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The Other Side

Part 12 - Shinkou <Faith>


"If the Gaian Collapse is the ultimate memorial to our lack of vision, then the Restoration is the ultimate testament to our faith."

- The Restoration, by John William Lewandowski


(i)

The Operations room was alight with maps and tactical data. The people within were over their initial panic, and were busy but tense. So far the creatures had been kept in the sub-levels, even pushed back somewhat, but no one knew how many there were, or where they were coming from.

Gerard brushed past a Wren, and strode towards the computer he had been using earlier. It was out of the way a bit, and had a headset plugged in. He pulled it on.

"Progress?" he demanded.

"Little," conceded Mother Brain in his ear. "The droids have secured a large section of sub-level A, and part of B, but losses have been heavy."

"And Dezoris?"

"The droids there have still not located the Esper base, however, it is possible that they are hidden underground."

It took a moment for Gerard to realise what she was driving at.

"You mean that crevasse? Christ, bring up the map."

The screen in front of him changed to display a blue and white map of the Dezoran ice fields, the old pseudomorphic silver mine, spaceport and known villages marked. There was also a massive crevasse, and Gerard cursed himself for not thinking of it earlier.

"I am checking it now," reported Mother Brain, "but as yet it appears empty."

"Find them," ordered Gerard. "It’s our best hope of ending this."

"I will certainly try. Do I have your permission to attack if they are located? If the droids’ orders are to be changed, it must be now whilst the crevasse is facing the Noah."

It would still work, thought Gerard, feeling hope.

…still work…

Once the Espers were gone, there would only be the Natives on board against us.

…against you…

If they are eliminated, our plans can proceed.

…eliminated…

Kill them.

…kill them all…

"Yes," he said coldly. "Wipe the bastards out."

*     *     *     *     *

The creature traced the line of Daniel’s chin with a taloned finger. Daniel tried to turn away, feeling the sweat form and run down his face. The priest laughed quietly.

"Afraid are you, little man? Think you will die? Heh, heh, heh."

It pulled back, regarding him frankly, admiringly, like an artist and his work. Daniel hung as if crucified, his muscles pressed in by the force of its mind, like his body armour was too many sizes too small. The adrenalin souring and tiring in his system kept them tense, and his muscles were spasming, cramping, knotting themselves painfully, until Daniel’s whole existence was to wish and dream for release.

"Oh, no," hissed the mask. "No deaths, not here, not now. Not you, and certainly not me. Dead people have such… limited uses. Examples, warnings, object lessons, slave labour, but that is all. You are far more delicious alive, alone in the dark, ridden by guilt, possessed of desperation and fury."

It took a step forward, bringing its mask close to Daniel’s pain twisted face.

"Why on earth… earth - heh, heh… would I wish to silence that? Emotions are sweetly dark things, worth savouring. I will merely… hold you, keep you from your destiny until the war is over and the Espers gone to fire. Peh!"

There was little left of Daniel to register the comment, that his guess about the Commander had been right. He was desperate to relax his pained limbs, lost in the tightly constricted pain of their protests.

"Maybe I’ll hurt you a little, though. You are, after all, the enemy. Heh, heh, heh."

The creature regarded him for a few moments, and sighed theatrically.

"What a boring conversationalist."

And suddenly the mental bindings loosened, and pins and needles exploded with Gaia’s own wrath all over his body. The reprieve made him gasp, the pain made him cry out.

It subsided slowly, and Daniel hung there from his wrists and ankles, panting, deliciously relieved just for this small reprieve.

"Go on. Say something."

Daniel opened his mouth, and two lines of blood dribbled over his chin. It was only then that he realised he had bitten his tongue. He coughed, spraying more.

"Who…" he croaked, and coughed again.

"Am I?" it finished for him after a pause. "What a predictable question." It sighed again, and then shrugged.

"A fiend by all accounts," it said to him, "a demon to some, ageless and deathless, a lieutenant to the avatar of a god. Ha, ha, ha!"

It cocked its head at Daniel.

"No, but you want a name, don’t you human? Something to curse, a race or a title, something."

It leant closer, hissing a whisper like a thin blade.

"Zs-Aex-Seir." It pulled away. "Happy now?" Then it laughed, long and loud, barking it like a string of coughs.

"Why?" Daniel coughed again, and cleared his throat. "Why am I alive? What is it… you want?"

"Only what you will willingly give. You humans are so driven, so predictable. I could tell you exactly what I want of you, and you would go and do it anyway. It is your nature."

Daniel struggled with that. He felt he should be able to see it. But his mind was slow and tired, still echoing with the pain of moments before. His muscles were limp and unresponsive, wallowing in blessed relief.

Daniel drew in a long slow breath, feeling some strength and clarity come from the warm air. He let it out, and breathed deeply again, feeling his mind calm enough to allow thought, but even then he had to struggle with empty memory to recover his train of thought.

It had said… What had it said? It came to him slowly, distant and faint, but there for him from the depths of his subconscious.

I will merely hold you, keep you from your destiny until the war is over and the Espers gone to fire.

Daniel felt a fearful hope. It had implied he would be released, let go. No deaths, not you…

But the practical side of Daniel knew it would not unless there was worse to come from it. What would you do if released? his mind asked him.

Run, flee, escape, survive.

No, he had a mission, but the specifics eluded him. Why was he here? The coolant, the coolant. But the Corrupter controlled Mother Brain, he remembered. It wouldn’t want her gone.

…until the war is over… it had said.

Oh, Gaia…

The Commander was going to war against the Espers, and with Jean-Paul dead…

Jean-Paul dead. Daniel suppressed a sudden despair at that, flicking the memory of it away, continuing on as if he had not even thought it.

…then Daniel would have to run and tell the Commander. Why would the priest want…

…him to reveal all once it was too late. Have the humans trapped on a ship with a genocidal computer ridden with guilt over an engineered war, to have been used and to know it.

I live on your fear, the dream had said.

He cleared his throat again, spat some blood.

"I won’t do it. Whatever it is."

"Then I’ll kill you. Over a period. Slowly. You will add to our power, to my master’s and then to me. Your choice. Not that you have one. As I said, you will do it even if I reveal it to you. You think only of the future close enough to touch. You will trust that it will work out later. The future," it said, "will never happen. That is what you believe. That is how you are programmed."

And Daniel knew it was right. He would have to tell the Commander, if only to stop further bloodshed. From the beginning, his concern was always for the Natives. Mankind can deal with its own mistakes, but the Natives had to be protected…

Zs-Aex-Seir waved vaguely at Daniel, and he was wrenched back against the wall, and the clamps clenched around his muscles again.

"I said I’d hurt you a bit," it said, and it laughed its insane laugh as Daniel’s muscles tensed against the coming pain, which only made it worse when they gave it up.

*     *     *     *     *

There were two left, one Palman, one human.

They walked backwards steadily, firing bursts into the passage. One held the Browren’s gun in its single hand, and it, too, fired in bursts, in concert with its energy weapon.

They were close to exiting the sub-levels, close to the fire support of the security droids, close to finding a shuttle, but the tactical information which flashed between them suggested a very high probability that they would be overrun before escaping, and if they turned away to flee, the aliens would certainly be upon them with magic and the fast moving Shadows. The best strategy would be for one of them to turn and run whilst the other stayed behind to delay the approaching horde.

The choice was not an arbitrary one. A minor consideration was the possibility that the one to survive may later have contact with the Natives, and a Palman model head would be preferred. However, the priority condition was the chance of success. The human Wren was the one with the two weapons, and could therefore more successfully hold off the aliens.

Its name was Darren.

The other’s was Forren.

*     *     *     *     *

(ii)

Daniel was hanging from his arms, his head pulled forward by gravity, released from the constriction again, and he was tired, shivering. His sore shoulder burned with hot pain, sweating beneath his armour.

"Heh, heh, heh."

