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The Other Side

Part 6 - Yasha <Female Demon>


"It is better to help someone achieve their own goals rather than doing the work for them. You could give Albert Einstein the answers he sought, or you could him a grant so he had the time to pursue them himself. The latter retains Albert’s satisfaction of personal accomplishment, and allows him to have freedom over his research. His work is not being manipulated, just facilitated.

"And if someone builds an atomic bomb, no one will think of you any less."

- The Restoration, by John William Lewandowski


(i)

The darkness was too much. Neither Alina nor Daniel could sleep in darkness in a place where the nightmares had been real.

They found a dead end room, clear of bodies, laid their mattresses on the floor and set up a small portable lamp in the room’s centre, shining at the ceiling to disperse the light. They closed the door and had two Browrens guarding it on the outside.

It was silly, childish, a simple fear of the dark, but they did not speak of it like that. They spoke of it as ‘safety’, a lie shared by mutual consent.

When they bedded down, Daniel found the silence was worse than the darkness. It left him alone with his thoughts, the guilt of the horror they had unleashed here and across the planet. How many children couldn’t sleep for the monsters outside? How many Natives had been killed?

What had they done?

In the orange dimness, surrounded by silence, and unable to sleep, Daniel found hope a hard thing to believe in. He felt lost and alone in the slow hours of the night, waiting for his mind to rest from worry, unable even to cry himself to sleep as some might.

His heart was full of tears, but they would not come. They never did.

Daniel hadn’t cried since he had learnt to seal off his emotions from the bullies, and it was a thing that saddened him more greatly than all the pain they had caused in Algol. Not even Earth’s fate, their abandonment of their only home, had bought tears forth. Like everything else, Daniel was careful not believe it too fully, too emotionally. His mind knew the truth, but his heart did not. He thought it, but refused to feel it.

Daniel hated it, but couldn’t stop it any longer. It just happened, trained into him by a child who knew no better. Mother Brain’s conspiracy against him had come close, scaring him more than anything had before. Earth’s death had been held back by science - there had been enough warning to build the technologies and no one had truly believed it would be man’s end. That was unthinkable, impossible.

But Mother Brain was a god, and to be the target of a god’s direct wrath, to be alone with the impossible, unbelievable truth that she would kill, and kill him for…

Except it hadn’t been about him, not really. He had thought that Chrison had been killed because he wanted to talk to him, but Chrison had already been dead. It was just… excuses that Mother Brain had given to him.

Which left Mother Brain without a goal as far as Daniel saw. There was no reason for her to have attacked the Biosystems Lab. No reason at all.

That was the last thought he could recall before sleep came, except for the remembered feel of his dreams that were empty and dark.

*     *     *     *     *

Weather was affected most by the thermo-dynamics of the oceans, and, as such, the Climate Control Systems were buried beneath the sea. Access was via an underground monorail from the Lab.

To get there, Daniel and Alina needed Seed operational.

Reconnecting Seed completely took a day, and even then the cabling was spread in snake-pit patterns across the floor. Most of his monitors were still out, but access to the rest of the lab’s systems was up and running.

Important to Daniel was the droid control node, the radio transmitter Seed used to order the Biosystem Lab’s droids. Droids were autonomous units, only commanded, and not directly controlled, but Seed’s transmitter had been damaged before he had seen the need to bring all of the security droids on line. Without it, they had remained inert, waiting for an activation code. According to Seed, Nei, who was the core of the problems, had then attacked the inert droids for fun, laughing at their helplessness, and presumably not quite understanding that her taunts were wasted on deactivated machines.

With the transmitter working, any remaining droids of Seed’s could be put to work on a twenty-four hour basis on basic cleanup.

The transmitter had been hacked at, again by something clawed. A half dozen circuit boards had been damaged and had to be replaced, and the cut wiring needed to be soldered back together. The resultant patchwork job looked slapdash, but it only took half of the day to do it.

After re-connecting the power, Seed’s army came back to life.

Across the complex, the wounded droids straightened up from their supine positions, rubble showering from their backs. Mechanised hands moved with purpose, fumbling beneath the ruin for leverage and grip, and then pushing it aside as they found it, allowing the droids to rise with slow majesty, with determined purpose, in casual ignorance of the metal and plastic they brushed aside in their rise from the dead.

Alina had jumped at the first, distant noise, but Daniel just grinned at her, and she laughed, too as she realised.

