Stubs didn't black out on landing, but she almost wished she had.
She groaned, flopping her ringing head to one side and resting her cheek against the cool padding of her headrest. Gravity tugged her gently back against her seat, and that wasn't right. Gravity was supposed to be down. Stupid protoss planet. Couldn't even get down right. But no, that was even more stupid, it was so hard to think with her head pounding like that. Tilted, she'd crashed tilted. Leaning back and to port, and that was, perversely, comfortingly textbook. A banshee carried its supply of cluster rockets in its aft hold, so when they fell out of the sky they tended to land with the heavy ordinance down and their noses up. Thickly-armored and cushioned ordinance, of course, but she was still lucky she'd been low to the ground when she took that final tumble. It was rare for it all to explode on impact, but it did happen.
She took a few slow deep breaths, flipping up her visor and looking blearily around the cockpit. Emergency lighting tinged everything a dull red, and the glass of her viewport was pitted where rocks plowed up by her landing had smashed into it. Her harness had protected her from the worst of the crash, but she still felt as though a giant hand had swatted her out of the sky, and she suspected she'd be a mass of bruises in a few hours. She groped automatically for the controls to her com panel, then froze with a sharp hiss as pain seared through her left wrist. She vaguely remembered smacking it on the corner of the panel as she fell and hoped it was only bruised and not broken.
Stubs lay still again for a moment and took another few deep breaths, collecting herself. Alright. She'd crashed, but she was alive, and there was a proper way to go about this.
More methodical now that her training was reasserting itself through her daze, she moved her arms and legs carefully before prodding gently at her neck and ribs with her uninjured hand. She winced at her own touch. Sore everywhere, but she thought that wrist was her only real injury. Good, that was good.
She took a slower, more gauging look around her cockpit, trying to assess the extent of the damage. Whatever anomaly had caused her to crash seemed to have ended – her instrument panel was lit and the HUD that overlay the transparent viewport of her cockpit seemed to be active – and that was good, too. Flipping her visor back down briefly, she noted the ragged black chunk missing from the virtual display where her hull-mounted sensors had been damaged, but that was only to be expected.
Her aft and portside turbines were offline, and that was much less good. She cursed. Unlike a viking – or even one of those damned phoenixes – a banshee was not at all aerodynamic without power. One engine wasn't enough to get her back off the ground; she needed at least partial functionality from both lateral turbines. It was possible she'd be able to jury-rig something that would allow her to limp back to base, but she hoped it wouldn't come to that. She'd crashed deep within the Tal'darim-held part of the continent, and a busted banshee would be easy pickings for even a single phoenix.
Actually, speaking of phoenixes, she wondered what happened to the one that had been chasing her. Her HUD showed nothing but empty night sky and bare alien grassland, though she supposed it was possible it was hiding in one of the ragged blindspots where her sensors had been crushed. Seemed a little silly of it, though. Her banshee was clearly out of commission. She preferred to think that the phoenix had been downed, too. The idea that it might've been impaled on one of the same crystals it had tried to kill her with not half an hour ago appealed to her sense of cosmic justice.
Dismissing the thought, she cradled her injured hand against her harness and reached across with the other to switch on her com. "Let's go, work," she muttered at it. A banshee's communications array was sturdy, but she'd been flying at an appreciable fraction of the speed of sound when she'd fallen out of the sky and landed on it.
Relief washed through her as the staticky crackle of the open channel filled her ears. "Any terran vessel, can you read?" she asked.
She paused for a long moment, but only the white hiss of an empty channel greeted her words.
"Any terran vessel, this is banshee-3, tau-wing, my ship is down in sector ZC-21 and I'm requesting immediate evac."
"Anyone at all, this is banshee-3, can you read?"
After another long staticky silence, Stubs cut the transmission and swore. Their com net blanketed this entire side of the planet. She should've been able to reach someone. Either her transmitter had been damaged after all or something was jamming the signal. She'd heard mutterings about solar storms before she'd left for this mission; it was possible she'd just have to wait it out and try again.
