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The Other Side

Part 11 - Ikusa <War>


"…but we must not forget, we must never forget, that our genes are a telling factor, and that a great part of who we are is death."

- The Restoration, by John William Lewandowski


(i)

Daniel knelt down, fighting nausea, but looking the body over. Jean-Paul remained standing, scanning the passages.

"Claws," said Daniel. "It’s claws. Christ, what the hell is going on here? There’s no genetics laboratory on the Noah."

Jean-Paul glanced down briefly.

"How long has she been dead?"

"You think I know? God, a while. A couple of weeks at least."

"We haven’t seen any droids," said Jean-Paul, "or any other form of armed defence. That would imply whatever battle was fought over the Noah is over."

"Who won?" Daniel’s voice was suddenly dry.

"I hope we did. Browrens," he said then, without turning, "you will now stay with us and you will open fire immediately on any non-human lifeform." Then he pulled Daniel up by his arm. "We have to go."

Daniel unslung his own weapon as he strode along side Jean-Paul, and flicked off the safety. He did it almost automatically, but felt so far out of his depth just by holding the weapon ready that he had to suppress a shudder at what he now was, what he was doing.

They walked cautiously, watching every shadow, three Browrens in front, and two behind. Jean-Paul’s eyes glowed greyly in the gloom, like a dead television. They hadn’t been before.

They walked past a branch, the Browrens twisting their heads smoothly to check it, and then back again in perfect sync. Daniel found himself looking as well.

Just shadows. Daniel kept walking.

Daniel felt Jean-Paul’s hand on his back, and then he was stumbling, pushed out of his way. He went with the stumble a little, and twisting around into a squat facing the direction he had come.

Jean-Paul was on one knee, facing down the side passage, his gun held against his shoulder. The two Browrens that had been bringing up the rear were standing either side of him, motionless, waiting for something to happen.

There were a few seconds of silence, in which Daniel only heard his own breathing, slow and heavy. Then he crept over the Jean-Paul. He was staring straight down the passage, but his grey-lit eyes were flickering.

"What are you doing?" Daniel hissed at him.

"Switching frequencies."

Daniel looked down the passage, but there was nothing but the metal paneled walls and a single bundle of pipes running into the darkness.

"What the hell is there?" he whispered. "What the hell did you see?"

"I don’t know. Movement."

Daniel slipped his helmet’s visor down, and touched the switch that activated the infrared heads-up display. The passage became blue and dark. There was no heat at all.

"There’s nothing there."

Jean-Paul’s eyes stopped flickering.

"Wrong," he said.

Something exploded in the passage, and Daniel jumped as it flashed whitely in his infrared. A faint trail of heat coloured the air from Jean-Paul’s gun, and Daniel realised that he must have fired.

But the gun had made no sound.

The explosion boiled away, just as something shrieked an inhuman wail of pain. Daniel took an involuntary step back, his brain desperately trying to categorise what was going on.

"Jesus!" he swore. "There’s nothing there!"

And then a section of shadow detached from the darkness and landed in an animal crouch, hissing. It leapt…

The double thunder of the Browren’s more conventional guns shocked Daniel, and he didn’t see the black shape battered from the air and fall in a translucent heap. An angry chittering began from the passage’s depths, and Jean-Paul stood, holding his gun at waist height like a flamethrower, letting loose with silent rapid fire.

"Change your ammo!" he called.

Daniel took a moment to register the words as directed at him, and he looked down at his gun stupidly. Oh, hell, yes. His ammo was for droids.

The Browrens joined in the hail of fire as he ejected the cartridge, surprised that he could recall how, and rammed another home. Ordinary bullets. Daniel didn’t know enough to select anything fancy.

When he looked up, the firing had stopped. He took two tentative steps forward and peered around one of the Browren’s body-builder frames.

The passage was smoking, but not heavily damaged, as Jean-Paul’s second volley had not been moving at the explosive hyper-velocities. Nothing moved, except for the smoke. Somewhere inside Daniel, he realised the smoke would probably help them spot the… Shadows.

Something made a sound like an angry whip behind them, and the Browren facing back the way they had come flashed brightly with some form of explosion and started sparking, crawling with electrical trails and leaking smoke. Daniel whirled. Jean-Paul had somehow already turned, and was bringing his gun to bear.

They looked like magicians in gas masks, and they had electricity burning around their hands. There were two, both robed in brown and green, hunched over like old men, but each still larger than a man.

Daniel fired, somehow without even thinking about it, but the recoil caught him by surprise and the shots went wide. Jean-Paul fired also, but the bullet seemed to impact and explode against a ghostly sphere around the mage. It was enough, though. The mage was staggered backwards by the blast and the sphere fell away into drifting grey embers. A Browren fired, knocking the mage back in a spray of smoke and tan fluid.

The second mage pointed a long finger at them. Electrical fire formed, twisted and sprung forward, cracking loudly through the air in an instant. Daniel ducked out of the way on instinct, but it had been aimed at another droid. Daniel saw the Browren turn sideways to allow the bolt to pass, and raise its gun straight-armed in the same motion. Its bullets sparked off of the creature’s shield, but Jean-Paul and the other droids all shifted their aim as well, firing simultaneously.

The air seemed to shudder under the onslaught of sound, and then it was over, the dulling sparks of the creature’s shield drifting over its body.

Daniel’s system caught up with him, and his legs gave out in overloaded shock. The whole thing had been unreal and oddly unworrying, but it swept over him as soon as the second mage had collapsed.

Jean-Paul caught him.

"Come on!" he yelled. "We’re moving! We have to move!"

Daniel somehow staggered into a run, his mind still trying to process everything but too busy keeping him on course as they ran down the passage. Oh god, oh god, oh god.

"Daniel! Where are we going?"

Daniel found some breath in amongst all the panic to reply.

"The Commander!"

"The Noah is lost, Daniel! New plan!"

Daniel’s brain wasn’t working. It was numb, in denial, lost. He couldn’t think.

"Up," he tried. "We need Wrens."

"Too far, Daniel." Jean-Paul stopped, and grabbed Daniel, throwing him up against the wall.

"Come on!" he shouted. "Snap out of it! This is your plan going belly up! We need Wrens. We can’t fight our way up out of the sub-levels from here! What else is there?"

Daniel swallowed, trying to think, trying to get his mind on track.

"Engineering."

"We are not cutting the power, Daniel. There could be survivors in stasis."

"No!" Daniel said quickly. "There’re Wrens down there. Humans can’t go into the engine room for maintenance or repair, probably wouldn’t get there in time if something went wrong. The next best option is an adaptable neural net. Wrens. Seven or eight, I think."

Jean-Paul let him go.

"Good. That’s more like you. Now, which way?"

"I don’t know! I’ve never been there!"

Jean-Paul grabbed Daniel’s arm and thrust the wrist-mounted map under his nose.

"Find out," he said reasonably.

Daniel brain surfaced a memory.

"North, go north."

