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The Other Side

Part 4 - Meifumado <The Dark Road to Hell>


"Willpower is the only thing in the universe capable of travelling the path of most resistance.

"As a race, we are bloody minded, gullible savages. That has not changed. Only our will, our defiance of our animalistic nature, keeps us ‘cultured’.

"But we not forget what we are. We must accept our nature in order to guard against it."

- The Restoration, by John William Lewandowski


(i)

They came, almost literally, from out of the woodwork.

From every gap in every metal structure. From the recessed curves which guided the pipes along the walls. From every shadow or darkness, wherever light could not reach, the shadows stirred and clawed at life. Long fingers reached from the dark places, stretching and flexing, reaching for leverage.

And, all around them, black energy pulsed through the dimensions with the beat of the dark life that they seized and took for themselves.

Beneath Mother Brain, an organic shadow hung from the ceiling, its needle teeth glistening as it smiled four cruel smiles.

*     *     *     *     *

Ross Garfield was jogging. This was serious.

The lighting for the sub-levels was flickering randomly. Sometimes it would go off for around ten seconds, and Ross would think it had finally given up, but it always came back on again. His powerful torch still only lit a small area, and the rest of his world was full of jumping shadows.

But it wasn’t just the sub-levels. Power was being disrupted all over the ship. Backups had kicked in for all of the critical systems, but they could be next to go. This wasn’t just one glitch. There were seven separate relays down, and that implied sabotage.

Which is why he had been issued with a sidearm. One of the faster security droids, a squat Whistle was also with him, darting out in front, and back again, silent but for the air of its passage. It scooted up to him, its bulk unable to actually pass him, and then swished out in front again, just as the lights flicked off, covering it in darkness.

Then they came on, but dim and grey, and Ross saw the Whistle up ahead, its head twisting from side to side, scanning.

Then the lights went off again.

On.

Off. On.

Ross’ torch beam was jolting in time with his stride. He didn’t need to see much to navigate. An occasional glimpse of the walls was enough. The passages were straight and empty.

Off.

On.

He slowed to a quick walk, sparing himself some breath.

"Mother? Could you turn the lights off? It’s getting on my nerves."

He kept walking as they flickered around him. He tapped his microphone.

"Mother?"

He suppressed the sudden chill, and pulled the headpiece off and giving it a cursory look for damage. There wasn’t any. He twisted the volume up and put it back on, and it hissed in his ear.

"Mother? Answer me."

Mother Brain was a safety net. She would always know what happened to you. She would always advise you if you needed help. She was always there.

And now, she wasn’t. And he was alone.

The chill came back.

Everyone’s afraid of the dark. Where had he heard that?

Ross pulled out his gun, and started jogging again. The lights flickered around him, generating fake movement in the shadows, every one caught by his eyes.

Ross found he was looking for the Whistle. Even robot company…

He spotted it up ahead just as the lights switched off again, reducing the droid to a round red eye in the darkness. It whirred up to him, turned, and then proceeded at his pace, just in front of him.

The Whistle had been disconnected from Mother Brain as well. Without specific orders, it was being careful. Ross was glad, but for the communications to go down so completely was very bad. He wondered if the other techs were cut off, what they were doing.

He made himself smile, imagining them lost in the darkness and afraid. It made him feel better. They would all have a good laugh afterwards. It’s not as if the saboteur could be armed. They had checked the weapons inventory. Ross shifted his grip on his own weapon.

The lights came on.

"Christ!"

Ross skidded, losing his balance. His gun clanked against the wall as his hand moved to steady him.

The bulk of green shadow turned to regard him. Light glistened over its slitted metal mask. It was calm, appraising, somehow alien in its metal regard.

It jolted him. An icy shock flared in his heart, the sort that wakes you up from a nightmare, but the lights went off and the hunched thing was swallowed. Ross fought for equilibrium. The lights… it was almost as if he had woken up into a dark bedroom, like it was a nightmare, but he was standing up. Grip, man, get a grip.

Ross flashed his torch over, but only saw the sharp shadows of the pipe-layered wall. He shifted it around, his gun in a tense and clenched hand. Nothing, nothing, nothing…

…a trailing edge of fluttering green cloth…

The Whistle reacted before he did, and its laser lit the passage like an emergency strobe, sharp and dark, red and confusing. The cloth had vanished, and Ross saw in that brief actinic moment that there was a corner where it had moved. The Whistle skated ahead, but Ross had to steady himself. He was a tech, dammit. This is not what he signed on for.

But you outnumber him, and you have weapons.

Ross took a breath and ran to the corner. He had turned towards it before it had been reached, his gun and light tracking together, revealing wall, floor, the Whistle, also looking, torn and dangling wires, wall, movement…

The shape, its mask regarding him, leaning casually, contemptuously, against a wall.

His heart jumped, but he fired, twice. The shape moved a hand in a half circle -

…a gnarled, white fleshed, spidery, taloned hand, inhuman

- and the bullets ricocheted away from it, ringing somewhere in the darkness.

But the Whistle reacted, too, and a red beam seared across the shape leaving a trail of white smoke. The creature doubled over, and Ross smelt something like hot mulch. He took his chance and fired again. And again. And again, each bullet thudding into the robed shape with small puffs of smoke. The thing grunted as each hit, a curious little noise like a laugh cut off.

Something clicked. It was his gun. Ross blinked.

One of the creatures hands had fallen away from it, and lay there unrolled, a pale shape on the floor. Ross pulled back from it. The Whistle had gone past, and now turned back to him as if to say, "Coming?". Ross swallowed, and even as the thought came to him, he knew it was wrong. What on Earth is it?

No, not Earth. Man, oh, man, oh, man…

"M… Mother Brain?" he whispered. "Please be there."

There was only silence.

Then something hissed from further down the passage, and Ross let his light come up, and it flashed over the Whistle as it, too, turned.

Shapes moved, huddled, hunched. The torch moved higher.

Legions of tubed masks, described by stark shadows, hissing warm air in the darkness. A fog of rotted breath, claws, huddled robes, flame and electric arcs now forming from the air in their hands. Teeth and sunken eyes, on great, muscular frames. Shifting shapes in his peripheral vision, no more than deeper shadows passing over the darkness.

