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The Other Side

Part 9 - Meian <Light and Darkness>


"How can we believe in hope after what we have done?

"Simple. We are optimists. We have faith in the unfathomable. Weíre gullible. Weíre human."

- The Restoration, by John William Lewandowski


(i)

"Have you heard of King Lassic, Daniel?"

Daniel didnít reply, didnít move, buried as he was deep within the darkness of the Biosystems control centre.

"He ruled Algol just over one thousand years ago," Seed continued, quietly, like he was telling the tale in a cathedral, "during an unexplained invasion of monsters similar to those created by the Nei creature. I do not understand this, as they had no genetic technologies at the time."

His voice faded quickly into faint echoes as he paused. And then:

"King Lassic was a cruel and vicious tyrant, a paranoid man afraid of his own mortality. He taxed the cities of Palma until they could not pay any more, and then he abandoned them to the mutants."

Daniel interrupted, breaking the cool peace of the room.

"What the hellís the point, Seed?"

Seed didnít even pause, but his voice rose to its normal pitch. "The Natives, which are considered by you humans to be caring and peaceful people, can be tainted by a single representative. You are not responsible, and neither is Commander Gerard, or Simonson. Mother Brain is. She destroyed Palma. Humanity is blameless."

Daniel said nothing.

"Then tell me why, Daniel. I do not understand."

"We built her."

"And you created me with the same techniques."

"You donít have enough of a personality to develop neuroses," Daniel snapped. "We gave her a human mind, and included all of the worse in us."

"She is a sentient being. The choice was her own. As with humans, you can blame upbringing, or society, or environment, but the locus of control rests within her. She is alive, Daniel, and responsible for her own actions."

"Iím not interested. Go away."

"Very well, Daniel."

And then he was alone again, still in darkness, his mind blank and aimless.

Thatís why he came here. He found he could justÖ not think. Regard the darkness with open, sleepless eyes, watching colour fire through the velvet as his brain filled the void with random pixels, and stay numb, unfeeling, cold and thoughtless.

This is where he awaited Chrisí return, in the void of his mind. Should it fill with thought, then he would follow Alina -

Donít think about that.

All he had to do was wait for Chris. If he could hold out against the thoughts and the dreams -

Donít think about them.

- just until Chris came back, then his company would occupy him, keep him sane. It was just a day or twoÖ

Waiting in the darkness, not thinking.

But not this time.

In the quiet and the blackness, with nothing else to distract, Daniel felt his mind working behind his conscious self.

Curse it. His subconscious, busy on something, uncaring of his conscious wishes. And now that he knew, it was beginning to bother him, like an itch. Something that was wrong, some memory that Seed had brought to mind. A reminder of something else, a slight tug of deja vu, an echo of something someone else had said.

Daniel sighed, and sat up. It would stay with him until he solved it, he knew. It always did.

"Seed, could you repeat the conversation weíve just had?"

Again, Seed didnít pause, or question the request. He was far more like a computer than Mother Brain.

"ĎHave you heard of King Lassic, Daniel?í

"ĎNo.í

"ĎHe ruled Algol just over one thousand years ago -í"

"Son of a bitch!"

A Lagrange point passes through that area once every one thousand years, three months, fourteen days, and some hours and minutes and seconds. You know what Mother Brain is like for precision.

Daniel waved his hands around desperately.

"Enough! Shut up! Donít speak!"

The beam. The beam. He had forgotten all about it.

In all of space, hitting something as small as the Noah is pushing coincidence a little too much. To have it following us around is scary. You said it hit Mother Brainís neural core?

No, it hadnít, but it was close. It was such an obvious connection. Chrison had been worried, but he hadnít. Nothing had seemed wrong then, after all. When he had found out what was wrong, shock, disbelief and, yes, fear had left him irrational. He hadnít started thinking again until on board the Manu, when he was safe, and by then there were too many other things to think about.

Daniel was suddenly flooded with nervous energy. Thought burst silently in his mind, making it as light as a vacuum. Realisations branched outwards, connecting, connecting, connectingÖ

It wasnít a pulsar, it was a beam. A beam of focused energy that had found them and followed them. It was deliberate.

It wasnít Mother Brain at all. It was the damned beam, it had to be. It had to.

It had appeared a hundred and thirty years ago, and Simonson had first noticed glitches in Mother Brainís personality ninety years ago.