The engines of the Noah, at the back of the ship, generated a large magnetic field, which would swing any compass around to them. Someone had once jokingly said it was north, and it had stuck.

"Come on, then." Jean-Paul started walking, not running, allowing Daniel to consult his map as they moved, the remaining four Browrens arranged in a cordon around them.

*     *     *     *     *

Gerard shrugged into his jacket as he walked quickly down the passage.

"Report," he ordered.

"We have some problems in the sub-levels," Mother Brain said briskly. "Damage has been sustained to systems in sub-level E, section 41-12."

"What caused it?"

"Two of the four who went AWOL from the last shift and attendant Browren droids. The droids’ transceivers are either damaged or removed, and I cannot change their orders."

Gerard quelled a sudden surge of the background worry that had been with him since Gaila. In spite of all their technology and facilities, they had proven powerless, and the responsibility which rested with Gerard remained infuriatingly outside of his control. They had never caught the Palmans who had been on Gaila. Nor had there been any sign of the four who had vanished from the Noah last shift. The System Government had stabilised things, but still did not trust Mother Brain - although they now considered her ‘malfunction’ to be the work of the Palmans. Their people were afraid and becoming desperate, and Gerard couldn’t blame them. After Palma…

Our fault, Mother Brain had said, and she was right after a fashion. God, Gerard thought, even when we mean the best, look what we can do.

They needed the Palman subversives to set things back on track, to reveal the truth behind Gaila, and it was becoming clear that the deserters were helping them.

And the Palmans had been searching for the Espers…

A silent voice settled into Gerard’s mind like one of his own thoughts.

Traitors, Gerard, all of them, deserving of no mercy…

The Espers thought they had a chance? They would never be able to compete. Humanity’s technology had unleashed the wrath of a god, then held it back, and escaped it. Gaia’s wrath was nothing, no competition at all. And then Palma…

It was hard to believe exactly how powerful their technology was until too late. No, not believe, accept.

No contest… came a whispering breath of alien thought.

"How did they get on board?" he asked into the corridor.

"I do not know," said Mother Brain, "but given that I did not detect their arrival, I would guess that the Espers are responsible."

Your enemies are making their move…

Gerard swore viciously. "Bastard traitors! Why would they do this?"

They are in league with your enemies, they seek the end of the Restoration. They will destroy all that you have worked for…

"I do not know, but we need to stop them. Shall I send a team of droids to retrieve them?"

Stop them. Before it’s too late…

"Do it. I want them brought to me. I want to know why!"

Gerard turned the corner into the Operations Room. The air was tight with silent tension amongst the people there. They looked over as he entered, waiting for orders, instructions, hope. They were worried, and they didn’t even know the full story, the Esper involvement.

Try it, Gerard said silently to the Espers, wondering if they could hear his thoughts. You think you can stop us? Look at what you are fighting. Look at what our technology can do. Look at Palma.

And it echoed in his mind, in another voice, with another’s thought.

…try it... whispered the Corrupter.

*     *     *     *     *

A section of darkness turned, rippling as if it were a cloak, and revealing a metal mask, slitted and cold.

"The… Protectors are here," Zs-Aex-Seir hissed into the empty chamber. "All of them. They must be kept apart at all costs, killed for preference. We have a war on our doorstep and the two sides of the truth must not meet and end it…

"Become known once more. Rise from the darkness. Kill them. Kill everything, but do not leave the sub-levels, not yet. Let Damocles hang. Let them lose their vaunted intelligence to their baser emotions. Ha, ha, heh, heh, heh!"

And they obeyed, stirring from their hidden rest all throughout the gloom of the Noah’s workings.

*     *     *     *     *

Try it…

"What the hell is going on?" demanded Gerard, trying to bellow over the noise and chaos of the sudden and conflicting reports from all over the Operations Room.

"They’re back," said Mother Brain simply.

*     *     *     *     *

(ii)

Jean-Paul’s gun followed the edge of the opening elevator door, tracking across the room. Daniel stood just behind him, his own gun gripped in nervous hands.

It was a circular metal room, with nine Wrens in recessed units around the wall. Seven had human heads, two the boyish Palman versions, incongruous on their bulky physiques. The far side was taken up with a metal door, probably the first of at least three between the room and the five massive engines and all their radiation. Even now, with the engines all but idle, the residue was lethal. The engines had pushed the Noah at speeds once thought impossible, and it was a small price to pay for that.

There were no shadows under the soft white light, and no movement.

Jean-Paul crept forward, still cautious. They had left the Browrens guarding the other end of the elevator. It was a special purpose one, and only came here.

Daniel followed Jean-Paul out, glancing to the wall either side of the elevator door. Nothing.

"I think it’s clear," said Jean-Paul then. "Do you have the activation codes for the Wrens?"

Daniel walked towards the closest. "No, but they should be active…"

"We are active," it said, and stepped from its alcove. Daniel jumped back.

"You are Jean-Paul Grey," said another, stepping out near Jean-Paul.

"Yes," he said, turning.

"You are wanted for questioning regarding seditious acts of treason against Mother Brain and the process of the Restoration." Around the room, the remaining seven Wrens each stepped forward. One moved towards to the elevator to block it.

Jean-Paul raised his gun, but he was surrounded, and killing any one target would do nothing.

"Override them, Daniel." There was the tightness of controlled panic in his voice.

"I don’t have the codes!" Daniel’s head was twisting from side to side, trying to watch all the Wrens at once. "Wrens are sophisticated enough to have free will. They can go against their orders if circumstances permit. That’s what I was - ack!"

A Wren had stepped up to him from behind, pinning his arms to his side and lifting him off the ground. His gun fell from his shoulder, but the strap caught where his arm was being pressed against his torso, leaving the weapon banging against Daniel’s knee.

Jean-Paul whirled around and started backing into the room’s centre.

"What circumstances?" asked the one holding Daniel.

"The Commander is dead!" shouted Jean-Paul. "Noah has been taken over by aliens!"

"You are incorrect." A Wren came up behind Jean-Paul and deftly unplugged his gauss rifle from the backpack power source. Jean-Paul turned and raised his gun like a club. The loose cable whipped in symphony with the motion.

"He’s right," said Daniel, wincing at the pain of the Wren’s grip. "We’ve been fighting the things."

"Commander Gerard is aware of their presence, but as yet they are confined to the sub-levels."

Wrens either side of Jean-Paul clamped his arms to his sides with their pneumatic hands. Another grabbed his gun and wrenched it away from him.

"Mother Brain has been subverted by the aliens!" shouted Daniel desperatly. "We have evidence!"

Everything stopped.

Something within Daniel realised that the Wrens had stopped because they had them both disarmed and incapacitated, but one of them, a human headed one, turned to look at him in that moment, as if the revelation had struck them with some faint ring of truth.

"Where?" it said.

"I have it on disk," said Jean-Paul quickly, before Daniel could answer. There was a pause, and then the Wrens holding him released him and took a single small step back. If it didn’t work, the most capable of them was now free. As much good as it would do, Daniel thought. Believe it, he willed the Wrens, believe.

