Lilly and Imogen are just getting settled into their Augustgrad apartment when there is a knock on the door. Lilly heads over to answer it, worried that it is the landlord coming to complain about the lyote, who has already chewed her way out of her crate labeled Dominion Munitions and is now terrorizing all the cushions. Lilly decides she definitely needs to get Sunshine some treats. Imogen joins Lilly at the door in case she needs to smooth something over. When they open it, however, they find a woman they have never seen before but whose face somewhat resembles Lilly’s. She is very tall and has a long blonde braid. An eerie reverberating voice complains, “Ugh. I must come in. This is an absolutely detestable form to wear. Let’s see if some training can accomplish anything before…” There is a sigh of disgust. “This whole planet smells terrible, and I don’t even have a nose!” The figure looks past Lilly and Imogen. “Wild animals…” the voice observes, noting the lyote. “I suppose that makes sense; you’re practically animals yourselves.”
“Come in, why don’t you?” Imogen says levelly.
“I was not waiting for your approval.”
With Sunshine running amok, Lilly figures she should calm the lyote, leaving Imogen to deal with the guest, whoever that is. She starts to go after the creature, but then she sees her backpack still sitting where she shrugged it off outside the door to her bedroom. Snowball is poking his head out, and on the tech, a small red LED is blinking. Lilly has never noticed that before. She breathes out a curse.
Imogen closes the door to the apartment behind the visitor. “Are you going to keep your ‘costume’ on this whole time?” she asks.
“Are there video sensors inside your domicile?”
“We’re not expecting any calls, no.”
“Then I suppose it’s fine,” Malorn replies. He taps a few things on his arm, and the guise drops, revealing his true protoss form. He is a little taller than Lilly, with tentacles flowing down the back of his angular head. He has light purple skin, and his face is somewhat wrinkly, perhaps with age.
“Oh!” Lilly exclaims, realizing now who the visitor is. She points at Snowball’s blinking light when Imogen turns to her. Just then, Sunshine rushes out of Lilly’s room, pieces of cushion stuffing flying everywhere. Lilly feels she should do something about that, but there is Snowball to worry about and now Malorn… This must be what a single mother feels like, she reflects. At least she is not getting any weird vibes off Snowball. He is just giving her the standard Snowball look, awaiting orders.
Imogen takes note of the change in the Cerberus implant. Ach, how long has that been going off? she wonders. Is it a protoss proximity light? She watches Snowball a bit, trying to detect a change in behavior now that Malorn is present. The larva seems sluggish, as he often does, and he is looking up at Lilly expectantly, but he does not seem alarmed.
As Malorn brushes past Imogen into the living room, he looks around scornfully, but he makes no particular note of the zerg larva. Lilly scoops up Snowball and takes him into her room, planning to deal with the light and try to corral Sunshine while Imogen sees to Malorn.
There is a clatter from the kitchen; Lilly leaves Snowball and heads there. Sunshine is sniffing around, clawing frantically at the fridge. The room was not in great shape before, but now there are scratch marks on the faded linoleum floor and across the fridge front. “You want some food?” Lilly asks, smiling. Such a smart girl. She guides Sunshine out of the way and opens the refrigerator, looking for something to give the lyote. The icebox is pretty barren aside from the collection of now-wilted vegetables for Imogen’s smoothies. Lilly ignores those, instead pulling out the two-week-old pizza box next to the beers on the top shelf. She opens the box and finds there are still two slices, along with the knife she last used to cut them. Lilly takes a bite from one, and it does not seem to have gone bad. With the box balanced on her other arm, she holds the rest of that slice out to Sunshine. Suddenly it occurs to her to offer something to their guest. She looks out at where Imogen and Malorn are talking. The protoss’s head is roughly diamond-shaped, and the only visible organs are eyes. No mouth. Maybe not pizza.
* * *
In the living room, Malorn looks dismissively down at Imogen. “So, are you still agreed on our bargain?”
“Aye, we’re going to do this job with you.” She told Malorn back on Dead Man’s Rock that she would help him recover a protoss weapon from a Dominion facility before his nemesis Lendasha can. She is not going to back out of that agreement now that he is here. “Any advance information you have about it would be appreciated. And if there’s anything you can show me how to do ahead of time that could perhaps be helpful in dealing with this, that would be wise.”
“I believe I can…” He sighs. “I can explain things. It will be up to you whether you can comprehend them.”
“I believe that’s how teaching works,” Imogen observes dryly.
“It will be to our mutual advantage, as my former associate Lendasha is… I don’t wish to call her ‘clever.’ She is capable.”
“And you expect her to be making a move on this at the same time as we are?”
“That, in fact, is the plan: to disrupt her attempt.”
“And make off with the device ourselves, even though it is protoss technology,” Imogen double-checks, making sure nothing has changed since their previous discussion.
“Yes. So that Lendasha will not be able to retrieve it from the facility on a later attempt. Your companion may have it; I do not care. It is not tal’darim technology. And even if it were, we do not hoard our technology. We even borrow other people’s technology. It just so happens that protoss technology is the only technology worth borrowing. It seems your Dominion has the same idea, but they don’t know what they are doing. They are going to hurt themselves, so you may wish to protect them from it.”
“Oh? That’s how we’re framing it?”
“However you choose to interpret it does not matter to me. Your associate Lilly might be able to handle it.” Malorn looks over to the kitchen, where Lilly is holding pizza out as Sunshine jumps up and snaps it up in her jaws. “Indeed. I would say you keep strange company, but you keep appropriate company. Myself excluded, of course.”
