High above, the thick, billowing clouds suddenly parted and several rays of sunlight slipped through. They reflected beautifully on the tall apartment spires and industrial chimneys that made up the skyline of the Kakamega Arcology, Kenyan Prefecture. The warm light reached First Sergeant Ifiki Khimbo's face as he looked out over the faceless masses that crowded the busy streets. His eyes settled on his wife and daughter who were walking towards him, hand in hand. To him, their faces seemed to shine more brightly than the sun itself. He had memorized every detail of their smiles and just seeing them again, their features, their eyes, was enough to send a wave of calmness through his body. He had never felt more at home than at this moment. That was why he kept returning to it.
Ifiki Khimbo blinked several times and tried to get his bearings. The bright light and the warmth he felt dancing over his face was real. There were several small fires raging around him and he was vaguely aware of a woman's voice speaking from somewhere nearby. Khimbo got back on his feet and his Powered Combat Suit compensated as best it could for his shaky legs. While there were several new dents in his Marine armor that he couldn't recognize, a quick diagnostic revealed no critical damage or injury. Squinting, he moved in the direction of the woman's voice – towards the cockpit.
The pilot, her head twisted at an unnatural angle, lay slumped over the controls. The voice came from the damaged flight computer, which repeated the same phrase – pull up, pull up – over and over. It was obviously too late, as the dropship had already hit the ground. The canopy was smashed and red sand had poured into the cockpit. Khimbo turned around to check on the rest of his section.
A large portion of the dropship's starboard hull was missing and most of the other Marines seemed to have been sucked out through there before they hit ground. Khimbo recognized Private Conrads from the colorful graffiti on his armor, but where his face had once been there was now only a gaping hole. There didn't seem to be any other survivors. With the help of his armor's augmented strength, he shoved wreckage and some of his former comrades aside and climbed through the dropship's open hull. Outside he was greeted by an orange sky and a seemingly endless expanse of sand dunes. Ifiki Khimbo most definitely did not feel at home.
Former Dominion Throne World
Two months into the UED occupation
Two hours earlier, Khimbo had been assembled along with the rest of his company on the outskirts of Camp Triumphant. Everyone was in full battle gear. Major Hurst paced back and forth in front of them as several dropships warmed up their engines behind him. The steadily rising whine from their thrusters made it difficult to hear Hurst's voice from where Khimbo was standing, but he wouldn't have been paying much attention anyway. He had already been briefed about his section's assignment and this was just the major blowing steam in one of his usual tirades. Every other sentence seemed to contain the words duty and honor. He was talking about staying vigilant, there was something about an attack on the garrison at Braxis and then the usual rhetoric about safeguarding humanity. Khimbo drifted off and disappeared into his own thoughts.
For a time, he returned to that old memory from Kakamega. He fully believed going there was the only thing still keeping him sane. His division had suffered heavy losses during the storming of Augustgrad. Khimbo had seen combat and death before, but never on a scale such as this. As a "reward" for their noble sacrifice at Korhal's capital city, the division had been posted on the other side of the planet and put on light duty. In this case, light duty had meant fighting a never ceasing war against local insurgents while the main efforts of the UED Expeditionary Fleet were focused on Char. Sometimes it seemed like every single colonist in the Koprulu Sector owned a gun of some kind and could think of nothing better than to put a few slugs in the back of an unsuspecting Earther.
The division's numbers had dwindled even further, but when reinforcements finally were sent, they were not the kind they had envisioned. With the second Overmind on Char firmly under Directorate control, some enterprising officers working together with the Science Corps had started shipping Zerg to Korhal to assist with the garrisoning and pacification duties. Khimbo himself had been present during one of their operations – the release of several hundred Zerglings into the Andervolen mining tunnels to clean out a known rebel stronghold. After the screams and gunfire had died out, Khimbo's section had been sent in to verify the kills and pick off any survivors. Needless to say, there had been none.
Major Hurst had finally finished his speech and the assembled Marines were moved forward, section by section, into the waiting dropships. The UED anthem was being played through some nearby loudspeakers, but only hints of it could be heard over the deafening thunder of the dropship engines.
There would be no Zerg fighting alongside them today, and for that Khimbo was grateful. While the other dropships headed off to their assigned targets, they would be hitting a small homestead in the Western Kinnian Flats, identified as a possible rebel arms cache. Intelligence didn't expect the cache to be guarded by anything more than a few frightened settlers with hunting rifles. Certainly nothing that would punch through their powered armor. While Khimbo knew better than to trust intelligence estimates, he felt at least somewhat at ease about today's mission as he took a seat along with the rest of his section in their assigned dropship. In the back of his mind, however, was an old Kenyan proverb that had he had been repeating to himself ever since the Expeditionary Fleet reached Koprulu – If you rattle a snake, you should be prepared to be bitten by it.
