that she had tears rolling down her soft cheeks,

"We love you, son, we both do. We always have and always will, no matter how far they take you. Always remember, my dear Reece; promise me you will remember."

"I promise..." I nodded obediently, nearly moved to tears myself by this woman’s powerful outpour of emotion.

Another moment passed in near silence, save for the distant melody of a bird-song and the whisper of the breeze through the grass. All too soon, the man spoke again,

"It’s time."

The swish of another set of feet approached from behind. I looked up as they moved to the front of me, just off to the side, and my mouth fell open in disbelief.

It was him.

Every detail was there: the face obscured in electronic targeting equipment, the dated tactical armor, even the ever-present C-10 canister rifle. I was flabbergasted beyond any capacity for words, but the man’s huge voice came once more, addressing the newcomer this time,

"You take care of our boy, you hear?"

This mysterious figure, who had once led me to Bane through the labyrinth tunnels of a Protoss carrier and who kicked me out of bed two nights ago, simply gave a single nod before looking down to me with a gloved, outstretched hand.

As if of its own accord, my own little hand obediently reached out and took it. Everything in me screamed to stay, to learn some kind of answer to this madness, but my feet moved like they were drawn by unseen strings.

I strained to look back at the couple as I was led away, but they only held each other in their arms and watched me go. Despite my efforts, a dense white fog crept from the edges of my vision and swallowed their image. Soon, I could see nothing except a sterile, white light, but their voices echoed through the ether one last time,

"Remember, my son."

"Be brave."

 

     Everything faded into silent, shadowy darkness; even the feel of the gloved hand around my own vanished with the touch of the grass beneath my feet. I was left with nothing until a vaguely familiar noise pulsed into being. An artificial sounding chirp, barely on the edge of audibility, bleeped out of the nothingness and gradually grew in volume. With terrible slowness, I recognized this monotonous beeping sound as an EKG monitor.

Then in five seconds flat, it all came rushing, roaring and rampaging back. My lungs were on fire and it felt like someone was crushing my heart in a vice. With the merciless onset of consciousness, something high in the center of my back exploded, joining the chorus of pain that twisted my ill-prepared mind. A pitiful moan of agony forced it’s way up my throat, but my voice produced only an abrasive scratching noise.

I could feel a sudden, heavy movement nearby, but my vision was a disorientating blur of gray and brown. Despite the crippling pain, I attempted to sit up, but only to be gently pressed flat again by a solid, steady force. The motion caused my wounds to scream in protest, and I could do nothing but suck my teeth and bear it.

At last, the neural firestorm died to a smoldering turmoil and I was able to unclench my fists. As I caught my breath and regained a shard of composure, my eyes began to make sense of the milky image in front of me. I could make out the flat, feature-less walls of a recovery ward and several IV’s protruding from my left wrist. A thin sheet covered my legs and half my body, and my chest was mummified beneath a tight-wrapped layer of bandaging. There was a tall, plain table next to my bed with several bottles of fluid and the compact EKG unit. Then, I found the softly glowing crimson eyes of a monstrous alien.

"It is good to see you, my friend..."

Bane’s telepathic voice graced my thoughts and almost made me forget the pain. I tried desperately to speak, but the words turned to a retching cough before I could form the second syllable. Genuine concern edged Bane’s voice as he answered my question before I could ask it.

"Lie still, mortal; you were gravely injured. Though you owe your life to these machines, they could not repair all the damage."

"...How long have I-" I began to say, my voice a scrabbling gasp, but my friend swiftly interrupted me.

"Eight days, by the count of the others."

A painstaking smile briefly crossed my lips.

"So we made it?"

"Indeed we did," Bane answered with a low growl, "You, by some slight of the Gods, with your life."

The hydralisk shut its eyes tight and released a great sigh that swirled the air in the room. When they opened again, they looked deathly serious, yet hurt at the same time.

"There is little that I truly fear in the universe, Reece....However, you frightened me. Until today, I could sense no trace of the life I once knew within your ruined form. For a time, I nearly believed that we would never speak again."

"I’m sorry," I croaked, "But, Bane, I had to do it."

Without warning, the hydralisk snarled in response,

"I do not wish for an apology! What I want is you to know this: under no circumstance are you to help me at the risk of your own life! You can not value my existence above that of your own! Do you understand?!"

I was taken back by my friend’s sudden outburst, but I didn’t have the will to fight over it. I just grinned sheepishly and spent the last of my strength mumbling a simple reply before merciful unconsciousness claimed my ravaged mind once again,

"I do, Bane, but I’m sorry. I can’t do that."

 

     It would be two days before I could bear standing upright again. After I passed out, Bane promptly informed everyone on board that, in spite of the popular consensus, I wasn’t dead. Naturally, everyone was there to greet and harass me the next time I came around. After the initial round of cheers, the whole crew, and Caryn, took turns breathing down my neck for almost getting myself killed.

I didn’t care. I was so doped up on pain killers that they could have hidden steak in my bed and locked me in the room with a starved zergling; I wouldn’t have been any less content.

