Read Shadow Hunters Online

Authors: Christie Golden

Shadow Hunters (10 page)

BOOK: Shadow Hunters
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Jake was not at all certain he found that reassuring.

“Hey, Zamara, tell them not to get in my head. Tell them that humans find it really offensive,” R. M. said.

And again,
and Jake could tell that this time Zamara was annoyed,
there are more important things my people have to worry about. Such as retreating before the zerg return with stronger numbers. They wish to aid us. We must hurry.

“They want to help us,” Jake told his traveling companion. “But there are more zerg out there.”

Even in this moment of dire necessity and need for urgency, Jake knew a hint of wonder as he watched hands with two thumbs and two fingers reach toward him, helping him to his feet; saw large but also somehow slender bodies move in a way that was deeply familiar after “living” as Temlaa. One of them met his gaze, and though Zamara’s barrier prevented the female from making telepathic contact, Jake knew from her body language that she was curious and pleased and intrigued, just as he was. In a species that had no voice, it seemed that telepathy was far from the only method of communication.

R. M. had darted back to the now-ruined shelter and retrieved their packs. She tossed one to a nearby protoss and shouldered the other one. “I hope these protoss have some way to get us off the planet.”

They do not.

I’m not telling her that right now.

That is a wise decision.

Thirty seconds later, Jake, Zamara, Rosemary, and their rescuers and new best friends were hastening off toward safety.

If it hadn’t been for the direness of the meeting and their current situation, Jake thought he might never have been happier. To finally meet a protoss! Because of the connection to Zamara, and the memories she had shared and was continuing to share, he felt a kinship with them. At the same time he was painfully reminded of how different they were from him, how … well … how alien.

He felt their presence skimming his consciousness and for the first time since joining with Zamara, Jake wanted to feel another’s thoughts. But such a thing would have to be gradual. The pain he’d experienced the first time they’d all tried to talk to him without Zamara’s intervention had been unbearable. It was even worse than when he’d attempted to read the minds of the drug addicts he and Rosemary had run across while in Paradise.

Therefore Zamara was acting as a translator. Even with the speed of thought it felt cumbersome to Jake,
and he realized he was growing accustomed to communicating this way.

Maybe I won’t make such a bad preserver after all.

… Perhaps not.

Her lack of enthusiasm stung a bit, but he pushed it aside.

At first, Jake had thought the protoss simply appeared as if by a miracle or the happiest of coincidences. After a few moments, though, when he caught glimpses of something metallic and gold glinting between the dark green fronds of the foliage, he realized that the protoss had a vessel. In his head, Zamara chuckled slightly.

We are far from divine beings, Jacob. We were detected long before I was even close enough to be in telepathic contact with them. But it is fortunate that they arrived when they did.

Rosemary looked at the ship admiringly. “I wouldn’t want acid on that either,” she said, acknowledging the reason the protoss had landed the ship here rather than closer to their shelter. It was a beautiful thing, even though Jake knew it was a simple atmospheric craft. Nothing, it seemed to him, was too simple or functional to not be beautiful as well. He wondered, not for the first time, how it was the khalai craftsmen managed to make things curve so effortlessly.

The door opened soundlessly and a small ramp was extended. Jake went in immediately. Rosemary hesitated for a second, then followed suit. The pro-toss swiftly entered once the two terrans had come aboard.

“Hey,” Rosemary said, pointing at a pile of blankets, weapons, and other items, “that’s our stuff!”

The protoss saw our vessel come under attack,
Zamara explained.
By the time they reached it, we had moved on. They salvaged what they could—

“—and then set out to find us,” Jake said, relaying what Zamara had told him.

“I see. Hope they brought my tool kit—I might be able to fix the Pig.”

“I hope so, too. Let’s take a seat and get out of here before more zerg start sniffing around.”

There were eight individual seats and a curved bench for the pilots. Jake and Rosemary eased into the chairs and Jake found his comfortable, if a bit large for his smaller human frame. Two protoss moved to the front bench and the rest took their seats, eerily motionless once they were settled. Jake knew that their minds were as perfectly still as their bodies. He wondered if this was part of the military training the templar underwent, that deep, profound stillness.

