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Split from the Swarm

The following short story was my entry for the Blizzard Writing Contest 2011. It’s set in the Starcraft universe, focusing exclusively on the Zerg. Needless to say, it didn’t win, but Zerg players are used to being unpopular 😉 .

The Dryad brood lay far from the Korprulu sector, and far from the psionic emanations of the rest of the swarm. When mighty Tassadar destroyed the overmind upon the roots of Aiur and the rest of the swarm descended into chaos, naught but silence greeted Sineth, cerebrate of the Dryad brood. A silence that his entire life had not prepared him for, let alone the occurrences of the last few months.

The overriding purpose of the swarm was to consume all life, and the overmind was equipped to do this with a surpassing intelligence as well as with the sheer strength of his warriors. Smaller broods, like the Dryad brood, were used by the overmind to seek out improved genetic strains and high concentrations of resources, be they infestable biomass or merely the minerals which the swarm needed for growth. When Sineth was sent out, in the opposite direction to the scouts who found Mar Sara, his flock scoured many a barren world before finding an unnamed planet teeming with life. This life was what Sineth lived for.

Voraciously his mutalisks swooped down through the atmosphere, spewing glaive wurms at all the creatures they could find. The weaker birds, the smaller creatures, and the thinner plants were cut down much as the swarm would expect. But this ecosystem was already quite competitive, and a flock of mutalisks could not jump straight to the top of the food chain. At the top of the food chain on this world were giant lizards, taller than an ultralisk when standing upon their hind legs, who could catch a flying mutalisk in their mighty jaws. Still more mutalisks fell to the silent predator of this world – as they flew past cave openings, giant chameleon bats would strike. They could rip a mutalisk to shreds with their mighty claws before the poor creature even saw its assailant. The terrors of the jungle led many a mutalisk to fall back past the beaches, to the apparent safety of the waters. This ocean teemed with bird-hunting fauna, including a great whale-like creature that could spit a hundred meters into the
air to shoot down flying lunches. Sineth could feel both the elation of finding his goal, of finding potent genetic strains that would strengthen the swarm, while at the same time feeling apprehension about the daunting task before him.

Sineth had not yet faced the Templar guardians of Aiur, or the whirring space fleets of the Confederacy, so his combat reflexes still had much growth potential. Cerebrates were born with innate military instincts, so eagerly he charged into battle. His brood descended upon the planet, landing right in the thick of the jungle. The ground shook heavily as Sineth began to take root, and as the spores of the hive fleet began to mutate into creep and the other organelles of a Zerg hive cluster. The shaking came not only from the fall of mighty trees as their roots were gobbled up by the creep. The sound was not only that of the impact as huge globs of Zerg biomass slammed the ground and took root to serve the swarm. And one felt not only the impact of the ultralisks (among other warrior strains) jumping to the ground from the ventral sacs of overlords where they had lain dormant. Sounds and tremors also came from all the native predators, hungry for prey, heading towards the strong scent of flesh and a prey that
was clearly unable to defend itself through concealment.

The Zerg forces had immediately found a place in the constant struggle for survival that was this biosphere. Unfortunately for the Dryad brood, it was not on top. While it may seem odd for the Zerg swarm to be stopped by a pack of feral creatures, among other beasts this jungle was home to packs of lightning-fast quadrupeds capable of taking out a hydralisk in an instant and dragging the corpse away before zerglings surrounded them. More importantly, the Dryad brood was neither the strongest, nor the most cunning, nor the most numerous of Zerg broods. Sineth’s military instincts were quick to inform him of his rash and exposed assault into the heart of the teeming jungle. It was not merely his instincts that could see this, from the eyes of all of his warriors he watched as his brood was whittled down. Dozens of the giant bats came towards the brood as it fell, wrestling with mutalisks in mid-air. Until the overlords caught up, Sineth could only feel the sting of claws and piercing fangs, with too few
instances of satisfaction from an overly greedy bat biting the explosive scourge. When the overlords could discern their glistening forms, the shock of a prey fighting back scattered them for a time. Even as the first spores took root upon the soil, poisonous jungle creepers began to prod the creep with their sharp thorns, and giant lizards lay waiting with open jaws. Few warriors were snapped up in the air this time, but the spines of the hydralisks did little more than enrage the creatures as they began to gobble up half a dozen zerglings with every mouthful, wrestle with the mighty ultralisks, or charge through herds of hydralisks, knocking them aside.

