Li June ushers Lilly and Imogen inside her home as Snowball crawls along behind. They get glasses of sweet tea—and a bowl for the zerg larva—and then head onto her watchfloor. Li pulls up some footage on one of the enormous screens. Before she hits play, she introduces it by reminding them of the unidentified catalyst they had asked her to analyze. In addition to the hydralisk and drone catalysts, there was another that she thought was related to an infiltration-focused zerg. “Now, there’s a different kind of zerg that we’re starting to see appear on some Dominion worlds,” Li says, and then she starts the footage.
A marine jogs towards camp. Bullet fire comes in, shooting the marine to pieces. Instead of fragments of metal flying off the armor, though, it looks like flesh is ripped off. The marine falls to the ground, convulsing, and the shape changes, morphing into something resembling Egon’s blobolisk, but larger and more well-defined.
“A shapeshifter?” Lilly asks.
Li nods. “Something like that. With sufficient equipment, these critters can be detected by some Dominion forces. They are not capable of any kind of assault, but they can change shape in this way, taking on any basic terran and presumably protoss—perhaps even other zerg—form. They’re not going to have sharp claws or teeth, nothing like that.”
“Then what do they do?” Imogen asks.
“Well, they get into your base, and presumably they then report back what’s going on to whatever zerg is controlling them. It’s an unusually advanced technique for zerg. Personally, I ascribe it to the Queen of Blades. I don’t think the Overmind would have thought of this. It was not a creature focused on that kind of adaptation.” Li steps over to a table and picks up a vial. “They’re calling it a changeling, and I think that’s what this catalyst is. Snowball would technically become that blob creature,” she says, pointing to the frame frozen on the screen. “But he would be able to assume a basic form. I don’t think he’d be able to talk or nothing. He wouldn’t even have a particularly strong grip. But at least he would be able to pass casual inspection. Whether that’s what you want or not…” Li shrugs.
“Or a hydralisk who can shoot darts, or a drone who can carry our stuff,” Lilly says, summing up the choices.
At this point, Imogen pulls out the zerg samples they have brought for Li, the blobolisk and the roach. Li takes a look, poking at the roach hide while Lilly fills her in on its tactics. “They burrow under the ground. Didn’t attack until we were close. Imogen blew one up.” Li asks whether the attacks were coordinated, but Imogen thinks not. She points out that she and Lilly were only attacked by one at a time, and only when they went into the roach’s territory. The roaches were probably feral, especially since the Antigans had taken out all the hives around there. In addition to being impressed by the thickness of hide, Li comments on how fresh the week-old sample looks. She suspects the roach has better regenerative capabilities than some of the more common zerg types.
Li then turns her attention to the blobolisk sample, which Imogen readily admits they know very little about, given where they got it from. Li shakes her head at Egon Stetmann’s name. “That poor man, what is he doing?” she mutters under her breath. To her guests she adds, “Well, I can tell right now that’s definitely got some similarities to the changeling, but it’s got similarities to everything, looks like.” She sets the jar down. “What’s next for you gals? You going to Chau Sara?”
“Aye, Chau Sara is the next stop.” Imogen lets out a sigh. “It looks like things with Snowball’s implant have gotten more complicated. Like maybe your system infiltrator’s doing other work there. Work that might involve terran test subjects.”
“Terran test subjects?” Li raises an eyebrow. “What kind of work?”
“I don’t know,” Imogen admits. “There’s a lot of supposition going on here, but we’ve uncovered evidence that he might have been involved in some abductions from Korhal. The information was pointing to the Sara system as his destination.” Imogen looks over at Lilly’s zerg larva, his face still in a bowl of sweet tea. “It’s making me wonder again if there’s anything terran involved in Snowball. More than just the implant in his brain, I mean. There could be DNA experiments going on or something like that. Neiman told me he was doing experiments on zerg, so what does he need terrans for? Snowball has some terran mannerisms, as far as his soldier behavior goes.”
Imogen continues thinking aloud, “I don’t know how that all fits into Cerberus, though. Neiman was a UED ghost, but his former employers aren’t sending him paychecks right now. He’s a free agent. Is Cerberus still operating as a company in some respect, and he’s working for them? Or is he just using gear that they left behind?” She gives a frustrated shake of her head. “I don’t know, but this is no longer just us going to take a look in an abandoned installation for old logs. This is a bigger deal.”
Lilly keeps quiet while Imogen voices her thoughts. UED definitely did zerg research during the war. Lilly saw that herself, but no terran subjects were involved. She also remembers participating in actions to capture, not kill, zerg during her time with Cerberus. It might be time to share that with Imogen, but not while they are standing in front of Li.
“Well, I can try to do more scanning,” Li says. “I don’t know what other support I can offer… I can run computer systems, but there’s not much I can do from here.”
“You could come with us,” Lilly suggests, then tacks on a polite, “ma’am.”
The recluse makes a startled noise at the idea. “Well, you know, I…”
Imogen would never have broached that topic herself, not with the reluctance Li demonstrated to even going the few miles from her home to where Old Red is. But now that Lilly has put it out there, Imogen jumps on the opening. If Li knows things about this whole affair that she has not told them yet, reasons for her not to want to go, it would be helpful for Imogen to know them in order to better prepare for what they will face. She tries to skim Li’s surface-level thoughts, but the older woman has a well-disciplined mind that is impenetrable to Imogen.
With no extra information to help her, Imogen plows ahead, echoing Lilly’s invitation and providing arguments in favor of it. If Li comes along, that will certainly help Lilly and Imogen achieve their goals. But Li knows Confederate things, including computer systems, far better than they do. If there is anything at that installation that would help with Li’s own goals, she herself would be much better at identifying it. Then Lilly and Imogen can help her rip the systems out and transport them here for her. For computer help on their own job, she offers Li salvage rights for what they find.
Li mulls it over and then agrees to go along on the condition that she can remain within Saffron. “I shouldn’t go down into a facility like that Cerberus one,” Li tells them. “I’m not going to be any good to you inside there.” She believes the range of the ship’s sensors and weapons is sufficient that she can provide practical support from there, operating the controls and relaying readings to Lilly and Imogen as they investigate the facility. “You said you’re going up against a ghost?”
“Aye, at least. But in a facility that you told us needs a zerg and a person to get in. So, presumably, we’re also going up against zerg.”
With Li at Saffron’s sensors, she will be able to provide them with intel on anyone who is cloaked. Li admits it will probably push the limits of the system’s capabilities, particularly as the facility is underground. That will definitely affect the resolution, but something is better than nothing. And Li will be able to protect the ship from incursions, as well.
“Aye, that works for me,” Imogen agrees.
Lilly zoned out a bit during the discussion, thinking about Saffron’s hull and life support system, but now she chimes in. “Sounds like a plan.”