Two of the bullets, Mich later explained, passed clean through my left lung and out my back, cracking three ribs in the process. The other one came within a half inch of my pulmonary artery and all but shattered my shoulder blade. The advanced biological regeneration technology on board the Mark III was able to repair most of the tissue damage, but broken bones and trauma would have to heal on their own.

Nobody thought I would make it. One lung had partially filled with blood and I stopped breathing for three minutes before the artificial life-support systems could be brought online. As Bane said before, but in different words, monitors had shown minimal brain activity for seven days. By most medical definitions, I was dead. In the end, only Bane had stopped the others from pulling the plug that kept my lifeless body breathing.

Boss gave me the whole spiel about the importance of planning and adhering to safety protocols while TJ just swore about how much of a lucky son-of-a-bitch I was. Mosely was mostly quiet, as usual, but the mixed look of relief and exhaustion on his face said volumes. Caryn made doubly sure that I knew what a lousy mercenary I made and fully understood how big of a jack-ass I was for ‘leaving her’ to explain herself to the rest of the crew. Then, she promptly turned from me and stormed out of the recovery ward without so much as another word.

Bane was strangely absent from the proceedings. When I asked about it, TJ explained that the hydralisk was busy raiding the food-stocks in the galley. With the exception of the to-go bag Maggie prepared for him, my friend had refused to eat for a week.

Once the excitement wore down, I was finally able to get a word in edgewise and figure out just what I missed while I was gone.

"So what happened? Where are we now?"

"You n’ Biggie made a genuine mess of things back there," Mich began with a sigh, "Let me be the first to congratulate you, kid. Now you’ve got a price on your head with the Ellison rebel faction and the Hiemdall defense core. Wraith fighters gave up pursuit once we pushed past orbit and entered warp space, but we can forget about goin’ back home anytime soon. We’ve taken damage to the hull, but she’s still holdin’ a steady course on the fringe of the Koprulu sector."

"The Fringe?" I coughed in surprise, "I thought we were going to Shakuras. What are we doing out here?"

"Biggie hasn’t been very clear about that," Mich grumbled, as if annoyed by the fact that he was at the command of an alien, "But he knows how to be persuasive. We’re about three days from landing on some frozen rock named Braxis and I haven’t a damn clue why."

"None of us do," TJ piped in, "Big’s has plum clammed up since you’ve been out."

"Hell," Boss snorted, "He was gettin’ downright mean before you came around. It got to a point that we were afraid to come in here to check on the machines and replace fluids. Are you sure the bug’s still playin’ with a full deck of cards?"

The news of Bane’s foul behavior did come as a surprise to me, but I didn’t think too much of it given the circumstances.

"Sure," I nodded, "He seemed pretty normal to me, or at least, as normal as he can be."

"Look into it for me when you get back in your boots," Mich shrugged, "The last thing we need right now is an uncontrollable alien on our hands."

"Speaking of uncontrollable," TJ suddenly smirked, "Where’d you dig up the hot little number that saved your shot-up carcass?"

After standing silent witness the entire time, Mosely relented with a brief chuckle. I rolled my eyes and intercepted Boss before he could cue-in on the subject,

"I’m sorry, fella’s, I really am. I know she can be a royal pain in the neck, but she had me over a barrel! It was either this or let her tell the Ellisons everything. Honestly, I was going to tell you once we made it onboard the mark three."

As if to fly in the face of my assumption, Mich suddenly cracked up. He and TJ shared a laugh at my expense before Boss regained his composure with a long sigh,

"Kid, you must have me mistaken for somebody else. After running from gun-smugglin’ rebels and warrant totin’ defense corps, then having my crew and ship all but hijacked by an insane, risk-blind teenager and his savage pet alien, why in the name of good green Earth would I try to condemn the one thing that is quite possibly the only plus in this whole cluster-fuck?"

"You dirty, old space-dog," I scoffed, feigning disgust.

Boss continued to rattle on as if I hadn’t said anything,

"Given she is a member of a dangerous rival faction, a known squealer and meaner than a cornered zerglin’ to boot, she’s the one thing I can look at around here and not feel disgusted. Normally, I wouldn’t allow an armed stranger on board, but I suppose I can overlook this infraction if you two can keep a lid on it."

"What?!" I stuttered, "S-she isn’t...we’re not...b-but we never-"

TJ grinned from ear to ear and slapped my bed rail,

"Aw, c’mon, Reece-myster! Don’t you know you’re a miserable liar? Hell, I’m happy for you! Me and the boys were beginning to worry!"

"So I’ve heard," I grumbled, unsuccessfully attempting to wipe the blush off my face with one palm.

"Well, we haven’t," TJ pushed back, "And don’t spare us the details, kiddo! How was it?"

"That’s it!" I growled, to the best of my ability, "Out! All three of you perverts get out or I’ll sick my savage alien on you!"

"Alright, alright," Mich chuckled, holding his hands up in surrender as he and the guys got up to leave, "Lay off the kid, TJ. It must be a memory he prefers to suppress."

"Leave," I commanded, trying to sound cold even though I knew the guys were just toying with me.

TJ and Mosely filed through the open doorway, but Mich delayed his exodus by speaking over one shoulder before the pneumatic door slid shut behind him,

"Nice to have you back, kid."

