Chapter Nine: Playing with Fire
The mass bloodshed on Char and Valhalla V was beginning to take its toll. Actually, it had been taking its toll for a while. But now people were speaking out openly about it. Public pressure was on Mengsk to win quickly.
So Mengsk gambled. He went to take direct command of the war on Valhalla V. If he won it would give him all the credit and send his ratings skyrocketing. If it failed it would discredit him.
Mengsk was a good gambler.
-Liberty's report, volume III
The evacuation was well underway and it was nothing like Mar Sara. Thousands of troops had been withdrawn in an orderly fashion, and even as the Dominion fought an exhausting war with the zerg, Schezar's Scavengers slowly but surely pulled out. Unfortunately, they were still in the process of purging the mainframe, and that would take time. In the meantime, the faint sound of canon fire was ominous, to say the least in the halls of the Command Center.
Amid this Alan was neatly packing the contents of his office into boxes. As Matron entered he looked up. 'Ah, Matron, please come in. Would you like some brandy?'
'No thank you, Alan.' said Matron 'I'm fine.' She doubted Alan called this meeting for petty reasons.
'Good, good.' said Alan 'There is a small problem we have.'
'Which is?' asked Matron.
'You've been dissecting protoss, Matron.' said Schezar.
'And?' asked Matron.
'And?! And?!' said Alan in sudden fury. 'You did not think to consult me before you started dissecting a sentient species.'
'We're already enemies with them, Alan.' said Matron 'I didn't see the problem.'
'You didn't see the problem with-' He cut himself off. 'There is a difference between being enemies with someone and inspiring their eternal hatred! What were you thinking?!'
Matron suddenly realized that she hadn't been thinking. It had just seemed so natural when she had been given the orders. Order by… who? 'I… I don't know. Duran asked me to learn as much about their biology as possible and… and…'
'Oh. Wonderful, he psionically influenced you.' said Alan 'I'm going to have to have that man killed soon. I hope you don't mind.'
'No! Of course not!' said Matron 'How he… how could someone influence me over a communicator.'
'This is how.' said Alan, removing a sheet of paper from his desk.
Matron took it and looked at the image of a brain scan of some kind. 'What is this?'
'It is the Confederacy's insurance policy.' said Alan 'Each of us was given certain psionic suggestions in our mind intended to prevent a mutiny. Of course, the first thing I did when I learned about these was arrange to have my own programming reversed, followed by reversing that of the other Squadron Heads.
I can only assume I missed something.' He sighed.
'How… how did you learn of this?' asked Matron.
'I corrupted a ghost assigned to watching me and she revealed everything.' said Schezar 'I lack psionic abilities of my own, but when one is loose in someone's mind it is inevitable that one will be affected by what they see. I knew I could not overpower her by brute strength, so instead, I wooed her, so to speak.
You see ghosts have a serious disadvantage. They have no memories of their previous life. Because of this, they are grounded in reality only by their programming. By giving her repeated doses of positive emotion whenever her thoughts turned the way I wanted them to think of, I gradually subverted her to my will.'
'But her programming…' began Matron 'How did you break it?'
'I didn't.' said Alan 'She is just as loyal to the Confederacy as she once was. I merely enlightened her that I am the Confederacy and that the paper pushers and businessmen who wanted her to police me were acting contrary to its interests.'
'Where is this ghost?' asked Matron 'Why have I never seen her before?'
'She's right over there.' said Schezar.
Matron shuddered and realized that there was a red-headed woman sorting through files to her left. She had not seen her before, and yet she realized she had. There was another, a slim man, standing deadly still. A ghost. When had he gotten here? Or had he always been there?
'Of course, there was such a ghost assigned to every Squadron Head.' said Schezar 'Assigned to kill them if they ever betrayed the Confederacy. Fortunately, they keep each other informed, and I was able to use my own assigned ghost to persuade yours and the others that I am the Confederacy.'