Daniel folded up into a sitting position, his hands on his head, unbelieving, as it rushed over him, everything he shouldíve already known, damn him. It had all been there for him to see. He no longer had any control over his brain, and it was all he could do to try and keep up with the connections that were flowering with fractal complexity through his recent memories. His mind was leaving him behind, and he scrambled for the pieces it threw at him.

It had come from another dimension from - oh God! - through a lagrange point formed by the three planets.

And now there were only two.

Proxies, they were damn proxies. Nei had been Mother Brainís, killing for her in a place where she had little control. They wereÖ someone elseís. Used like game pieces.

Oh, God, how could he think that? It was absurd, comic book stuff, but it was also real. Jesus.

Even in the privacy of his own mind, Daniel had trouble even thinking it aloud, but the realisation sprung forth just the same.

They had been attacked by something from another dimension.

And it had probably already won. With one planet down, the lagrange point would be larger, maybe more frequent. What would happen if all three planets were destroyed? An invasion?

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

It hadnít been about him, or the lab, and it hadnít been random acts of insanity. Mother Brain had tried to kill him because of the beam, killed Chrison for the same reason. She knew what it portended. She had protected her corrupter.

No, that was wrong. She couldnít. She would have to act on that if she knew about it, ohgod.

It was still happening. It had to be still happening.

Somethingís inhibiting her, he had said. A subconscious, he had thought. Mother Brain had stopped him going to sub-level D. Stopped him from investigating the terminus of the beam. Something was controlling, no, manipulating her, that had to be it.

But the beam was gone! How was it done? The beam had intersected below the core. How did it work? An electro-magnetic wave would be long over, the damage random, and Mother Brain was shielded from such attacks. That was the only energy form that would be able to affect her anything like this.

Or perhaps something sonic, except Mother Brainís core had shock dampeners. Sub-sonic? Super-sonic? Again, the damage would be random. Unless, it was beams of sound, like Mother Brain used for private communications, precisely targeted to re-arrange portions of her neural net.

No, the beam was gone. The energy was spent.

Or maybe the beam was still there, but the sensors had been targeted first, or Mother Brain was suppressing their readings.

No, no, no. The lagrange point was gone too. The gate was closed. Yet she was still somehow being controlled, directed. It had to be something permanent and adaptable, almost as if by aÖ

And the last of it came, in a cold rush of frightening knowledge. Nei had shown it could be done, after all.

"Seed! Do you have access to Chrisonís personal files?"

"Yes."

"Was he working on the beamÖ Turn on the bloody lights! A beam of black energy which intersected with the Noah? Does he have the sensor logs?" Daniel twisted himself into a chair.

"Yes."

"I need your professional opinion on them, right now."

Seed didnít ask what Daniel wanted. There were only a few Ďprofessionalí opinions he was qualified to give.

"Please wait," he said.

Daniel found it hard, his thoughts still alive and electric, but it wasnít long.

"The modulative complexity of the energy in the beam appears to be sufficient to represent genetic code," Seed said. "Analysing further."

"Son of a bitch!"

A data stream, like lasers down an optic cable. A beam, describing the form of an organic creature. Direct energy to matter conversionÖ

No, it didnít have to be organic. Maybe another neural net, wired in, a schizophrenic. Hell, it could be anything.

"It represents neither the Palman or human genome," Seed said.

"Can you decode it?"

"No. There is no benchmark. The modulation could represent anything. I would need sample life using the gene code to establish a model. However, I see no reason why genetic code would be transmitted in this way."

Seed could not have missed the implied connection, and Daniel felt some of his surety fall away at his judgement.

"To create a creature at this end," he said, almost as a question.

"I have your genome on file, Daniel. If I were to modulate a laser with that information, it would achieve nothing but data transmission." Seedís tone implied he knew what it was, that he had the solution and was priming Daniel for the explanation.

"So what the hell is it?" Daniel demanded without patience.

"If I had Neiís ability for direct energy to matter conversion, and could do so with the laser, then in order to recreate you at the laserís terminus, it would be necessary not to transmit your gene code, but to use it to direct the laser. To clarify: your DNA is instructions on how to build you. The laser would have to follow those instructions, not transmit them."

"You can work with that?" A leading question, almost rhetorical in its tone, hopeful.