I sighed as the door to the medical ward slid shut with a whisper of the pneumatics. I had never lain in a bed so long before in my life and I could feel my body cramping up all over. I also began to worry over what Mich said about Bane, but, with effort, I managed to push that thought to the back burner. Bane was irritable because he thought I might have bought the farm, I told myself. Everything was alright now; the situation could wait until I checked on the well-being of another friend.

 

     "Oh baby...I’m so sorry..."

The words left my mouth involuntarily after I flicked on the lights to the small craft hangar and laid eyes on the poor Consolation. There wasn’t an intact pane of glass anywhere on the ship and it had so many holes that you could almost make out the shape of Mich’s craft parked on the other side. Even more miraculous than my recovery, was the fact that this thing made it onto the Mark III at all.

I slowly approached the battle-ravaged drop ship with my left arm cradled in a sling. I still couldn’t use it because of my broken shoulder blade, but I didn’t care. One good arm or none at all; I was going to help my old girl.

First things first. I had to get onboard and fire up the diagnostic’s, if they still worked, and see what was still good. However, I stopped short at the top of the rear cargo ramp when I saw the blood; my blood. I shook my head in silent amazement as I stared down at the four-foot stain on the grated steel deck. Right there, I knew all over again that I shouldn’t have lived.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I moved to one wall and stepped around the spot. Finally, I was able to look away and enter the pilot’s compartment. I plunked down in a seat that was pocked and peeled from the bullets; wisps of synthetic cotton curled out from the cushion and reached up like the appendages of a sea urchin.

When I flicked the switch to feed power to the controls, a fountain of sparks erupted from somewhere between the panels and only half the dash lit up. Red warning lights flashed like a city skyline and the cracked diagnostic screen scrolled with an endless list of distress codes. The primary drive was down, life support was non-existent, and hydraulic controls showed a complete loss of operating pressure, among a laundry-list of electrical trouble codes. This was going to take a lot of time, effort and a small miracle.

I shut down the power with a sigh and was about to stand up when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. When I looked up, Caryn was watching me from the edge of the Consolation’s ramp.

"I had a feeling you would be out here with your precious ship," she droned as she stepped up the ramp with a slight limp. When I saw this, it suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten all about her taking lead, too.

"How’s your leg?" I asked, genuinely trying to sound concerned.

"And my shoulder?" She suddenly shot back as she came to a stop in the cargo hold and crossed her arms.

"You were hit twice?" I gasped in actual surprise.

Caryn pretended to inspect the holes in the hull around her before she turned her icy gaze against me,

"Like you would notice! You’re too worried about this damn thing and your...your pet zerg!"

I still didn’t have the energy for a full scale argument, much less with her. I gave in, looked away from her piercing blue eyes, and exhaled.

"Thanks for your help back there. You didn’t have to do that."

"I didn’t do it for you or your pet!" Caryn snapped again, "If I didn’t start shooting back, they would have bagged me along with the rest of you clowns! I only helped to save my own skin."

Agitation bubbled up between the cracks of exhaustion, giving me the energy for one sharp retort,

"Bane is not my pet," I said firmly, but quietly, "Bane is my friend; something you would know little about. Did you really come down here solely to kick dirt in my face? We’ve outrun the Ellison’s by a week and a half. You will be safe on any of the Terran settlements in this sector. So, honestly, if you really despise my company so much, please...just take what you want, get on a ship and go."

What I said wasn’t in anger or to even a score, it was simply the tired truth, stripped raw from Caryn’s constant acidic scorn. I just didn’t have the will or patience to put up with her if she was going to treat me like scum, and I could see in her eyes that she actually understood this.

Caryn was silent for a full minute, a stunning victory on my part, while I ignored her and began clumsily removing fasteners in the center dash panel with my good arm. I could tell that something I said finally struck a cord with her, but I had no idea what it could have been. Finally, she spoke up again, in a softer tone of voice this time,

"Why do you care about this ship so much?"

I stopped in mid-turn of the fourth screw as the memories crossed my mind. The guys knew exactly why I kept the Consolation, even when faster, more advanced vessels presented themselves. I never had to explain it to anyone. Until now.

"Eight years ago, when I was just a little kid, Bane promised me a ship when he went on a boarding party with Boss and the crew. It was only supposed to be an incentive to keep me quiet, because I couldn’t go with them, but...something happened and Bane had to leave us. This ship was all I got in exchange for the only friend I’d ever had, like a cheap consolation prize of sorts."

Caryn was still quiet, listening to my history lesson while staring at the floor under her boots,

"But ever since then, it’s been almost as trusty as the friend it replaced. The Consolation’s pulled me out of some really hairy situations; never once has it let me down. I won’t leave her like this."

When I looked up again, Caryn was grinning,

"You know, for a guy, you’re pretty sentimental."

"What’s that supposed to mean?" I grumbled and finished removing the fourth screw, allowing the panel to break loose and expose the wiring beneath.

"Hey," she suddenly frowned, "I thought you didn’t want to fight."

I glanced up at Caryn just long enough to roll my eyes,

"I don’t," I said flatly as I pulled the panel off with a jerk. Out of the blue, her smile returned with a wry twist on the edges of her lips,

"Then what else is there to do?"

