Disclaimer: This fanfic takes place in an alternate universe and adopts the basic features of the StarCraft setting to tell a brand new story.
A/N: All the protoss names originate from official sources. Yes, "Assmael" is a real protoss name.
Angle brackets (« and ») indicate telepathy. The official language of the Protoss Empire is Khalani, here represented with English. Older tribal tongues are represented with Latin.
«Our conflict with the terrans was inevitable, even if neither side predicted it would be on neither of our terms. I made the best choices I could with the intelligence available to me. I regret only that I did not foresee the enemy that came from within our own ranks.»
—Excerpt from the Last Testament of Judicator Assmael
Deep within the Protoss Empire, sometime in the early-mid 2490s A.D.
The shuttle ride was uneventful. Tassadar took a moment to admire the sights. Work had been so hectic recently that he had rarely enjoyed the simple pleasures. The shuttle passed dozens of golden skyscrapers that extended for hundreds of meters into the skies of Seventh Aiur. It was a core world of the Protoss Empire, part of the Jeweled Stars in fact, but the most exciting thing that ever happened was paperwork… mountains and mountains of paperwork that took centuries to complete.
«Destination reached,» the shuttle's thought-speech synthesizer said. «Please exit the vehicle. The Judicator is awaiting your arrival.»
Tassadar stepped out and came face to face with the Great Observatory of Khaji Da. It was an imposing edifice of golden arches and glowing psi-crystals that rose for hundreds of kilometers into the sky, but Tassadar merely blinked the sleep from his azure eyes.
He made his way inside, the dozens of automatic doors opening for him with but a thought. He passed numerous robed and armored figures that incessantly talked and tapped on psi-crystal slates without regard for his presence.
After navigating a maze-like assortment of rooms, Tassadar found himself entering the one he was looking for. As with every other room, its interior was decorated with elaborate designs of gold and other precious metals. However, what immediately drew Tassadar's gaze was a strange, tentacled creature floating in a stasis pod.
It was a xenomorph. Literally a "strange shape," a more technical way of saying it was alien.
Zekrath was already waiting for him, wearing his typical baroque headdress—complete with wind chimes—and flowing sable robes. His dark robes contrasted starkly against his bone white skin and orange eyes, a relic of the Shelak's tribal bloodline.
Beside the Judicator was the less memorable Forthum, who wore a more modest tunic—albeit elaborately embroidered and gilded. The grey fabric stood out against his pale violet skin and lime green eyes, a relic of his Furinax heritage, but nowhere near as much as his companion.
Tassadar knew his unenlightened Argive ancestors had always found the pallid faces creepy, but by the grace of the Khala he had long overcome his species' inherent tendency toward racism. Whether one's skin was green or silver, one was still protoss and worthy of respect.
Tassadar bowed, as was customary. «I am at your disposal, Judicator Zekrath, Master Khalai Forthum,» he greeted.
«Your presence inspires feelings of safety already, Executor Tassadar. Rise honored warrior, there is no need for formality here,» said the Judicator.
Tassadar rose. He gestured to the cell and asked, «This creature… I assume you have a full report ready?»
Forthum nodded. «The report was uploaded to your personal computer. However, I believe what I am about to show you will convey far more than words and pictures.»
The Master Khalai held up a psi-crystal. The psi-crystals, as all-purpose superconductors and computing substrate depending on how they were prepared, were ubiquitous in protoss technology. The psi-crystal in the Master Khalai's hand was cut and inset for use as a personal communicator.
«Listen to it,» he said.
Tassadar frowned but focused his third eye on the psi-crystal. "Third eye" was a misnomer, as the nerve cords used for telepathy and second sight did not resemble eyes at all, but using them felt very similar to using an eye in many ways. Unlike a real eye, however, the third eye "saw" by emitting psychic waves which bounced off compatible targets and then back to the third eye to give the illusion of sight.
The communicator emitted a regular series of pulses, which he quickly recognized as translated speech of some kind. The message repeated in an endless loop. No, not a message, but a thought process.
«FIND HUMANITY, ERADICATE, LEARN, EVOLVE… FIND HUMANITY, ERADICATE, LEARN, EVOLVE…»
The templar gasped in shock and glanced at the cell. Sure enough, the revolting ruddy xenomorph floating serenely in the cell was releasing psychic waves. It was looking at him, and he was sure it had been since he entered the room. How could he have ignored that?
