At one point in time, this building was a fancy, high-tech Umojan research lab. Now, though, all the surfaces are coated with organic zerg-matter. Zerglings prowl about, but the terrans see no hydralisks. Across the wide space, there is a second overlord, but that is not their destination. Aiden leads them to a giant floating monstrosity with a superficial resemblance to an overlord, in that it is large and balloon-like. This creature has more spines, though, and more teeth. The tentacles end in organic spikes, not bone shards.
The enormous eyes of the blightbringer roll around and look down at the group. A halting voice reverberates through the room. “Ah, yes, the psion. It is fortuitous that you are here.”
“Why’s that?” Imogen asks.
“You have much potential.” Its eyes wobble for a moment, and Blight modifies its statement. “Class one psion. Moderate potential.”
Lilly lets Imogen run the conversation, but she is paying some attention. What the hell’s a level one scion? she wonders. Or was that psion? Lilly has heard the word ‘psion’ used in the military to refer to ghosts. She worked with them a few times, and those were never straightforward missions. Rumor has it that ghosts have all sorts of crazy abilities, like moving things or setting them on fire with just their minds. With tech, they can cloak and have amazing sniper vision, as Neiman demonstrated. Lilly has even heard claims that ghosts can read people’s minds. This big zerg seems to think Imogen is a ghost of some kind, or else he wants them all to think she is. Who knows what zerg think about people? She thinks dismissively. She casually looks around as Imogen and the zerg treat with each other, noting the various types of flying zerg and distracting herself. Imagine all the samples we could get here!
Imogen rolls her own eyes at Blight’s comments. Put down by a zerg, just like by the protoss. What do these aliens know of terran capabilities, anyway? She showed Malorn she was capable of more than he thought; this one zerg’s low opinion is not going to dissuade her from growing her skills. Independently. Without the Khala, without the Swarm. “You’ve already made your deal with Aiden; you’re not getting one with me. My presence here doesn’t change his deal.” Imogen speaks boldly, but as she does so, it finally sinks in what a very, very precarious position she is in. Before, talking with Aiden, she could set aside the implications of being inside an actual zerg. Now, negotiating with this blightbringer deep within a zerg infestation, she realizes she is in no position to make threats. She has not done so yet, but she needs to keep in mind that she does not know what this Blight’s capabilities are. It could easily turn those zerglings on them. Imogen does not need the Swarm, but it certainly could tear her to shreds.
The large eyes wobble a bit, and then the blightbringer grinds out a response. “Situation different. Useful psion not desperate enough. Proposal. Pirates, mutual threat. Assistance. Equal share.”
“How are they a threat to you?” Imogen demands. “And what is it you think you’re getting an equal share in?” Does this zerg think we’re going to split out the pirates’ plunder?
“Equal share of effort,” Blight clarifies. Imogen is not sure that is much better than sharing loot. How are we few terrans going to contribute the same amount of work to this as the Swarm? The floating zerg continues its explanation, “Jackson’s Revenge in this system. Threatens primary structure. Valuable essence needs to be returned to Char. Needs to be reintegrated into the Swarm.”
It is clear now to Imogen that Blight is worried about the safety of the infected building because there is something he needs to get back to Zerg Central. Are these long-lost zerg just trying to get home? Are there valuable minerals here that the Queen of Blades needs? Imogen still does not have a firm grasp on the full picture. She does not like operating with minimal information, not with the stakes so high.
Blight makes his pitch. “Psionic potential limited. Many routes to unlocking.” The enormous eyes roll over to look at Aiden and then circle back to Imogen. “Queen of Blades can show you much. Your brother, formerly-known-as-Aiden, he found his purpose. The Swarm offers purpose. And the power to execute it. The Swarm is unity. All strive toward the same goals in the Swarm. The Swarm will smite your enemies and awe your allies. We are the Swarm. Formerly-known-as-Aiden has compatible biology. Survives infestation. Useful to the Swarm. Psion also useful. Different reaction with infestation.”
Kerrigan was a ghost, and look at her now. “You get boney wings, do you?” Imogen asks, keeping things a little light to make dealing with the unnerving situation a little easier.
“You would not be a threat to the Queen of Blades, but you would be a useful lieutenant.”
“Zagara would be jealous.”
Blight’s eyes roll around, then settle. “Broodmother Zagara, newer breed. Powerful broodmother. But all serve at the Queen’s command. Other deals possible. Queen has use for terrans as well. Many ways to serve the Swarm.”
Aiden cuts in, explaining. “I can be useful. Most terrans, if they get infested, just die. The biomass is recoverable, but that’s it.”
“They lucked out that you survived it,” Lilly interjects.
“No,” Blight says. “Analyzed essence before. Zerg very capable of understanding what you call genetics.”
Aiden continues, “I can retain some measure of my humanity. Not all zerg can talk, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. And when I finally do get to meet the Queen, I’m to be one of her consorts.”
Imogen cannot hold back a laugh. “So… some sort of position of leadership, or are you going to have your own little zerglings?”