Sineth felt overwhelmed by the tumultuous conflict. He felt the strain of the ultralisk’s powerful muscles trying to hold the lizards back while he felt the sting of a thousand thorns poking his growing hive organs. He felt the vertigo of the hydralisks, who were not meant to fly, tumbling through the air while he felt the stinging of snails trying to eat the edges of the creep. He felt the saliva of the lizards through the skin of all those zerglings who had been swallowed whole, and felt their tough sinews and thick skin snap from the broodlings clawing their way out from the inside. All this assaulted his vast cognitive capacity as he desperately tried to coordinate his brood: surrounding the quicker foes with zerglings, spreading the overlords for vision, and all the other instinctual tactics honed into Zerg cerebrates since birth. And then he felt teeth upon his abdomen. Not upon the flesh of the warriors that comprised his brood, but something that seemed somehow closer to him. Limbs spasmed across the
entire brood when Sineth realized that it was his own slug-like body being chewed up by one of the terrible lizards that had broken into the center of the growing hive cluster. The swarm converged, soon drowning the lizard, but its furious swipes to free itself ripped the remainder of the cerebrate’s physical form out of the ground in a flurry of wet and dismembered pieces. As the lizard finally fell, Sineth cursed his incompetence and panic. For this was before the overmind lost psychic contact with all of his cerebrates, and by the time the shreds of Sineth’s old body had flopped back to ground his new form was already growing back out of the creep. The overmind’s covenant with its faithful cerebrates was to regrow the fallen leaders, so they could never truly die. By now as many predators had escaped with a full belly as lay fallen amid the creep.

The Dryad brood sat upon its haunches and slowly regenerated the wounds from the pitched battle it had just fought. The air was no longer thick with mutalisks, but scourges and overlords stood stalwart against the aerial threats. The hive cluster was already beginning to digest the fallen corpses from the fight, absorbing the new gene sequences that it so desperately craved. Even the creep had won its battles, for when the creep colonies matured they pumped the living tissue full of enzymes to digest the very poison from the vines, and soon it was even eating the snails and micro-organisms that previously thought they were the diner and not the meal. The tentacles of the sunken colonies reached deep, the spores of other colonies evolved to seek the insidious stealthy fliers, and as the new hive cluster slowly consumed the very heart of the jungle Sineth was once again at peace.

With the brood consolidated and reproducing, the creatures of this world soon learned to avoid the hive cluster. The occasional lizard approaching might wrestle with the tentacles for a few minutes before the brood converged and consumed it. But the swarm had sunk its teeth deep into the heart of the jungle and was beginning to suck the vital juices towards its own digestion. Sineth drank in the new genomes with the delight that comes with achieving one’s goal in life. As his brood slowly covered the planet, the creep overran the jungles and the valleys. From the beaches, Zerg larvae morphed into aquatic leviathans that overwhelmed the whales. From the jungles, enough mutalisks hatched to scour the mountains and caves of all non-Zerg life.

The biomass of his brood had swelled to dominate the entire continent, when the unexpected wave of psionic silence struck him. This was when Tassadar had defeated the overmind, and this was when silence first struck Sineth, after he faced his first battle against a terrible corporeal foe. Now he faced a battle in his mind. He and his brood were stunned by the deafening silence, with most of the brood halting dead in its tracks. The zerglings chasing rabbits, the hydralisks on patrol, most of the warriors simply stopped as Sineth’s mind ground to a halt on this incomprehensible change. The rest of the brood went insane from the change, tearing themselves or stunned Zerg to pieces. The sudden change confused the remaining wildlife, for the predators that had so recently appeared and so viciously attacked them moments before were suddenly comatose or being ripped apart by frenzied comrades. Sineth knew not what to think, or what to do. He could feel the pain of the insane Zerg, whose minds had snapped into a
blind rage. He could feel the pain of those still obeying his commands, as they were torn apart. And he had his own pain, for he only ever had a single contingency plan for uncertainty and doubt. That plan was to seek succor and guidance from the eternal overmind, but that plan no longer gave him the answers he needed. He began to feel the same rage as the mindless Zerg, the uncontrolled Zerg fury and predator instinct fighting against the remaining psionic control he could exert. Strife once again returned to the world that had so recently been pacified by the swarm.