The Executor glanced over and noticed a similar expression on the Judicator.
«How is this possible?» asked Zekrath. «It looks like a mere animal! How is this xenomorph able to use psi-crystals as easily as we do? Where did you find it?» He would have known, as his librarian kinsmen specialized in experimentation on psi-crystal technology.
Tassadar wiped invisible dust off his shoulder to conceal his composure and replied. «The Venetir scouts found a number of these creatures drifting on the borders of our space. At first we considered them nothing more than a curiosity, but then one of the scouts noticed that the creatures always maintained a distance from the border and never entered our space.»
The Executor was the leader of an exploratory fleet from aboard his flagship Gantrithor. As mandated by the Great Stewardship, it was his sacred duty to discover new worlds and new civilizations that could be annexed for the glory of the empire.
Forthum interjected and continued for him, «Given that they can utilize psi-crystals, I suspect they are some kind of deep space probe. Detailed observations and conjecture are recorded in the full report.»
The Judicator shrugged in disbelief. «Probes? I know of no species that sends probes like these. I can name the number of species that utilize psi-crystals on the fingers of one hand,» he said.
The xenomorph processed the unique radiation signature of the crystal with ease, a feat impossible and even fatal for most species to attempt. Save for the fraction of species in the galaxy which had evolved in proximity to the crystals' radiation. Not only was this xenomorph compatible, but it knew how to utilize the crystal's embedded translation software. It shared a reference point with the protoss, one that dated back to the Lost Age. That was only possible if it was of protoss origin, or…
«I do not believe they are xel'naga, if that is what you fear, Judicator,» explained Forthum. «They match no confirmed design of xel'naga technology, nor any of the myths surrounding them. In all likelihood, the designers either reverse engineered xel'naga relics or—»
«Were engineered by the xel'naga themselves?» offered Tassadar.
«Perhaps,» began the Judicator, suddenly calming. He looked upward in thought and tapped his chin absently. «Thought I doubt it be so. Contrary to popular belief, the xel'naga were not gods and they did not create life. Those myths were promulgated—»
The Executor crossed his arms and frowned. «While I would love to have a history lesson, Judicator, I do not believe this is the right time,» he said, interrupting.
Zekrath raised his shaven eyebrows and rubbed his hands together. «My apologies, Executor. I am a librarian, after all,» he added. That did not actually explain anything; it was almost like he loved the sound of his own voice. Perhaps, if one was far less charitable, his protests could be attributed to paranoia.
The xel'naga. A name that meant "first ones," "wanderers from afar," "ancient ones," or "great teachers" depending on what language you spoke and in which time period. Their legacy was shrouded in the many myths that obscured the Lost Age. They had been worshiped as gods in the older, now forbidden faiths. They were credited with the seeding of life in the galaxy or even its outright creation. They were credited with teaching the protoss how to use their "magic," or even claimed as their direct genetic ancestors.
But none alive or preserved knew the truth of matter, only what scraps could be found in ancient ruins. The Khala's Law prohibited the worship of the xel'naga. The orthodox view of the Assembly was that the xel'naga were, at best, the most respected pedagogues of the Lost Age falsely deified long after their deaths. No doubt their technology made them god-like, but they were still very mortal ancestors.
This was something of a sore point among the Shelak. Their ancestors had once worshiped the xel'naga even after the Departure and through the Aeon of Strife; indeed, they were among the most zealous keepers of knowledge during the Tal'darim Crusades. To add insult to injury, they were uniquely permitted access to the forbidden xel'naga teachings after the institution of the Khala's Law under the restriction that they gave up their faith. What choice did they have?
If the xenomorph shared an unbroken link back to the technology of the Lost Age, then there was no telling what else it was privy to. It could have been a forgotten bioweapon, for all they knew. The Empire was still trying to reclaim the legacy of the Lost Age.
The Executor nodded and glanced back at the cell. «They recently began migrating, but I did not stay to chart their course. Can we track them?» he asked.
The Master Khalai nodded and his green eyes briefly flashed. «Already done, Executor. A concentration of probes was detected heading in the direction of Koprulu sector.»
