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Starcraft #02: Shadow of Xel' Nagaby Gabriel Mesta
As a smothering blanket of darkness descended over the town of Free Haven, the rugged settlers scrambled to avoid the storm. Night came quickly on the colony planet of Bhekar Ro, with plenty of wind but no stars.
Pitch-black clouds swirled over the horizon, caught on the sharp mountainous ridge surrounding the broad valley that formed the heart of the struggling agricultural colony. Already, explosive thunder crackled over the ridge like a poorly aimed artillery barrage. Each blast was powerful enough to be detected on several still-functioning seismographs planted around the explored areas.
Atmospheric conditions created thunder slams with sonic-boom intensity. The roar itself was sometimes sufficient to cause destruction. And what the sonic thunder left unharmed, the laser-lightning tore to pieces.
Forty years earlier, when the first colonists had fled the oppressive government of the Terran Confederacy, they had been duped into believing that this place could be made into a new Eden. After three generations, the stubborn settlers refused to give up.
Riding in the shotgun seat beside her brother Lars, Octavia Bren looked through the streaked windshield of the giant robo-harvester as they hurriedly trundled back to town. The rumble of the mechanical treads and the roar of the engine almost drowned out the sonic thunder. Almost.
Laser-lightning blasts seared down from the clouds like luminous spears, straight-line lances of static discharge that left glassy pockmarks on the terrain. The laser-lightning reminded Octavia of library images she had seen of a big Yamato gun fired from a Battlecruiser in orbit.
"Why in the galaxy did our grandparents ever choose to move here?" she asked rhetorically. More laser-lightning burned craters into the countryside.
"For the scenery, of course," Lars joked.
While the bombardment of hail would clear the air of the ever-present dust and grit, it would also damage the crops of triticale-wheat and salad-moss that barely clung to the rocky soil. The Free Haven settlers had few emergency provisions to help them withstand any severe harvest failure, and it had been a long time since they had asked for outside help.
But they would survive somehow. They always had.
Lars watched the approaching storm, a spark of excitement in his hazel eyes. Though he was a year older than his sister, when he wore that cocky grin on his face he looked like a reckless teenager. "I think we can outrun the worst of it."
"You always overestimate what we can do, Lars." Even at the age of seventeen, Octavia was known for her stability and common sense. "And I always end up saving your butt."
Lars seemed to have a bottomless reservoir of energy and enthusiasm. She gripped her seat as the big all-purpose vehicle crunched through a trench and continued along a wide beaten path between plantings, heading toward the distant lights of the town.
Shortly after their parents' death, it had been Lars's crazy suggestion that the two of them expand their cultivated land and add remote automated mineral mines to their holdings. She had tried, unsuccessfully, to talk him out of it. "Let's be practical, Lars. We've already got our hands full with the farm as it is. Expanding would leave us time for nothing but work — not even families."
Half of the colonists' eligible daughters had already filed requests to marry him — Cyn McCarthy had filed three separate times! — but so far Lars had made plenty of excuses. Colonists were considered adults at the age of fifteen on this rough world, and many were married and had children before they reached their eighteenth birthday. Next year, Octavia would be facing the same decision, and choices were few in Free Haven.
"Are you sure we want to do this?" she had asked one last time.
"Of course. It's worth the extra effort. And once we're established there'll be plenty of time for each of us to get married," Lars had insisted, shaking back his shoulder-length sandy hair. She had never been able to argue with that grin. "Before we know it, Octavia, it'll all turn around, and then you'll thank me."
He had been certain they could grow crops high on the slopes of the Back Forty, the ridge that separated their lands from another broad basin and more mountains twelve kilometers away. So the brother and sister had used their robo-harvester to scrape flat a new swath of barely arable farmland and plant new crops. They also set up automated mineral mining stations on the rocky slopes of the foothills. That had been almost two years ago.
Now a gust of wind slammed into the broad metal side of the harvester, rattling the sealed windowports. Lars compensated on the steering column and accelerated. He didn't even look tired from their long day of hard work.
Laser-lightning seared across the sky, leaving colorful tracks across her retinas. Though he couldn't see any better than his sister, Lars didn't slow down at all. They both just wanted to get home.
