By the time Imogen reaches the northern mining platform, Lilly has caught up with her, and a horde of zerg is not far behind. This structure actually looks far more stable than the one they collapsed on the hydralisk. Lilly hands over the climbing gear to assist Imogen’s climb while she stands guard. The younger woman has no trouble. Relieved, Lilly swiftly follows her up.
The emergency lighting is active on the platform, and there are low walls that can provide cover from spines. They collapse behind one, taking a moment to catch their breath. The air in front of them shimmers, and then the cloak drops. “Ah, so glad you could make it. Are you two all right?” The man’s face is covered in a mask, eyes concealed behind opaque green goggles.
“Yes, sir,” Lilly snaps out sharply while Imogen is still trying to find enough air to speak.
“Oh, please, no ranks here.”
Looking incredulous at Lilly’s answer, Imogen protests, “You got hit by a spine, you did!”
Lilly crinkles her brow, confused. “No, it didn’t get me.” The spine-crawler came close but did not quite land the shot.
“Look at your shoulder!”
“Oh, that spine. Oh, yeah. Hydralisk got me good.”
The ghost offers to deal with the injury, as hydralisk acid is very dangerous if left untreated. Imogen assists, watching what he does closely. Everything he has done so far has seemed genuine and above-board, but there is no reason not to remain alert. He has a basic, but well-organized, medical kit and seems to know what he is doing. As he puts the supplies away he observes, “You were doing something crazy out there with the cerebrate.”
“So were you,” Imogen counters.
“Da, da, I was hoping to get myself a sample, but I couldn’t quite get close enough.”
“What do you need a sample for?” she asks.
“I could ask you the same thing,” the man replies, “but I’m thinking, people who go in for a cerebrate sample, not kind of people who want to share that sort of information.”
“But if you want us to share our sample, you might need to give us some,” Imogen presses.
“Okay, okay. I’m doing a bit of zerg research, and I know cerebrates are particularly high up on the food chain, as it were, so I wanted to find a sample. They are kind of rare creatures, but I knew there was one on this planet. That’s what I’m looking to use the cerebrate sample for, to further my research. I was wondering—since I sort of helped you out taking care of several of those zerg—if you might share some of the sample you collected.”
Imogen can tell he is working hard to be congenial. She has no problem with a friendly exchange of materials. If they can both walk out of here with five different types of zerg, that would be fine with her. “Do you have other types of zerg samples?” she asks.
This catches him a little off guard. “Back where I do research, I have a few different strains of zerglings, hydralisks, and so on. I even experimented on a drone once. But I don’t carry them on me.”
“What’s a drone?”
Once again, her question throws him. “You don’t know what a drone is?”
“Well, I know there are little planes that fly around, driven by people who sit—”
“No, no, no, no, no. A drone is—”
“Is that the green rolling thing?”
“No, that’s a baneling,” he corrects. “A drone is a type of zerg that can become one of the large zerg structures—”
“A balloon? The balloon thing?”
“No, that’s a different kind of zerg.” If this is a zerg researcher, she certainly has a lot to learn, he thinks. “There’s much about zerg it seems you don’t know. May I ask what you are hoping to use the cerebrate sample for?”
Imogen shares that they know a researcher who wants the tissue sample, but she does not provide any additional details. The ghost tells her that he does his own research. She asks if he is based on Redstone III, thinking they might be able to actually see his lab or get some of his other samples, but they are not that lucky.
“No,” he tells her, “this is a terrible hellhole of a planet. I would not wish to do research here. If there were not a cerebrate here, I would not have come.” And then he observes, “We do seem to have stirred up the zerg quite a bit.”
Lilly, who is keeping watch at the wall, has only been half-listening. There are zerglings around the base of the mining platform. They are not clawing at it, but they are milling around. “There are some down there now,” she confirms.
“Should we be doing something about those?” Imogen asks, unsure of what the escape plan is.
“Well, I can cloak, so I will be fine,” the ghost replies. Imogen frowns at that, but he continues, “I could go get my dropship and pick you up, if you share a sample with me.”
“Really? Is that where we’re going with this? Threats?” Imogen lets disappointment seep into her voice.
The ghost sighs. “Look, what is it you want? I don’t want to take your sample. I just want part of it.”
Imogen looks over at Lilly. Her teammate is mainly keeping watch, but Imogen really does not want her to hear what she is about to say. She needs Lilly completely focused elsewhere. “Lilly,” she asks, “can you keep your eyes peeled and take care of any zerg that start to come up here, while I deal with this fella?”