Once again, I stopped working on the shot-out controls and looked up,

"What’s that supposed to mean?"

 

     There were always the brief ones; fleeting acquaintances that TJ would set me up with when I wasn’t looking or otherwise. Of the girls that came and went, there was never anything special about them; simply a means to satisfy those overpowering teenage urges. But Caryn was different.

She could kiss like she was born to do it, and it made all the painkillers seem like children’s vitamins in comparison. I totally lost track of everything, even time. For a brief moment, nothing seemed more important than her sweet lips.

At some point, I don’t know when, Caryn put her hands on my chest and pushed herself away. Reluctantly, I released her and she slid as smooth as silk into the co-pilot’s chair next to me.

"So why are we out here, really?" She asked expectantly as I sat up and attempted to straighten out my hair with my good hand.

"W-well, Bane has more details," I began with a stutter as my brain came back on track, "But the Zerg are taking over Shakuras, and if we don’t do something, they will assimilate the Protoss for their psionic abilities. If that happens, nothing can stop them."

"Wait," Caryn’s frown was back and her eyes turned cold again, "You’re serious, aren’t you?"

"Of course," I piped, trying to sound casual, "I wasn’t joking when I said we were leaving to save the galaxy."

"Reece!" She unexpectedly exclaimed, "This is the Zerg you’re talking about! You’re only going to get yourself killed! What makes you even think that you can make a difference?"

"I don’t know," I answered after a long moment of silence, "But Bane says I’m the only one who can."

A stark look of disgust and disbelieve twisted Caryn’s soft face until I cringed involuntarily,

"And you actually believe that...that thing?!"

Her unwavering insults of a trusted friend, who had saved my life countless times, was beginning to make my blood boil over. However, I bit back hard on the anger and matched her icy glower with one of my own.

"Yes," I said with a tone of finality, "I do."

Caryn’s mouth dropped slightly as she looked me over in what had to be either pity or anger. After a moment that seemed to drag on forever, she stood up. With an exaggerated sigh, Caryn walked briskly out of the ship, down the ramp and out of sight.

 

     For a time, I watched the place where Caryn disappeared and simply pondered about where I went wrong. I became lost in thought until Bane emerged around the edge of the Consolation’s open cargo door.

"Bane!" I visibly flinched when Caryn’s image was replaced by that of a drooling, ten-foot alien, "Did you find something good to eat, buddy?"

The hydralisk snapped its jaws and shrugged,

"The available selection is acceptable, however limited."

A chaotic thought briefly crossed my mind as I wondered what Bane would have done if he’d shown up five minutes earlier,

"What brings you out here?"

"I sensed an unfamiliar mental pattern emanating from your mind," the hydralisk growled, adding emphasis to its telepathic words, "Does something trouble you, mortal? Are you not healing well?"

"No, n-no," I stammered, "I’ll be fine in a few days..."

I trailed off for a moment, wracking my mind for some kind of excuse,

"It’s my ship!" I spoke up as an idea hit me, "This is the same one you promised me that day eight years ago. I can’t stand to see it busted up like this."

Bane’s glowing, crimson eyes narrowed to a pair of slits as he considered what I said. I could tell that he knew I was hiding something, but thankfully, the moment passed quickly.

"Cannot you repair it?"

"I don’t know," I confessed truthfully, "It’s a miracle the thing made it on board the Mark three at all."

Bane glanced at the peppered hull before he looked back to me,

"Perhaps I could be of assistance."

"What?" I scoffed, frankly surprised, "How could you help?"

 

     "That’s good, Bane. Just a little higher, if you don’t mind."

With its scythes hooked under the hull like a biological fork-lift, the powerful hydralisk growled with effort, tipping the Consolation to the brink of flipping over. With the extra clearance, I was able to slide in on my side and begin removing the plating around the forward keel repulsor.

"Tell me again," Bane asked as I worked the first rivet loose, "What is the purpose of this gadgetry?"

"They’re called Keel Repulsor’s," I repeated, "They provide extra lift for vertical take-off in a gravitational environment and they’re essential for maneuvering in space."

I paused while I jerked a final rivet free and let the panel clatter to the floor next to my head,

"And right now, one of them isn’t responding to the diagnostic scan."

"Ah," Bane rumbled sarcastically, "Such wisdom has truly enlightened me."

The moment I pulled the wiring out for inspection, I found the problem. A stray shot had gone through the floor at a shallow angle, and consequently through the control harnesses, before lodging itself in the titanium casing of the thruster housing.

I sighed heavily and reached for the wire strippers when I noticed a pair of boots approach and stop next to Bane’s armored tail.

"Caryn said you were out here, in so many words," Mich’s voice came after a short pause.

Carefully, as not to jar my bad shoulder, I slid back out from under the Consolation and Bane lowered it gently to it’s landing skids again.

"Was she upset?" I asked as I sat up and wiped my palm on my jeans.

Mich waved the question off.

"Isn’t she always? You and Big’s should find a stopping point and head on up to the bridge. We’ll be in orbit over Braxis soon, but we’re not going any further until I get some damned answers."

 

     "This place you call ‘Braxis’ is the last known location of the dark templar San’Dreale. If we are to save the first-born and stop my brethren, we will require his assistance."