This new challenge was more intimidating for Sineth than his first combat. No external threat pressuring him now, but his battle-bred instincts were this time his curse. Like the feral Zerg, when disconnected from the overmind his instincts left him with nothing but a blind rage. This rage fought against his remaining mental faculties, and it was not a straightforward battle. Without the guidance of the overmind, perhaps he should be no more than an animal. He began to wonder if he should relent and go feral, for a brood without the wisdom and patience of the overmind would be a terrible force. He did not feel ready for the overwhelming responsibility of guiding this powerful force. His absolute faith and reverence for what had been the eternal overmind meant that he felt he could never assume its place. Yet he could no longer surrender the choice to the comforting will of the swarm, for his life was no longer the overmind’s. His life was his own, and it came with mortality and choices that must be made. The
strategic instincts of a cerebrate finally led him to the conclusion that, for better or for worse, he must make a choice and lead his brood in a new direction. In the end, his fear of his own mortality was what guided his choice. He refused to surrender to instinct and tear himself apart, so he rallied his brood once more. The Zerg still under his control began to move again, taking down the feral Zerg and rallying the survivors back to the hive cluster.

For the next few days he was driven by his fear. The creep withered and died at the outskirts of the Zerg colony, as the biomass began to coalesce back towards the central hive cluster. Surrounded by a teeming mass of claws and scales, Sineth futilely fortified his existence. Much of the continent lay bare as the creep withdrew and the Zerg holed up tight in their hive cluster. Attacking forces, or wandering wildlife, would face a wall of muscle and hide that could surge forth and destroy the threat instantly – but no threat appeared, as apart from his brood nothing was left alive within a thousand kilometers. Eventually even Sineth realized that he was being driven by pointless fear, that he was defending himself against desolate plains bare of all threat, but he saw no other choice. All he had left to guide him was his new-found fear of mortality. So his brood stood guard for months. A purple spot on the vast brown dirt that was left of that planet, his hive cluster was a veritable fortress of solitude.
Long did Sineth brood on his position, on how he sat there with no goal, with no purpose beyond sitting there for eternity. He wished he could rejoin the swarm, to have a purpose once again handed down by the overmind. Every time he thought this he felt a stab of despair pierce his heart as he was painfully made aware that there was no longer a psionic call binding him to the swarm. With his motivation so deeply lacking, the months marched on and he remained still; still brooding on his fate and indecision.

One day though, something happened. An overlord went feral. In the moment the brood was separated from the swarm, many Zerg had gone mad. Ultralisks and zerglings alike could snap and lose control under the psionic stress. But no overlord had yet fallen to this madness. They were the eyes and voice of the cerebrate to the rest of the brood, and they shared his thoughts even closer. That one should go mad was unthinkable to Sineth. After it had been riddled with spines and its corpse lay oozing on the creep, Sineth began a most thorough examination. As he studied the carcass, he began to understand more about the missing psionic link of the overmind. The dead overlord had been depleted of a vital neurotransmitter used to provide the psionic power needed to control the swarm. The chemical was on the decline throughout the entire brood, even Sineth’s own body was no longer manufacturing enough for his long-term needs. He needed to simulate those glands again or the entire brood would turn feral one by one,
ending with him.

He reached deep into his ancestral memory, dredging up the evolution path taken by the entire swarm from larvae to overmind. Strange pressures drove the first Zerg through unusual evolution patterns, but one part revealed itself as holding the key to this mystery. Before the first cerebrates, the overmind secreted the neurotransmitter itself into the eggs of all overlords. In time the swarm spread out to where this was a drawback, so the overmind evolved to instead exude psionic emanations that activated glandular production of the neurotransmitter in overlords and cerebrates. With this information in hand, Sineth now realized that he could evolve a similar way, and reactivate the control glands of his brood. He could even use this to expand his psionic powers, to where he could control other cerebrates and perhaps be the overmind of a new swarm. Finally finding a goal in what had been a small-minded and directionless life, Sineth eagerly began researching mandibular pheromones in his primary hive cluster.

This vast and urgent undertaking before made him hungry not only for action, but also for the immense raw materials he must consume to feed the growth process. The tightly contained hive cluster seemed to explode as Zerg once against swarmed the surface of the planet, and as overlords carried drones to moons for extensive harvesting operations. What little life had survived the first wave was snuffed out like a candle as the Dryad brood took harsh control of every crack that it could suck dry. This new purpose felt wonderful for Sineth, he hadn’t felt so confident since the overmind had first given him purpose. The Dryad brood was frenetic in activity, mirroring the enthusiasm of its master. The occasional outbreak of insanity was dealt with brutally and swiftly. Eventually Sineth completed his research, exuded his mandibular pheromones, and replenished his neurotransmitter levels. His morale soared with the completion of the very first goal he had set himself, and he began to prepare for the next goal –
rebuilding the swarm itself from the Dryad brood.