"Give it to me," said the one on Jean-Paul’s left. He fished it from his belt, and handed it over. The Wren took it without a pause and slotted it into a slot just behind its left shoulder. Daniel hadn’t even known that they had a ‘reader.

The room was silent for a second as the Nurvus data was analysed. Then the Wren ejected it, and gave it back to Jean-Paul. The one holding Daniel put him down, and he felt a wave of relief.

"We will let you go," said the one which had scanned the disk, "but we cannot help you. There is some doubt over this data. Other explanations are possible, and the data may be false. We will not go against Mother Brain on its strength alone."

Daniel let out a long breath, shaken at the unexpected changes of fortune, but he stepped up to it, rubbing the bruises on his arms, trying to arrange a sentence from his thoughts.

"We don’t want you to," he told it. "We don’t. We’re going to the Commander with this, and with luck he’ll deactivate Mother Brain. What we need is someone to take over planetary system control when that happens."

"We are not sophisticated enough to take over Mother Brain’s terraforming duties."

Daniel turned to the Wren who had spoken.

"You don’t have to. The terraforming is finished. You just have to keep the climate going. Can you do that?"

"Yes."

Daniel licked his lips, looking into the inscrutable eyes of the droid.

"Will you?" he asked.

A human would have considered for a few seconds, but the Wren was far faster and less emotional than an organic brain. Its answer was immediate.

"Yes, if that is all there is." Daniel felt an incredible relief. Of everything, this was somehow the most important to him. The Natives had already lost so much and now, with luck, they would be isolated from their problems, safe from the… creature beneath Mother Brain.

The Wren continued straight on. "Little harm is likely to result from undertaking that task if the data is wrong, and we must accept the high probability that it is correct. However, you will leave with us so you cannot sabotage the engines."

"Fine. Here." Daniel gave him the disk with the orders they had worked out for them. "That has the details, but you guys - are you all going?"

"With the current state of the sub-levels, it would be wise, but at least one of us must stay here."

"Okay, good. Just stick together. It is imperative that one of you get through, two for preference, but one should be enough."

"We understand. We will do everything possible to insure one of us gets through."

A cabinet hissed open on one wall, and Daniel saw a rack of weapons within. More paranoia over the Espers, he supposed, but the guns had no grip, and no trigger.

Of course, the Wrens were the versatile ones…

Each Wren twisted its right arm off with an uncomfortable crack of releasing catches, slinging them from their waists. They then picked up one of the energy weapons, clicking them into place where they had a forearm moments before. Daniel heard each whine faintly as the capacitors charged from the Wrens’ internal power supplies, and lights advanced down their lengths, ending with a green ‘ready’ signal.

The last of them to arm itself walked up to Jean-Paul and Daniel when it was done. It was a human faced one, and, Daniel thought, the one they had given the orders to.

"We will not fight humans or Mother Brain’s droids," it said, "but we will gladly destroy the aliens. I am Aurren, the designated spokesperson and leader," - it swung its gun arm up to rest in its left hand - "and we are ready."

*     *     *     *     *

(iii)

Aurren raised his hand, motioning a stop. Everyone immediately flattened against the nearest wall. Daniel hunched down into the piping, trying to dig in with his shoulder blades, his gun a shield across his chest.

They stayed there in silence for long minutes, and then Aurren motioned they could move back out. Whatever he had detected had moved away. Daniel felt overwhelming relief. He didn’t want to go back into - no, he couldn’t face combat again. Only after the last battle had he realised the danger. They had been magic users, versatile and powerful. They could have all died. Daniel had thrown himself into it somehow on automatic. The threat and fear was too real, and it had hit him afterwards. With electrical circuits, there was him versus immutable physics. The enemy here was unpredictable and out of his control.

Daniel didn’t want to die.

So far, they had avoided three groups of… somethings. Daniel took some hope from that. Maybe they could get through without another firefight.

Jean-Paul fell in alongside Daniel.

"What’re our options?" he asked quietly.

They were moving south and upwards, towards the shuttle bays. The droids were spread equally front and behind, the Wrens included for their sensor coverage. They would split up only when they absolutely had to. For now, they were all heading in the same direction.

"We should try for the Commander if we can," Daniel whispered after a moment’s thought.

"We’d never make it without the Wrens."

Daniel shook his head, lamenting nothing but bad options.

"Then it’s Mother Brain," he said. "We’ll have to shut her down somehow."

"But if the shift is fighting these creatures, that would put them at a disadvantage. No central control for the droids."

"She’s on their side anyway."

"But how much? You said yourself that she has to believe she’s in the right. I doubt she’d let all the colonists die. I doubt they could make her."

"Then her corrupter is the last option, and I really think it’s a bad one. Those wizards were throwing enough voltage to crack ceramic. The Corrupter has got to be more powerful than that."

"The Browren was only leaking smoke from the joints."

"Still not good. Even that stuff would have a pretty substantial breakdown voltage. Any insulator does. That’s the point."

"There has to be -"

Aurren raised his hand again, and they froze.

Daniel sidled into the shadow of the wall. Jean-Paul did the same on the other side. They waited like that, silent but for their breathing.

"They are coming this way," said Aurren suddenly. "Multiple signals from directly ahead. Range one hundred metres."

Daniel’s chest contracted around his heart, as his gun raised itself on puppet strings. Jean-Paul pulled up, his eyes darting and alert.

"Move back," he said, and then raised his voice. "Move back! Move, move, move!"

Daniel did so, flanked by two Browrens. Two of the Wrens moved to the fore, and began to walk backwards steadily, gun-arms extended to the threat. Jean-Paul turned away from them and began to run.

"Come on!" he called to Daniel.

Part of Daniel wanted to run, and part of him couldn’t remove his eyes from the shadows, but Jean-Paul yanked him as he passed, turning him around, and action took over.

God, god, god, god.

A side passage they had passed appeared from the darkness ahead of them, and Jean-Paul yelled for the lead Browrens to take it. As Daniel took the corner, going wide from speed, and bouncing from the wall, he heard the kettle hiss sound of energy weapons opening up behind.

"They’re on us!" yelled Jean-Paul.

Daniel risked a look, and saw light spilling around the corner, flicking in fire and lightning colours. A boom echoed hollowly in time with a surge of orange light. Spinning black pieces, like torn tire rubber, scattered past the entrance, and the light died.

God. The Wrens.

Daniel added extra energy to his run, as two Browrens halted and turned to provide cover for their flight. He was breathing hard, beginning to stagger. God, he couldn’t stop, he couldn’t fall.

"Come on!"

Daniel looked up to see Jean-Paul sliding a pressure door across the passage width, pushing it manually. Daniel turned sideways and slid through, collapsing on the other side, as the door thudded closed.

Daniel looked up, and around.

