Copyright, 2007 by Blizzard Entertainment Incorporated
If there was a God, Jacob Ramsey had never seen Him, and was somewhat dubious as to His existence. But Jacob Ramsey knew there was a Satan. Because most certainly there was a Hell, and it was called Gelgaris.
A few years ago, archeology was a rather musty but respected profession, rather like an ancient, leather-bound encyclopedia one dusted off from time to time with embarrassed pride. The Confederacy allotted grants on a stingy but regular basis, and Ramsey, a rather musty but respected archeologist, had been awarded a decent share of them. Over the years, he’d sat happily in sand, whistled while slogging through mud, and cracked weak jokes while encased in a protective environmental suit in places that had no atmosphere. He’d been sunburned, wind-burned, and just plain burned; frozen, frost-bitten and critter-bitten. He had weathered all difficulties with a cheery optimism that often annoyed his teams as much as it inspired them—frankly, probably more.
But this place....
Jake and his team had been stuck out here on a place that Darius Grayson ineloquently but nonetheless aptly described as a pimple on the butt of the universe. For two years with little funding, fewer supplies, and tempers that grew shorter by the day, the thirty-two archeologists and one originally perky and now sullen intern had labored on this rock with little to show for it.
That, Jake was convinced, was why he hated this place so much. Surely it was that and not the sub-zero temperatures at night and the blood-boilingly hot temperatures during the day. It was that, and not the practically microscopic insects that managed to find every crevice in your body and set up housekeeping therein.
Yes, Jake told himself, that was why this place was hell.
The ceaseless wind buffeted him as he grimly made his way from the Rockcrawler, a functional but bare-bones vehicle, back to the tiny shelter that served as his living quarters and communications center. It was only a few meters but that short walk, whether it was freezing as now or blazingly hot as at noon, always felt as though it was ten kilometers. He staggered and swayed in the vicious wind like a drunken man, keeping his goggled eyes fastened on the image of the shelter growing infinitesimally closer. Jake was convinced that the suits were faulty. Every damn last one of them. Because he sure as hell always felt cold in them.
The wind howled like...like something that howled. He was so tired that he couldn’t even grasp a simile, and when he extended a gloved hand and finally—finally—touched the door he could have wept. Except the tears would have frozen on his face. Jake turned his body to block the wind as much as he could to prevent his fingers from wavering, punched in the key code, and shut the door on another frigid night.
The glare of the lights, which had come in automatically when the door opened, was painful after the darkness of the Gelgaris night. Jake narrowed his eyes for a moment and dropped his gloves on the floor as he moved into the shelter’s warmth. He blinked.
One of the bugs (he often wondered how they survived when nothing else could, but that was a question for an entomologist) had burrowed its way into his eye—again—and he took a moment to dig it out and squish it between callused fingers before he decided to depress himself and see if there were any messages. Usually there weren’t. Jake had had few enough people he called friends before the Zerg devoured Chau Sara and the Protoss came to finish the job. Now, he expected nothing. But some of his crew still had family they kept in touch with.
Jake had noticed, though, that as time passed, everyone on his team got fewer messages.
He trudged over to the vidsys, an out-of-date tangle of dinged metal, wires and lights, divesting himself of the frost-covered protective armoring that encased his head as he went and running fingers through his sandy brown hair before realizing they still had bug guts on them. Ah well, nothing the solar cleanser couldn’t blast off, along with a few layers of skin Jake supposed he really didn’t need.
A red light was flashing on the console.
Jake blinked his blue eyes, not sure if the flashing red was real or a pleasant hallucination caused by the late, unlamented bug.
No, it was there, blinking cheerily as if was on a Christmas tree back in one of the better neighborhoods of Tarsonis, back when there was a Tarsonis—
Worry flooded him. The last time they had had a message, Leslie Crane’s mother had died of a massive stroke. Leslie, of course, had been unable to travel back to pay her final respects, or be with her shattered father; the ferry ship wouldn’t be back for them for another eight months.
Jake took a deep breath and steeled himself for the worst. Then, he punched the annoyingly bright red light.
The Imperial insignia flashed on the screen and Jake raised an eyebrow in surprise. Ever since they’d had their butts handed to them on a platter, the Empire had been somewhat less than empirical. He’d heard that Mengsk had been busying himself with rebuilding, and clearly the insignia on the screen was evidence that they’d done so to the point where they could send out official messages.
But why the hell would anyone in the Empire want to send a message to Jake Ramsey or anyone on his team?
The screen went dark for a moment, then the visage of a young man appeared. With mink-brown hair and startlingly bright blue eyes, the youth was almost too pretty to be called “handsome,” Jake thought. He grimaced, bracing himself. Anybody looked that good, he was going to be full of himself.
“Good day, Professor Ramsey,” the young man said in a rich, smooth voice. “My face may be unfamiliar to you, but my name will not be. I am Augustus Mengsk, the eldest son of our glorious Emperor Arcturus.”
Jake’s eyebrows reached for his hairline. Mengsk had a son? That rough and tumble old terrorist had sired this poised, polished youth? It seemed impossible.
Augustus smiled. “I suppose you are wondering why I am contacting you today.”
“Yeah,” Jake drawled, as if he were actually talking to the impossibly perfect boy instead of listening to a prerecorded message. “The thought had crossed my mind.”
The door opened and a blast of icy air swept in. A harsh male voice uttered an oath as its owner tripped over Jake’s discarded gear.
“Dammit, Jake,” came an annoyed female voice, “Will you quit leaving your stuff all over the floor!”
Jake didn’t take his eyes from the vidscreen, but waved Darius and Kendra Massa, who hurried over to watch with him.
