Blizzard quietly announced the winners of their 2010 Fiction Contest mid-October. I wasn’t among them. So now, I can give you fine folks my entry, The Haunting of Pridewater. It wasn’t good enough for Blizzard, but maybe someone who passes this way will enjoy it.
You must awaken. Time is running out.
One of the sundered bulkheads on the battlecruiser’s command deck slid against the deck plates, causing a grating noise as it moved. The hand that pushed it aside flickered as if it struggled to remain in existence. The survivor pulled himself free of the wreckage, only to immediately collapse. A secondary explosion deep in the spacecraft’s drive section nearly drowned out his soft groan of pain. It was the only human sound being made throughout the ship.
“I heard you the first time. Shut up.”
He tapped the side of his helmet, trying to get some sort of response from his hostile encounter suit. After a few attempts, he yanked the goggles off and tossed them away. He had no idea how badly he was hurt, but as far as he could tell, he was the last living terran in the combat zone. Acrid smoke carried the stench of burning flesh and wiring through the battlecruiser’s wreckage. He shut off his personal cloak, trying to conserve his power. The suit would try to patch him up, but it was only a matter of time before the zerg were all over the crash site like freeloaders at a Mar Sara barbeque.
Indeed. As I said, time is…
“And I said shut up. Get out of my head, while you’re at it.”
My withdrawal would not help either of us. I am Melponia, advance scout of the protoss. I observed the approach of your task force and the defense mounted by the zerg. You did not stand a chance.
“Well, ain’t you just a big ol’ ray of sunshine.”
He rolled over onto his back and pushed himself up against the wall. He tried to get a better idea of his wounds, examining them in the light cast by the fires and guttering light fixtures of the command deck. His left leg lay at an unnatural angle with the rest of his body, a dead weight of seeping blood and pulverized bone. The suit was putting painkillers into his bloodstream, but being unable to use the leg would make escape difficult. He tasted blood in his mouth and felt nauseous. His insides felt like a bag of broken glass. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, tried to remember his training.
“I’m a ghost,” he said, “and I still have a job to do.”
You are in no condition to do battle.
“If I didn’t know better I’d think you were my mother haunting me from beyond the grave. Are all prote dames such nags?”
I don’t know. Are all human males stubborn, sarcastic and rude?
“Most of the ones I’ve met, yes.” The ghost sifted through the wreckage and found his C-10 rifle. The magazine had been smashed,and it only held a single canister in its chamber. It was an armor-piercing round. It would only deter one assailant. Two, if one stood directly behind the other and the one in front was smaller.
“What do you want, anyway? I’m assuming you didn’t come here just to chat with me.”
I did not. I am, as I said, an advance scout. We detected the warp rift that brought the zerg to this planet and observed the staggering rate at which their hive has grown. By the next rotation, they will overwhelm your colony.
“Fifty thousand people live on Pridewater. There’s no way we can evacuate all of them in time. They’ve got a few personal defense weapons, nothing to hold back a major zerg attack. It’ll be a massacre.”
They are not my concern. You are.
“Now, why am I such a concern to you?” The ghost struggled to stand, keeping his hand on a broken console to steady himself as he slung his rifle. “I ain’t prote, and I can’t be sure you are, either. This could be some zerg trick.”
The response was a harmonious burst of ancient music. Behind his eyes, he saw soaring spires, glowing pylons and sparkling cityscapes. Just as he was realizing just how awestruck he was, there was a flash, and it was all on fire, the music becoming a mournful requiem. The vision faded, and he touched his fingers to his eyes. The tears on his fingertips caught the light from the fires nearby.
Such things are part of my memory, and that of every protoss. Such things do not exist within the imagination of the zerg.
The ghost shook his head. The music stayed with him, faint background noise behind the crackling of fires and groans of fatigued metal.
The wreckage is unstable. You must make your way aft if you wish to survive.
“You still haven’t told me why you care so damn much.”
The last time one of your potential fell into the clutches of the zerg, the Queen of Blades was born. Another catastrophe of that magnitude I will not allow.
“Then nuke the site and be done with it!” The ghost pulled himself along the console towards the hatch leading aft. He had to push the hand of a corpse out of his way. The body of the technician fell to the deck with a wet thump, impaled on a shards of her viewscreen, open eyes staring at nothing. “What’s with the ‘distant guiding voice’ routine? I’d think you were a field commander if I didn’t know better, safe and secure up there with your overhead perspective while the real men do the dyin’.”