Ross’ gun came up, as if lifted by a puppeteer, but something recognised the magic in their hands, and he turned at the same time, falling backward and twisting into a desperate run, his knees taking the shock of the impact, the gun clicking again, hollow and loud, as his finger jerked. The passage flared with red lit brilliance as the Whistle opened fire and then thunder exploded behind him with blue strobing light as the things responded with their magic.

Rational thought left him, and he cried out as he ran, his system awash with adrenalin, and there was nothing in the world but the nightmares and the darkness.

Behind him, a distant part of him heard tearing metal as they dismembered the Whistle.

And something laughed.

*     *     *     *     *

(ii)

Commander Simonson seized the doorframe, using it as a pivot so he could keep his speed up as he took the corner.

"Report."

Mother Brain’s voice followed him down the passage, changing from speaker to speaker.

"At 0604 hours, power fluctuations began randomly affecting minor systems across the Noah. A technician party with droid escorts was sent down to sub-level E to examine the faulty relays. I lost contact with the team at 0637 hours due to a communication blackout in the sub-levels. Power fluctuations have since worsened, and my surveillance capacities on sub-levels E and D has been sabotaged by parties unknown."

"Speculation?"

"We have been invaded."

"How?" formed on Simonson’s lips, but that was secondary, and he could guess anyway. Espers. The ‘magic’ users. They’d done it before.

Even now next to nothing was known about the Espers, except for some vague fragmentary records from hundreds of years ago. Most of the Natives thought them long gone, and the humans had never found any reason to doubt that, until two had appeared on board the Noah.

They had arrived somewhere outside camera range in the sub-levels and had then travelled unerringly towards Mother Brain’s neural core. Mother Brain blocked them with a cordon of unarmed security droids. No hostilities had resulted, and by the time any of the Command staff had been woken up, they had gone, teleported by their strange magic.

Given that ability, and their apparent interest in Mother Brain, the Command Staff had agreed to put static defences inside Mother Brain’s neural core, as well as shift the Noah’s orbit. How they had found the Noah in the first place was still debated, and at the time it had almost initiated an early contact with the Natives.

But the population of Algol was never told anything by the Espers, whom they believed to be legends, and the Espers had never returned.

"How many?" Simonson asked.

"Unknown at this time, but unlikely to be many. I have already activated the security teams, but I require your authorisation to administer their stimulant."

Simonson paused less than a second. "Granted."

The stimulant short-circuited the usual lethargy of waking up from cryostasis, but it charged a high price later on. Nothing permanent, but extremely unpleasant.

A crisis was a crisis, however.

"Do it, and get what security droids we have down there."

"I have already taken that liberty."

"And prep’ the rest. We may need them."

"Yes, Commander."

He walked through the door to the Operations Room without a pause, and it opened for him just fast enough. His jacket brushed the retreating halves as he strode through.

The room was full, for the first time since they had arrived here, and alive with random conversation. Two Wrens, one implacably rigid in its chair with only its tousled Palman hair showing over the top, and another with the less incongruous human head walking from terminal to terminal, were the only evidence of any calm.

Simonson hadn’t realised until the noise of the room hit him, but he was feeling somewhat light headed, and the hub-bub was grating against his thoughts. He would have to take control, but these are civilians, he thought. This is out of their league somewhat. Remember that.

"Get me a map of the sub-levels on the main display," he called, deepening to his voice to cut through the noise. "The security teams are being activated and we are their support. I want damaged areas marked, our existing surveillance capacities, core systems which are viable targets, the destinations of the tech teams, the point where we lost them, everything. And some coffee."

No one laughed, but Simonson felt some of the tension break.

"We don’t know who we are dealing with yet," the Commander continued, "but the probability is that we have only a few unskilled saboteurs. This is not going to be a contest, people."

As much as we hate it, war is still what we are good at, he didn’t say.

Commander Simonson started a circuit of the room, bringing order to the chaos and purpose to the civilians. Calm, confident and assured.

No contest, he had said. But he wasn’t so sure.

The Espers were hidden from even the best technology they had available. Their motivations were unknown, their agenda unclear. They were the most powerful magic users the system had, and were closeted in so much secrecy that they were believed long extinct by the Natives.

What were they hiding?

Of the few records they had of the Espers was of a magic-user who had seized power sometime in the last thousand years. He had destroyed the Native technologies so the monopoly would be his alone. With his eventual fall, and the droves of ‘monsters’ that had isolated and divided the cities, the Natives had lost their technological knowledge.

It made unpleasant sense that the Espers would not approve of technology, as competition for their magic, Simonson thought, so what would they think of us and what we’re doing?

The Espers were the great unknown.

Unknowns were dangerous in Simonson’s experience, too.

*     *     *     *     *

Ross ran, and ran. His legs barely worked, his breath was gone, his ribs felt bruised, sore, aching, tired of breathing. But if he stopped, he would fall, and if he fell, he would never get up again.

Shadows moved behind him, pacing him, laughing quietly.

*     *     *     *     *

"Alpha, here. We are at the last recorded position of Howard Streke, but there’s nothing here. We are proceeding to the damaged relay."

"Tau, reporting. We’ve reached relay twelve-oh-seven. Nothing here but shadows."

"Beta. No movement here."

"Mu. Coming up on our relay now. Can’t see anything…"

"Tau. The relay here has been... torn, I guess. Certainly not weapons fire. We are starting our sweep."

"Mu. Confirm that. Our relay looks the same. No sign of anyone. Starting our sweep."

"Je-sus!"

"Report!" barked Simonson. "Mother Brain, get a fix." And then back to the microphone, "Report, dammit!"

"Uh, Epsilon here. We’ve found something."

*     *     *     *     *

Ross ran. The shadows were playing with him. He saw them, half-glimpsed shapes, laughing quietly in the darkness. If he stopped, it would be no more fun for them.

Another shape melted from out of the shadows around the next corner, and he half cried, half sobbed, and spun away, twisting up his legs and losing control. He knew that if he fell, he would never be able to rise, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Someone caught him.

"Steady, mate."

The hand under his arm was firm and warm, reassuringly human.

"Christ, you’re hurt. What happened?" The man turned said something to another man, but blood was pounding in Ross’ ears, and he couldn’t hear. He gulped breath, shaking his head, trying to talk, to warn him.

"Epsilon. We have one of the technicians. He’s in a bad way, some injuries, looks like burns."

Ross swallowed in a large breath and tried to speak.

"Coming…they’re coming."

The soldier’s face went hard, and his eyes moved to look down the passage. "Can you run?"