“I don’t know how it’s going to work,” he replies, sounding a little uncertain. Then a calm comes over him, and he insists, “But I know everything will be okay.”
Was this coercion or negotiation? Imogen still wonders. “Did they make this deal with you before you were infested or after?” she finally comes right out and asks.
“I made the deal before. They dealt fair, okay? I was in a pickle, true, but I’m going to save the family.”
He sounds earnest, and he sounds like Aiden. From what he and Blight have said, Imogen decides to accept that he was not tricked into this. It is a bad deal, but so was the one he made with Jackson’s Revenge. Of the two of them, Aiden was the smuggler, and Imogen was the talker. Now that has played out on a far grander scale than just getting things by their parents.
Lilly’s mind is still stuck several exchanges back. “You’re going to screw the Queen of Blades?”
Aiden gets a little defensive. “I’m not really sure how it’s going to work out. But if I had to pick someone… There’s not that many powerful women in the sector, you know. Maybe the crazy mercenary that the pirates owe? What’s her name… Mira something. She’s crazy.”
“What, Mira Han? She’s married already, she is,” Imogen tells him. Then, remembering Mira shooting a man in the head point blank right in front of her, she asks, “These Jackson’s Revenge pirates owe Mira Han something?”
“I overheard that they were just acting as middlemen. They thought they were going to get some sweet weapons and they were going to supply them further up the chain.”
“Oh, so really you’ve wronged Mira Han! No wonder the pirates came up with a ridiculous ransom!”
“Doesn’t matter!” Aiden tells Imogen. “The Swarm… the Swarm conquers all.”
“Yeah, I’d take my chances with the Queen of Blades over Mira Han,” Lilly agrees.
Imogen pulls the conversation back on track. “Aiden, your understanding of what the Queen wants, is that all just what Blight here has told you?”
Aiden looks frustrated. “You don’t understand. I’m connected to every other zerg now. I know that’s what the Queen wants. Yes, Blight here is in charge; he keeps order. He keeps the Swarm on-purpose. Because without purpose, the Swarm turns on itself, becomes feral. It just destroys everything, becomes ravenous. It’s always hungry.”
“So what’s the Swarm’s purpose going to be when Mengsk is taken down? Is the Queen just going to back off and go away? Or is she going to take over? ‘The Swarm conquers all.’”
“I don’t know!”
“You just told me every zerg’s an open book!”
“No, I said we’re connected to every zerg, so I know that’s the Queen’s vision. And by ‘vision’, I mean all-consuming rage.”
“That sounds more like the Queen we’ve heard about,” Imogen observes.
“Yeah,” Lilly agrees, “that’s fair.”
Aiden explains his understanding of the situation. “Mengsk betrayed her, and that’s what got her turned into a zerg. She was a slave to the Overmind, this horrible, nasty thing that literally controlled all zergs’ actions and bent them to its will. The Overmind is what was bad about the zerg, okay? The Overmind’s dead now. The Queen took care of it.”
“So things are different now?” Imogen asks. Because from what she has seen, the zerg are still doing some pretty bad things.
“Yes! Look, people knew the Queen of Blades when she was controlled by the Overmind. It made her do all kinds of terrible things, made her into a murderer. The Overmind was just as bad as Mengsk. It had to be dealt with, and she did it. Problem solved. That order of zerg has been eliminated. So she’s not that monster anymore. Did she do some things during the last war that are, uh, no so nice? Yes, but it was a war. General Duke, yeah, she betrayed him and had him killed. But he had it coming; that guy was a dick.”
Imogen shakes her head at the faulty logic. “But if the Swarm is going after Mengsk, that’s a war, too. You can’t just justify everything by saying it’s a war.”
“Mengsk deserves it! Also, the Queen defeated the Earth fascists who overthrew Mengsk and every other terran force around here. So she basically saved the sector. You on Umoja should be thankful for that. Look, her record’s not perfect, I’ll grant you, but no one’s is. She owns it. She’s doing something for the galaxy, not just hiding in her own little corner like the Council on Umoja. And who knows when those Earth fascists will come back. They didn’t bring their full force. We need to be ready.”
“People say the same thing about zerg!” Imogen tells him. “‘Who knows when the zerg will come back and kill everybody?’ they ask.”
“We’re not going to kill everybody—”
“The zerg aren’t just sitting around doing nothing, but they’re not just going after Mengsk.”
“Have zerg come to Umoja? Have zerg invaded the planet?” Aiden counters. Then he continues under his breath, “Well, not if I don’t go home.”
“But if you did, then what? The Swarm would come with you.”
“No, if I did, they’d kill me! That’s what they’d do. They’d quarantine me, sterilize me in a very ecologically-friendly way, just not ecologically friendly to zerg. Just because zerg are survivors, people hate them. Just because they look gross, people hate them.”
“I think they also don’t like them because they tear people to shreds,” Imogen observes sourly.