I have not yet ascended to such a rank. And Pridewater will indeed be purified when the main force arrives.
The ghost stopped. “Define ‘purified.’”
Half a dozen protoss carriers will use concentrated weapons fire from orbit to eliminate the zerg threat.
“Takin’ the terran colony out with it.”
A small price to pay for preventing the spread of the swarm.
“I came here to save these people, not have tea with a protes while their homes are reduced to slag, their fields turned to glass.”
You will die with them if you do not accept my aid.
“Give me one good reason why I don’t limp into the zerg hive just to spite you.”
Very well. Give me your name first.
“I’m Ghost #24815, attached to the Nobunaga task force out of Waystation Bravo.”
No. Not the designation given by your masters. What is your name?
The ghost blinked. He’d made it as far as the ventral corridor, which sloped away from him due to how the battlecruiser had come to rest on the rocky terrain. He kept his grip on the safety rail, struggling to remember the name his parents had chosen. Or his parents, for that matter.
You can’t, can you.
“Shut up. Gimme a second.”
Let me help you.
Before he could say or even think another word, she was fully in his mind. She pulled his consciousness away from the brokenness and pain of his body. He was adrift on unseen eddies, floating above a sea of shadow. A lithe form appeared nearby, peering into the darkness.
She turned her eyes to him and the feeling that washed over him defied description. He’d seen holograms of protoss before, clad in their eldritch armor and piloting war machines with designs terran analysts called “ill-suited for the battlefield.” Here, before him, he appreciated their esoteric beauty for the first time. Melponia held out her hand to him.
Your name awaits. Take my hand and I will help you find it.
He obeyed. In the next split second, darkness and noise enveloped him. He felt Melponia’s grip on him, but his sense were otherwise overwhelmed by the chaos. Through the maelstrom, he heard Melponia singing.
He recognized some of the images. Voices in the storm became familiar. Some of the memories were recent recollections of conversations with Bravo’s commandant or the Nobunaga’s captain. In addition to the familiar faces and words, however, were those that chilled the ghost to the bone.
They weren’t frightening in and of themselves. In fact, the face of the young woman smiling at him as they sat in a field under the stars was so beautiful to him he wanted to cry. The frightening thing was that, despite being unable to place the faces and voices in proper order or match them with names right away, he felt he knew them.
Searing pain. A sense of nauseating vertigo. Being forced to let go of something precious. These sensations came next, along with the memory of a cold metal table and a needle in his arm. Waking the day after the procedure, his head had ached horribly despite being void of all but his training and his duty to the Dominion.
The Dominion had done this to him. They’d stripped him of who he’d been. The final memory was of standing in the barracks bathroom at the Academy on Ursa, the morning before they’d wiped his mind. He remembered emerging from the shower and looking into the mirror, telling himself he was doing his duty, doing the right thing. He did not, however, the slender alien standing directly behind him.
Your mind is strong, terran.
He blinked, and he was back in the darkened corridor of the Nobunaga.
“My name is Lawrence Crockett.”
It is a pleasure to meet you, Lawrence Crockett. I owe you ‘one good reason’ for taking you away from Pridewater, if memory serves.
“You’ve got at least one, considering all the stuff the Dominion made me forget.”
Crockett pushed himself to his feet and continued his painful journey towards the aft section of the wreck. The suit had run out of painkillers to dispense while he’d been out.
Indeed. The fear of another Kerrigan emerging from your ranks prompted your betters to geld your mind. Their work was sloppy and ineffective.
“Sarah Kerrigan was corrupted by the zerg. It wasn’t her fault.”
Yet it was her mind the swarm wished to possess. Bodies they have in multitudes. It is logical to assume minds with similar training would also appeal to their goals.
Crockett shook his head. “Logical or not, it’s stupid to let ‘em do this to us. It’s my mind. It doesn’t belong to anybody else.”
I can help you repair the damage, Lawrence. Reclaim all you have lost and show you how to become so much more.
“My mother called my Lawrence. My friends call me Larry.”
Am I your friend, then?
“I ain’t settled on that yet. You helped me kick down the doors in my head, and I’m thankful for that. But I still don’t know for sure what your endgame is here.”
I do not have an endgame short of taking you away from this planet prior to purification… Larry.