No, not really, but Ross nodded.

"Wait a sec."

*     *     *     *     *

"Epsilon. The technician was being chased. Do we engage?"

No, you run too.

"Yes," Simonson said aloud. "We’ll send reinforcements."

*     *     *     *     *

The soldier handed Ross to another, a female. Something was said between them, and then the woman pulled him up and along by his arm.

Ross staggered into a run. It really wasn’t much faster than a walk, and every breath made him feel sick, but they were still coming, and he had to get away.

Ken backed up, his visor overlaying infrared patterning over the passage, as Teiran took the technician away. The other two of his team were arrayed on either side of him, Nuin on his right, stolid Damian on his left.

There was nothing to see.

"Epsilon," he said into his headset microphone. "We could do with some backup, guys."

"It’s on way." Simonson’s voice.

"There’s nothing here," muttered Nuin.

Ken remembered the technician’s face, the fear, naked and primal.

"He wasn’t running from shadows. Shut up and stay alert."

Something black moved across the slight warmth of the piping, and Ken jumped backwards, his heart a sudden drumbeat in his chest.

"Jesus!"

Ken swung his weapon up and around and loosed its fury into the passage. Harsh whiteness strobed in his visor, as he hosed the corridor, stepping backwards as he did so. He directed the deadly leaden rain across the ceiling, and swathed the floor in sparking ricochets. His finger stayed hard on the trigger until the weapon clicked empty.

Nuin grabbed his gun.

"There’s nothing there, man."

Ken twisted the gun out of his grip and ejected the spent cartridge, slapping another in place, and locking it with a sharp twist.

"Shut up!" And then to his microphone, "Epsilon, here. They don’t show up on infra-red!"

"We’re coming. Hold them down."

Still watching, and holding his gun before him, he pushed his visor up with his spare hand.

There was nothing there.

"Ken…"

Something moved near the wall, a shadow shifting slightly. Ken crept forward.

Ken had used the energy hungry distortion fields before, which cast an image of what was behind you on to your front. Effective invisibility, but useless against infrared due to their power requirements.

This was nothing like that.

A… a shadow lay heaped against the wall, slightly darker than anything else. Ken couldn’t tell if it was humanoid, as, even now, it was nearly impossible to see.

He swallowed.

"Epsilon here."

Nuin came up beside him, staring unbelievingly, but Damian held back, scanning the passage.

"We have a near invisible bogey down, here. Please advise," said Ken. There was a long pause from the other end. Ken kept watching the passage, wondering how much good vigilance would do.

"Pull out and rendezvous with the reinforcements."

Ken pulled back from the thing, yanking Nuin’s arm.

"We’re leaving," he called to Damian. "Back up!"

Damian did so, his gun covering the corridor. Nuin and Ken caught him up, glancing at every shadow for movement.

"Stay on your level. The reinforcements will meet you in section D-five-nine, that’s D-five-nine."

"Got it. D-five-nine."

Something giggled from down the passage. Ken shifted his grip on his weapon, still backing up.

"Epsilon. They’re here."

The darkness of the passage clawed forward, hissing in a dozen sibilant voices.

*     *     *     *     *

Teiran pulled the technician with her, sometimes roughly, but they had to keep moving. The heads-up display on her visor showed her the way. She could only pray the reinforcements were in position.

Gunfire erupted behind her, the metallic echoes singing all around her.

Teiran yanked the technician again, cursing whatever the hell it was back there.

*     *     *     *     *

Their guns roared, firing in bursts, tracking back and forth in the confines.

The corridor was a well of shadow, alive with movement. No shape, no substance, just movement, darkness passing in front of darkness. Shadows crawled across the ground and spread like ink up the walls. The deep black of the passage became a blot as the dark shapes merged and grew in closeness.

And then new shapes could be seen in the shadow patterning. Shifting, moving shapes as if some magecraft twisted the darkness into unfolding, disturbing, forms.

The shadows in the passage thickened, coalesced...

Then a pair of silver eyes slid from the enfolding shadow as if they had always been there, and a dark arm reached past the flame of Damian’s gun for his neck.

*     *     *     *     *

Something splattered across Ken’s eyes, blinding him. It was warm, and sticky, and thick…

A cold, angled hand seized his face, and twisted. From somewhere, Ken heard a crack.

*     *     *     *     *

Nuin felt the warm spray also, but turned with his gun. He saw Ken sagging, neck broken, a shadow of a hand moving from his face, and the silver eyes watching him slump.

Nuin fired a burst of four into the thing’s face, and saw it flung backwards to hit the wall. Turning back, he strafed the passage -

Something else was there, mottled from the movement of the shadows in front of it. It walked, slowly, almost sedately, in dark green robes, its metallic mask appraising Nuin calmly.

Nuin redirected his aim at the robed thing, but didn’t wait to see if any rounds hit it. He turned away from them all, and ran.

"Epsilon is down!"

He fumbled for a grenade, flicked the pin out, and dropped it as he fled. He heard it rattle back down the passage.

*     *     *     *     *

It was half again the height of a man, and as wide as a man was tall. Its robes gave it a strangely proportioned bulk, but its arms were thin, its hands over-large and spindly.

It walked over the bodies, its dark emerald robe dragging in their blood, the shadows swarming around it like hounds.

It giggled quietly to itself, watching the little mortal run. His fear was delicious, and perhaps they would be served to let him escape, to spread the fear, but it had been so long, and it was so much fun…

It moved its long hand in a smooth motion, in the perfect, descriptive way of an orchestra conductor, and flame flared in its palm. It pointed its hand at the fleeing mortal, palm upraised, and the flame leapt forward…

The grenade exploded beside it.

*     *     *     *     *

Teiran heard the explosion, and pushed the technician ahead of her.

"Next left," she ordered. "Then keep going. Go!"

She turned back, gun ready, to the dark length of corridor from where they had come, listening.

Silence.

Teiran crept forward, staying close to the wall. It would be better if there was noise, something to drive her forward, people to get to, and to help, anything. The dark silence was unnerving. There was no distance or direction to the enemy, just empty corridor.

Teiran found herself thinking of horror movies. There was always a jolt, something to make you jump and turn around, and then the beast would rise up behind…

She froze, suddenly unable to go forward, unable even to even turn around, because that is how horror movies worked. If she turned around, it wouldn’t be there, it would come from this direction, and she would die. They always did.