Berunda Dune Sea
Among the many bedrock outcroppings that dotted the desert landscape, one in particular stood out. A casual observer, even from a very close distance, would see nothing remarkable, but hidden within the rocks was a single, camouflaged Goliath combat walker. Great care had been taken to carve out a good firing position that offered a wide field of fire and yet shielded the walker from prying eyes, especially those from above. The hull had been painted in the same color as the surrounding bedrock and only the slight hum of the Goliath's small reactor core revealed that this was something other than just a rock.
The Goliath's upper torso, the only part of it above ground, suddenly swivelled sharply to the east, sending a small flock of startled Gendali lizards flying away. A small dot appeared on the horizon, steadily growing larger. The walker's torso slowly followed the movement of the dot until it had turned into the recognizable shape of a dropshop. At the very last moment, when the aircraft was almost directly above, the ground shuddered as the Goliath unloaded both missile launchers in a large cloud of white smoke.
Two hours later
"Trident, this is Flapjack-4. Do you read? Come in, Trident."
Khimbo waited in silence for a few minutes but nothing but muffled static came out of the radio speakers. It was no use. His suit radio was dead and the one in the dropship couldn't be salvaged. There was little that could be. Khimbo had no idea what had become of his gauss rifle, and the two he found in the wreckage weren't in working condition. The only useful things he found were two water canisters and a single Marine-issue sidearm with two clips of ammo. It was better than nothing at least. Khimbo took one last wistful look at the smoking dropship wreckage and started walking east.
Camp Triumphant was somewhere to the east, that much he knew, but his satellite uplink had been lost along with his suit radio and Khimbo had never been very good at memorizing maps. His gamble was that sooner or later he would run into a UED patrol or be spotted by a passing dropship or Valkyrie. There was bound to be a lot of unfriendly locals between him and his destination, however, and he was not in a position to offer much resistance in a long-range firefight with his sidearm. Thus, as he traversed the dune sea with its rock outcroppings, Khimbo did his best to move from cover to cover where possible. His armor's environmental systems made sure the heat didn't affect him too much, but his dwindling water supply was a source of some concern.
Progress was slow, even with the benefit of his power armor's enhanced muscles. It simply hadn't been made with this kind of terrain in mind. Khimbo frequently found his feet sinking into the loose sand of the dunes due to the immense weight of the suit. He was careful not to let too much sand find its way into his armor's mechanical joints, but it was unavoidable to a certain degree. He walked for the better part of the day and had yet to see a single living soul. Once or twice he had seen the familiar contrails of dropships overhead, but they would have been far too high to spot him.
He once again found his mind slipping into the familiar territory of the Kakamega Arcology back on Earth. The irony of it all wasn't lost on Khimbo. Before he had set off with the Expeditionary Fleet, he would have done anything to get himself and his family away from the polluted, overcrowded mess that was Kakamega. Now the arcology was all he could think of whenever he had a quiet moment. It was his anchor to sanity, or so he told himself. He went through the motions of reconstructing the smiles of his wife and daughter again, and wondered how many details he got wrong for every day that passed without him seeing them.
The sun was beginning to set when Khimbo suddenly noticed a small dust trail in the horizon. Something was moving in his direction. He squinted and focused on it, but couldn't make out what it was. A hover bike, perhaps? Vultures were quite common around these parts, and many were armed. Most locals wouldn't think twice about picking off a lone UED Marine straggler with a well-placed fragmentation grenade. Khimbo hurried behind a dune that would block him from view. He used his arms to push as much sand as possible over his armor to conceal himself, while still carefully peeking over the dune crest to see what was approaching. The technicians back at the camp would raise hell over all the sand now in his armor's joints, but somehow that didn't seem too important at the moment.
The dust trail became larger as whatever was causing it came closer, but something wasn't right. It was fast, yes. Whatever it was, he wouldn't be able to outrun it, but it didn't seem to be moving quite as fast as a hover bike. When he finally saw what it was, Khimbo held his breath and tightened the grip around his sidearm. Three Zerglings, running tightly together as a single pack, were heading in his general direction. Their feet raised a large dust cloud as they rapidly and effortlessly leaped across the dunes on a path that would take them within a hundred meters of him. There was no way he could take on all three of them, Khimbo realized. Nailing just one of the fast-moving creatures with his semi-automatic gun would be a feat, but the other two would make mincemeat of him with their razor-sharp claws before he could do anything else.
