Li June welcomes Imogen and Lilly into her front parlor and introduces herself. “Have some sweet tea,” she offers. The turrets remain watchful, some of them now directed inside the fenceline. She leads them to the sunroom, and Lilly notes one of the turrets pointed in at them there.
Imogen sips some tea. It is really sweet. “Lilly, why don’t you tell the nice lady about what you observed of the larva’s behavior from when you found it?”
Lilly gives the play-by-play. “Okay, so I snuck into the cave and crept around the corner and encountered two zerglings. Looked like they were attacking it, like they were trying to get the thing off his head. So I snuck in, and I grabbed him and ran out of there. One of them got me on the leg right there, see? And I ran all the way back to the clinic.”
“So the zerglings seemed to know there was something weird about this device themselves, from what you saw?” Lilly nods, affirming Imogen’s summary. Imogen turns to Li. “So we’re thinking some terrans must have put this on it, and that’s why we’re looking for your input. Maria seemed to think you had studied zergs some during the wars. We’re not looking to use this creature in any way, but we want to understand what it’s doing. If there’s a person on this planet trying to control them, then the authorities need to know.”
Lilly adds, “I figured if the zerglings were trying to get it off him, then it must be important.”
Li seems to be only half-listening to them as she stares down at the larva, “Yeah, I’ve seen this kind of tech once or twice before. This here is Cerberus Corps.”
“Cerberus?” Lilly asks, unusually attentive in Imogen’s opinion. “What do they do?” The former soldier fiddles with her jacket collar.
“They used to be a Confederate outfit, but I didn’t work with them personally. They got involved in some weird stuff. Yeah, I know a thing or two about this. But y’all have brought a zerg here to my doorstep. If the Dominion gets word of that, they’re going to give me quite a bit of trouble. What are you going to do for me if I help you with your zerg—I don’t want to say problem—project, shall we say?”
“You can call him Snowball,” Lilly offers.
“Snowball?” Li regards Lilly closely. “Let’s just hope that Snowball doesn’t melt.”
“What do you have in mind?” Lilly asks readily. “Is there something you need?”
Imogen worries that there might be larger things in play here than they had anticipated. This woman could be another James Raynor. “Why are you so concerned about the Dominion? Are you wanted for something? Why are you thinking the Dominion’s going to have a problem with us bringing this to you? Are you hiding out from them?”
“We’re not looking to get you in any trouble,” Lilly insists. “Do you have a job you need?”
“Aye,” Imogen agrees. “Can we smooth something over for you? We’re not super well-connected, but we have some connections.”
Li lets out a breath. “It’s not that Dominion are a problem for me per se. But if they get wind that zerg are around, they’ll be poking around—not that they would do anything to me personally. Them siege tanks, they just blow up everything; they don’t tell friend from foe. There’s not many stable ruins out here where I can keep my privacy.” She takes a draw from her glass of sweet tea. “I do have a job in mind, and I’m a little interested in this larva. There’s something I need procured off-world. If you do that, I can help you sort out things with—what’s this fellow called?”
“Snowball,” Lilly volunteers.
“Are you proposing we leave Snowball here for you to study while we go get whatever it is you need?” Imogen asks.
“That’s one way to play it. I can do some background research, see what I’ve got in my archives as well. Understand that if he does transform into a dangerous zerg, these sentry turrets will cut him to pieces.”
“So you have enough protection if we were to leave him here and he changes?” Lilly checks.
“I believe so. Depends what he changes into, though. Zergling, no problem. Hydralisk, got it handled. Mutalisk, the turrets can shoot up in the air. Ultralisk? That’s going to be a problem.”
“Whoa, what’s an ultralisk?” Imogen asks.
“You ain’t never seen an ultralisk? Well, I suppose that’s fair,” Li grants. “Most people who have seen one die. Imagine the biggest zerg you’ve ever seen, the size of two siege tanks, and it’s got these huge razor-sharp tusks that come out of its face and can cut a whole platoon of marines down in one swipe.”
“Wait, that little thing can turn into something the size of two siege tanks?!” Lilly asks. “How fast?”
