Chapter Seventy One
The remnants of Tassadar’s battle with the Cerebrate disappeared beyond the circular lip of an enormous shaft that slowly swallowed the platform and its luminous pylon. The metal beneath two pairs of human feet and Tassadar’s heavy boots barely vibrated and the beam of energy that seemed to anchor it remained constant, but impenetrable walls of dark stone quickly rose up around them, consuming everything save the skyward dome. For a few moments, air currents from the chamber above echoed about the three, amplified by the enclosed space, but soon the sound faded, leaving only the faint reverberation of the surface beneath them and a gentle, magnetic hum to break the silence.
The Chief stepped back from the terminal he had located, his hands free to reclaim his blaster pistol. The control panel was made up of what appeared to be several thin, adjoining sheets of luminescent glass, dotted with geometric glyphs and blocky forms that crisscrossed its surface in regular, purposeful patterns. In actuality, the surfaces hovered at an angle to the plate below, holographic projections that had nonetheless given purchase to the Spartan’s open palm and activated the lift at his touch.
The three stood in silence as the platform continued to descend. None had spoken since Tassadar’s brief valediction, and the Protoss was once more drawn within himself, his bright eyes lowered and subdued.
Jacen was the first to break the restless silence.
“What is this place, Chief?” His voice echoed with more volume than he had intended and the Jedi tensed at the sound, but the reverberation faded harmlessly into the shaft’s immovable walls.
“I’m not sure,” the Spartan replied. “The only Forerunner structures I’ve seen have been Halos. Massive space stations with artificial atmospheres and landmasses. Their interiors were similar to this place, but I can’t tell you what they built it to do.”
Jacen frowned. “Forerunners?”
“That’s what the AI Cortana and I found in one of the Halos called its creators. Apparently, they all died hundreds of thousands of years ago in a war with the Flood, a parasitic organism we found on the instillations.” The Chief paused, glancing up the lengthening tube. “One that we woke up.”
Jacen’s own galaxy had its share of ancient, lost civilizations, evidenced only by enigmatic constructs they left adrift in the depths of space or scattered across remote worlds. In his experience, such wonders were rarely benign.
“And the Halos? What were they built to do?”
“They are weapons. I don’t know how they work, but the Forerunners built them to combat the Flood. If activated, the Halos kill almost every living thing within a galaxy. They used them once, tried to stop the Flood and killed themselves in the process. I almost activated it again.”
“Why?” Jacen asked, surprised.
The Chief stared at the younger man through his opaque visor, impassive.
“The first Halo’s AI just told me it was a weapon, one I thought the UNSC could use against the Covenant. Cortana interfaced with the instillation’s computer and stopped me in time, told me what it really did.”
Jacen pondered this, but before he could ask another question, he sensed movement above and jerked his eyes up.
Descending from an unseen conduit or opening, a single, metallic entity sank into a relative stop a few meters above them, its repulsors emitting an audible hum. The dim light glinted dully off the polished, silver sheen of its casing, an elongated, torso-sized cube with a trio of angular appendages splayed at its front like a segmented shield. Behind these plates, a single, robotic eye gazed at Jacen and his companions, lit with the same ethereal light that guided their platform downward. A fourth appendage hung slightly below the machine’s chassis, its small, forward aperture dark.
Jacen inhaled sharply and raised his lightsaber blade to guard against the new arrival, but it seemed to ignore the weapon, drifting side to side slightly, inspecting each of the figures below in turn.
“Wait!” the Chief cautioned. His blaster was clutched tightly in his right hand, but the Spartan had not aimed it at the machine. “It’s a sentinel. The Forerunners built them to guard their facilities.”
“Like the one we’re wandering around in, unwelcome?” Jacen asked, not taking his eyes off the odd observer.
“Its weapon isn’t charged,” the Chief said, indicating to the ventral appendage. “And there’d be more of them if it was here to kill us.”
Slowly, Jacen lowered his lightsaber. The sentinel turned its lambent eye on him again, pivoted slightly back and forth on its axis, turned, and then raced up wards on an ephemeral trail of light, vanishing quickly into the darkness of the shaft’s walls.
Before any of them could ponder the machine’s appearance and equally abrupt exit, the platform noticeably slowed its decent. A moment later, a full half of the continuous circle of stone and metal beyond the lift gave way to open space. There was a blast of air current and echoing noise, and a chamber far larger than the one they had just left rose into view.
The Chief felt his muscles tighten.
This place, I do remember…
The space was circular, easily two hundred meters across and capped by a vaulted dome so far above that it was barely visible in the dim light. Evenly-spaced around its perimeter, three more dark shafts identical to their own sat empty, their central energy columns inactive. Leading from each, broad causeways that appeared to be composed mainly of frosted, semi-transparent glass converged on the center of the cavernous chamber. Near the center, they terminated into a single, continuous circle of walkway that left dozens of meters at the very middle of the chamber completely open, a gaping well that led down into nothingness. Beneath the walkways, themselves anchored only to the walls around the lift shafts, dark, solid walls tapered into a wide funnel and then plummeted down beyond sight.
Jacen and the Chief were still taking in the impressive, artificial vista when their lift eased to a stop, aligning perfectly with its causeway. The platform, like the rest of the massive space, seemed to be quite empty. And yet, as he took it all in, Jacen sensed a profound, vital presence that seemed to resonate from the artificial cavern itself, strange, familiar, and wholly alien all at once. The place positively sang with ancient power, untouched by transient beings for countless millennia.
Tassadar advanced between the two humans and stepped from platform to causeway, both as unyielding as solid granite. His eyes were veiled no longer, and his gazed was fixed straight ahead.