Everyone was on the bridge for Bane’s explanation, surprisingly even Caryn, but it only raised more questions.

"We haven’t seen that blue bastard since the last time you left," Boss snorted in surprise, who sat back and listened to Bane’s words with his arms crossed.

"Yeah," TJ added, "He just disappeared one night. How did you find em’ way out here?"

The hydralisk failed to address questions until one showed up with a purpose.

"What good is another damn alien against the Zerg, anyway?" Caryn asked as if she didn’t care while she pretended to inspect her nails.

"Protoss society is much like your own," Bane said with the added emphasis of a verbal growl, "Complex and unforgiving. In order to gain their trust, we shall need one who knows their ways."

"Hey Mose," Mich spoke over one shoulder to the silent mercenary, "Punch up a quick scan on the immediate surface. I’d like to know what’s on this rock."

Mosely simply nodded and turned for the sensory console, leaving the rest of us to stare at the empty center of the rounded briefing table. In moments, the nearest quadrant of the planet materialized before us like a holographic orange slice. Most of the field was devoid of activity, with the exception of a tiny blotch of green.

"Looks pretty quiet out there," Boss said as he sat up and studied the hologram with the rest of us, "We might have a backwater mining operation here, but you shouldn’t have any trouble staying out of their way."

"So," T.J. spoke up as Mosely returned to the table, "Who’s going down there?"

"Why even ask," I shrugged as I stood up from the table, "Bane and I are going."

If I had expected Boss to object, I would have been strangely mistaken.

"If this were any other day," Mich said with a tired voice, "You would lose your job the moment you stepped of this ship. But as of last week, we’re all out of work. Just do yourself a favor and take my suit; the heater works better."

"Do you have one in a medium size?" Caryn suddenly spoke up as if she just noticed that she was sitting in a debriefing.

"H-hold the phone!" I stuttered, "You’re gonna stay right here, princess!"

"Mines a medium," TJ volunteered like I hadn’t said anything.

Caryn nodded in TJ’s direction as she stood up from the hologram table,

"Then I’m going to need it. Even on a deserted, frozen rock like this, somebody has to keep this kid from killing himself."

"Ain’t it the truth," Mich grinned, "Let’s get this goose-chase over with."

"Now wait just a minute," I barked in attempt to put my foot down while everyone left me by the hologram, "Caryn stays here, and there’s nothing you rejects can say or do that will change my mind!"

 

     Compared to the lush, tropical environment I had grown accustomed to on Hiemdall, just the view of the ice-locked world beyond the windshield sent chills crawling through my body. Snow fell so thick outside that Caryn had to fly by sensors and sonar; a task I didn’t entirely trust her with but had little choice over due to the still-slugglish reaction time of my left arm.

"Slow it down, princess," I hissed as frozen tree-tops suddenly loomed out of the storm with startling clarity.

"What did I tell you about calling me that?!" Caryn practically growled, obviously struggling with the ships controls. According to the altimeter, we were just over fifty feet from touchdown when Caryn fed too much power to the port repulsors and not enough to starboard. The Interceptor three heaved up beneath us and the jagged treetops titled in the windshield. If she wasn’t strapped in, Caryn would have fallen across the cockpit and landed on me with TJ’s powered suit. At the same moment, I heard the grating sound of carapace sliding across steel and glanced back in time to see Bane fall helplessly to the right side of the cargo compartment.

To keep from punching holes in the hull and stranding us with a leaky craft, the hydralisk collided face-first with the mid-ship bulkhead. Bane had just enough time to push himself off the wall and glare at me with an agitated snarl before we hit the tree.

Without warning, our poorly guided vessel crashed to dead halt in mid-air when its sideways slide lead to what must have been the most unforgiving tree on the planet. A metallic clang resounded through the ship when Bane collided with the ceiling and a drift of snow showered across the windshield. Then, the overhead compartments jarred open, spilling their contents all over the cargo hold and one dangerously disgruntled hydralisk. At last, I managed to reach across the cockpit and clumsily correct the thruster power with my bad arm.

The flustered dropship groaned around us as it leveled out again, and not a moment too soon. With a final crash of the skids and a stomach-wrenching impact, the Interceptor Three achieved touchdown on Braxis.

"See?" Caryn turned her nose up as she cut the power, "I can fly just fine."

Bane snorted loudly as he pushed himself off the deck with both scythes,

"Indeed; And with all the grace of a blind ultralisk."

Caryn gave me a dirty look, but with my protective metal shell, I wasn’t about to pass up a hearty laugh at her expense.

"Let’s get this over with, you bastards!" She growled just before she lowered the visor on her own borrowed suit.

 

With the exception of a few inches of fresh powder, the snow-pack was frozen solid to the point that it supported the weight of the combat suits easily. I always hated wearing them; environmental awareness and peripheral vision is cut to nearly nothing and their whining servos and pneumatics were slow to react at best and anything but stealthy. However, I thought as I cranked the personal heater unit, they did have their occasional shining moments.

Caryn and Bane were already waiting on me at the back of the ship, each trying to pretend the other didn’t exist, when I trudged up to join them in the driving snow. When I spoke from inside the suit, its external amplifier made my voice sound choppy and artificial,

"Hey Bane, aren’t you cold out here?"