"Already in progress," said Seed immediately. "I understand the physics of the energy spectrum as part of my medical programming - specifically, laser surgery and medical scans. I can extrapolate a visual image of the resultant physical form from the power modulations within the beam. The data recorders for the sensors on the Noah do not have a sufficient sample frequency for an accurate picture from data of this complexity, but as I am only constructing the outer shell, I can use some of the internal data to extrapolate missing sections. However, the resultant image will still be very poor quality."

"Time, Seed?"

"There is still a great deal of data to process and mathematical extrapolation to do. Thirty one hours, seven minutes, estimated."

Daniel just sat there for a moment, still somehow unbelieving. No, not unbelieving, just stunned, drained, relievedÖ

Something dripped on Danielís leg, and he realised that tears had been running down his face. He grinned stupidly at himself. Tears, after such a long time. Real tears.

It took him a moment to realise why, why this. It wasnít their fault. There was still hope for mankind. He wasnít crying from sorrow. This was an emotion that had taken him unprepared. He was crying with release from guilt.

He knew he shouldnít, but he smiled, bitterly happy, selfishly relieved, released from the fear and from the hopeless dismal tension of his heart, like a man falsely accused and found, after a life of trials, and of doubt, and of unbelieving fear that the nightmare was really happening, somehow, to him, after all of that, to be foundÖ

"Not guilty," he whispered, his eyes stingingly wet, and he drew his legs up to curl into the chair, where he stayed for a long time, crying away his bittersweet heart through eyes that were not enough to let out the tears he had to spend.

*     *     *     *     *

(ii)

Seed woke him the next morning.

"I have a preliminary report regarding the creature described by the beam."

Daniel struggled up from his bedclothes, sniffing back a blockage in his nose and glancing at his watch on automatic. Eight oíclock.

"You have an image?" he asked, his voice sounding thick and sleepy.

"No. It is taking me longer than I expected. However, I have constructed areas of its internal structure and can tell you some things about the creature."

Daniel squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, trying to get them working. "Yeah. Go on."

"It is organic, but with a high metallic content. It is not, however, organically functional, with no digestive tract, no circulatory system, no form of energy storage or conversion as required by human and Palman musculature. Its nervous system is also extremely limited, and its skeletal structure fragmentary, apparently there only for the most basic support.

"This creature did not evolve. It was created with no thought to it ever involving itself in the evolutionary process. It appears to have been designed specifically for the task it is performing. As to its inability to process any food or similar energy source, I would suggest, given the creatureís origin, that it subsists on black energy. FinallyÖ

"Breakfast is served."

And, for the first time in days, Daniel actually tasted the food he ate.

*     *     *     *     *

Daniel walked the corridors of the lab and outside, on the grasslands surrounding it, thinking.

His mind was still alive with his realisations of the previous day, still firing them at him in bursts of thought, as his subconscious re-analysed and excitably told him the same conclusions.

Daniel accepted them all, and considered each, examining it, convincing himself, converting his guesses to belief and cold fact. And anger. The crimes were unforgivably personal. TheyÖ itÖ whatever had made them doubt, made them believe they were guilty of something tragically shattering, something that would destroy lives by lancing all emotion but the guilt, hollow and dark.

Only one new thing came forth.

Seedís story about Lassic had triggered the memory of Chrisonís lagrange point, but now Daniel wondered about it.

A thousand yearsÖ

He was outside at the time, but he had a headset.

"Seed?"

"Yes, Daniel?"

"Do you have the precise dating for Lassicís reign?" Of course, Seed would not, but he would access Nurvusí databanks for him.

"No. The records of the time are fragmentary and the Algolian calendar has been changed since."

Daniel sighed silently to himself. The timing was about right, but there was no connection there. What did a tyrant have to do with anything? Asking Seed wouldnít be much use. He was built for grunt work, not inspiration.

Daniel started walking again, slowly.

A tyrant. A tyrant and an insane computer.

No, they were both insane. An insane man, and an insane computer. What did they have in common? Of courseÖ

Two insane rulers.

"What happened the thousand years previous to that, Seed?" Daniel asked carefully, still walking.

"The Palmans have no records we can accurately date to that specific time."

So much for that. It could be coincidence. It wasnít, of course. Daniel was sure of it, but ultimately, it didnít help him, unlessÖ

"Seed? Are there any reports of anything unusual at the time of Lassicís reign?"

