When Lilly comes back up into the ship, Imogen asks Snowball, “Hey, can you make yourself look like Malorn?”
Snowball looks at Lilly, the one who usually issues orders. “Yeah, go on, give it a try,” she encourages him. Then she adds reflectively, “I wonder if we should remove his tech.”
“We can certainly try that if you want to,” Imogen says in support. “That hydralisk who was working with you showed that he had a mind of his own.”
“Spikey? Yeah. We need to give Snowball the chance. But we should do this somewhere with creep.”
While the women talk, Snowball reverts to his default blob, two spindly arms holding up the lump-like head and formless body. From there, he slowly reshapes into a pretty convincing protoss shape. It does not match Malorn exactly, but Imogen had just provided the tal’darim’s name as an example. Protoss are tall, but they are not super-bulky, so Snowball has enough mass to make a full-size one. He does not have Malorn’s hunch, but he does include psi-gauntlets in his presentation. They are just mock-ups of the weapons, passing only visual inspection. They certainly would not be able to damage anything or hurt anyone.
“Well done,” Lilly complements the changeling. She relocates the ship to one of the creep fields to the northeast. Lilly wants to make sure Snowball is in a safe and nurturing place when the tech comes off. She does not want to hurt him, but she also does not want to keep him enslaved. After the recent events on Chau Sara, she has learned her lesson. Once the tech is off, she will give him the same choice as Sunshine got. Imogen gets out some screwdrivers and pliers, while Lilly takes a look through the records on the Cerberus laptop, hoping to find some useful schematics.
They head down the ramp and out to the edge of the creep. Lilly does not offer Snowball a choice about whether he wants the implant removed since it does not seem like he would be able to freely decide that. She has him slump back into his default form, where the tech is most exposed. Of course, this does mean that his “brain” is also a bit of an amorphous blob, location somewhat unknown. Snowball looks very concerned when Imogen puts her hand on the tech and begins cutting around it. He is under orders, though, so he stays still.
The surgery is kind of gross, given what the patient is, but Imogen manages to extract the implant without trouble. A few small pieces of metal connectors remain behind; she is only comfortable digging out so much. The device itself, though, is intact. Once the procedure is over, Snowball stares at the terrans for a moment and then passes out in the creep. Imogen looks the changeling over and tells Lilly, “He just needs some time to recover. Removing this was a major shock to his system. We should let him rest here; I don’t want to move him while he’s in shock.”
“Okay,” Lilly agrees, readying her weapon and taking up a protective position. Since they are on creep, there is the possibility other, unfriendly zerg will show up.
Imogen reflects, “We won’t know what his new personality is until he’s fully recovered.” That ends up taking about an hour. When Snowball does wake up, his ocular lumps roll from Lilly, to Imogen, to the implant in Imogen’s hand. One of his skinny arms feels at his head-lump where the tech used to be.
“How’re you doing, little buddy?” Lilly asks. She used to be able to read him pretty well, but maybe that was somehow related to the tech, as she is no longer getting any vibes from him.
Snowball oozes into terran form, the nondescript woman slightly shorter than Lilly, and Imogen steps up to him. He is wearing a confused expression, which she assumes reflects his inner emotional state, but there is only one way to be sure. Imogen extends her psionic senses, skimming his surface thoughts. “Can you understand us, Snowball?” she asks, trying to prompt a response.
Snowball’s mind holds both recognition and confusion. Awww, what happened to me? My head hurts. With this insight, Imogen concludes that he does have a sense of personal identity, which not all zerg do. Suddenly, though, Imogen gets blocked off from Snowball’s internal monologue, like she has been pushed out. Snowball himself seems to calm down a bit, losing his look of confusion.
Imogen looks around in alarm, worried that a broodmother is in the area. If some other controlling zerg has stepped in and asserted dominance over Snowball, they could be in for a rough time. Snowball extends a hand in a terran gesture of reassurance and then picks up a nearby stick. He begins drawing a picture in the creep. Definitely sapient, Imogen concludes.
The first feature of the drawing is a larva. “Snowball,” Imogen acknowledges, though Snowball ignores her and keeps working. Then the changeling adds two rough stick figures. “Aye, Lilly and me.” Off to the right side, he draws a messy form with two arms. “You turned into a blob, aye.” Finally, Snowball adds in another drawing. It starts as a stick figure, but then he adds two claw-like wings to it. Imogen looks up, nervously, but the sky is clear.
Lilly has been watching all of this, bemused. She recognizes what that last form is, though. The Queen of Blades has creepy bone wings. There is no flesh between those bones, but there are rumors that she can fly, even though it does not make any physical sense.
“The Queen of Blades?” Imogen squeaks out. “That’s what you’re drawing there? Do you know her, Snowball? You two friends?” Only when Imogen says, “Queen of Blades,” does she get a sign of recognition from Snowball. He gives a broad smile, somewhat unsettling since he does not have proper human teeth; his disguise is only skin deep. “That’s your ma? Your boss?” Imogen asks.
“What’s going on?” Lilly finally asks, looking to Imogen for an answer.
“It looks like Snowball hung out with us as a larva, but now that he’s grown up into this changeling thing, he thinks he belongs with the Queen of Blades.” Snowball nods strongly at those last three words.
“But what does that mean?” Lilly asks.
“Ach, it means we’re on opposite sides of a war,” Imogen says with a sigh. Even if the Dominion is not officially at war with the zerg, the Queen of Blades definitely has a feud with Lilly and Imogen personally. There is a possibility Zagara smoothed it over, but they have no way of knowing.
“Does he want us to take him back to her?”
Imogen looks up at Lilly now. “This is your thing. What do you feel you owe Snowball? You took him in, you raised him. Is this where we part ways with him, and he makes his way to her somehow? Or do you feel you have some responsibility to turn him over to her? Do you feel like that might smooth over her anger at us?”
“I just don’t really feel like he’s well-equipped to protect himself,” Lilly says. “I don’t want to just leave him, but…” She looks at the terran-form creature, standing happily in the creep. “Do you want to come with us, Snowball?” she asks. He is attentive to the fact that she is talking, but the blank look he gives her suggests he no longer understands terran speech. He points at Lilly’s back, though.
“You’re a little too large to go in the backpack now, Snowball,” Imogen says. It occurs to her that he might still be able to use the implant to communicate with them even though it is now detached. Imogen holds out the piece of tech, offering it to Snowball. He cautiously takes it. He does not bring it close to his head but holds it at his side, smiling. He seems aware that it is in some sense his.
Lilly is not going to suggest that they deliver him to the Queen of Blades right away, but maybe he can travel with them until they find a better opportunity for him to rejoin his kind. She scoops up creep, refilling her sample jars. With that done, she starts walking back to the ship. “To me, Snowball,” she says, wondering if he will follow. She sees the flash of recognition when Snowball hears his name, even if he does not understand the rest. Imogen gestures toward the ship, and Snowball hustles to catch up with Lilly.