The morning after Snowball’s promotion from zerg larva to changeling, there are just a few things to take care of on Mar Sara before heading out. First on the list is recovering Old Red, the vulture bike Lilly and Imogen abandoned a few miles away in the wastes when they hastily left the planet aboard Hyperion. In the month that has passed, nothing has wandered off with the vehicle or set up a home inside. The paint needs some touch-ups here and there, but otherwise, it is in good order. Lilly has to gun the engine a few times, and then the bike kicks into life. The short drive back to Li June’s compound is a pleasure for Lilly.
Although they have previously managed to cram Old Red inside Saffron, that is not a viable permanent storage solution. Particularly not if they are going to be doing jobs that require transporting cargo or wild animals. Once they have dealt with the Cerberus facility on Chau Sara, then Imogen can attach some sort of bike rack to Saffron. Maybe outside Lilly’s quarters, where there’s an empty escape pod hook-up. For now though, Old Red will have to sit out the current adventure in Li’s garage.
Sunshine, too, is not invited to Chau Sara. If everything goes smoothly, they should be back within a day, since it is just the next planet over. However, Lilly does not want to count on a snafu-free mission. She considers releasing the lyote outside the compound to run around, but she is concerned about Li’s turrets. Imogen suggests some sort of transponder that will let the guns know Sunshine is a friendly. Li objects that that is too much of a risk. Someone could get their hands on the transponder and use it to get past her security. Lilly settles for just leaving food for Sunshine within the walls. She does not want the lyote to get it all at once, though, so she tries to be smart about how she places it. As they run through the final checks aboard Saffron for takeoff, though, the clever lyote has already located and devoured one of the stashes. Lilly sees this on the screen as she looks out at the compound. She’s such a smart girl, she thinks to herself with a smile. She’ll probably be running the place when we get back. Sunshine has proven she can open doors; hopefully she does not get into too much trouble inside Li’s house.
Lilly has already forgotten Imogen’s offer to administer terrazine for memory recall. For her part, Imogen is not going to push the issue, having left the decision in Lilly’s hands. And so they take off, as ready as they can be to face the challenges of the Cerberus facility on Chau Sara.
* * *
Chau Sara’s air is not so much toxic as it is thin. There is very little atmospheric activity because there is very little atmosphere. From space, the planet looks like a homogenous brown blob, courtesy of the glassing it received from the protoss some five years ago. Before that, it was a lightly populated fringe world like Mar Sara. It was arid and rocky, but it had plants, water, people. Not anymore. Now the surface is relatively even, composed of an extremely hard and somewhat glassy material.
Before they land near the Cerberus facility, Imogen asks Li June to run some sensor sweeps of the area. The Umojan introduces Li to the sensor station, saying, “You’ve got to hit some of these buttons…” Imogen is living in a world of dials and switches now, when she was raised in one of voice commands. Dominion computers are very frustrating to her. She tells Li to look for signs of other ships, concerned that Neiman will be here. Lilly, meanwhile, cares more about finding a good landing spot and making sure there are no zerg around. Other than the one they have brought with them, of course.
Li runs the scan. The facility’s location is obvious; there is significant activity going on there. But she cannot get any readings on Neiman’s ship. “Now, it could be that the whole ship is completely powered down,” Li suggests. “We wouldn’t be able to detect it then. Or, it could be it’s not here. Can’t tell you which one of those it is, though.”
Imogen frowns at the lack of information. “When we get on the ground, we’ll look for actual tracks, I suppose.”
Lilly asks Li for specifics on the activity she did see. Power is running through the compound, and Li could detect the front door near the coordinates they have. “All right. I’ll see if I can find a good place to put her down,” Lilly says, returning her attention to the piloting station. Rather than fly right up to that front door, she chooses a more defensible location a little further away. Now that they are down closer to the ground, they see that the terrain does roll some. Lilly smoothly sets the ship down, muttering under her breath about stupid pilots who crash ships. She has landed in a dip that provides some cover between Saffron and their target. Hopefully it will be enough that no one steals their ship and Li June while she and Imogen are otherwise occupied. As far as Lilly knows, there should be no feral zerg roaming around; the glassing wiped them out. “If something does decide to attack you,” Lilly tells Li, “we’ll be just a walkie-talkie call away.”
“Or do you know how to fly?” Imogen asks. The former magistrate has told them she was involved in some war efforts.
“Well, I’ve done a little bit, but piloting is really not my forte. And I’m not going to leave you two behind here,” Li responds.
“No, of course not,” Imogen says, “and I don’t expect you to dogfight with mutalisks. But if things get really hot on the ground, feel free to take off. If you think that’s the best course of action, take it.”
“This button is the radiation beam,” Lilly throws in. “This one’s the EMP.”
Lilly and Imogen grab their backpacks and strap on their breath masks. Snowball is coming with them, but for once he will be walking on his own, rather than filling Lilly’s bag. Lilly brings her frying pan laser as her main weapon. She offers her shotgun to Imogen, who declines with a laugh. The mechanics kit and the medkit are weight enough for her. In fact, she asks Lilly to take charge of the latter. That will leave some room in her bag in case they come across any useful salvage.
“Follow me,” Lilly tells Snowball, and his blob-like form morphs and stretches until he is in the female terran guise he adopted for following her around the previous night.
“Do you think it would be better for Snowball to take the form of a normal zerg? That way, if anyone is here, they won’t know he’s a special one,” Imogen suggests.
“If I tell him to go to attention, he’ll turn into a little hydralisk,” Lilly says, “but then I don’t know how to get him to move. I don’t know how to turn him into a zerg and have him walk.” She shrugs. “I know two commands, and that’s what they do.”
Imogen snorts. Apparently “ask” has not occurred to her partner. Imogen turns to Snowball. “Can you turn into a hydralisk?” Without batting an eye, Snowball oozes from his terran form into a somewhat short hydralisk. It is rather unnerving to see a terran face morph into the exoskeleton and teeth of a hydralisk head. Imogen supposes he is a little on the short side, but at six-plus feet tall, he still towers over her. There is a lump on his head, but it is not obviously the Cerberus implant; Imogen can only see it because she knows to look for it. The transformation complete, Imogen turns back to Lilly. “This way, if anyone’s watching, they just think we have a hydralisk with us.”
Outside the ship, the surface is smoothed-over rock. As they approach the facility entrance, Lilly and Imogen look for any signs of passage. They find two sets of terran tracks visible in the dust here and there. The heavy boot prints could reasonably belong to Neiman, given how he was shod on Redstone III. The other footprints look like more casual wear. Those could belong to Elaina, or anyone else that Neiman simply tricked into coming with him.
Lilly points out a full-size hydralisk slither, but there are other zerg tracks as well that she cannot identify. At least, Lilly presumes they come from a zerg. Whatever it is, it has claw-type feet and has left marks like she imagines an enormous scorpion would, though this creature looks to have six legs, not eight. It could even be from a protoss animal, or maybe some sort of crazy robot. Who knows what Neiman might have with him?