The hydralisk glanced down at me for a moment, with a layer of frost already forming over every inch of its carapace, and growled just loud enough for me to hear it through my visor,

"...mortals..."

"Where in frozen hell is this blue freak?!" Caryn’s impatient voice crackled over the radio in my helmet.

"I’d hate to agree with her," I gestured with the C-8 in my good hand, "But the princess has a point. Why did you have us land way out here? We’re still miles from the intended drop zone."

For a moment, there was no response from the hydralisk as it peered into the howling storm. Just before Caryn could muster another outburst, Bane spoke.

"There is a problem. Though I can sense the Templar is nearby, there is another presence among us. The nature of this other being is alarming because it seems to be...everywhere."

Caryn’s scoff could be heard without the aid of her radio.

"What’s your pet babbling about now?!"

"Who is it, Bane?" I asked, ignoring Caryn’s comment. "Can you tell?"

The hydralisk took a long, slow pull of the arctic air before answering with a low growl.

"I do not know. Yet, if my instincts are true, you must both await my return here."

Without another word, Bane started forward through the snow. Grunting against the pain of the sudden movement, I reached out and stopped the ten-foot alien with my bad arm.

"Bane, no! I won’t let you go alone."

The hydralisk half turned and addressed me with one burning, crimson eye.

"Even without your injury, you could not hope to survive. Mortal, you shall remain here of your own accord, or I shall make that decision for you."

With a shrug, I let my hand drop. Bane’s piercing gaze remained a moment longer before he turned from us and stalked into the woods. It wasn’t long before I lost sight of the hydralisk in the driving snow, but a case of bewilderment was left behind. My alien friend had kept me from danger in a myriad of ways, but never by threatening me. I began to think about what Mich said back in the recovery ward when Caryn’s sing-song voice butted in.

"What’s the matter, little boy? Your pet zerg misbehaving? Why don’t you hit it on the nose with a newspaper?"

"Try it some time," I snorted over the radio.

Her reply came back edged in spite, but it wasn’t quite sincere at the same time.

"I’d put an armor-piercing round dead between that damn thing’s eyes and-"

"Then you better save a shot for yourself," I interrupted matter-of-factly, "Because when that armor-piercing round shatters on impact, jumping between you two wouldn’t do any good even if I wanted to stop him."

"Relax," Caryn sighed back at me, "I’ve actually grown fond of the slime trails he leaves all over the ship. I just hope all this damn trouble is worth something! Seriously, Reece, what other idiots could be out here besides us?"

 

     Bane could sense them more clearly now. They were all around, following and watching at a distance. The presence was not unlike the Zerg; there was but one mental signature shared by many minds, however not as numerous as a swarm. The now ice-ridden hydralisk knew the identity of this threat before leaving the mortals with their insufferable air craft, but he dare not tell them. Reece would not have stayed.

The terrain presented an uphill trek through tall, frozen trees that grew smaller and fewer with distance. With the forest disappearing, the relentless wind intensified until it began to whistle through the frosted, lifeless branches overhead. Two miles into the hike, Bane could still feel the shimmer of many other life-forms nearby. He knew they were following, staying the attack until both he and the Templar were revealed, but this was a risk Bane had no choice over. He was willingly entering the maw of a trap.

Suddenly, the scraggly forest came to an end. Through the blinding snow, the land continued to slope upwards to a rough point where a sheer cliff formed the abrupt end of a small plateau. To human eyes, the hydralisk stood alone as it crested the rise to stare out over the snowy abyss.

"It has been many moons," Bane growled, radiating his telepathic voice, "Yet the time has finally come. Are you prepared, young San’Dreale?"

At first, there was no reply save for the wind. Then, with a passing gale of ice and snow, the Templar’s cloak faded. The scantily armored Protoss stood at Bane’s right side, also staring out into the storm as it spoke telepathically.

"I have awaited each of those moons as if they were the last, cerebrate. Time has faded neither the memory of your actions, nor my desire for vengeance against our enemies. However, you did not come here alone."

"Indeed," Bane nodded, mimicking the Terran gesture he had seen so often, "Our guests did not make themselves known to me until my arrival here, and it is my instinct that they will not allow us to leave this place willingly."

As if uttered from a ghost of the past, a torturous voice cut across the senses; a voice that seemed to scream, moan and whisper all at once.

"...So...Rakeem’s hero is not totally without his wit after all."

"Dramier," Bane rumbled as he and San’Dreale turned to face the squad of zealots that stepped out of the cover of driving snow, encircling the two warriors at the edge of the cliff, "Are you such a coward that you must send your minions to fight us in your stead?"

"Despicable fiend!" San’Dreale added coldly, "What have you done with master Rakeem?! Where are my brethren?!"

Dramier’s maniacal laughter echoed from the puppet-like minds of the zealots. Even their eyes burned with the same, frantic energy of the Dark Archon’s insanity as the being spoke through them like a dozen living amplifiers.