“You and I share a great passion,” Augustus continued.
Kendra, who was all of twenty-four and who often lamented the lack of attractive men on the digs, chuckled.
“I’d like to share some passion with him,” she said. “Who is this guy, Prof?”
“Augustus Mengsk,” Jake said. “Arcturus’ boy.”
“You’re shitting me,” Darius said with his usual wit. Jake shushed them both.
“We have a passion for the works of the past,” Augustus said, pronouncing the word past as pahst. Yet somehow, the affectation suited him. “For the evidence left behind of civilizations long forgotten and lost to time and wind and dirt. For structures unearthed, and treasures—not chests of gold of yore, but real, true treasures of knowledge—recovered. My father has not been idle during recent months. We are rebuilding the Empire, and both he and I have vowed that it will not be simply a rule of might, but one of art and sciences as well.”
Darius made a comment that made even Jake, who had known the other man for ten years, blush.
“Shut up, Darius,” Jake muttered. He realized that something inside him was stirring, something he thought had been killed and buried long ago, squashed as thoroughly as he had squashed the tiny insect. Was it hope? Augustus’s intense blue gaze bored into his, as if they were in truth regarding one another. He realized that his heart was beating rapidly in anticipation of Augustus’s next words.
“Not so long ago, a Xel’Naga artifact was discovered on the planet Bhekar Ro. I’m sure the incident is familiar to you.”
Indeed it was. They had heard about it even in this Godforsaken hellhole. A fierce storm had unearthed an artifact that was later proven to be of Xel’Naga origin. Xel’Naga, Jake thought driftingly; the mysterious and now vanished alien race which had created both the intelligent, almost delicate Protoss and the monstrous, ravenous Zerg. When a human youth had accidentally activated something deep inside the artifact, it had sent out a signal heard by all three sentient races. A dreadful battle had ensued, with Terran, Protoss and Zerg all coveting the glorious, beautiful thing for themselves.
The artifact had proven to be much more than relic, or temple, or even ship; it had been a chrysalis for a completely new life form.
One that had absorbed Zerg and Protoss, but had expelled humans alive and well after determining that they were not what it needed.
Jake blinked, coming back to the present as he realized that Augustus was still speaking. He’d have to watch the message again; he was sure he’d missed some of it in his shocked reverie.
“It has come to my father’s attention that more artifacts are being reported. We cannot say for certain why, at this time, the artifacts are coming to the surface, only that they are. He in his wisdom has decided that they should all be explored, and knowing my great love of archeology he has placed me in charge of this program.”
“Heh,” muttered Darius. “Great love of archeology—right. Bet he’s never squatted in sand up to his ass trying to--”
“Shut up!” Jake snapped. It was definitely awakening inside him, like the strange creature birthed by the absorption of Zerg and Protoss DNA; this thing called hope, and it was almost painful. Like a frozen limb coming to aching life.
“Because this is so important to us, I can offer you things that you haven’t had in some time, I expect. Full funding. The latest equipment and technology. And because this is so important, you should know that I have spent some time reviewing various lists of names that have crossed my desk,” Augustus said. He let his lips curve into a slight smile as he spoke. “Your work on Pegasus has not been forgotten, Dr. Ramsey, and your colleagues speak very highly of you. If you are interested, I would like to make you part of this team.”
Augustus leaned forward and spoke with quiet urgency. “I would like you to join me in uncovering the secrets of the Xel’Naga—the ancient of ancients, the ones the Protoss call the Wanderers From Afar. What we learn there could help all humanity, Dr. Ramsey.”
“It’d certainly help us,” Kendra said in a low voice. She was staring at the vidscreen now with all traces of playful lust gone, her brown eyes wide with the same emotion that was now surging through Jake. “Full funding...my God, you think that means working plumbing?”
Jake barely heard her. Augustus was finishing up. “If you wish to join me, then contact me at once. I hope you do. There is a code at the end of this message; please enter it if you would like to accompany me on this glorious adventure.”
He smiled gently. “I suggest you hurry. Should you decline, there are many, many more who would be more than happy to take your place.”
The screen went black. For a long moment, Jake Ramsey stared at it, seeing in his mind not the shiny black screen but an image of a towering protoss temple that had been discovered on Bhekar Ro.
The whole thing had been botched from an archeological standpoint. Hell, it had been botched from anybody’s standpoint. All three races, battling it out bloodily in the skies and on the ground. All the Zerg and Protoss on the planet taken; the Terran ships grounded. It had been months before anyone had thought to go look for them.
The knowledge that had been lost! It made Jake sick. Very little concrete information had survived. The chrysalis that had housed the creature had been pulverized, the life energy spreading into the soil and turning a hostile rock into a verdant paradise. The Marines barreling in had had orders to take or destroy the artifact, not inspect or analyze it. Hell, they’d even tried to nuke it, only to see the thing devour their energy like candy. As a result, there had been few holograms made and little data taken.
Just enough to be an archeologist’s wet dream. Curving walls made of a material no one had ever seen before. Gems and colors and swirls and textures. Ancient, no doubt; looking as fresh as if he had been crafted the day before.
And now more of them were appearing.
So many questions. Would the military be involved? Who would get final say over the project? How was it being funded and did anyone have any special interests?
“Jake?” Darius’s booming voice actually made Jake jump. “You going to respond to the man or stand there staring? And wipe the drool off your face.”
Jake’s hand automatically went to his mouth and Darius laughed uproariously. Kendra grinned. Jake blushed and smiled. Damn, he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he had been drooling.
He took a deep breath, entered the code, and began the journey.