Lilly tries to pilot Saffron into the research building as planned, but the infestation has altered the structure so much that the former access points for science vessels are no longer functional. If she is being honest with herself, Lilly is actually a little relieved by this outcome. The less chance of Saffron getting infested, the better. She locates a convenient ravine and sets the ship down there, then enjoys a pleasant run back to Old Red’s location so that she can drive him back over to Saffron.
When she pulls up, she sees Snowball in zergling form waiting for her. He was sharp enough to track the ship to its new location. He scratches something on the ground, but Lilly cannot figure out what he wants. “Hey, buddy, what did you see?” she asks him encouragingly. Maybe he just drew me that very thing. Oh well. She goes up the ramp and opens the hatch, then turns back to Snowball. “You coming in or staying out?” He follows her in.
Lilly closes up the ship and preps the sensors. Occasionally she glances over at Snowball and finds him looking at her expectantly. I don’t need to keep him on the ship, so there’s no need to bribe him. Gotta save that hard candy for when it’s really needed. “Did you find some creep?” she asks him, not really expecting a response. Ever since the tech came out of his brain, he seems to have lost the ability to understand terran language. She does not have time to play charades or draw pictures now, though; she has to monitor the sensors.
Snowball transmogrifies to his terran form and weakly flops his boneless hand on Lilly’s shoulder to draw her attention. When she turns to him, he points at his mouth. Oh, man, he wants candy. Lilly gets out the thermos of creep Aiden brought over and opens it for Snowball. He puts his hand in it and then takes the container, maybe a bit reluctantly. “I know, buddy, I know. But you gotta have your nutrients.” Lilly turns back to her work as Snowball settles down in the corner for a snack.
A ping on the system alerts Lilly that a ship has entered atmosphere, jumping straight into the troposphere itself. Well that’s not normal. As she watches the sensors, they start to lose track of the ship. She definitely would not be able to lock weapons on it if she wanted to fire the EMP right now. Lilly switches to visual mode for a moment, but she cannot see a thing where the readings are pointing. She plugs away at the computer, refining the scans to focus on lifesigns. If she can manage to detect a bunch of terrans a few kilometers up in the sky, then she has probably identified the ship’s location. Her plan works, and she finds signatures she can track despite the cloak. How are they doing that? For a ship that size to be cloaked requires some enormous power generation or some very advanced technology. Lilly daydreams for a moment about a cloaking suite for Saffron, then snaps back to attention. Time to call Imogen and transfer the data.
* * *
Things are quiet as the ground crew waits. Aiden minds his two small packs of zerglings, keeping well away from Malorn. Imogen takes advantage of the time to pester the protoss about his recent psionic activity. “So how did you do that purge thing to me?”
Malorn narrows his eyes at her use of that word, which she could only have gotten from his mind. “It was an atypical application of a method normally used to push the very blood out of your enemies. In this case, I did not focus on your blood.”
“You explode people?” Imogen asks, shocked. It is another entry on the long list of things she did not know psionics could do.
Malorn accepts her primitive description. “A capable opponent has many defenses, and there is a great deal of blood to push out. What had infected your organs was a small quantity in comparison and had a very direct passage out, so it was somewhat easier to purge from the system. It is not a simple task, but one I have a degree of skill in. Thanks to my quick thinking, you get to breathe freely again.”
Imogen rolls her eyes. “Aye, aye, you’re so wonderful.” She leaves him to revel in his superiority while she goes and checks on Aiden.
Her brother is with his zerglings, treating them almost like a group of wardogs. “Your protoss friend is keeping his distance, at least,” Aiden grumbles.
“We’re all just trying to make use of each other here to get a job done,” Imogen reminds him.
“Aye,” he acknowledges. Then he swallows his pride a bit. “I realize I never thanked you properly for coming to rescue me and for now working to set things right though I muffed it up again. So thank you.”
Standing there, right with him, Imogen extends her psionic senses to get a read on her brother’s mental state. He sounds like Aiden to her; he is thinking about things that it makes sense for him to focus on. She listens in on what seems to be either stream-of-consciousness thoughts to psyche himself up or words of encouragement to the zerglings. Okay, we’ve got to do this! As Aiden continues talking with her, she picks up more wistful thoughts from him. This is probably the last time I’ll see Imogen for a very long time, but that’s the way it’s got to be now. Then she suddenly senses another presence, and she feels Aiden begin to respond to it. But what messages are being sent, she does not know, because once again, she is pushed out. She jolts back to full awareness of the physical world around her and lifts a hand to her upper lip to catch the blood streaming from her nose. The taste of iron is something she is beginning to associate with Blight.