Little use sitting on her butt and hoping that was true, though. Her luck had been so poor today she wasn't about to trust it.
Unbuckling her harness clumsily with only one good hand, she slid out of her seat and braced herself on it against the backwards cant of the deck. Her battered muscles screamed protest, and she grimaced as she lowered herself gingerly to the tilted floor and scooted down to the medkit stowed in a bulkhead compartment.
After popping a mild analgesic (too mild; she still had to grit her teeth against the pain but she needed to stay alert), it was the work of only a few minutes to splint her injured wrist, which was already beginning to swell.
"Okay," she said, climbing to her feet and leaning against the bulkhead for balance. "Time to get a look at this mess."
Fortunately, the tilt of the deck wasn't so steep she couldn't pull herself up to one of the hatches just forward of her side turbines. Her wrist still throbbed faintly, but the painkiller had done wonders for her bruised muscles.
She paused a moment at the door. Typhon IX had a breathable atmosphere and the radiation levels at night were tolerable, but that didn't mean it was safe. She looked like a dead ship right now, but once she went outside and started moving around she might be noticed. And not just by Tal'darim. The daily dousing with radiation from the star Typhon had probably killed off any large predators, but there were still bugs and viruses and alien quicksand and who knew what else to worry about. Not that she had much of a choice. She twitched one side of her mouth doubtfully, laying a hand on the standard-issue flechette pistol holstered at her side before hitting the switch.
The door slid open, and the first thing she noticed was the sky. Curtains of green and blue and pink light stretched nearly from horizon to horizon, dipping and swooping gracefully before the stars. Auroras, and some of the most spectacular Stubs had ever seen. Solar storms blocking the coms for sure.
The second thing she noticed was the field of dark empty grass. She registered with some surprise that she was actually standing several feet above it, and leaned out the hatch to peer down the banshee's side.
She'd assumed the tilt of the deck was due to the fact she'd landed on her butt, and had half-dreaded finding the entire aft of her ship snapped off by the impact, but it turned out she'd been wrong. A long furrow of mud and uprooted grass marked the path her banshee had skidded along until fetching up where it was now: propped up on a pile of collapsed stone columns. Beneath the thick mat of grass that had grown up between the joins, she noticed that much of the ground around her was actually paved in ornately-carved stone.
Probably this was some sacred alien outhouse (or whatever), and the Tal'darim would give her an extra special eviscerating for using it as a landing strip.
Eyeballing the columns balefully, she judged that she'd be able to climb up and down with little trouble (well, little trouble if both of her hands had been working, but she still thought she could manage it), and began her awkward clamber down to the grass.
It was brownish-green and feathery at the edges, but otherwise unremarkable. She was relieved it didn't seem to be razor-tipped, or carnivorous, or full of acid spores, or possess any of a number of other terrible traits she'd heard the marines complain about. Possibly they'd been making it up anyway; marines had little love of banshee pilots (something about cluster rockets and flawed hostile identification protocols), and took special glee in horrifying them. Then again, all marines seemed convinced that every other unit was trying to kill them. Some weird side-effect of the resoc process, maybe.
Leaving her good hand on the grip of her pistol, she strode clockwise around her downed banshee, inspecting it as best she could in the dark for any major damage. Aside from a few ugly dents, the side of the ship she'd exited from was intact, but one of her tail fins was missing and so was the fan of her aft turbine. It was possible she'd find it somewhere along that furrow she'd dug, but she wouldn't count on it.
The port side was the real problem. She'd clearly touched down hard on it; the rim of her turbine was punched inwards in one place and the fan was missing several spokes. And that's just what she could see.
Stubs cursed. The bent rim was the kicker. Damaged wiring she could fix, and the missing spokes would make the turbine inefficient but not useless, but she didn't have any tools capable of shaping paristeel.