It was a mostly psychological step, but an important one. Biosystems was back under Seed’s control, and therefore safe.

They slept better that night.

*     *     *     *     *

Seed spent the night analysing the recorder from Nurvus. All Motavian planetary system orders went through Nurvus, and it also monitored the transmissions of the Natives.

The report he presented to them in the morning was damning.

Mother Brain had begun eighty years previously, offering to model the results of Government policy, allowing the Natives to see probable results of their decisions before they were made. Most governments had done something similar back on Terra. The processing power and accuracy of a neural net were stunning, and a valuable oracle.

But, over the next few decades, Mother Brain had taken it further, insinuating herself as an adviser to the System Government. Their problem with her was the same as the humans’. Mother Brain was always right.

Once you accept that, you stop checking.

And now, she was into everything. She was efficient, perfect, faultless, and available. It had been so logical and easy, just a question, a favour to ask of a computer which had undoubtably planted the idea at the onset.

She had placed her herself in the pantheon, become their god, and the mundane religions which relied on faith and did not deliver had fallen by the wayside.

*     *     *     *     *

(ii)

"Jean-Paul?"

"Receiving."

"Chris?"

"Here."

Daniel was using two separate communications dishes at Nurvus, via Seed’s newly repaired link. The dishes were used for tight-beam voice communications that they didn’t want the Natives to intercept. Computer noise could be passed off as Mother Brain, but if the Natives were to hear strange voices, the Restoration could be jeopardised.

Daniel was instead using them to bypass Mother Brain, but to use them required line-of-sight, and with the two shuttles going in opposite directions, it would become more and more difficult to find a window when they could both be contacted at once. Even now, Daniel had only ten minutes before Jean-Paul moved back into Motavia’s umbra, but three hours for Chris.

"I don’t have a lot of time," he told them both. "Seed has examined the Nurvus recorder, and summarised Mother Brain’s actions over the last ninety or so years."

"Is it bad?" asked Chris.

"The bitch has ruined the Restoration," said Daniel, surprised at the feeling he heard in his own voice. He tried to continue normally.

"The Government is in her thrall, and she has been parcelling out our technologies, most notably our droids – which she can control – for law enforcement purposes. She’s been sabotaging systems, space flights, all sorts. From the Natives’ perspective the recent attack on Motavia is the worst of it and I think it’s the only thing they directly blame on her. Until recently she’s been quite careful."

"Why the change?" asked Jean-Paul.

Daniel hadn’t thought about it, but it was a good question.

"I don’t know. There’s more, but Seed will transmit his report at the end of this message. There’s some things you need to know now, though."

"What?" Chris again.

"Seed has started sending status reports again…"

"And they’re not getting through," Chris finished for him.

Daniel shook his head, even though they couldn’t see.

"They’re getting through. We get the acknowledgment signals from Nurvus, Kuran and the Noah. They’re just not getting past Mother Brain. We’re on our own unless we can get to someone in person."

"We could wait at the satellites," suggested Chris. "Someone is bound to come to fix them."

"No," said Jean-Paul. "It would be easier to leave a copy of Seed’s report and a message. It is not proof, but I think they would look into it."

Daniel interrupted. "There’s more, and I’m running out of time. The System Government is convinced that Mother Brain is out of control, which is good, but they blame the Palmans who opened the dams. They were being hunted by the Government, but that ceased shortly before the Ogyian took off for Gaila. Seed suggests that the Ogyian had the Palmans on board and that Gaila is being used as a prison by Mother Brain. It would be consistent with some unusual supply shipments sent there twenty three years ago."

"Damn," said Chris. "What do I do if they’re there?"

"Get them out, but I think telling them the truth would be bad. Mother Brain is insane, and the Natives seem to want a scapegoat."

"I agree," said Jean-Paul. "The shift Commander is presumably under Mother Brain’s thrall. Mother Brain could easily manipulate both sides to war come that revelation."

"I’m not sure she’ll be needed," said Daniel bitterly. "Look, be really careful, Chris. I don’t know what sorts of security upgrades may have been installed at Gaila. We only have the data from Nurvus, and Mother Brain might have moved something in from Palma."

"I’ll be careful."

"And watch yourselves, both of you. The System Government is hunting for us as well. We’re pirates, apparently."