Aiden offers his sister a handkerchief in concern but does not seem aware of anything Imogen was doing. She accepts it and leaves him to his zerglings. As she moves away, she catches Malorn eyeing her, and she heads over to him. “Find anything of interest?” he asks, clearly aware of what she was doing.
“Aye, he’s still there.”
“Perhaps a clever simulation—”
“He’s not alone,” Imogen acknowledges, “but it is him.”
“No zerg is ever alone. They’re all connected somehow.”
“Plenty of your people live that way as well,” she points out.
“Not my people! No. The weak Aiur protoss function that way. I’ll thank you not to compare us to those weaklings. Their Khala is like a great web, all connected in seemingly random ways. The Swarm is connected like a tree. And who sits at the root of that tree, but the Queen of Blades. Your brother is but a leaf on that tree. Even if he seems like he is still your brother, the Queen of Blades can make him do whatever she wishes. He might even believe himself to have free will, but he does not.”
“So, you think she’s just the Overmind all over again?”
“She’s probably worse. The Overmind had a singular purpose it seemed. Her purpose seems to be mad revenge or taking over the sector or destroying my people. She’s unpredictable.”
Malorn seems to know something about the Overmind, so Imogen takes the opportunity to ask him about it. His information, just like Aiden’s, likely comes with a bias, but if Imogen is ever going to unravel the tangle that is recent Koprulu Sector history, she needs to hear it from multiple angles. Malorn’s understanding is that the Overmind wanted to take over Aiur and wipe out the protoss. But he does not care about the Overmind’s motivations, since it is now gone, whereas the zerg are not. Malorn concedes that terrans are, after all, not quite the lowliest things in the sector, since by virtue of one being in charge of the zerg, terrans as a whole must come above zerg as a whole.
From what Imogen has been able to piece together from various sources, the Overmind was likely in charge of the zerg when those creatures first appeared in terran space. Maybe this is some sort of territorial war over psionic sub-space, and the zerg felt the protoss were cluttering it or were polluting the airwaves. Or maybe it is as simple as our way is right and your way is wrong, Imogen thinks. But zerg and protoss are alien, and she wonders if, as a terran, she should expect to ever really understand their perspectives.
The UED seemed to have a better understanding of the Overmind than the local governments did, leading to some conspiracy theorists suggesting that the UED was actually behind the Overmind. Imogen does not buy into that, but somehow the UED did its research before showing up in the Koprulu Sector. They knew an uncanny amount about the zerg, given how far away they were coming from. Did the UED come to the sector just to protect Earth from the zerg? Or did they have some other purpose beyond conquest? Imogen does not know, but Neiman certainly is still focused on stopping the zerg, regardless of who controls the Swarm.
According to Aiden, the Swarm’s goal is to unseat—really, to destroy—Mengsk. That only makes sense to her if the Queen of Blades retains part of Sarah Kerrigan’s humanity. Why does she feel betrayed? Because of something that happened when she was a terran. She is still holding onto that, so she still possesses some part of Sarah Kerrigan, even if it is the most angry part. That feeds Imogen’s hope that Aiden will retain some of himself through this transformation.
These other things the zerg are doing, like attacking tal’darim space, maybe those are because of how militant Malorn’s people are. Maybe the tal’darim are the ones who started that fight. Or maybe the Queen of Blades does not have as firm a grip on the Swarm as everyone assumes she does. Maybe she is crazy. Or maybe power corrupts even zerg.
These theoretical concerns are pushed into the background when Lilly calls in the location of Jackson’s Revenge. Imogen’s datapad lights up with a moving dot on a grid, and she heads over to Aiden so he can communicate the readings to his zerg. This is less simple than it might sound. The zerg do not have helmets with HUDs waiting to receive the data. Imogen has to explain the relevant parts of the sensor information to Aiden in a way that he can visualize the ship’s location with landmarks that the flying zerg, with their different perspectives, can identify and act on.
Jackson’s Revenge is low enough that they can see the zerg moving in on its location. The devourers, giant black and purple spheres with huge mouths, spray acid out into the sky where Aiden instructed them to. One of them splashes acid across the hull, as intended, and the other scores a hit directly to the port engines, causing the thrusters to sputter out. The ground shudders when Jackson’s Revenge impacts it, and then the ship itself shimmers into view.