"Your master serves me now, as does Zeratul’s precious council; as do the very warriors you see before you! You, Cerebrate, pose the only significant threat to my plan. I have scoured the stars in search of you, but if I allowed this...wayward Templar to live, I knew you would reappear one day. Now that you have, you and your unlikely allies shall be swept aside by my hand!"

With that, all ten zealots simultaneously activated their dual psionic blades and assumed a battle stance.

"There is no use in resistance!" Dramier wailed triumphantly from somewhere across the galaxy, "I have already ordered the strike against your vessel in orbit! This icy planet will be your-"

The dark archon’s telepathic gloating was abruptly cut short by two flashes of a dying plasma shield. Bane’s third volley of spikes imbedded themselves in the face and throat of the hapless warrior, sending a nine-foot alien crumpling over backwards to the snow.

All remaining zealots burst forth without further hesitation while the body of the fallen dissolved in a torrent of blue energies. San’Dreale’s warp blade arced to life a moment before the templar’s cloak returned and Bane wound back with both blades just as Dramier’s minions closed the distance.

A semi-circle of blue energy rippled out when the hunter-killer unleashed its strength in a wide, sweeping motion of each scythe that clashed against plasma shields and psionic weapons with enough force to send four zealots stumbling. The other fighters were just a few seconds too slow in changing course for the only visible target.

Cleaving the air and hissing through the driven snow, San’Dreale’s curved warp blade briefly came into focus. A series of intense blurs met the oncoming hail of psionic daggers with practiced timing and blinding speed. Where the energy weapons collided, miniature explosions of sparks ensued, creating a dazzling display of deadly light.

"San’Dreale, hear me! There is little time; we must leave this place now!"

Bane’s telepathic message came swiftly, unaffected by his physical exertion as he hurled one scythe skyward in a brutal uppercut that caught the first zealot to recover. The former Khala warrior took the blow in the chest and was hurled over backwards in a complete flip as his brethren rushed in from either side. Blood flew in sprays when the zealots slashed at the hunter-killer’s exposed flank before Bane could return with both blades.

Accompanied by a mixed snarl of pain and exertion, Bane brought both scythes around in a savage counter-attack that cleaved the first zealot in half at the waist and sent the second cartwheeling off the abyssal plateau. Meanwhile, San’Dreale struggled to deflect the vengeful daggers of the foes on the right, but he was losing ground fast. Just as all five zealots lunged forth in unison, the templar leapt straight up in an alien display of acrobatic prowess.

Their minds intertwined in the heat of battle, templar and hydralisk were made aware of the others intentions instantly. As San’Dreale flipped overhead in a graceful, high-flying backflip, Bane spun to meet the converging enemies on the right. Instead of their previously invisible foe, the zealots were met with the beastly impact of Bane’s scythes.

The zealots spilled over backwards, some hurled to the snow with missing extremities that oozed blue fluids, and San’Dreale knifed downward with his warp blade on the left, bringing it down on one of the two unlucky targets remaining there.

A whirlwind of blue energy engulfed the zealot an instant after the dark templar’s weapon plunged through plasma shield, armor and flesh is if it weren’t there. The second zealot slashed with it’s daggers, but San’Dreale expertly ducked the attack and returned with a diagonal upswing that beheaded the foe with a flash of dead shields.

Three zealots now stood opposing the two warriors, but Bane could sense the shimmer of many other minds quickly closing the distance. Dramier’s reinforcements would have been upon them in moments, but Bane issued an order before their exodus could be cut off.

"The chance is ours! Go! NOW!"

Although the remaining zealots side-stepped it easily, Bane threw both scythes at them in a scissor-like motion that could have split them all in half. When they jumped back, both templar and hydralisk tore off in the direction Bane had first come with Dramier’s stolen soldiers in pursuit. More zealots poured through the trees, slashing with their blades in fleeting attempts to deal damage as the unlikely pair rushed past.

Over the open terrain, San’Dreale was quicker than Bane, but he allowed the hydralisk to take the lead as four zealots converged ahead to halt the escape. Charging downhill at full speed, half a ton of bad news collided with the poised warriors like a runway train.

Despite the hurtful daggers that raked long gashes in his sides, Bane parted the biological road-block with explosive force that scattered zealots and sent them tumbling end over end. At last, the fleeing combatants broke ahead of the overwhelming numbers that threatened to overtake them from every side.

Bane could only hope, as he cleaved the frozen trunk of a tree in passing and sent it toppling over in the path of the pursuing zealots, that Reece was maintaining a vigilant watch for his return.

 

     "See?" I gasped as we paused briefly for a breath of air, "I told you this would work better with the suits off."

Caryn released her grip on my collar just long enough to push her hair out of her face and consider me with a smug grin,

"Shut up and keep up, you fucking idiot!"

In a move that TJ would have been proud of, my fingers found the clasp to Caryn’s burgeoning bra through the cloth of her tank-top as she jerked our faces together again by my collar.

"Tsk tsk, hero-boy," Caryn breathed in between long, lustful kisses, "You shouldn’t take without giving something first."

To my dismay, my fingers lost all coordination as Caryn used her free hand to twist my belt buckle in a painful knot.

"I’m sorry, princess," I cooed, sweat matting my hair to my forehead, "All you had to do was ask."

