The flight to Char takes a couple days. Though considered a fringe world by the Dominion, it is the center of zerg space. The worlds of those two factions are far more intermingled than one might think; there is no clear line through the sector dividing them. As soon as Saffron enters the Char system, the sensors go haywire with all the zerg about. Even Sheila, what they are now calling the zerg radio, is a bit more active. The heart-in-a-jar and some of the other components are twitching noticeably.
Imogen steps over to the science station, eying the project intently. There is no neural tissue involved, but the whole thing is infused with vespene. She reaches out with her mind to see what she can read off it. She picks up nothing from Sheila, but Imogen does sense some of the general background psionic flavor of the system. A shudder runs down her spine. This whole place feels of zerg, and the sensation is only getting stronger as Lilly guides them toward the red and black rock.
Stepping up alongside her partner, Imogen says, “May I remind you that we’re not just here because of Aiden. We’re doing this because we really pissed off the Queen of Blades when we took that cerebrate tissue off Redstone III. We’re here to clear our record with the zerg.”
“Got it,” Lilly says automatically. After a pause she asks, “What are we doing?”
Imogen has compassion for Lilly’s memory issues. She patiently explains, “We’re delivering evidence of why Mengsk did the Tarsonis push. That is what the Queen of Blades wanted to know. That is what I collected off of the other adjutant. That is what Frank was helping me with.” Hopefully some of this jogs Lilly’s memory. She was pretty distracted on Tarsonis by her own adjutant, Snowball, and Durian. “That was her price for forgiveness.”
“Oh, right. Got it.”
On the descent through the atmosphere, Imogen is reminded even more of Redstone III. The air is hot and caustic, and active lava streams flow beneath them. The sensors report that the surface temperature is 110°. Normally Imogen is annoyed that the system does not use Celsius like Umoja does, but for once she is glad to see that this reading is in Fahrenheit.
One difference between Redstone and Char, though, is that here there are zerg everywhere. While it may be a lifeless rock as far as plants and normal animals go, there are zerg hives all over the place. What are these zerg surviving on? Imogen wonders. The sensor displays do not answer that question, but they do tell her that Char is insanely rich in vespene and other valuable minerals, including the precious jorium. It is no wonder terrans were mining here back before they knew the zerg were a threat.
There is no proper landing zone on the ground below, but when has that ever stopped Lilly? Scourge fly around Saffron as she guides the ship through black clouds of ash toward Aiden’s coordinates. None of the scourge get close enough to be truly menacing, nor do they provide an escort down. If the science vessel were to change heading, though, they would serve as an effective way to corral it. As Saffron gets closer to the surface, Lilly and Imogen see evidence of an old terran encampment, perhaps a mining base. The landing pad is long gone, but the terrain is still nicely flattened from it. Lilly sets the ship down with no problem, smiling as Imogen suggests there might be wrecked remains of vulture bikes that they could scavenge parts from. Whether the zerg would be happy about that is another matter.
Imogen steps outside to greet her brother, who she spotted from above with a pack of zerglings around him. She recognized him by his body language—and because who else would be here, waving at them with a scaly arm? The giant floating mass next to him is another tip-off. Aiden’s old Jarban Minor pal Blight must have made it here alongside him.
Once out of the ship, Imogen wades through the wall of heat toward Aiden. The sun is not particularly intense, but the air itself feels like an oven. Even though she wears a respirator, the ashy atmosphere still bothers Umojan lungs used to clean air. She breaks into a coughing fit and wonders if there is residual damage to them from what she put them through on Jarban Minor.
Aiden steps up to Imogen, the blightbringer floating along behind him. Lilly interposes herself, gun in hand but not pointed at anyone. Aiden greets both women and tells Lilly, “You don’t really need that weapon. Not that we’re going to take it from you—you can definitely keep it. I just want to let you know that it’s not really a threat here on Char.” Lilly nods in acknowledgement but makes no move to put it away. “If it makes you feel better, though, certainly you can hang onto it,” Aiden says. “Have you been to Char before, Lilly?”
Lilly has no clear memories of ever being here, so she simply answers, “Nope,” to move the conversation along.
“It’s a bit warm, I’ll admit, but you get used to it.” Lest they think he is suggesting they are now prisoners here, he hastily adds, “If you want.”
Imogen is quiet, watching Aiden. He was easy to recognize from a distance on the ship’s viewscreen, but now that she lays her own eyes on him, she finds him quite changed. He really is a different person now, at least physically. The changes are not only skin deep, either. The bones of his face have been restructured. If she had bumped into him turning a corner on a random street, she might not have recognized him at first. And now that she has looked so closely, she cannot not see the changes. Her only reassurance is that he still sounds like Aiden. Beneath the zerginess of his voice, the Umojan intonation still shines through. The total package, though, is off-putting. Imogen finds herself constantly seeking other places to look so that she can listen to him without the unnerving visual distraction. Part of her is grateful he did not step forward and embrace her, though the reason why makes her sad as well.
On one such glance away, Imogen catches Blight’s notice. The blightbringer’s enormous eyes roll around a bit, meeting hers. “Offer is still open to join Swarm,” he intones.
“That’s not why I’m here,” Imogen tells him.
“Have you found purpose outside of Swarm?” Blight presses.
“Hey, lay off,” Aiden chastises him. “She said that’s not what she’s here for. C’mon!”
Just like Durian before Tarsonis, Lilly thinks. He’s probably got recruitment quotas he’s got to hit.
“What’s wrong, Sister?” Aiden asks, noticing something off about Imogen. “Are you not well?”
Her eyes glide past him to the pack of zerglings that are more like Fruit Baskets than an honor guard. “Um, it’s pretty hot here, Brother,” she says, not wanting to tell him that his new look is not working for him. “The respirator is really awkward.” Aiden acknowledges the heat but blames the Dominion manufacture of the device for causing her discomfort. Imogen chats with him about Umojan respirators, thus sidetracking him from whatever had prompted his question.
Aiden segues to what he has learned about different types of zerg and how they are adapted to Char. They have different lung capacities, and some do not even need to breathe at all. “Hydralisks, they can survive in a vacuum, it turns out! Well, for a while, anyway. I’m not at that point.”