The flight to Mar Sara is straightforward. Once Lilly lays in the course, she is free to pull out the crumpled paper she found in her old trash can, the draft proposal for Operation Warhorse. The by-line says First Lieutenant Washington, indicating that it is from earlier in her career than when Colonel Washington was in charge of the Cerberus facility. She would have been a recently-minted officer when this was penned.
The document describes something that is undoubtably a hydralisk, though it refers to it as a xenomorph the way terrans did back before the zerg made themselves fully known in the sector. The paper proposes working with the creatures just like being on a vulture bike or a horse. It claims that some of them show more than superficial intelligence and might be trainable. There is no mention of using technological implants to forcibly enslave them. Rather, it suggests some sort of reward system, maybe related to food. Clearly Lilly’s empathy for animals is ingrained enough to survive multiple resocializations.
There is a small discussion regarding what zerg might eat. Experiments with pineapple did not work, and beer was met with mixed success. A few other materials are mentioned, but the loss of a teammate stopped that line of inquiry. First Lieutenant Sally Adams disappeared without a trace while conducting a feeding activity.
Lilly folds up the paper and stores it in her quarters with what few belongings she has. She snatches up the small box of Abdul’s things and takes it to the injured man. His black cheeks are sunken, with bruised skin under his brown eyes. Lilly starts by offering him an MRE, figuring he is probably malnourished as well as beat-up. He blinks up at her, disoriented. “How’re you doing, Abdul? It’s Lilly,” she says.
“Has my time come finally to pass on? Is the nightmare over?”
Lilly claps him on the shoulder. “Not today.” He takes a listless bite from the ration bar, and Lilly tells him, “When we were looking into who snatched you, we pulled these things out of your home so no one would loot them. I thought you might want them back.” The box contains some letters, a photo of him and his wife, five credits, the knife he sliced Neiman with, and a watch.
Abdul looks perplexed, but he takes the box and looks inside. The watch he takes out and puts on out of reflex, without conscious thought. Reminders of his estranged wife are too much for his current condition, though. He sets the box down.
“You can go through it later,” Lilly assures him. “I just wanted you to have it for when you’re better. It’s your stuff, after all.”
* * *
“So what all did y’all see in there?” Li asks Imogen when the Umojan is finished talking with Shelley. “Other than the mess of ‘friendly’ zerg.” Imogen hands Li the laptop they recovered from Elaina. “Oh! What have we here?” Li murmurs excitedly.
Imogen tells her about the game-like interface the operators were using to control the zerg. “They also had an overlord.” She gives Li a jar of material she extracted from the downed creature. Imogen herself is still coated with some of its remains. “It had an implant in its brain that was being used to relay orders.” Li nods. That much makes sense to her. “But it was relaying orders to other zerg without implants,” Imogen adds.
“That’s how an overlord normally works,” Li says. When Imogen tells her about the couple hydralisks with implants, Li theorizes that Neiman was controlling those more directly, whereas unmodified zerg could only be controlled by using the overlord as a relay. “Maybe that’s why he wanted the overlord catalyst that was missing from Saffron. As for the cerebrate sample… If you’re using an overlord, you have to send it commands in a particular way. You can’t just say to tell that zergling to go over there. So maybe he needed the cerebrate sample to understand the language of the zerg, so to speak.”
“The tech we saw in there isn’t exactly the same as what’s in Snowball,” Imogen comments. “It was more like inspired by it.”
“Snowball’s looks more like a Cerberus original,” Li opines. “Maybe he was just dormant for a long time.” She and Imogen bat around ideas on Snowball’s origins. Somehow he ended up on Mar Sara, and Imogen suggests that might have been via Saffron. Lilly found him far west of the crash site, but with other zerg who had some evidence of formerly being implanted. Possibly the terraforming or a windstorm cracked the science vessel enough for them to escape.
“He’s an even stranger fella now that he was before,” Li says, looking across the crowded craft at Snowball in his terran form.
“I suppose he’s whatever he needs to be,” Imogen reflects.
Li wonders about the appearances Snowball can assume. They have seen him do a terran and a hydralisk, but the stature of the latter suggests he is limited in size. “Maybe he could do a zergling without any trouble,” Li muses. “Can he look protoss, do you think?” Snowball has been around Malorn a little, so it is possible he could attempt it, but this does not seem the time to ask. He has certainly spent a lot of time with Sunshine, so lyote is another possible shape.
“As for the zerg that we let get away,” Imogen says, circling back to a topic that Li has seemed uncomfortable about, “that was part of a deal to get in and get the people out.”
“I’ve got to say, I’ve never heard of making a deal with zerg where you don’t later find the zerg stabbing you in the back,” Li says grimly.
“Well, she might stab us in the back someday. We’ll be on our guard next time we meet her. It will be a different field then.”
“I recommend you not have a ‘next time’, personally. That’s my professional recommendation.”
“And yet, you need samples of zerg, interesting zerg,” Imogen observes.
“Well, yes, I do, if I’m going to understand them,” Li grants.
“Let me ask you then, what are you using these samples for?” Imogen now has a much better idea of what Neiman was doing, studying zerg to control their brainwaves. Egon Stetmann, on the other hand, is studying zerg to improve terran technology. Li has never disclosed her actual purposes, though.
Imogen does not mean to alienate the older woman with this question, but she does. Offended at the prying, Li says, “Now look, we’ve helped each other out quite a bit, but I’m a very private person, and I have good reason to be so. You’ve helped me get a lot of samples, and I do appreciate that, but I paid you quite fairly for those. If you’re not interested in doing that arrangement anymore, I understand.” Li looks uncomfortably around at all the terrans in the central hub of Saffron. “I’ve kind of exposed myself more than I really should have this time. The zerg saw me; all these people saw me. I’m going to have to lay low for a while, I think.” This mission has involved more social interaction than the recluse is used to and has taken her far from her sanctuary. She desperately needs to recharge. “I’m going to need to take care of some things, do some high-quality research on what I have. Double check my computer systems… So I’ll, I’ll get in touch with you when I need more samples. I’ve got seventy-five credits on me that I can give you for this overlord sample, if that’s acceptable to you.”
“Aye. We’ll need the laptop back though,” Imogen says. She can understand that Li needs space, but there are a few last bits of business they need to wrap up. “You can go through it and copy whatever you want onto portable storage. And we’ll drop you off at your place, of course.”
Li does not think most of the escapees would be able to hike the miles of wastes between her compound and Mar Sara City. “Are you thinking to land at the spaceport first?” she asks anxiously.
Imogen mulls over what to do. “Some of these people need medical—”
“The clinic,” Lilly says suddenly, from over at the pilot station.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Li grants. “Not the easiest landing spot, but there’s enough clear space.”
Lilly likes it because it means less chance of anyone in town see them coming in. She would like to keep quiet that they have all the witnesses for as long as possible. Plus, a trip to the clinic is a justifiable excuse for an emergency landing if air traffic control does take note of them and demand an explanation.