'Are you threatening me?' asked Matron.
'Of course, I'm not threatening you Matron.' said Schezar 'I'm merely informing you that these ghosts serve the Confederacy. And I am the Confederacy. This had better not happen again.'
'It won't sir.' said Matron.
'Good,' said Schezar 'now, I don't want to lose anyone because Samir Duran influenced them. So as soon as we're out of here I want you to scan all important personnel for anymore programming. Do you understand me?'
'Yes, sir.' said Matron 'Of course sir.' Schezar could be scary when he got professional.
'Excellent,' said Schezar 'how is the evacuation proceeding?'
'Well, our best troops have already evaced.' said Matron 'There are only the bases surrounding Malcolm and the mercenaries we hired from the Kel'morians.'
'Malcolm comes first.' said Schezar.
Matron looked at him in surprise. 'Sir? Are we prioritizing an animal over the lives of our men?'
'As long as we have Malcolm we have a limitless supply of bodies without loved ones to throw at the Dominion.' said Schezar 'We can clear out the zerg, and damage our enemies in the process. The war of attrition must continue if we are to get the breathing space we need.'
'I know sir, but…' Matron sighed. 'I don't like leaving men behind so I can evacuate a monster.'
'When will Malcolm be ready to leave?' Ignoring the fact? That wasn't like Schezar.
'A few hours, perhaps.' said Matron 'Defenses are heavy, so I doubt the Dominion will be able to do anything.'
'Unfortunately, Serena Calabas has a tendency to defy expectations.' said Schezar 'It's a pity Arturro alienated her. If she'd joined us we'd be ruling the sector right now. Still, no sense crying over spilled milk. Come, Reikson has established our primary base on Auir.
Once we're there we can take control of the rest of the swarm. Then no one will be to stop us.'
The door opened and Lieutenant Sanchez entered and saluted. 'Sir!'
'Ah, Lieutenant Sanchez.' said Alan 'I'm sorry to hear about your losses.'
'Battlecruisers hit us before we could finish the evac.' said Sanchez 'I lost half my boys.'
'Fortunately, most of them were mercenaries.' said Alan 'The core of our loyal forces is intact. Hired guns often engage in piracy on the side, so they are no great loss to anyone. The Dominion is now being stretched thin. Soon enough we should be able to force Mengsk to terms if all goes well.'
'Force Mengsk to terms?' asked Matron.
'You don't suppose I'd wage a war of extermination against the Dominion using a horde of alien xenomorphs, do you?' asked Alan 'Do I look like Arturro Calabas.'
'What is the plan, then?' asked Sanchez.
'Get complete control of the swarm, then move it away from Auir.' said Schezar 'We can then use it to threaten Mengsk into recognizing us. Since he's lost the psi disruptor he won't be keen for battle. We sign a peace treaty, and everyone lives happily ever after.'
'Isn't that a bit… petty?' said Matron.
'Ambition is only a virtue when kept in check.' said Schezar 'Reach too far and you may lose a hand. Now, our ship awaits us.'
'What of the protoss? Shall I have them executed?' asked Matron.
'Sanchez, you recently hired three large contingents of Kel'morian Mercenaries, correct?' said Schezar.
'Yes sir, um…' Sanchez paused 'about that. They are demanding their payment early.'
'Ah, of course. Put them in charge of guarding the protoss and tell them I will give them double their money in exactly a week, rather than the agreed upon month.' said Schezar. 'If they win we'll pay them the agreed sum, if not we don't have to pay them anything.'
'That's a bit ruthless, don't you think?' said Matron.
'Kel'morians are much like the Ancient Greeks of Old Earth.' said Schezar 'They may unite when facing a common enemy, and they may serve as powerful mercenaries. But as soon as they go home their loyalty returns to their Guild.
Since they are demanding their money early, I expect they would turn on us sooner or later anyway. Best to cut our losses.'
'Yes sir.' said Sanchez.
