"Each and every one of these young men and women volunteered," said Emperor Arcturus Mengsk, "and after months of sacrifice and toil in training, they have earned their place among the noble Dominion Marines. They have joined humanity's vanguard. They have chosen to stand against an unforgiving universe."
Murmurs of approval echoed within the crowded assembly hall. Daylight flooded through the ceiling-high windows on the east wall, spotlighting the Dominion leader and the five long rows of smartly dressed recruits standing at parade rest before him.
One of those recruits—nineteen-year-old Geoff Shane, soon to be Private First Class Geoff Shane—was fighting a private battle and losing. The effort of keeping a broad grin off his face felt as if it would make his head burst, and the corners of his lips drifted upward against his will.
The emperor is speaking at my induction. The Hero of Korhal in the flesh. It didn't seem real. He wanted to pinch himself, but he didn't dare break parade rest. It would be unbecoming of a Dominion marine.
"We still face terrible threats. Two bloodthirsty, savage alien races regard us with envious eyes," Mengsk said. "Humanity's outcasts, scoundrels, and dissidents continue to act against human interests to rebel against the Dominion."
Emperor Mengsk surveyed the rows of fresh recruits. "But today, we honor these recruits. We celebrate their triumph. Training is over. Now, we set them on the path to conquer our foes."
The emperor's eyes came to rest on Shane. Without thinking, Shane turned his head to meet Mengsk's gaze and looked back with a sloppy grin on his face... and remembered too late that he was supposed to keep his attention front and center.
Shane snapped his eyes forward. Mengsk chuckled.
"I can tell these young heroes are ready and willing to tackle anything the universe can throw at them," he said, "although some may need a bit more training first."
Laughter echoed through the crowd. Shane kept his eyes locked on the steel-wrought Dominion insignia suspended high above the hall, behind Mengsk's pulpit, studying it carefully, his face burning red. Despite his chagrin, his smile crept back. He had a feeling he would never live this down.
Shane waited for the emperor to continue his speech. The crowd fell silent.
Moments ticked away. The quiet deepened. And still Emperor Mengsk said nothing.
Shane's nervous smile evaporated. Had something happened? He didn't dare look. His hands clenched into fists in the small of his back. The hush remained unbroken. The total absence of noise grew deafening.
Shane's skin crawled. The hall sounded not only quiet, but empty. Utterly empty.
There were no rustles, muffled coughs, restless children. No breathing. Nothing at all that indicated hundreds of people were seated only a few meters behind him.
Blood pounded in Shane's ears. Sweat beaded on his forehead. A headache sprang to life and his stomach churned with fear. He continued to stare at the insignia, irrationally afraid of glancing at the podium.
He imagined that Emperor Mengsk and the entire crowd, along with all of the recruits, were staring at him. Waiting for any further mistakes unbecoming of a Dominion marine.
Just a quick glance, he told himself. Moments passed. Shane couldn't do it. Just your eyes. Just for a second. The emperor thought it was funny last time. He won't care.
Shane still couldn't move. He wanted the speech to continue. He wanted the crowd to laugh. He wanted anything that would make the headache and the uncomfortable pressure inside his skull disappear.
Finally his eyes darted over and back. Shane didn't believe what he was seeing. He turned his head and looked directly at the podium.
Mengsk was gone.
So were all of the recruits. Shane turned around, panicked.
So was the crowd. Shane stood alone inside the barren assembly hall.
Confusion held him motionless. This wasn't possible. One person might slip away in a crowd without a sound, but hundreds? Everyone? In an instant?
No. Not everyone. A single figure sat in the last row at the back of the hall, out of the direct daylight from the windows. He was big and bulky, too large to sit comfortably in the hall's seats.
Shane recognized the figure's shape. It was a marine. A Dominion marine in full combat armor.