Magos Adept Tuul swore in irritation as an electrified cable came loose from the ceiling and crashed down across the gangway, crushing a servitor into a pile of messy gore and offal. The sizzling meat of the servitor splashed wetly across his face and optics, briefly obscuring his vision.
It was times like these that he was grateful to have removed his digestive system. Now was no time for nausea.
“I want the primary reactor back online! I don't care what you have to do, the auxillaries can't compensate for the power drop for much longer!” Tuul bellowed over the loudspeaker, “And get a repair team over to deck twelve to fix the carbon dioxide scrubbers before the crew suffocates.”
Tuul grabbed the power cable in the arm of his servo harness, enjoying the tingling sensation of 50,000 volts arcing across his insulated limbs. He cackled madly to himself as he shoved the power line into a junction point, twisting it in before forcing a rudimentary seal with ferrocrete epoxy. It wouldn't last the battle, but it ought to hold out until Enginseers could manage a more permanent repair.
“Sir,” a red robed Enginseer said as he hopped over the liquified servitor, holding out a data slate at arm's length so as not to stand in any of the puddles, “The Lord Sáclair needs us to increase the power output of the starboard Y-axis thrusters by ten percent to offset the main guns. We're getting too much lateral drag from gunfire.”
“Then fix it, why don't you? Take a maintenance team to the thrusters and recalibrate the power couplings,” Tuul eyed the power readouts on the data slate anxiously, “And get Enginseer Sven down to deck 17. Something has to be wrong with the power readouts - it's showing 100% efficiency in the shield generators.”
Nothing ever ran at 100% efficiency, especially not mid-battle. How in the hell had Kerrigan made this look so effortless? She'd never been caught short of breath; even when she'd had to surrender she'd apparently done it with grace and poise. Perhaps it had something to do with being a woman. There was at least correlative data to suggest a link between being more collected in a crisis and being female.
If he survived he'd have to consider increasing the ratio of estrogen in his remaining biological components to see if it boosted performance, “Enginseer Throm, what in the hell are you trying to do? Blow up the ship? Don't try to reactivate the reactor till after you've flushed the excess radiation.”
Tuul ducked under a mess of cables and grabbed hold of a narrow ladder, glad for his augmentic fingers as the ship bucked to the left. His mechanical digits held fast to the ladder as the rest of his considerable mass swung head over heels off the platform and into open air.
His mechandrites whipped out, subconsciously lacing themselves around the ladder to prevent him from plummeting down the mile-deep chasm of the main engineering bay.
“Omnissiah almighty!” Tuul swore as he spoke to the ship, “Keep together girl. Come on then, keep together for me. You've lasted this long, just go a bit longer girl.”
The machine spirit of the Endless Bounty was tenacious. She would likely keep on going long after all the rest of her crew were just ashes in space, but Tull was in no hurry to be those ashes. He righted himself on the ladder, climbing his way down to the ship's warp engines. It was not until the soles of his feet echoed on the floor with a satisfying click of magnetic soles on deck plates that he let go of the ladder.
It would slow his strides considerably, but maintaining a veneer of calm and poise during a crisis situation would calm his Enginseers. After all, if their Magos was calm and composed, then there was nothing to worry about. Perhaps that explained Kerrigan’s poise and gracefulness; it was a practiced veneer of calm. It was too much to consider right now, he reminded himself. He would compare the variables when the ship wasn’t in mortal peril.
It was a problem with having as spacious and quick-acting of an augmentic brain as he had. The enhanced cogitators and memory engrams within his mind left him prone to bouts of manic thinking and sidetracked trails of logic. If he had time later he would implant a second augmentic brain attached to his first one, so that he could allow himself to continue two trains of thought at once, perhaps even three. Though perhaps that would be no less distracting – still worth a try, though.
He winced in pain as the ship bucked again. His legs, attached firmly to the floor, yanked hard where bone met augmentic. Glad that he could silence his vox caster, Tuul howled in silent pain within his head as nerves stretched and pinched from the strain. Vestigial remnants of ear ducts watering behind his optics, Tuul walked down into the tiny room that sat on top of the Warp engines.
Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot - he forced his legs to continue past the pain. The pain of the flesh was fleeting, and hardly worth his time. Any organic matter that was too damaged to be repaired could always be replaced. The flesh was weak, the machine was strong.
He continued down the unmarked corridor ten paces before reaching a translucent barrier of purple energy: a void shield. Tuul irritatedly typed the access runes to deactivate the barrier before walking through. With a hiss of crackling ozone, Tuul idly realized that walking even a second slower would have severed a mechandrite. He would have to remember to recalibrate that; it was an unrealistic entry time.