And then, at last, Jacen saw her. A single figure stood at the lip of the circular walkway with its back to him, its form obscured by the light of a long array of floating displays, similar to the one that had controlled the lift. At such a distance, the Jedi could barely make out the humanoid silhouette, but he knew in an instant to whom it belonged. He had never come face to face with the Queen of Blades, but he had sensed her from a distance, and seen her corrupt handiwork up close.
This was Kerrigan, heart of the Swarm.
The Chief and Jacen kept close behind Tassadar as he advanced towards her, unspeaking. The humans scanned the suspended causeways and empty air with cautious eyes, wary of more of Kerrigan’s Zerg vanguard, but there was no sign of movement anywhere else in the chamber, and no sound saved the steady, slow clap of their boots on the smooth, unsettlingly transparent surface. Kerrigan was herself motionless, seemingly absorbed in the display before her and ignorant of the intruders. Steeling himself, Jacen reached out towards her, attempting to gauge something, anything about the being they had traveled so far and lost so much to face, but she was a hole in the Force, her malice and dark energy folded into an impenetrable psychic rampart. If Tassadar had more success he gave no sign of it, and walked onward unshaken.
Finally, when they were only a few dozen yards from Kerrigan and her green-gray skin and serrated, bony carapace were plainly visible, she turned to face them. Her muscular arms spread wide, clawed hands open in a show of welcome. The pair of barbed, wing-like appendages that spouted from beneath her shoulder blades mirrored the gesture, flaring like the grasping feet of a bird of prey. Pools of impenetrable black welled in her fine, yellow eyes.
Suddenly, the eyes filled Jacen’s vision and obscured his other senses, searing through carefully-honed mental defenses as though they were wisps of idle fancy. He stumbled and started to reach for his head with his free hand, instinctively compelled to dash the foreign image from his mind, but he forced his arm to stop.
No! Not this easily! Not so soon!
He smothered the desperate, defensive urge and pushed back instead. He focused on the eyes, staring back with all his resolve. If Kerrigan thought she could break his will with the cursory assault and simple mental projection, she was sorely mistaken. He was a Solo, a Skywalker, and would not be bullied so. Another push, and the gilded voids evaporated.
Glancing to one side, Jacen could see that the Chief had faltered as well, but as the Jedi moved to lend him some of his own strength, the Spartan straightened up and squared his broad shoulders.
“Keep up with the Protoss,” he growled, breathless, but in control.
Jacen looked at the man’s opaque faceplate with fresh respect. Kerrigan’s telepathic assault had been limited, only half serious, but it still should have been enough to send a human without the appropriate mental barriers to his knees. Fleetingly, the Spartan reminded him of his father; Han wouldn’t have been easily cowed, either.
He would have never allowed such an insult to his ego, Jacen reflected before pushing the errant thoughts aside. Dad would say that the Chief has a bit of Corellian blood in him.
Tassadar came to a stop less than ten meters from Kerrigan, completely unfazed by the unseen attack. Kerrigan moved a step from her controls, and a broad smile spread across her stained lips.
“Welcome, brave Templar, to my humble keep,” she said, her voice saccharine. “I hope you and your companions found the stroll here pleasant.” She made a show of glancing around Tassadar’s armored frame. “I had expected more guests, but I suppose my guardians can be a little overzealous when it comes to my privacy. Nevertheless, I do usually demand a bit more… respect be paid to my servants. I was rather fond of the lump you gutted in my antechamber.” Something dangerous flashed across Kerrigan’s face, but in a moment it was gone, replaced once again by macabre good humor.
“But that is all behind us.” She waved an arm extravagantly at the high walls and ceiling. “Extraordinary, wouldn’t you agree? Feels a bit like home, doesn’t it?”
The Chief and Jacen had moved alongside Tassadar by now, and Kerrigan turned her gaze on the former. “You feel it, don’t you, Master Chief?”
The Spartan’s only reply was to raise his blaster pistol and point it squarely at her chest.
“Oh come on, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117… or perhaps, just John. Yes, that will do nicely.”
Jacen could sense anger rising in the Spartan, but he remained motionless, his armored finger just off the blaster’s firing stud. He kept control.
Kerrigan cocked her head slightly to one side, and the spines above her head swayed in tune with the movement. “Not in a sociable mood, John? Perhaps some old friends, to lighten the mood.”
“Eyes up!” the Chief barked.
Jacen saw a dozen sentinels rise from the empty space to either side of the causeway and form staggered lines in the air above them. They were identical to the one in the shaft, save that their lower appendages were noticeably extended. Apparently that, and the malevolent glee obvious in Kerrigan’s face, was enough to mark them firmly as threats in the Chief’s mind, and Jacen was not inclined to disagree.
As the humans turned their weapons towards the machines, Kerrigan spun around and reached out for something lying on a flattened area of the hard-light display. She returned with a large metal sphere gasped firmly in one hand. Its metal shell was similar to that of the sentinels, partially split to make room for a bulbous, eye-like lens, now dark and glassy.
“This little guy was quite upset when I found the facility. The place’s caretaker and artificial intelligence, I think. It called itself Insoluble Vector, or something. It flitted here and there, whining about my broods upstairs or blathering about its mission and how I was disturbing the machinery. It put up a rather disappointing fight when I finally decided to be rid of it.” She pondered the lifeless, artificial shell glumly, staring into its empty eye, cracked, Jacen could now see, and then tossed it carelessly to one side. The vacant machine bounced and rolled along the walkway until it came to its edge, teetered for a moment, and then tumbled soundlessly into the abyss.
Kerrigan turned her attention back to her audience, and smiled once more. “These sentinels proved far more useful, once I was able to bypass their old command protocols. For all they know, they’re doing what they’ve always done, keeping watch on my sanctum and making sure that any unwelcome guests are kept properly contained. Far more subtle than any of my organic creations. No risk of damaging what’s down here.”
