As they head back to the Smashing Star, Imogen asks about finding minerals of interest for Grom. Lilly shows her what she has already found, and Imogen recognizes them from the pamphlet. They are not jorium, but they are of high quality. “These look really good. Grom’s going to like them,” she congratulates Lilly.
“Nice,” is the succinct reply.
Once they reach their ride, Imogen heads over to talk to the repair crew to check on the status of the mining vessel. Lilly tries to call Durian for a sitrep. There is a lot of static on the line, and she only picks up part of what he is saying. “What’s that Lilly? You okay? I think there’s another call coming through. They’ve been trying to reach me for a bit. We’ll be back soon, don’t worry.”
Imogen finds a few of the scientists making repairs to the exterior. Before she can approach them, though, the pilot Shreev storms down the ramp with a look of terror on her face. Imogen wonders just how bad the damage to the ship is. “You!” she shouts at Imogen. “What did you do out there?!”
Imogen is taken aback. “Ah, we… we found some air filtration equipment.”
“Did you set anything off?” the pilot demands.
“Um… there was a vespene explosion.”
“On anything important?”
“Why don’t you get Lilly and bring her over here. We’ve been getting a message on repeat for the last twenty minutes that seems to be for you two. And it’s freaking me out.”
Imogen actually relaxes a bit. The ship is not grounded, and there is not a storm of zerg on the way. This is probably just some message from Jefferson Grom; she cannot think of anyone else who would know to contact them through one of his ships. Imogen shouts for Lilly, and her teammate jogs over.
Shreev takes out a datapad and loads up the video that has been transmitting to them on repeat. It shows the Queen of Blades herself, olive-green skin, solid yellow eyes, diseased tentacle dreadlocks. The audio is no more reassuring than her appearance. “I thought I put up a pretty clear ‘do not touch sign’ near that area. When the Swarm devours the sector, I’m going to save a special claw for you. You return my cerebrate’s remains and drown in the lava if you want penance.”
“Too late for that,” Lilly mutters.
Imogen stutters, “W-we should probably get out of—”
“Did you two touch a cerebrate, maybe, when you were out there?” the pilot asks bitterly.
For once, words fail Imogen. “Uh, we… there might… aye.”
“Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t abandon you here, why I shouldn’t throw you in the lava!” Shreev screams.
“The sign wasn’t as clear as you’d think,” Lilly offers.
The pilot shoots back, “Were there—oh, I don’t know—zerg protecting something?”
Imogen pulls herself together. “Why shouldn’t you abandon us? How about because your boss is the one who arranged this whole entire trip specifically to get us to this planet?”
The pilot is not cowed. The Queen of Blades is way more terrifying than Imogen or Grom. “I don’t care about my job right now. Every minute that we stay here, we are that much closer to dying. As soon as Durian and his team get back, we are leaving.”
Guess that means this isn’t a good mining place, Lilly thinks.
The co-pilot/engineer and some scientists are still actively making repairs. “Is the ship even space-worthy?” Imogen asks.
“It’s space-worthy enough,” Shreev growls. “I don’t know what you did, what you’re screwing around with. I don’t want any part of it.”
Imogen offers to help with the remaining repairs while they wait for Durian and the surveyors, but the pilot is having none of it. “No, I think you’ve been quite enough help already, both of you. Do you have the sample? Maybe if we just throw it in the lava they’ll leave us alone.”
“That won’t work because there’s more than one sample out there,” Imogen explains. “We don’t have the only one.” Neiman has some, too, after all.
“What do you mean there’s more than one sample?! Who has the other sample?”
Imogen told Neiman she would not expose him, and she intends to keep her word. “Someone who is not here anymore.”
The pilot, focused on her own mortality, mistakes Imogen’s statement for a euphemism. “Did somebody die to get you that sample? Was it Durian? What did you do to Durian?”
Imogen clarifies, trying to rein in Shreev’s reaction. “Someone who is not on the planet anymore.”
“He left in his ship,” Lilly contributes.
The pilot calms down a little. “Okay, you two are going to have to level. What are you doing with the sample that is so important?”