"The genetic mutants, as I have said. Everything else is hearsay and rumour. Lassic was immortal, guided by priests from another world, protected by magical armour, resided in a floating castle, and was ultimately killed by weapons made of pseudomorphic silver."

Which all sounded like a fairytale. It probably was a fairytale. Whatever truth lay behind it was over a thousand years old.

"No creatures like the one you are constructing an image of?"

"I do not know. The image is not complete."

"Anything that seems possible?"

"Not at this time. The creature I am modelling is amorphous, but I will recheck when the image is finished. However, comparisons may be useless. If this creature was designed for its task, then any previous similar creatures would be of a different design."

"Amorphous?"

"Shapeless. In this case, the creature appears to be a heap of unstructured organic systems and limbs."

"Thanks anyway."

*     *     *     *     *

Daniel walked towards the evening sun.

It was something he hadnít done yet, and wasnít sure if he could do at all, but Chris was due in thirty minutes and this would be his last time to do it in private.

The cross was black against the golden sky.

Seedís droids had built it, venturing into the nearby forest for the two logs, and tying them with incongruous steel cable. The patch of new turned earth they marked was on a low hill with a view of a forest, and the Lab behind. Flowers marked its border, sterile by necessity, as they were Terran in origin.

Perhaps Alina would have liked it. Daniel didnít know.

Draped over the wooden cross was her own silver one, the chain shining more like gold in the sunlight. Daniel touched it.

"Hi," he said, feeling stupid.

"Iím not good at this. Iím not sure why Iím here forÖ for you. Iíve never talked to the dead before. I.. tend to ignore it when people die. I even managed to ignore a whole planet dying, although I guess we all had to at some level."

He took a deep breath of cooling air, wondering what to say, why he was here.

"It wasnít our fault," he said after a pause. "You should know that, above all else. We didnít destroy Palma. IÖ Iím not sure what did, but we have to stop it. Weíre going to try, certainly, but it looks difficult."

He laughed a hopeless little laugh.

"Actually, it looks impossible. I canít find a good option. Theyíre all bad one way or another. Mother Brain will probably have to die, and itís not her fault either."

Something cried in the forest, too deep for a bird. Too deep for a Terran bird anyway, but Daniel barely registered it.

"Itís sad. This is my life now. Itís hard even to remember who I was back on Noah. I hate change. I guess we all do, but I hate it more than most. Itís hard to come back from. Itís hard to find new purpose once the old is gone.

"Iím out of my league. I hate that, too. I like control, and I canít even figure out a good way toÖ to do what needs to be done. To take her down. Iíve looked over the specsí for Daughter, and there are too many redundancies. We still have to wait for Jean-Paul, so I still have time, but I just canít see any other solutions.

"Iím rambling, arenít I? Sorry. Iím not used to talking to wooden crosses. Iím not talking to you anyway, am I? Iím talking to me.

"So, what do I need to say to you?"

Daniel thought. There wasnít much, not really. Just a single truth to counter the lie which had taken both their faiths.

He looked up, to the glistening evening stars amidst the light rimed cloudscape.

"Itís not our fault," he told her with quiet conviction. "Thatís important. There is still hope for us. Thereís still hope."

The clouds moved slowly, obscuring a star.

Daniel suddenly felt the abysmal depth that was before him. He had not been scared to return to the Noah before, because it just wasnít an option. It was too dangerous.

And now there was still no option, but the option had changed. He would go back. Three of them against an unbelieving Noah, Mother Brainís droids and Seedís beast.

But part of him knew it was impossible, inconceivable that they would not succeed. Mankind always survived, always won. A godís wrath had only driven them away. Man had held back the anger with hope and escaped on its belief in itself.

His eyes were drawn to the silver cross within the wooden one.

Faith would be a nice thing. A belief in something held to be true. A trust that all would be well. It was tempting.

But he would always know he was fooling himself.

He shouldíve turned to leave then. The message was said, his heart was sad but peaceful. All that he came for was done.

Instead, he stepped forward and carefully lifted the chain from around the wooden cross, feeling it catch on the rough surface as it came. He felt immediately guilty, but still brought his arms over his head to lift the chain from the grave marker.

It felt like he had desecrated the grave, even though he knew that Alina would not have minded.

He studied it for a moment. It was very plain. A cross. A chain. Nothing more.

Then he put it over his head and walked away, feeling the coldness of it like ice on his chest.