Most of those you see here are khalai, not templar. The only “training” they have had has been that which was necessitated by their situation here on Aiur,
Zamara answered him.
Think of what you know of us already, Jake. The discipline that enables us to stay unstirring, in mind and in body, and then leap from that place into swift motion and thought kept us alive for many eons.

In poetic contrast to the others, the two protoss pilots exchanged glances and gestures, although they kept their thoughts from Jake. Rosemary watched
them keenly, as their long, four-fingered hands moved fluidly over a console. They did not actually touch anything; it seemed the motions alone were sufficient.

“Wonder if terrans could learn how to pilot these things,” R. M. said softly. “This is one sweet little vessel.”

Jake grimaced slightly. In the midst of all this awesome discovery, and, he admitted, sheer terror, Rosemary was thinking only about herself and what plunder she could take. Even as the thought brushed his mind, he chastised himself for it. He’d known Rosemary Dahl in the most intimate way possible—for a few brief moments, he’d been her. He knew why she was the way she was, what had shaped her. Like the ancient weapons Valerian so loved, she’d been tempered by the fires of experience. The anger dissipated, and all he could do was feel sorry for her that she was missing the real heart of what was happening around her.

There were no windows in the golden vessel except for the single large circular one in front of the pilots. Through this, Jake watched as the vessel climbed skyward so he could barely even feel it. The ship skimmed smoothly over first the thick, green canopy of the rain forest and then blackened, burned, and dead earth, heading toward a blackened, burned, and dead husk of a city. As they traveled, Zamara told Jake what had transpired here four short years ago. The preserver had relayed R. M.’s desire to keep her thoughts to herself and the other protoss had agreed, so Jake had to tell R. M. the old-fashoined way—with verbal speech.

“When the zerg attacked Aiur four years ago,” Jake
told Rosemary, “it was absolute chaos. Hundreds of thousands were killed as all tried to get to the warp gate on the surface. The zerg were everywhere. You saw what they did to the planet.”

“Yeah, that’s why when Zamara said there weren’t any protoss here I believed her. No offense or anything, but I figured that anyone who didn’t make it off-planet didn’t make it at all.” Rosemary gestured to the ugly landscape over which they were flying.

He smiled a bit, at her, at Zamara, at the protoss who’d just saved their skins. “You underestimate them. They are survivors. Even the ones who aren’t trained to be.”

She scowled at him. “I don’t know why you’re so happy, Jake. This is a nice little ship, granted, but unless there’s a nice
big
ship tucked away somewhere, we’re stranded on this zerg-infested rock.”

“We’re alive. We’ve got friends. We’ll be all right. Anyway, some of them weren’t able to make it through the warp gate before the protoss disabled it.”

She threw him a sharp glance. “Why the hell would they want to disable it?”

“Because it would take the zerg straight to the only haven the protoss really had left. And if enough zerg came through there, that would be the end of the pro-toss. All of them. Not just their world, and not those who had the bad luck to get left behind.” He gestured to the protoss, who sat statuelike around them. “They understand that. Any of them—all of them—would gladly have died to protect their race.”

The words were true, so far as they went, but Jake knew how inadequate those words were to the task of describing the protoss’s love for their homeland and their people. It made any kind of terran nationalism seem trivial and petty. His head started aching again.

Zamara, this translating from thoughts to speech and back is getting tiresome. If I can convince Rosemary that the conversation will only go one way, can we let the protoss talk to us?

She hesitated.

Come on, I’m not
that
bad at this.

Very well.

Pleased, Jake turned his attention back to Rosemary. “It would be easier and more accurate to learn this directly from them. The protoss communicate telepathically; they don’t even have mouths. They know what they’re doing and they’re … good people. They won’t try to read your thoughts. Will you let them talk to you?”

She kept her eyes straight ahead, at the approaching ruined city of twisted metal, melted glass, and blackened crystals. Her Cupid’s bow lips turned down in a slight frown. “It feels … weird, Jake.” There was no cocksureness in her voice, no condescension. She was talking to him calmly and honestly. He was surprised but knew better than to comment on it. “I don’t like it. You understand. You didn’t like it any better than me at first.”

