“So, you were asking after Ted,” Aiden says to Imogen. “We did manage to track him down.” He waves his arm, and Imogen looks in the direction indicated. Another infested terran approaches, looking very little like the middle-aged scientist who told Imogen to leave him behind on Brontes IV.
Imogen turns to Lilly and quickly explains, “Ted didn’t desert. He left us because he was changing and he thought he was a danger to all the terrans around him.”
“What now?” Lilly asks, feeling like she is missing some context.
“When we were leaving Brontes, I told you that Ted deserted. He did leave, but now I’m telling you the real reason.”
“Okay, got it.”
The bald infested terran steps up to the group. Beneath the scaly skin, Imogen can pick out features she recognizes. She did not know Ted nearly as well as Aiden, so the changes are less unsettling. His hands are now composed of scalpel-sharp claws, though the overall size of them has not changed. “It’s, uh, good to see you, I guess,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I didn’t quite expect this—I wasn’t sure if I would still be alive at all, frankly.” He glances over at Saffron appreciatively. “Looks like you’ve got your own ship. Are you two still working for Duke?”
“No. What about you? How are you doing?” Imogen asks.
“Well, my headache is gone. That’s a major, major improvement. And I’ve actually been able to get back to genetics research. Oddly enough, that’s very useful to the Swarm. So, you know, it’s not that bad. I get to do something again, something meaningful. I couldn’t really do that in the Dominion anymore, what with my condition and all. But here it’s not a problem, obviously.”
Lilly does not really know what is going on. Imogen mentioned Ted, but this infested terran could be anyone. It is weird that he is talking and not some mindless blob of tissue. As far as Lilly knows, Aiden is the only infested terran that avoided that fate—other than the Queen of Blades, of course. That is the way Rory was talking, anyway. She wonders now if maintaining the ability to reason and talk is a feature of some sort of higher level infested terran. As she mulls this over, her eyes roam, looking for threats. There are mutalisks up above them now, but they do not seem threatening at the moment.
Is this really how he feels, or is Ted just saying that because Blight is here? Imogen wonders. She psionically reads his emotions to see if they match the tone of his voice. She senses no fear, just the surprised nostalgia of unexpectedly running into an old associate.
“And Lilly!” Ted goes on. “You’re still looking fit as ever. How do you do it? I don’t want to assume anything, but do you take supplements of some kind?”
“Uhhhhhhhh.” The question catches Lilly completely off guard. She glances at Imogen for guidance, but finds no help there so she settles on one of her old standards. “Sure!”
Imogen thought she had already explained all this. “This is Ted,” she reiterates. “This is Dr. Cleveland. From our early missions for FRAWD.” Lilly does a double take and lets out a swear as it all finally clicks together. Ted is so transformed that she did not recognize him.
“It’s okay if you forgot about me,” Ted tells her. “That’s probably for the best, anyway.” He turns to Imogen. “Did Duke take my desertion okay? Was he pretty pissed? It’s not like I can use what meager pension I might have been getting, anyway.”
“I think he just wrote down that you were AWOL,” Imogen tells him.
“Wait, you deserted us!” Lilly says accusingly. “That is not cool.”
“Look, I stayed behind to make sure you were safe, okay, because I destroyed the psi disruptor,” Ted tells her. “And yes, then the zerg came upon the whole mining station there. Because I am zerg.”
“Oh!” That must be when he got infested, Lilly thinks, not realizing why Ted was suffering headaches even earlier on that mission. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Thanks, man! You did us a real solid.”
Ted almost gets whiplash from the quick change of attitude. “I’m just glad you made it out,” he tells her. “Say, did they ever catch Commander Louis?”
“No,” Imogen says, then she amends her response. “Well, I don’t know if the zerg pulled him out of the sky. He got away from us, though. Flew away in his banshee, he did.” Ted is sorry to hear that; that man needs to be brought to justice. “And last we checked in, the legal wranglings are still creeping along,” Imogen adds grimly. As far as she knows, no one has yet been held accountable for the crimes at the Rose Mines on Brontes.
“Oh yeah, sounds like the Dominion,” Ted commiserates. “You know, I kind of don’t miss it. I do miss some of the food, though. Some of the food was all right. Mmm… spicy Korhal curry…”
Imogen is surprised by that comment. “Do you actually eat?”
“You know, I don’t actually have to eat in the same way. I can gain all of my sustenance from creep.” He launches into a scientific discourse that Imogen cannot quite track.
Lilly nods along as Ted lists a bunch of complex carbohydrates. It makes sense to her; she fed Snowball candy, but he was not really living on that. And she recognizes some of Ted’s words from the label on the PowerAde package. Now that she knows Ted suffered for protecting them on Brontes, she feels she owes him, so she offers, “I can hook you up with some PowerAde.”