"And no doubt the Commander has been told we are traitors," added Jean-Paul.

"If we aren’t now, we soon will be."

Chris swore, with feeling.

*     *     *     *     *

"You worry too much," said Alina to Daniel that evening.

"What?"

The storm had cleared, and the sky shone with stars and silvery wisps of cloud. Daniel and Alina were eating outside, enjoying the open night. Daniel had never really realised how confined he had felt back on the Noah. The cool air of the outside, the stars and the grass, were simple, relaxing pleasures he hadn’t realised he was missing.

Okay, not grass. Something similar, though.

"I was standing in the door when you were talking to Jean-Paul and Chris," Alina said with a slightly guilty smile. "You’re worried about the Restoration."

Daniel sighed.

"It will be hard to come back from what Mother Brain has done," he said. "We may have to just introduce ourselves and hope they are forgiving."

Alina made a tiny shake of her head. "It’s not so bad. I mean, why didn’t we give them our technology? Originally, I mean."

Daniel frowned, trying to think back. He had heard all the explanations a long time ago, and couldn’t remember the details. It had just sounded so right when he had heard it, and it had reduced in his mind to trust without reason.

"Because… if we gave them our technology, gave them a technological culture…" He floundered.

"We would have to take over their culture," Alina started as if she was reading it from a book, "because only we could maintain it. Resentment would follow, because we are controlling them and defining their culture for them, and subsequent generations of humans might start think of the Palmans as children, who must be guided and controlled, because of their lack of actual technological know how." She ended in a rush and with a grin.

"More or less," Daniel admitted.

"So?"

"So, what?"

"Mother Brain has given them new technologies, but they’re not the primitive people they once were. The neural net computing technology Mother Brain gave them with the droids is pretty far in advance of what they can do." She shrugged. "But they do know enough to understand how they work. It’s a jump, but it doesn’t make them reliant on us, does it?"

"A generation ago, this planet’s population was gainfully employed as farmers!" Daniel burst out. "You can’t say that they were ready for this level of automation!"

"Perhaps not, but they’ll get used to it. Their culture just needs a little time to adjust. You think we didn’t have these problems? Our technological advancement was rushed a lot faster than theirs. We had two World Wars and a Gaian Collapse to spur us on. Heard of the Luddites?"

"Yes, I know. And Rome was on the brink of an industrial revolution but had no impetus. I read it, too." But, in truth, he didn’t remember much detail. That bit stuck because it was so strange. The industrial revolution could’ve happened two thousand years early, if only the Romans had the vital necessity that was the famous mother of invention.

"Ah, but I’ve read it more recently. I’m right, too. Ready or not, they can understand what we give them. Their culture is their own affair."

Daniel frowned into the middle distance, thinking.

She was right.

He had been regarding it as a sort of single step. Low tech, and then high-tech, and nothing in between, which was absurd. It’s just…

He had been there at the beginning, and for him not much time had actually passed, and neither had he experienced the Native’s advancement first hand. It was just facts, numbers on reports, not real. Alina had come in the middle of it, and regarded the beginning of the Restoration as history. She wasn’t stuck with first impressions of the Natives that were ancient and out of date.

Daniel hadn’t thought about it before, but now that he considered it, in actuality, the rules of the Restoration became less important as the Natives developed. Every year of their progress made interference less of a danger.

For that matter, Daniel suddenly realised, the Restoration could end now quite happily. The Natives were more advanced in a number of areas. They had built matter teleporters and, although they were more limited than the Esper magic, needing a machine at each end, it was still far more progress than mankind had ever made towards that goal. The Palmans could read and store an entire organic neural net, effectively recording a person’s entire experience and memories. Their energy weapons were smaller, without the bulky power packs of the human ones…

There was plenty of technology to swap for. It was never intended that they should have the same technology, just enough to be equal.

A realisation flowered with silent cold pressure in Daniel’s mind, and it must have shown somewhere on his face.

"What is it?" asked Alina.

"You’re right. You are so right, but the Restoration is over anyway." He turned to face her. "Their technology is equal. We’re better at some things, but they’re better at others. It should be over, I’m sure."

"Mother Brain’s been delaying?"

"Yes!"

But there was something wrong with that, something wrong with everything. Impossible though it was, it was somehow like she was working to a plan…

No, that wasn’t right. Not a plan, as such - she had no plan Daniel could see - but her actions implied she knew exactly what she was doing, which was impossible. She had been forging reports from the lab for months. If she knew that she was, she would stop, or shut down. So she didn’t know.