She stalked back around towards the open hatch, muttering about brain-dead engineers and cut-rate shipyards. She'd just managed to work up a good tirade (anything was better than thinking about the fact that if her com didn't come back online she'd be vaporized in a few hours), when a glint of light in the near distance made her pause.
She squinted, trying to make it out. Definitely a reflection, maybe off one of those crystals? But no, this shine was too liquidy. More like polished metal.
Polished protoss metal.
She immediately fell into a crouch, unsure how good protoss night vision was and trying not to silhouette herself against the sky. She had no cheerful illusions about that phoenix's pilot being dead; she'd survived, after all, and she was willing to bet protoss safety systems were better than whatever some lowest-bidder Dominion contractor could cook up.
What to do now? Her drab-colored banshee wouldn't glitter in the aurora-light like that thing did, but the way it was propped up on those columns made it hard to miss. Her cloaking array was offline, and the crushed emitters were far too complex to even think of making field repairs.
She narrowed her eyes speculatively. Well, she was sure that protoss had as much on his plate as she did; maybe he wasn't any more interested in messing around with her than she was with him.
Then again, what if their coms came back online and his buddies showed up first?
She cursed again, jogging to the edge of the fallen columns and scrambling back up to the hatch as quickly as her injured wrist would allow. She threw herself into the pilot's chair and pulled up the general channel – good, still nothing but static. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Her banshee could broadcast an automated distress beacon. She hadn't wanted to activate it – even though encrypted, an enemy could still triangulate the signal to her position – but at this point the risk was probably worth it. Hopefully, the Tal'darim would be too busy protecting their artifact to hunt down one poor helpless banshee pilot who was probably royally screwed anyway.
She took a swig of warm water from the canteen strapped to the side of her seat and blew out a contemplative breath. Okay, she'd fired up her beacon and help would come when it came. Now what?
She frowned. The cautious, sensible thing, she knew, would be to lie low and wait for the signal to do its job. She was in no condition for more fighting. That phoenix might never even realize she was alive until the cavalry showed up, and then it wouldn't matter. Nice, neat, and according to the manual.
Of course, that manual assumed that a) friendly forces could see her signal and b) they'd do something about it once they did. Even if the solar storm ebbed, the Tal'darim were dug in pretty securely on this world, and Raynor's Raiders would be plenty busy trying to root them out. Even more so since they only had about twenty hours 'til the sun came up and roasted everything. The Raiders didn't leave people behind if they could help it…but if there was ever a time they might not be able to help it, Stubs had landed right in it.
She grumbled under her breath. Waiting idly wasn't really her thing. Neither was throwing her fate to some half-assed Dominion-afterthought of a distress beacon.
In an impatient motion, she stood, sidling across the tilted deck to the portside hatch and hitting the door release. It slid open with a protesting screech – something in the mechanism was obviously jammed – revealing her dinged turbine. She inspected it closely, looking for something she'd missed from the ground.
It was definitely one gorgeous heck of a ding; instead of curving into a perfect three-meter circle, the rim had been punched inwards to crumple the fan, making the whole thing resemble a large pie someone had taken an enormous messy bite from. A spare lateral fan was among the emergency supplies most banshee pilots kept aboard, but replacing the fan would do nothing if she couldn't fix the rim. Of course, even if she did fix it, the chances of her being able to wrangle a finned plate of metal taller than she was up this pile of rubble and into place with a sprained wrist were hardly encouraging, but she'd deal with one disaster at a time.
She drummed the fingernails of her good hand absently against the frame of the hatch. Paristeel was much too hard for her to hammer into place manually, and even the mechanical clamps in her tool kit wouldn't do a lot of good. Only the largest metal-working plants had the means to cold-press the stuff; mostly they heated it first. Stubs had a small welding torch among her supplies, but even if she found a way to diffuse the flame, she doubted it had enough juice to heat the area she needed. The reactor that ran her cloaking array would, but in order to generate enough heat she'd have to disrupt the coolant flow, and that was more likely to lead to a minor nuclear meltdown than a controlled burn.