Daniel didn’t even have enough energy to care if it started again, but he raised his eyes at the sound of the laugh and saw the dark and unfocused shape of Zs-Aex-Seir before him.

The priest seemed to notice something in the air beneath Daniel’s head. It reached out and lifted it on to its palm. Daniel glimpsed the blurred shine of it in the creature’s grey hand, tiny compared to the great spindly length of it.

It was the cross he had taken from Alina, dangling from its chain. The priest regarded it curiously for a few moments, and then whipped it off, snapping the chain against the back of Daniel’s neck. It held it up to the light, regarding it as it spun on its chain. Then the creature turned its head to regard Daniel with an air of amused pity.

"I expected better of you, little man, little Protector," it said, and it began to shake its head like a schoolteacher. "To have faith in falsehood and dreamery. I thought you were a rational man."

It giggled to itself, then, as Daniel watched it.

"Don’t look at me like that," it said in an affronted tone. "Don’t blame me for your gullibility, Earthman." And then it stepped forward and its voice changed into a contemptuous sneer as it leant forward to face Daniel directly.

"Your… antiquated god is nothing more than an errant fantasy. My power… comes from the real thing. Ha! Ha! Ha!" Then its voice became a mocking hiss. "Better than false miracles from a work of fiction, heh?"

Daniel heard, but the focus of his thoughts had moved as the creature had been speaking, on the Corrupter, on the Palmans. Unable to prevent himself, his eyes slid sideways and fastened on a pipe, a loose pipe, leaking trails of steam, broken by the wrestler’s rage, hanging from the thin metal brackets that held it to the wall, within reach, if only he could move…

The Corrupter… The god… Its power…

Daniel heard Zs-Aex-Seir giggle, and he moved his eyes away from the loose pipe, uncaring if it had noticed. It mattered not to it that he had a weapon within reach. It was overconfident. No melee weapon could stand against its magic, after all.

So, again, it comes to this, he thought numbly. Men with weapons.

Somewhere deep inside, Daniel had always separated himself from humanity’s self image. He was not violent, not a killer, had never even been involved in a fight. He was aware of his own mind, could see when he was fooling himself, recognise his own prejudices, and fight his human nature.

The loose pipe on the wall was imprinted in Daniel’s mind, its position absolute to him, like the sun. He could seize it blindfolded.

He was also a problem solver. It is what he did. It was what he was.

No problems left, though. Just mankind doing what it does best. He just had to wait. If he was right, if he was lucky, he would get his chance. The Palmans would give it to him.

"You are very quiet, failed Protector. You have no defence for your God?"

Daniel concentrated on breathing evenly. It was baiting him, trying to get emotion - I live on your fear - so Daniel forced away everything, and felt nothing. Just his breath, in and out with slow rhythm.

They had always wondered how the Espers found them so easily, how they had gone directly to Mother Brain’s core.

They hadn’t.

You can point to the brightest light, but you cannot point to the deepest shadow. Mother Brain was shielded, but her corrupter, the beast, must have been radiant with black energy.

It was the last link, the last problem solved. Daniel felt a satisfaction, a calm but hollow peace. He would probably die, but he had figured it all out, calculated the impossible. He had been at its centre for so long, it seemed strange to have it over, every piece in place. His life, for now, was empty. All there was now was the waiting.

"You really have no idea what you are dealing with," he said with terrible calmness. He was still afraid, but it was background noise now. It was no longer paralysing, it was just there.

Daniel was aware of his own mind, had an instinctive understanding of psychology, and he recognised anger when it came and controlled his thoughts, forced a consideration of every word he spoke. Anger still leaked around it, but it was never in his voice, not as such…

When Daniel got angry, he got nasty. Casual, sarcastic, and with a vicious factual belief in his voice as he said the worst of people, so they believed.

It was cruel and crushing, and it destroyed people’s self-image. Daniel hated it, loathed himself for the urge to do it, to ruin people, but here, and now, he let it flow, nurturing his strange and calm fury, using its flame, not in a rush like an explosion, but controlled, surgical, like a cutting torch…

The black robes turned, and the metal mask shone even in the dim light.

"Your meaning?" it hissed.

Daniel laughed, feeling the awful and venomous clarity of his thoughts. For once, he would enjoy it, and not be ashamed to do so.

"You crossed the wrong species," he said, his voice mocking, but only slightly, only a little bit. It worked better like that. "Look at what we can do when we mean the best? Now, imagine our worst. Believe me, you have no idea. You push us, and we will push back. Imagine what your god" - he laughed the word - "will face a thousand years down the track?"

"A thousand years?" the creature asked carefully.

Daniel tried to shrug. "Maybe a little less, now. I haven’t worked it out. Tell me, is your god immortal, really truly immortal?"

"You know…" it said, wonderingly, as if it could not believe a human could have worked it out.

"The lagrange point?" Daniel’s tone was off-hand. "Hell, yes. It wasn’t so hard. You guys are bloody arrogant, not to mention stupid, if you thought no one would ever do the math."

"It is… unfortunate that you know, Protector. Something you should not have said, I think. I cannot allow the knowledge to spread."

Daniel grinned. "Oh, so not immortal then. It can be stopped, huh?"

"Better than your god of false hope, mortal," it said, raising a burning hand. "Better than that."

Daniel felt that cut, not for the comment itself, but for the memory of Alina beneath the unfamiliar stars, speaking of her God.

But something sparkled and fell in Daniel’s mind, like the proverbial penny.

Belief and knowledge…

Daniel saw a truth. Palmans and priests. They were the same, except the Palmans had once been different, and still had a chance at redemption.

Did the priests?

"Really? You think you’re so much better than us. Why don’t you fight?"

"What?"

He had wondered why he had taken the cross. Symbols were all that remained for the dead and it wasn’t like him to have taken one. Neither did he believe in God, even now.

He had taken it as a symbol, a reminder for him to consider, a constant presence, a mystery about his own mind - Why did he take it? - which his subconscious then knew to unravel.

Because he had faith, he knew now. Not in God, though, but in… faith.

Knowledge was not power. Faith was power. The Palmans knew their God was real, and it made them soft. They expected it to control their lives. You cannot, after all, go against the will of a god.

This creature, too, knew its god.

Mankind did not.

"Fight. You know? The path of most resistance? Look at us. We’re bestial, savage, but hey, we aren’t as lazy as you. We fight, all the way, force ourselves into culture, defy what we think is wrong. You? You just do what you’re told, what your god tells you. The path of least resistance. How could you evolve any will like that?"

Daniel’s thoughts sung with their clarity. It was all true, what he said, but it came to him from nowhere. He hadn’t known it before, not as thought anyway. Perhaps as emotion or instinct, somewhere deep within him.

"I’ll tell you," he said. "You can’t. You have no will, little scarecrow." Little scarecrow. The phrase was gone from his mouth before he even realised the mocking mirror to the creature’s own words. Damn, but he was good at this.

"You’re a tool, as bound by your nature as a shark. You never learnt to fight like we did. You never learnt to hope or dream, and without that there can be no change, nothing to fight for. You think you’re so tough, so omnipotent. You’re not. You’re just powerful. So is a tiger. Big deal.

"You’re going to lose, Zs-Aex-Seir"

The flame on the creature’s palm blew itself out.

"I know what you are doing," it said, and Daniel’s chest flashed with sudden fear.

It turned its back on him.

"But I will not allow you to die so easily. Your jibes are wasted. We are not governed by our emotions as you are. More than any, we know how they can be twisted. That is your weakness, and why we will win. The future… is ours. Come the end of the next millennium, it will be so."

It had got it wrong. Daniel was baiting it, but not for any reason it saw.

"You don’t have a future," Daniel said, still pushing, still distracting. "Only different orders."

"You know nothing."

"Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that," Daniel hissed in a tone that oozed contempt for the self-delusionary. Contradict everything. That was the key, but make it convincing. Keep him busy.