One of the sentinels drifted out of line, dipped low over the walkway, and then wound lazily up behind Kerrigan until it was just above her right shoulder. She raised a hand and ran a single, razor-tipped finger delicately along one of its forward plates.
Suddenly, the sentinel twitched violently, and Kerrigan’s hand drew sharply back. Blue-white flame manifested itself on the sentinel’s armored chassis, and the light behind its single eye flared. With a crackle of arcane energy and dying machinery, the robot was consumed by the fire and fell at Kerrigan’s feet, a blackened mass of crumpled metal.
“Enough of your games, Dark One!” Tassadar boomed, his right hand raised. The space between them crackled palpably with charge.
The Queen’s stare grew cold as it turned once more onto the Templar. Jacen and the Chief watched as the remaining sentinels drew back from the trio, their forward plates splaying further and their low-slung apertures coming to life with golden light. There was no cover available, should the machines open fire, and no place to run save the yawn darkness below. Kerrigan had them in the palm of her hand.
And yet, Tassadar seemed barely even aware of the threats above, or the men on either side, for that matter. He beheld Kerrigan alone.
“You have called me here, Empty Queen, and I have come of my own free will. Now, you shall lay your plans bear, and tell me why and how you have dragged me to this realm. Then, and only then, will we have our reckoning.”
Kerrigan regarded him in silence, her lips pursed. The moment stretched, and Jacen felt the wash of a bubbling of power or raw emotion. As he tried to keep his guard on both the Queen and her stolen servants, the Jedi realized he could no longer be sure from which presence the feeling emanated. The life-force of Protoss and hybrid seemed to enmesh, immaterial tendrils clashing and knotting in an invisible duel.
“I suppose that would be only… fair.” The words rolled from Kerrigan’s slowly, cloyingly temperate. “You have answered my call, after all. Very well, I’ll tell you a story. But don’t think that you can fade away again if you don’t like what you hear, my slippery friend. There is no way out of here, at least not…”
She trailed off, a self-assured smile forming again. Tassadar said nothing.
“My thanks, to start, Templar. Without your courageous sacrifice on Aiur, my ascension would have been impossible. As much as he was fond of his new toy, the Overmind would have never truly left me to my own devices, and his sniveling, sycophantic Cerebrates would have remained an insufferable impediment. As it was, they had to be dealt with, but with the Swarm’s old master gone, it was a simple matter to subvert and eliminate the last hold-outs.”
“The Terrans and your crumbling empire – and proud Aiur was quite lost even before I even had a chance to lay eyes on it, I’m afraid – put up a more satisfying fight, but in time, their flimsy alliances were easily rotted, their heroes corrupted, and their peoples consumed. A few stragglers here and there, but nothing left worthy of the notice of the Queen of Blades and her loyal hordes. I even followed the Terrans all the way back to their homeworld.”
She looked upward dramatically. “I have to say, this version of Earth was much prettier when I found it. Heavy industry can take quite a toll on a biosphere. Well, I think my modest renovations improved on both worlds. A nice balance of efficiency and aesthetics, I think. You’re welcome to disagree, but I wouldn’t waste too much energy on it.”
“Anyways, I found myself master of, well, everything. Any planet I saw, I could have. Any organism, new genetic material for my Swarm. It was all… so very easy. I tried to distract myself with little projects, tinkering with species I had harvested, adding augmentations and culling evolutionary dead-ends. But I wanted more, knew that there was something else out there that was mine to claim. A supreme challenge for the ultimate lifeform. Maybe that’s why the Overmind created me.”
She aped an introspective air. “Perhaps I should give the old flesh ball a bit more credit.”
“My next conquest lay in the past. Relics. You know the ones, Tassadar. Xel’Naga monoliths and ruins, scattered from one side of the Galaxy to the other. The great progenitors, architects of entire sapient species, the creators of the Protoss and the Zerg. You know the legend, wise Templar, the ancient scripture of your race. How their creations grew too quickly, how they became too powerful, and turned on their masters, pushing them from known space.”
She paused again, seemingly for dramatic effect. Kerrigan seemed excited and thoroughly engrossed in her own story, for once almost human, but Jacen still could not feel her. If there was any humanity left in the being it was purely superficial, left intact to disarm and distract.
“But how could this happen, Tassadar? How could a species so ancient and so powerful fall before the tantrums of a pair of children? Where was the might that had forged a boundless empire and the will that had bent the foundations of life to their purposes? Why had they fled so easily? Where was their power? The answer was there all along, in the carved, abandoned rocks that Protoss and Zerg alike revered for their ancient energies. And I found it.”
“The key was on Shakuras, the great Xel’Naga temple that your Dark Templar claimed as their holiest ground. As soon as I set foot in its halls, I could feel the potential of the place, but the ancient’s would not give up their secrets easily. I knew it was a weapon, one that its acolytes had used to slow my advance, but there was so much more there, just out of reach. Its true power and purpose was locked away, and even I could not seize it by my energies alone. So, I recruited another to supplement my own psionic talents.”
Kerrigan tilted her chin down and frowned, plainly for Tassadar’s benefit. “Poor Zeratul. The strain was too great for him, I guess. He never was the same when it was over.”
Tassadar’s eyes flashed with blue-white fire.
“I tire of this, Dark One. You may have lured other with your petty goading, but I will not be ensnared. Tell me what I must know, or I will tolerate your musings no longer! I have slipped through your grasp before, and I can do so again.”
Kerrigan loosed a throaty chuckle. “Impatience, Tassadar? I expected a bit more from you. But you are right, of course. My thoughts do wander. No one’s perfect, right?”