*     *     *     *     *

(iii)

Daniel waited at a safe distance as the Manu sank slowly to the ground, buoyed by seething plasma.

It settled, and the engines cut off, leaving the night full of violet colour. A mechanism clunked, and a rectangle sprung into being, defined by an edge of spilled light. The shuttleís door swung open, releasing light into the darkness, and revealing a silhouette.

Daniel jogged over to the shuttle ramp to meet Chris as he came down.

The gash on his forehead was scabbed and the skin surrounding it white and stretched. Chris himself looked tired, physically and emotionally. Daniel felt for him, but couldnít tell him the truth, not yet. He would never believe it just from him, and a touch of drama would help snap him out.

According to Seed, anyway, but it made sense to Daniel too.

"How are they?" he asked.

His mouth didnít turn up from its exhausted dourness, but Chrisí eyes hinted at a sad smile.

"Oh, fine," he said. "They had a Doctor. She woke up second. Healed them. I dropped them off at Paseo."

They walked in silence for a few steps.

"And howíre you?"

"I tried," he said, very quietly. "I tried everything, but I only saved them. I did try."

Daniel was appalled that his normally indomitably cheerful friend wasÖ

Öwhat he himself was two days ago.

Chris might have only kept going for the Gaila prisoners he had brought back. It was more purpose than Daniel had had, laying in the darkness. He wondered how Jean-Paul was taking it. Probably better than they had. He was a military man with a mission. That may be all that he needed.

Chris let out a breath, becoming more like himself as he did.

"Iím okay. I shouldnít be, but I am. We have to stop her, Daniel. She still has the Noah."

"I know." Its power core was even greater that Gailaís. At the very least, Mother Brain could fire up the engines making the Noah a huge hyper-velocity slug, ramming at faster-than-light speeds into the planet of her choice.

"Thereís something you have to know about them, Daniel," said Chris after a few steps.

"The Palmans?"

"Theyíre going to try to kill Mother Brain."

Daniel let out a white plume of breath towards the stars.

"I imagine many people would want to, now," he said.

"No, they wanted to before. Theyíre the ones who came here. They killed the Nei thing, and theyíre going to kill her."

"You know they donít stand a chance."

"They might."

Daniel let that go. They didnít, but he wasnít going to stamp on any hopes.

But Chris didnít mean it like that.

"I told them to go find the Espers."

Daniel turned on him.

"Why the hell did you tell them that?" he demanded.

"Theyíre going to need all the help they can get!" Chris shot back.

"You think they have a chance?" Daniel asked unbelieving. "Christ! Mother Brain could give tattoos with industrial laser at a kilometreís range. It would take her one second to flick a laser through each of their heads! They canít stand up to that sort of speed and accur -"

"I know! Thatís why I sent them to the Espers! We donít know what theyíre capable of, but if they are going to stand any chance, theyíll need magical assistance. Yeah, maybe Iíve sent them to their deaths, but do you really think that matters? Look at what Mother Brain has done already -"

"Four lives is still four lives, Chris. Just because two billion have already died - No!" Daniel raised his hands. "Okay! Okay. Itís done. Iím sorry, Iím not arguing. I justÖ think it was a bad idea."

"What if we fail, Danny? We need a second chance, even a small one, and they were going to do it anyway."

Daniel had not told Chris he intended to go back. Chris had just assumed it. No options.

"Well, it was nice to see some emotion from you."

Daniel got an involuntary smile from Chris for that, but it quickly lapsed into a worried look.

"What about Dezoris?"

"Jean-Paulís shut Zelan off. Heís on his way back."

"Thank god. And Kuran?"

"I canít do anything down here. Youíll have to go up to realign the dish," said Daniel. "Iíll come if you need help," he added after a momentís thought. After what happened at Gaila, Chris would be better off with company.

"No, Iíll do it"

"We need it tracking Zelan," Daniel instructed.

"What? Why?"

"Because, no matter what, we cannot leave this planet without a controlling computer. Not for long, anyway. The climate degradation will kill every one of the creatures here, and the Natives would be lucky to adapt fast enough."

"So?"

"What if we fail?" Daniel echoed. "What if Daughter is never installed? We need to cover this now. If only to keep the climate from getting too far out of hand. We have to install a suitable computer in one of the satellites, both for preference, to regulate things."

"We canít move a neural net, and we canít get to Daughter, anyway!"