“PowerAde? That’s not necessary. Although…” He mutters more about sugars and electrolytes. “That might actually be a good substitute for creep, but it’s not quite the right balance. For any zerg completely dependent on a diet of PowerAde and other sugary formulations of that ilk, the long-term effects would not be ideal.”
Lilly is not sure she agrees with that; Snowball seemed to be doing fine when they parted ways. She offers Ted a piece of candy. Surprised, he thanks her and she dumps a whole handful out of the bag into his palm. Although he puts most of it away for later, he does eat one piece now. It has been a long time since he has had candy, and he savors it.
With Ted quiet for a moment, Aiden cuts into the conversation, urging them along to their meeting with the Queen. She is waiting for them near enough that they can go on foot, allowing Old Red to continue resting. He leads them away from Saffron, heading around a cliff. Imogen hangs back, as there is one more matter she would like to discuss with Ted. “So, are you satisfied with this as a permanent arrangement?” she asks, gesturing at his clawed hands. “Or would you be willing to give me a sample of your blood?”
“In my ideal life, I’d be back in the Confederacy at a research institute. That doesn’t exist. Mengsk destroyed that—and others destroyed that, frankly. And, honestly, the Confederacy was a terrible place, but I got the funding I needed to do interesting research. Fruitful, useful research! Like new crop variants adapted to specific worlds. For all the faults of the Confederacy, they were willing to invest in that. The Dominion seems only interested in furthering its military conquests.”
Ted sweeps his arm out at the rocks and lava flows around them. “Here I get to do something, right? I get to make use of what I know. Look, I am what I am now. This is where I can fit in. Does it look gross? Yeah, sure, it looks gross. Your hair looks terrible, too,” the bald man says, “but you still get by.” Imogen smooths down her braid reflexively. “So, all that is to say… if you want a sample of my blood, I don’t have a problem with that. What do you plan to do with it, though?”
“This change was not a choice that you got to make, and—”
“Most people’s lives are not choices they get to make,” Ted observes.
“This is a pretty fundamental change, and if there’s a way to reverse it, I think that people have a right to it.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure all of them would take that option, though.”
“Then that would be their choice.”
“And you should know that for many infested terrans, there is nothing left in the head. The outcomes are highly variable depending on your genetics, method of infestation, and so on. There are a lot of factors that go into it.”
“Aye. And there isn’t a treatment if it starts happening and goes awry. If the zerg were only changing people who wanted it and whose genetics could handle it, that would be one thing. But that’s not what’s happening.”
“There’s a lot of Dominion propaganda surrounding this,” Ted cautions. “That’s something to be aware of.”
“I’m not interested in the propaganda. I’m interested in the science,” Imogen insists.
“Well, that’s good. If you’d like to do research on this, by all means, go ahead.”
“And you, you’re in a position to research on it, too,” Imogen points out.
“I could. But I am rather busy with a lot of other research as well.”
“Is it not in the Swarm’s best interest? Or is it desirable to the Swarm to have these empty-headed converts?”
“Unfortunately, they do serve a purpose on occasion. But less and less lately. And my understanding is that it is a pretty minor component of the Swarm.”
“All sides are served by this being a better understood phenomenon that can be either chosen or stopped, depending on how it goes. Having terrans die because the process doesn’t work for them does not help the Swarm except as a weapon.” Ted is quiet for a moment, mulling over Imogen’s points. “You are in a uniquely suited position to help accomplish this, being both an infested terran and a genetics researcher.”
“You know,” he says slowly, “I had not considered that if the process were treatable—reversible!—then it works both ways. People who might be amenable to being recruited into the Swarm, say, would have more options. Right now, it is essentially a one-way, permanent conversion. And if you then find out you don’t like it and it’s terrible—or your genetics don’t support it—there’s no way back. But if it were something you could just try out, people might be willing to give it a go, so to say. Then they find out that the Swarm really does have things to offer, and that might be a net positive.” It sounds like a foreign exchange program when Ted puts it that way, but if that is what it takes for him to be onboard, Imogen is fine with that.
Ted continues, “Infested terrans who do still have their minds can create a certain amount of dissonance in the Swarm—nothing the Queen can’t handle, of course. But getting those types back out of the Swarm so we can return to one unified purpose, that is also valuable. And if you can do that without having to kill them, you know, that’s probably better. I… I definitely will give this some thought. I don’t know if such a thing is possible, however.”
“Until you look, you can’t find,” Imogen says. She takes the blood sample. With that done, she moves through the group back up to her brother’s side.
“Are you sure you’re not keen on him, Sister?” Aiden asks. To her eye-roll, he says, “You’re taking a lot more interest in him than you do most people.” Imogen snorts in laughter. “Zerg infestation is not a transmittable disease, just in case you were wondering,” he adds.