A particularly bright sweep of the aurora glittered from the hull of the downed phoenix, and Stubs eyed it sharply. Technically, her own ship wasn't the only thing around here she could scavenge. She didn't know much about protoss technology – no one did, except maybe Stetmann, and it wasn't like she could call him up and ask – but what she did know was that they loved energy weapons. And it was a whole lot easier to diffuse a laser or an ion beam than a welding torch – all you had to do was scuff up the focusing lens a little. She could manage that.
Flipping down her visor, she switched its input from the banshee's sensors to the ones mounted in her helmet and dialed up the magnification. No night vision, but the aurora was bright and she thought she'd be able to catch any movement around the phoenix.
She saw none, and no lights, either. Just the liquid shine of the ship's golden hull. Maybe its pilot was dead after all, or at least too badly injured to cause her trouble.
She pushed up her visor, stepped back into the banshee and shut the hatch, balancing precariously against the tilt of the deck. Alright, then. She would just stroll over there and hope the protoss was dead, and if not she'd mug him for some lasers and leave. Clearly this was a well-reasoned, intelligent plan and nothing could go wrong.
She snorted to herself, exiting the intact side of her ship and picking her way down the fallen columns to the ground. Maybe it wasn't the best idea, but it beat sitting on her hands and waiting to fry.
The phoenix had crashed about a third of a klick away from her own craft. For a while she squelched her way along the muddy trail gouged by her crash – it was slimy and her boots sank, but at least she could see what she was stepping on – but soon enough she had to cut across the grass to her right. It whispered against her legs, but didn't impede her progress. Where the ground hadn't been churned up, the top layer of soil had been baked into a hard crust that made walking easy, and though she still had vague concerns about stomping on some venomous alien chipmunk she saw nothing stir.
The vessels lay only a few minutes' walk apart, and Stubs drew her pistol and flicked off the safety before approaching.
She whistled softly as she got her first good look at the phoenix.
She'd assumed the more technologically-advanced ship would've fared better in the crash, but that turned out to be a faulty assumption. One of the thing's sleek, swept-back wings had been severed entirely, and the other hung on only by a tangle of what looked like clear fiberoptic cables. The anomaly had probably knocked out its shields, she realized; while the four-inch-thick sheets of paristeel that plated her banshee didn't care if the power was on or off, the protoss' shield emitters clearly did. Chalk one up for primitive terran engineering.
Not wanting to risk the ion blasters, she'd approached the phoenix from the rear, and so she couldn't see if anything moved behind the cockpit's transparent viewport. Mangled the way it was, she couldn't imagine much inside the protoss ship was still functional, but she wasn't about to take chances.
Eyes and ears scanning carefully for any movement, she holstered her gun and stooped to fish around her feet for a decent-sized rock. When her fingers grazed one, she picked it up and lobbed it at the glossy section of hull just forward of the phoenix's engines.
It ricocheted off with a soft clang, leaving a cloudy smudge of dirt where it hit, and Stubs allowed herself a brief grin. Definitely no shields. Good, there was no way she could've broken her way in otherwise.
Senses still on a hair trigger for an angry protoss out to avenge his muddied paint job, she edged her way around the side of the craft with the missing wing. At least she could be sure there were no functional weapons on that end. The phoenix was larger than her banshee, but not by much; had it been intact, it would've been half again as long and perhaps three times as wide from wing-tip to wing-tip. Up close, what struck her most was not its size but the attention to detail in the vessel's craftsmanship. No crooked plating or lumpy welds, clean lines and glossy metal everywhere. It was almost too pretty, not utilitarian enough to be a warship; it looked more like a child's toy dismembered in a fit of pique than a crashed spacecraft. A pilot by training but an engineer by education, Stubs actually felt an irrational flicker of sympathy for it. An ignoble end for a very nice piece of workmanship.