“A lot of terrans do that, too.” Aiden rejoins. Then he takes a deep breath and calms himself down. “But we’re not here to argue about those things. Maybe together, with your friend, we can do something about these pirates. Their battlecruiser is going to have to come back here eventually. Maybe their factory crashing down will send a signal…”
Imogen’s only experience of a battlecruiser was Hyperion. The scale of what they are going to attempt overwhelms her a bit. Maybe Aiden thinks she brought more of the family along than she did. “I don’t have a whole army behind my back.”
“Well, you do now,” Aiden tells her. Blight details the zerg forces, which it describes as limited because they are mainly flyers, like devourers and scourge. The ground-based zerg are devoted to essence collection, so they have no hydralisks. The blightbringer suggests that the zerg can force the battlecruiser to land, and then the terran contingent can board it.
Lilly has seen devourers in combat. They are big flying creatures, larger than a wraith fighter, and they spew acid that can soften up armor… or a hull. “Shit…” she breathes, picturing what that could do to a ship.
Imogen has never heard of devourers, but they sound useful. Scourge, she knows about. One of those chased after them on Antiga Prime. She thinks of them as flying banelings, but Blight corrects her that the baneling mutation actually came after the scourge mutation. With that quibbling out of the way, Blight finally summarizes the zerg’s end goal. “Eliminate threat. Destroy Jackson’s Revenge. Call out to the Swarm. Leave this planet.”
Imogen is still concerned that they are going to be party to infesting all the terrans aboard the pirate battlecruiser. She may not like the situation they put her family in, but the Swarm already got her brother out of this deal, and she is not comfortable with it consuming all those other terrans. “What does eliminating the threat actually mean?” she throws out to all assembled.
“Is the ship keeping you from leaving this planet?” Lilly more specifically asks the blightbringer.
Blight tells them that something aboard Jackson’s Revenge, probably some piece of technology, is blocking the zerg’s ability to psionically call out to the Swarm. They can only receive, not send out. Or as Aiden puts it, “I can feel the Queen’s righteous anger, but we are unable to call out to her for help.” They need whatever that equipment is destroyed.
It sounds to Imogen like it could be something similar to the psi disruptor that Ted destroyed at the Rose mine on Brontes IV; the infested scientist certainly did not like being around that. She asks Lilly if she has any idea from her own pirate days about what the device might be, whether she ever saw any protoss tech aboard, for example.
Lilly shrugs. The ship had a motley collection of tech accrued over decades. She vaguely remembers even seeing some from Umoja at one point. They got their hands on a lot of strange things during their raids. “Could be. They had a lot of crap. Odds and ends.”
As for the Owendoher clan, eliminating the threat means grounding the ship itself, such that the mantle of Jackson cannot be passed on to any additional captains. The battlecruiser has been around for decades; it is the ship itself that has the reputation that is backing the bounties. If it falls, the organization will collapse. There will be no party left to threaten Aiden’s relations.
“So you knock the ship out of the sky,” Imogen sums up, “and we go in and make sure that device is not functioning.” And once it’s turned off, who’s to say it doesn’t leave with us… she privately considers.
“That would be sufficient, yes,” agrees Blight. “Then we can call the Swarm to this world.”
“But not to the rest of the Umojan Protectorate,” Imogen insists.
“Agreed. Limited biomass available. Not appropriate target for the Swarm. Threat is minimal. Terran expression: bigger fish to fry.” Blight even offers to send in what zerglings there are for backup during the boarding maneuver.
“Does that sound fine to you, Lilly?”
“Whatever you think,” Lilly immediately replies, not needing any time for reflection.
“And what about you, Brother?” Imogen asks Aiden.
“Of course I’m in. I got you into this mess; I’ll play my part to get you out. Sorry you had to be part of this. At least you’ll know I’m not dead. And, hey, who knows? After I meet the Queen, maybe one day we can set up a friendly meeting.”
“Well, we’ve got to meet with her one of these days, too,” Imogen says.
“Really?” Aiden asks.
“We do?” Lilly looks surprised.
“We’ve got a delivery to make to her,” Imogen says cagily.
Oh, right, Snowball, Lilly realizes.
“Well, maybe after this I can try to arrange that,” Aiden agrees.
“I mean, if you’re going that direction…” Lilly says with a chuckle, wondering if Snowball will find this option agreeable.
With that, the conference is over. It is a shaky plan, but at least it makes the task ahead seem not quite as insurmountable. When she quit her Dominion job, Imogen did not expect to start working alongside the zerg, but between Zagara and Blight, that seems to be the way things are going for now. It is getting harder to maintain her indifference to the larger forces at move in the sector. A lot of people want Mengsk taken out, including people she has come to know in Raynor’s Raiders. But up until today, she never had a personal stake in it. Now, though, with Aiden firmly in the zerg camp, her brother is going to be a soldier of one form or another in that war. Imogen has already failed him once by not getting here fast enough to keep him out of pirate or zerg clutches. She has got to do what she can to keep him safe going forward.