«Koprulu? Forgive me if I do not recognize the name.»
«The Koprulu sector is on the frontier of the empire. Point of fact, it is well within the estimated territory of the Old Empire and was marked for the Golden Age of Expansion yet never reclaimed. Blame the vagaries of the bureaucracy, I suppose.» The Master Khalai shrugged as he said the last words.
Tassadar narrowed his eyes. «What do we know of this 'humanity' species? I assume they live in the sector?»
Forthum beamed. «A fair amount, actually,» he began. «The Koprulu sector is located in the outer rim, and contains colonies of humanity. Although they call themselves 'terrans,' but I am not sure what the different names connote at this time.» He waved a hand absently.
At this point the Master Khalai went silent for a moment then continued in a much quieter manner. «This species is warlike in the extreme. The most recent records…»
«Master Khalai?» asked Tassadar. He could feel the other's mounting horror and revulsion through the Khala's Light. The feeling made his skin crawl.
Forthum shuddered then continued with a lighter tone. «They exploit planets for resources and ruin the native ecosystems with reckless abandon. Eventually, I suspect they may try to claim our worlds.»
«Then they will fail and rue their mistake,» said Tassadar. He turned to the doorway. «Come, Judicator. I suspect the Conclave will want to hear of this, if they have not already.»
A holographic display suddenly appeared in front of Zekrath, chirping excitedly and displaying many lines of glowing gylphs. His eyes quickly scanned through it.
The Executor glanced back at the Judicator, wide-eyed.
«They have already prepared your orders,» the judicator said, frowning. The Judicator looked back at the Executor as he continued, «It has not been finalized yet, but… they want you to lead—well, they want your Gantrithor to join an expedition into Koprulu to investigate the purpose of the probes. You should be honored, Executor.»
Meanwhile, on the Terran/Protoss border...
«En Taro Adun, Master Khalai Menbellir.»
The Master Khalai bowed to the Executor as the latter entered the observatory in her typically gaudy golden armor. It had been recently warped onto the remote moon to help monitor the transmissions of the terrans across the other side of the Koprulu border. As Executor and Master Khalai of the border patrol fleet, the thankless task of spying on lesser species fell to them.
«En Taro Adun, Executor Andinunn,» he greeted.
Andinunn waved her hand in dismissal. «There is no need for such formality, Master Khalai. We are all Protoss here. Now what was this matter of strategic value you wished to discuss?» she asked.
Menbellir rose and wiped imaginary dust from his simple though elaborately embroidered tunic. He prodded a sheet of psi-crystal clutched in one lavender-skinned hand, moving twinkling numbers across the display. He started pacing around the observatory, blinking his white eyes and turning his ornately adorned head from side to side as the gears in his mind worked overtime.
«My instruments both here and at other listening posts have detected an unusual amount of psychic traffic,» he explained.
Andinunn frowned. «How is it so? The terrans do not communicate on psychic wavelengths,» she said.
Menbellir paused in his step. He turned towards a device in the middle of the room and waved at it. Immediately, a projection of star systems appeared above the device. Several labels appeared at certain systems and the display zoomed on one in particular, a moon on the outer fringe of terran territories near the far edge of the border.
«Few of them possess any measurable degree of telepathy, but they do build devices capable of sending and receiving on psychic wavelengths. On a number of remote planets, like this one,» he gestured to the projector, «they seem to be sending indiscriminate psychic signals, probably with artificial signal boost. For whatever reason, I cannot hazard a guess.»
«Furthermore,» he continued as the projector changed to another planet, this one labeled MINING COLONY, FORMER KMC, «there is an unusual amount of psychic traffic on a few of the outermost mining colonies, but it does not match terran brain waves. At the same time, conventional communication signals had steadily decreased…»
The image suddenly zoomed in, focusing on a spherical metal object in high orbit. «Aside from a science vessel believed to belong to the Confederate military organization Epsilon Squadron. They constantly change their encryption and release misinformation to prevent the rebels from interfering, so I cannot verify the accuracy. What is particularly strange is that the vessel is jamming communications and travel to and from the planet.»
Andinunn shook her head and sighed. «Not strange at all. You remember what happened to Korhal?»