They were in a control room for something. Gauges and readouts lined the walls, most shifting rapidly over a narrow range. Some form of pressure, or an occilating current. There was no other visible exit, but the room was large, and machinery blocked much of his view.

They had two Browrens and six Wrens left, and they had arranged themselves to fire at anything coming through the door.

Jean-Paul stuck his fingers in a ridge on the door, and started pulling it back. Gunfire erupted outside. Daniel scrambled up.

"Christ!" he yelled. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Shut up!" Jean-Paul’s teeth were gritted, and the door opened about ten centimetres. As Daniel watched he pulled it back another ten, and Jean-Paul let it go.

"Find a way out!" he called. He turned his gun on its side, slotted the barrel through the door, shut his eyes, and opened up with rapid fire. He was looking down the barrel of his gun, Daniel knew, through a digital camera at its front. It was a standard borg trick.

"Get on the door," he ordered a Wren on inspiration. "Get ready to close it when he needs it." Daniel ran to the far end of the room, looking for some form of exit. There was another door in one corner, and open. The passage beyond looked empty. He ran back.

"There’s a door in the far corner!" he yelled in Jean-Paul’s ear. "It’s clear! Let’s go!" Daniel felt a burst of warm air from somewhere as he turned around.

It took up Daniel’s entire world.

It was huge, much larger than a man, and had a strangely shaped humanoid form draped with blue robes. A metal symbol was attached to the front, like a twisted religious symbol, and a metal mask was looking down on him.

Trails of evaporating energy were crawling over it.

Teleport, thought Daniel, and then, God, I’m dead.

He raised his gun in timeless motion, knowing he would never bring it up in time. The creatures long fingered hand casually pushed it aside, and the other reached for him, alight with flame.

The world erupted into sound, and Daniel fell backwards in surprise. A ghostly sphere leapt into being around the creature, flickering wildly in time with the noise. Jean-Paul whirled at the sound, and the Wren at the door clanged it shut. The creature began to turn around to face the threat behind it.

The thing’s shield exploded into cool sparks, and its head vanished in a spray of fluid. The creature collapsed, falling to its knees and then folding over them, revealing the droids behind it, standing in a haze of gunsmoke.

Daniel’s eyes flickered over a dozen formless points of movement, briefly thinking his eyes were affected by the flash of the beast’s head vaporising, but, no…

Shadows. "Shadows! It brought Shadows!"

Daniel backed up to the door, his eyes trying to hold on to one of the shapeless movements enough to track and fire. The droids were bunching up into a ring, firing bursts. Jean-Paul’s gun vwipped and hissed, cutting trails through the forming smoke. A heavy thud sounded from the door, shaking it.

"Daniel! This is not good! Think of something!"

Daniel almost said "Me?"

A shape materialised over by the left wall, and Daniel aimed and let loose. The creature hissed even as it was forming, and fell to the ground as it solidified. It was like the other one, only robed in green. Its blood was splashed on the metal behind it, looking brown and watery.

The green ones didn’t have shields, Daniel realised. Or maybe they just couldn’t teleport and shield at the same time.

The door boomed behind him, and he jumped. Gaia! Think, think, think of something, think.

Daniel saw a Shadow drop on to a Browren and bear it to the ground, tearing at it. The other remaining Browren let loose a volley, knocking the Shadow off, but not killing it. Daniel aimed a burst at the creature, but it sparked off the floor as it sprung away.

The door behind them jerked, sideways this time. They were opening it, and the swarm would be entering in just a few seconds...

Of course…

Daniel yanked Jean-Paul away from the door, and screamed in his ear.

"Shoot it! Shoot the door at full speed!"

Jean-Paul hesitated.

"Do it!"

The door clanged loudly and blossomed fire before Daniel had realised he had obeyed, but he flinched away, covering his face instinctively.

Pressure doors were capable of handling far more than a hyper-velocity slug, but it had been enough to buckle it. Just a bit.

The door grinded as the creatures tried to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. Daniel turned back to the melee, and sprayed a shadowy corner. A shriek had him bringing his gun back for another pass, but the recoil pushed it high. He cancelled the action, sighted on the darkest section, and…

It leapt at him, but he was already firing. The lump of darkness hit him, a dead weight, and he crashed to the ground beneath it. He experienced an intense moment of panic before he realised the thing was dead, but it still had him pinned. The view above him was of jumbled layers of shadow overlaying the room, confusing and surreal. Daniel tried to push the beast off, but one arm was trapped, and the other was not enough to shift the huge bulk.

It shifted, suddenly, and Daniel felt another surge of panic. A protruding part of the beast pressed itself into Daniel’s chest, and he suddenly preventing him from breathing. Survival panic took over, and Daniel trapped arm wrenched itself free, leaving the glove behind, and he began pushing desperately at the carcass, trying to free up his lungs. Daniel tried to gasp in some precious air…

…and did, as the shadow beast rolled off him.

He lay there for a bare minute, trying to catch his breath and coughing, looking up at the Browrens that had freed him. Then Jean-Paul came over and helped him up His cheek was bleeding from three parallel cuts - in spite of the protection of his helmet. Lines of drying red trailed back around his neck, and Daniel realised that he must have been on his back, pinned and then slashed.

"We have to go," Jean-Paul said, and, as if to punctuate his words, the pressure door grinded loudly, and Daniel heard the background sound of strained and breaking mechanics. Jean-Paul pulled at his arm, and Daniel went with it, turning towards the far door and breaking into a tired run.

The corridor outside was a metal grating suspended a foot above the floor, which was tangled with flexible tubes. The ceiling, too, was metal grid, allowing him to see up to the next floor.

Daniel grabbed Jean-Paul’s arm, pulling him to a stop and pointing to the ceiling.

"Up!" he yelled at him. Jean-Paul glanced at the ceiling, and then pushed Daniel back, angling his weapon. Daniel turned away.

The boom of the explosion was followed immediately by the sound of grating metal and a crash. When Daniel looked up a section of the overhead gantry had swung down, allowing them access. Jean-Paul ran and jumped, catching the edge and swinging himself over. One of the Wrens - and Daniel was suddenly aware that the droid numbers had fallen some more, but had no time to count - grabbed him and lifted him up to Jean-Paul who pulled him over the lip. Daniel got to his feet, and, suddenly remembering, ejected the half-empty clip from his gun and slotted in a new one. He didn’t want to be caught short.

The gantry suddenly twisted beneath his feet and Jean-Paul pushed him forward on to the next section. Daniel fell, but managed to land looking back the way he came, wondering what had happened.

There were just five Wrens left, Daniel now noted, and the two Browrens. One of the Browrens was climbing up, and it was its weight and the strength of its arms that had tilted the already damaged gantry. Daniel, turned back to face down the passage and scampered forward a little further, finding a shadow to wait in where he could watch for attackers, breathing heavily and concentrating on watching the shadows.

Jean-Paul came up beside him a few minutes later.

"You alright?"

Daniel’s voice was shaky as he replied.