"Watch out for the boulders!" Octavia said, her piercing green eyes spotting the hazard as rain slashed across the windows of the impressive tractorlike vehicle.
Lars discounted the rocks, drove over them, and crushed the stone with the vehicle's treads. "Aww, don't underestimate the capabilities of the machine."
She snorted indelicately. "But if you throw a plate or fry a hydraulic cam, I'm the one who has to fix it."
The multipurpose robo-harvester, the most important piece of equipment any of the colonists owned, was capable of bulldozing, tilling, destroying boulders, planting, and harvesting crops. Some of the big machines had rock-crusher attachments, others had flamethrowers. The vehicles were also practical for traversing ten- to twenty-klick distances over rough terrain.
The hull of the robo-harvester, once a gleaming cherry red, was now faded, scratched, and pitted. The engine ran as smoothly as a lullaby, though, and that was all Octavia cared about.
Now she checked the weather scanner and atmospheric-pressure tracker in the robo-harvester's cabin, but the readings were all wild. "Looks like a bad one tonight."
"They're always bad ones. This is Bhekar Ro, after all — what do you expect?"
Octavia shrugged. "I guess it was good enough for Mom and Dad." Back when they were alive.
She and Lars were the only survivors of their family. Every family among the settlers had lost friends or relatives. Taming an uncooperative new world was dangerous, rarely rewarding work, always ripe for tragedy.
But the people here still followed their dreams. These exhausted colonists had left the tight governmental fences of the Confederacy for the promised land of Bhekar Ro some forty years before. They had sought independence and a new start, away from the turmoil and constant civil wars among the inner Confederacy worlds.
The original settlers had wanted nothing more than peace and freedom. They had begun idealistically, establishing a central town with resources for all the colonists to share, naming it Free Haven, and dividing farmland equally among the able-bodied workers. But in time the idealism faded as the colonists endured toil and new hardships on a planet that did not live up to their expectations.
Nobody among the colonists ever suggested going back, though — especially not Octavia and Lars Bren.
The lights of Free Haven glowed like a warm, welcoming paradise as the robo-harvester approached. In the distance Octavia could already hear the storm-warning siren next to the old Missile Turret in the town plaza, signaling colonists to find shelter. Everyone else — at least the colonists who had common sense — had already barricaded themselves inside their prefabricated homes to shelter from the storm.
They passed outlying homes and fields, crossed over dry irrigation ditches, and reached the perimeter of the town, which was laid out in the shape of an octagon. A low perimeter fence encircled the settlement, but the gates for the main streets had never been closed.
An explosion of sonic thunder roared so close that the robo-harvester rattled. Lars gritted his teeth and drove onward. Octavia remembered sitting on her father's knee during her childhood, laughing at the thunder as her family had gathered inside their home, feeling safe....
Their grandparents had aged rapidly from the rigors of life here and had the dubious distinction of being the first to be buried in Bhekar Ro's ever-growing cemetery outside Free Haven's octagonal perimeter. Then, not long after Octavia had turned fifteen, the spore blight had struck.
The sparse crops of mutated triticale-wheat had been afflicted by a tiny black smut on a few of the kernels. Because food was in short supply, Octavia's mother had set aside the moldy wheat for herself and her husband, feeding untainted bread to their children. The meager meal had seemed like any other: rough and tasteless, but nutritious enough to keep them alive.
Octavia remembered that last night so clearly. She had been suffering from one of her occasional migraines and a dire sense of unreasonable foreboding. Her mother had sent the teenage girl to bed early, where Octavia had had terrible nightmares.
The next morning she had awakened in a too-quiet house to find both of her parents dead in their bed. Beneath wet sheets twisted about by their final agony, the bodies of her mother and father were a quivering, oozing mass of erupted fungal bodies, rounded mushrooms of exploding spores that rapidly disintegrated all flesh....
Lars and Octavia had never returned to that house, burning it to the ground along with the tainted fields and the homes of seventeen other families that had been infected by the horrible, parasitic disease.