The two shuddered in unison.
The Executor stroked her gold-painted chin with an orange hand, her gold-painted claws clicking slightly. «It is perfectly in keeping with the Confederacy to engage in unethical experiments,» she mused. «You heard the rumors? Supposedly they were eying our worlds on the other side of the border.»
The Koprulu sector had been part of the Old Empire during the Lost Age prior to the Aeon of Strife. It had remained outside of protoss hands for millennia and so had been marked as part of the Golden Age of Expansion centuries prior. Unfortunately, since then the sector had been claimed by the rapidly expanding terrans. The Great Stewardship had forbid direct intervention with species that did not meet their criteria as potential trading partners, despite the insult made by stealing their territory. Given their warlike, greedy and self-destructive nature, the terrans did not qualify.
«Degenerates,» said Menbellir.
Andinunn held up a meticulously manicured hand. As an Aurigan, the thrill of discovery was something she understood all too well. «It is not our place to judge them, Master Khalai, only keep them in check should they forget their place. Nonetheless, I believe this deserves to be investigated. I trust you know what to do?»
Menbellir glanced down and tapped a few times on his psi-crystal sheet, then glanced back at the Executor.
«More observers have been dispatched to the areas of interest, with instructions to answer directly to your command. They may not breathe or feel, but they are my children nonetheless. Use them wisely.»
She turned toward the entrance to the chamber, the door opening at her telepathic command.
«Executor, when do you plan on alerting our Most Esteemed? If my suspicions are correct this could extend our tour on the border for months, perhaps indefinitely,» he added.
Andinunn did not turn around.
«The Most Esteemed Nuun-Min will be informed once we have discovered something worth bothering her about,» she answered after a moment. «She already dislikes the terrans more than you do.»
«For good reason, I might add,» said a third voice.
Andinunn's eyes bulged. Nuun-Min was standing on the other side of the doorway, arms crossed over her chest.
«Ah yes, the infamous templar confidence,» the judicator started as she glided into the room, her eye-searing robes rustling melodramatically. «I appreciate the effort, Executor, but you know I did not choose an assignment in the backwaters of the galaxy—many tens of thousands of light years away from home—out of simple charity. We have no idea how many artifacts of the Old Empire or forgotten weapons from the Aeon of Strife are buried across the sector, nor how many the ignorant terran archaeologists are uncovering without understanding of their purpose or danger. If you even suspect they are planning something remotely…» she paused for dramatic effect, «unsightly, then I should be the first to know about it. Especially if it might extend our stay.»
While travel through the warp network would have allowed the fleet to travel to Aiur more or less instantly compared to the many years of travel by warp drive, in practice the resources required to build and sustain the whole affair as well as the bureaucratic red tape involved meant that the entire process would most likely take weeks or months at the least.
The Executor resisted the urge to sigh. «Your pardon, Judicator, but I said that we might set course for Aiur within the month, not—»
«Yes,» the judicator interrupted, «barring new sightings. I said as much in my last report to the Conclave, as well as the fact that our present forces are, and I quote, more than capable of dealing with any conceivable threat.»
Andinunn shrugged. «If I may be so bold to suggest it, the terrans are hardly a threat,» she said.
«To us, the gardeners of the galaxy,» Nuun-Min replied. «But our garden cannot defend itself. Any life that does not follows our laws or grows out of our control—»
«Is a problem to be solved… or eliminated,» the executor finished. «As the good book says,» she added.
The judicator nodded.
Menbellir silently watched the exchange and gave an internal sigh. This was why he was glad that the Khalai were not required to attend courses in the political sciences. It was such a headache...
On the outskirts of the Uilila System, Koprulu sector
On the bridge of her command carrier, the Balance of Judgment, Executor Andinunn stared at the former Kel-Morian mining colony through the observation window. The carrier was not actually in orbit of the planet, but receiving telemetry from a nearby observer while hiding in the shadow of a moon on the edge of the system.