“I don’t know why the lady with the snake hair is so upset about it—” Imogen begins.
“The Queen of Blades, okay? The zerg are bad enough. This… she is like queen bitch of the universe. She will tear your shit up with this creepy smile on her face.” The pilot again demands that they destroy the cerebrate sample.
Even now that she understands exactly who it is they have made angry, Imogen still refuses, considering it a futile gesture as long as Neiman retains his sample. Shreev’s position is that the Queen of Blades will target the other sample bearer instead. Imogen will not give in and returns to the pilot’s earlier question of why. “A researcher needs this,” she insists.
“I need my life!” the pilot counters.
“Then fix the ship,” Lilly suggests.
Imogen continues trying to talk Shreev down. “Do you think you can appease the Queen of Blades by just putting it back? Just doing what she says? Letting her boss you around?”
Meanwhile, Lilly decides to try exactly that, or at least make a show of it. If this hysterical pilot falls for it, that will suit Lilly just fine. She pulls an empty jar from her bag and tries to slip just part of the sample into it so that they can retain some for Li while making it look like they have disposed of what they collected. Lilly tosses the jar down into a nearby crack with lava at the bottom.
“Is that all of it?” the pilot demands. “Look, whatever this thing is that is super important, it is not as important as our lives!”
“There is a researcher who wants this cerebrate sample, and the Queen of Blades does not want her to have it. We have to get it to her. Unless there’s to be some smashing military victory against the Queen of Blades, science is our only hope, it is. We can’t appease her when this is information that can be used to stop her.”
The pilot is not swayed. “I’m of the opinion that running is our only hope. And staying out of the line of fire.”
“That may be the only hope for you and your one little ship, but it is not the only hope for humanity,” Imogen argues, trying to get her to see the bigger picture.
“Now you’re sounding like Mengsk! Look, I understand you want to find some way to stop the Queen of Blades. Maybe you weren’t here four years ago…. The Dominion already tried that. Everyone in the sector tried that, and she fooled all of us. She was in charge of the sector, and she chose to withdraw. We certainly did not drive her out. We, humanity, have been slowly trying to crawl our way back from the brink, okay? I don’t want to jeopardize that. Things have been more or less peaceful for the past couple years. Business has been picking up. I’ve been able to help with science instead of just fighting for my life. Don’t—ugh! This is dangerous. We shouldn’t be messing with this. We should not be kicking the hornet’s nest.”
Lilly interrupts the argument. “How do we prove to her that we’ve gotten rid of it?”
The pilot throws up her arms. “I don’t know! She’s some kind of psionic zerg/human mastermind. She can project this signal across space, using just zerg biology! She is the Swarm. When one of her zerg dies, she knows.”
“There were a bunch of zerg over there watching what we were doing,” Lilly mentions.
“Well, maybe she knows what you look like,” the pilot says.
“But she doesn’t know what you look like,” Imogen insists, trying to convince Shreev that her personal danger is not as high as she clearly thinks it is.
“No, she shouldn’t. But if she sees me with you, it could be the end of the line for me.”
Imogen notices Durian and the survey team making their way toward the Smashing Star. If she cannot get Shreev to see reason, perhaps she can play off the camaraderie that has developed between him and Lilly.
The marine hails the pilot as he approaches. “Hey, we heard your message to come back right away.” He takes in the tense body language of the three women. “Is everything okay?
“So, what are you suggesting?” Imogen loudly asks the pilot. “You’re just going to abandon us here?” She thinks that will quickly get Durian onto their side.
“Whoa! Who’s going to abandon who now? What’s going on?” Durian looks at the pilot, wide-eyed.
“I don’t know if you noticed the up-tick in zerg. These two misfits—ruffians—they’re stirring up zerg trouble. And look whose attention they’ve attracted!” The pilot tosses Durian the datapad.
Durian takes a moment to watch the video. “Yes, that’s the Queen of Blades, all right. Woo! She’s gotten ugly.” He looks over at Lilly and Imogen. “You really pick a cerebrate’s brain?” he asks them.