"No." Then he laughed nervously. "Is it just me, or is this getting worse?"

"It’s getting worse," Jean-Paul confirmed without humour, motioning the droids behind to follow them out.

*     *     *     *     *

(iv)

Daniel felt sick as he walked. From nerves, from fear, from adrenalin overdose, the fight or flee response with no outlet. He felt cold, too, like a fever chill, but not quite so bad. He found himself shivering, but couldn’t stop himself. He could hold it down by forcing his muscles to obey him, but it would slip after a while. It tired him, and his legs were beginning to feel the weakness and the uncomfortable heat of too much walking, too much running.

Jean-Paul noticed, and gave him a flask from his belt, full of something Daniel could not identify, but which left him choking at the strength of it. He forced himself to take some more, and began to feel a little better. He walked sipping it for a while, until Jean-Paul took it back.

They made good progress for the next fifteen minutes, being warned off only one encounter by Aurren. Soon they would be required to split up. Daniel didn’t like the thought. Without the Wrens and only two Browrens…

Aurren signalled a stop, and Daniel hunkered down into a shadow, grateful for the rest, but tense.

Then Aurren started walking forward slowly, gun-arm warily extended, leaving the other droids behind. A minute later, he signalled them forward.

Daniel stayed with Jean-Paul as they approached, wondering at Aurren’s behaviour. If he had detected something, he should not have crept ahead, and certainly not alone.

It was a body, of an alien type they had not yet seen. It was huge, and bulky, like a wrestler, with dull grey skin and sunken eyes. Jean-Paul knelt down beside it, examining the deep cuts on its torso.

"Bladed weaponry," he said quietly, looking up into the passage. "Palmans."

"The Gaila prisoners," Daniel said, breathless with the sudden awful knowledge. Jean-Paul gave him a puzzled look.

"It has to be," Daniel told him with quiet conviction. "They’re after Mother Brain, and the Espers are the only ones who could have gotten them here." Then an expression of horror flashed over his face. "Oh, hell."

"What?"

"The Espers," Daniel repeated. "The Espers are the only ones who could’ve gotten them here. The only ones who could’ve brought the monsters here."

Jean-Paul’s mouth parted to speak, but he drew in a sudden breath of air instead, as he realised the same as Daniel.

"The Commander." His tone held leaden worry.

Daniel bit his lip, thinking.

"I can’t see him believing anything else," he said, shaking his head slowly. "Hell’s own wrath, it’ll be war. The war against the monsters, the war against the machines, we almost had a war against the Natives, and now we have a war against the Espers." I live on your fear. Daniel suddenly recalled the phrase, but from where he couldn’t say. "These bastards like war," he finished, feeling the cold truth of it surge through him as a chill.

Jean-Paul looked down the passage, and Daniel could guess his thoughts.

"You said yourself we’ll never make it," he told him, his voice shaky and uncertain. "Not through this."

"We have to try."

"No, we don’t. We can’t! We have to deal with Mother Brain."

Jean-Paul flicked his gaze back to Daniel. "We can leave her to the Palmans."

"The Palmans cannot succeed," said Aurren unexpectedly. Daniel glanced at him, and then fixed his eyes on Jean-Paul’s grey ones.

"Aurren’s right," said Daniel, trying to put some conviction in his tone. "I wish he weren’t, but he is. Mother Brain is built to handle the chaos of weather control. The variables required to hit even a moving target are a lot less complicated. She’s too precise, too fast, and she has weapons inside her neural core. The fight would last less than a second. They’re dead if we leave it to them."

"They’d have an Esper with them," Jean-Paul said tersely.

"The Espers and their powers are an unknown quantities," stated Aurren. "We cannot rely on them."

"The Commander could shut her down."

"If we get to him," Daniel reminded Jean-Paul.

Jean-Paul swore, then, the first measure of frustration, the first uncontrolled reaction Daniel had seen of him.

"We have to do something," Jean-Paul told them, and a hint of desperation was slipping in. "Can’t we help the Palmans? Deactivate Mother Brain’s weapons? Inhibit her, somehow?"

"No!" and Daniel snapped the word in the way of adults to children. "There’s no way, Jean-Paul! None."

"Wrong," said Aurren.

Daniel looked at the droid, frowning in sudden puzzled thought.

"How then?" asked Jean-Paul, but Daniel suddenly knew. It had been one of their options. Idiot!

"The coolant," he said, mentally kicking himself. "The coolant. If her ‘net overheats, it’ll degrade. She’ll lose processing power. It might slow her down, make her inaccurate. It might not, but it might. And if they fail, she’s still die, it’ll just take longer." He breathed in, organising his thoughts from the rush of realisation. Yes, it would work, maybe. "It’s the only way."

"Those are our options? Mother Brain or the Commander?"

"You said we would never make it to the upper levels. Shutting down Mother Brain would prevent the Commander from doing anything drastic. It buys time. We need time."

Jean-Paul paused, apparently thinking as he gazed down the length of the passage. His voice, when it came, brooked no argument.

"Shut down the coolant, Daniel. I’ll take the Commander."

"Don’t be stupid!" Daniel snapped.

Jean-Paul turned back, his face serious and determined.

"It works, Daniel. I can move faster than you, and I can use stealth. Guerilla tactics. Tried and trusted. It can be done."

"Can you do it?"

"It has a better chance than all of us going."

"Even without a Wren?"

Jean-Paul’s artificial eyes flickered with uncertainty.

"I’ll stay out of trouble," he promised.

"You think you’ll get the choice? This is not a good idea."

"It is. Trust me, Daniel. This is my field. I’ll get through okay. Cyborgs are supposed to be lone units. Snipers, hit and run. We’re built for it. Trust me."

Aurren spoke up. "The idea is tactically sound as Jean-Paul presents it. He is correct in his assessment of his chances and abilities, but I must warn of the additional risk to Daniel -" and he nodded to him in a strangely human gesture before looking squarely at Jean-Paul - "without your guidance. I suggest that you swap one Browren for one Wren, which would give Daniel the advantage of our sensor coverage and tactical knowledge without depleting either force. I volunteer," he finished without pausing.

Daniel felt the awful truth sink into his heart. He would be alone, and he would have to assume it was up to him as soon as they parted ways. Until now, Jean-Paul had carried the burden.

"This is not a good idea," he repeated, fear creeping in.

Jean-Paul just looked at Daniel, waiting.

"Oh, hell," said Daniel, defeated. "Why not? Go on," He waved down the passage, "get lost."

Jean-Paul stepped forward and gripped Daniel’s arm.

"Do what you have to," he said. Then he grinned, and it was the first Daniel had seen, and it looked genuine. "See you on the other side."

"Pessimist." Daniel smiled weakly, gripping back.

Jean-Paul let go, and turned away, moving into a jog immediately, and vanishing down the passage. Daniel watched him go, numb to the thought that he would not be back.

"We must leave," said Aurren at his ear, "and the other Wrens must part our company here, as we need to double back a little to reach the coolant systems."