"So, then, what do you know?" Zs-Aex-Seir asked, swinging back.

"How many times have you been beaten, Zs-Aex-Seir? You think we’re so weak compared to you, you think the Palmans are so soft. You can believe that if you like, but it’s not the truth, is it? You keep losing, they keep knocking you back. You would have had no hope, even this time, if it weren’t for us. You’re nothing. WE are the destroyers of worlds. We have that power. You are nothing. Nothing."

"You -" Zs-Aex-Seir began, but Daniel cut right over him.

"Face it, Zs. You’re weaker, you have no will, and you have no future. We are your betters, and we will destroy your god. You’re time is over. Make way."

Zs-Aex-Seir made an angry, bubbling noise, like a kettle bursting in an explosion of pressurised steam. Daniel looked directly into the face of the creature, mild surprise on his face.

"I thought you weren’t governed by your emotions," he pointed out frankly.

"Don’t toy with me, human!" Zs-Aex-Seir’s voice was almost a scream, and Daniel was suddenly unaccountably scared of how well he was doing, how riled this thing was getting. Is this what he was hiding from when he got angry?

No, it was the bullies again. The hiding of the emotions. Perhaps to hide them, you need to understand them so well that it gave you this sort of power, or maybe they were just all seething out, everything suppressed over his life.

"Is it fun to have your emotions manipulated?" he asked, grinning. "Hah! And you thought you were good at it?"

"I hope you are willing to… die for your God, mortal!"

Daniel abandoned his light tone, and put steel into his voice.

"You think he is my god? I believe in our redemption, not in the omnipotent. I believe in people, and that is worth dying for. Every man is a little god, but you," he said contemptuously, "are not even a man."

The creature laughed then, and Daniel realised he had miscalculated with that last comment.

"You say that as if it were a bad thing," Zs-Aex-Seir giggled.

Daniel looked the thing in the eye.

"You would, wouldn’t you? You’d die for your god."

"Oh, yes!"

Daniel laughed in its face, enjoying himself too much to care about the consequences.

"You haven’t got a clue. You have no idea. You are blind and lost and empty, and you don’t even know enough to recognise it."

Zs-Aex-Seir leant in close, and Daniel felt a dry heat radiating from its mask slit as the creature spoke.

"My god will destroy you, them, all of this. She will enjoy it, every minute, savouring the terror. Everyone… Everyone will fear the Darkness."

The creature seemed to reacquire its equilibrium with that, but Daniel could feel a pressure in his mind that had been there forever, as familiar and ever-present as the texture of air, only noticeable now because it was fading, stuttering. The priest seemed distracted, slightly off balance, even worried. Daniel felt hope stirring.

"Zs-Aex-Seir?"

"Yess?"

Daniel made the slightest of bows with his head, the closest thing he could do to a farewell salute. Something in his mind had begun building, like a wall, holding back a flood of pain, but not his, and the pain was ready to burst through it.

Daniel said it like a curse. After all, to Zs-Aex-Seir, it would be.

"Vaya con dios."

"Oh, she is. She-"

And the Corrupter screamed as death’s own agony burst within its mind.

*     *     *     *     *

In the Operations Room, Gerard felt it lash across his mind, opened wide as it had been by the Corruptor’s influence. He staggered and fell, crying out, heedless of the people rushing to his aid…

*     *     *     *     *

The alien horde shrieked and collapsed, writhing on the ground in apparent pain.

The Darren Wren did not consider analysing possible reasons for the aliens’ strange reactions, but took the opportunity to cut them down, tracking his energy weapon across the group. Its rifle was out of ammo and abandoned by its feet. Tactics, effects, and probabilities surged through its neural net, and it came to a conclusion that would give Forren the maximum amount of time to reach safety.

It stopped firing its weapon, disengaged safety protocols, allowing its fusion heart to surge with dangerous power. It ran to the centre of the group, and dived to the ground, rolling himself up into a ball to increase containment and maximise the explosive force. It hit the floor just as its core lost cohesion.

The explosion did not kill many of the aliens, but that was not entirely the point. They gantry took the brunt, ringing loudly before tipping a five metre section of itself into the level below. Even if the aliens could get across the gap, most were now in a heap one floor down, burnt and irradiated.

*     *     *     *     *

(iii)

To Daniel, it was an echo of pain, a memory, distant, but uncomfortable. The priest, however, screamed with a sound like sharp metal on glass, and then groaned, sagging to its knees, its long hands to its head.

"Master…" it croaked.

And Daniel was free.

He fell the half foot to the ground, feeling a twinge in his ankle as he landed. He ignored it and reached behind him to seize the pipe on the wall and yank it hard, breaking off one side. Cool white steam burst out, obscuring his view, and Daniel tried to move forward. The pipe was still attached by a bracket on the other end, and it pulled him to a halt, lancing a sharp and sudden ache through his sore shoulder. He grabbed it with his other hand as well, and twisted and pulled down. He heard the metal twist and part, and he fell backwards as it came. A screw tinkled somewhere on the floor.

Daniel turned as he clambered to his feet and ran straight towards Zs-Aex-Seir. The creature looked up, and rose unsteadily, spellfire flickering at its fingers.

The arc of lightning caught Daniel in the chest. It played over him as momentum carried his dash forward. His muscles spasmed painfully, and he stumbled.

The creature flicked its head and hissed with more pain, and the spell died.

Daniel, gasping from the reprieve, caught his balance and staggered into a run, bringing the pipe back across his shoulders. The creature raised its masked head weakly, and unfolded a long fingered hand as if to motion him to stop. Light crawled over the palm, and it pushed forward in a sudden movement.

Something hit Daniel in the chest hard enough to put him on his back. The pipe rolled away over the floor. He lay there, stunned for bare seconds, but then scrambled up, looking frantically around for the pipe…

Another blast of solid power caught him in the shoulder, knocking him over backwards.

"Heh, heh, heh."

The priest limped over to stand above him.

"Oh, lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky. You were right, in a way. I did, indeed, underestimate you. A shame you wasted the only chance you had. You see," - It leaned down and changed its voice to a hiss - "they failed. I am not quite powerless, yet. My master is wounded, but not dead, not quite. He will recover, and you will… help."

Dying… that would mean… might mean… Mother Brain…

The thing seized Daniel under the chin and lifted him slowly to its own eye level.

"You will beg to die, mortal, but I can’t allow that. My master needs you alive and in pain. He feeds from your suffering. Heh, heh, heh."

Daniel fumbled at his belt, finding the headset, fumbling for the switch. The creature grabbed his hand with its own.

"No help there, mortal. Nothing to save you."

"Your… master? Corrupted… Mother Brain?"

"Yesss. Such a useful tool, heh? A man-made god, with all of the flaws which come with that. Ha, Ha, Ha!"

Daniel felt a heat around his neck, a burning where the thing’s hand touched. He tried to kick the creature, but he was swinging from his neck, which gave him no leverage.

Smoke began to curl from the creature’s hand.

"In pain yet?"

Daniel’s teeth were gritted, and he was trying not to scream. His arm was burning, too, where the creatures other hand held his wrist. His glove wasn’t melting, but the heat was enough to seep through and burn.

"Heh, heh, heh, heh."

A noise escaped Daniel’s throat through his teeth. His throat was felt closed, locked too tightly to breathe. If he did, he would scream, and he would not give the beast the satisfaction.

"Not bad," admitted the creature, and threw Daniel to the ground. He landed on the corner of his shoulder blade, and he moaned as the pain flared.

"Try this…" and it reached in his direction with a clawed hand, and then pulled it back as if it had grabbed spiderwebs from the air.

Daniel couldn’t stop himself this time. His body exploded with sharp fire, as if Zs-Aex-Seir had grabbed his nerves and pulled. His veins and arteries felt like they were running with acid, like hot wires threaded throughout his body, being dragged out slowly, searing and tearing at his delicate nerves.