“Aye,” Imogen confirms.
“Little bit,” says Lilly.
“Damn. That’s pretty impressive. I heard those things can’t be killed.”
“This one was already dead,” Imogen admits.
“Ah, that makes it a lot easier,” Durian observes.
“Imogen climbed up a big zerg and just stabbed it in the face!” Lilly excitedly blurts out, obviously impressed.
“Damn, that’s bad-ass! High five!” He throws his hand up in Imogen’s direction.
Shreev yanks down his arm. “Focus, people! We’re going to die!” She tells Durian, “I want to leave them here, and then maybe the Queen of Blades will leave us alone.”
Durian considers her words. “I see what you’re saying… but I don’t leave squad mates behind.”
“They’re not members of our squad!” the pilot seethes. “They’re just a couple of stragglers. They’re basically legalized stowaways!”
From personal friends of the boss to legalized stowaways, Imogen reflects, we’ve fallen quite far.
Durian tells Shreev to relax some while he tries to sort this all out. She throws up her hands and storms off to get a cold drink at the water station set up near the repair crew. When she is out of earshot, Durian turns back to Lilly and Imogen. “This is some serious stuff, huh?”
“We’re not putting it back,” Imogen flatly declares.
“I see. What do you need this cerebrate brain for?” he asks.
“Science,” is all Imogen says.
“Like, a lot of credits kind of science or take over the world kind of science?”
“It’s for someone who’s trying to figure out how these things work and how to maybe undo things. Someone who knew her before she changed!” Imogen explains.
“Those people are rare, and they’re usually not in a good mood. But they usually know what they’re dealing with. I see what you’re getting at, and I really don’t want to leave you behind. This is kind of a dangerous thing though.” He sighs. “I don’t know; Lilly, what do you think?”
“I think if our scientist friend knew that we would draw the attention of the Queen of Blades, she would have warned us. So I think we need to tell her.” Imogen offers to try to place the call using the ship’s booster. Lilly agrees, “I think she needs to know what we’re dealing with. Maybe she can advise. Maybe this queen is stronger than she thinks.”
Durian gives them some space, going over to talk with the pilot while Imogen makes her call. The connection works, and when Li June answers, they hear the refreshing clink of ice cubes in her glass of sweet, sweet tea. “How y’all doing there? Got good news, I hope?” Imogen tells her that there is a problem: they have the sample, but the owner is not happy about it. Then Imogen reads Li the text of the message. “That sounds like Kerrigan, all right,” Li observes. “She’s mighty upset.” She lets out a long breath. “I didn’t think she was going to notice, truth be told,” she admits.
Imogen tells Li about the balloon zerg, and the researcher asks some questions to narrow down the identification. “Did it have large dangling legs or big googly eyes?” Imogen confirms the latter. Li says that it is called an overseer and has been showing up more frequently of late. Overseers are more powerful than overlords, as far as their sensory organs go. Likely this is how Kerrigan was aware of their activities.
“Could she track the sample?” Lilly asks.
Li thinks for a moment. “Given that the sample is dead, she shouldn’t be able to track it.”
“Then she won’t be able to tell if we’ve destroyed it,” Lilly points out, “not if she can’t track it.”
Li agrees with that assessment as long as they are distant from the Queen of Blades.
“So there’s nothing we can do at this point to undo what we already did?” Imogen asks, just to make sure she understands.
“I doubt it, unless y’all wanted to try to get in sight of some zerg and throw it away. But that would be an awful, awful loss. This will give us a lot of insight into how she came to be what she is.” Lilly asks if Li would be willing to talk to their pilot, but the recluse is very reluctant. If the pilot is a loyal Dominion citizen, having a wanted criminal offer explanations will not help their cause.
At this point, Imogen thanks Li for her time and says they will be in touch when they have the sample with them on Mar Sara. While Lilly and Li were talking, Imogen has thought up a compromise that she hopes the pilot can get behind. Maybe she will be willing to take them off Redstone III if they agree to disembark at a nearby planet, rather than ride all the way back to Korhal IV. Dead Man’s Rock does not have the best reputation, but it is not a Dominion-controlled planet, so there will be no quarantine stations to worry about. And from there, they should be able to arrange transport to Mar Sara.