“You’re right. I’ve gotten used to it, though. It’s a highly efficient method of communication.”

She still didn’t look at him. He let her mull in silence. “Okay,” she said, finally.

Jake felt a presence inside his head, pouring over his thoughts like warm honey. “Thank you. We will be better able to understand one another now.”

Beside him, he saw Rosemary jerk as if stung. She frowned slightly, an unguarded, completely natural gesture, then her normal mask descended. Jake thought that a shame. He turned to see one of the protoss clad in dinged golden armor gazing right at him. Jake smiled. The protoss inclined its head.

“I am Ladranix. I am the leader of one of the groups that remained. There is another, and I will speak of it later. First I will speak of what happened on those dark days. The terror, the fear—it was all so unexpected. And then when the warp gate was disabled, there was no place to go. We were left behind—we, the zerg, and the ruination that was once a beautiful world.”

Jake got a vision, brief and tinged with sorrow like an old sepia photograph, of what Aiur had been like before it fell. Beautiful buildings reached skyward, sleek ships transported the inhabitants from one glorious city to another. The cityscapes were magnificent, incorporating nature and water and air and light, and the natural world was encroached upon only as needed. Jake’s heart ached. Then the vision was gone, as if Ladranix regretted how powerfully the image had affected Jake and had drawn a curtain over it.

“I’ve heard about what the zerg can do—heck, I just had a demo. How is it that you’re alive at all to even be telling us this?” Jake queried.

“The warp gate was disabled, so that there was no way for the majority of the zerg to follow. Many brave protoss voluntarily stayed behind to protect it as it was closed. They were accompanied by one of your own people, Jacob Jefferson Ramsey.”

Jake glanced at Rosemary, shocked. She too looked surprised.

“His name was James Raynor.” Again an image was shown to Jake, of a man with a shaved head that had begun to once again become dotted with stubble, of a close-cropped beard and mustache and eyes that he knew had once held laughter and now had seen too much. He was standing shoulder to shoulder with the protoss, obviously welcomed and accepted, obviously deeply concerned for their well-being.

“It is because of Raynor that we recognized your craft as being a terran vessel—possibly that of one who would be a friend. It is why when our observers spotted it, we came to your aid.”

“Heh,” said Rosemary, chuckling slightly. “If I ever meet this Raynor fellow, I’m gonna shake his hand and thank him for being such a good ambassador.”

Jake shared her sentiment.

“We expected it to be a death sentence,” Ladranix continued. “We were prepared to fall to the zerg and die as the proud people we are. And do not mistake me—many, many of us did. The zerg were well controlled
and deadly. But Executor Tassadar saved his people by destroying the Overmind that controlled the zerg. It cost him his life, but he succeeded. The zerg were still mad to kill—but they were no longer directed in that goal. They fell upon themselves as readily as upon us. It bought us some time.”

Jake recalled the attacks, unable to suppress a shiver of revulsion as he watched them unfold again in his mind. “But … they certainly seemed focused enough when they saw us.”

Ladranix nodded. “Yes. Something changed sometime after the gate was closed. While the zerg no longer attacked quite so intently, nor with the same focus as they had while they were controlled by the Overmind, they were no longer mindless creatures. Something had shifted, somewhere. Certainly they were still dangerous. And still intelligent.”

Jake got the impression of a predator toying with its prey. Cat and mouse, he thought, and sent the image.

Ladranix sent back an affirmative. “Yes. Once, the absolute obliteration of every protoss was their main concern. Now they wander about; they are tools that, while still functional, appear to have been largely discarded. Over the years we have managed to kill many zerg in this area, and as far as we can tell, no others have been bred to take their place. That gives us hope. Still, the zerg certainly do attack when they see us. And we knew they would head straight for your vessel, to determine if you were any kind of threat.”

“Do you think they will pursue us?” Jake felt a sudden chill, despite the oppressive heat of the place.

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