Days later Dominion reinforcements had arrived and with it a personal visit from Emperor Mengsk. Serena awaited the arrival of the Emperor at the base of his craft and saluted as he came down. Warfield and Davis had taken over the unpleasant of purging the zerg on Valhalla V, while Serena mostly just did paperwork and assigned resources. Satellites were set up in the orbit around Valhalla V to help in the hunt for the remnants of Schezar's gang.
It was a relief to see a friendly face. 'Arcturus, are you sure it's wise for you to come out here?'
'There are certain matters we need to discuss that are best not said over a transmission.' said Arcturus. 'I'd like to speak to you in private.'
'Understood.' said Serena.
In a private meeting room, Arcturus Mengsk dropped the act. 'Commander, we may have a problem. Intelligence reports that the base we destroyed wasn't Schezar's primary stronghold.'
Dead silence ensued.
'Are you fucking serious!' said Serena at last.
'I'm afraid so.' said Mengsk with a slight smile. 'We've received satellite images of a larger, heavily fortified base near the southeast. Now, this may sound impossible, but we have identified a zerg cerebrate near the base. It looks like Schezar has found a way to control the creature and it's minions.'
'They named it Malcolm.' said Serena.
'You already knew?' asked Mengsk.
'We found some research data which indicated Schezar has been studying the protoss and zerg.' said Serena 'I wanted to tell you about it in person, in case you wanted to hush it up.'
'That was wise.' said Arcturus 'The good news is that this is an easy media victory for us. Some people have begun to doubt our story on the Confederacy. With this, our suspicions will be totally confirmed.'
'So we're going to tell people Alan enslaved a cerebrate?' asked Serena.
'Of course not.' said Mengsk 'If they found out that was possible they might try to replicate his research. No, officially the evil Confederacy of Man made an alliance with the Overmind. We'll add a few hints of a dark cult just to be sensational.
Which brings me to a serious problem. The psi disruptor has been stolen.'
'What?' said Serena.
'Duran disappeared off the grid, along with the ghosts who were watching him.' said Mengsk 'And the psi disruptor went with him.'
'Probably Umojan,' said Serena.
'What makes you say that?' asked Arcturus.
'We found Umojan weaponry here.' said Serena 'They're supplying Schezar.'
'Well that does clear things up.' said Mengsk 'The theft was flawless. As far as I can tell no one even noticed it disappearing. Not even my ghosts.'
'That's an impressive amount of corruption.' said Serena.
'It is unnatural.' said Mengsk 'Do you have any idea how many safeguards I put in place to prevent exactly that from happening? I accounted for all this, and yet he has somehow compromised my whole system in a few months.'
'What do you think happened?' asked Serena.
Arcturus considered it. 'I think Duran is a much higher level psychic than we have been led to believe. He is entirely too good at worming his way into positions of authority, and my background checks have been in vain.
Jim was right. We should have shot him.'
'Well we can cross that bridge when we come to it.' said Serena.
'Yes,' said Mengsk 'and we have more important matters to attend to. Your reports indicate to me that the purge is going well. The zerg on Valhalla V should be purged within a few weeks if all goes well.'
'All will not go well.' said Serena 'Schezar might be able to call more broods to him using Malcolm. And anyway we're winning at a serious cost. These zerg are tenacious, and we're already engaged on Char.
Can we really afford this?'
'Fortunately, our resources are greater than you think.' said Mengsk 'New worlds have been rallying to the Dominion by the dozens. After all, we are the great hope of humanity, the defeater of the Confederacy and the liberators and protectors of the innocent. Propaganda is such a wonderful thing. Particularly when it is true.
Even so, I take your point. This adventure is proving far too costly for my tastes, and I would prefer to have it done with as quickly as possible. Still, we obviously cannot allow a second-rate smuggler to control his own Brood.'
'So we're back to pretending as if Schezar isn't a threat, I see.' muttered Serena.