There weren't supposed to be any Zerg on Korhal besides the UED slave broods, but Khimbo had heard enough stories of "friendly fire" accidents involving them to send a chill up his spine. The Science Corps said to just think of the friendly broods as a loyal and steadfast addition to the Expeditionary Fleet, much like a very large K9 unit, but Khimbo had a hard time comparing an Ultralisk with a German Shepherd. They had started marking the creatures of friendly broods with simple UED insignias and paint schemes, to make it easier for grunts like him to tell them apart from those Zerg that would kill them on sight. That idea soon had to be abandoned, however, as the broods grew exponentially and the eggheads couldn't keep up. Khimbo couldn't see any kind of markings on these Zerglings, besides the color of their skin, but that didn't necessarily mean anything.
The lead Zergling suddenly slowed and came to a halt, followed by its two companions. It raised its snout into the air. Amid the chirps of the creatures and the wind, the only thing Khimbo could hear was his own beating heart. The three aliens turned as one and stared in his exact direction.
Khimbo pressed himself against the sand and found himself wishing he could slip through it and into the ground. He double-checked the safety on his sidearm. Before he could do anything else, however, the lead Zergling let out a high-pitched chirp and the trio set off again on their previous path. It wasn't until they were well out of sight that he stood up, fountains of sand pouring off his armor, and started breathing again.
He walked through most of the night. The sky was clear and full of stars. Some of the lights were moving and blinking at regular intervals – the fleet's massive battlecruisers in close orbit. He wondered if one of them was the DSS Marseilles, the ship that had taken him to Koprulu. As dawn approached, Khimbo finally stopped near a small cliff to rest for a few hours. He sat down in his armor out of sight behind some rocks and allowed himself to close his eyes.
The central plaza in the Kakamega Arcology was packed full of people, as usual. Khimbo pushed his way through the crowd to where he knew his wife and daughter would be. He started shoving people aside, moving faster and faster, desperate to find them. Suddenly the crowds in front of him parted by themselves. There was a hushed silence, broken only by the sounds of hooves and a loud neigh. His wife and daughter approached him on the back of a large horse.
Khimbo blinked several times, suddenly wide awake. A horse? There had never been a horse before. He hadn't seen a live horse for years! Before he could contemplate the mystery further, he was startled to hear the sound of a horse's neigh again. Was he still dreaming? He quickly grabbed his sidearm and stumbled onto his feet. Still feeling a bit groggy, he clumsily wandered out of the rocks to find the source of the sound.
The scene before him was like something out of a bad movie. Not twenty meters away was a white Arabian stallion. The animal neighed loudly again and Khimbo slowly and carefully approached the agitated horse. The unfortunate rider lay dead on the ground, one of his feet stuck in the stirrup. It was a UED captain in full uniform. A large red splotch on his jacket marked a single bullet entry wound, from a C-10 canister rifle unless Khimbo was mistaken. The work of a sniper. It looked like the horse had dragged the poor captain quite a distance. Khimbo carefully removed the man's foot from the stirrup and the horse immediately took off. He could do little but watch it disappear in full gallop behind some sand dunes.
The sheer logistics of transporting a horse with the Expeditionary Fleet all the way from Earth to here staggered yet fascinated Khimbo. What did a cold-sleep chamber designed for a horse look like? What was the reason for bringing the poor animal here? A symbolic gesture? Sentimental value? Whatever the reason, it hadn't done this officer much good in the end, Khimbo reflected as he searched through the man's uniform for ammunition or something else valuable. This was a strange place for a captain to take his horse out for a stroll. He couldn't have come here alone. By the looks of it, he hadn't been dead for more than a few hours so it was more than possible his attackers were still out there. When Khimbo was satisfied the captain had nothing worth taking, he carefully advanced between the light desert scrub.
It wasn't long before he spotted a plume of thick, black smoke coming from behind a small ridge. As he peeked over the edge, Khimbo found three burning siege tanks lined up in a neat row, all with UED markings. The ground was littered with the corpses of the tank crews and their Marine escort. It looked like this convoy had been caught in an ambush, Khimbo thought to himself in what he realized was an obvious understatement. He slowly circled around the burning vehicles until he felt confident the attackers were gone. Moving over the ridge, he slid down to the path and cautiously approached the burning hulk of the convoy's lead tank.