“You got it,” Lilly replies. She shrugs off her backpack, which contains the cerebrate sample, and hands it to Imogen. Then she grabs her shotgun and points it down over the short wall, snapping a shot off at a zergling.
Imogen moves past the ghost, forcing their conversation to shift across the platform and away from Lilly. The ghost continues his pleas. “I am Neiman. Da, I am a ghost, okay? I don’t want that to make things too awkward.”
“That will make things less awkward. I will happily give you some of my samples if you tell me what you can do and how you can do it.”
“Da, da. That is a trade I can make. I have been a ghost for some time. I have some powers beyond the standard-issue capabilities using the appropriate technology.” He pulls a badge off the chest of his uniform and holds it up for Imogen to see. “This is a small moebius reactor. With this I have enough energy that I can amplify it to cloak myself.” The shimmer spreads across Neiman, and even though Imogen watches the process, she has a hard time telling where he is. He drops the effect and continues, “It takes a little bit of control, and you can’t do it for a very long time. It needs to recharge.”
“And is that something that you do with your mind?”
“It is a combination of your mind and the technology of the reactor.”
Now Imogen is disappointed for real. Does no one use natural abilities? Are all psionic powers really just augmented technology? “So this is just like the protoss, then.”
“There are many similarities, but I’m not familiar with the theories about how psionic terrans are different from protoss. I’m not really concerned with that.” He waves away that topic and returns to what he can do. “In addition to the cloaking, I have a limited telekinetic ability as well. It is very difficult to develop, but it is something I have practiced here and there. I have heard of some ghosts who can launch psionic attacks, even one who could set fires; I do not have those capabilities.”
Neiman seems to be wearing some kind of uniform, but so far, he has sounded fairly independent. “Are you a free agent,” Imogen asks, “or are you still working for the government?”
“I work for the legitimate government.”
Imogen snorts. “I’m from Umoja; these governments here don’t matter to me.”
“I do not work for the Dominion, if that is what you are getting at,” Neiman clarifies.
Imogen has never heard an accent like his before. Neiman does not speak like Marcus did, so he is probably not from Kel-Mor. What other governments are there with the resources for ghosts? she wonders. Only one place comes to mind. “Are you from Earth?”
“I used to be,” he admits. “Can’t really get back there, so can’t really say I’m from there. Our expeditionary fleet was totally wiped out, you might recall.”
“I didn’t know Earth had ghosts,” Imogen says. Of course, up until her chat with Egon, she did not know the Dominion or the Confederacy did, either.
“Well, now you do. I trust you will protect this information appropriately.”
“I’m not looking to sell you out to anyone,” she assures him.
“I appreciate that. It would not end well for either of us. Now then, we have made our trade?” Imogen nods and pulls the jar of cerebrate tissue out of Lilly’s backpack. True to his word, Neiman takes a small sample, just about a third of what Lilly collected, leaving plenty for Li June. Imogen also offers him some of the “spiky thing,” which he gratefully accepts.
As he transfers the material to his own jar, Imogen asks how long he has been on Redstone III. He explains that he has been there less than a day. Someone else discovered the cerebrate, and he was tapped into the appropriate networks for accessing that secured information. “If that someone else was you…. Well, it is good we work together, da?”
Imogen chuckles. “That stuff doesn’t matter to me. This was just doing a job in order to get something else done.”
“Ah, isn’t that what we are all doing?” Neiman comments philosophically.
Imogen redirects the conversation back to what matters to her. “So, are you only able to do what you can do because you went to some sort of ghost school?”
“It definitely helps to have official training and rigorous mental conditioning. Although, it can also be a hindrance; it has its downsides, as well.” He points to the side of his head, where a broken piece of tech remains embedded in his skin, all that is left of some implant. “As you can imagine, telepathic agents can be somewhat dangerous to the governments that employ them, and so they take precautions. Why are you so curious about ghost abilities and ghost training?”
“I want to know if there’s any sort of exercises or anything. I mean, you went to school. You must have done things there.” She is not looking to be brainwashed, but if there are techniques he can share, maybe she can start to get somewhere.
“Ah… you think you are touched as well. There are small things you can do to start, like meditation. Start somewhere calm, then meditate somewhere more chaotic. The longer you can stay focused even in the face of distractions, the better. It doesn’t sound exciting—and it is not—but it is a necessary component. And if there is anything you can naturally do, practicing that is a good stepping stone. Are you looking for a teacher? Is that what this is? I’m not taking apprentices.”