“When the Dark Templar’s energies flared with my own, the temple at last opened to me, and I was swept up by a flood of insight. New, alien power poured into me, and I could see everything. I could understand it all! The true power of the Xel’Naga had not been lost. We had never really seen it at all! The empire that the Zerg and Protoss fought off was just a vestige of a far grander whole, cut off from its nexus, dying like a severed limb. The entity that our ancestors destroyed was already doomed!”
For once, Tassadar’s iron focus seemed to slacken slightly. Jacen could not blame him; either by some psionic trick or the sheer force of her will, Kerrigan’s tale was enthralling.
“The Xel’Naga’s greatest achievement was not a weapon or a monument or some new pet! It was this!”
She threw her arms back and on cue, a beam of blinding light pierced the emptiness at the chamber’s center, bisecting it from dome to bottomless deep. The column of energy and luminance was superficially similar to the lift’s anchor, but it was far wider, and indescribably more powerful. The beam dimmed slightly and began to widen, pulsing with cascading hues that Jacen’s conscious mind could barely comprehend.
A shockwave slammed into them, and both the Jedi and the Master Chief were forced to step back, bracing themselves. The sentinels above buffeted violently, some smacking into each other as their repulsors tried to compensate for the sudden turbulent. Only Tassadar and Kerrigan held their ground.
“A passageway, Tassadar! A gate to worlds that you and I cannot imagine! Galaxies unreachable by the most powerful starship! Even time is not beyond its reach! No dark age of the past or shrouded future horizon was barred to them! This is power! Resources, secrets, entire universes ripe for conquest! Unlimited power!”
Behind her, the column pulsed faster, and the empty air between it and the walkway seemed to solidify. From nothing, a cloud of distortion bent light and absorbed sound, swelling until it almost touched the thin surface on which they stood. The strange, ancient vitality Jacen had sensed before bloomed and roared in his mind, flooding him with psychic sensation.
“With devices like this one, the ancients spread well beyond the confines of their own reality, laying claim to galaxy after galaxy and bending them to their own will. Monuments like this were constructed in each, gateways that bound their mighty empire together. A trillion species felt their influence, and each of you have seen the undying remnants of their dominion. The Xel’Naga. The Forerunners of your world, soldier. The forgotten builders of your realm, Jedi, and this one as well. All of them, the same great architects. The greatest conquerors of this or any reality has ever known! And all because of these gates!”
The massive distortion, still fed by the towering beam of light, had stabilized into a great sphere of constant movement and spiraling charge. As Jacen followed wave after overlapping wave of warping space, he realized all in an instant that this was a rift. The mysterious phenomenon that had spat the Enterprise ravaged into Imperial space and propelled the Republica from peril to peril sat before them, a tear in the fundamental structure of reality. Even the Force seemed to change in its presence, its barely-perceptible veins made erratic and its very aura impregnated with the awesome presence.
Air current whipped about Kerrigan, but she did not turn to face the storm of essence and energy. Face broad with exhilaration, her gaze had locked firmly with Tassadar’s.
“But even these great creators were not invincible. An unstoppable foe encroached on their home realm, and the war that followed pushed the ancients to the brink of defeat. Their only chance to stop the invaders from finding these gates and spreading to every corner of their empire was to annihilate all life in their own homeland, nexus of the network. When their ultimate weapon was unleashed, the gates fell silent, their heart damaged by the blast and the final release of so many of its masters. The survivors were isolated, their lifelines cut, left to fend for themselves alone in galaxies they had only begun to tame.”
“In the end, they were not as magnificent as their constructs. One by one, the scattered remnants vanished, destroyed by rebellious natives and each other. Others simply wander off into the endless cosmos or went to ground on forgotten backwaters, letting all that they once were slip away. Now, all of them are gone, and only these gates remain. My gates.”
Kerrigan took one step towards Tassadar, paused, and then took another. He was utterly motionless, his eyes bound to hers.
“And now we come to your role in this little tale, dear Templar. You see, I was too greedy. When knowledge of the gates flowed into me, I bent all my power into awakening them from their dormancy. It worked, but the effort was draining, and I could not resist the portal when it opened over the temple.”
“When I awoke, I was weary and beaten, cast on the surface of a world I had never seen or heard of. My Swarm was gone; only the lone Protoss and a handful of my attendants had been pulled through the gate with me. I was angry at first, perhaps even… afraid, but soon I could sense another gate out amongst the stars, flush with new life and waiting for its new master to claim it. All I had to do was wait, bide my time until I could claim the artifact and probe its power more carefully. It did not take long for a Starfleet vessel to happen upon me, and it was a simple matter to corrupt its captain and crew. My influence spread quickly throughout the Federation, and all the while I bred fresh Zerg strains from those few that had accompanied me and the DNA pumping through my veins.”
“At last my strength returned and I maneuvered myself secretly to Earth. Finding this instillation was not difficult. This place called to me. I am the one who reignited it, its long-awaited master.”
“The true capabilities of this gate are incredible. After using Federation scientists and its own caretaker to discover its secrets, I realized that it was not limited to projecting rifts here, in this chamber. It could generate passageways anywhere in this realm, connected to any other dimension, and any other time, that the ancients had anchored with another gate. Causeways for war fleets between galaxies, as large and as permanent as I desire. Fleeting rifts capable of plucking individual starships or settlements and casting them into the farthest reaches of time and space. Tiny portals that grab sleepers from their beds or whisk them from transporter beams. Nothing is beyond its power!”
“Unfortunately, the amount of psychic energy required to accurately direct the device is considerable. It can work without such guidance, but it is greatly limited. Projected rifts appear erratically, both in time and place, varying unpredictably in size and duration. Often, they only manifest on areas of high energy. Even this rift’s end-point is variable. I needed more energy to bend it to my will, and your Zeratul was spent. Only Protoss, of all the species I had encountered and could obtain, had the necessary degree of power.”
