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A short story by

Matt Burns

A cloaked observer drifted through the muted sky of Shakuras. It was one of many automated drones that patrolled the planet day and night. This one in particular tracked a surveillance route over a small section in the heart of the capital, Talematros.

The city stretched for kilometers in all directions, an expanse of metal and stone that resembled a vast reptilian hide. Thousands of pointed spires jutted up from the surface. A dense fog layer diffused and refracted the light from the illumination crystals that dotted the cityscape. At this time of night, all was quiet. Most of the Aiur protoss and the Nerazim who lived in Talematros were asleep. The only movements the observer detected were those made by sentries and other security drones elsewhere in the city.

The observer's bulbous sensor matrix swiveled from side to side like a massive insect eye, soaking up these details. The drone determined that much of what it saw was unimportant. Its main purpose was to protect the residents of Talematros from any perceived dangers. And that included threats they posed to each other.

The observer was not capable of understanding the subtleties in the relationship between the Nerazim and the Aiur protoss, nor the reasons why tensions between them had reached a fever pitch of late. The drone had only one imperative: to help preserve the Daelaam, the unity government.

Sensing nothing out of the ordinary, the observer circled back to retrace its preprogrammed route. That was when it detected the anomaly. Something had changed at the Citadel, the seat of the Daelaam. No alarm had sounded from the building, but the sentries there had suddenly gone offline.

A gravity-field thruster propelled the observer toward the Citadel to investigate. The pyramidal structure towered above the fog that concealed much of the city. Intricate geometric patterns crisscrossed the Citadel's gleaming alloy surface. The building was atop a massive disk that would often levitate during the day, lifting the entire Citadel into the air. But at night, the disk rested on the ground. A long banner hung from a window near the Citadel's apex. Four offset circles—the symbol of the Daelaam—were woven into the fabric with brilliant gold thread.

The observer came to a stop and hovered a few meters from the window. The drone queried the sentries that were stationed inside the building. They made no reply.

Someone moved on the other side of the window. Someone shrouded by a cloaking field. The observer's sensors saw through the camouflage. The figure was a Nerazim male. His eyes were green, not blue like those of the Aiur protoss. The nerve cords that extended from the back of his head had been severed, a Nerazim custom. But the observer could not identify who exactly this stranger was. His face was hidden behind a mask carved from a zerg hydralisk skull.

A warp blade flared to life from an armored gauntlet on the figure's wrist. He swept the energy blade in a tight arc just outside the lip of the window. The Daelaam banner fell, cut free from the building. It curled in on itself as it disappeared into the undulating fog.

A new banner unfurled from the window. This one was green in color, its edges tattered and torn. Twenty-seven violet crystals had been sewn along its length.

The Nerazim gazed at the sky, and his lambent eyes settled on the cloaked observer. It should have been impossible to see, unless the stranger had set up his own surveillance devices inside the Citadel. Perhaps he had. The drone detected energy sources pulsing within the building, but it could not determine their purpose.

Aware that it had been seen, the observer began turning away from the window. But it was already too late for that. The Nerazim struck out and slammed his warp blade through the drone's metal hull.

The lone observer plummeted from the sky, trailing ribbons of smoke, and vanished into the fog below.

* * *

Vorazun planted her staff on the floor and closed her eyes as the transport platform accelerated, lifting her from a lower tier of Talematros toward the highest level of the city.

The memories surfaced again. A holographic recording of a Nerazim transport ship colliding with a squadron of Aiur protoss phoenixes in orbit above Shakuras. Shields rupturing. Metal hulls and bodies disintegrating. Psionic screams of pain going silent as the twenty-seven Nerazim in the transport became one with the eternal night.

Vorazun had watched the recording so many times that it was the only thing she saw when she closed her eyes, the only thing she saw when she dreamt at night. She wondered again if she could have prevented the tragedy. She had always opposed the Nerazim's joining the unified Daelaam military, the Golden Armada. But should she have done more to keep her people from taking part in it? If she had, would those twenty-seven still be alive?

And would this incident at the Citadel still be happening?

"Who else knows about this?" Vorazun opened her eyes as she projected her thoughts into the psi-link system on her gauntlet. Air screamed by outside the transport platform, whipping her violet robes and face veil into a frenzy.

"Only a few, apart from Hierarch Artanis and Executor Selendis," Zahan replied through the link. "They were overseeing maneuvers with the Golden Armada in another part of the solar system when they heard the news. It will take them an hour to reach Shakuras. In the meantime, they have sent Mohandar and a handful of zealots to keep watch at the Citadel." After a brief pause, Zahan added, "The other Hierarchy members have not been informed."

"Including me, but that is not surprising."

Vorazun understood why Artanis hadn't contacted her. She was his most outspoken critic in the Hierarchy. Artanis and the other Aiur protoss members of the government had always lamented Vorazun and her "Nerazim tendencies" whenever she spoke out against the Daelaam's activities. The collectivistic philosophies of the Aiur protoss made them incapable of understanding why anyone would argue against the majority. All too often, they sacrificed common sense on the altar of conformity.

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