They adjourn to the workshop space in the garage and get the vulture bike up on jacks. Imogen scoots underneath and begins tinkering with the engine. Lilly spray-paints the vehicle bright red and then hand-letters Old Red on the side. Li watches them work, providing what additional information she has when Imogen thinks of questions to ask. She points out that the downed ship is about thirty miles away and the vulture bike will certainly make the trip faster, but they will not be able to go full speed the whole way since there are no good roads out here, everything having been torn up by the war and the cleansing. And of course they will have to be on the lookout for zerg. They will need to cross fields of creep unless they are willing to commit to wide detours.
Lilly looks up from her painting. “Well, do you have any more jars?” Li stresses that they do not have to get more samples, but Lilly figures that if they are going to encounter zerg anyway, they might as well bring some back. Li appreciates the enthusiasm and reiterates her offer to pay for specimens of unusual zerg.
Imogen presses Li for more information about the local zerg, whether they are predominantly zerglings or larger, more dangerous kinds. As far as Li knows, there is no zerg hive out there now, but there was about a year ago. Something cleared it out, but she is not sure what. Imogen raises the question of survivors from the ship, but Li thinks that is unlikely. She reviews her logs and reports the types of zerg that have hit her compound from that direction. Mainly it has been zerglings, though she saw a hydralisk at least once. In her opinion, some of the attacks looked coordinated, so there might be a more intelligent zerg out there, rather than them all just being ferals.
After this revelation, Imogen asks for more information on intelligent zerg. Li explains that the floating balloon-like zerg they saw on Redstone, an overseer, is more of a relay than a mastermind. It used to be that there was always a cerebrate in control, but things have changed since the Queen of Blades showed up. Cerebrates are dying off but not getting replaced, as far as Li knows.
“Is it okay to make phone calls from here?” Imogen asks, sliding out from under the bike. The after-action report from the War Pigs had mentioned repelling an unidentified zerg, but it had not provided any details. Perhaps with Li’s aid, Imogen can ask them some pointed questions and determine whether they encountered a smart zerg.
“Mercenaries have seen more zerg than most, so if there was one that was new to them, that would be good to know. Particularly if it was a thinking one,” Li agrees. “If we can find out more about their command structure, we will know what zerg to target and take it out.”
Imogen calls the War Pigs and requests of the dispatcher that she be connected to Rocko, who prepared the report. Once he is on the line, Imogen asks him to describe any features of the “unidentified zerg” that he can remember. It was bigger than a hydralisk but a lot slower, and it was a walker, not a flyer. No parts of it glowed. Rocko says that it threw some spines but reiterates that it was definitely not a hydralisk. Unlike the spiky appendages of that zerg, this new kind had clawed hands, like a big, angry scorpion but without the huge tail. Beyond that, he cannot recall further details, though he is confident he would be able to recognize the creature, were he to see one again. He apologizes that in the chaos of battle, specifics are hard to observe, and many mercenaries, his own squad included, make a point of forgetting as much as they can. It is the only way to stay sane in their violent business.
Having finished the paint job, Lilly looks around to see what Snowball is up to. He is just outside the open garage door, crawling back and forth. He looks to the left, looks to the right, then about-faces and proceeds in the other direction. It is clear to Lilly that he is patrolling. “So, anything new with Snowball?” she asks.
Li tells Lilly that she believes larvae need some sort of catalyst to initiate their change to full-sized zerg. She is actually a little surprised that Snowball has been so active around here, far from creep, and even more so since Lilly arrived.
“We did see a zergling go into what looked like a cocoon. It came out a baneling,” Lilly tells Li.
“It was by a big, glowing, green zerg building,” adds Imogen. While Li flips through pictures in a datapad, Imogen continues, “It burrowed into the creep.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Li turns around the screen, showing a picture of a spiny organic structure containing a pool of green acid. “Kind of like this?”
“Sort of,” Lilly says. “There was lava, too, though.” Li nods, but then Lilly backs the conversation up a bit. “I wasn’t looking to find out what he’s going to be when he grows up.”
“Well, that’s what I’m trying to say… You get to decide, provided you’ve got the right catalyst. We don’t know what the catalysts are for all the different kinds of zerg, but inside a larva is technically all the zerg DNA that could possibly turn into any kind. Like stem cells, but you need the catalyst. We hypothesize that certain zerg structures generate these catalysts. So if you find the right kind of structure, you can turn a larva into a certain type of zerg.”
Imogen asks, “But can any zerg turn into another, given the right catalyst? It was a zergling we saw transform into a baneling.”