Mengsk smiled faintly. 'Your orders are to terminate Schezar's pet cerebrate with extreme prejudice. To further assist, I am assigning two of our best officers to your command.' He opened the door.
Two very different people walked in. One was a thin, bald, dark-skinned cyborg, who looked more machine than man the other a tall white man with slicked-back red hair. The latter had a posture which told Serena he was a flyboy and he nodded to her.
'First let me introduce, Tom Kazansky, the best wraith pilot in the fleet.'
'I have heard much about you, commander.' said Kazansky. 'I look forward to working with you.'
Serena shook his hand. He had a loose grip. 'Nice to meet you.'
'And second,' said Mengsk 'this is Magellan, a cybernetic construct in command of one of the most advanced science vessels we have. Listen to him closely Commander, for he has one of the finest scientific minds in the Terran Dominion.'
'Salutations Commander.' said Megellan, before looking up, his cybernetic eye gleaming. 'I am picking up a transmission on the hyper-waveform emitter… I am patching it in.'
There was suddenly a presence in the room. It seemed to both originate from Megellan and yet be all around them. A voice came from Megellan, but it was not Megellan. 'Terran Commander, I am Mojo, Praetor of the Protoss forces on Auir. I have been captured by a group of terran criminals under command of one Alan Schezar.'
'We've met.' said Serena.
'I require your assistance.' said Mojo.
'Fine,' said Serena 'I'll release you after we take care of the cerebrate.'
'Do not attack the zerg cerebrate!' said the protoss 'Should you destroy the creature, its minions will run amok and overrun both our forces and your enemies will simply find another cerebrate to dominate. If you help free me and my brethren, we will help you put an end to this madness once and for all.'
'Belay that request Commander.' said Arcturus 'You have your orders, destroy the zerg cerebrate. After the danger is passed, we may be able to assist the Protoss.'
'…What he says makes sense, Arcturus.' said Serena 'There are millions of zerg here, maybe more. We might need help taking them out.'
'I have the utmost confidence in your abilities.' said Arcturus.
The Command Center had a tense air as ensigns scurried to and fro on their duties. Serena looked at the monitors holding her three Lieutenants at the read. Lieutenant Swallow was looking worried, while Kazansky looked eager. Megellan had an unreadable expression on his face. Everyone looked a bit pensive, after what had happened with the previous base.
'Swallow, report.' said Serena.
'Schezar's main base is one one of a series of islands.' said Swallow 'We've established a beachhead just south of the island where the cerebrate is, but there are a lot of zerg northwest of our position. They can reach us by land. Just east of the cerebrate's island is an Omega Squadron base, but they've been slow to respond.
Scanner sweeps indicate their inexperienced. Ordinarily, I'd order an assault, but we're still getting started. This is going to be a grueling fight, ma'am.'
'Megellan, I want you to create a defensive matrix over Kazansky's squadron.' Serena 'Once that is done, Kazansky you will rush in and punch a hole in Omega Squadron's defenses. When you are in I want you to blow up every dropship they have down there. Use your cloaking fields if you can. When you run out of dropships, aim for wraith fighters and heavy equipment.
Understand? Our goal is to cripple Omega Squadron's offensive capability.'
Defensive matrixes were a technology that was very useful in theory. It could be used to create a temporary energy shield over a number of entities that moved with them. However, they took an enormous amount of energy, limiting their usefulness.
'Yeah, sounds about right.' said Kazansky. 'En route now.'
'Emily,' said Serena 'start entrenching. I need a secure perimeter against these zerg.'
There was a distant noise like thunder. Looking out the window Serena saw the flashes of bombs on the horizon. Kazansky had made contact. For a moment they stood there in silence as reports came in. Would Kazansky succeed? Or would he be shot down? It was the waiting that was the worse.
'This is Kazansky,' said Kazansky at last 'we've blown up all their beached starships and are starting work on their heavy equipment.'