Meanwhile, back in the Korprulu sector, another story had unfolded. From the fateful moment that Tassadar destroyed the overmind a massive war had begun over the control of the remaining Zerg broods. The vicious struggle drew in all the factions of the sector, even the reclusive dark templar were drawn into the fight. Sineth had thought his internal struggle was epic, particularly in the choice to create a new overmind. By that time, the remaining Zerg in the Korprulu sector had created a new overmind and lost control of it to other factions before it was finally destroyed. Emerging from the slaughter Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades, stood triumphant. She was the decisive winner of the war for control of all Zerg broods in the Korprulu sector. But she would settle for no less than control of all Zerg broods in the galaxy. From her new position of power she was finally able to turn her attention to the far-flung Zerg broods in other sectors. Sineth once again felt the will of the swarm upon him. Kerrigan’s
voice echoed through his mind.

“I am the Queen of Blades, and the new ruler of the Swarm. You will now serve me as you did the overmind. Or my wrath shall scour you from the galaxy.”

All that Sineth was prepared to follow that voice, to return to his serene role as an agent of the swarm. But all that Sineth had become refused to surrender the individuality, the new purpose, and perhaps even his life. Again he was plagued by inner conflict, but he had invested much to become a fledgling overmind and he now felt committed to a new swarm. His swarm. He refused the will that the Queen of Blades tried to impose on him, with merely a prideful disregard for her command. There are no words to describe the ‘negotiations’ between the two broods, for there were no words. Kerrigan’s will imposed itself upon the Dryad brood, and it clashed with the will of its old cerebrate and pupating overmind. The Queen of Blades may have had power beyond reckoning, but the Dryad brood was far beyond her ideal range. Sineth had a much better position, for he was trying to mutate a comparable psionic strength while sitting in the middle of the brood’s primary hive cluster. Kerrigan wrested nearly half of the
warriors directly to her control in an instant, and the hive cluster erupted into a tumultuous mass as the Zerg warriors fell upon each other in a frenzy. Terrans can think of few things more terrifying than a charging ultralisk, or a herd of zerglings shredding a heavy armor column as they clamber all over the tanks, ripping them apart at the seams. The image of an ultralisk swarmed with zerglings would have mortified any Terran in sight – if there was anything alive in that system aside from the Zerg of course. The massive ultralisk, skewering multiple zerglings with each swipe of its powerful forelimbs, was still covered in frenzied masses of claws and teeth. They pried their way into the chinks of the chitinous plating, practically burrowing their way to the vital organs. As zergling limbs flew and blood gushed from the innumerable wounds on the ultralisk a similar scene played out across the entire hive cluster. You could no longer see creep under the ocean of blood and acidic residue. Chunks of Zerg
flesh practically floated in it, invariably riddled with spines. When the carnage concluded all that was left were the battered organelles of the living base, with blood still dripping from the slowly closing wounds. Sineth had held this wave.

On the moons, Kerrigan’s influence won out more often than not. Some lairs were held, but more ended up under the control of the Queen of Blades. A scramble for the territory ensued. From his primary hive cluster Sineth spawned a multitude of warriors, casted his host at each moon in turn and shredded all opposition. He was quite pleased with the outcome. It renewed his faith in his new purpose. Kerrigan continued to taunt him, threaten him, and order him to rejoin the swarm. But he saw that as ‘her’ swarm, and these entreaties did nothing but strengthen his conviction that he had defeated her and that he would go on to lead his own swarm. His doubts about this bold rebellion against the authority of the swarm were lessened by this confidence. At that moment, he truly believed that he was better off making his own decisions than submerging himself to Kerrigan’s will.

From the primary hive cluster on Char Kerrigan’s will still controlled much of the Dryad brood with fearsome precision and strategy. The bases she had started with were thrown away in the first conflict by her design. She had secretly moved her forces to new lairs secreted on the moons in places Sineth had never thought to scout. Her taunting manipulated Sineth perfectly into a false sense of security. When her forces had grown large enough, she attacked without warning or mercy. Before Sineth had realized what was happening, his remaining forces on the moons had been subjugated. In a moment of dawning realization Sineth saw that the fight for his life was not over, it had only just begun. So he panicked, and sent his vast swarms of warriors to the moons in a desperate attempt to retake them and eradicate Kerrigan’s forces in the sector. This played right into her hand, for the Brood War had taught her much about ambushing other zerg. Sineth had never seen lurkers, but he didn’t have to see them for their
spines to rend apart whole armies. He was flummoxed when her army burrowed and was no longer there when an Overlord arrived. His panic grew when he realized her plan was to entice him into this trap all along, but he soldiered on thinking only of how he had to displace her from this system.