Shreev strides over. “Well, you going to pitch the sample, or no?”
“We’ve consulted our expert—”
“Expert?” The pilot looks around but sees just the two of them there. “Is Lilly your expert?” she asks.
Lilly laughs. “Yeah, I’m a scientist.”
“We called our expert,” Imogen clarifies, “the person who hired us to acquire the cerebrate. And she doesn’t think the Queen of Blades has a way to detect whether or not the sample is destroyed. So there is nothing to do at this point to make her less angry at us.” The pilot’s expression darkens, and Imogen hurries on, “But you can minimize your exposure by simply dropping us at the nearest port and then continuing on your merry way back to Korhal IV.”
The pilot agrees to these terms. When she checks her star charts and determines that Dead Man’s Port is the nearest place to dump them, she tells Imogen that they will have to cover the docking fee themselves. Even though the ship will only be there for fifteen minutes, tops, that starport will still charge them. “Gah! I hate that place,” Shreev grumbles.
“So take us back to Korhal,” Lilly says.
“Nope! I’ll drop you off at Dead Man’s Port,” the pilot quickly replies. “That’s safer. If she can track you, better that she goes there.” Lilly suggests Mar Sara as an alternative, but the pilot states flatly that it is too far out of the way. “I’ll drop you off at Dead Man’s Port, and I hope I never see you again.” As she stomps off, she looks around the area, shouting to no one in particular, “I didn’t even want to survey this planet!”
With the matter now settled and all the panels back on the side of the ship, the Smashing Star launches. The takeoff is rocky, but the mining vessel holds together. Despite the pilot’s very low opinion of Lilly and Imogen, the science staff maintains their general level of indifference on the outbound flight. They do not know the precise reason for the hasty exit, and many of them are annoyed that they were not able to stay longer.
Lilly and Imogen approach the survey team, bearing the materials that they recovered for Grom. “Hey,” Lilly says, arms full of air purifier, “we have some samples.” Imogen holds out the rocks Lilly found.
“I’m busy doing—” the geologist bent over a microscope starts, but as she turns to Lilly and Imogen to dismiss them, she sees what they are holding. “Oh! You guys did do some surveying!”
Aye, Imogen thinks, we’re not completely worthless.
“That’s actually handy,” the geologist continues. “We didn’t get to do nearly as much as we would have liked.” She brings up a map on her datapad and goes over with them where they found the minerals and equipment, as well as what terrain features they encountered. They have progressed from “annoying stragglers” to “amusing interns” in her mind. “Between this and what we collected, that might at least pay for this trip,” she remarks.
“I didn’t dig. I just picked it up,” Lilly points out.
“Yeah, but most people aren’t willing to work on zerg creep. Zerg like the same kind of minerals we do.” The geologist takes a closer look at Lilly and Imogen. They both seem kind of beat up. “You two took quite a bit of a spill on the landing, didn’t you?” She pulls the first aid kit out of the survey supplies and treats their injuries. “Sorry about that crash, but it is a dangerous enterprise, mining. I heard Shreev say she wasn’t able to handle the soot storm well because of having too much extra deadweight around, but she mentioned jettisoning it, so we’ll probably be okay from here on out….” Imogen raises an eyebrow. The geologist continues, “I don’t know what you guys were doing out there. Sounds like maybe you stirred up some zerg? She was very upset.”
“It’s safer for you not to know,” Imogen tells her.
“Not to know?” The scientist is incredulous. “What kind of weird stuff are you two into?”
“Things that upset important and powerful people,” Imogen states.
“And pilots,” Lilly adds.
“I wanted to stay out of warfare. That’s why I went into geological surveying. And Shreev, well, like most pilots, she’s ex-military. She was hoping to get out of war too, I’m sure. Oh, well. War keeps coming. We just need to be ready with the right resources so we can win next time.”
“Give our regards to Mr. Grom,” Imogen requests.