Though a terrible blow to the colony, the spore blight had drawn the survivors together even more tightly. The new mayor, Jacob "Nik" Nikolai, had delivered an impassioned eulogy for all the victims of the spore plague, somehow rekindling the fires of independence in the process and giving the settlers the drive to stay here. They had already lived through so much, survived so many hardships, that they could pull through this.
Moving together into an empty prefab dwelling at the edge of Free Haven, Octavia and Lars had rebuilt their lives. They made plans. They expanded. They tracked their automated mines and watched the seismic monitors for signs of tectonic disturbances that might affect their work or the town. The two drove out to the fields each day and labored side by side until well after dark. They worked harder, risked more...and survived.
As Octavia and Lars passed through the open gate and drove around the town square toward their residence, the storm finally struck with full force. It became a slanting wall of rain and hail as the robo-harvester ground its way past the lights and barricaded doors of metal-walled huts. Their own home looked the same as all the others, but Lars found it by instinct, even in the blinding downpour.
He spun the large vehicle to a halt in the flat gravel clearing in front of their house. He locked down the treads and powered off the engine, while Octavia tugged a reinforced hat down over her head and got ready to jump out of the cab and make a break for the door. Even running ten feet in this storm would be a miserable ordeal.
Before the robo-harvester's systems dimmed completely, Octavia checked the fuel reservoirs, since her brother never remembered to do so. "We'll need to get more Vespene gas from the refinery."
Lars grabbed the door handle and hunched his head down. "Tomorrow, tomorrow. Rastin's probably hiding inside his hut cursing the wind right now. That old codger doesn't like storms any more than I do."
He popped open the hatch and jumped out seconds before a strong gust slammed the door back into its frame. Octavia exited from the other side, hopping from the step to the broad tractor treads to the ground.
As she ran beside her brother in a mad dash to their dwelling, the hail hit them like machine-gun bullets. Lars got their front door open, and the siblings crashed into the house, drenched and windblown. But at least they were safe from the storm.
Sonic thunder pealed across the sky again. Lars undid the fastenings on his jacket. Octavia yanked off her dripping hat and tossed it into a corner, then powered up their lights so she could check one of the old seismographs they had installed in their hut.
Few of the other colonists bothered to monitor planetary conditions or track underground activity anymore, but Lars had thought it important to place seismographs in their automated mining stations out in the Back Forty foothills. Of course, Octavia had been the one to repair and install the aging monitoring equipment.
Lars had been right, though. There had been increasing tremors of late, setting off ripples of aftershocks that originated deep in the mountain range at the far side of the next valley.
Just what we need — another thing to worry about, Octavia thought, looking at the graph with concern.
Lars joined her to read the seismograph strip. The long and shaky line appeared to have been drawn by a caff-addicted old man. He saw several little blips and spikes, probably echoes of sonic thunder, but no major seismic events. "Now that's interesting. Aren't you glad we didn't have an earthquake tonight?"
She knew it would happen even before he finished his sentence. Maybe it was another one of Octavia's powerful premonitions, or just a discouraged acceptance that things would get worse whenever they had the opportunity.
Just as Lars formed another of his cocky grins, a tremor rippled through the ground, as if the uneasy crust of Bhekar Ro were having a nightmare. At first Octavia hoped it was merely a particularly close blast of sonic thunder, but the tremors continued to build, lurching the floor beneath their feet and shaking the entire prefab house.
arLars tensed his powerful muscles to ride out the temblor. They both watched the seismograph go wild. "The readings are off the scale!"
Astonished, Octavia pointed out, "This isn't even centered here. It's fifteen klicks away, over the ridge."
"Great. Not far from where we set up all our automated mining equipment." The seismograph went dead, its sensors overloaded, as the quake pounded the ground for what seemed an eternity before it gradually began to fade. "Looks like you're gonna have some repair work to do tomorrow, Octavia."
"I've always got repair work to do," she said.
Outside, the storm reached a crescendo. Lars and Octavia sat together in weary silence, just waiting out the disaster. "Do you want to play cards?" he asked.
Then all the lights inside their dwelling went out, leaving them in pitch blackness lit only by flares from the laser-lightning.
"Not tonight," she said.
Copyright © 2001 by Blizzard Entertainment
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