The fourth planet of the star christened Uilila by the terrans, it had a storied history. It was first settled by independent mining guilds decades previous, and then the Kel-Morian Combine arrived and started competing with their supposedly secure mining claims. One miner, Usagi Hidalgo, was so incensed that he was seemingly killed by the unintentional detonation of a nuclear device he had acquired for the presumed purpose of revenge. The twenty megaton explosion caused little physical damage to the rest of the planet, but the fallout caused by inferior construction resulted in severe climatic shifts. Not that this was much of a problem, since the planet was uninhabitable to begin with, only barely habitable after years of terraforming, and only needed enough habitability to support the few mining settlements that dotted the surface. Indeed, most mining was done on the asteroids and uninhabited planets of the system.
After the Guild Wars in the first half of the 80s, the planet and its affiliated guilds were confiscated by the Confederacy. During the late 80s, a cholera pandemic broke out across the fringe worlds and provoked the largest humanitarian crisis in history. Although media reports claimed the pandemic was caused by improperly sanitized water treatment equipment manufactured by a now bankrupt interstellar corporation, Andinunn suspected that the truth was far more sinister in light of recent events.
Most of Uilila IV was evacuated to temporary housing and had yet to resettle the planet. The few who remained were members of survivalist groups that avoided the outbreak by carefully controlling their water sources and treatment process. Despite their supposed presence on the planet, Uilila IV and many other worlds affected by the outbreak were still placed under quarantine. Ostensibly this was to protect ongoing sanitation efforts and ensure that the outbreak did not recur, but the token military presence and mobile minefield in orbit of the planet put all of the Executor's lingering doubts to rest.
In addition to the minefield a series of relay buoys continually broadcast a jamming signal across orbit, preventing communication with the planet save by tight-beam. It was reasonable to assume that the buoys communicated with one another, the mines and the science vessel through high-powered lasers.
The mines were not simple bombs left floating in space. The mines maintained a constant, regular holding pattern around the planet, occasionally releasing jets of exhaust to maintain their position. If any unidentified craft tried to approach the planet, these smart mines would probably seek them out before exploding to maximize the damage inflicted.
Although observers of sufficient size could be fit with warp drives, the minefield was too close to the planet's gravity well for said observers to jump around it without an unacceptably high risk of swerving and crashing into the surface… or worse, emerging inside and thus fusing with it. That would be a needless waste of a perfectly good observer.
The Executor considered her options. Behind her stood Nuun-Min on her left and Menbellir on her right. The Master Khalai tapped at a blinking crystal sheet, presumably evaluating the possibilities. The Judicator hovered silently, her rosy face and burning eyes remaining stony. Though the templar and the judicator were different castes, they were both part of the Auriga tribe.
The Auriga tribe held immense sway over the hierarchy and maintenance of the Great Fleets, a testament to their heritage as one of the first tribes to develop sea travel on Lost Aiur. Their templars crewed the flagships and piloted the fighter craft. Their judicators piloted the sacred arbiters and wove space-time to their whim. Their khalai maintained the vessels and oversaw further manufacture. The Assembly and High Command were utterly dependent on their generous patronage. The stars were their sea, their endless horizon. Indeed, their very name literally translated to "chariot."
Andinunn did not appreciate the judicator's entitlement. Indeed, the fact that they were part of the same tribe made her even less tolerant. How dare that brat talk back to her in such a manner! In front of the Master Khalai no less! Menbellir had served the fleet long before she was born and to be treated like that in front of him… it did not help that, when she had been protégé to the previous executor, she had nursed a crush on the older werman for almost a century. It was probably those huge eyebrows, that thick beard, the detailed engineering knowledge…
She took a moment to clear her thoughts and turned around to face them.
«Master Khalai, what stands in our way?» she asked.
«As I surveyed through the observers, a fair amount. The minefield limits our deployment to stealth craft and the jamming signals forces us to rely on tight-beam or conduit-based communication. There is nothing preventing us from sending my observers directly to the planet, but we cannot receive their telemetry without such workarounds or waiting for them to return with recordings. There is no guarantee they will return, for that matter.»
Nuun-Min started to say something, but stopped. Andinunn noticed the judicator glance at her sideways, but only for a moment. The executor suspected that her frustration had not been lost on her would-be advisor. Thank the Khala and all the ancestors resting in the Seven Winds for small mercies.
«Do you have a suggestion, Judicator?»