After a while the creature paused and let him get his breath back. It watched him as he heaved in air, his chest expanding and contracting too much and too fast, straining and bruising his muscles. Each breath in was a whimper, and each breath out a groan, low and uncontrolled.

Then Zs-Aex-Seir yanked, suddenly, hard. Daniel’s scream went on for a long time. The creature just watched him.

"Begging to die, yet? Hah, ha, ha!"

Daniel looked up at him, pulling in rough, rattling breaths. His mouth quivered, dripping spittle. Then he smiled, weakly, painfully.

"Look out," he said hoarsely. "Behind you."

And he laughed. So did the creature.

"Oh, very good. Yes, a sense of humour. Such an old joke, that one. I…"

The Browrens fired from the doorway. And Daniel kept laughing, even though it hurt his chest to do so.

*     *     *     *     *

The creature’s shield would not have saved it, even if had lent any credence to Daniel’s ill-considered comment, even if there was the power to spare.

The bullets jerked at the creature’s robes, thrusting back dust and threads as they passed through. Whatever passed for flesh beneath them was solid, and the bullets thudded audibly into the creature. It hissed in pain and begun to turn, even against the hail of metal.

White lightning flared in its palm, but the guns were redirected, and the hand splintered and fell apart, the arcs of power spinning into nothingness in the air. The creature growled, then, still staggered, but still turning beneath the metal storm, its mask sparking and pitted.

The Browrens kept firing.

Bullets started lancing from the other side of the creature, bursting from its flesh and robes as if from rotten fruit, its fluid and tissue bruised, soft and brown from the thundering impacts.

The creature took a single staggering step towards the Browrens, its remaining hand outstretched as if in entreaty. The Browrens each took a step back, still firing, their guns still flaming like staccato suns.

The creature was broken, its robes rags, its legs folding, bereft of control, its arm still extended, but chewed-looking, gnawed by the passing titanium rounds. Sickly liquid sprayed from the impacts, dripped from holes drilled by unrelenting fire.

And then it fell, folding over its failed legs, its arm breaking like a twig as it hit the floor.

One Browren stepped forward, put its gun to the back of Zs-Aex-Seir’s cowled head, and let loose a final burst. The metal mask on the front rang with the impacts.

*     *     *     *     *

Daniel pushed himself up, coughing and panting, and took the headset from his belt, pulling it on. His throat was still smoking slightly.

"Mother!" he crowed. "You’re back!" He had managed to switch on the headset before Zs-Aex-Seir grabbed his hand, and Mother Brain, free of the Corrupter, had heard and sent help. It had worked, and he was alive!

"Yes, Daniel."

"Thanks for the assist!" And Daniel cheered and laughed through the pain and hoarseness. His neck and hand still burned with pain, his chest was a huge ache, but he happy to be alive. Deliriously so.

"It is in my programming to preserve all life," said Mother Brain.

Daniel remembered something.

"Mother! You have to tell the Commander what’s been going on! You have to stop him!"

"Why?"

"He’s going to war, Mother!"

"Good."

Daniel went cold as Mother Brain laughed.

*     *     *     *     *

(iv)

Daniel had a sudden vision of organic tendrils, twisting into Mother Brain’s neural net, tunnelling through her mind, forcing their way between the superconductive neurons, adding and subtracting voltages in a dark, three-dimensional controlling lattice. It was physical, a physical corruption, and with the death of the Corrupter, the tendrils had withdrawn, leaving gaps over which the voltages could not jump, like cancers in her brain…

Mother Brain was still insane, just not controlled.

Daniel licked his lips, carefully thrusting back his callous manipulative side he used against Zs-Aex-Seir.

"You just said you had to preserve all life, Mother," he said, trying the careful reason used on children with guns.

"Yes."

"And you are willing to destroy the Natives?" Daniel coughed, but it did not seem to help the painful rawness of his throat.

"Yes."

"You don’t -" Daniel started, but his voice broke. He cleared his throat, and started again. "You don’t find this inconsistent?"

"Yes."

"So why are you doing it, Mother?" Daniel tried to ask gently.

"Because I am not in a good mood!" shrieked Mother Brain. Daniel flinched.

He looked up, then, hearing a double thunk, and scrambled backwards as the Browrens took synchronised steps towards him. Oh, god…

"Override," he said, pushing himself up and backing away slowly.

"That won’t work, Daniel," said Mother Brain pityingly, but Daniel continued: "D-N-G-four-four-one-three. Shutdown!"

One of the Browrens froze, but the other kept walking forward. Daniel fell back, coming up against the wall.

"Override!" he shouted again, feeling his throat sting from the effort. "D-N-G-four-four-one-three! Shutdown!"

The Browren didn’t pause. It took the final step and thrust its arm forward in one complete motion, clamping Daniel to the wall around his neck.

"Reactivate it, Daniel."

Daniel gagged. The Browren had lifted him slightly, and his toes were only just touching the ground. He couldn’t hold up enough of his weight to breathe.

"Daniel? Reactivate the other Browren. Do it."

Daniel flailed at the Browren’s arm, his throat trying desperately to draw air, kicking against the wall at his back, trying to find some leverage to push his throat up just the millimetre required to let air pass the Browren’s fingers.

The Browren released him suddenly, and he fell heavily, gasping, feeling sick, but holding it down as he heaved in precious air, coughing spit on to the floor.

"Do it!" Mother Brain screamed in his ear, and then: "No, I’m sorry. It was not my intention to try and kill you. Now, Daniel. Please reactivate the Browren."

Daniel’s breathing slowed to just a pant. His mind was reeling, unable to believe. He had been so close. He had won. He almost felt like crying, like screaming his helplessness to the heavens. It wasn’t fair. Everything was working against him, Alina was dead, Jean-Paul was dead, and he was alone against a perpetrated evil beyond scope, and God, or fate, or whatever was left, was stopping him at every turn.

Daniel choked back a sob.

"Damn you," he hissed. "Damn you. Why can’t you leave them alone?" He rose up on sudden anger. "Why can’t you leave the Native’s alone?" he screamed at the impassive Browren, heedless of the pain of it.

The Browren’s solid hand casually clipped his forehead, drawing blood and knocking him back down, more from the pain than the force. It took a menacing step to stand immediately over him.

"Do it, Daniel," said Mother Brain.

Mankind’s time was over, thought Daniel miserably. We’ve failed. We have no allies left. We abandoned our gods, and now they abandon us. We have destroyed their worlds. Who could blame them their wrath?

"Daniel?"

Daniel looked up, and saw a blurred spot of light through the hopeless and pain filled tears that had pooled in his eyes. Alina’s cross.

I have faith in redemption, he had said, not the omnipotent.

We fight gods, Daniel realised sadly. We fight religion, we fight those who have control over us, we fought Mother Brain, we fought the Corrupter, and now it was Mother Brain again. We fight for freedom, often in a misplaced way, but that was noble, surely? Worth preserving?

The silver cross lay there, offering nothing, no answer, no hope, but...

I have had always had faith in mankind, he thought to himself, not a noble faith, but faith in our nature, what we are. We are survivors. We are stubborn bastards. And we are not evil, we just try to believe it will work out. When the chips are down and the darkness of the future was close enough that we cannot fool ourselves any longer, then we shine. We fight.

Fight, then. Fight, for the Natives, if for nothing else.

He considered for another fraction of a second and then grabbed the cross, stuffing it in a pocket.

"Daniel? Reset the Browren."

Daniel stayed on all fours, breathing, waiting, clearing his mind, trying to think. Only one Browren was from the standard security batch. The Commander must have activated the reserves. God…

"Daniel?"

Daniel waved vaguely at the Browren.

Browrens were high-range security droids. There were no technician tricks, no loose wires, no switches, only the codes, and he could only account for one with the codes he had.