Daniel nodded, but the Wrens were already walking away, taking one of the Browrens with them. Daniel felt horribly alone and bereft and lost in an alien world. It brought to mind the evening on the true alien world, which felt somehow the same, but pleasantly, not oppressively.

Personally, I find it hard not to believe in God, Alina had said.

"Vaya con dios," Daniel whispered to their retreating backs, a vain hope in a lost god, but of all of them, the Wrens had to get through. For the Natives.

The last in the line, one of the Palman models, turned briefly back towards him, but did not break stride.

"Gods are for the living," it said simply.

And then they were alone. One man, and two droids, lost in hell itself, alone against a god. Daniel felt the ice cavern of his unbelieving heart. How could it come to this? It felt like a dream, strange and alien, impossible, desperate, something that wasn’t real.

Daniel looked down at his map, but Aurren put its hand on his shoulder.

"I know the way," it said. "We must go, now."

*     *     *     *     *

Jean-Paul jogged, noting, as he always did, how odd it was to be doing so without the pounding beat of a heart sounding from within his chest. He breathed deeply but steadily, without panting. His heart moved his blood faster than a normal man’s, and he could absorb more oxygen from each breath. There was no strain, and there would not be. Not for a long time.

Jean-Paul didn’t really know where he was going, but heading south and up would get him out eventually. Occasionally he had to dodge around dead bodies. It seemed the Palmans were headed in the same direction. He lengthened his stride, hoping that they would have cleared the way, gambling that caution would not be necessary for a while.

His eyes were set to an overlayed selection of visual frequencies. The computer behind them would pick up anomalies from any of them, and switch the mode more fully. For now, it was like Jean-Paul was looking through layers of glass, infra-red over green image enhancement over greylight motion sensing… and, somewhere at the bottom, normal vision.

His heart whirred silently in his chest as he jogged onwards. He began to sweat, and his knees were beginning to feel warm, but he still wasn’t tired. Not yet.

Something flickered, and his sight changed to grey tones. A dark shadow blurred as the motion sensors followed it, leaping from the darkness, from shadow to shadow, towards him. Targeting information sprung up around it, and the shape was outlined in red. Jean-Paul raised his gun, watching the targeting cross move in symphony up from the bottom left of his vision and settle on the Shadow.

He didn’t even need to pull the trigger. The gun just fired when the cross was centred on the target, throwing the dark shape backward in a blossom of bright fire.

Jean-Paul kept running without even a look at the corpse, but he slowed some, expecting more Shadows. Maybe it was merely a survivor of a battle, but maybe there were more.

Another five minutes had him deviating from the path of dead left by the Palmans. From here on, he could expect stiffer resistance, although perhaps the enemy was concentrating on the Native group. Perhaps he would be lucky.

He slowed to a jog, more to slow the swinging of his arms than his pace - to allow his gun to move more quickly and freely should it be needed. The passage seemed a long one, and he settled into a steady rhythm, constantly glancing around for threats.

He heard them before he saw them: a single low grunt from around one corner of a T-junction that was the passage’s eventual end. Jean-Paul halted immediately, hunkering into cover against the wall and shifting his gun to cover the junction.

He waited, insuring that he glanced behind himself every now and then, checking. A drop of sweat fell onto his eyelash, and although his eyelid flicked it away automatically, Jean-Paul did not react. He just kept watching.

Something bellowed, and two forms charged from either side of the junction, abandoning the ambush. Jean-Paul’s eyes took a brief instant to settle on a mode, and found normal vision suitable, with a slight brightness and contrast adjustment, bringing their grey skins out of the darkness.

Wrestlers. Two. Fast.

Jean-Paul requested hyper-velocities from his weapon, and flicked two bullets into each. The first bullet launched hit too wide, tearing a wrestler’s meaty arm away at the shoulder. The second hit it in the chest on the same side, and the explosion tore it open, throwing the beast backwards. Jean-Paul spared it no glance. For the next few seconds, it was no threat either way. His eyes and weapon continued tracking over to the other one, and the second two shells launched silently. They punched open either side of its torso, spraying white ichor and steam from the roiling fire of the blasts. The creature fell backwards and the metal floor boomed as it landed. Jean-Paul glanced briefly at the other and found it had not moved.

Two targets down, but Jean-Paul stayed where he was, waiting for something else, not because he knew it was there, but because it was caution. A hot wind drifted across him from some distant source.

Then Jean-Paul crept forward, cautiously, debating which of the two directions he should check first when he reached the junction. He felt the wind again, blowing from the junction, and it halted him.

Wind. Wind was not normal. He switched to infrared and saw the thermal patterning of the air. It was too hot, and being driven forward in a billowing wave, as from an explosion. Magicians. It had to be. There was little to burn down here, no fuel. It had to be their magic.

Jean-Paul abandoned caution and darted forward to the junction, turning his head to look down the passage from where the wind came. His eyes immediately flicked themselves on to infrared, and he saw a wave of hot air billowing ahead a surge of boiling heat. Flame.

Flame, but faster than flame, burning across metal which provided it with no sustenance. His infrared was becoming swamped. His eyes cut the signal immediately, turning the passages black, but the enemy visible.

Jean-Paul stepped back from it, suddenly lost, unsure how to fight it.

It was fire, nothing but fire, a burst of flame, impossible and moving. The patterning of infrared indicated a humanoid shape within the flames. Jean-Paul aimed for the head, and fired. The bullet hit nothing, didn’t even seem to affect the creature.

And then it was upon him, and Jean-Paul had to dive back the way he had come to avoid it. He rolled, keeping his weapon to his chest to protect it, and came up in a crouch facing away from the junction. The wrong way.

An oven blast of air roared over him, and he spun awkwardly, still in a crouch. The flame creature had overshot the junction. Reprieve.

A screech from behind made him jump with its suddenness, but he moved on instinct, and heard a metal-sounding ricochet, saw the sparks erupt and fade from the floor where he had been. Whatever it was, it was fast, and gone.

Too fast…

There were too many things to react to, too many enemies to keep track off. Jean-Paul’s heart felt the panic, and responded, releasing a drug into Jean-Paul’s system to aid him. Jean-Paul felt suddenly warm, feverishly so, but the world slowed down around him.

Jean-Paul’s brain and perceptions started working at almost twice normal speed, slowing down the rest of the world. It was unnerving, and difficult to remember that his body still moved at the same speed, but Jean-Paul had trained with it.

An edge of darkness spun leisurely in the air, showing its runes as it pointed back at him and then sped forward. Even now, even with the world so slow, it sped.

Jean-Paul was already moving, his body slow and ponderous compared to his mind. The black shape hissed past him, and he drew his weapon up to follow it, turning, with all the time in the world to track it as it skidded on air and twisted around for another attack. A red outline sprung around it in Jean-Paul’s vision, marking it as a sword, but the gun was on target and firing before he could even wonder at it.

