On the roof of Saffron, Imogen catches her breath while Lief adjusts the communications array according to her instructions. When he gets it just right, he pulls out a deck of cards and begins idly shuffling it one-handed to pass the time. Imogen tries to psyche herself up for the conversation ahead, but the truth of it is that she feels drained just by the idea of talking to Malorn. It is a longshot that he will be able to help them, but it seems the best chance they have. Imogen dials his number, and it rings an uncomfortable length of time before the protoss finally accepts the connection.
“Ah, the least offensive terran,” Malorn sneers.
“Embarrassed Lendasha lately, have you?” Imogen counters. She takes a breath and continues, “Or can you not do that without us?”
“I have been plotting my next necessary steps. She has suffered greatly already. It is merely a matter of finding the right time. She is on her guard now, though. And what needs have you today? This is not merely a social call.”
“Lilly got your letter. Have you run out of beer yet?”
“I admit I… have not been rationing it out like I should… have… been,” he reluctantly admits. “But I’m sure more can be acquired at any of a variety of disgusting terran ports. I gather you must need something. Did you chop off your arm again? Or has your mind been ripped open to the—”
Imogen interrupts him. “Aye, actually, it has.” She tells him about the mental reverb trick Selendis pulled on her. Malorn dismisses Commander Selendis as overly righteous. That he has heard of her makes Imogen wonder if Selendis is a bigger deal than she realized, just like James Raynor turned out to be. “You never showed me anything to stop that sort of thing,” Imogen points out.
“You never asked.”
“I didn’t know it existed!”
“Well now you do.”
This is growing taxing. Imogen tries to entice his cooperation. “We’ve got more beers for you of a better kind if you can help us out.” Malorn asks if this is a matter of smiting enemies or if Imogen needs guidance on withstanding Selendis’s psychic assaults. Imogen explains that she needs to shut down a psionic blocker device. “I don’t know if it is of protoss make…” a coughing fit interrupts her for a moment, “and my resources are pretty limited right now. If you were somewhere near Umojan space and able to drop by and maybe pick up a few things from the store for me along the way…” Malorn objects to being thought of as just an errand boy. Imogen appeals to his pride, complementing his abilities as a melee warrior, which will come in very handy for boarding a pirate vessel, and she acknowledges that protoss medical technology is lightyears ahead of where terran science is. What she offers in exchange is to help him embarrass Lendasha again.
Malorn has already been entertaining plans to deprive his nemesis of her warpblade, so he is agreeable. He takes the information on where to find them, stating that he can be there the next day. “As long as you acknowledge our superiority…”
“That your technology is superior, aye. Not that your society is.” Stupid tal’darim, battling to the death for advancement.
“Oh, I agree that my society is so archaic!” he seethes. “It needs to be torn down and rebuilt properly!”
“Have you considered just starting your own?”
“It needs to be torn down and rebuilt properly!” he reiterates.
“Specifically, it needs to be torn down. You can’t just let it go,” she observes.
“Yes.” Malorn is focussed on his own frustrations now and does not hear any critique in her voice. He continues, “It is fortunate for you that I have recently acquired a mostly useless piece of medical equipment that I suppose on terran physiology will be sufficient. I can of course be in your space in very little time. Our craft are much faster than terran vessels.”
Imogen is relieved, but Aiden raised a good point earlier, that the zerg angle of this might be a deal-breaker. The zerg did destroy the protoss homeworld of Aiur, after all. Malorn is from a rival protoss society, but he might still bear a grudge. “All right, but I need you to swallow your pride for one moment longer,” she cautions him. “You don’t just have to work with lousy terrans for this job, but zerg as well.”
“Zerg!” Malorn sneers. “Have you been infested? Is your brain rotten? You want me to work with zerg, who have sworn to destroy all life in the galaxy. Is that correct?”
“How recently was that oath made?” Imogen asks. “Because I’ve heard that their priorities are a little different these days.” At least, that’s the line they sold Aiden.
“It’s pretty clear what the Swarm’s motivations are, wiping out one planet, moving onto the next…”
“Have they been doing that lately, though? Since the Overmind was taken out?” Imogen still has little sense of the timeline of all these larger events beyond Umoja’s own history.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Malorn asserts. “They have been assaulting tal’darim space almost nonstop. This is part of why the foolish High Lord has been increasing his attacks on other space, seeking different territory.”
“Attacking tal’darim space,” Imogen muses. “What does that have to do with taking out Mengsk, I wonder.”
“I don’t know. And I would be inclined not to care, but I have to tear down and rebuild tal’darim society properly.”
“And if the zerg destroy it before you can, then it’s not acceptable.”
Malorn misses the sarcasm. “Correct. Now you understand.”