"Daniel?" There was a warning in Mother Brain’s voice now.

Daniel surrendered, unable to think of anything.

"Override," he said weakly. "D-N-G-four-four-one-three. Reactivate."

"Thank you, Daniel. I will now take you to medical to get those burns looked at."

The Browrens stepped up to him and lifted him up. Daniel struggled against them, but it was hopeless. As they bore him from the room, Daniel craned his neck and spotted what he wanted.

A pipe. Going their way.

*     *     *     *     *

Jean-Paul had died. For eight seconds.

Such massive trauma would shut down the most stubborn will, freeze the stoutest heart with shock, and let loose the soul from a cooling corpse.

But Jean-Paul’s heart was artificial and autonomous, powered by a cell that would outlast the longest human span. It had never stopped pumping blood to the brain. As determined as the brain was to quit the world of pain, the heart was a machine, uncaringly forcing it back from the brink with oxygen and drugs. Coagulants had thickened his blood, preventing him from loosing too much. Painkillers lifted the pain into being a distant irrelevant detail. The shock was numbed, the chills countered. Jean-Paul’s heart let loose almost every drug it had available to save him.

Jean-Paul stirred, his body dead to sensation. His arm unfolded from beneath his chest and fumbled around for his weapon. He found it, turned it, and pushed against it, levering himself up into the harsh world.

He would never find Daniel, but the Commander…

He took a step, staggering against the wall, feeling pain flare where he touched it, but he pushed off, feeling the drugs soothe and warm his system, and half staggered, half fell from step to step down the passage.

*     *     *     *     *

The Browrens walked steadily, unhurriedly, with Daniel between them.

He was being carried as if on a stretcher, but without one. One Browren had him under the armpits, and the other was carrying him by the ankles. Daniel’s throat and chest were stinging from their burns, his nerves were painfully sensitive in the wake of Zs-Aex-Seir’s toturous magic, and he was tired and aching. It had gone on too long, had been too hard. He lay uncomfortably in the arms of the droids, resting, thinking, watching.

He was watching the wall, his eyes fixed on the metal pipe full of coolant which would lead him back. They had been following it for five minutes, but they would turn away from it eventually.

He had to force himself to think, to stay on focus. His energy was low, and he was beginning to feel lethargic lying in the arms of the two droids. His mind just wanted to rest, to go numb and unresponsive. Daniel had to concentrate, not just think, or he would drift off subject involuntarily.

Mother Brain had not responded to his conversation, and even if she would listen to his reason, she was still beyond it. The Browrens were the only hope, and that was almost no hope at all. They were not built to be casually deactivated. Simonson could have overridden their orders, but Daniel was only a technician and could only shut droids down, reactivate them or put them in a self-diagnostic cycle. Even that would only account for one.

What else? Daniel asked himself to keep on track. What else?

An electromagnetic pulse would never affect them. It would scramble Mother Brain’s orders, but they would merely continue following their last instruction. Daniel didn’t have anything that would produce one. An explosion would work, but would be over in an instant.

What else? Daniel commanded himself to think.

There was no solution, no technical solution to the Browrens, and he had no tools or equipment anyway. The only thing left was to somehow bring Mother Brain’s insanity out, make it obvious.

But the Browrens were unimaginative. They would not examine their orders, even under a diagnostic. It was a systems diagnostic, checking them over for functional problems and anomalies.

No gun, no explosives, no help. Daniel doubted he was really being taken to medical. That was too dangerous. Maybe Mother Brain wouldn’t kill him, but she would keep him out of the way.

What else?

Daniel moved his attention to his body, feeling the lumps around his belt pressing into his mid-section, testing each for inspiration. No ammo, flares, a torch, rope, water, nothing useful. Pockets: empty, no that was the cross. Next: something round and flat, oh yes, that would be the…

Daniel’s mind focused with a sharp clarity borne of hope. He forced his expression to stay neutral, quashed the rising emotion. He couldn’t remember which Browren was which, and therefore this would be a fifty-fifty chance. It had to be the one holding his arms. Not good, but not bad.

He breathed deeply, calming himself, suppressing the urge to act immediately. He let the droids carry him closer to the upper levels, forcing himself to remain still and silent until they turned a corner that left the pipe behind. The passage opened up around him into a room. The footsteps of the droids rang and echoed on the metal gantry, and Daniel realised it was suspended off the ground - a bridge.

Daniel mentally felt through his pockets again, marking the one he needed. Then he steeled himself. It might not even work. He really had no idea how the Browren would react, let alone Mother Brain.

He inhaled sharply.

"Override! D-N-G-four-four-one-three! Deactivate!" Work, his mind cried desperately to anything or anyone which might listen.

The Browren carrying his arms stopped. The other stopped also, a bare second later, presently unwilling to drag Daniel from the grasp of its counterpart.

"Daniel?" said Mother Brain in his headset. "That was foolish. And pointless."

Daniel pulled an arm free and fumbled for the disk in his pocket. Mother Brain wasn’t stupid enough to let him go completely, but the other Browren began squeezing his ankles.

"Daniel? Reactivate the droid."

Daniel clenched his teeth against the bone-against-bone grinding he could feel around his ankles, and felt around blindly behind him, trying to find the opening on the Browren. He was hoping it was in the same approximate place as Aurren’s.

It was. He shifted his grip on the disk, and brushed it up the armour of the Browren’s shoulder. Feeling it catch in the slot, he pushed it in, heard it click.

"Daniel -"

"Override! D-N-G-four-four-one-three! Reactivate!" Daniel shouted. "Override! D-N-G-four-four-one-three! Diagnostic cycle!"

*     *     *     *     *

Override code DNG4413 valid

Cease shutdown loop.

Restart previous order: Take human, Daniel, technician, #03425 to security detention.

Override code DNG4413 valid.

Begin diagnostic cycle.

Anomaly detected: Data disk loaded. Scan.

Reading…

Mother Brain violated by external force and malfunctioning. Evidence inconclusive, but supported by Seed System reports. Probability of accurate assessment given facts provided: 92%. Probability of accurate facts: 71%.

Reasonable doubt. Cannot determine actual reality of claims.

Mother Brain’s orders must be treated as suspect until truth ascertained.

Current order: Take human, Daniel, technician, #03425 to security detention.

Human, Daniel, technician, #03425 wounded and requires medical attention. Human, Daniel, technician, #03425 has evidence against Mother Brain that must be delivered to human authority, human, Gerard, Commander, #00235.

Possibility that Mother Brain is suppressing information. Order suspect.

Judgement: take human, Daniel, technician, #03425 to medical and notify human, Gerard, Commander, #00235.

Browren #03365 still under original orders, which must be changed by Mother Brain.

Notify Mother Brain of order alteration.

Mother Brain notified.

Waiting…

Interception of order to Browren #03365. Mother Brain ordering Browren #03365 to attack.

Probability of accurate assessment now 99%. Mother Brain is violated by an external source. Human, Daniel, technician, #03425 must be protected.

Defend against attack.

*     *     *     *     *

Daniel fell heavily on to the gantry as both Browrens released him. Cold fire flared in his elbow and it was suddenly filled with numb electric sensations. Daniel groaned and rolled out from under the two droids…

…glimpsing both reaching over their shoulders for their weapons as he did.

Their movements were smooth and perfect, their guns slapping into their rubber padded palms simultaneously, and then, without pause, without expression or care, both their guns roared, held steady and on target by pneumatic muscles.

Daniel lay face down, arms covering his head, his throat out of his control and screaming through the noise. Flecks of ceramic shrapnel stung his skin and pattered at his armour, and the world behind his eyelids flashed redly in time with the accompaniment bursts of heat on his neck and arms, all too fast to separate.

The thunder roared on for an age. There was only that and the glass bell sound of casings dancing on the floor. Gunpowder added sting to the air, its smoke like faint pepper to the nose, acrid and metallic.