Imogen rolls her eyes. “Well, I appreciate the sacrifices you’re making, simply being in our presence.”
“You cannot begin to understand how incredibly irritating it is,” Malorn grinds out, “but yes, it is a sacrifice that I am forced to tolerate.”
“I think that you cannot begin to understand sarcasm,” Imogen counters.
“I, in general, don’t think terrans are worth understanding, but we’ll see.”
From the kitchen they hear Lilly call, “Do you guys want a beer?”
“Actually, yes,” Malorn replies. “That will make this easier.”
“Do we have any more of those hard kombuchas?” Imogen calls back.
Lilly emerges from the kitchen with a, “Yup,” and hands Imogen a bottle marked past the use-by date. For Malorn, she has fancied things up, providing beer in an actual glass. “Here you go.” She herself takes a sip from her own bottle of beer as she begins trying to coax Sunshine out of the kitchen. She sees Malorn place a couple tentacles into the glass she gave him, and his body language relaxes some.
Imogen notes that Malorn’s eyes, which always glow an angry red, have toned down a bit. Might have to send Lilly out on a beer run, she thinks, if that’s what it takes to mellow him out.
Malorn sighs again, but in relaxation rather than exasperation this time. “I will give you terrans something: you know how to take the edge off your miserable existence.” He pauses, and the level of liquid in his glass lowers. “Lendasha is going to move on the facility in three days, so we are going to have to step up whatever training you are going to undertake.”
“Is there anything you can tell us about the facility, or how you think we’re going to go about this?” Imogen asks.
“The facility is known as the Dominion Optics Research Facility; DORF, they keep calling it. I believe it is nominally some sort of museum on the outside, and then there is a restricted area on the inside that is a primitive laboratory. I strongly suspect the weapon in question will be in the back in the secured testing area.”
“What can you tell us about that, the actual thing you want stolen?”
“The name I saw in reference to it was the frying pan laser. I’m not sure what to make of this—”
“Hey, Lilly!” Imogen calls. “Can you bring out a frying pan to show Malorn what one looks like?”
Lilly glances around the kitchen. She is pretty sure they have one, but it is not on the stove. She opens the handful of doors in the kitchen: cabinets, oven, fridge, freezer. It is in that last location. She brings it out and shows it to Malorn.
“Does it look like this?” Imogen asks.
“I don’t know what the weapon looks like,” Malorn replies. “It will look like protoss technology from the homeworld Aiur, which tends to have lots of blues and yellows, but it can vary. It is a type of laser, an energy weapon. It can induce an incredible amount of pain through the habit it has of catching the target on fire.” In response to Imogen’s questions about the weapon’s size, he reports that it is a heavy, two-handed weapon, which is uncommon for protoss firearms. “But I think Lilly Washington would certainly be strong enough to hold it.”
Lilly lets Sunshine be for a moment. “What’s it for? Assault? Suppression?” she asks from the entrance to the kitchen.
“Just pain?” Imogen adds.
“Well, I know the tal’darim intend to use it for pain, probably for terrorizing people. The original inventors probably intended to use it to assault zerg, or terrans, as the case may be.”
“But your people, the tal’darim, are interested in terrorizing people?” Imogen asks.
Malorn shrugs. “Some of them are. The High Lord Malash certainly seems to take great delight in that.”
“And… remind me again… this is the group that you’re trying to get back into by killing one of them?”
“Yes,” Malorn affirms. “I don’t see what’s so complicated about this.” Imogen stares at him. “I understand you have more primitive systems of succession and promotion in your Dominion, but in tal’darim society we follow the ceremony of Rak’Shir. When you wish to ascend to the next position, you challenge that person.”
With the conversation moving on to some sort of philosophical debate, Lilly returns her attention to Sunshine, finally getting the lyote from the kitchen back to her bedroom. She trusts that Imogen will fill her in on anything else needed for the actual job. Lilly knows the important stuff: there is a weapon, some kind of laser, and they are going to go find it.
Lilly closes her bedroom door and settles Sunshine down into a nest of torn cushions. With her belly full of pizza and MREs and a fair bit of energy expended wrecking the apartment, the lyote curls up for a nap. Lilly lays a blanket over her and then turns her attention to Snowball to try to understand what the blinking light is about. It seems to be something related to an energy level getting lower. Maybe I just need to feed him, she thinks. Worse case, she will get Imogen to figure it out later. She doubts that it means anything dangerous. Snowball is pretty harmless as long as he does not turn from a larva into some other zerg, and anyway, they have their protoss warrior friend on hand. Between him and Lilly, they should be able to handle it if Snowball does change.
Lilly gives Snowball some sweet tea, which he chugs down, and she spreads some creep on the floor for him to roll around in. He grows more active, and Lilly feels like he is waiting for orders. Lacking any, he begins patrolling her small bedroom. Lilly watches the implant more and realizes that the readout is for its own energy level, not Snowball’s. It is not powered by the larva; there is some sort of internal battery that is now getting low. She does not know how long it is supposed to last without a recharge, but as she watches, the readout changes.
Time to 0 at current usage rate: 28 days.
Lilly has no idea what makes the implant use more power or what will happen if it runs out. Will Snowball die? Or just go feral? She decides it is best for Imogen to be the one who messes around with unscrewing panels to examine the inside. The Umojan seems good with tech. Whenever she is free, they can take a look at it together. Lilly will just have to remember to ask her later.