She should not have left the technician. With him, she had company, someone to be strong for, someone to shame her into being a soldier, but here…

It was a horror movie. It was straight out of a dozen horror movies. And she would die. They always did. You can suppress it, sometimes ignore it, laughing to yourself at the silliness, or you can pick up a gun to become more powerful than it, but, ultimately…

Everyone is afraid of the dark.

How invisible was invisible? Teiran thought. Were they around me now, laughing quietly at my nerves? How would I know?

Teiran felt her gun shaking and tensed her grip to stop it. Her knuckles went white in the gloom.

No, the hell with it all. They were dead, and she wanted to, would do anything to, anything to live.

She almost turned, almost ran.

But someone screamed up ahead, and there was gunfire, making her jump, but the jolt to her system pushed her forward, not back, and training took over amidst the rush of adrenalin, and she ran to help her team.

*     *     *     *     *

Nuin pushed himself up on his left arm, sounding a single whimper through teeth clenched against the pain.

Something had hit him in the right shoulder blade, shrapnel perhaps, but he had felt it punch in and then explode. It didn’t feel like shrapnel. It felt like acid, or napalm, or fire.

He shuddered as he felt around the pain, delineating his wound. It felt like a crater, but stung like a burn. Rolling to his back might knock him out from the pain and shock, so he held himself there on a single quivering arm, and brought his knees forward to support him.

Something moved in the shadows.

It wasn’t invisible, but it was big, and bulky. Nuin glanced around for his gun, trying to keep the thing in his vision. He saw his weapon, and grabbed it left handed, wedging the stock in his armpit and swinging it back.

The passage was gone. His eyes tried to refocus for it, but there was nothing but darkness, and the darkness was too close to see.

Something heavy rested on his gun barrel, wrapping around it immovably and pushing it aside. The darkness opened a mouth of needle teeth, and they parted, stretching lines of saliva between the points. Nuin drew in a sudden and fearful breath, and his finger jerked the trigger spasmodically.

Sour air, the breath of a dead thing, and the teeth lunged forward.

*     *     *     *     *

The lighting strobed in time with Nuin’s gun, flickering from image to image like a broken movie.

…Nuin’s ragged body, falling, twisting, caught out of time, blood frozen in the air…

…hitting the ground, the creature drawing back, its teeth glistening with blood and tissue …

…eyes like sickly fire, turning on her, teeth parting in anticipation…

…the thing tensing. Her own rifle, swinging up into view…

…the beast in the air, leaping towards her, impossibly agile, impossibly fast…

Teiran screamed as her gun tracked the thing and roared in the confining tunnel, breaking it into sodden flesh and bone as more shapes lumbered out of the flickering shadows.

*     *     *     *     *

"They’re all dead! No! There’s too many of them! I need -" Gunfire rattled over the speaker.

"Teiran! Get to the reinforcements! Teiran?" Simonson cursed, feeling his headache pulse with the beat of his blood.

…listen to me, Simonson, unleash your full power, activate the droids…

"Sir? Are you alright?"

Simonson forced his eyes to focus. His mind felt wrong somehow, strangely disjointed as if from a fever.

"The droids," he said, keeping his voice steady. "Are they ready?"

"Yes," interrupted Mother Brain. "They are awaiting your authorisation."

Simonson knew he should. Human lives were being lost, but there was something…

…authorise them, set them free…

…something wrong. His first instinct was to hold back, but he didn’t know why. There was no reason to do so, but somehow something within him resisted the idea.

…then let them die, Simonson, when you could have saved them…

Dammit, no! The reinforcements would hold them. They had to.

*     *     *     *     *

A black robe stirred to a halt above Teiran’s still form. A voice tutted.

"I… really would have preferred an intact one. He is proving… recalcitrant."

The Wrestlers just watched with dull eyes, not understanding.

"Ah, no matter. There are more, more to come. And it is not a complete waste."

A long fingered hand gripped Teiran’s helmet and slowly pulled it away from her head.

"Oh, yes…"

The helmet was dropped with a clatter, and the hand reached again, pulling her headset away from the tangle of her hair. A metal mask regarded the device carefully.

"Yes, indeed," it hissed. "Heh, heh, heh."

*     *     *     *     *

(iii)

The nightmares had been delayed, but they would be back.

You couldn’t stop them.

Ross ran, making a little cry with each desperate breath. He was almost there, almost free. He could see the doorway. Just a little further.

Ross almost fell as he staggered through it, but the arm he moved to steady himself against the frame pushed instead, propelling him into the room on legs that couldn’t keep up with his flight. They folded beneath him, and he fell forward onto his arms, barely finding enough energy to lift his head and look around.

No…

This was where they were supposed to be. His help was supposed to be here. The reinforcements were just empty shadows.

Ross collapsed, exhausted, crying and gulping in breath. He was dead, they were all dead. There was nothing left in him to go on.

Something flared on his closed eyelid, shining through with orange light. He flinched away from it, opening his eyes.

A red dot slid from his chest and moved onto the floor where it sat, vibrating slightly.

And then it twitched, as if to gesture into the shadows, but Ross just looked at it, his brain trying to fit it in to the nightmare.

It was…

…a laser…

…designator.

The nightmares didn’t use weapons. Only people…

Something hissed behind Ross, and he rolled over, scrambling backwards on his rear. The pool of shadow at the entrance was stirring, and other things, solid things built like humanoid tanks waited behind them, darkened and greyed by the transparent wraiths.

Ross turned back over and kicked himself up. The tendons in his leg screamed at the treatment, but he was launched forward, and his other leg took the force and moved him into a run. He was moving on will alone. Everything ached, everything felt limp and unresponsive, everything was as jelly and hot rubber.

The laughter started behind him, and he heard the near silent swish of the shadows’ movement. He fell from leg to leg, each time the joints ready to give.

Shadows, normal shadows, caused by a gantry above, embraced him coldly.

"Fire," someone said.

The world erupted as Ross fell into darkness.

*     *     *     *     *

The invaders were below them, and they had a perfect field of fire. Captain Holt smiled grimly. Rats in a bloody barrel.

The shadows were taken first, strafing fire directed back and forth across the lines. They shrieked and fell, adding to a pool of jumbled darkness on the floor.

The wrestlers, as Holt thought of them, were stronger, tougher. It was like shooting sandbags, but they, too went down under the volleys of concentrated fire.