Li clarifies, “No, only the larva. But we’ve seen that certain zerg evolve into other, higher forms. We’re not entirely sure why that is. It might be limitations in the larva itself that prevent it from going directly to these advanced forms. Like a butterfly coming out of a pupa, only in this case, the pupa is also incredibly dangerous and deadly.”
“Sounds complicated,” Lilly observes.
“Yeah,” Li sighs. “I don’t know how zerg biology came about naturally. Maybe it didn’t.”
“Do you have a good sample of creep?”
“I have a small amount,” Li tells Lilly. “What are you looking to do?”
“I was just seeing if you needed more.” Li says that if they find creep that looks or feels different from normal creep, then she would be interested in that. Having seen a bit more of her operation now and talked with her about her findings and the zerg, Lilly and Imogen both conclude that while Li has resources and is capable, she is really more of an organizer than a scientist herself.
Imogen cleans the vehicle grease off of her hands and then takes advantage of the workshop tools to try to fix her gun one last time. She finally manages to reassemble it so that it stops clicking when the trigger is pulled. She nods over at Snowball and says to Lilly, “You were a soldier. Is that how you did sentry duty? Is there a particular style? What army did you fight with, anyway?”
“I fought for a couple of them.” Lilly finds herself wondering if Snowball would take orders from her. It feels a little awkward addressing him this way, but she starts running him through a set of marching drills. “Wheel right. Fall back. At ease.” Snowball obeys the simple commands just fine. Lilly continues on through the set of standard orders, but soon he grows flustered. She gets the vibe from him that he has no idea what some of these commands mean, but he does not want to fail his commanding officer. She imagines that if an officer had told her to set her weapon’s power to two-thirds, when it only goes in quarter increments, she would feel the same way. You cannot just tell your officer that an order is dumb, even if it is. “That’s all right, Snowball,” she tells him. “You’re fine.”
Curious now, Lilly decides to see if Snowball can learn. She introduces their host by name and then tells Snowball to march to Li June. He blinks at her in confusion. Maybe he has a set of pre-programmed commands and is not able to learn any additional ones in his current form. Lilly shrugs at Li and says, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Li replies, “This is a bit outside my department. Normally I’m trying to fight zerg, not teach them things.”
Lilly turns back to the larva. “At ease, Snowball.” He visibly relaxes, his spine slumping. Lilly asks if he sleeps, and Li says she has not observed him doing so. “Are they supposed to?” Lilly presses.
Li thinks for a bit. “Well, larvae don’t usually exist for all that long. Normally they morph into something else pretty quickly. And they don’t exert themselves very much. They just crawl around getting nourishment from the creep. I do not know where he’s getting his energy from.”
Imogen asks, “So he hasn’t eaten anything?”
Lilly pulls out a ration bar and crouches down, holding some out to Snowball. The larva is very interested in the meat stick and begins rapidly gobbling it as though he has not eaten in a long time. As he does so, his teeth accidentally slice across Lilly’s hand, and suddenly he freezes, dropping the food out of his mouth and making a groaning sort of noise. Lilly knows exactly what he must be thinking, Oh, shit, I just struck a superior officer. “It’s fine, Snowball!” she reassures him. “At ease? You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine!”
“She’s tough; she can take it,” Imogen adds. She begins digging through their bags for the medical kit.
Snowball, with assurances from Lilly that it is okay, resumes nibbling on the rations. She keeps providing bars until he slows down after the third or fourth. He seems to be having a good time. After finishing the rations, Snowball downs the pitcher of sweet tea that was on the floor next to where Imogen had been working under the vulture bike. “Maybe he just needs water,” Lilly says.
“Or sugar,” suggests Imogen.
None of them have ever tasted creep. Lilly wonders if it might be sweet. After all, it is sticky and gooey. Li allows that it might bear some chemical resemblance to honey. She had not noticed Snowball getting into sweet tea while Lilly was away, but maybe the opportunity had not presented itself. At any rate, it seems quite obvious now that he likes the drink. Li welcomes them to take as much sweet tea with them as they want if they are taking Snowball along to the Cerberus ship.
Their current working theory is that the device implanted in the larva’s head might be suppressing the normal transformation pathways, perhaps requiring a signal to trigger a metamorphosis. Additionally, once the change happens, the implant will still be in place for delivering prompts or transmitting information. Imogen tries to get close enough to examine the device, which makes Snowball nervous.
“Hold still, soldier,” Lilly tells him, but he whines a bit as Imogen approaches his head.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Imogen says, feeling a little weird trying to reassure this creature. She prods at the device in a way that Snowball does not like, and the larva backs up, retreating to a place of safety behind Lilly.
With investigating the Snowball mysteries exhausted for now, Lilly allows Imogen to treat the cuts on her hand, and then they retire for the evening.