“Next thing you’re gonna tell me is that I won the lottery on Mar Sara.”
That world has already been purified.
“Yeah, I heard the reports. That’s what makes it a joke.” He shook his head. “We’re gonna keep talkin’, I’m gonna have to learn you a thing or two about humor.”
I am afraid we may not have the time.
At last, Crockett had arrived at his destination. The armory was a darkened cavern, some lights flickering in the vast compartment where the Nobunaga’s ammunition and that of any passengers was stored. He didn’t know if the zerg had any interest in non-biological equipment aboard, but letting them get the claws on terran nukes was a chilling thought.
“How close are the zerg to the crash site?”
A mere handful of kilometers. By terran reckoning, you have ten minutes before they arrive.
Groping for handholds as much as he could, the rifle slung across his back heavier with every move he made, Crockett made his way through the spilled racks of anti-air missiles and loose capacitors for energy weapons to the locked cage where the warheads awaited him.
My sublight engines do indeed have enough thrust to bring me close enough to-
“That ain’t what’s on my mind right now, Mel.”
A single light remained on steadily in the cage. He took hold of the door and pulled. Somehow, the lock had survived the crash. The door wouldn’t budge. The yellow and black labels warning of the weapons’ radioactivity seemed to mock him from behind the cage.
Crockett stepped back, brought his rifle down from his shoulder and steadied himself against the broken rack behind him. He knew that once he pulled the trigger, he’d be defenseless save for the knife in his boot and the brain in his skull.
What are you doing, Larry? Melponia’s voice was calm, unassuming.
“I’m afraid, ma’am, that I’m gonna have to respectfully decline your offer.”
The rifle kicked like a mule when he fired. The recoil almost dislocated his shoulder and he dropped the weapon immediately. He slid to the deck and came close to passing out, but he felt Melponia’s presence, her song washing away the pain if just for a few moments.
Remain conscious. If you fall into darkness you may not emerge again.
“You just might be the sweetest protoss in the cosmos, carin’ as much as you do.”
I bet you say that to all the ‘prote’s.
He smiled in spite of the pain. “See? That was sarcasm. You’re learnin’.”
Larry, you owe those brain-butchers nothing.
Crockett blinked, regaining his senses. His shot had torn the door almost completely off of the cage, leaving one hinge intact and obliterating the lock. Reaching up with his good arm, he pulled the door open and crawled inside.
“Nope, I don’t. But those kids, here on Pridewater, ain’t the brain-butchers. And I’m not gonna leave ‘em to die just to satisfy a grudge. The pencil-pushin’ bastards on Ursa will get what’s comin’ to ‘em, I’m sure. But I have to deal with what’s in front of me, namely fifty thousand of my kind who’ll end up a zergling’s lunch, or vaporized by protoss lasers, if I hop on your spaceship with you for a romantic getaway.”
Melponia scoffed. You presume much, if you think I find you attractive, human.
“Feeling’s mutual, sweetheart.” Looking at the warheads, a plan began to form in his mind. “Look, squishy lovely feelings or no, I do need your help. I need to know if this is going to work.”
It will fail unless I assist you. You cannot brute force your way through those defenses.
“Well, then.” Crockett drew the knife from his boot and began prying off one of the warhead’s access plates. “Guess I’m gonna need your delicate, feminine touch, then.”
It was five minutes later when the sound of rending metal washed through the battlecruiser. A dark, misshapen creature slid into the wreckage, mandibles clicking softly as it scented out its prey. The hydralisk slithered through the twisted hallways of the wreckage. The cerebrate compelled it to find the psychic signature glowing in the middle of the ruined battlecruiser like a newborn star. Moving over corpses and fallen bulkheads, the zerg warrior slid into the arsenal. Within the cage at the aft end of the room, Lawrence Crockett sat near some conical devices marked in yellow and black, not moving.
The hydralisk hissed triumphantly. It moved towards the inert form of Crockett. The terran didn’t respond to its approach. The cerebrate, exhibiting a sudden surge of urgency, ordered the hydralisk to prod the dark-clad human with one of its arms. The hydralisk moved to obey.
Crockett sprang to life, grabbing the extended zerg arm with his bad hand while his other stabbed the hydralisk in the chest with his knife.
