Introduction: The Gambit

"Tolth... what are we to do?"

Nestled inside the battered, carved-out hull of an abandoned starship, the cerebrate named Ezzor shivered against the coldness of space. His wizened and scarred body was laced into the old protoss carrier by emaciated strands of flesh, looping around exposed girders and plugging neurons directly into the exposed circuit groups that permeated the vessel. He reached out with his thin, starved mind, stroking the edges of his sister's consciousness with his question, and waited for her reply.

Tolth mustered the strength to probe an answer back. Ezzor could feel her telepathic answer resonate out of the slimy flesh that covered her body – her vast, slug-like body –and listened intently to her reply.

"There will be something, brother... there always shall be."

Another voice, raspier, an air of cunning and intelligence rolling off of its words, joined the conversation. "I have taken stock of all our material." Sereth, his brother, was speaking. "The situation is... dire. We have enough fuel for one warp, possibly two. This vessel has no ammunition remaining. We are completely lacking in the organic matter needed to breed new underlings."

Within its massive hangar bay of the subverted carrier, now adorned with tracts of organic piping and creep, a meagre collection of zerg huddled sluggishly around pockets of heat. A few dozen of the skull-faced, snake-bodied hydralisks; a hundred or so batlike mutalisks; a handful of waspish drones: these were the remnants of their once-mighty broods, the armies of nightmare warrior-beasts that the cerebrates had once commanded. Now, these old, emaciated survivors huddled together in the folds of violet flesh that painted the interior bulkheads of the hangar, trying to stay warm against the coldness of deep space. The three cerebrates were huddled together in a cradle of flesh, at the rear of the hangar bay.

"Then we shall only make our final jump when we are sure that we can survive." Tolth's voice echoed in Ezorr's mind with its usual soft imperiousness.

"But what if that chance doesn't come?" Ezorr asked. He was the least-experienced of the trio of cerebrates; he was older than Tolth, but lacked her record of combat experiences, or Sereth's exquisite mind for details. In his lack of experience, he was quick to brash, and quick to emotion – like fear, such as now.

"The chance will come," Tolth replied, her tone booth soothing and scornful for jumping to conclusions.

"We have eighteen remaining scouts scattered across this region of space," Sereth said. "We will find somewhere to settle safely."

"Eventually," Ezorr spat; the palid skin of his thirty-metre long form rippled with irritated scepticism. "It is clear we cannot last long."

"I have devised a plan to maximise supplies for at least another year," Sereth said. "They –"

"I have sensed your plans, brother," Ezorr said. "And I know they involve sacrificing one of us to last longer." Ezorr was acutely aware that while Tolth and Sereth were nuzzled up together on the end bulkhead of the wall, their slimy, slug-like forms intertwined and anchored safely together, he was the one who could be most easily cut away from their cradle of creep and flesh, and thrown out of the hangar doors. "Ever the schemer, always thinking of how your plans benefit yourself..."

"Silence, Ezorr," Tolth commanded, "And you, Sereth," she added, sensing their brother's desire to belittle Ezorr. "If any of us must be sacrificed to let our mission continue, it shall be me. And it shall not come to that! We will find safety before then.

They believed her; or at least, Ezorr did.

Ezorr had no one else to trust but Tolth. Though Sereth was his brother, and his elder, their clashing personalities had led to ever-greater discord. Ever since the three of them had sacrificed the majority of their forces in capturing and fleeing in the protoss carrier, they had had no one to talk to but themselves; and Sereth's wise words, once so appreciated when Ezorr had been otherwise alone in command of his brood, now irked him ceaselessly. Only their little sister, Tolth, kept them from directing their brood remnants against one another. Her battlefield experiences had turned her into a capable leader, and her position as a favourite of the long-dead Overmind had instilled her with so powerful a vision of their father's dream and ambition that when she spoke, the determination and conviction was impossible to resist.

And so they waited, in silence, feeling the broad currents of each other's thoughts. Tolth, he knew, was brooding over her hatred of the Queen of Blades, the upstart zerg-human hybrid that had destroyed the Overmind's master plan for her own twisted vision, and wiped out all their cousin cerebrates until it was just the three of them, fleeing into deep space, fearing her wrath. Sereth, meanwhile, was simply throwing his vast intellect at more practical problems: considering the optimal growth rates for his brood, scrolling through his genetic library and considering what mutations and evolutions would benefit his underlings, once he had access to the necessary resources.