A dead Firebat was sitting motionless by the wrecked caterpillar tracks of the tank, leaning against them. Khimbo thought he heard a slight wheezing sound. Were the Firebat's plasma tanks leaking? He gave the armor a slight shove with one of his armored feet.
"Oi! Wha's this then!"
A stream of hot fire shot out straight ahead from the Firebat's arm-mounted flamethrowers and Khimbo nearly doubled backwards in surprise. The Firebat was struggling to get back up on his feet. Khimbo ran around the corner of the siege tank just in time to escape a second jet of flame.
"Hold your fire! Hold your fire!" Khimbo called out and slowly emerged from behind cover with his sidearm at the ready. The Firebat was aiming his flamethrowers at the ground while doing his best to support himself on his one good leg.
"Identify yourself, soldier!" Khimbo said, lowering his gun slightly.
"Corporal Liam Prestwick, 32nd Colonial Rifles. Ye shouldn' 'ave sneaked up on me like 'at, mate!"
"Sorry, friend. First Sergeant Khimbo, 413th Fusiliers, Atlas Wing. I didn't think there were any survivors. Are there any others?"
"No, Sergn't. No' a one."
Corporal Prestwick slid back down next to the tank.
"Who did this? A local warband?" Khimbo asked.
"'Ese were bleedin' regulars, Sergn't. Dominion regulars in full armor. We got a handful o' 'em, though. Like 'at one over 'ere!"
Prestwick motioned with his arm at a badly charred corpse in Marine armor a slight distance away. Khimbo walked over and leaned down to examine the body. He instantly recognized the symbol on the dead Marine's shoulder-pad from his briefings. Nova Squadron. This was not good. The Confederacy's elite intelligence unit that had been folded into the Dominion after the fall of Tarsonis. Khimbo knew a number of them had been fighting at the Battle of Augustgrad, and he also knew a number of them had quietly melted away into the desert after the dust had settled.
"Nova Squadron, innit, Sergn't?" Prestwick called out from where he was sitting. He spat on the ground. "It figures. I ain't 'ne'er met one that wasn' a complete bugger."
"You served alongside them?"
"Oh, I wouldn' quite say 'alongside.' I wus in Omega Squadron and they ne'er cared much fer us. 'Specially those of us who 'ad undergone a little… wut do they call it… 'resocializing.'"
Khimbo nodded slowly to himself. Of course.
"You fought for the Confederacy then?"
"Tha' I did, mate. An' the Dominion after that… an' now ye Earthers."
"I would say you have a knack for picking the winning team then, Corporal Prestwick," Khimbo said with an amused smile.
"Oh, I wouldn' be so sure, Sergn't. Not this time."
"How did you end up with the UED to begin with, anyway?"
"I wus stationed at the Dylarian Shipyards along wi' the rest of me unit when you boys came in. After ye sent the Dominion Armada packin', well, a number o' us felt signin' up as colonial conscripts wus preferable to instan' death."
"Listen, Prestwick," Khimbo said, kneeling down next to the wounded corporal. "We can't stay. We need to keep moving east. How is your leg? Can you walk at all?"
"I've taken worse beatin's 'an this, mate. S'long as I've got access to some stims now an' then, to keep me going, I'll walk with ye all 'he way to Earth!"
After a few minutes, Khimbo and Prestwick set off east again, avoiding the roads. Khimbo had managed to scrounge up a working C-14 gauss rifle with plenty of ammo, and just the weight of the weapon in his hands made him feel more at ease. He hadn't realized how naked he had felt with just that sidearm. Even though Prestwick was visibly hurt, he managed to keep a brisk pace. A few times he told Khimbo to stop for a minute while he "collected" himself. After the familiar sounding hiss of his Firebat armor's chemical delivery system, he was quickly back on his feet. They walked through most of the day, resting only a few hours at dusk. Despite the stims, or perhaps because of, Prestwick was starting to look worse and worse. They continued walking once the sun had set and the desert was shrouded in darkness, but after a while Khimbo decided they had better stop as Prestwick could barely stand upright.
Khimbo sat down on a small rock as Prestwick drifted into heavy sleep below a small cliff. He saw the large silhouettes of a few scantids as they scurried by in the desert, but knew from experience that they avoided humans whenever possible and so paid them little mind. His thoughts returned to Kakamega instead.