Then again, there was no hurry to have Enginseers in this particular room. The hyperspace engines were too dangerous and too critical to entrust in the hands of anyone less qualified than a Magos. Not that it stopped the Navigators from poking their noses into where they did not belong.
“Speak of the devil,” Tuul muttered to himself before activating his voice box, “Navigator Calven, this is not a safe place to be right now. I need you to return to your designated safe zone until the battle is over.”
“Magos Tuul. If I am not safe standing on top of the ship’s Warp-engines, then precisely where am I safe?” The skeletally thin Navigator queried as he ran his fingers over the ornate machinery of the machine.
Tuul didn't really have an answer to that. Any weapon powerful enough to breach the bulkheads and additional void-shields around the warp-engine was strong enough to destroy the ship outright. “I still have to ask you to leave, Navigator. I cannot be liable for your safety.”
“Magos, it is precisely because of the danger to all of us that I come to you now. It is the only time that I can be positive that we will not be interrupted.” The Navigator's voice lacked its usual haughtiness, sounding lost more than arrogantly superior. “What I tell you can only be said in secret.”
“You've got five minutes Navigator,” Tuul sighed as he approached the hyperspace engines to plug in his handheld cogitator, “That's how long it will take to download the data core. I can't spare more than that without putting the ship at risk.”
“Time,” The Navigator snorted in amusement, pulling out his snuff box before stowing it back in his pocket as though having reconsidered it. “That is the issue, isn't it?”
“Four minutes fifty five seconds,” Tuul examined the power to weight ratio of the hyperspace mass exchange, trying to figure out if there was a way to improve the real-space to hyperspace conversion.
“Magos, our orders are secretive by design. For the good of humanity we keep certain knowledge secret, for fear of the harm that might be done were it to be given to the wrong people. We guard our knowledge jealously, so that it cannot be used against us. But some knowledge is too dangerous to be kept, and some secrets are not worth the price we pay,” the Navigator wrung his hands fearfully, “Some answers come to light no matter what we do.”
Tuul looked up from his cogitator. The houses of Navigators were obsessive in their secrecy, second only to the Ordos Malleus of the Inquisition in their secret knowledge of warp-craft. They were sorcerers well-versed in a craft that none save their carefully honed blood lines could master.
Navigator Calven rubbed his hands together nervously. “Navigator Illrich does not believe that this should become common knowledge. I disagree. However, he has forbidden me from revealing it to anyone oath bound to the Inquisitor or Sáclair.”
“Then why even bother –“ Tuul shook his head in surprise as it hit him, “Omnisisah above, I'm not actually bound to either of them, am I? My pledge of loyalty is to Kerrigan, who is no longer bound to Sáclair and was never bound to Hilder.”
“A technicality, but not a breach of my oath.” The Navigator nodded. “For my safety, however, I will request an oath of secrecy from you to never reveal my part in this.”
“You have it,” Tuul nodded.
“Magos, tell me. What do you know of the potential chronological side effects of warp travel? Time travel, if you prefer.”
Tuul held up his finger in a gesture for quiet and activated his long-range communicator, “Enginseer Sven, I need you to oversee repairs for the foreseeable future. I've encountered an unusual fluctuation in the Hyperspace engines that I will need to see to personally.”
He looked up at Calven, “Congratulations Navigator. You have my undivided attention.”
It was official. Once this report hit the air Tonya was going to win every damn award for journalism the Earth Alliance could give. She was going to boost the network ratings by twenty points just by being able to show an interview with the Inquisitor. Live footage of Imperial soldiers engaging in active warfare? Forget about it.
It was difficult to martian the proper decorum and dignity that was expected from a war reporter when she was just so giddy about the opportunity that was sitting in front of her on a silver platter.
Her producer was going to have a heart attack when she sent him this footage. She could taste an anchorwoman job just around the bend. At this point the disgraced Earthforce Commander Ivanova was just the icing on the cake.
The body armor the Imperials had insisted she wear was horribly uncomfortable, but Inquisitor Hilder had eyed her civilian issue flak armor once before sniffing in disgust and pulling a chest plate emblazoned with the double-headed eagle of the Imperium out a cargo container.
“If you're going to go into battle unarmed, at least have the common sense to not go unarmored,” he'd grumbled contemptuously.