Kerrigan was now only a few paces away from Tassadar. Jacen and the Chief had drawn back, weapons at the ready, but Tassadar seemed to be frozen in place.
“I don’t know how many rifts and portals I scattered across reality, using my Federation agents to follow up each subspace distortion and secure every being I managed to pull into this reality. So many dead ends and useless weaklings. And then, one of my pet admirals received word of a strange ‘transporter accident’ from Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise-D. Among the roster of unusual, displaced sapients, there was a Protoss face. Your face, Tassadar.”
“Of course the rifts would have found you eventually. Your battle with the Overmind must have been simply magnetic for the wandering portals. You can imagine my joy when I dispatched a ship to retrieve you… and my rage when Picard used one of my own rifts to escape.”
“I searched for years, but still you eluded me. Each new portal brought more disappointment, and eventually I resigned myself to this limited, weak realm. When my broods were ready, I swept aside the rotted Federation and its allies with contemptible ease. More frustration.”
“And then, you returned. What was more, you presented me with your ship, a tool I could use to crush the last, annoying remnants of this pitiful galaxy, and, of course, your own psionic power. I knew I had to be careful, draw you in slowly to ensure that you did not flee again. But you have come, in the end, and with a gift to replace the one your companions stole from me. I thank you, Tassadar, sincerely. It would have taken years to hunt down the defiant fools who are dying overhead right now in your name. But most importantly, I thank you for delivering yourself to me. With your power, I can make this gate complete.”
Kerrigan’s void-like pupils had widened until now her eyes were both impenetrably, irresistibly black.
“With your help, Tassadar, every being on every world in every universe will know my name. By your hand, the Queen of Blades will stand alone.”
Jacen expected a gout of the familiar white-blue flame to burst from the Templar, to sweep over the Zerg Queen at point-blank range. For all his Jedi training, for all his old masters’ admonitions about the necessity of restraint and their warnings about preemptive action, he would have attacked Kerrigan now were he in Tassadar’s place. Wearily hefting his lightsaber in her direction, he silently admitted to himself that he wouldn’t have let her get within five meters.
And yet, Tassadar was still. The Jedi could feel nothing from him. Surely, he should be able to feel something piercing the invisible pall cast by Kerrigan’s presence.
“Templar,” the Chief warned.
Kerrigan’s right arm extended towards the Protoss’ unarmored face.
“Tassadar!” Jacen shouted, fear suddenly stabbing at him. He had waited at the Templar’s side, certain that Tassadar was biding his time, waiting to strike when Kerrigan had divulged what he had so desperately wanted to know.
But Tassadar did not move, did not speak, did not even brush the edge of Jacen’s mind with his own. He was paralyzed, trapped in Kerrigan’s gaze.
Jacen and the Chief shot a quick glance at one another, thinking the same thing. Surrounded as they were, something had to be done. Kerrigan had to be stopped before she could claim her prize.
The Spartan’s trigger finger tensed. Jacen tried to clear his mind, focusing on the pommel in his hand and Kerrigan’s outstretched arm.
Neither man saw Kerrigan move. One moment, she was still beyond Tassadar, the next, she stood between them, the huge, bony spike on her back sweeping outward, low to the ground. The thick, hard tines caught Jacen in chest and legs with tremendous force. In a terrible, agonizing instant, he felt the bones in his legs creak and his knees buckle almost to breaking.
The world before his eyes reeled up and back. His lightsaber slipped from his grasp. He felt himself falling.
Instinctively, he pushed back to soften his impact on the ground, but he immediately realized that there was no ground. Kerrigan had knocked him clear of the causeway, and he was falling into the abyss. He felt his body tense and the swirling world around him seemed to slow. Numb with pain and shock, he reached out and did the only thing he could think of doing.
Miraculously, both his hands grasped the smooth, slightly raised edge of the causeway. The jolt of his own weight against his arms knocked his head from side to side, but his grip held fast.
There was a crack of lashing claws from above, and a mass of dull green rolled off the other edge of the suspended platform.
Jacen knew that he could not halt the armored man’s fall, especially not as he hung on for his own life, but…
With artificial rigidity and supernatural speed, even for a Spartan, the Chief’s left arm shot straight up and his fingers closed on the walkway’s narrow lip. An impulse flashed through his impact-clouded mind, and the fingers clamped onto the metal, vice-like. The joints of his gauntlet scrapped thin lines on the surface as his immense weight pulled him downward, but the right hand joined the left, and he found purchase again.
All this happened in a matter of seconds, but before either could take stock of their precarious new situation, a low chorus of hums heralded the approach of Kerrigan’s vanguard. Eleven silver-plated machines swung into view from either side of the walkway, dipping slightly below their targets and orienting their angular bodies in the humans’ direction. Jacen saw the golden glow, and knew at once he had to move or be skewered by whatever the sentinels could spit forth.
Swiftly checking his physical and mental reserves, the Jedi knew he could shoot himself straight upwards, back over the lip.
But the Chief…
Looking across the underside of the causeway, Jacen caught the other man’s gaze through his faceplate. The Spartan jerked his up.
Not pausing to think, Jacen summoned all the energy he could to him and pushed up. The Force felt strange, colder than it normally did when he manifested it, but it complied nonetheless. Bouncing off of his palms, Jacen shoot up three meters, landed back on the causeway in a roll, and then shoved himself up onto his haunches. Casting about for his lightsaber, he saw it just out of arm’s reach, less than half a meter from a very long drop.