It was market day. The crowds were, if possible, even denser than usual. There had been another riot in a nearby subsector earlier in the day, and several stern-looking peace officers wearing full riot gear lined the edges of the streets. Despite the collective tension that filled the air, Khimbo was in a good mood. He held his daughter's hand tightly and watched his wife as she picked out fruits from a nearby stand. His eyes followed the movements of her hand, and he didn't even notice the angry shouts coming from behind him or the sounds of glass breaking…
He opened his eyes again with a gasp. The only thing that could be heard was the whistling of the desert wind. The sun was coming up again soon, but for now the desert was engulfed in an eerie twilight. Khimbo suddenly noticed that Prestwick was wide awake and looking at him from where he was lying.
"Ye okay there, mate?"
"Yes, I'm fine. Thank you."
"Ye seemed a little bi' out there, for a while."
"I was just…" Khimbo sighed. "I was thinking about home." He stood up and walked over to where the wounded Firebat was lying, sitting down next to him.
"What about you? Where are you from, Prestwick?"
"Funny thing 'at… I know I wus born on Tarsonis, but I don't have many detailed memories from before I wus… 'drafted' into the Confederate Marines."
"Don't you have any memories at all of your family?"
Prestwick displayed a toothy grin.
"I do. Oh, I do, Sergn't. Ah didn' at first, but it's slowly been comin' back over the years."
"So tell me," Khimbo said, suddenly intrigued. "Who were they?"
"I had a wife, I did. Beautiful lass. Long brown hair… piercing green eyes! Oh, how she could look at ye with scorn!" Prestwick said with a cackle, and Khimbo couldn't help but smile. "I 'ad a young boy too. He didn' look too much like 'is father, which is a good thing if ye ask me. Ah, t'was a lifetime ago."
"Do you know what happened to them?" Khimbo asked. "I mean, I know Tarsonis was… but there were survivors, refugees. Don't you think it's at least possible that they…"
"I know perfectly well wha' happened to 'em, Sergn't. I killed them."
Khimbo looked at him with a blank stare.
"T'is why I remember their faces so clearly. Especially their expressions, right at tha' very moment when I extinguished their lives."
"Why?" Khimbo managed to croak. His fingers tightened around the grip of his gauss rifle.
"Why? Why, 'e asks!" Prestwick laughed. "Innit strange? I can' exactly remember how I reasoned back then, but some'hing must 'ave brought it on. Maybe I got fed up with me wife's nagging. Maybe the boy talked back to me. It dinna matter now. Whut's done is done."
Khimbo stood up and backed away from Prestwick a few paces.
"Of course it matters! It's a part of who you are! How can you live with yourself?!"
Prestwick's features hardened.
"I've paid in blood for what I've done, Sergn't. Agains' the Zerg, agains' the Protoss… agains' other Terrans, as here on Korhal. Me debt to society 'as been repaid in full, wi' interest."
"No," Khimbo whispered through gritted teeth. "Where I come from, at least, this is a debt that can never be repaid."
Prestwick narrowed his eyes.
"Ye may 'ave noticed, Sergn't, that things work a little differently out 'ere."
The Firebat slowly raised one of his arms, resting it on his knee and incidentally pointing the Perdition flamethrower straight at Khimbo.
"I suggest ye learn 'ow to live with it."
A sudden whistling sound, not unlike that of an artillery round or a mortar shell, was suddenly heard coming from above. Training took over and both soldiers immediately dove for the ground. Instead of a loud explosion, however, what followed was just an abrupt thud. Khimbo slowly got back on his feet and hesitantly walked over to the small crater the falling object had created.
In the depression lay the twisted and smoking corpse of a dead Protoss.
"What in God's name…"
A few minutes earlier
Hindanis emerged from the dense clouds with his Scout fighter and continued to climb through Korhal's upper stratosphere. He cast a worrying glance at the fighter's shield meter. The mission had been going so well up until now. He had carefully reconnoitered the fortified positions of the Terrans on this world and skillfully eluded their detection at every turn. All his assigned targets had been covered, and all that was left for him now was to return with the data to Praetor Fenix and the waiting task forces at the edge of the system. If only he hadn't allowed himself to become careless…
He should have been patient and waited for the right opportunity to gain orbit after passing over his final target. Instead, he had simply opted to climb at that very moment, in wide view of Terran sensors, confident that their missile turrets wouldn't be able to reach him. He was indeed beyond their reach, but not the reach of the two Wraith fighters that suddenly uncloaked behind him. His quick reactions had won him that battle and he had disposed of both Terran fighters, but not before their missiles hammered down his shields. They must have alerted their comrades to his presence, and they would most likely have forces waiting for him in orbit…
His sensors flashed an alarm. One of the ponderous Terran battlecruisers was approaching him from his port side. He adjusted his course accordingly. His Scout wouldn't survive more than a few seconds against the heavy lasers of their capital ships, but he could still outrun them with ease. Perhaps things were not as bad as…
The sensors flashed another alarm. And then another. Two Valkyrie frigates were approaching his Scout from opposite sides. They were boxing him in. Clever. His screen was suddenly filled with blips as both frigates launched their missiles at him. This was it. There was no way he could avoid them all. Hindanis jinked and twisted his fighter to the limits of its abilities and managed to avoid most of the warheads, but enough of them hit. His struggling shields absorbed the first few impacts, but the rest landed directly on his hull. At once his cockpit seemed to explode with sparks. Large pieces of shrapnel from the damaged flight instruments flew everywhere. Hindanis was hit on his arms, legs and shoulders.