He did not, she noticed, force a similar armored vest upon their guide V'cath. The hoary goat-man was left more or less to his own devices with the avian Kroot Hunter. The two aliens seemed content to just stare at each other with their unnerving yellow eyes, growling and braying territorially.
The deliciously handsome Colonel Danzig had helped her put the armor on, flashing her a haggard but handsome smile and saying a couple of heart-meltingly flirtatious words in the Imperial language. If the two of them survived this battle, she planned to see if he was just as tan beneath the crimson silk robes. She smiled wickedly to herself; it didn't seem like the Colonel would take much convincing if she had the opportunity.
OK, it was a glib thing to be thinking about before going into a warzone, but after the fifteenth or twentieth one you went to it got sort of hard to be serious any more. Yes, they were driving through the endless ash wastes of Matok, and yes they were heading for almost certain death in the jaws of the half-breed war machine, but damn was this going to make a great story.
Figuring that it was best to stick with the English-speaking portion of the people in the transport, Tonya smiled and spoke to the Inquisitor. “Inquisitor Hilder, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to speak with you.”
“You were determined to reach the front lines. I had space in my Chimera. It seemed an adequate exchange,” the Inquisitor paid mild attention to her as he pulled out a black stone box and set it in the middle of the transport. Pressing a button in its center, he activated a holographic overlay of the battlefields. It was a splotchy and irregular map, but it vaguely showed the position of the Imperial forces as they weaved their way towards the rebel fortress.
“Exploratoribus marunong ügyesen,” The swarthy Colonel pointed to a column of the bipedal imperial walkers. He tapped the lead walker and the hologram shimmered, shifting to a first-person view from the perspective of the walker.
A hundred miles of trenches stretched out into the distance, carrion piles of Sh'lassen corpses shoved into whatever gaps could not be filled with sandbags. The vague profiles of several alien war machines poked out from concealed positions and camouflaged netting, pointing angular weapons she vaguely remembered from history vids.
“Dilgar suppression tanks,” Commander Ivanova's brow rose in abject shock, “Where in the hell did they get those? I've never seen one outside of a museum.”
“Not just the tanks,” brayed V'clath as he scratched a rough bit of skin behind his horns, “Cat-men too. Nasty as the half-breeds, twice as mean.”
“But they're dead!” Tonya asserted in confusion. A whole race did not just walk away from a supernova. “The entire system is a black hole.”
“Dilgar?” Queried the bird like Kroot warrior in a crooningly hopeful tone. “Tell Vira'capac man thing, what is Dilgar?”
“They're a feline predatory species, and tried to conquer the galaxy thirty years ago. But they're extinct. They all died when their sun went supernova.” The Commander shook her head incredulously, “But that thing looks like it just rolled out from the factory.”
The goat man hawed in amusement, “Give up on impossible. Impossible stopped when demons came to Akdor. Now there is only possible and true.”
“Let's see how well these ghost tanks stand up to Imperial weaponry.” The Inquisitor grunted irritatedly before tapping the side of his golden skull-like helmet to its hidden transponder, “Ignem in di mae Panzer.”
A brilliant lance of laser fire shot out from the muzzle of the walker's gun. With a thunderous burst of exploding munition the Dilgar war machine ceased to be. Small arms laser fire cracked across the expanse of the dunes, scourging the area around the walker till a missile whistled its way across. The camera blurred as the driver hurriedly repositioned his vehicle, trying to avoid the explosive round.
The image disappeared as the interference grew to be too much for the holographic interface to keep up with. A man in yellow and black heraldry yelled into his microphone agitatedly, “Ioannem? Estis vos lebendig? Estis vos lebendig? Ioannem!”
“Likey dead,” Hemmed the Sh'lassen with goatish irritation. “Radio only gives away our position. Foolish.”
“Our communications channels are highly scrambled,” the Inquisitor replied tersely, “That is highly unlikely.”
“Best not to rely on what is likely,” The goat-man jutted out his lower jaw pensively clicking his teeth together, chewing on a bit of cud stored in his cheek, “Usually disappointing.”
The Kroot whistled in agreement, “Why not have more clever goat things with Vira'capac? Only stupid pink man things thinking foolish thoughts.”
A pregnant moment passed as the tank rumbled forwards before a timid and tired voice of the walker commander replied, “Ja. Ich is libendig. Si plures que wir dachten.”
“Of course there are more of them than we planned. At least they took no casualties,” sighed Commander Ivanova before replying into her own headset in flawless Gothic, “Deus Rex Imperator shültz.”