As the sentinels rose back up over the lip, resolutely tracking their assigned target, the pommel was in Jacen‘s hand and lit. A swift slash caught a machine that had risen too close. A spherical energy barrier appeared around the sentinel to deflect the blow, but Jacen pushed through it, shattering the shield and cutting the device cleanly in half. Before the sparking fragments had the chance to fall more than a meter, four lances of golden light erupted from the firing apertures of the other sentinels.
Jacen felt the heat of the beams, saw them carve through the clear air, each aimed precisely, just above his breastbone. The Jedi ducked and thrust his lightsaber lengthwise in front of him. The beams intersected with the glowing blade almost at the same point, continuous bursts of energy that sent a wave of heat like lava over Jacen’s hands. He grunted as the skin of his knuckles blistered, but he pushed back, angling his blade forward and up. Like the refracted rays of sunlight on a mirror, the energy beams angled off wildly. Two grazed an unfortunate sentinel, overwhelming its shield and sending it spinning beyond sight, its rear chassis smoking. The others scattered to avoid the ricochet.
Taking advantage of their momentary withdrawal, Jacen looked down to the other side of the causeway. The lip was smooth and straight, without any sign of armored fingers.
Jacen inhaled sharply and rushed across the walkway, looking down and expecting to see nothing but sentinels circling down out of sight. Instead, one of the machines shot upward, just centimeters from Jacen’s face. Its movements were erratic and jerky, and it took the Jedi only an instant to realize why.
Clinging to the sentinel’s upper pair of forward plates, the Master Chief swung precariously back and forth, his stomach as flat as he could manage on the thing’s stubby drive section. It dipped back and forth and up and down like an insect with a broken wing, trying to shake the unwelcome passenger free and unburden its straining repulsors. Around it, the other sentinels watched the bizarre display at a distance, momentarily unsure of their targeting protocols.
Jacen knew that their hesitation would not last long, but before he could try to assist the soldier, a trio of energy beams slashed across the causeway in front of him and he was forced to jump back, lightsaber on guard.
Jacen spotted two of the machines floating close together overhead, and jabbed at them with an open palm. The two suddenly found their directional fins non-functional and smashed into each other at speed, triggering both of their defensive screens. They tried to move apart and reorient themselves, only to be flung into the shield of the third device. The last had been firing its weapon at that moment, and the shot went wild, catching both of the units that had impacted it. Their spherical screens absorbed the raking blow, but the confused fray distracted them for precious seconds, just as Jacen had intended.
One of the sentinels observing the Chief finally resolved to override its friendly-fire subroutines and angled a beam intended to clear the offending human off of its fellow machine’s back. The Spartan saw the blast coming and hauled back on his makeshift handholds, sending his sentinel into a reluctant backwards spin. The beam cut into the unprotected underside of the machine, and the hum of its repulsors revved and sputtered loudly.
Fortunately for its passenger, the sentinel bucked wildly before its drives gave way, sending the human sprawling through mid-air and onto the causeway a few meters from Jacen. Even more fortunately, the energy beams that followed him were all wide. One managed to sweep across his left shin, but his own energy shield saved the leg, and the Chief tugged the limb away from the searing lance.
Jacen ran in the prone soldier’s direction, and as he did, something bumped against one boot. Glancing down, he saw it was the Chief’s blaster, lost after Kerrigan’s assault. Still running, he swept his arm towards the Spartan, and the weapon turned and tumbled along in its wake.
The Spartan’s head turned in his direction. He took in the motile blaster in a glimpse, reached out, caught it, and then rolled sharply right to avoid more lances of lethal energy. Jacen sent another wave of Force pressure at the sentinels, sending them spinning away even as the others recovered from their disorientation and shot back towards the causeway.
As the Jedi turned to deflect the next volley of brilliant lances, the Chief picked himself up and searched the platform for their immediate priority. Kerrigan had moved to the very edge of the huge sphere of distortion that still hung at the center of the chamber. Tassadar was slouched against one of her legs, pinned there by the Zerg Queen’s flexible spines. Kerrigan’s back was turned on the humans, and she seemed to be entering something into the large holo-display at the walkway’s edge. The Protoss was still motionless.
The Chief raised his blaster, sighted along his arm, and fired. The burst of crimson hit Kerrigan full in the back, and she slumped against the controls. The Spartan pulled the firing stud again, but this time Kerrigan seemed to swipe the bolt from the air with her dorsal appendages, absorbing the burning plasma with reinforced chitin.
Her movement left Tassadar free to slump onto the causeway. His head hit the smooth surface, and his clouded eyes burst back to life. He felt sluggish and inordinately weak. At first, he couldn’t remember anything, not even his own name, but as his eyes filled with the swirling, cascading surface of the gateway’s rift, everything flooded back. His mission, Zeratul, what Kerrigan had told him, confident that the psionic trap she was laying while she spoke would bind him utterly to her will. Wisps of the spell still hung behind his eyes, dark threads that receded from the fire of his thoughts.
Dark Templar psionic technique, no doubt stolen from the mind of Zeratul or one of his comrades. Tassadar cursed himself for not detecting the familiar tendrils of coercion and paralysis-inducing apathy. He had been too desperate to learn some reason, some rationale behind the madness of the last weeks and months. Kerrigan had given that, at least, and now he felt his mind clear, his purpose crystallize.
His right hand shot out and grasped hold of Kerrigan’s spurred ankle. He pumped psionic energies through the limb, and heard the abomination scream. Good, he thought, she can still feel. Trillions demanded justice, and he vowed silently that each would exact its own painful vengeance.
Enormous claws slashed down his face and his body, each of them spitting its own searing psionic charge. He felt the armor at his waist melt away, and an enormous barb plunged deep into his side. Tassadar roared, and felt a foot plant itself on his side.
“Willingly or not, Protoss,” Kerrigan sneered down at him. “You are mine.”
