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A short story by

Robert Brooks

Everyone on both motherships was doomed.

Rohana and her sisters were trillions of kilometers away, but they knew it as surely as the crews did. Strong emotions stood out amid the chaos. Desperation. Shock. This was not supposed to happen. This was not possible. This cannot be our fate, the crew members' hearts cried as one. Rohana felt it keenly.

Yet gravity pulled them relentlessly toward their deaths. She felt that, too.

The motherships' misfortune had begun without warning. A khaydarin crystal—the critical source of power—had fractured, cutting off one ship's propulsion. Since the vessel had not yet achieved orbit with the neutron star, it had fallen toward it. The other mothership had anchored with it, the commander hoping its thrust would lift both ships away from the star. It worked. Together, they had moved toward a safe orbit.

There had been such intensity in those moments. Pride. Exhilaration. The eight thousand, four hundred and sixty-three crew members had been united in those emotions, celebrating the second ship's ingenuity and bravery.

And then the impossible happened.

The second mothership's crystal had also gone dim. Fear. Disbelief. Two khaydarin crystals failing simultaneously—unthinkable! They were crafted with such infinitesimal precision. Only one had ever failed in all the millennia the Firstborn had traveled the stars! Now two? At once? In a decaying orbit?

The Khala carried those emotions and more. The grand preservers witnessed them all.

"There has never been a disaster like this," Rohana said.

Her older sister agreed. "A unique tragedy. It will fall upon us to understand this accident," Orlana said.

The youngest sister shook her head. "Accident? Sabotage is more likely," Shantira said.

"In two ships?" Orlana asked.

"Precisely. Consider the probabilities. It happens once, it may be an accident. It happens twice, rapidly, it may be intentional."

All three quieted. They were grand preservers. The crews were not dead yet. Their emotions would reveal the truth. The sisters delved deep into the Khala, inspecting each ripple and current. There was not a speck of grim satisfaction among the crews. Not a hint of pleasure. Every soul onboard was fighting to survive. A saboteur would certainly have felt something at odds with the others.

Shantira calmly bowed to the evidence. "It was not sabotage," she concluded.

Momentum carried both ships toward the neutron star. Determination. Frustration. This could not be how it ended. It would not be. There had to be a solution. The crews scurried desperately for hours. All in vain. Gravity had no mercy. Temperatures began to rise as the ships' heat weirs were overwhelmed. Wings glowed from the star's radiation. Soon the shields would fail, and the crews would be subjected to an agonizing death.

A burst of new emotions shot through them all. It began with one phase-smith and spread through the Khala like wildfire. Horror. Despair. The problem had been discovered: a small thing, an imperfection in the way excess energy was vented between a mothership's wings while maneuvering in unusually high gravity. A pulse had been fed back into one ship's crystal, destroying it. When the second had anchored to the first, the exact same flaw had destroyed its crystal, too.

Not sabotage, but a billion-to-one circumstance at the worst possible time, in orbit around an unmapped neutron star. Only there, in such a strong gravity well, would this prove fatal.

And there were no more doubts, even among the most hopeful of the crews: this would prove fatal. No other protoss vessels were nearby. The empire's warp network did not extend to this uncharted system. The star would claim them all.

Anger. Rage. It exploded among the crews. Many onboard had dreamed of a glorious death on the battlefield, not this. Not a meaningless end due to an accident.

"Is there nothing left to do?" Rohana asked. Her expertise was in military matters, not in physics. She wanted consensus. Her sisters understood.

Shantira had already been calculating, her finger unconsciously drawing figures in the air as a mental aid. She finally let her hand drop. "They have crossed the point of no return. They have no escape," she said.

"None at all," Orlana agreed. She was sifting through the emotions of the ships' leaders; they had abandoned hope.

The anger lasted only a few moments. All protoss, no matter their caste, were schooled in dominating their emotions in times of stress. Without self-control, the Khala could grow unruly. Even in the face of certain death, they would not shed their honor and heritage. Soon, the crews' rage faded. In its absence came something else.

"There it is." Rohana's eyes widened.

She met her sisters' gazes. They sensed it, too.

"The final emotion," Orlana said.

The sisters identified it even before the crews did. The seeds of it pulsed deep within the Khala, far deeper than most protoss could knowingly go. Few would ever try. Though the Khala was not dangerous, its currents were powerful. In its depths, it was difficult to maintain focus and balance long enough to examine each mote of emotion. Only the strongest of minds could. Most preservers would fail.

That was why the three sisters were grand preservers. They could sense what others could not.

And what they sensed bubbled up from the depths, spreading through both motherships in mere heartbeats.

Acceptance. The final emotion.

If fate had decreed this end, so be it. Anger was natural, but it had been cast aside. The final emotion filled each heart, a rising tide, and the Khala lifted them up, uniting their spirits. Thousands and thousands of souls were embracing the end all at once, and the song of their last moments soared through the cosmos.

It was no longer just Rohana and her sisters who heard it. Others on Aiur were becoming aware. They joined in, millions of them, raising their own spirits in solidarity. Before long, every caste on Aiur was one with the motherships and their crews. The chorus of glory spread to other planets. To other systems. To the whole empire.

The doomed crews felt the eyes of all Firstborn upon them, and their souls soared ever higher as they lost themselves in that ecstasy.

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