In an olympic display of miserable timing, the Interceptor’s radio crackled to life with a burst of static before Mich’s gruff voice defiled the steamy atmosphere inside the ship.

"Reece, come in! Are you there?! We’ve got big problems!"

With Caryn sprawled across my lap, I scooched around in the pilot’s chair enough to reach out and grab the mic off it’s clip on the dashboard.

"You’re telling me," I growled irritably in response as soon as I was able to free my bottom lip from Caryn’s clenched teeth, "I’ve sorta’ got my hands full at the moment; what’s the problem?"

"As of forty seconds ago, dozens of protoss signatures appeared on the scans and are rapidly closing on your position! Four craft are approaching the Mark three at flight speed with no response by radio; I think we better get the hell out of dodge!"

"What the hell is he talking about?" I grumbled as I sat up and Caryn pushed herself away with an irritated sigh, "There’s nothing out here but ice, snow and..."

I trailed off when I buffed a clear spot in the fogged windshield and peered through. Bane appeared in the distance through the driving snow, charging for the ship at full speed. Then, my mouth fell open involuntarily as more zealots than I’d seen together in my life coursed through the trees in pursuit, not ten yards behind.

"We’ll have to pick this up later," I exclaimed, nearly dumping Caryn on the floor as I whirled around in the pilot’s chair and began flipping switches, "We got company!"

"What the hell’s the matter with you?!" Caryn barked while she stood up and wiped a spot in the window to look for herself. Half a second later, she did a perfect double take, "What the hell’s the matter with you?! Get us outta here!"

The Interceptor’s miniature reactor hummed to life a moment before the thrusters came online with a muffled blast. No longer hindered by the combat suit, I jerked the controls despite my bad arm and the ship heaved beneath us.

"Open the cargo door!" I ordered quickly as I turned the craft in place. The view of the frozen forest and the swiftly approaching alien spectacle slide sideways in the windshield until it was out of view, but only for a moment.

With a wash of arctic air, the rear cargo door dropped down and the telepathic battle-cry’s of the zealots flooded my mind. Bane was only seconds away now, but the protoss were right behind him, frantically slashing with their psi-blades for a chance at the fleeing hydralisk.

"Take the wheel!" I yelled as I jumped out of my seat and rushed through the cargo hold where our powered-suits and weapons lay in a heap. In one motion, I pulled the C-8 out of the pile, brought the stock to my shoulder, and jerked the trigger.

A fiery explosion engulfed one of the perusing aliens and threw it’s nearest comrades off-stride, however, their plasma shields reacted instantly to the flame and shrapnel. A wave of blue energy obscured the alien ranks as I fired again and again. My shots did little more than slow a few of them down, but it no longer mattered. I was out of time.

Without warning, something heavy and unseen hit me like a truck, plowing me over backwards to the cargo deck. The wind was knocked out of my lungs and my cracked shoulder blade screamed to painful life as I tried to sit up. At the last possible moment, Bane whirled around with both blades, hurling them into a trio of zealots that would have charged into the ship with us. Amidst a flash of straining plasma shields, they could briefly be seen hurtling backwards to the snow before the hydralisk’s telepathic voice boomed across my thoughts with one simple word.

"GO!"

Caryn must have been waiting, because she goosed the throttles so hard that Bane was forced to jam his closed scythe-joints into the ceiling to keep from tumbling out of the open cargo hold. The sound of wrenching metal assaulted the ears as the Interceptor leapt forward through the trees with a laborious roar of the thrusters. Then, as suddenly as it began, it was over.

The ice-locked trees and the small army of protoss warriors spiraled away below before disappearing from sight altogether behind the steel of the closing cargo ramp. I pushed to my feet, panting as the hold sealed with a heavy clang.

"What the hell was that all about?" I winched, favoring my bad arm again, "Are you alright, Bane?"

The hydralisk bore a dozen gashes in its arms and sides, many of which still oozed blood that dribbled to the deck in sickening streams. To my surprise, Bane didn’t answer the question. Instead, a different telepathic voice intruded my thoughts.

"Fear not for the safety of your friend, young Terran. The resilience of this Cerebrate knows no bounds."

The ship swerved beneath us as Caryn glanced back and saw the dark templar suddenly standing with Bane and I.

"Holy shit!" She swore, turning her attention back to the controls, "Do you blue bastard’s make a habit of sneaking up on people?!"

San’Dreale ignored Caryn outright and looked me up and down for a half-minute before speaking again.

"...Reece," the templar hesitated, as if having trouble remembering my name, "How much you have changed in so short a time. The child I recall has grown strong. It is by the god’s luck that you are still in good health."

"Indeed," Bane growled in agreement as I shrugged them both off and moved to the medical cabinet at the head of the hold. Boss’s TRA only displayed a partial charge, but it would be enough to stabilize my friend’s wounds until we reached the Mark III.

"What happened out there?" I asked quizzically as I adjusted the bio-detection and moved to where the hydralisk stood, expectantly awaiting the merciful flashing lights of its favorite machine.

Bane released a soft growl of relief as the pain of his wounds faded in time with the open gashes in his carapace, but the hydralisk’s eyes burned with an intensity I’ve rarely witnessed,

"Dramier has returned."

 

     To Be Continued...

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