“Well,” Imogen suggests, “if you help us with this, it’s possible you can—”
“One does not negotiate with the Swarm!” Malorn sputters.
“—you can get those concerns to someone who can air them with the person in charge.”
“You parlay with zerg?! What madness is this?”
“They’re not all mindless,” Imogen insists. She knows Malorn’s buttons—his excessive pride—and she pushes them. “Of course the zerg have been going after tal’darim space; your people are the only worthy threat, the only viable force that could stop them. The Dominion’s just scraping itself back together after all that UED nonsense.”
“I suppose that’s a possibility,” he grants, “but why are you working with zerg?”
Imogen sees no reason to withhold information that he can pull right from her mind when he shows up, and Aiden’s physical transformation is visible upon close inspection, anyway. She believes there are still things she can learn from Malorn, and any attempts to deceive him could get in the way of that. “I’m not infested, but my brother is.”
“Your brother is dead,” Malorn bites out.
Imogen flatly denies that. “No, he’s not.”
The protoss insists, “There’s no life after infestation.”
“You’re wrong,” Imogen declares.
“I understand you might have—”
“You were rescued from enslavement by an infested terran, not just me and Lilly. Ted was infested. You are only alive today because an infested terran acted on your behalf. So don’t think that you know everything, ‘cause you don’t!” It makes Imogen feel a little better to take out some of her frustrations on Malorn. Goodness knows he deserves a tongue-lashing now and again.
“Fine,” Malorn concedes, but he frames his acquiescence in a way that maintains his sense of pride. “Zerg are frankly no different from terrans, species multiplying across the sector. The zerg were actually able to take over Aiur, which is impressive for an inferior species.” He tries cautioning the spunky terran one last time. “You might believe your brother is still alive in there, but it is just the Swarm puppetting what is left of his body.”
“For someone who can look into other people’s minds,” Imogen tiredly observes, “you know so little about them.” She cuts the connection, catches her breath, and turns to Lief. “When you get back to Umoja, you need to forget everything you saw and heard here.”
“What!?” Lief gapes at his cousin. “You make deals with the protoss?!” He reflects for a moment and then comments. “Is there no one else you can call? That fella sounds like a jerk.”
“Most people I’ve met in Dominion space are,” Imogen admits.
“What a drag… What about that Selendis protoss? Oh, no, she did that weird thing to your head, you said. So who is this fella, anyway? What’s your deal with him?” Imogen has had enough of words for the moment. Giving her lungs a break, she pulls her psi-gauntlet out and slips it on her arm. Lief is unaware of the level of concentration it is requiring for her to ignite it. When the crystalline light finally forms, he is floored. The deck of cards he was still shuffling one-handed goes flying. “Now, I’m not going to tell anyone, but I am never forgetting this, Coz.” He peppers her with questions about her laser-sword. Imogen explains that Malorn gave it to her and tells him a bit about their operation against the Rose mine. Lief jumps to a lot of conclusions about the Dominion: it is somehow simultaneously wild and lawless as well as cripplingly authoritarian. He wonders aloud about how he could acquire such a device himself, and Imogen points out he would have to be psionic to be able to use it. “You have to be what, now?” Lief asks. “Are you a ghost?” He pokes Imogen.
Imogen gives him a playful shove back with her off-hand. “A lot of things that Dominion ghosts can do that people find so impressive are actually aided by technology. I’ve never tried to cloak; I’ve never had access to the device you need for it.”
“Does the Umojan Protectorate have ghosts?”
Imogen shrugs. “I don’t know that Umoja has any psionic things going on in it. That’s why I left. But as nice as the Council is, I don’t think I would trust any government’s training program for this sort of thing. It’s too easy to abuse.”
“Well, if someone’s a telepath, it’s not like you can ever trust them,” Lief states. “They can read your mind.”
“So you don’t trust me, Coz?”
“I… Look… I’m not a creepy authoritarian government with any reason to distrust you. But, uh…” he stutters a bit nervously, “I’m just saying, don’t go reading my mind. Right?”
No, it’s Aiden’s mind I’m more interested in reading, Imogen thinks. After what Malorn said about the Swarm just puppetting him, she feels some niggling doubts. On the one hand, Aiden has still been acting like himself, but on the other, he is very much identifying with the zerg. The casualness with which he has used ‘we’ statements indicates that the affiliation is now unconsciously part of him. He felt like Aiden when she reached out to his mind from Saffron, but that was over a week ago. What does he feel like now? Imogen stretches her psionic senses down below, to where Aiden is inside the science vessel. She vaguely senses him… him and something else. Then she is blocked. It is not the slammed door she got when reaching into Snowball’s mind, just a gentle closing. Aiden is still there, but so is the Swarm.