Koramund—the protoss had named the carrier the "great wonder" of its class, and to Iaalu, the ship's third engineer, it could not have been called anything else. The elegance of the craft's curves was undeniable; it had sleek hull plates meticulously shaped by khalai craftsmen, which made Iaalu recall the Shreka Hills of northern Aiur. Then there was the unique spark in the power conduits that, defying all rational explanation, pushed the core systems beyond specification, especially when faced with extraordinary challenges. And Iaalu prided himself that the hangars and manufacturing bays he supervised produced some of the fleet's most battle-ready interceptors, which regularly tallied double or triple the kills compared to those of other carriers.
But where the Koramund truly measured up to its name was a prestigious record that few ships could match. During the centuries of its service, it had established more colonies than any vessel since the Aeon of Strife, while leading the charge in countless battles. Enemies often fled at initial detection of the ship, fearing its interceptors, so widespread was the Koramund's legend. When the execrable zerg struck at Aiur, Tassadar himself had requested that the carrier fight alongside his flagship, the Gantrithor, and it did so with most glorious honor until the bitter end. Even with the deployment of the new, allegedly more efficient void rays, protoss reverence for the Koramund had stopped the Great Fleet from retiring it like so many carriers in its ranks. The Koramund was, to Iaalu and millions of other protoss, a potent symbol that the old ways of Aiur would never perish.
That symbol was now in jeopardy. The Koramund was spiraling toward a fiery death on the planet Vanass with zerg pursuing, unless Iaalu could restore the engines, and soon.
"Where in the name of Khas are you?" shrilled Tenzaal, the templar who managed the engineers during battle. As always, the sheer pitch of her mind's voice made Iaalu cringe. It would make everyone's life so much easier if she could just lower her—
"What was that?"
"Nothing, templar," Iaalu replied. He had to watch his errant thoughts; his helmet's psi link was set at the highest sensitivity to enable communication in the mental hubbub of battle. "Presently in the engine access tunnel, climbing to the junction. Should be in sight of the relay hub shortly."
"Make it faster! Shields are failing, and we are down to one—"
The ship spun and shook, buffeted by small explosions. Iaalu gripped the ladder with both gloved hands to keep himself from falling free in the zero-g. Klaxons blared at full alert.
"Interceptors gone! Glave wurms on the hull, zerg penetrating the bridge—"
As if she'd been cut off by a psi blade, Tenzaal's voice went dead.
He adjusted the link. Random cosmic interference sometimes disrupted communication. But his helmet readout registered peak receptivity.
Iaalu then tried to reach out with his mind, knowing full well, given his poor psionic faculties, it was probably a lost cause. As a member of the Khalai caste, he didn't have the robust mental training to sense much outside his personal vicinity.
Third engineer to command bridge, please respond. Third engineer to command, please—
There was a response—a sudden tide of agony so intense it blew the capacitors in the psi link and flooded his mind with pain. He jammed a leg through the ladder's rungs to keep the shockwave from blasting him back down the tunnel.
Uhn dara ma'nakai; uhn dara ma'nakai. He repeated a Khalani mantra he'd learned long ago, which had become his succor in times of distress. Uhn dara ma'nakai. Our duty is unending. It was the only thing he knew to buffer himself from a complete mental breakdown.
Uhn dara ma'nakai... Uhn dara ma'nakai. Gradually, the cacophony receded and his mind began to breathe again, in fits and starts, until leveling to a more normal pattern so he could comprehend what had just occurred.
Dead. They must all be dead. The praetor. Her command staff. Tenzaal. The zerg must have breached the bridge and massacred its crew. There was no other explanation for a psionic spike of that magnitude. No other explanation for the anguish he had felt. Their voices had been ripped from the Khala, and he was lucky to be alive in the wake of their torment.
This slaughter should never have happened. Fleet command had assigned the Koramund to lend its firepower to protoss forces engaged in a nasty fight with the zerg. But on the journey to the front, the Koramund had picked up a distress call from what had long been believed to be an abandoned colony on the remote planet of Vanass.
The distress call had been a ruse; the Koramund warped right in the middle of a zerg swarm. Retreat was not an option. Within minutes of the attack, not only were the Koramund's gravity compensators destroyed, but its engine relay mysteriously failed, making the ship a sitting lombad for the zerg. Iaalu and his team rushed to prep the fighters as zerg corruptors and mutalisks pounded the carrier relentlessly, demolishing its starboard decks. Half of the crew died in that attack, the first and second engineers among them.
Seniority placed Iaalu next in line to repair the engines. Tenzaal had ordered him to hurry to the engine access tunnel, thereby leaving the launch of the Koramund's interceptors to his subordinate, Sacopo. It did not matter that Iaalu's expertise with crystal matrices and power relays was middling at best. There was no engineer still alive who knew the carrier better than he.
The damage to his psi link compounded his predicament. Its loss prevented him from communicating with the ship's crew, if any of them indeed had survived. The fate of the Koramund now rested on him, and him alone, its third engineer.
Iaalu cleared his mind of the last echoes of that fatal shriek. He did the only thing he could to speed his approach toward the relay matrix: he abandoned his climb, kicking out against the wall to propel himself forward.
Weightlessness brought about its own difficulties. One mishap or sudden shake of the tunnel could rocket him backward. He had to be careful.
Unwittingly, the zerg attackers gave him a boost. The explosions that pelted the hull—glave wurms, he suspected—accelerated him in the right direction. Nearing the junction, he snatched the ladder rungs on either side. His legs pitched in front of him, and a few swings later he'd made the sharp turn, soaring down the last length of tunnel toward the crystal relay matrix.