“I’m looking for information right now; I’m not looking for commitments,” Imogen says.
“Well, you could always surrender yourself to the Dominion ghost academy—”
“That’d be a pretty big commitment, it would.”
“Most ghosts don’t have a choice.” Neiman’s tone grows more impassioned. “Most of us are taken at a very young age to an academy where their powers are twisted and developed over decades, and they have zero say in their entire lives. So think very hard before you decide you really want to grow your power. It also attracts attention, and not the kind of attention you are going to want. There is a reason why ghosts cloak.”
“Fair enough,” Imogen concedes.
Their conversation has been punctuated by blasts from Lilly’s shotgun. At this point, with his moebius reactor recharged, Neiman offers to go get his dropship and come pick them up from this platform so that Imogen and Lilly do not need to shoot their way through the zerg down on the surface. He turns into a shimmer and then disappears completely.
Imogen joins Lilly at the low wall to let her know that they have a ride back to their ship. Lilly glances over her shoulder at Imogen and then looks further around. It is just the two of them up here now. If that is the case, and they are all moving on from here, then they can certainly take some of this equipment with them. Lilly packs up a portable air filtration unit that has been keeping the top of the platform bearable. It is small enough to take, and she thinks Grom’s people can use it. It makes an annoying whining noise, but the time for stealth has passed. She puts it in her backpack and then readies her shotgun and steps back to the wall again, surveying the situation.
On the ground below, things have taken a turn for the worse. A couple hydralisks have begun targeting the legs of the platform with their spines, shooting at them from a distance, while zerglings claw at the stanchions. “Oh no,” Imogen breathes, “they’ve learned!”
The hydralisks are far enough back that they are beyond the range of Lilly’s shotgun, but Imogen’s pistol should be able to reach them. Lilly blasts away at the zerglings, the spray from her gun taking out the lot of them. Imogen takes shots at the hydralisks, forcing them further back so that their spines are no longer a danger to the platform. They stay just out of her range, as if they are waiting for something, and Imogen frowns. She does not like how intelligently these creatures are fighting. Then she sees that the spine-crawler is relocating in this direction. The hydralisks move to flank it. “We do not have the firepower for that! Where is that dropship?” Imogen starts frantically searching through the materials on the platform.
“Is he coming back here?” Lilly asks, helping Imogen shift some heavy wreckage out of the way.
“He’s supposed to be!”
“Where’s a firebat when you need one?” Imogen mutters.
“Or a catapult,” Lilly says, presenting a barrel of vespene that she has found.
“We can send it rolling at them, and then shoot it when it gets close enough so that it explodes. Or we could rig some sort of detonator.”
“Don’t need a detonator if there’s lava.” Lilly points out where a small rupture has created a new lava flow on the plateau. The hydralisks and spine-crawler are quite close to it. If they send the barrel of vespene rolling right now, the lava can take care of the ignition for them. Imogen jams her new knife into the barrel to start a leak, and then Lilly hurls it. It bounces down and across the open space. The spine-crawler parks next to the lava flow, apparently satisfied that it is close enough to the platform to attack, and begins digging into the ground. The barrel rolls toward it, and one of the hydralisks smacks it away, right into the lava. The vespene explodes in a broad mass of green flames. The screams of immolated hydralisks reach their ears, and the spine-crawler tower topples.
While Lilly and Imogen are cheering their victory, the dropship suddenly appears; it has a cloak as well. Neiman does not land it, but he opens a hatch and lowers a ladder, urging them to get aboard quickly. As soon as they are up, he recloaks. The inside of the ship is like his medkit: well cleaned and cared for, but also giving the impression of not being heavily used. It is not a design with which Lilly is familiar.
Neiman drops them off near the Smashing Star but not close enough that he will be discovered by Grom’s people. Before she takes leave of him, Imogen asks Neiman if he wants to be put in contact with other zerg researchers. She begins, “I’m not a zerg researcher myself—”
“You’re out here in the field collecting zerg samples, are you not?” he counters.
“Mailman isn’t in the business of writing letters,” Lilly observes. Neiman nods that she has a point.
“We’re here on behalf of someone who is also a very… shy… researcher. Is there any way that we can put you two in touch with each other? Some encrypted messaging system? Some secret bulletin board?” Imogen sees no reason for them to be doing redundant work. Neiman is quite hesitant at first, so she gives him her own contact information. She does not think Li June would like hers given away. In exchange, Neiman gives Imogen an encrypted comm unit, but he warns her he might not always answer. It will only be able to reach him if he is near his dropship or in his laboratory.