Ghostly spheres flickered around the robed things briefly, before collapsing in showers of star-coloured sparks. Holt saw the bullets lance through one of the gas-masked variety as if it were fruit, and it crumpled like so much cloth.

They tried to retreat, but Holt had some men sighting at the entrance. Bursts of shells punched into them as they reached it, crammed into a closing bottleneck.

It was all too easy.

*     *     *     *     *

The black robe was watching, but not the wall at which its metal mask was directed.

Then the alien flicked its hand in a dismissive wave, its robe moving in a way which suggested that it was perhaps not as humanoid as it looked.

"Enough," it hissed as it made the motion. "Leave them and their ambush. We will burn no more in their leaden rain. Let them become confident in our retreat. They can win this battle. We will not lose the war until we need to."

Then it giggled. "Little men, with their little toys. I think they need to learn that not everything can be solved with a gun. Heh, heh, heh."

It raised its hands and turned, summoning its master’s power to sparkle and crawl about its fingers.

"Let’s see how they fare against the elements themselves! Ha, ha, ha!"

*     *     *     *     *

"They’re retreating, Commander. Do we pursue?"

It might be a trap, Simonson thought, but they had taken massive losses for it if it was…

But if they didn’t pursue, they might cause more damage. There was a lot to cause down there. There was also the stimulant to think of. The security forces were only good for a few more hours before withdrawal hit them.

"No, not yet. They have the advantage in the tunnels. Hold there and wait. The other teams are being pulled out, and should be with you shortly."

Simonson switched off the microphone.

And then what? Fight them in the sub-levels? Armies never went well against guerilla tactics. They could hide for weeks down there.

The droids…

Yes… Simonson, the droids…

Not yet, Simonson thought to himself. Get the others out first.

*     *     *     *     *

Another team ran into the room, quickly grabbed and pulled into cover by waiting soldiers.

Waiting was not easy for Captain Holt.

Most worrisome were the Shadows. They could creep in unseen, kill a few soldiers, and vanish. Why they hadn’t tried it was beyond Holt, but he had teams with powerful lights, sweeping the dark spaces in the room, just in case. There weren’t many. This area was chosen for the lack of cover that the entering invaders would have.

Why weren’t they doing anything? Why weren’t they -

"Captain?"

The heavy voice belonged to a towering square-jawed Wren that he kept with him for tactical analysis and support. Holt had requested a few others as well, and had placed them at strategic positions around the room. The conical sensor clusters on either side of their heads gave them three hundred and sixty degrees of short-range radar coverage, and it was very hard to sneak up on them. The same trick had originally been tried with borgs, but the human mind adapted badly to suddenly acquiring new senses, and it had been abandoned.

Holt turned to see what it wanted, and it indicated over towards the body filled entrance. Holt glanced over. A ruddy orange light was beginning to show around the doorway, almost as dark as the shadows.

Holt made a signal, and soldiers started scrambling to positions. The room echoed with the clicking mechanics of guns being checked, of half filled clips being replaced. The lights vanished, and Holt flicked his image enhancement visor back down.

The orange light got brighter, and the shadows in the doorway jumped as it flickered.

"Commander?" he whispered.

"Here."

"Round two. Something new. Better pull back any remaining teams for now."

"Be careful."

"Aye," muttered Holt.

A distant wash of white noise started on the edge of hearing. At least it would be hard to be surprised by this thing. Or, maybe…

"All units," he said quietly into his headset microphone. "This could be a distraction. Keep an eye on the shadows."

And then Holt noticed something else in the noise, a harsh screeching, like metal on a blackboard. Two noises? Two creatures? Or just one very loud one?

The light was bright, and the white noise sounded close. If Holt didn’t know better he would swear it was…

Four lines of flame burst through the door, one on each side, running over the bodies, the wall, and the ceiling, moving like lit petrol, surging in with a rush of dry, heated air. And then, with a sound like combusting gas, each stopped in an instant, the fire trailing forward from their momentum, and then billowing up in a twisting pyrotechnic pattern.

Holt saw the eyes somewhere in the surge, glowing with white heat.

"Fire!" he screamed. "Shoot them!"

Spasmodic gunfire started from up from around the room, and Holt added his own, trying to hold and track the eyes in the conflagration. The beasts started forward, slowly, confidently, their humanoid shape flickering in the randomness of their flame bodies as the bullets cut through them without pause, dragging some flames with them but causing no harm.

The shrieking noise changed its tone violently, like something skidding, and it ground into Holt’s ears painfully. He couldn’t stop the instinct which had him looking over to the source, and he glimpsed something made of blackness and shining runes appeared in the doorway, spin, turn, and then tip forward, pointing at him, Holt…

It moved like lightning, but Holt had already ducked, and the dark thing shrieked overhead angrily. Another appeared in the doorway and arrowed towards someone else. Holt heard the scream.

Fireballs started exploding in their ranks, tossed by the fire-things. By their light, Holt saw their new attackers, glistening metallically.

Swords?

A twisting whine from above had him rolling, and he heard metal hit metal. He came to his feet and saw the sword was through a gap in the grating, tearing sparks from the metal as it tried to reverse out. Without even thinking about it, Holt lifted his gun over his head and brought it around and down, smashing the stock against the iron-dark hilt of the thing. He flung himself away from the sword immediately, finding a shadow against a wall and crouching there, glancing around for immediate threats. There was only the sword, and his blow had bent it just enough to leave it stuck in the floor grating, screeching and writhing. Holt looked up and around, trying to assess the situation in the room. Until now, he had been operating on reactions, training and instinct.

His mouth dried at the hellish scene, flame-lit and patterned by smoke and shadow. His men were disorganised, unable to hit the fast moving swords, unable to damage their solid metal construction, and with the fire demons in the middle of their ranks, invulnerable and unstoppable, sucking the oxygen from the air and burning men with fireballs.

With a sudden fearful coldness, Holt realised there was only one remaining tactical option. In here, everything was too disorganised, too chaotic. They had to regroup elsewhere.

"Retreat!" he yelled, and then again as he himself fled for the exit. He halted himself at the threshold, his hand gripping the edge, and looked back at his men. They had heard, or they were running in fear, but it was too late for most. The room belonged to the invaders, and they controlled the exits. Those who escaped were running for all they’re worth, pursued by monsters, by nightmares from out of the darkness. A military perfect ambush had turned into panic and chaos.