“You've learned the Imperial language already?” Tonya asked in astonishment. The Earthforce linguistics department was only now beginning to understand the thousand dialects of the insanely complicated Imperial language. It was being described jokingly as “Esperanto as designed by Satan” due to its billions of homonym words without any visible standards of either grammar or conjugation.
“She wouldn't be a particularly useful apprentice if she couldn't understand the language,” the Inquisitor replied as he examined an ornate pistol strapped to the wrist of his mechanical arm. It glowed slightly with the discharge of ambient energy.
“It's why he kidnapped me. I accidentally looked into his mind,” Susan growled in a voice of deadpan calm. “I know too much.”
“Must you continue to bring that up?” the Inquisitor sighed in a tone of irritated repetition. “This is going to be a tedious apprenticeship if every conversation we have is going to revolve around how I recruited you.”
“Recruited me?” the Commander screeched, “You drugged me, stripped me naked, pierced my nipples and about ten other places I didn't even know could be pierced, broke my arms and legs, then carried me to your ship in a sack! How in the hell was that a recruitment?”
“Impressed into service, if you prefer. It was a far sight kinder than what your Psi-corps does to those with unique talents. The refugees that the ship's sanctioned psykers have begun training were tortured in ways that would shame the Arch-confessor Kyrnov.” The Inquisitor shuddered visibly, “What sort of sociopath puts a twelve year old girl in a forced breeding program?”
So many questions were bouncing around Tonya's head she could hardly string them together. The Commander had been kidnapped? The Psi-corps had a secret underage breeding program? Hell she hardly needed to ask any questions, the Imperials were so alarmingly open with information. Say what you would about the Imperium of Man, but they took freedom of information to a whole new level.
“Probably the same sort of sociopaths that butcher dozens of women to heal their dead friend,” Susan shuddered in disgust. “The Imperium doesn’t have a monopoly on morality.”
“Rik no bad,” Growled Danzig in an irritated patois, “Sick in head. Not fault. Drugs wrong for head.”
“Yes, the actions of Brother Helit were tragic but unavoidable considering the unstable and often hallucinogenic effects of improper anti-agapic use,” The Inquisitor sighed morosely, “If we'd only known, we might have helped him.”
Anti-agapic. Now that was a word Tonya knew. The war criminal Deathwalker had shown up on Babylon 5 one year prior, claiming to have discovered the ultimate anti-agapic. A drug to cure all disease and stop all aging, “I'm sorry Inquisitor, but did I hear you correctly: the Imperium has access to anti-agapic technology?”
“Yes, we can extend our lives by hundreds, sometimes thousands of years with regular treatments,” the Inquisitor waved of the question disinterestedly as he looked at his chronometer. “Pervenimus erreichen ad terminum fünf Minuten. Deus Rex Imperator shültz!”
“Deus Rex Imperator shültz!” replied the collected Imperials in the transport. Tonya repeated the phrase, not wanting to feel left out. Judging by the approving nod from the Inquisitor, it had been the correct choice.
However, when the Colonel spoke into his communicator it was not in the alien tones of High Gothic. He spoke but an altogether more familiar and astonishing language: “OK, men, we're moving into the battlefield. No slip ups. I want this by the book. We all go in and we all come home. For Sáclair and the Empire, God willing!”
“You speak Arabic?” Tonya asked in confusion. “Why the heck would you learn to speak Arabic?” She realized a moment later that she’d asked in Arabic when many of the Imperial soldiers looked up at her in shocked surprise.
Colonel Danzig looked at her as though his pet cat had just burst into song before slack-jawedly saying, “You... you speak the ancient words of my ancestors? The words of the Damascans long past?”
Tonya realized that nine highly-armed people were all looking at her with varying levels of awe and horror. She might as well have taken off her clothes for all the fuss it caused. She looked at Susan, “It's just Arabic. What's the big deal?”
“The ‘big deal,’ Miss Wallace,” said the Inquisitor in a voice of near-reverent calm. “is that we now know unequivocally that your people come from a common history to our own. There can be no doubt.”
“Not to mention that it pretty much shoots ten thousand years of Lionheart military tradition of speaking in Arabic as a secret language to hell and back,” Susan sighed. “Sorry, Danzig. I wish I’d realized it sooner.”
“Is not your faults,” Danzig replied in English before waggling his eyebrows at Tonya and speaking in Arabic, “And at worst you and I will get to know each other better once this is over. I do not need to speak your language to read your body.”