Li thinks for a moment. “That might take a couple hours. They form a cocoon-like egg, and inside it, they gather up from the creep all the nutrients they need to make the transformation. The egg is even sturdier than the larva. You’d definitely need a siege tank if you want to blast that to pieces.”
“He’s been off creep for a few hours,” Lilly reports. “Can you tell if he’s ready to turn?”
“I don’t personally know what triggers zerg mutations. But if he’s off creep, it’s less likely that he’ll change. So, what do you want to know about this creature?”
“I want to know who stuck a piece of machinery in its head and what it does,” Imogen says. “Is this Cerberus Corps an active company?”
“Yeah. Not as active or well-known as some other mercenary companies like the War Pigs, though. Cerberus used to be a Confederate squadron, but the war ended and they went private.”
“They’re a mercenary company?” Imogen asks, surprised. She thought they would be some sort of research firm. “So they wouldn’t be selling tech to others, they’d just be making things for themselves? Were they active on this planet?
“They were not active here, but they were active before the war on the other planet in this system, Chau Sara, back before it got purified.”
Imogen asks about Li’s archives, and the woman offers vague explanations about her personal records. But there is an old flag hanging on the wall in the room with the seal of the colony of Mar Sara. It has the coat of arms of the colonial magistrate. Maria did say this woman was part of the old government here. She could have retained official records from back then.
Li describes the job she has for Lilly and Imogen. She points out that they already captured one zerg, so this should be within their capabilities. She explains that zerg have a hivemind and a hierarchy. There are little zerglings, and the next rung up are overlords, big blooming things floating in the sky. Above them are creatures called cerebrates, a sort of zerg lieutenant. They are the size of a house and mostly composed of gray matter. Li wants a tissue sample from a dead one that her sources have told her is on Redstone III. She admits that the volcanic planet does also still have living zerg on it. The cerebrate died several years ago, but there are no local creatures who would eat it, and zerg preserve very well, as evidenced by the zergling Li has mounted in this very room. She would really like gray matter or part of the spinal column, but if only bones remain, she will accept just them. The coordinates Li has for the corpse’s location are high in elevation, so she believes lava would not have endangered it.
This woman is being very particular about the cerebrate she wants. It’s like this thing is her ex, Lilly reflects.
There are no permanent facilities on Redstone III, no settlements or spaceports. It is too volcanically active for any of that. The best approach for getting to the planet, according to Li, is one of the mining groups that periodically send expeditions there, like Kel-Moria, Rose, or Grom.
Imogen perks up to hear the last one in that list; hopeful Lilly can arrange something. But she is concerned about bringing the dead zerg through Mar Sara’s quarantine to deliver it. Not all luggage was being scanned when she and Lilly came through the spaceport yesterday, but anything that looked suspicious was opened for inspection. Li expresses confidence that the younger women will figure something out, but Imogen does not like how cagey she is acting. “We need you to be straight with us if we’re going to work together. You cannot afford to keep secrets from us if you want this to be successful,” Imogen insists. Then she clarifies, “I don’t want all your secrets, but we need to know everything you know about this particular thing on this particular planet if you want us to succeed at what you claim you want us to do.”
Li nods. “I admire your gumption.” She stands and steps over to a sideboard. “Why don’t I show you?” She opens a book on the buffet and presses a button concealed within its cut-out pages.
A wall slides aside, revealing a watchfloor. Information flows across banks of monitors lining its walls. A robotic head and torso turn to face them. “How can I assist you, magistrate?” the adjutant asks.
Li ushers them into the command center as she explains, “Back during the Great War, I was the colonial magistrate of Mar Sara. You might recall that the planet got purified. I was lucky enough to catch a ride with Raynor and the Sons of Korhal, then a terrorist group, today rulers of the Empire.”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait…” interrupts Imogen.
“Not Raynor, they don’t run the Dominion… right?” Lilly asks.
“No, not Raynor. The Sons of Korhal. Although, at the time, all of us were on the same side against the Confederacy.”
“And now some of them are ruling the Empire and others are wanted criminals?” Imogen asks, perplexed. This was not covered in her Umojan education.