Ezorr himself was simply shivering, feeling the ice crystals ebb and flow across his skin. He convulsed his bulk every now and then, twitching warmth into him. Quite frankly, Ezorr was afraid. He still missed the calm, omniscient, reassuring presence of the Overmind, at once watching him and watching over him. But the Overmind was dead now, slain by the protoss on their homeworld, and while the zerg had exacted their vengeance on the protoss survivors, it was barely enough to fulfil the gaping void in his mind. Had it not been for his brother and sister, Ezorr knew he would have been driven insane with loneliness.

It was just as he felt another gulping pang of longing for the Overmind's presence when, suddenly, a little pinprick of awareness dug into him. It flashed in his mind, then disappeared, like a lost thought; he fought for it, the memory of its context. It was a message from one of his brood agents... yes... a message, relayed in by one of the crab-like overlords that hung in ragtag formation around the carrier. The cerebrate turned his thoughts to the incoming message, focused hard, learned what its long-dispatched probe had sent back.

Ezorr saw a world; a teeming, rich jungle world, heaving in life. Plenty of biomass to consume. It was stable, too – no extreme tectonic activity that would threaten their plans. Most importantly, though, it was safe: though it was deep within Terran space, the scout reported that it was completely untouched by the humans, apart from what seemed like the overgrown scars of a long-abandoned base in the northern hemisphere.

"Sister... brother...!" Excitement trembled in his voice. "One of our scouts – it's found a world!"

He could feel the other two focus on the mind-link immediately, and could see them approach it in their own ways: Tolth cautiously looking at its advantages, Sereth analysing the risks. Personally, Ezorr wished to simply warp straight there. This was their chance, and could well be their one and only chance. Especially since, given time, Sereth would be able to rationalise an argument why jumping would be a bad idea, and convince Tolth to wait until another opportunity came up – in which time, he would naturally eliminate Ezorr from the situation. Ezorr shrouded his suspicions of Sereth's conspiracy and hid them deep into the lowest layers of his consciousness: he didn't want his brother to know of his misgivings.

"We should do it," he urged. "Go now. There is no time to waste! A safe, primitive world, ripe for the taking... we can't afford to wait!"

"A risky proposition," Sereth said, surprising Ezorr not one bit. "It is a world deep within Terran space. If we exit warp in the wrong position, we shall be easily vulnerable to their attack, and I highly doubt we would even be able to escape. And that is assuming that we can safely make even one warp jump – at this distance, we could risk severe trauma to the ship, or to ourselves."

He hopes that it is me, Ezorr thought. Naturally, with the deadlock between them, it would come down to Tolth's viewpoint.

"It is tempting indeed. But the risks are vast. We need to know more... we need to find out what else our scout can tell us. We need a comprehensive survey of the system, to find out if there is any risk of the Terrans finding us; and we must double-check our warp capability. We cannot risk ourselves at so late a stage."

"But that would take months," said Ezorr. "We cannot wait any longer in these depths of space!"

"For all we know," said Sereth, "We may find a safer candidate. Three of our scouts are en route to systems which we suspect to be inhabited, and are much closer and safer."

"I agree with Sereth," Tolth said. "We cannot leap ahead of ourselves here. We –"

They felt it all at once – a new thought, a new image. And they all realised it at once: it was a paradigm shift. Apparently – the scout was unsure, but it had good evidence to believe it – the main race inhabiting the world, an unsophisticated tribal species, was undergoing a massive species-wide revolution: they were, suddenly, evolving extremely potent psionic powers. And they were ripe for the taking.

"There can be no choice," Ezorr said.

"We can't be sure," Tolth said. "At least wait a day until we can confirm –"

"No," said Tolth; and there was no avoiding the emphatic tone in which she spoke. "A race with psionic capabilities, and one so primitive? We must take this opportunity. The whole reason we launched our attack on the Terrans was because of their imminent psionic revolution. But they were stronger than we thought, craftier, and most of all, they had the protoss watching over them. Here? On this world, these beings are tribal at best. They will be a pushover, even for the fragments of our broods we have collected here. And then, finally, we can create a strain of zerg with psionic powers – and then we shall have the weapons with which to face down and overwhelm the protoss a second time, and to complete the mission that the Overmind gave us: to bring our two species, zerg and protoss, together."

Ezorr sensed Sereth trying to raise an objection, but his brother cerebrate relented; they both knew that, with Tolth passionately invoking the memory of their father, they would not have a chance of overriding her. Ezorr, smugly satisfied, was glad of this. They would be acting, at long last. And they would finally be free of this dreadful carrier, and free to grow their broods once more.

"Brother Sereth, brother Ezorr – brace yourselves. We are making this warp jump right now."

In the quiet of deep space, the Zerg-infested carrier spun up its engines, pivoted, and pointed itself at the distant star system. With a flash, it was gone.

Seconds later, it arrived in high orbit over Pandora.