She slipped around to the phoenix's nose without incident and craned her neck to try to peer through its translucent blue cockpit. The shifting multi-hued light of the aurora overhead made it hard to tell actual movement from reflections, but she didn't think anything stirred.
If the pilot was alive in there, he had certainly gotten a good look at her by now, but since nothing had emerged to try to slice her head off she assumed she was safe.
That still left the problem of how she was going to get inside, though. Since the crash had wrecked it so badly, she couldn't imagine the phoenix's armor was very thick; maybe she could climb up the damaged wing and cut her way through with the welding torch.
She was trying to remember if she'd loaded an extra canister of fuel for it when a sudden burst of sound startled her, and she reflexively raised her flechette pistol as she whipped her head around looking for the source.
At first, she thought it was someone speaking English. It was certainly a voice, and the cadence of the "words" fooled her mind into trying to find meaning in them, but once she realized it was no language she'd ever heard she swore in dismay. Only one thing that could be.
"Aw, fucking hell. Really?"
She checked quickly over her shoulder and then backed away slowly from the phoenix. She pointed her gun in all directions as she tried to find the "speaker," but since the voice was inside her head it was impossible to triangulate.
Movement near the phoenix's nose caught her eye, and she swung the muzzle of her pistol around to bear on it. "Stay right where you are!"
It was the first time she'd seen a protoss without a bright red HUD-generated bullseye around it, and the first thing she noticed was the eyes. They actually glowed, a cold blue-tinged white, not with reflected aurora-light but with their own inner fire. He – she assumed it was male, not that she'd know the difference – was clad in armor of the same gold metal most protoss seemed to prefer, though it looked less bulky than what she'd seen their ground troops wear. A matching helmet framed his chin and covered the bony crest above his forehead. Some kind of flight suit, maybe, similar to her own reinforced leather gear. He clutched his elbow with his opposite hand, and it took a moment for the blue liquid that seeped between his wrong-number-of-fingers to register as blood. More of it streaked his armor in various places and oozed from a long scratch across one angular cheek. Rough landing, clearly, though not rough enough. She couldn't tell if he was armed; he carried no gun or holster, but she didn't know enough to tell if those gold bracers were innocuous or about to sprout big blue scythes.
Another burst of chatter from that not-quite-meaningful voice filled her head and she scowled. She couldn't understand his speech, but even without a mouth the protoss' venomous narrow-eyed glare was plenty eloquent.
"Well, fuck you, too," she said.
That did it. Either he realized she was clueless, or, more likely, he'd finally plucked enough knowledge from her head to be able to translate (and wasn't that just damned creepy), because the next word came through perfectly clear.
Oh, this was going to go well. Resisting the vindictive impulse to come up with a few choice names of her own, she kept her pistol leveled at the glowing blue sigil in the center of his breastplate. "I didn't come here to kill you." With her weapon pointed at him, the "but I will" was hardly worth tacking on.
He must've heard it anyway. "Your threats are without meaning. Leave here now."
Stubs was about to argue – her threats were just chock-full of meaning; her pistol may have been small, but its flechettes had been designed based on hydralisk spines and from close range would rip up that armor like gold tinfoil – when a sheen of blue light flickered across his body. Personal shield generator. Aw, hell, this was really not her day.
Might not be the Tal'darim's, either, though…she gave the blue sheen a predatory stare, trying to figure out how many shots she could get in if he charged her. Two, definitely, probably three given the amount of blood she saw.
Evidently tracking the line of her thoughts, the protoss narrowed his unsettling glowing eyes even further. He removed his hand from his bloodied elbow and a bright blue blade of energy hissed from the bracer on his whole arm.
Stubs felt her first real stab of doubt at the sight. That was much less promising. Her flechettes would probably kill him, eventually, but they didn't have much stopping power and if he reached her with that blade she'd be a dead woman. Besides, her sprained wrist was beginning to throb; she didn't know how much longer she could keep the gun steady.