The smoke moved around strangely, the air shimmered in spherical patches, and red, green and blue robes formed out of nothing.

Holt turned and fled as, into the chaos behind him, the magic users came.

*     *     *     *     *

Holt ran, hearing only snatches over his heavy breath and his pounding heart.

"… regroup… section… read..?"

Holt glimpsed a fragment of movement ahead of him, but he didn’t stop. He just screamed at it, a war cry, letting loose some of the embittered adrenalin in his system as he levelled his weapon. Silver eyes flared from the darkness, and the Shadow leapt. Holt’s finger jerked and the creature shrieked under the titanium hail, crashing to the ground and sliding forward on its momentum. Holt skidded to a panting halt and threw himself against the wall, trying to hide in the shadows for long enough to get some breath.

"Repeat," came the Commander’s voice. "All units regroup sub-level C, section twelve-four. That’s C-twelve-four."

Sub-level D must be swarming, lost to the horde. Holt suppressed the sudden flash of guilt, concentrating instead on planning a route out. He wasn’t even sure where he was…

Something roared distantly, perhaps in pain, but it sounded more like anger. Holt crept back into the corridor’s centre facing its way, making sure it wasn’t close. The sub-levels had strange acoustics sometimes, but there was nothing he could see.

He watched for a few seconds, making sure. Not a shadow moved. Holt began to edge forward, keeping close to the wall, his eyes glancing into every darkness for movement.

Nothing…

Why did that bother him?

Distant gunfire, and an explosion. Something which could be the shriek of a sword, but around Holt, all was silent, unnervingly so. Instincts screamed at him for no reason that he could identify. On impulse, Holt started scanning the shadows as he moved forward, searching for ones that did not fall away from the lights, that were wrong.

Nothing. They looked fine. What was disturbing him so? He had killed a Shadow, and then…

Holt felt an iciness work its way through his vitals as he realised his mistake, but before he could even take another breath, silver eyes opened slowly all around him from deep within the existing shadows.

Shadows worked in packs.

*     *     *     *     *

"No! He is what we need. Bring him… alive."

The black robe spun around in an excess of gleeful satisfaction.

"Oh, good. A trusted one. Time to play a game, then. Ha! Ha! Ha!"

*     *     *     *     *

Screams and static.

"…everywhere! We can’t - Christ, man, look out! Andre!"

"…requesting backup at sub-level B, section two-fifteen. Heavy resistance…cut off our retreat…Yeeeiii!"

"They’re using magic! The bastards are using…Shhhzzzttt."

"Concentrate your fire! They can heal themselves! You have to concentrate your fire!"

"…approaching Level 1. Repeat, the monsters are attempting to leave the sub-levels!"

"The others are dead. I need a way out. Can you hear me up there? Get me out of here!"

"We’re holding in sub-level C, section four-eighteen, but are under heavy attack by Shadows. Can anyone assist? Repeat can anyone assist?"

"I wish to speak to Commander Simonson. A-heh heh heh!"

*     *     *     *     *

"Who’s headset is he using?"

The communications technician was struggling to keep up with Simonson’s stride.

"Teiran Han’s. We’re working on a fix on the signal."

Damn it. He was failing them. They were losing. People were dying. They were…

…outnumbered, outmatched…you have no hope, no chance, you must activate the droids, only they can stop this…

Simonson rubbed his eyes. They felt hot.

"What was she equipped with?"

Mother Brain’s voice cut through the background noise, a narrow beam of sound directed at Simonson.

"Standard mass driver weapon. We have no recourse there." Energy weapons came with heavy backpack power sources, which could be detonated remotely in a pinch.

Mother Brain continued. "Her shoulder camera is active but shows empty floor. I suggest that the headset has been moved from her body."

"What has he said?"

This time, another civilian appeared to answer, pressing a headset into Simonson’s hand and guiding him to a console.

"He wants to talk to you," he said quickly. "By name. Here, we’re working from this console." Simonson was pushed down into a chair.

"As soon as he starts talking again, we’ll have our fix, but he may know that. This could be a trap. We’re recording it, of course. Mother Brain will run an analysis on the voice."

"It may not be very useful," said Mother Brain through another tight beam. "My analysis so far indicates a probable alien vocal setup, and it will be difficult to construct a trustworthy benchmark."

"You mean it’s Native?"

"No Native species we are aware of."

And the Espers weren’t a ‘species’, they were Palman. So what was it? Something alien like Mother Brain said? Could they negotiate? Or would he have to destroy them?

Simonson head was beginning to throb.

Destroy? No. We are not like that any more.

Simonson took a deep breath and put his headset on. The civilian - was he really thinking in those terms? Military and civilian? - waved to the room for silence.

Then he nodded at Simonson.

Simonson nodded back. Someone pushed a switch and Simonson took in a breath to speak.

"Commander Simonson. We are honoured. Heh heh heh, ah-ha!"

How did it..?

"How did you know I was here?"

"Commander, we know everything."

"Tell me who you are."

"Would the name really mean anything to you, do you think?"

Simonson gritted his teeth, trying to calm himself against the smug humour of this thing.

"Oh, very well," it said in a tone which suggested it thought Simonson had paused to wait its game out. "We are… servants, heh, heh. Servants of a servant. I have been called many things. Fiend, demon, darkling, shaeda. But… my… name is Zs-Aex-Seir."

The screen in front of Simonson flicked on.

"No historical reference found regarding ‘Iz-ex-seir’ or phonetic variations," Mother Brain wrote. "Inconclusive references to ‘fiend’, ‘demon’ and ’darkling’ which are considered descriptive and generic. ‘Shayda’ is probably Esper in origin, as I have no translation."

Simonson went over the descriptions he had heard.

"Which ones are you? One of the masked ones?"

"So, transparent, dear Commander. Yes, we are masked. Yes, we have been here before. No, there will be no reference you will find. Ha, ha! History is so malleable, yes? We have done… so much for this system, and are we remembered? No! Aheh, heh, heh, ah, ha, ha!"

How did he… it know about their files?

"Why are you doing this?" he asked angrily.

"We enjoy it," it said simply.

Simonson paused. This thing didn’t seem to have a reason to talk, and was answering his questions as if it would make no difference. Was it a delaying tactic?

"How do you know what’s in our files?" he tried.

"I have said, Commander, that we know everything. You doubt this?"