Jacen had just sent another sentinel tumbling away into the blackness, scorched by its own weapon, when he felt Tassadar reach out to him. Whirling about, he saw the Templar lying on his side. Kerrigan stood above him, her back spines withdrawing from wounds on the Protoss’ vulnerable form. In that instant, Tassadar was looking past her, directly at the Jacen.
My people, Jedi.
With that, he was gone. Kerrigan had rolled him off the platform with his foot, straight into the throbbing surface of the rift. Jacen didn’t even see him hit it. The Zerg Queen arched her back, splayed her spines wide above her head, and barked a laugh of triumph. In an instant, she had vanished, too.
The sentinels did not cease their attack, but the departure of their master seemed to make the machines sluggish, and Jacen and the Chief made short work of them. Only when the last had fallen out of sight could either fully appreciate what had happened.
Jacen deactivated his lightsaber and let his arms fall to his sides. He stared at the massive bubble of distorted space. The rift was unaffected by the passage of the pair, its surface an uninterrupted tide of folding, barely-perceptible waves and burst of indescribable color. Only now, the Jedi noticed that the anomaly was utterly silent. Indeed, with the elimination of the sentinels, the chamber felt as soundless as deep space. The raw, living power of the rift still roared at him in within his skull, tugging his perception of the Force this way and that, but even that waterfall of sensation had dulled, as if it had started to pour its energy inwards.
My people, Jedi.
Jacen knew that Tassadar had intended it as a farewell, a last, desperate request. It left the Jedi feeling utterly helpless. The unspoken words hung on him like bricks of durasteel, crushing him to the floor. It was a request he did not know how to satisfy, the plea of a being that knew its time was near an end. He was certain that Tassadar still intended to destroy Kerrigan, but…
He remembered the huge gash in the Templar’s chest, and the Dark Queen’s feral joy.
“No more contacts on my sensors. We’re clear, for the moment.” The Master Chief stopped alongside Jacen, holstering his blaster. “The interference is gone and I’ve got comms. We’re pretty deep, though. I might not be able to reach anyone through the rock.”
“Truul’s team?” Jacen said numbly.
“Already searching,” the Chief replied, tapping the side of his helmet with two fingers.
They were silent for a moment, simply staring at the rift.
“We’ve failed,” Jacen said at last. “Kerrigan’s escaped.”
“She’s gone,” the Chief acknowledged. “And if our Intel was right, the Zerg fleet is falling apart right now.”
“So we saved them, what’s left of them, for what, a day?” Jacen shook his head. “You heard Kerrigan. If she manages to control one of these gateways, she’ll be all but unstoppable. All we’ve done is deliver Tassadar to her.”
The Chief stared at the younger man, and he suddenly felt his tinge with red.
“This was Tassadar’s plan. No one pushed him here. Not you. Not me. He’s in that thing with her right now, and I wouldn’t count him out of the fight yet.”
Jacen’s eyes fell. The Chief was right, of course. Tassadar had risked everyone, himself included, for the chance to get within striking range of Kerrigan – Jacen remembered his own anger at the prospect - and he had managed to do precisely that. Tassadar was one of the most powerful beings he had ever encountered, and the Protoss had saved all of their lives more times than he could remember. If anyone could destroy Kerrigan, he could.
And yet, there was the wound.
The Chief’s helmet crackled with static.
“Sierra, do you copy?”
“I copy, Beta. What is your status?”
The sound of weapons fire echoed from the transmitter, followed by a gruff, booming voice.
“Watch that door, Galmak! Catch them as they enter! Show these creatures what it means to match blade and claw with Klingons!”
There was a burst of static, and then Truul’s voice returned. “Don’t encourage ‘em, Commader! It’s bad enough that they had to bring so many damn knives and swords with ‘em. We’ve got these things beat, and I don’t want to have to drag along another fool who got his arm gnawed off because he didn’t think his disruptor was good enough for the job!”
“Sierra, we found your tunnel, and were making our way down into the mountain. We got to these damn huge tunnels before the Zerg found us. Hard going since, and I’ve got casualties. The pressure’s just cut, though. Fewer of the blasted things, and they’re not as coordinated. Did you upend a Cerebrate or something?”
“Affirmative, Beta. My unit has advanced what appears to be the command center of the facility. Alpha has engaged the Primary.”
There was a pause. “Please repeat, Sierra. Is Kerrigan dead?”
Jacen looked up. They wouldn’t ever know if Tassadar succeeded or failed, at least not until Kerrigan emerged again with the rifts and a new army bent to her will. And then, it would be too late.
“Negative, Beta,” the Chief replied. “Alpha and the Primary…” he trailed off, apparently unwilling to explain over the comm. “We’ve lost contact with both. I’ll fill you in when your unit gets here. Follow this signal until you reach a shaft. I’ll send the lift up for you when you signal.”
“Got ya, Sierra. I’ll shout if there are any more problems.”
The Chief muted the line and turned back towards Jacen. The Jedi was still staring at the rift, silent. Slowly, the Chief looked away and started back down the causeway towards the waiting lift.
“I’ll stay with the lift until the Major arrives. If you notice any new contacts, let me know.”
“I’m going in.”
The Chief stopped mid-stride.
The two turned to face one another again, and the Chief saw that younger man’s face was hardened with resolve.
“We have to be sure that Tassadar has destroyed Kerrigan. I’m going to follow him, and help him if I can.”
“You’re not stupid, Jedi,” the Chief said briskly. “We have no idea how that thing works, or where it leads. Even if you were to survive the transit, there’d be no way of contacting you or getting you back. This is in the Templar’s hands now. We still have our duty here.”