The hydralisk screamed, Crockett too close to stab with its scythes. It tried to launch a volley of spines, but something was keeping the mental command from reaching the muscles. There was a presence in its brain, something other than the cerebrate. The hydralisk glared down at Larry, who was gritting its white teeth. A blood-covered circuit board lay nearby. Several wires connected the board to one of the nukes, while others disappeared into Crockett’s helmet.
I have it distracted, Larry. The cerebrate is in direct contact. Address it directly.
“I know you can hear me.”
The cerebrate recoiled in shock.
“Yeah. You. The cerebrate of Pridewater. I feel you here. I know you’re looking through this thing’s eyeballs at me. Well, I hope you enjoy the show. It’ll be the very last thing you see.”
Panicking, the cerebrate screamed at the hydralisk to slay the human. It struggled to obey, trying to back away from Crockett. But the human maintained a grip on his knife, staying close to the hydralisk.
It is trying to cut the hydralisk off, Larry. I will maintain the link as long as I can, but zerg minds are slippery…
“I’m wired into this nuke stockpile behind me. You know what that means? It means if my brainwaves stop, this whole place goes up in a white-hot flash. I figure I’m close enough to your hive that it’ll fry a good few of your little zerg friends. But then I thought, that ain’t near good enough.”
Crockett struggled to stand, unsteady on his shattered legs. He continued to stare into the hydralisk’s eyes, close enough for the hydralisk to smell the blood on he breath. The hydralisk knew its victim wasn’t going to live long even if it didn’t slay him as the cerebrate was now begging it to do.
“I figure, you’re hooked into the brain of every zerg on this planet. If I get hold of your mind, get nice and cozy with you, I’ll take your mind with mine when I die. Not only will I blast your hive to kingdom come, every single zerg on Pridewater will suffer such a psychic shock it’ll either drop dead on the spot or be left a drooling, quivering mess that any farmer’s son can finish off with an antique rifle. All I gotta do is find my way through this hydralisk’s excuse for a mind and ride its connection right to your consciousness. Are you scared yet? Do you zerg bastards even get scared?”
Larry, there is no more time. It will…
“I know it, woman. Get out of our heads while you can. I’m in too deep for it to stop me now!”
The hydralisk was overwhelmed with the orders, the urge, the need to kill the human. It roared, yanking itself back off of the knife and raising one of its scythes. Crockett, in spite of the fearsome sight that had caused battle-hardened marines to soil their power armor, grinned, his eyes lit with an intense mental fire.
“Ah-HA! Here you are, you invertebrate stinking alien son of a…!”
The hydralisk brought its scythe down into Crockett’s skull. The bone weapon sank through muscle and brain as the cerebrate suddenly changed its mind. Its last command had been for the hydralisk to stop. It’d been a cry of desperation, an unexpected and frightening turn of events. But now there was only silence.
The silence was filled with white light for a split-second, and then there was nothing.
Some time later, the task force appeared in the void on the outskirts of Pridewater’s star system. The half-dozen protoss carriers were loaded for bear, ready to cleanse the planet of its infestation, primed for purification.
Scout Melponia. Task Force Command awaits your report.
Melponia respected the fact that her commanders did not probe her thoughts. She was still processing all that had occured, the residual scans of Pridewater and the odd sensation her mind experienced when it turned to that planet.
“The planet is free of infestation, Command. Long-range radiological scans detected a nuclear detonation consistent with the stockpile of a terran battlecruiser. It is logical to assume that a survivor of the Dominion task force set off the stockpile to protect the colony. No zerg life signs remain on the planet. Preliminary data suggests some form of attack on the psychic level, possibly a sympathetic echo from so many dying at once in nuclear fire.”
This is an astonishing turn of events. How did this come to pass?
“The data suggests…”
We are no longer interested in the data. What do you think happened down there?
Melponia turned to look out the canopy of her scout vessel towards Pridewater. The sense was definitely still there, the impression left by a mind she had touched. It lingered there, quietly contemplative, a silent guardian.
“A ghost inhabits the planet of Pridewater.”
We do not understand.
“Pridewater is haunted, Command.” Her gaze didn’t break from the planet. “Haunted.”
November 1, 2010 at 11:20 am
Just out of curiosity, where did the illustration come for the story? It’s very interesting. The copyright and signature are too small for my old eyes to read and I was too lazy to download and enhance it.
Oh, and the story wasn’t half bad either!
November 1, 2010 at 1:02 pm
It’s a piece of art by Samwise, done back in ’99.
Thanks for the comment!