She regretted that thought even as it flashed through her mind.
"Your attempt at deception is irrelevant. You fear death."
Hey, now, she didn't see him rushing over here to finish this, either. She'd barely opened her mouth to say as much when he responded.
"A waste of effort. At dawn the fires will purify you."
His words were irritating, but the fact he was replying to her thoughts was even more so. "Would you cut that out!" she snapped.
He tilted his bony head in a way she interpreted as contemptuous, but his "voice" never lost its flat monotone. "No."
The urge to pull the trigger was almost overwhelming, but she mastered it. He might kill her, and the whole reason she'd come out here to begin with was to avoid untimely death.
Her wrist ached fiercely, and it was getting harder to keep her pistol from shaking. Bowing to the inevitable before she embarrassed herself by dropping the thing, she holstered it with deliberate slowness. She left her hand resting meaningfully on its grip, though. "At dawn you'll be 'purified,' too. That doesn't bother you at all?"
The protoss did not deactivate his psi blade, but he didn't attack her, either. Blood still flowed sluggishly from the wound in his arm, painting blue runnels down his bright gold armor. "This world belongs to the Tal'darim. My brethren will come."
"And if the solar storm doesn't end?" Or if we smoke your smug grey asses like bacon?
She was sure he was still reading her mind, but he didn't rise to the bait. His sharp chin tipped a little more scornfully, though. "Then I will join my ancestors in the Khala. Your plunge into oblivion does not concern me, desecrator."
"So when the sun comes up and bakes you like an ugly foil-wrapped potato, you're not going to care? At all? You expect me to believe that?"
"I expect only that you perish."
If she hadn't been so intent on holding on to her gun and if her other wrist hadn't hurt so much, she would've thrown up her hands in exasperation. "Oh, for fuck's sake." This was pointless. Between the weird lack of inflection and the religious babble, the protoss reminded her of an unwholesome fusion of her crazy Aunt Gerdie – one of those born-again nuts who thought the zerg were the squirmy avenging wrath of God – and a particularly recalcitrant AI.
"The Swarm is the displeasure of the gods made manifest. But they are not your barbaric gods, desecrator."
Stubs eyed him with hostile incredulity. Well, if she got nothing else out of this mission, at least she had a new topper for her list of things never to tell Aunt Gerdie. The old number one had been how many men she'd lived in hideous sin with back in the barracks. This was way better. "Then maybe you and your 'brethren' should just keel over and die so your pissed-off gods leave the rest of us alone."
Stubs had heard that some protoss could make your brain run out your ears like red pudding with a glance; judging by the withering glare this one was giving her and the fact she was still alive, this was not that kind of protoss. Small mercies. "Desecrator."
For one of the few times in her life, Stubs found herself completely at a loss. She needed supplies to fix her ship, and if she couldn't take them off this lunatic's dead body, she needed his help. And no matter what he said, she didn't believe he was actually that indifferent to his own impending roasting. The protoss may have been advanced, but there was no way they'd de-evolved all self-preservation. "Look…"
"No. My patience wears thin. Ply your ignorance elsewhere."
Stubs grit her teeth. Alright, fine. She quit. For now. Time for a tactical withdrawal. She backed away through the high feathery grass, hand on her pistol grip as she watched him carefully for signs of aggression. "The sun rises in the west on this planet, you know," she couldn't help adding spitefully. "I'll get to watch you fry first."
"Your species' primitive sensory organs are highly susceptible to radiation. By the time I 'fry,' you will no longer have eyes."
Stubs blinked. That was…disgusting. She had no idea if it was true or not, so instead of concocting a useless lie she simply scowled viciously as she continued to back away.
She was a third of the way to her banshee before he deactivated his psi blade and she dared turn her back, though it still made her shoulders prickle uncomfortably. So much for not being at the mercy of the beacon.