“We failed in our duty when she stepped into the rift, Chief! Tassadar’s alone with her, who knows where, and she’s on the verge of accessing a power we can barely comprehend, much less stop. If she survives, all we’ve fought for is for nothing! We’re dead, and so is everyone in this galaxy. Eventually, my home will fall, too, and so will yours.”
He shook his head. “I’m not a soldier, but I take my duty just as seriously as you do. On this world or any other, I am a Jedi, and it is my responsibility to preserve peace and defend life, no matter the personal cost. Kerrigan threatens that and everything else I care about. I must follow her and make sure that she cannot spread her ruin anymore, even if I have to become one with the Force to do so. That is my duty, Chief, and I will fulfill it, just as you must fulfill yours.”
With that, Jacen turned his back on the Spartan, clipped his lightsaber to his side, and stalked towards the ethereal vortex. The Chief watched his back for a while, and then glanced down at his hands.
Worn armor. Veteran of too many firefights and daring escapes. The paint was thin and chipped, burned off in places, and number of dings and minute fractures in the metal probably would have made its designers recoil.
The blank-faced helmet shook back and forth slowly. Who was he to tell anyone else not to take stupid risks for what they believed in?
Jacen had stopped near the edge of the circular walkway already, and he glanced back, his face still set.
“Even bad ideas should have contingency plans. If you go in there, find Kerrigan and eliminate her, do you want to be stuck alone on the other side of that without a way to get back?”
Jacen shoulder’s drooped slightly. “I don’t see how I have many options.”
“Wait a moment,” the Chief said, and reactivated his comm link.
“Beta, are you in contact with the Fleet?”
“Haven’t tried for a while, Sierra, but I can give it a shot.”
“Patch me to Flagship Vulcan, if you can.”
“All right, give me a bit.”
Jacen was giving him a quizzical look, but there was still a good chance the Chief sudden inspiration would fall flat, and he avoided the gaze.
After a tense half-minute, there was a hiss and burst of static so loud that it echoed up to the chamber’s high dome, and then a voice, scratchy and distant, but entirely recognizable.
“Strike Force Earth? Major Truul, is that you? What is your status?”
Jean-Luc Picard’s faint voice sounded nearly as excited as it did weary.
“Captain, this is Sierra. The Master Chief, sir. We’ve breached Kerrigan’s fortress and secured her control room.”
“Acknowledged, Master Chief. The Zerg armada is collapsing. We had thought we’d just hit another Cerebrate, but I suppose you and your men deserve the credit. Is Kerrigan dead?”
“No, sir. She entered some kind of device at the base of the facility with Tassadar when we attempted to engage. The device is secured and we’re prepared to pursue, but I want someone down her who can control the machine and pull us back when the mission’s been accomplished.”
There was a long pause, and the voice that finally replied was not Picard’s.
“What have you found us this time, Chief?”
The Spartan smiled for the first time in what felt like years. It had been far too long since he had heard Cortana’s smooth, confident voice.
“Forerunner. An entire facility, buried under Mount Kilimanjaro.”
“Forerunner?” Cortana was understandably bewildered, but none of the apprehension in her voice was doubt. “How is that possible?”
“I’m still not entirely sure, but we’ve found out what brought us all here and what’s been making the anomalies. Kerrigan found some sort of projection device, and she’s been using to try and lure Templar Tassadar here. They’ve disappeared into a rift, and Jacen Solo and I are going to follow them, but I need you to get down here and figure out exactly what this thing is and how to use it. We’ll need a way back when the job’s done.”
“Wait, Chief. You’re going into it before I figure out how it works?”
“It can’t wait. Tassadar and Kerrigan have already been gone too long. We can’t even be sure it will stay open much longer.”
“All the more reason to be careful about this.” Cortana’s agitation was painfully clear. “The battle up here is over. Without Kerrigan, the Zerg ships are all but dead in space. Can’t we wait and follow her later, when we have more data?”
The Chief paused.
“Are you sure about this, Chief?”
He grinned. “Do I ever jump into anything if I’m not sure I’ll come out of it?”
“No jokes! Just… tell me.”
“I’ll come back, Cortana. I promise.”
The AI was silent for a moment, an eternity for the artificial mind.
“How long do you need?”
The Chief considered for a moment. “Three hours. If you can figure out how to get us back at all.”
“If that thing’s Forerunner, Chief, you’ll have your evac. Three hours, no longer.”
“Acknowledged. Give my regards to the Captain. Sierra out.”
Immediately upon ending the transmission, the Spartan activated his mission clock, a tiny numeral that wound slowly up on the corner of his vision.
“We?” Jacen asked when he had finished.
“As you said, Jedi, duty.”
Jacen smiled slightly.
Everyone has someone to protect.
“What about Major Truul?”
With speed and efficiency that still impressed the Jedi, the Chief traversed the long causeway, activated the lift and loped back off of it before it could rise more than half a meter, and informed Truul of the change of plans, ordering him to secure the chamber in their absence and wait for Cortana. In less than a minute, they were standing side by side at the edge of the walkway, the distortion rippling silently before them.
“Take my hand,” Jacen said, offering it to the Spartan. “We can’t be separated. You won’t know where you’re going in there.”
“And you will?”
Jacen sighed, glanced at the anomaly once more, and raised his hand higher. The Spartan took it, careful not to clasp it too hard.
“On count of five,” the younger man said, squaring himself before the rift and taking in a deep breath.
“It’s better if you just jump.”
Before Jacen could protest, he felt the pull of the Chief’s weight on his arm, and both were gone.
The RiftStanislav Petrov- The man who saved the worldHugh Thompson Jr.- A True American Hero
"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
"May fortune favor you, for your goals are the goals of the world." - Ancient Chall valediction
Last edited by Noble Ire on 2008-06-27 05:32am, edited 1 time in total.