The Scout was somehow still intact, a testament to its sturdy design. Warning lamps were blinking and alarms sounding. The personal teleportation unit attached to his armor, designed to whisk him away in case of mortal injury, had failed. His Templar pride was somewhat wounded in the realization that he would never be returning to the field of battle again – not even encased in a Dragoon. One of the few instrument that still seemed to be working were the sensors. Hindanis watched helplessly as the Valkyries launched a second volley of missiles.
"En Taro Tassad –"
Two dozen missiles impacted on the Scout nearly simultaneously and it detonated in a small blue cloud. Among the debris that Korhal's gravity reasserted itself on was the dead but mostly intact body of Hindanis.
A few minutes later
"If this is what comes down when it rains on this world, I can see why most of it's desert," Khimbo muttered to himself as he regarded the corpse of the dead Protoss.
It was the first time he had actually seen a Protoss in the flesh, even if it wasn't alive.
"This doesn' make any sense," Prestwick said from the other side of the small crater. "I've fought agains' 'em before, and they never stuck around like this afterwards. They always wen' up in some kind o'… well, blue flame. Poof! Jus' like that!"
Khimbo poked at the armor of the dead Protoss with his rifle. It was remarkably well preserved considering the length of the fall.
"The Science Corps mentioned in their briefings on the Marseilles that the Protoss have some sort of teleportation gadget in their suits that sends them away to… well, who knows where after they've sustained lethal injuries."
Prestwick spat on the ground.
"A coward's way out, if e'er I heard o' one!"
"This one looks pretty badly beaten up, and not just from the fall. Maybe the gizmo stopped working. I wonder what happened."
Khimbo looked up into the sky to search for traces of an orbital battle but couldn't see anything.
"This bugger's go' to be worth heaps to the eggheads, Sergn't. Ye reckon it's worth the effort of draggin' 'is sorry behind all the way back to camp?"
Looking off to the east, Khimbo still couldn't see any signs of UED outposts or patrols. But they had to be close now. Prestwick was right, the R&D boys would love to get their hands on a dead Protoss.
"Do you think you're fit enough to move now? I am not going to haul this alien halfway across the desert by myself."
"I'm feelin' tip-top now, Sergn't. A good night's sleep wus all I needed," Prestwick said grinning, and Khimbo felt a sudden flash of anger.
"All right then. But you keep your god damn distance from me, Prestwick. Don't think I've forgotten what you are and what you've done."
"Awh, mate… an' 'ere I was hopin' I'd get ta hold yer hand!"
"Go to hell."
They took turns dragging the corpse of the large alien. As the dunes gave way to something reassembling steppe, Khimbo started feeling confident they would reach friendly lines before nightfall. Even with the added burden of the Protoss, they kept a good pace and Prestwick seemed to be going easier on the stims this time. Khimbo was wary of the Firebat however, and made sure not to have his back turned on him. To Khimbo he would always be a savage beast, no matter how much "resocializing" he had been subjected to by Koprulu's primitive scientists. To kill your own family…
The riots back on that market day in Kakamega had spread across the subsectors like a wildfire. Exactly what had caused them was unclear, but it was likely a combination of factors, as usual. It wasn't the first riot the arcology had seen, and it certainly wouldn't be the last one. When Khimbo realized what was happening, he hurried over with his daughter to his wife and grabbed her hand. The angry chanting coming from behind them was becoming louder and louder. Glass bottles were flying through the air and one hit the pavement not far from where they were standing. Time was critical now, Khimbo realized as he and his family hurried in the direction of their apartment complex. If they didn't move fast…
Khimbo's heart sank as they rounded a corner and were met by a wall of peace officers. Their riot shields formed an impenetrable barrier. The police had reacted quickly and the market district had already been closed down. They were trapped right in the middle of this brewing storm. Behind the wall of riot shields, Khimbo could see armored cars equipped with water cannons and gas dispensers moving up. The peace officers were putting their gas masks on. Khimbo and his family ran back around the corner and ducked into an alleyway just as the first random shots rang out. Three masked teenagers armed with Molotov cocktails ran past them heading in the other direction, towards the fighting. More shots rang out, this time short, controlled bursts as the police returned fire. Screaming. A large explosion a few blocks away rattled nearby windows and Khimbo looked at the terrified faces of his wife and daughter.