Tonya felt red creeping into her face as the tank slowed to a halt, the harsh crack of ozone echoing in time with the deep booming bursts of explosive projectiles fired by their chimera transport.
“Stick close to me,” the Colonel whispered, “and you might survive to see tomorrow.”
It was only as she followed her companions out the back of their tank and into the open air that Tonya really began to appreciate the gravity of what she'd signed on for. When the Inquisitor said that he intended to “spearhead” the assault on the half-breed troops, he meant it literally rather than figuratively.
She ducked in terror as an explosive round collided with their transport, gutting it and annihilating the spot where she'd been sitting not ten seconds prior. A razor sharp bit of shrapnel whizzed past her face, slicing her earlobe painfully. Her yelp of pain was silenced by Danzig clapping her breathing mask over her face with a barked command of, “Silence, woman, or they'll hear you.”
The Imperial troops advanced down into the trenches, silently slinking along the trenches as their transports rumbled along the open battlefield. The massive cyborg grabbed her by the nape of the neck and carried her into the trench bodily when she couldn't convince her legs to move forward out of fear. Dear God, why had she thought this was going to be a good idea?
She followed Commander Ivanova as the woman worked her way through the three inch-deep layer of black sludge, only barely able to stand the constant smell of methane from the geysers erupting all around them. Her camera, painted black so as not to give away their position, hovered unhelpfully above her as it filmed her humiliating trudge through the mire.
The massive cyborg loomed over her, propelling itself forward with its mechanical tentacles inches above her body. She resented its presence until the first shell burst next to the trench, shrapnel and burning napalm flying in all directions. The igneous projectiles reflected off of some sort of personal energy field, protecting her from injury or death.
She stuck closer to the cyborg after that, not giving the remotest shit how bad the cyborg smelled or how hideous it was. As long as she got to live, it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.
The Imperial paused briefly at an intersection, waiting patiently. One minute, then two, then three, and on and on they waited. At ten minutes of silently crouching in a trench and listening to gunfire Tonya was about ready to scream when a howling screech of incoming artillery drowned out anything she might have said. She scrunched her eyes closed and huddled beneath the Cyborg, clutching his chest for protection as Armageddon crashed to the ground before her.
Her hands shook with horror, but she'd managed not to soil herself as the cyborg gently pried her away from him and urged her forward and into the charnel house. What had once been bodies of the oversized half-breed creatures and Dilgar lay mulched in the remnants of destroyed bunkers.
“Clear!” Cried Danzig as he poked his head into the now exposed tunnels, “No, wait-” He fired his rifle twice, “-Clear. Eagle 1 is burrowing. All teams advance into the breach on my mark.”
He looked to the Inquisitor, who nodded once in the affirmative, “Mark.”
The Imperial soldiers dived into the remains of the ruined bunker, guns at the ready and eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary. Tonya noted that the red-robed men speaking Arabic and the men sporting black and yellow heraldry of the Inquisitor seemed to take a drastically different attitude to warfare. Where the swarthy men were gung-ho and devil may care, the masked men were more cautious, more calculating. Perhaps it was a product of their service to the Inquisitor, as Hilder was an apparently cautious man.
As Susan Ivanova helped Tonya down into the rubble of the bunker the reporter could not help but wonder if it would have been wiser to heed General Franklin's advice just to stay behind. The press tent hadn't really been that bad, had it?
“Jesus, Hilder,” Susan exclaimed in shock, as she stared at the severed head of a truly massive creature, “What the hell was that?”
“I'm unsure,” The Inquisitor prodded the elephantine face with the blade of his sword, opening the creature’s eyelid to examine its irises. “Every gene stock produces different half-breed creatures. I can only speculate as to how the half-breeds would be affected by generations of being in your space.”
“Generations?” Tonya asked in horror.
“It would have to be at least long enough to rescue an invasion force worth of Dilgar from their home world. How long would that have been?” the Inquisitor looked at Susan expectantly.
“A year, give or take. Probably longer,” Susan sighed in irritation. “The Incubation period for a thousand of these things is a month isn't it?”
“A week,” replied the Inquisitor calmly. “Sgt. Hamman, if you would be so kind?”
A sallow cheeked man with a recently healed scar across his face smiled eagerly as he thumbed the activator to his flamethrower and fired down the passageway ahead. An inhuman howl echoed from the depths as something many-limbed and canine scrambled away into the darkness.
The Inquisitor smiled eagerly as he activated the power switch on his broadsword, lighting coruscating across it's blade, “Weapons free. If it moves, kill it.”