The explosion blossomed slowly, and he fired again, watching the second ball of fire form within the first and then merge with it. The sword screeched and spun away, clanging to the ground where it leapt around pathetically like a grounded fish. Its length was twisted and its runes dull and fading. Jean-Paul turned around, looking for the other threat.

Only three seconds had passed, and the fire was just coming back around the corner as he turned. It crackled slowly with a sound like firecrackers. Jean-Paul saw eyes flare briefly in the mass as it saw him, and it leapt, its flames waving slowly, almost hypnotically. Jean-Paul drew his gun across it, firing, and turned away from its approach. He came up against the wall, and, with dreamlike speed, continued tracking the flame beast as it passed. He heard every pffft of each bullet, even in rapid fire, felt the slow hot wind of the creature’s wake, saw the flame formed claws pass.

He pushed off from the wall, and floated through his leap, landing behind the creature as it continued past. Bullets apparently did no good. His glance went to the pipe-layered wall. His infrared vision responded to his immediate request, and adjusted itself so he could see the temperatures of the pipes. He aimed for the coldest, his arms moving frustratingly slow as the creature turned in the passage and made to leap again.

His gun fired in its slow, silent way, and the pipe burst. Jean-Paul saw a slowly expanding crystal flower before what little cohesion and surface tension it had was lost, and it became a drifting plume of water.

It was too late for the creature to cancel its jump. Jean-Paul might have, his perceptions speeded as they were, but the flame beast could not. It fell through the water spray in a massive burst of steam and it roared like a forest fire, collapsing to the floor in a dimming whirl of flame.

Jean-Paul looked around for further threats, and saw none. He walked up to the junction in a drifting moonwalk and also checked that. He could see and hear nothing, from either direction.

Jean-Paul applied the counter drug, and felt time return to him even as his stomach cramped with the drug’s brief and painful side effect. He glanced once more at the fire creature. It had faded into a few spots of diminishing fire beneath the water, and Jean-Paul turned away from it and started jogging again, ignoring the delicate feel of his stomach from the counter-drug.

A black robed shape stepped from the shadows ahead and turned to face him, its head tilted curiously. Jean-Paul raised his gun again. It didn’t react as he brought it to bear, and instinct screamed warnings at him. He turned, cancelling his attack with a sudden flash of fear, and saw a dark shape glowing with electric runes, briefly wondering why he had not heard it...

Perhaps with the drug still active in his system, he may of heard in time the whisked air noise of its sudden spin from the shadows, the metal on metal screech of its arrow straight flight, the tearing noise of air parting before it. Perhaps it would not have hit.

But Jean-Paul only had time to begin his turn before the black metal sword, alight with flaming runes it had kept dimmed in the shadows, punched through his ceramic shell, with a echoing crack. It tore through his back and out just below his rib cage in a burst of incredible pain which left him no breath even to cry out.

He fell, and time seemed to slow again as the distant floor tilted towards him. Nothing moved to stop him, not a knee nor an arm. Nothing worked, and all he could do it watch the floor and then feel it crack into his cheek and arm, mere candles in a supernova of pain.

The sword drew itself out, twisting as it did so, and Jean-Paul let out a long hollow scream of pain. The sword hovered for a brief moment and then winged its way down the passage, trailing faint fire from its runic lights.

Jean-Paul felt a presence stand before him, and saw robes, black as night settling before his face.

"One down," said a voice. "One… to go. Heh, heh, heh."

And warm air stirred as it teleported away.

Daniel…

*     *     *     *     *

(v)

Daniel walked, watching the passage rock in time with his step.

The sub-levels were empty and endless. They had gone up another level, and Daniel had half hoped to have met someone, some of the security forces, but the corridors were long and unpopulated. There was only Aurren who walked in front and the Browren who walked behind.

Where was everybody? Daniel wondered. Were they alive? Were he and Jean-Paul the only humans left? It seemed so. For so long, Chris and Jean-Paul had been his only companions, his only life. Everything else was distant and strange, dreamlike.

He wondered what the time was, and glanced at his watch. They had been on board the Noah for three and a half hours. They had left Jean-Paul twenty minutes previously. Only Aurren had saved them from meeting the enemy in that time.

Daniel’s gun was heavy and comforting in his hands, but alien. It still felt alien.

Aurren stopped, and Daniel’s heart jumped, but he found a shadow and crouched down in it. Aurren made another motion of his hand, and Daniel was swamped with coldness.

Run, it had indicated.

Aurren was already moving forward, and Daniel started running, but he didn’t know where he was, really, let alone where he was going. He followed Aurren, hearing the heavy tread of the Browren behind.

Aurren stopped, having reached a T-junction. He turned to face right, and indicated Daniel should go the other way. Aurren raised his gun-arm, and bright energy sprung forth, lighting the passage in a deep red.

Daniel didn’t even look to the right, but skidded left and pushed off from the wall, chilled by the realisation that Aurren was now lost to him. He risked a look over his shoulder.

Aurren was jogging backwards, firing at a wave of encroaching darkness, supported by the hammer noise of the Browren’s weapon. Daniel felt relief that he hadn’t been abandoned, and turned back to concentrate on running.

Something walked from out of the shadows ahead of him.

Daniel skidded, in treacle, and brought his gun up. The thing laughed at him, slowly and mockingly, still stepping to block his way. Its eyes burned with pulsing fire behind its gas mask lenses.

They were all going to die, Daniel then knew, somehow. They were going to die!

It was robed in grey, this one, and its hand was glowing like lava, the bones black and visible in amongst the hot light. Aurren’s gun behind him flooded the passage with the same shade, and the creature raised a hand in a slow motion, dragging raw fire from the air.

Daniel fell sideways.

A blaze of bright fury roared past him, and Daniel heard an explosion, felt a flash. He raised his gun again, and aimed at the magician. Its eyes were alight with fiery joy. Its hand burnt with an orange flame now, and it extended it, palm flat towards him.

Daniel pulled his gun back against his shoulder and fired, teeth clenched. He resisted he recoil as the shells scattered sparks from the creature’s silvery shield, keeping the gun on target as the mage staggered back, its arm raised to ward away the shells. Aurren chose that moment to turn and fire as well. The lance of energy paused at the barrier, but surged through and transfixed the mage before cutting out with a flash which left the robed figure black and smoking, falling slowly to the ground amidst the dying sparks of its magical protection.

Daniel breathed.

"Get up," said Aurren. "They’re still coming."

Daniel scrambled up, and moved awkwardly into a run. Dimly, he was aware that the Browren was absent, but he could hear it firing somewhere behind them. Aurren pointed to a recessed door on the right, and Daniel slapped the panel that would open it. The door slid aside, revealing a large room, a tangle of pipes around a huge metal mechanics, dark and grey. The air was humming and warm, the side effects of refrigeration, and Daniel felt an elated surge, quickly abandoned to panic.

It was the coolant systems, but it was nothing like the coolant systems Seed had. It serviced more than his did. Coolant was required by more systems on a space ship.