But she still continued doing it.

Why? How could she do that? She’s fooling herself into doing all this. How can she fool herself the same way every time? How can she have a goal she doesn’t know about? Humans did all the time, with prejudices and opinions colouring their judgement without them even being aware of it, but Mother Brain was a computer.

"Alina?" Daniel asked in a thoughtful tone. "Do AIs have a subconscious?"

"Not really. A few subsidiary processors that they can program on the fly to take over certain tasks, that’s all. Why?"

He had thought of a subconscious back on the Noah as well. It fitted.

"Everything Mother Brain is doing seems consistent, to a plan."

"But she can’t have a plan, or she’d find it in defiance to her prime directives and abandon it, maybe even shut herself down."

"I know. That’s why I’m asked about the subconscious."

Alina smiled in tolerant amusement. "Sorry, Daniel. Nothing like that."

"What about damage to her ‘net. A sort of split into two, perhaps?"

"Physically cut it in half? A schizophrenic computer? No. You should stick to theorising in your own field, Daniel. I have been thinking about this, and I can’t come up with anything except the senile computer idea."

"How would that work?"

Alina sighed. "Let’s see. A neural net is a problem-solving tool. To adapt to new situations, to learn, it must change, make new connections through the neural pathways. It’s constantly in flux."

"Okay."

"But errors would seep in, eventually, and if you are unlucky, the error spreads to the nearby neurons. It’s Chaos Theory in action. A single error changes the pathways, and the next thought to go down that path is wrong, but it still gets added to the sum total of Mother Brain’s experience, absorbed into the net, thereby creating more errors. More errors mean more thoughts would be affected, creating more errors. It’s how senility works in humans."

"And it can happen to neural nets?"

"Not really, but Mother Brain has been active for a very long time. God knows it’s the only feasible option."

She said the last with so much feeling, that Daniel’s eyes glanced at her cross again. Religion was rare nowadays. Those which had been left had turned into ‘repent or be damned’ cults in the dark light of humanity’s own version of the apocalypse.

"Do you believe? In God, I mean." And Daniel mentally kicked himself. He hadn’t actually meant to have asked, but the words had just rolled out to fill the silence.

"Yes. Of course. Do you?"

Daniel had to think about that. It was always tempting to believe in a greater power, and he had been tempted once, but now he tended not to think about it. He knew what his conclusion would be if he tried, and didn’t want to face it. Despair lay that way.

"I gave up trying after Earth died," he said without emotion.

"We did that, not God, not the Devil."

"I know that. It’s just…" Daniel tried to find some words to fit his feelings, and couldn’t.

Alina gave him some time and then supplied them for him.

"Hard enough to have faith in mankind, let alone the Almighty?"

"Sort of, yeah."

Alina smiled at him, and Daniel found himself noticing that her eyes were brown.

"Would you have believed in magic before we left? Even with the best explanation in the world?"

"Probably not," Daniel admitted.

"Yet, here we are on a planet where magic is real. Magic, Daniel! Think about that! You have been cooped up on that ship, blinded to the wonder of it all by distance and all those dry scientists."

"Chrison wasn’t…"

Alina raised her hands.

"Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that, but it’s still magic, even if it can be explained. Magic. Pure fantasy, unimaginably impossible. Have you watched them do it?"

"No…" said Daniel, curious to the sudden new track.

"I watched some of the video collected at Nurvus. It’s amazing, like a dance using only the hands and arms. It’s graceful, dramatic, precise, almost mathematical, and it’s real." She shook her head at him, smiling. "It’s not science, Daniel. It’s art, and it’s beautiful."

She pushed herself up from the grass.

"Personally, I find it hard not to believe in God."

She left him with that thought, taking her empty plate and vanishing into the cold night of stars. Daniel selected a native fruit and bit into it, thinking. It tasted like lemonade.

*     *     *     *     *

(iii)

Immediately after Seed’s droids had become active, they had sent a group of them down the monorail to Climate Control.

The metal rail was also Climate Control’s data link to Nurvus, which went through the Lab. The link was down, which might mean a break in the rail, but even if not, the genetic mutants had migrated down there, and unlike the Lab, there was no easy access to the outside world. What monsters had gone were probably still there.