"We donít need a terraforming computer, either. Look, this is better discussed with Jean-Paul. Weíll link him in when we get inside."

They walked a few more silent steps through the darkness.

"I have something to show you two, anyway," Daniel said.

And he did. Seed had finished it ten minutes ago.

*     *     *     *     *

Seed uplinked to the Pyrrha, bringing Jean-Paul into the, well, the briefing, Daniel supposed, on a two-way video link. The room they were using looked like some form of conference room, except the carpet had been pulled up by Seedís droids. There was a large screen dominating the far wall, and Jean-Paulís image was in the lower right-hand corner.

The floor smelt of disinfectant.

Seed brought up a graphic from Chrisonís files on the screen - Mother Brainís graphic of the radiation patterns in sub-level B, and then waited for Chris and Daniel to be seated.

Daniel looked at the graphic with an odd feeling of dislocation. It had been so long ago, ten years real-time, one month personal time, and a lifetime emotionally. Seed began speaking then, his baritone voice casting tinny echoes around the carpetless room.

"Professor Chrison discovered a beam of black energy - energy from an interdimensional source - which had intersected with the Noah one level below Mother Brainís neural core."

Daniel was surprised at the mistake, but realised he shouldnít be. Seed would not look into personal files unless ordered to, and Daniel had only asked for his opinion on the sensor logs.

"Just listen, Chris," said Daniel before Chris could say anything.

"The coincidence required for the beam to locate and then follow the Noah was considered too high and it was suspected to have been somehow deliberate."

Daniel was watching Chris, and had seen the realisation flower after the word ĎNoahí. He was a shuttle pilot, after all. He shouldíve known the chances of hitting something in space.

"Gaiaís mercy!" he breathed. "Christ, then Mother Brain tried to killÖ"

Daniel took over that sentence for Jean-Paulís benefit.

"Chrison and I were the two who were most interested in the beam. Mother Brain tried to kill us both in apparent accidents. In Chrisonís case, she took out the entire Biosystems lab with him."

Jean-Paulís face didnít change expression, but it seemed to stiffen, even in the soft, shadowless light of his shuttle.

Seed continued.

"Daniel realised that the beamís presence presaged Mother Brainís personality degradation and was therefore the likely cause. This is also supported by Mother Brainís attempts to keep the beam a secret. Daniel also theorised that the beam could have generated a solid mass at this end using energy to matter conversion after seeing that it was theoretically possible for the Natives to do so."

Chris was looking confused. "I donít understand."

"The beamís energy was converted into matter, effectively reversing entropy."

"I get that." That was more like Chris. "But a floor down? Itíd be pointless. Mother Brain is too well shielded to affect her from outside the room."

Daniel chipped in ahead of Seed, looking back and forth between Jean-Paul and Chris as he spoke.

"Sheís acting to a plan," he explained. "Everything points to that, but she could never know of the plan, or she would abandon it." He gestured to the graphic on the screen. "Anything done directly to her would be temporary and ineffective. Yet she has somehow been manipulated for the last hundred and forty years."

"A construct," said Jean-Paul. "A construct capable of influencing her over a lengthy period of time."

"Jean-Paul is correct," said Seed. "Daniel had me analyse the power modulations within the beam to construct an image of the resultant form."

All eyes were on the conference room screen, but effectively they were looking at Seed.

"And?" asked Chris.

The screen changed.

*     *     *     *     *

The background was a blue grid for scale, and the image was crude, pixelised, almost cartoony, but Danielís mind could imagine the reality, the twisted Gigeresque organic blackness of it, glistening with fluids, pulsing, shiftingÖ

The first thought that came to him wasÖ

Twisted.

Even its shell like skin was whorled like stirred mud. It seemed rigid and inflexible, but there were tubular lengths like external intestines, and membranes laced with veins stretched between the chitin plates. It was dark, and oddly shaped, like it had fallen from a nightmare.

His second thought wasÖ

Evil.

Its face - its faces, for there were three that he could see and probably one he could not - were moulded into permanent anger and loathing. The teeth were barbed and needlepoint sharp, the eyes sunken in skull like sockets. It had jowls, too, but made of the chitin, framing the chin that was hinged like that of a deep-sea fish.

His third thought wasÖ

Iíve seen it before.

*     *     *     *     *

"This is what destroyed Palma," intoned Seed with utter finality.