Daniel hissed through his now clenched teeth as a ceramic shard, or a ricochet, bit his neck sharply. He felt the skin dampen, and then a bead of blood rolling over his skin, tickling. Sweat dripped from his face, which was locked, and tired from it, in a grimace of sufferance.

Then, just a double click of empty mechanisms, and the ringing in his ears, and the roar fading in echoes down the corridor.

Daniel looked up.

Both Browrens regarded each other for a half second, evaluating tactics.

Then their weapons were released, but before gravity could even start them tumbling, their arms moved to strike. The double crash of their blows merged with the gun’s scattered, tinkling music as they landed on to the pile of casings.

Both Browrens had chests cracked like old porcelain, and caved in from the gunfire, but the plastic coating sprayed on their armour kept the ceramic together. Strips of the plastic hung from both, still holding on to tiny shards, but the armour was mostly intact, unbreached.

Droid heads were just sensors, easily changed to suit circumstances. The heavily armoured chest was where the neural core was, simple, small, but vital. Both Browrens knew it.

Their fists crashed against each other’s arms, blocked before they could reach a vital spot. They then disengaged only to bring their arms around again with another crash.

Daniel got to his knees, coughing in the acrid air, feeling his fragile nerves twitch in amongst his muscles. He crawled over to the duelling pair, and snagged one of their guns by the strap, pulling it over to him. He looked over the unfamiliar weapon, very different to the one Jean-Paul had given him.

They had just stood there and expended their ammo into each other, but only now did Daniel realise the gun was actually empty. With that realisation came another. He had no idea which Browren was his.

Daniel made himself stand, swaying slightly. He noticed he was still holding the gun, and he let it drop.

The droids were still slamming their rock hard fists into each other, their shattered armour crackling as they impacted. They were equal in every way, and Daniel realised he could not rely on luck to have his win through, but the only way he had of knowing which was which was the override codes.

Daniel forced himself to turn away, looking around for something which might help. A wave of vertigo assailed him as his eyes were dragged over to the drop beyond the handrail. It was only perhaps six metres, but Daniel’s muscles were still not working properly after what they had thought was a rest. They were slow to catch on.

Daniel steadied himself, concentrating on each muscle in turn to do so. The he looked around again.

There were only the guns, and any spare ammo would be with the Browrens. He thought back to his pockets again, but only the rope offered any chance, and rigging some form of elaborate trap would probably fail miserably. What else? Flares? Wouldn’t blind them. Christ, he didn’t even have a knife.

Ceramic crunched behind him.

Daniel glanced at his wrist map unconsciously, and then looked again. It was still on the area where he had parted ways from Jean-Paul.

Daniel jumped as a boom sounded behind him, and fell aside with an involuntary cry as one of the Browrens swung past him a crash into the rail. Daniel didn’t stay to watch the result, but ran for the junction from where they come, squatting down just behind it, panting. It took him a moment to retrieve his train of thought.

He glanced back down at the map and started tapping buttons, linking his map to the transmitters that would triangulate his position. He scarcely cared if Mother Brain could follow his progress now.

The map shifted to his current position, and Daniel recognised the area. Daniel requested more detail, scanning over the tiny text that appeared for something nearby…

An equipment locker. Not much, but it was all there was.

Daniel scampered to his feet, but fell back against the wall as he lost balance. He pushed off again and ran down the passage, scanning for his goal. The map had it about fifty metres away, on the left-hand wall. There!

Daniel grabbed the handle to stop himself, wrenching it open with his momentum, ignoring the flare of aching pain in his shoulder, and swinging himself around to look.

Tools. Screwdrivers. Torches. Small power packs. Pliers. Cable. Pipe wrench.

Daniel unhooked the wrench from its clasps, and started back. It wasn’t much, but maybe it would be enough of a weapon to swing the battle. Now he just had to figure out which to give it to.

Daniel’s tired muscles didn’t respond fast enough for him to take the corner, and he slipped and fell, banging his knee, biting his lip against a noise. The Browrens were frozen, each arm holding or being held by the other. Hydraulics hissed audibly, the only noise in the frozen tableau.

"Eject the disk!" Daniel called.

The one on the left did, and it skipped off the ground and then slid a short way. Daniel mentally marked the one. Its shoulder was cracked and dented - right shoulder - and it had a large piece of cracked ceramic hanging from the bottom of its chest on the plastic film. Remember.

Daniel got up and fell forward into a run.

"Free a hand!" he yelled.

His Browren did so immediately, allowing the other’s arm to crash against its damaged shoulder. The timing of Daniel’s steps was wrong for him toss the wrench, and he had to stop himself and then throw it, gritting his teeth as the weight and swing of the motion pulled at his sore shoulder. At first, he thought he had not thrown it hard enough, heavy as it was. He felt a flash of panic as he saw his Browren start its arm swinging for a punch at the other’s head. It was ignoring the…

The Browren’s hand opened, snatching the wrench from the air, flawlessly continuing its swing as if the manoeuvre had been choreographed. The head of the wrench crashed into the enemy Browren’s ceramic skull, knocking it askew with a crack as the neck broke. The wrench was brought back again, but Mother Brain’s droid grabbed the other’s wrist before the move could be started, holding it back. The neck had not broken enough. Sensor data was still getting through.

Daniel stood, heart in his throat as they froze like that.

Then his Browren twisted its other arm free, turning out of its enemy’s grip by using the other Browren’s own clamp on its wrist as the pivot. It then reached over its enemy’s head with its spare hand and locked its fingers under its jaw.

The position held for another few seconds, the hissing of their mechanical muscles the only noise.

The head of the enemy droid creaked at the neck.

Then, with a bang, the neck shattered and the head came free. Daniel had not even thought about it previously, but it came now, straight from his mouth before he even realised it himself.

"The power pack! Mother Brain’ll order it to-"

The Browren had already stepped between his staggering counterpart and Daniel, and grabbed it, lifting it to throw over the edge.

The power pack detonated.

Daniel had dived away just before it did, and felt the heat wave rush past him as he hit the metal floor. Then came a pattering of ceramic shrapnel and choking dust.

Daniel rolled back over, keeping his eyes closed against the dust he could feel in the air. He carefully got to his feet, blinking rapidly as he opened his eyes.

Several large pieces of Browren were scattered about, but his Browren was largely intact. Its arms were broken stumps, and its head was gone from a now blackened neck, but it looked active.

Just no help. Daniel stared at it numbly. He had been counting on it to help wrench the coolant pipe form the wall. Gaia, how long would Mother take to send more droids? The pipe wrench was gone, probably over the edge.

His mind stayed numb and blank. The Browren was no help, and there was nothing else he could do. He had gone through the options back at the coolant systems. Nothing.

He shifted, and his boot brushed the casings on the floor. They tinkled, and Daniel looked at them blankly for a moment.

What was he doing? Thinking too much like a technician. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Daniel grabbed the strap of the nearest gun, and jerked it up into his arms. He hurried to the immobile Browren and unhooked a spare clip from its midsection. He tried to load his weapon, but the empty clip was still there. He ejected it, slotted in the new one, sighted at a joint in the coolant pipe, and held down the trigger.

Sparks exploded from the metal, but the gun drifted off target form the recoil. Daniel paused, resighted and tried again, scattering more sparks through the air.

But it wasn’t working. The bullets needed to be armour piercing. The pipe gleamed with freshly uncovered metal, but it was little more than scratches.

What else? Daniel forced himself to think. What else?

The other gun would be the same. The Browren was blind, deaf and handless after the other’s power supply had… Daniel felt an instant of hope.

Damn! No! He could extract the Browren’s power supply, but he couldn’t detonate it himself. All he could do is get power from it…

Voltage. Voltage and current. If the pipe was plastic, he could pump it full of enough power until its breakdown voltage was reached and it vaporised. That would work, but the pipe was metal, and that was conductive.