'Belay that order, withdraw. Let's not push our luck, shall we? Swallow, report.'
'Our troops are assembled and ready to go, ma'am. We've had a couple of assaults by the zerg, but we've beaten them off.'
'Excellent, take your forces north and destroy the zerg base.' said Serena 'Blow everything, leave nothing standing.'
'Shouldn't we just hit the cerebrate and get out?' asked Emily.
'We can't risk an assault with these many enemies, Swallow. Carry out your orders.'
It was amazing how detached someone could feel watching thousands of creatures being slaughtered. Emily's advance to the north was very bloody. She tried for a gradual advance with her siege tanks decimating everything while her marines defended them. But the zerg went against them like a tide, and vast swarms of mutalisks hit their flank.
To her credit Swallow kept her forces moving forward, defending her tanks and crushing all opposition. But Serena saw many little white soldiers on the satellite images torn to shreds during the advance. Faintly she could hear screams amidst the roars and gunfire. Like everything else, it was a high casualty battle.
Serena arranged for reinforcements even as the last of the first hive was obliterated.
'This is Swallow.' said Emily 'We've destroyed the zerg base to the northeast, however, we think there might be another one a few miles to the north of our position. I'd like to set up a defensive position here, ma'am.'
'Do so. I'm dispatching several companies of marines to your command, and a division of armor.' What Serena said next would lead to even more death. Yet it had to be done. 'When a defensive position has been established you will move forward and obliterate the zerg in this area.'
'With all due respect, ma'am, this doesn't seem essential to our mission.' said Emily.
'As soon as the cerebrate dies we're going to face an all-out offensive from the zerg.' said Serena 'I want our position secure when that happens. Destroy the base, and kill everything in it.'
Serena had one simple rule regarding fighting the zerg. Never leave a hive cluster intact. With terrans and protoss you could reason with them, convince them to stand down. But the zerg were less than animals. They sought without end to infest and destroy and had to die for the sake of everyone else.
'Kazansky,' said Serena 'provide Lieutenant Swallow with air cover.'
'En route now.' said Kazansky.
Swallow advanced and hit even great forces. Wraiths and mutalisks dueled in the skies as marines formed lines to unleash vast tides of impaler rounds into the ranks of tens of thousands of zerg. How did the zerg produce so many creatures so quickly? Didn't they ever get exhausted?
The roar of siege tanks, the sound of gauss fire. It all became a blur to her. Then there was a sound far nearer.
'Ma'am!' said Morgan 'Schezar is launching an assault on us! His forces have landed north of our position!'
'All home guard forces repel the invaders!' said Serena 'Lieutenant Swallow and Kazansky will continue their assault.'
Rising Serena opened the cameras for the command center. Delta Squadron troops were engaged in a slugging match with the forces of the Dominion. They had dropped down tanks to support them, and soon explosions could be seen throughout the compound. The command center shook.
Red armored marines broke the orange line, though at great cost and charged the tanks. Yet before they could finish them dropships came down to rescue the remnants of the attack force. The victory was theirs, but Schezar had withdrawn his hand well.
'Damage report?' asked Serena.
'Our structures have taken some bad hits, but nothing serious.' said Morgan 'A hundred or so dead on both sides.'
'Damn it.' said Serena.
Looking back to the screen Serena saw Emily's forces destroying the remnants of the zerg forces. They were half as many in number as they had been before. Serena felt sick suddenly.
'This is Swallow.' said Emily 'It's done, we've broken them.'
Serena ran to the com. 'Excellent work. Secure the area and prepare to receive a mining company. I want this area producing minerals for the Dominion by the end of the week.'
'I thought this was an in and out mission, ma'am.' said Emily.
'Please confirm the last order, Lieutenant.' said Serena.
'…We're to prepare to receive a mining company.' said Emily.
'Precisely.' said Serena 'Megellan, what kind of defenses does the cerebrate have?'