Daniel pushed back the panic, forcing himself to stay calm, to categorise the bits he could recognise. There wasn’t much in the tangle of pipes and mechanisms that seemed familiar, but, he remembered, the laws were the same as those that constrained electricity. You just added gravity.

Aurren stayed at the door, looking back down the passage, using the recess as cover.

An old electronic engineering lecturer of Daniel’s had once made the water/electricity comparison. Electrical voltage was liquid volume, current was current, and every law which applied to the flow of electricity was the same as those which applied to hydraulics. Capacitors were tanks, wire was pipes, resistors narrower sections, pumps were batteries. It had fascinated Daniel at the time, and he was amazed at the breadth of similarity between the sciences. Gravity was one difference, the other was that electricity generated magnetism as it travelled through a conductor and water did not. Even the lethal component was the same: current in both cases did the damage, and was the killer of the unwary.

Just a big electrical circuit…

But much of the system was hidden, or tangled in amongst other pipes. A circuit board was flat and neatly laid out. Neural nets used three-dimensional circuitry, but they were designed by computers and unfathomable in their complexity by the human mind. This was confusing, outside his scope.

Daniel looked over the system, trying to find a starting point, a source or an inlet, or something he could recognise, categorise, use. Time was running out. There was no way he could destroy a pipe, not without explosives, or…

An energy weapon. Maybe.

Daniel turned, not noticing the slight movement of the warm air around him as he did so.

"Aurren!" he called. "I need your gun!"

Aurren turned, and brought his gun around, and Daniel suddenly remembered that Aurren said he would not go directly against Mother Brain. Would this count? He prayed not.

Aurren started running and raised his gun to point at Daniel. He could see straight down the barrel and numbly realised that meant that Aurren was aiming for his head. Unbelieving shock froze him for a fragment of time, but realisation followed, and he made himself fall down.

Aurren fired, and something roared from behind Daniel. A peripheral grey shape sprung with surprising speed, leaping over Daniel, aiming for Aurren.

Daniel saw it as it passed over him. A wrestler, bigger and bulkier than Aurren. Daniel rolled out from under its jump instinctively, trying to bring his gun out from under himself. Rough cloth brushed his face.

"Too late," hissed a voice above him. "Far too late. I’m here, now. Heh, hah, hah!"

Daniel tried to bring his gun up to point at the thing, but there was no give in the strap. He was still lying on the strap. The magician casually waved its hand, and the gun was torn out from under Daniel, almost dislocating his arm when the strap ripped away from it. He cried out with the shock and pain of it, and rolled over on to his front, moaning. Behind him, the magician made a complicated motion of its hands, and Daniel saw the gun fall to pieces in mid-air. He flinched away on instinct as the shell in the chamber exploded brightly. The pieces of the gun clattered noisily to the floor. Beyond them…

The wrestler had picked up Aurren and now threw him against the wall. Daniel winced at the sound, but Aurren just rolled to his feet and tried to bring his gun to bear. The wrestler was too fast, though, knocking that arm aside, and pounding Aurren’s head with a massive fist. Daniel struggled to his feet, wondering how to help, but his body was suddenly yanked into the air, and he hung there, spread-eagled, struggling against invisible bonds.

"Heh, heh, heh. You will stay right here, little mortal." And the magician stood next to Daniel, a dark shape in his peripheral vision, apparently watching the combat.

The wrestler had Aurren pressed against the wall, a meaty hand clamped around his neck, the other holding the gun away from it. Aurren was trying to pull at its fingers, but it was just too strong. The wrestler grinned a sharp-toothed grin and hissed vapour over Aurren.

Aurren abandoned his attempt to free his gun and swiped at the beast with hooked fingers, aiming for its eyes. Daniel did not see them connect, but the creature bellowed and hauled Aurren around to slam him into the floor. Aurren’s gun was freed by the motion, and he brought it around.

A heavy foot smashed down on to the gun arm, smashing it against the floor with a brief blast of heat and light as the capacitors discharged. The creature fell back from the surge, crying piteously, its leg smoking.

Aurren rolled to his feet and moved in close, slamming the sharp remains of his weapon into the creature. It howled as another capacitor died, flaring into its chest. It charged then, grabbing Aurren in a bear hug and bearing him to the ground with a boom. One foot smashed down on Aurren’s wrist, pinning it, and one arm grabbed Aurren’s gun. It raised its spare fist and slammed it into Aurren’s head, tearing some of the artificial skin.

Again, and this time one eye was shattered. Aurren struggled, but the weight of the creature was too much even for him.

Again, and Aurren’s cheek caved in, glittering metal in amongst the skin fragments.

Again, and his jaw was broken, listing.

Daniel closed his eyes, unable to turn away, and knowing what Aurren would do next. What he would have to do, for there were no other options.

The wrestler raised its fist again, and swung it down.

Aurren exploded.

His power core was in his stomach, and the explosion ripped upward straight into the wrestler, driving shrapnel and radioactive fire into its torso. The explosion then expanded, leaping outwards in a flash to cover the two of them in boiling energy. Daniel felt the strobe-like blast of heat, felt some shrapnel sting his cheek, and a wave of heated air, like a desert wind, quickly faded.

"Whoops," said the wizard by his ear.

Daniel opened his eyes, and saw that the wrestler was dead, its chest a blackened hole. Pieces of Aurren lay scattered around, but nothing Daniel could recognise. Daniel was suddenly spun in the air disorientating him, and was then slammed back against the burnt wall, losing his breath in a whoosh, and being pressed there by the kinetic magic of the wizard.

It walked slowly up to him, skirting the body of the wrestler with the air of someone avoiding a puddle. It regarded him hanging there for long moments, then its hand shot up and seized Daniel’s chin. The mage twisted it, painfully forcing Daniel to turn his head sideways.

It leant forward, slowly, as if to listen to Daniel’s quick and shallow breaths. A whimper escaped him, squeezed out involuntarily from his constricted chest.

The creature breathed softly under its metal mask, and then it spoke, quietly, whispering into his ear like it was the most precious of secrets.

"Your cause is lost," it hissed gently. "Your comrade is dead."

Daniel’s eyes fell closed with hopeless despair. Jean-Paul, dead? No hope, then. No rescue. Just death. He felt sudden tears burning in his eyes, helpless fearful ones. Oh, god…

"But you…" the creature added thoughtfully. "We may yet have some use for you."

And then the mage released his chin, and giggled, without humour, but with an insane satisfaction, like a madman torturing a rabbit. Daniel felt weak with the reprieve. His neck was trembling with the rest of him, but he lifted his head and looked.

It was subtly unlike the other magicians. It was taller, thinner, although still bulky in their strange misplaced, inhuman way. Its robe was as black as coal, the first of that colour Daniel had seen. Its twisted religious symbol, silver and bright against the sable robe caught Daniel’s eye. The robe, the symbol, even the mask. In an alien way, it looked like it was…

…a priest. A priest from another world.

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