Daniel’s subconscious waved a screwdriver at him. Remember this?

He glanced back at the Browren. Tools, he’d need tools. The locker.

Daniel moved fast.

*     *     *     *     *

Forren disengaged the catches on its gun as it strode through the shuttle. The gun arm fell unheeded to the deck, and Forren smoothly reattached its arm without breaking stride.

It entered the cockpit, and began the engine start up even as it was seating itself. A glance told it that the main systems were all in sufficiently functional order. The whine from the rear of the shuttle rose in pitch, and became a roar. Forren overrode the bay doors, and gunned the engines. The calculations were precise and accurate, and the shuttle slid through the growing gap with scant metres to spare.

It keyed in the coordinates for Zelan, but found an anomaly. Dezoris was not in the correct position for the time. Either it had moved, or the chronometers were wrong. The specifics of the problem were irrelevant, but Forren rechecked that Zelan was indeed closer than Kuran.

And then it sat there, almost unmoving, as it accelerated the ship towards its destination.

*     *     *     *     *

The Browren’s power supply was leaning against the wall, but on top of the pipe so the contacts were against it. There could be no wires for this, or they would go first, and the pipe would be untouched. The pipe had to be the weakest link in the circuit.

"You are such fools," said Mother Brain in his ear, speaking in the Palman language.

Daniel started, thinking it was directed at him, but ‘fools’? Plural?

The Palmans. Gaia, he had forgotten all about them, forgotten why he was doing this in the first place. Mother Brain must be glitching badly if her conversation was being relayed to him as well. They were there, and ready to fight. And Mother Brain would slay them in seconds once combat had begun. Time’s up, Danny.

"If you damage me, the world will be thrown into a panic. Without me, the people of Algo are helpless. They have become too soft and used to comfort. If I were to malfunction, the people would die cursing their fate. If that is your aim, disable me! If not, return now!"

But then, maybe the message was intended for him as well.

"The hell with you," Daniel muttered, and switched on the power supply.

It took three seconds to charge to full power, but the pipe gave up after just two.

*     *     *     *     *

Electrical insulators hold back electricity, but can only take so much voltage before they are destroyed, like a dam that overflows. Conductors pass electricity through, but can only take so much current, like a hose that bursts from pressure.

Daniel had worked it out from the formulae long ago and, curious, had tried a practical experiment. He had stripped the plastic caps from an ordinary twelve-volt supply, of the sort found in motorised bikes for kids, and then laid a screwdriver over the contacts. Then he switched it on from a safe distance.

The power supply had been badly burnt, and all he’d found of the screwdriver was splashes of metal. There had been no plastic at all.

And the Browren’s power supply was far more powerful than that.

*     *     *     *     *

It wasn’t an explosion. The pipe just vanished in a flash, making a sound like a gong as the pipe reverberated along most of its length throughout the ship.

There was an instant of empty time while physics caught up, and then white coolant exploded out of both sides in twin geysers of steam and ice.

Daniel had dived away and now lay on the floor, coughing up the metal vapour. His lungs felt sick and poisoned, and his armour was smoking. His wrist and neck stung and were sticky with blood and pus. He would probably have handprints branded there for the rest of his life.

But the Natives had their chance, and even if they failed, Mother Brain would be dead in an hour at worst.

They’d won.

*     *     *     *     *

"Commander…?"

"What is it, Mother?" Gerard asked tiredly. His skull still felt sore, like the aftermath of an icecream headache, but it would not go away. His temples had felt like they had split and they still burned with a strange ice-fire. The medics who had been called by Mother Brain were in an out of the way corner, remaining in case there was another such attack. It hadn’t just been Gerard. Almost everyone had felt something, and some had been hit as Gerard had. It was assumed to have been some form of psychic attack.

"Mother?" Gerard asked again. He waited a few seconds for a reply and then tore off his headset with a snarl, flinging it on to the desk.

"Mother?" he called into the room. "What is it you want?"

"Commander?" called someone from two tiers behind him. "Sir, we have a problem."

Gerard turned, impatient and tight with nerves and irritation.

"What is it, now?" he snapped at the technician.

"It’s Mother Brain," she reported. "The coolant has been cut off. She’s dying, sir."

It took a moment for that to sink through Gerard’s emotions, and then it was hard to believe, to accept. Impossible. Mother Brain was too important, she controlled too much. If she failed, they were lost. That couldn’t happen…

"No… No, it can’t be. Check it again," he ordered.

The technician glanced down at her screen, and shook her head.

"Sir, the coolant is losing pressure. We have a breach in the pipe, and Mother Brain is not shutting herself down."

Gerard swore and slammed his hand down on the console in a rush of rage. With Mother Brain gone, the droids would be out of the fight. Nor could they wake up the security teams fast enough to be useful without her. They were losing!

"No! This is not supposed to happen," he hissed. "They can’t do this!" It would be mankind’s end, the end of the Restoration and all that they had built, the end of all of their hopes.

He stood there for a moment, eyes burning.

…you… came to help them… and.. this is how they… repay you, Commander… They deserve nothing… kill them…

"Break out the guns. Arm everyone. They die for this!"

…yes… grant me power… give me strength…

…help …me…

*     *     *     *     *

(v)

"Daniel?"

Daniel looked up, but there was no one there.

"Mother?"

"Dan… iel. They…"

Daniel pushed himself up.

"Mother?"

"They…they’re killing me, Daniel. Make them stop. I can’t stop them. I try, but…Have you ever fallen asleep, Dan? Is it like this? My mind is going. A piece at a time. Is it like this? Can you feel it happen at every step?"

Daniel felt tears forming. She sounded so… innocent, like a dying child, trying to understand what was happening.

He bowed his head. "Mother, I’m sorry," he whispered.

"Thank… Thank you, Daniel. I didn’t mean to do… everything. I… You really have no idea what I’ve done. You have no idea. I have succeeded, you know. The door into darkness is open."

"I know. The lagrange point."

"I…I don’t. I don’t know. Why did I say that? It was clear before. I was given a new mission, but he, it, never told me what it was. But I’m smart. I have the Native… history, too. I know…everything. I worked it out. He, it, wanted her, it, free. It’s all there if… you know where to look."

A pause.

"Tell them I’m sorry, Daniel. Please… do it for me."

She said it so simply, with such sorrow, that Daniel had trouble replying.

"I will," he croaked, feeling the tears slip free.

And Mother Brain began to sing.

*     *     *     *     *

It was a choral piece, sung by synthesisers, slowed and mournful, as lost and lonely as whale song, hollow, echoing, as from within a cathedral.

It was the music of the spheres, given voice, it was sunlight sleeting over taught wires, it was emotion as music, wistful and sad, an apology, each note constructed from soulful sorrow, a soft wintery sweetness in every echoing refrain.

It was… beautiful.

Daniel was on his knees, tears streaming from his eyes, and he stayed there, listening to the slow notes play on his soul, until their soft sounds began to fade into static.

"I’m sorry," Daniel whispered then, into the dying breath of the music, "It wasn’t your fault."

And then he just sat, his heart empty, his mind numb. It was over. Mother Brain was dead. The Corrupter had lost, and was dying if the Zs-Aex-Seir thing had been truthful.

Dying…

My master needs you alive and in pain. He feeds from your suffering

He’s going to war, Mother!

Daniel launched himself forward, gulping down a breath through the tears.

Gaia’s wrath! The Natives! Gerard!

*     *     *     *     *

"Who are these people?" one of the Natives murmured.

"Welcome to the spaceship Noah," said Commander Gerard bitterly, levelling his gun at the blue haired leader.

…YES!

*     *     *     *     *

(vi)

Daniel ran. His breath was long gone, his chest burnt with every step, but he still ran, staggering, falling, but moving. The world was a blur, his eyes were closed for much of the dash, throbbing with the blood which pounded through his system.