The sounds of whistles and dogs barking suddenly echoed down the alley. The streets were about to become even less safe. Khimbo pushed his family towards a fire escape and motioned for them to go on without him. His wife exchanged one last, frightened glance with him and then grabbed their daughter and ran on ahead. Khimbo picked up a small plank from a nearby dumpster to defend himself with and cover their escape. Before the police dogs even came into view, the world turned upside down. Just moments before his wife and daughter reached the ladder, an armored car burst through a nearby wall and ran them over. Khimbo screamed until he was hoarse, but oddly wasn't able to hear his own voice. Peace officers streamed out of the armored car's open rear hatch and shoved him to the ground. As they were cuffing him he could see his wife's arm moving underneath the car. She was still alive. Some of the officers were kneeling beside the vehicle, trying to pull her and his daughter out.
From where he was lying on the ground with three officers holding him down, Khimbo suddenly saw a flash of movement on a nearby rooftop. A rioter armed with a rocket launcher appeared, aiming it at the car and his family below. Khimbo screamed, and this time he could hear his voice, but only for the scant few seconds before his entire world was engulfed in flames.
"Oi! O'er there! Look!"
Khimbo turned to look where Prestwick was pointing. The familiar shape of a Command Center just above a distant crest was visible in the horizon. A flag fluttered in the breeze next to it, and Khimbo could just make out the red and gold eagle insignia of the United Earth Directorate. They were safe.
Fire Base Typhon
A few minutes later
The fire base was much smaller than Camp Triumphant, but it was still seized by a frenzy of activity. No one seemed to take notice of the dirty and wounded Marine and Firebat that wandered into the base dragging a dead Protoss behind them. Marines were fortifying themselves inside bunkers and several Siege Tanks were deploying into fixed emplacements. They were preparing for war.
Khimbo stopped a nervous aide who was running past carrying an arm-full of documents. She looked at Khimbo and Prestwick and her nervous eyes seemed to widen even more when she saw the sandy corpse behind them.
"What's going on, Specialist? Are you expecting an insurgent raid?"
She shoved a document into Khimbo's hands and took off before he could say anything else. It was a hurriedly printed communiqué.
ALPHA FLASH TRAFFIC, PRIORITY INDIGO-1
UED ORBITAL COMMAND.
ALL DIRECTORATE FORCES ON KORHAL IV:
EXPECT IMMINENT FULL-SCALE ATTACK BY RENEGADE ZERG FORCES WITH ACCOMPANYING DOMINION AND PROTOSS AUXILIARIES NOW ENTERING ORBIT. MAIN PUSH EXPECTED NEAR AUGUSTGRAD. PLANET-WIDE DIVERSIONARY ATTACKS TO BE ASSUMED.
As if on cue, a bright flash blinked in the darkening horizon followed by a rising mushroom cloud. The base's air raid sirens started up and Khimbo sighed.
"Whut's goin' on, Sergn't?" Prestwick asked.
"Escort our Protoss friend to the Command Center. I'm joining the defenses here. This day is apparently far from over."
Fire Base Typhon
Two hours and forty-six minutes later
Another flare was launched into the night sky and slowly floated down towards the ground. Its light revealed a large, squirming mass of alien bodies pouring over the sandy hills like an avalanche.
"They're hitting the northern perimeter! Shift your fire, shift your fire!"
From his position in the bunker, Khimbo fired almost randomly at the flood of approaching Zerglings and Hydralisks. He was bound to hit something. Behind him, the Siege Tanks unloaded their thunderous shock cannons and the night suddenly seemed as bright as day. The hills were covered in an inferno of explosions, flames and flying Zerg bodyparts, but some of the creatures slipped through. About a dozen Zerglings skittered across the sands heading straight for Khimbo's bunker. He and the three other Marines he shared the bunker with – none of whom he had known existed a few hours ago, but now considered his very best friends in the universe – concentrated their fire on the approaching aliens. One by one the Zerglings fell. Some had their limbs shot out from under them, but still used their claws to crawl forwards. They killed the last one just as it lunged at the bunker.