Seed reported it all clear the next morning.

For the last two days, Daniel and Alina had found huge areas of the Lab clean and cleared by Seed’s tireless droids. The bodies were removed and burnt, although Daniel noticed that genetic samples were taken from many of them, and the furniture straightened, the walls and floors cleaned, panels replaced, lights repaired.

Climate Control was a revisit to the pit.

The bodies were fresh, recently hunted and destroyed by the security droids. They were being dumped in the waterlock and ejected into the ocean, but it was a slow process, still happening when Daniel and Alina arrived.

The air processors also weren’t working, and the air had a faint haze to it. Daniel wondered at the strange smell of it, and finally realised he was breathing charred monster.

The control centre had been closed off, and the door controls destroyed by energy weapons or more Native magic. Daniel had to supply his own charge from a portable power supply to the mechanism to open the door.

A woman lay dead just inside.

Alina gasped, and Daniel drew back, averting his eyes in shock and revulsion as the Browrens stepped inside to sweep the room. The woman had been ghastly, long dead, bloated and pale. Her face had been slashed and that side of it was gaunt. Her hair had paled with death, and mixed with her blood, so it was impossible to tell the colour of it.

But she had looked young, even for a Palman, and that hit Daniel the hardest.

The first victim. We haven’t yet seen what we have wrought, but here it is for us.

"It is one of the Neis," said Seed in his headset. "I must have a sample of its DNA to confirm which."

"Get it yourself," Alina muttered, tears threatening in her voice. Then she turned away, stalking back down the corridor.

Daniel saw a Browren bend down to take a sample, his mind turning an irrelevancy over and over in his thoughts.

Neis?

Plural?

*     *     *     *     *

The principle damage to Climate Control was to its link to Nurvus. The drainage system into the inland sea had never been damaged, merely overloaded from the cyclone and the storms which had spun off it. Two of the water intakes were also damaged and non-functional, but that was hydraulics, out of Daniel’s field. According to Seed they weren’t needed anyway, not now the climate was stable. Lots of minor systems were down, attacked by the claws of this… of these Nei women, but Daniel ignored them for now. It was most important to get the climate back under control.

With the tunnel open access to the Neis and the monsters, Daniel had been worried that the signal repeaters, which re-strengthened the signal every few kilometres, might be down and he would have to bring the satellite uplink on line, but no. Nei seemed to destroy things at the end points, and had no idea they would be comparatively easy to repair, didn’t think the system’s creators would be back, didn’t think she’d ever die, or just flat out didn’t care.

They left Climate Control after that. There were still a lot of minor systems to repair, but by unspoken consent, they decided they wanted it cleaned out completely first.

Three days had passed. It would be four more before Chris came back, longer for Jean-Paul. There was plenty of time.

*     *     *     *     *

"Seed, what’s the current status of Climate Control?"

Daniel looked up from his soldering job. They had been worried about this, but he had completely forgotten to ask.

"Mother Brain appears to be regulating the climate normally," Seed answered Alina, "and undoing the slight climatic degradation which occurred whilst the system was off-line."

"Why?" asked Daniel, walking over and pulling his filter mask down off his nose and mouth so it hung around his neck. "I figured she’d just ignore it, let it continue, pretend it was still off line."

"I can only suggest that she has no reason not to. She must obey her programming." Seed’s voice was flat and deep, like the classic science fiction computer. AIs were tools to scientists, and the scientific ‘nets were generally set up to reflect it. Seed’s voice had far less emotion and inflection than Mother Brain’s, but Daniel found that it was oddly comforting. Only those with emotions can go insane.

Except, of course, Mother Brain didn’t have emotions, or hadn’t, at least. For all that her sophisticated personality imitated her creators, she could only know logic and data. Emotions were… should be alien to her, as alien as vision, which must be reduced to numbers for her benefit. The thought disturbed Daniel for a reason he could not define.

"And half the time she doesn’t," he said in reply to Seed.

"We cannot theorise without an understanding of her malfunction," intoned Seed, "but you said yourself she must be convinced that she is right, and with a constant signal being relayed from Nurvus, that would be difficult."

"Seed, theorise," Alina ordered. "What ways could she now deactivate Climate Control whilst still believing she is in the right and that hurting the Natives was not her actual goal."