Nuun-Min did have a suggestion, but she did not want to overstep her bounds. She had already made the misstep of letting her emotions dictate her actions. Damn her impatience! It was a huge inconvenience to stay in Koprulu after she had entertained the delusion that she would return home to her husband and son, but that gave her no right to take out her frustration on the Executor and especially not under the gaze of the great and respectable Master Khalai. There was the very real possibility he would be eligible for initiation into the Judicators within the near future, perhaps even the Assembly, but that was beside the point. The Khalai were the backbone of the Empire, the four columns of heaven and earth, the lifeblood of their people. Out of every werman, wifman, woman and child within the Empire, why had she been born to a judicator family? What dishonor was she guilty of in a past life?
She cast her caution to the Seven Winds once again and answered the question.
«I do, Executor. Given that this is, as the terrans say, a black operation, I believe I know Templar who are more than qualified to carry out the necessary reconnaissance.» Taking the Executor's silence as a tacit agreement, she continued, «My Sargas bodyguards should not have any problem taking your orders and overseeing the observers on your behalf.»
The Sargas tribe served the Judicators as loyal enforcers and assassins of the highest order. Yet they concealed a dark and sordid history. Along with other infamous tribes, they steadfastly resisted the homogenizing influence of the Khala and continue to practice and even exaggerate their ancient cultural traditions. During the crisis of the rogue tribes, when the very future of their species was put to the test by apocalyptic psychic storms, they were infamous for the relatively high number of rogues that were drawn from their clans. This placed the Sargas squarely in the path of the Judicators' wrath, but somehow they were able to not only redeem themselves for the sins of their brethren but claim a highly coveted position near the heart of the Empire's politics. Even the similarly guilty Venetir tribe somehow laid claim to a near-monopoly on the Great Fleet's reconnaissance operations that the Auriga, who themselves held a near-monopoly on aerospace operations across the Empire save in this regard, never found reason to question.
Wondering why the Protoss would require assassins was difficult to contemplate, united as they were by the Khala. It was easy enough to assume that the assassins were sent only after the unenlightened leaders of other species whose governments needed to be toppled with the utmost subtlety. By the same token, the Judicators were known to train themselves influencing the minds of others and in extreme cases rewriting memories. Such manipulations against their own kind would be transparent under the Khala's Light, but other species were not so lucky. Andinunn refused to pursue the implications of such thought further.
«I do not question the soundness of your judgment, Judicator,» the Executor began, «but would it not be more prudent to sent the Venetir? Their stealth vessels would come quite handy here.»
«Why not both? Forgive me for interrupting, but their diversity is our strength, would you not agree, Executor?» interjected Menbellir.
Andinunn and Nuun-Min nodded. «Continue,» said the Executor.
«Both excel in stealthy travel, yes, but under different circumstances if I recall correctly. The Venetir could slip past the terrans' quarantine while the Sargas could oversee the observers' movements on the surface. Each could anticipate any dangers we could not see from space without worrying about a lack of flexibility.»
It was a deliberate, calculated move on his part. Menbellir did not believe the two would come into conflict over something this minor, but given his past experiences he supposed he could never be too careful.
«Spoken like a true engineer, Master Khalai. I could not have said so better,» the judicator said quickly.
The executor glanced sideways at the judicator, then said, «Indeed. We shall assemble our teams and meet in the hangar in two days to finalize the mission. I assume that will be plenty of time to prepare?»
«Plenty. The Sargas are never caught off-guard.»
«My observers are already at your command, Executor.»
«Very well then. Dismissed.»
As they left, Andinunn turned back to the observation window. Whatever the wily terrans were plotting, she would get to the bottom of it. The Empire had tarried too long in its duties. So help her, a repeat of the Korhal Genocide or the Guild Wars would not happen under her burning gaze. So what if they were a lesser species? That gave them no right to commit atrocities against each other, and it was a betrayal of the Great Stewardship to simply stand by while innocents were butchered like cattle. Out of all the dozens upon dozens of civilizations the Protoss had encountered, the terrans were by far the most vicious and destructive.
Nuun-Min was right, she thought. To ignore their behavior and their trespass on the Empire's hallowed soil was the height of foolishness. There was that, but Andinunn would be lying if she said she was not itching for a fight. One did not train in the art of war for centuries and expect to sit back and watch.