Sineths hosts raged across the moons, scouring them of the bases which Kerrigan had subdued or grown, but it was not quick enough. For every base that was torn up, two more grew like weeds somewhere in the system. He tried to adapt his swarm with the new DNA from this world. Zerglings grew the wings that previously allowed quadrupeds to outrun them. The nanomotile snail surface grew into the creep, allowing it to push forward warriors with every step. He even evolved faster overlords with better vision from the giant-eyed birds which had so successfully eluded the stealthy predators on this world. But no matter how fast he made his army, it was never able to reach the pace of Kerrigan’s constant and consistent growth. Every base Sineth destroyed was an ambush and a distraction at the same time, as another expansion grew elsewhere and his vast hosts began to shrivel up. Sineth’s fears overwhelmed him, and when he no longer felt he could compete with Kerrigan in racing across the moons he retreated his hosts
back to the planet’s surface. He told himself that a defensive posture would lead to her being ambushed and defeated for a change, but in reality he was merely scared. His fear of losing in open combat led him to retreat back into the comforting safety of the primary hive cluster, without fully considering just what this new strategy would mean for the war.

Sineth cowered in his fortress just as Kerrigan had planned. His brood hung like a writhing ball of muscle and creep upon the plains. Kerrigan’s forces were always nearby to help rationalize his fear for him. A flock of mutalisks would dart in, seemingly at random, probing for weaknesses. Herds of Zerglings would thunder across the plains, hoping to catch some prize unawares. Her taunts echoed incessantly in the cerebrate’s mind, but Sineth remained silent. He stood resolute in his fortress, ignoring these feints, maintaining his power in such concentration that it was invulnerable to almost any assault. But his one weakness was the exactly the one Kerrigan was preparing for. The one onslaught from which he could not defend was one of overwhelming force.

As Sineth proudly resisted the feints designed to lure him out, Kerrigan turned the moons into massive Zerg factories. Each became a organelle dedicated to nothing less than birthing an entire army every heartbeat. As Sineth’s hive cluster stood strong and resolute, Kerrigan’s forces grew stronger and stronger until they were more numerous than the Dryad brood had ever been. When the terrible wrath of the swarm came upon him, the mass of guardians blocked out both suns. The stampede of ultralisks shook the ground so much that many a sunken colony had its tentacles trapped by the shifting earth. The battle was as long and bloody as any yet seen within the swarm, but the result was the same as in the Korprulu sector – Kerrigan had once again destroyed all resistance to her dominance as the Queen of Blades and as supreme ruler of the swarm.

While his warriors were being crushed by Kerrigan’s superior forces, numbers and strategy, Sineth cursed his own incompetence. He had learned too late that it was not enough to merely have direction, but it needed to be well chosen. He could never replace the overmind, even if he produced enough mandibular pheromones for the entire galaxy. He was a cerebrate, and his only purpose was to serve the overmind. Without the wisdom of the swarm contained within that will, he was nothing no matter how many worlds he harvested. He began to see every decision he had made on his own as a mistake, from choosing to live on without the overmind to being manipulated and defeated by Kerrigan at every turn. For she was neither a cerebrate nor the overmind. He knew naught what she was, but her purpose was not as clear as his own. She might be able to lead the swarm as he could not, but he was no longer worthy of returning to the swarm’s embrace. He had failed the swarm when he panicked and reached for individuality, for that
is not the way of the swarm. He still longed to rejoin the swarm, to be an agent of a greater power, and the Queen of Blades seemed at that moment to be the greatest power in the galaxy. He would have served her in an instant, but his renewed love for the swarm forbade it. After so much failure, so many wrong decisions, he knew the swarm would be stronger without him.

The Dryad brood had been torn to shreds in the conflict. Amidst patches of withering creep and Zerg carcasses all that remained were Kerrigans’s warriors and the frail shell of Sineth, the last of his brood. Still mired in regret, Sineth awaited whatever fate Kerrigan had in store for him. His compulsion to return to the swarm grew every moment, to beg her forgiveness and to be a part of the greater whole once more. But his disastrous defeat was fresh in his mind, and he still maintained that the swarm would be stronger without him. It was not his decision, so he waited for Kerrigan’s psionic presence to reach out to him once more. He let her rip the knowledge of the brood from his mind. All its experiences, the gene sequences it had consumed from this world, everything. Even his current mental state, his regrets, his hopes, and his self-doubt, reached her mind. Kerrigan was unimpressed. She taunted him dismissively a final time before her mind returned to the Korprulu sector. As her warriors tore his form
to ribbons Sineth accepted her decision and welcomed death. When they finished they burrowed beneath the planet’s surface and waited, for their place was only to await the will of the swarm.

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