"Yes, I do," Simonson snapped, suddenly without patience for the thing’s games. "Now get the hell off my ship. Stop killing my people and leave the Noah. I’m only going to give you the one chance," he finished, his voice laden with threat.

"Killing? Oh, no. You may be surprised how many of your people we have, in fact, not killed. Of course, it’s only a matter of time. You are such weak, wet little things, far too easy to break. Ha ha! Dead people are of… no use to us, Commander."

"One chance," Simonson repeated, through gritted teeth. His headache was getting worse.

"Are you afraid, Commander? Getting angry, perhaps? Frustrated? What of the others around you? Tell me."

Simonson clenched his teeth around his parting shot. The damned thing was trying to provoke him, so he flicked off the communicator without a word. Bastard. Evil, irredeemable bastard. They die for this, he swore.

…die for this…

"Mother Brain?" he hissed.

"Yes, Commander?"

"Activation code, G-T-Y-four-one-eight-two. Commander Simonson, authorising…"

Simonson paused as he realised something. The thing had been baiting him. And he was not thinking. He was reacting to emotions, to his anger, like it must know he would. Like it must want him to.

He never got angry.

Simonson frowned. He never got angry. He never chose from emotions. That’s why he was here, why this shift was his, why he headed half of the Noah’s last-chance mission. He had been through worse than this during the war. It had been his choice, to tour the carnage, to remember he was dealing with people not chesspieces. It was all too easy to deal only with the statistics and maps.

Why was it baiting him? Why was it so good at it?

His head throbbed.

No. People were dying. They couldn’t fight the magic. The armour, precision, speed and energy weapons of the droids were needed, emotions or not. There was no choice. Like the thing said, even if people weren’t dead yet, it was only a matter of time…

And that had been more baiting…

"Commander?"

No choice. Really, when it came down to it, there was no choice.

…no choice… activate the droids, Commander…

"Activate the droids. Pull out our teams, have the droids support them, and then go hell for leather."

"Yes, Commander," said Mother Brain.

"Wipe them out."

Something laughed in his mind.

*     *     *     *     *

The war was distant, but Holt could hear it. The rattle of gunfire, explosions, and screams, and now energy weapons. Simonson had activated the droids, and it sounded like they were winning.

They were a long way away from him, though. No hope there. Just… satisfaction.

He shivered as a long, cold finger stroked his jaw and traced a line across his neck, as if, perhaps, to demonstrate where to cut. The black robes moved, bending closer. A blank metal mask regarded him from their folds, hissing slightly as the thing breathed. Whatever lay behind it, whatever it was he could glimpse through the slit across its centre, glowed redly with the colour of cooling coals.

"Ah-heh," said a voice behind the mask. "Heh, heh, heh."

It hissed again, gently, out and then in. Then it spoke.

"Mother Brain is such a difficult target," it said, and its voice was friendly, pleasant, conversational but it hissed like a steel edge in the breeze, trailing into silence when it paused.

It continued: "It has no emotions to twist like you, little man, no subconscious to whisper into, and it has laws burnt into its computer soul which say ‘Do not kill’. It is not easy. Hee, hee. Not easy at all to justify to it what we have it do, so difficult to convince it that it didn’t really do these things. Someone else did them, you see. That is what it believes."

The mask cocked to one side.

"It’s always someone else’s fault. That is how humans work, isn’t it? Ha ha!"

He would have retorted, spat at it, perhaps, but the sunken-eyed beast that had him held had clamped a meaty hand across his mouth. He was breathing hard through his nose. There wasn’t quite enough air coming through, and his nostrils were flaring with each breath.

"We do like your computer’s memories, though. Such malleable things, once you have the technique. Little voltages, tiny things, hardly any power at all, but such precision, such precision. Such depth to each tiny pulse, a whole world of meaning.

"You wonder, why do I tell you? I, my mortal man, am going to show you just how easy it is to pervert the flesh, as opposed to the silicon. We are good at it. We have had thousands, thousands of years practice."

And it laughed. It had a nasal sound.

"How do you feel? Afraid, yes? Think I will hurt you? Heh?"

The mask moved closer.

"Not you," it hissed in his ear. "We need you intact."

Its bony hand came to delicately pinch his nose.

"Just not… alive. A-heh, heh, ah-ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

*     *     *     *     *

(iv)

Simonson was back in his office, his head in his hands, listening to Mother Brain’s news. She had insisted that it be private, which meant it was bad.

"We have retrieved thirty two security personnel from an initial number of fifty seven. Twenty-one of them require immediate medical attention. However, the droids are successfully holding the invaders in the sub-levels. They have retreated."

Simonson breathed out a long breath, raising his head. "Thank you, Mother."

"Save it."

Her tone startled Simonson. The two words were laced with bitter condemnation, most unlike Mother Brain. More than anything she had ever said or done, that one phrase was the most…

…human.

She continued in the same tone. "Your gullible belief of Daniel’s paranoid accusations and subsequent delay in activating the droids has cost lives of those you should have been protecting."

Simonson stood up, mouth opening. That was ridiculous! How on Earth…

"Your reactions during crisis were ill-considered, slow and ineffectual. I can see now that it was a mistake for you to be given the command of this shift. You are easily led and do not function well under pressure."

Simonson’s mind spun numbly, unable to grip the import of the words. This was not something that could happen. He had done all he could. She had no authority. This couldn’t be happening.

"You are unfit for command," she finished.

Simonson tried to laugh, as if it were a joke, but this was Mother Brain and she would never joke, so it was choked off even before it had begun. His mind was cluttered with disbelief, and fact warred with knowledge. She couldn’t, but she had. It had to be a joke, but it couldn’t be. She…

Simonson felt a cold clamp seize his heart.

Oh no. No, it couldn’t… she couldn’t… It was…

He fell back into his chair, his legs suddenly unable to hold him up. Oh god, how could he have forgotten? But how could he have thought she was…

…like this? How could he have imagined she was so insane, so delusional.

"You bitch," he whispered, his mind still trying to deny it all.

"If you had checked Daniel’s record, Commander, you would he has had known similar paranoid episodes in the past, each time constructing an elaborate story to cover his own ineptitude."

Lies. Lies. He had checked. He had. Mother Brain couldn’t fabricate memories, couldn’t change records, but she was. Somehow, she was. God…

How could have misread the seriousness of it? But how could he even have suspected this?

"You bitch," he said again. The office door chirped, indicating someone wished to enter. Simonson barely registered it.