“Arcturus Mengsk was the leader of the Sons of Korhal, and he’s the Emperor now, you might have noticed. He betrayed us back then. Jimmy and I, we’ve got different solutions to our problems, so we split ways.” Li shakes her head, dismissing all that. “The point being, we did a lot of zerg fighting a few years ago. I’ve put that behind me; I’m done with a life of fighting. But there’s this one zerg I’ve been tracking. This particular cerebrate was one of the most active after we invaded Tarsonis. There’s something special about this one, something to do with the Queen of Blades.”
That is someone Imogen has heard of in her mostly fruitless research on psionics. This terran is reputed to have impressive mental powers and—ever since getting infested by zerg and conquering her enemies—controls the Swarm.
Li actually knew her. “The Queen of Blades, she came into being on Tarsonis…. She was Sarah Kerrigan, but she got left behind when the zerg overran the Confederate capital on Mengsk’s orders. She was part of our crew, his number-two lieutenant. We caused quite a bit of trouble back then…. Anyhow, this cerebrate is somehow connected to her becoming the Queen of Blades. The more I can learn about it, the better. It’s dead, and I don’t know what killed it—they are notoriously difficult to kill—but I want to find out whatever I can. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the zerg are getting more active around here again. That’s got to be the Queen of Blades’ doing. I don’t know if that is connected to your Cerberus larva friend. I hope not.”
“Well, that’s tech on his head,” Lilly points out. “Do zerg have tech like that? The zerglings seemed like they were trying to get it off of him. I thought they were attacking him at first.”
“These zerglings, they didn’t have the same kind of tech on them?” Li asks.
“They might…” Lilly says slowly. She had not thought anything of it at the time, but they did have scars on their heads where something like that could have been ripped off. “It looked like they had some damage to their heads, like maybe they had removed it, or maybe they’d just got into some other trouble.”
“So maybe the zerg are trying to free their brethren or something,” Li suggests.
Lilly adds, “But I noticed that when I got out of the cave system they were in, they didn’t follow me out past the entrance.”
Li nods knowingly. “That’s definitely zerg being controlled properly. I don’t know how the zerg are being controlled right now without the cerebrates. They were a conduit for—well, I don’t want to get into all that. The point being, the Queen of Blades can control the zerg.”
Lilly is still thinking about how she found Snowball. “They seemed awfully close to the entrance to the cave. Wouldn’t they keep a zerg larva some place safer? Are zerg smart enough to remove Snowball from there if they thought working on the device would be dangerous?”
“That’s a possibility.” Li confirms that larvae are usually kept close to hatcheries or hives, but she grants that many zerg are smarter than they look. Even the ones that are just insatiable animals are being controlled by something smart. She reiterates that the Queen of Blades should not be underestimated.
“Snowball didn’t even try to run or anything when I grabbed him,” Lilly shares. “He just let me pick him up.”
The larva’s docility does not surprise Li, who points out that they have no defense mechanisms other than their exceptionally thick hide, which is usually enough. “You try to shoot them, they’ll just take it. They are just lumps… lumps waiting to turn into the next terror. But this one seems oddly…”—she searches for the right word—“deferential towards you.” Lilly has no explanation for that. She has not been feeding him or anything. “That’s something I can look into for you,” Li offers, “proper care and feeding of a zerg larva, in addition to what this tech is about.”
“I wasn’t thinking to keep him!” Lilly exclaims.
“Were you thinking to throw him off a cliff?” Li asks.
“I don’t know what to do with him! I wasn’t thinking about that when I grabbed him.”
“He might be a useful ally if you can control him,” Li allows.
Lilly laughs. “You think he’s going to be a zergling following me around while I go out on missions? A mutalisk flying above my head?”
Li shrugs. “I don’t know. This is something I’ve never seen before. But I can tap my sources if you can help me get that cerebrate sample.” Lilly suggests that maybe Snowball will attach to Li instead, but the older woman has no interest in that, having dealt with more than enough zerg in her life already. “So, do we have a deal, then?” Li asks.