"Oh, godÖ" said Chris.

"Just the opposite, I think," said Seed, surprising them.

"But, itís organic."

"It is alive, powerful and intelligent. The precise nature and origin of this creature cannot be known, but given its location and the timing involved, it is more than reasonable to assume that it is the cause of our difficulties."

Its hanging from the ceiling, Daniel thought in a detached way. It must have drilled its way up.

"Christ, the Browren," said Chris, looking at Daniel.

"Oh yeah." Daniel nodded but did not look around. "And Iíd say Mother Brain did me a favour."

"Can we destroy it?"

They all glanced over to Jean-Paulís corner of the screen. His expression was hard, but thoughtful, as if considering a chessboard.

"I would not recommend an attempt," said Seed. "This creature was formed of black energy, and appears to sustain itself through it. I would expect the creature to have substantial access and control, making it extremely powerful and versatile."

"We canít block the magic?" A distant part of Danielís mind couldnít believe Jean-Paul could expect a positive answer, but he asked the question in the tone of someone checking every option.

"My programming and knowledge base are rooted in genetics, biology and medicine. I cannot help you with a solution with that," Seed replied.

Daniel kept looking at the creature, at Mother Brainís corrupter, sorting through the uncomfortable sensation of deja vu. It was impossible. There was no way he could have seen this before, and even if he had, the form was so odd, so heaped together and alien, that he would remember.

"What about the room itís in?" Jean-Paul was asking. "What is the layout like?"

"Schematics of the Noah are not stored at Nurvus for security reasons."

Daniel thought through the few horror movies had had seen. That seemed somehow right. Something dark, and confined, and late at night.

"Do you know, Daniel?"

Daniel walked closer to the screen, focusing on the face. The faceÖ

That was the key. He should have realised. The eyes always seek the face, for that is where recognition is found.

"Daniel?"

Daniel glanced around, mentally running back Jean-Paulís question.

"No, sorry," he said absently. Then he tapped the creatureís face on the screen. "Iíve seen this thing before," he said quietly.

Chris came up behind him. Daniel could almost feel his frown of scepticism.

"Where?"

"I dunno," Daniel said with a shrug and then shook his head as if trying to get the information to filter down. "I donít know."

"I consider it unlikely that you have seen this, Daniel. There are no correlations that I can locate," said Seed.

"I canít shake the feeling, though. It puts me in mind of Nei, butÖ"

"The only time you saw Nei was from my video footage and in Climate Control."

"Thatís not it. Iím sure it was here in the Lab somewhere."

"It is nowhere in my files. The feeling of deja vu is often without any real connection except emotions. It is likely you have no memory to match this creature."

"No. No, Iím sure."

"You said it put you in mind of Nei, yet I have records of everything you have done in regards to her. The only remaining option is that it was a function of your mind alone."

"Like what?" Daniel asked distantly, still focussed on the snarl-locked face.

"Assuming that you are correct in that you have seen the creature before, the only viable option is a dream."

The truth, the rightness of that statement caught his breath in the brief instant before the connections flooded through his mind in a sparkling surge. Lightning bolts do not leave you cold, but it felt like one just the same. Daniel turned around slowly.

"ĎI am become death, destroyer of worlds,í" he quoted into the silence, "and ĎI have already won.í"

He looked at Chris, his eyes haunted with the remembered feel of the dream.

"I was asleep just before I received your message."

"A psychic," said Seed. "And to be able to broadcast from the Noah would require access to an external energy source."

"Black energy," said Chris.

"Most probably, but it is also conceivably tapping into the Noahís power cables."

"How can we stop it?" asked Jean-Paul from the screen.

"I recommend against attempting to," said Seed.

"Do we want to?" asked Daniel seriously.

Jean-Paulís reply was immediate.

"Yes."

"Yeah," said Chris after a slight pause. Part of Daniel hoped for a negative.

"I have some ideas," he said, "butÖ they are not very good ones. We managed to neuter Mother Brain by removing the things she controls. Maybe we can neuter this thing the same way. It gets its power over the entire system through us." He turned back to the conference room screen. "Seed, could you bring up the schematics for Mother Brainís neural core?"

"Nurvus does not have them for security reasons. It is vulnerable to a Native incursion."

"What about your own?"

"No."

"Iíll need you to tell me where it is then. I need to see what I have to shut down."

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