"That was the fourth damn wave!" one of the Marines said as he reloaded his rifle.
"There's gonna be a fifth, count on it," Sergeant Borland said, out of breath. "And probably a sixth and a seventh. They're probing our positions. We haven't seen the big one yet."
"Do you know if we've heard anything from Augustgrad? How is the main fight shaping up?" Khimbo asked the sergeant.
"Last I heard from Lieutenant Childs, all contact had been lost, but there's been jamming all over the front so that doesn't necessarily mean a goddamn thing."
"Where the hell is our fleet?! They should be raining fire down on these scum-sucking…"
"Here they come again!"
More flares lit up the sky. If the last wave had seemed like an incoming flood, they now faced a massive wall of flesh advancing on their position. Amidst the swarms of smaller creatures Khimbo spotted the lumbering forms of several large Ultralisks charging ahead. As before, the Siege Tanks behind them swung their shock cannons to counter the Zerg advance.
A large flock of what at first glance in the poor light seemed like oversized, shrieking seagulls to Khimbo swept in. Mutalisks. He squeezed off a few rounds at them through the bunker's firing port, but they were moving too fast. They flew past the bunkers at the outer perimeter and hit the deployed tanks in their rear. The desert was lit up again, not from flares or firing shock cannons, but from exploding Siege Tanks. Their defense was falling apart, Khimbo realized.
Another large explosion, this one from nearby, nearly made Khimbo lose his balance.
"We lost Bunker India-4! It just went up in a large fireball!"
"Son of a… that's gonna punch a hole right through our lines," Borland grunted between bursts. "Get Bernie on the horn! We need to redeploy and form a new… wait! Hold your fire! Incoming friendlies! Looks like survivors from India-4!"
Khimbo peeked through the firing port and saw several approaching figures in Marine armor lit up by the sporadic firing. But there was something odd about the way they were moving…
"No… we have to get out of here! We have to go now!"
Khimbo threw himself past the confused Sergeant Borland and towards the exit, just as the Infested Marines hurled themselves at the bunker. The shockwave sent Khimbo flying high up into the air.
He landed in a small dune and felt a sharp pain in his right leg. Lifting it, he found that everything below his knee had been turned into a bloody pulp. Before he could even reflect on that, the sand below him started shaking and he looked up to see a furious Ultralisk charging straight at him. He fumbled around for his gauss rifle but it was nowhere nearby. In a last, desperate effort he managed to pull out his sidearm, the very same he had liberated from the crashed dropship earlier, and squeezed off a single round at the charging beast before everything went black.
Fire Base Typhon
Fifty-two minutes later
Khimbo's eye-lids felt heavy as NeoSteel when he finally opened them. His vision was blurry and he had a splitting headache. He was… inside the Command Center, but it no longer looked the same. Large, pulsating flesh sacs were suspended from the ceiling and covered the walls, and the normal computer beeps and whirring from the life support systems had been replaced by strange, high-pitched whine that… that seemed to be emanating from inside his own head. For all the pain he felt there, he couldn't feel anything from his mauled leg. He looked at the large holes in his leg armor and his naked skin beneath them, and noticed that it, too, was pulsating, much like the walls of the Command Center.
No. Not this.
A terrible sinking feeling filled his mind and he was seized by an overpowering dread. He tried to stand up but found that his legs couldn't carry him. The faint whisper of a female voice could be heard inside his head.
There was a sudden clicking and skittering sound, and several Drones appeared dragging the corpse of the dead Protoss through the room and towards some unknown destination. Khimbo heard a vaguely familiar cackle and saw Prestwick slumped against the flesh-covered wall. The laughing man was barely recognizable. The skin on his sagging face was hanging in loose folds and several bony claw-like appendages had burst through the armor of his Firebat suit. His eyes and crooked smile looked the same, however.
"Arh… heehh… g-guess I'll… see ye on th'… o'her side… Sergn't…" the twisted creature croaked in a voice that could never be mistaken for a human's.
The female voice inside his head was growing louder, but with a bit of effort he managed to shut it out, if only for a short while. He closed his eyes.
Ifiki Khimbo looked up at the spires and chimneys of Kakamega as they glittered in the evening sun. The sun was warm, but warmer still were the smiling faces of his wife and daughter. He embraced them in one long, final hug. In a world gone mad, this was his anchor to sanity.