The Moratun warped into the home system, outside the orbit of Aleun, the farthest planet. The bridge bustled with life: zealots worked at various stations and consoles, monitoring energy levels, crystalline fluctuations, and weapons readiness.
Martul stood next to Juras. Tension still simmered between them, discomfiting the other protoss. It was clear to Juras that the universe had become a harder, more violent place. And the protoss had changed along with it – or perhaps in reaction to it. The young zealot by his side was an example of that. Perhaps Juras’ presence could have a balancing influence on his people.
Martul began to tremble. Juras looked askance at her.
“Aiur,” she said. “Aiur and the Khala.”
Juras had felt the comforting presence of the Khala since he’d awoken. But this close to Aiur, it should have filled him with the warmth and comfort of billions of protoss minds. Instead there was an emptiness. Hundreds of thousands of protoss had died, and their absence left a hole in the Khala.
Juras realized he was shaking as well.
Unthinking, he turned to Martul and touched her shoulder. It was an unheard-of gesture of intimacy, but both protoss were shattered by the terrible realization. In that moment of contact a rare event transpired: Juras could see deep into Martul as if they were joined in the Khala. He could see her overwhelming determination to defend her people, her compassion for her fallen allies, her anger at the zerg for the pain they had inflicted. Beneath it all was an instinctive abhorrence at the existence of the mindless Swarm. After a time, Juras turned to the console.
“We must get to Aiur,” he said, feeling the wordless agreement of Martul and all the other protoss. He brought the ship into the system and accelerated toward Aiur, his dread growing. The planet appeared at peace from this distance.
Martul hobbled over to a weapons console and took control of some of the Moratun’s more exotic weapons. She locked eyes with Juras for a moment. The tension was back: she was prepared to use the weapons of his ship for aggression. And he was prepared to stop her. There must be hope for the zerg.
They entered Aiur’s atmosphere and neared the cloud layer.
The clouds erupted as winged zerg spiraled out to surround the ship. Devourers dived in, spitting corrosive acid, while mutalisks circled to the flanks. Dozens of tiny scourge crashed into the shields and exploded. More of the mutalisks banked, wings flapping and circular mouths pulsing as they tried to find the right vector to do more damage.
“Contact!” cried one of the crew. “Shields are dropping faster than the crystal can regenerate. We must destroy these beasts!”
“We shall,” Martul said, her hands flying across the console. Then she stopped. “Weapons are not responding. Juras, what is wrong with your ship?”
“Nothing,” he said calmly, guiding the ship through the swarming zerg. “I have overridden the weapons systems. We are here to find out what happened to our people and to offer assistance. We do not yet know enough about the zerg to simply consign them to genocide.”
“I was right: you have gone mad! Those scourge will destroy the shields, then the mutalisks and devourers will be all over your precious ship!”
“Shields at eighty percent.”
“The Moratun can take a good deal more damage and survive. We are almost through the cloud cover,” Juras said. He accelerated, leaving some of the zerg behind. A new squadron of the creatures dove out of the sun in an attack pattern.
Juras banked as hard as possible. The enormous mothership was not designed to be maneuverable, and the zerg compensated easily.
“Shields at sixty.”
“Release weapons, Juras!”
“My creation will not be used for genocide!”
Dozens of the creatures emerged from the clouds on an intercept vector. Juras put the ship into a steep dive, straining the inertial nullifiers. The zealots had to grab onto their consoles to avoid being knocked over.
They entered the lowest cloud layer only to be met by more tiny scourge that slammed into the ship, giving their lives to do a little more damage.
“Shields at fifty – forty!”
Juras leveled out the Moratun, picking up more speed and gradually losing altitude. “Almost under the cloud layer,” he thought, and then he froze, feeling a pinprick on the back of his head where his nerve cords met his skull. In the reflective surface of a console, he could see Martul behind him, standing stiffly, one arm outstretched, holding a psi blade very close to the back of his head.
“Our homeworld is under attack by the zerg, and we are going to fight them,” she said coldly. “Activate weapons systems.”
“I will not do it, Commander. There is another way.”
Zerg of all shapes and sizes chased them. Dozens more swept down to intercept them. Even more rose ahead to meet them.
“Shields at twenty.”
“I will kill you.”
“Then the weapons systems will be locked forever, and you will have returned us to the Aeon of Strife.”
They emerged from the bottom of the cloud layer. The surface of their homeworld lay revealed.
A roiling mass of grey organic matter covered the ground from one horizon to the other. Lumps appeared here and there, the remains of once-proud buildings: temples, homes, universities. Forests, lakes, mountains, all were gone. Veiny, pulsing matter covered everything. Tiny creatures trundled along the surface, burrowing into and out of it, moving mindlessly.
Martul was wrong; their homeworld was not under attack. It was under occupation.
“Shields at ten.”
“Activate those weapons!”
New hordes of zerg flew at the ship, destroying the shields, trying to get at the armored surface underneath.
Juras’ eyes were drawn to motion on the surface below: a protoss was running toward them. She’d been hiding but had broken cover at the sight of them, hoping for rescue. Juras brought the ship in low, toward her. He could see from her markings that she was of the Khalai caste, likely an artisan or craftsman.
Zerglings boiled up out of the ground around her, cutting her off. Juras accelerated, knowing he could not make it to her in time. He let out a wordless cry of horror: this protoss was no threat to the zerg. She was not a warrior, not a templar. She would not even be able to fight to defend herself. They didn’t need to kill her. It would gain them nothing.
They swarmed all over her, and a plume of protoss blood shot up from the squirming mass of zerg. She was gone.
Time slowed for Juras. He sensed the urgency of those around him, felt the ship shuddering under the relentless attacks, felt the tip of Martul’s blade pressing harder against the back of his head. But it all had a disconnected quality, as if it couldn’t possibly be as important as what he was seeing through the console.
The zerg had killed a fleeing, defenseless being. And they’d done it for no gain; it simply had to happen because she was not zerg.
Juras had known that other intelligent life might be hostile, that it might put its own interests ahead of all else. But he’d believed that behind any intelligence was a guiding spirit, an understanding of commonality. In this moment Juras finally understood. There was no empathy in the zerg, no compromise. Anything that was not zerg must be destroyed. Sentience came in many forms, and this one was the opposite of all that he cherished.
This one was his enemy in every way possible.
Juras activated the weapons systems – including the vortex, the temporal rift, and the wormhole transit, which Martul likely didn’t know about. “Go!” he roared. “The systems are online. Kill them; kill them all.” Martul stumbled back to her console, and all the zealots began to do what they did best: fight.
Juras guided the ship lower so its weapons could take out the disgusting creatures on the ground as well. Light and power blazed from the Moratun in all directions. The full power of the mothership was finally unleashed. Zerg writhed, combusted, exploded. Zerg ichor showered the Moratun’s shields; zerg meat and viscera dripped from the bottom of the ship.
“Shields are stabilized.”
“More incoming,” another zealot reported.
“Bringing weapons systems to bear,” Martul said.
“Take the helm,” Juras said. “I have another task.” He moved to another console and accessed the scan readouts. He noticed that other motherships, having received the same burst transmission as the Moratun, had begun to arrive. They sat quiet and empty at the edge of the solar system. But that wasn’t what Juras was looking for. He scanned the surface for life. A massive number of readings came back, but he sorted through the data, looking for anything not zerg. There had to be survivors hiding or fighting somewhere. There had to be someone who could tell him the fate of his people. Juras would rescue them and withdraw. Aiur belonged to the zerg now.