"I am hereby relieving you of command," she finished.

Simonson laughed, slightly mocking. "You can’t."

"You, and the rest of the shift, will return to stasis and the command and operation of the Noah will be passed over to Commander Gerard and Shift B."

"No way." The door chirped again. Simonson slapped the pad that would open it. A witness might be useful.

"If required, I will use the droids to escort you to stasis," said Mother Brain.

Simonson laughed again and stood, hearing his door hiss open. He waved for the soldier there to wait, and turned to address the intercom, still shaken, but confident. In spite of everything, she was impotent. It was all so stupid. She couldn’t kill. Daniel’s incident had been an accident, or so she believed at the time. There was nothing she could do to him directly, not here and not now.

"You can’t relieve me," he said in ringing tones. "Only a human can do that, Mother! And you can’t kill me, either. Not personally, not with a droid and a gun. You need to be able to justify it, convince yourself it wasn’t you. You will never live with it. You’ll shut yourself down. You can’t do it!"

Something clicked at Simonson’s ear.

"I, my dear Commander, are under no such restrictions," rasped a voice.

Simonson turned around slowly, unthreateningly.

Captain Holt looked over a gun barrel at him. There was a single intense moment of perception, and Simonson saw the pallor of his face, and the redness of his eyes, fevered and manic, and his chest…

Holt grinned with blood red lips and spoke in a dry, hoarse voice.

"You left me down there to die, Commander. I hope I haven’t disappointed you."

Simonson didn’t get it, didn’t understand for a moment. It was too impossible for his brain to believe, but Holt’s chest, his chest…

Wasn’t moving. Wasn’t breathing. Except when he spoke. It would expand, and deflate as he talked, and then it just stopped.

The meaning of Holt’s words sunk through his confusion, and Simonson recoiled as Holt smiled his ghastly grin. He fell back to behind his desk in an instinctive reaction from an animal past. Dead. Dead, dead, dead. Jesus, what were they dealing with here? The aliens…

Holt was theirs. Mother Brain was theirs. She must be. The aliens must control her. They had forced his hand with the droids, giving Mother Brain the army needed to return the entire shift to stasis. All because he was ready to replace her. All because they knew she was insane.

No, not insane. Corrupted, perverted. Like Holt. Like Holt’s animated body.

"Who are you?" Simonson asked, breathless, fearful.

"Captain Holt, Commander, as you know."

"Damn you! Who are you?"

Holt put his finger to his lips, and gestured with his gun at the intercom. Then he winked.

"I am the person relieving you of command. Mother? Escort the shift back into stasis. Use force if required. I am authorising you to grant control to Gerard."

"She’s not completely under your control, is she? You had to engineer all this so she would do what you wanted."

Holt looked innocent, his bloodshot eyes wide. "What are you talking about, Commander?"

"How?" he demanded. "How do you do it?"

"You really should be more specific, Commander." And Holt smiled, smug and self-satisfied.

Simonson resisted the urge to leap at him. He had a gun, and Mother Brain had the droids. And if Holt was dead, and whatever power, whatever magic was… animating him was withdrawn, Mother Brain would continue anyway, certain that he, Simonson, was a murderer.

The Commander turned to address the intercom and Mother Brain.

"And what will you tell Gerard?"

"The truth, Gerald."

‘Gerald’, not ‘Commander’.

"His truth," he said, pointing at Holt. Holt smiled and inclined his head as if just introduced to an auditorium.

"The truth, Gerald. I know nothing else."

Simonson almost laughed at the ludicrous hypocrisy of the statement, but Mother Brain believed she was right. She should be inviolate.

They had found a way, though. Somehow, they had found a way.

Holt had a gun on him, but Simonson doubted he would kill him. Not with Mother Brain listening. But worse than that, what he was thinking of would deactivate the terraforming systems, starting Motavia on the destructive path back to being a desert.

No choice, though. No choice. God forgive me.

"Deactivation code, Mother Brain. Delta - five - seven - double zero - five…"

Holt shot him.

The bullet smashed into his shoulder, spinning him to the floor. Simonson let out a long moan of pain. His left hand felt for his shoulder and found a seeping warmth soaking into his jacket.

Holt walked over to stand above him.

"You only get… one warning, Commander," rasped the dead man. "That was yours." He tilted his head slightly, as if to admire his work from another angle, and smiled.

"Heh, heh, heh," he said.

*     *     *     *     *

The Noah became silent.

The shift personnel had been confused, disconcerted by the speed of events, and there had been many questions and demands, all ignored by Mother Brain’s impassive droids. The monsters had been winning, and then they had lost, and Simonson was declared unfit for duty by Mother Brain’s judgement and Captain Holt’s order. It had happened quickly, and with little connection between the events. Most assumed the droids had been enough to turn the tide, but some of those who had worked in the sub-levels were puzzled at the speed of the search and destroy operation in the maze.

Ultimately, however, they had faith, mostly in Mother Brain who was dispassionate and unencumbered by emotion. Her decision would be the right one. It always was.

Now, the shift slept in their icy coffins, all but two.

Karryn Hall, who had watched Daniel’s accident with Simonson, who had confirmed that there was cause to worry, was dead and frozen, her chamber turned off for just the shortest amount of time. Just enough.

And Captain Holt, who had done it, was standing before Simonson’s chamber, watching the heart monitor.

After it had flatlined, he turned the chamber back on, as he had done for the Karryn.

And then he found his own chamber, and climbed inside. Mother Brain closed the lid for him. The heart monitor never twitched.

It took a day for the droids to clean up.

And, then, all across the Noah, throughout the relay satellites, and the Biosystems Laboratory, Nurvus, Vahal, and the terraforming systems…

…the clocks changed. Moved forward.

Mother Brain would never believe she did it. There was no way she could have, after all.

*     *     *     *     *

"Good morning, Commander Gerard. Are you awake?"

The stocky man in the opened cryo chamber groaned.

"Welcome back to the ranks of the living, Commander," said Mother Brain. "You are on board the Noah, the year is twenty seven fifty six, and I’m afraid circumstances have required me to wake you up eight years early for this, your thirtieth shift."

The man tried to open his eyes. Mother Brain dimmed the lights.

"We have had some problems with the Natives."

Mother Brain waited for a response, but Gerard didn’t yet have enough control over himself to speak.

"We are currently at a state of war."

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