"Only one way I can foresee, but, as I said, I do not know the parameters of her malfunction. The only way I can expect her to do as you suggest is for her to manipulate Commander Gerard into giving the order."

"We need to keep an eye on it," Daniel said, partially to Alina, but mostly to Seed. "Anything violent, and we have to shut it back down."

"I cannot monitor Nurvus," Seed said. "I am a genetics and medical computer, and have little access to or understanding of the climatic data."

Which meant they had to trust Mother Brain to regulate things normally, or hope that anything she did was obvious - like a storm, or a complete shutdown - so they would realise and disconnect her.

Daniel and Alina, with Seed, had been discussing options for removing Nurvus from Mother Brain’s control whilst retaining the climate, but had only come up with one. Unfortunately, it required a Wren class android, and all of those at the lab had been assisting with the research, active during Nei’s attack, and destroyed by her. The Nurvus Wrens had long since been removed after that facility had ceased to have a permanent staff. There might be some at the Vahal factory complex, but Mother Brain controlled that facility and had it producing military droids. The only other two sources were Palma, used there as the eyes and voices of Mother Brain amongst the Palman scientists, or on the Noah.

Daniel stretched. He wasn’t used to so much soldering, sitting hunched and all but motionless over the electronics. He needed a break.

"Seed? What is the deal with Nei?" Daniel sat down in a chair, locking his jaw around a yawn.

"How exactly do you mean, Daniel?"

Alina sat down, too, and stretched her legs.

"I mean anything," said Daniel. "What the hell did Mother Brain do to it - to her? I thought you controlled the lab. And why did you say there was one when there were two?"

"Do you have records?" Alina asked suddenly.

"Yes," said Seed. "I will show you."

*     *     *     *     *

(iv)

The screen closest to them flicked on, showing a room full of the cylindrical Genesis chambers and their associated machinery. Each had a monitor, showing jagged lines like heart monitors, but there were more lines than Daniel had ever seen.

Four of the transparent tubes had occupants, arranged by age. The first had an embryo, the last a girl, perhaps six years old, naked, pale and bald. Daniel could see enough to know she was a Palman. Palmans were shorter than the average human, and she had the large eyes, small mouth and pointed chin of that race. Her ears, though, strangely large and elfin, which was not normal. He was about to ask why, when Seed started his narration.

"The Numan project was an attempt to isolate the genes which facilitate the Palman use of the black energy and then to translate the genes into human DNA. I identified probable gene segments and created Palman animal strains with higher and more precise control over the black energy. The following step was to apply the same methods to a Palman.

"This is the Numan growth lab, dated eight-eight-twenty seven fifty one. The specimens were designated ‘Nei’, a local word which means ‘power’."

"Why so many of them?" asked Alina, touching the first Nei’s image with one finger.

"Modifications were made to the initial specimen, Nei First, after study. Each specimen is a refinement."

"So there were problems?" Daniel asked, surprised.

"Yes, but at this stage I did not detect any. These were merely refinements. Genetics is not considered an exact science."

"Okay. Go on."

The screen flickered, and Alina withdrew her touch. The first Nei specimen had grown, and was now perhaps the equivalent of ten years old. Her ears had grown considerably, and had changed shape. They were somewhat like a cat’s but as proportionally as large as a rabbit’s. They stuck out at a pronounced angle, and with her pale skin and still hairless form, she looked more goblin-like than elfin.

"This is the lab four months later. Under normal circumstances consciousness is not activated in specimens until they are ready for release. In this case, there was a malfunction at Nurvus, either sabotage or a deliberate act by Mother Brain. The resultant surge of power fused several connections, deactivating the dampener and allowing Nei First to attain consciousness."

Daniel had repaired lots of fused circuits around the place, and had vaguely intended to ask about them.

"Watch," said Seed.

He had timed it perfectly, of course. Nei’s eyes flicked open in her tank.

"Jesus," breathed Alina, and Daniel saw it too. Nei was effectively a newborn, but there was intelligence and anger behind those eyes already.

Nei glanced from left to right, taking everything in, and then focused on the wall before her.

Her eyes narrowed.

Nei jack-knifed in the oxygenated solution, bringing her feet up to press against one side of the chamber, and her hands to the other. In less than two seconds, Nei had recognised her situation and reacted accordingly.

Nothing happened.