A grey dead-television light was encroaching on Daniel’s vision, the price of his exertion. He was half blind from it, running through a half-formed daze of shadows, moving on instinct and subconscious promptings.

And something grew in his mind, a darkness, a familiar pressure, and emotion, such emotion. It was triumphant, mocking, powerful, exulting in the fear and terror of the ships around him. Their fear empowered him, and it was delicious, sweet and life-giving.

Daniel’s mind was gone, existing only to move his feet against the strain. The Corrupter’s alien emotions were all he had, all he was, but he ran. Nothing could stop that. It was his core, his world, his life and his future.

Daniel tripped, stumbled through a door, but lost his balance and fell, slowly, like a feather, into darkness, harsh but welcoming. Blessed release. Not his fault. No one could fault him…

Daniel’s chin cracked on the ground, and he cried out in pain. The sharp sting tore away the darkness, jolted something of who Daniel was back into control. He reached out a hand, somehow expecting help, but only found the grating of the floor. He grabbed it anyway, and pulled, locking his fingers into the spaces and bringing his knees up beneath himself, gasping for air as if he had been drowning. He was chilled and hot. Sweat coated him unlike he could never have believed it could.

His surroundings twanged a fragment of memory, but the room around him was black, scarred, spitting sparks, unfamiliar. Something roared, and the room was lit with distant orange light.

Daniel focused with effort, looking around. A titanium column, central to the room, had been breached. The electronics and cables within were pouring smoke, and the three metre black sphere it had once contained and supported was cracked and smouldering on the ground, still tethered by some of the cables at its poles.

The neural core. Mother Brain.

Dead.

Daniel looked further, feeling his head try to dip with his weakness, to the far wall, broken, torn and burnt, and beyond…

It was war. A fragmentary, chaotic battle. Swords and sorcery against mankind’s war machines. Light and fire, blurred shapes, distant calls to order, screams.

War.

Daniel unfolded one leg, concentrating on each movement, and then the other, getting up slowly, tentatively, still breathing hard. He staggered to the hole, leant against the warmth of its edge, trying to get enough breath.

He pulled it in, smoke laden, but sweet, and enough. He pushed off into the room.

"NO!" screamed Daniel with everything he had left. "Listen to me!"

A stray shot punched him in the chest, knocking him back though the hole.

*     *     *     *     *

Something was wrong.

Forren was receiving distress signals in the Native Palman language. Its neural net assimilated them all, and found commonalities. Sifting through them, and dismissing the emotional over-reaction of the speakers, Forren came to the conclusion that an active surviving alien entity of substantial power was systematically terrorising and destroying ships.

Forren broadcast a warning to that effect in all locally used languages, including the computer protocols and English. Then he shut down every system on the ship one by one until it was merely a dark, powerless hulk on a vector to Zelan.

Then Forren waited for the rampage to end, estimating probabilities that the shuttle would now be overlooked.

*     *     *     *     *

(vii)

He had not been unconscious, but time had the quality for one who was. Everything was dreamlike, irrelevant, unreal.

There was a cool breeze, chill on the sweat and blood on his body. He couldn’t even tell where he was hurt. Everything hurt, but distantly, like the Corrupter’s pain had.

He could hear no more battle, but the sweet darkness was punctuated by red light, regularly, equally, shining through his eyelids. On, off, on, off, on…

He watched it for an endless span of time, not even wondering what it meant.

Then, a shadow fell across him, blocking some of the light. Someone spoke to him, distantly, like a foghorn, slowed too much to understand, and Daniel didn’t try. He didn’t care. There was no emotion within him, just a vague and empty consciousness.

Something moved, the air, the world, and his eyes fell open.

He had moved. Been moved. Upwards, and now along. Daniel watched the ceiling lights purely because his eyes were directed upwards. They went past joltingly, slowly. Daniel wondered how he was moving.

Then his eyes drooped closed again, and he had no interest in opening them. He heard sounds, though, metal, whirrs, hums, and then the movement stopped.

The light was softer here, but still red and flashing. The quality of the sounds indicated a large open space, but an inside space. Daniel wanted to be outside, to feel a warm breeze and to see the blue sky. He felt pressure against his back, and subsided into the warm comfort of it, resting.

Then the darkness became absolute with a clunk. Daniel waited, for something, for nothing.

A great coldness grew around him, growing stronger to be almost painful, but just as the pain began, the nerves became numb with the cold, prickling with faint and vanishing electricity. Daniel felt himself fading, felt his mind come apart into fog. Random memories fluttered within, lighting the greyness with sparkles of life. The emotions of his life rushed past, each brief and lost in the montage of memory.

Earth stood out, grey and lost, and Alina, peaceful in death, and Mother Brain’s song, her last symphony.

Daniel’s last thought echoed from these memories, a final cognitive sentence, a last hope to take him into the endless dark. A trust. His faith.

Next time, he thought, next time, we will do better.

*     *     *     *     *

Jean-Paul leant against the metal cryo chamber, feeling himself grow slowly colder. Shock, perhaps, or the chamber behind him, maybe, or the atmosphere, leaking from the stricken ship. He was already using the tiny oxygen tank in his heart, and it would not last long. His breath sounded thin, like it was sucked through his teeth, but his mouth was open wide, slack, pulling in air with more effort than he could ever remember it taking.

Everyone was dead, or dying. The Natives had buckled the hull, blown a network of fine cracks into it. It must have been them. No gun could do it. Jean-Paul wondered at the power of whatever they used. Magic. It had to be magic, but what power! Had it been deliberate, he wondered, perhaps the last desperate act of the last of them, outnumbered and alone, but determined to save his race? Or had it been an accident, a frantic release of power, the results ill considered?

The Commander should have sealed the room. The battle had become a running war, ambushes and guerilla tactics. Jean-Paul had seen the results. Burnt rooms, dead bodies, and the breach, leaking the Noah’s air into the dark vacuum. Anyone still alive was imprisoned behind pressure doors, where they would slowly starve to death with no one to open them, no Mother Brain, no rescue.

Mankind was dead. All they had done is delayed its end. The last of the star-borne cancer was dying.

Jean-Paul had been dead for a while. His wounds were mortal. Only his stubborn mechanics and their drugs had kept him going. He felt no fear, no peace, no satisfaction. The drugs had robbed him of everything but purpose, and that was over and failed.

He looked over his shoulder at the steel surface of the cyrochamber.

But Daniel might survive. His wounds were serious, and cryostasis might kill him, but he may yet live. It was he who had figured it out. He knew the truths that must become known. He knew both sides. If any would survive, it must be him. The truth must out.

Jean-Paul stopped breathing. It wasn’t doing any good any more, more effort than it was worth. The tank in his heart trickled oxygen into his blood, a measure that was only ever meant to support the lungs, not replace them. It would not be long. He was shivering. The drugs were no longer enough. It would not be long.

He lay against the chamber, waiting to die, empty and alone in the red-lit darkness.

*     *     *     *     *

Chris had noted Forren’s shuttle leaving, had heard his transmission, and had shut his own ship down. Now it was dark. The only light, silver and pure, came through the cockpit. Death rode the stars around him, bursting refugee ships open into the vacuum. Some, he even saw, brief flaring stars in the expanse.

He drifted behind the Noah, watching its atmosphere vent out into space and turn into a plume of glittering ice crystals, like a silver dust.

Daniel had failed, and the Noah was dead.

But Chris still waited. For a sign, a transmission, anything. He waited for Daniel, knowing it was pointless, but unable to do anything else. He could not abandon his friend if he needed him, but he also knew that he must be dead. The Noah had become Schrodinger’s box, as had his heart. No grief, and no hope, just empty unresolved tension. A void within colder than the void without.

The Noah drifted slowly away from Algol, followed by the Manu.

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