'Air defenses are quite formidable. However once an assault force was landed, I believe they would have only moderate difficulty with destroying the sunken colonies.' said Megellan 'Even so, I am detecting a great many zerg there. I suggest caution.'
'Very well.' said Serena 'Kazansky, get your flight together and prepare to escort an assault force. You're going to draw the fire of the spore colonies. Megellan, provide them with a defensive matrix.
Lieutenant Morris, you are to take your company and take a foothold near the southern peninsula. Once you've done that more troops will be sent your way.'
The assault took perhaps an hour. It was bloody and horrible, but Serena could only watch. Back on Mar Sara she had been part of the attack. Now she was just sending men to their deaths for the sake of her own philosophy of war. It didn't sit right with her.
'We've got a problem ma'am.' said Morris at last.
'What is it?' asked Serena.
'There's no way up the cliffs.' said Morris 'The cerebrate is up there but we can't get to it.'
'Kazansky, do you think you could take it out?' asked Serena.
'Negative, command. Air defenses are too thick.' said Kazansky.
'Alright, alright,' said Serena 'Megellan, patch me through to Emperor Mengsk.;
Arcturus appeared on the screen looking pleased. 'Ah, Serena. I trust you have good news.'
'Excellent news, we've crushed the zerg presence and now surround the cerebrate. Unfortunately, we can't get to it by land, and its air defenses are thick as rats.' said Serena 'We need battlecruisers.'
'Regrettably, that is not an option.' said Arcturus 'Battlecruisers are not simply an assault vehicle, they are command centers for entire armies. And right now all of them are preoccupied fighting the zerg on a dozen different fronts. It will be some time before we are able to send any.'
'Wonderful.' said Serena 'Alright, I'd like to request permission to assault Schezar's primary base camp. While we're waiting we might as well free the protoss.'
'Very well, I suppose it would only benefit our relations.' said Arcturus 'Do as you see fit, but be careful. Their defenses are formidable.'
'Kazansky, Megellan will provide your squadron with another defensive matrix and you'll punch a hole in their defenses. From there we'll land our strike team. Emily, Morris, stand by to assault the main compound. Your priority is to rescue the protoss, and seize the command center. Am I clear?'
Organizing the assault took an hour. There were wounded to tend to and repairs to make. During this time they saw no sign of Schezar's forces or anyone else. The zerg had been devastated, but their terran masters were intact.
'Why aren't they attacking?' asked Serena 'Morgan, have you detected any starship activity from those bases?'
'No, ma'am.' said Morgan. 'We've got nothing. Megellan hasn't detected anything either.'
The assault was waged. A hole was punched in the missile turrets and the forces landed like clockwork. They destroyed the anti-air capability and then swarmed over the base. A brief firefight broke out as marines rushed to stop them, but these were quickly swept away. Finally, the base was theirs.
'…That was too easy.' said Serena, opening a channel. 'Swallow, what have you got down there?'
'Nothing. It looks like the base was running on a skeleton crew.' said Swallow 'A few squads of brain panned marines. That's it.'
'Schezar must have evacuated.' said Serena 'Megellan are you sure no starships left?'
'Negative.' said Megellan 'Schezar must have departed by other means.'
'But how… unless…' An idea occured to her. 'Megellan send a geological survey team down. See if you can any tunnels. Swallow, look around for any sign of the protoss.'
'We've found their cells, ma'am.' said Swallow.
Serena stood up. 'I'm on my way.'
Thousands of people had died today. And Serena had ordered it to happen. It was utterly surreal and horrific at once. She wanted to throw up, but she had to maintain the illusion of control.
Okay, so I kind of cheated with this one. I watched a video of someone else winning this mission and based the strategy Serena used off of that. I couldn't beat it on my own.
Good god, I am sick of writing action scenes with zerg. The problem is that I've already established that Serena never leaves a single zerg hive intact when she goes on a mission.