"The cylinders are the same glass composite used in the shuttle cockpits," said Seed as something made a creaking noise on the monitor. "They are not as thick, but still require substantial pressure to break. Far in excess of normal human or Palman capacities."

Something popped loudly, making them both jump. White, lightning patterns had sprung into being on the surface of the tube, and they glistened with leaking fluid. The room changed to a red colour as the emergency systems registered the break out. Nei either didn’t notice, or ignored it.

Daniel could hear the glass grinding, as the cracks were forced open.

"I suspect she is subconsciously utilising the black energy to increase or augment her strength, in what the Natives refer to as a ‘Technique’." said Seed.

The tube exploded, and Daniel jumped.

*     *     *     *     *

…and Nei had felt gravity for the first time. She landed awkwardly, but relaxed her joints to save herself from damage. Her ankle twisted, though, she could feel it, but not as pain. Her hands were red, not just from the light, but from some warm fluid. Glass glistened on her palm.

Nei tasted the red liquid, and recognised the taste. It was her. It was good.

A section of wall slid sideways, making an exit. But something stood in its passage, blocking her way. It was like the metal cabinets around the room, not like her. It was artificial, and smelt of metal and plastic.

It would not taste good, she thought. But it was in her way.

She leapt at it, fingers hooked like claws.

But the metal thing grabbed her wrist and swept her around into an uncontrolled arc back into the room. Nei landed against a cabinet, and it flared brightly at her, flashing and stinging her with little bits of light. Nei hissed and grabbed at it, trying to hurt it, but the cabinet just burnt her with more fiery light. She hissed louder, and backed off. It would pay for that.

She remembered the other machine just in time to duck out of its grasp as it tried to seize her from behind. She felt a modulating pressure in her ears, and she realised that with two ears, she could locate its source. The metal thing. What was the point of it, though?

It lunged again, but Nei danced out its way. One more time, and she would be able to get through the hole in the wall. She felt more pressure in her ears. Was it supposed to be some form of attack? Not an effective one. She grinned. This thing was slow and powerless.

It raised a tube at her. Nei just looked at it, wondering what it might be.

The tube flared.

Nei flinched away from the heat of it, but it burnt her side, just like the cabinet. What were these coloured fires the metal things used?

The machine’s tube flared again, but Nei was ready. She had to dodge away from the hole in the wall, though. She glanced over as she moved, and started. The hole had gone! She was trapped in this place with this metal thing that was trying to kill her!

*     *     *     *     *

"Watch carefully," said Seed.

*     *     *     *     *

Nei then hissed, and backed away. There was nothing but wall behind her. Maybe it could be broken like the transparent wall earlier, but maybe not.

The metal man fired, and Nei was forced into a corner to avoid it. The metal thing stepped forward, and seized her neck, lifting her up against the wall in the same movement. Its fingers locked tightly around her neck, and she couldn’t breathe!

Nei kicked the wall behind her, but there was no leverage. She clawed at the metal fingers around her neck, but they were too strong for her. Then she pressed her feet against the wall and tried to push off. The metal man was too heavy.

She was going to die!

Nei had been sensing something else. The pressures in her ears, the colours in her eyes, the tangs in her nose, and something… else. Warm, flowing, but just out of reach.

She didn’t have the leverage. Her hands needed to be elsewhere, stronger, bigger.

She struggled, whimpering, desperate, and then something happened to the flow of warmth. It responded. She felt it come for her, felt it around her, felt its malleable potential.

Nei stopped struggling and looked up into the crystal eyes of the machine. She smiled. Smiling felt good.

And then she destroyed it.

*     *     *     *     *

Alina flinched away from the screen. Daniel winced.

God, what had they done? What had Mother Brain created?

Why did we think we had learnt our lesson?

*     *     *     *     *

Nei rose to her feet, smiling at the scattered, twisted pieces of metal around her, a dreamy look in her huge eyes. Yes…

And then she looked at the body that shimmered around her. It was her body, but larger, more powerful. It had torn into the metal man, and now it was hers to wear like an exoskeleton, responding to her like her own did.

She felt the effort it took to keep the ghost giant alive, though. It took away the warmth, leaving her mind empty and cold. The warmth didn’t like that, and resisted. She had to force the warmth into this new purpose, and it was an effort. She could not do it forever.

But, long enough, surely.

Now, where was that door?

Nei punched forward, and her ghost body matched the movement perfectly, tearing into the metal.

*     *     *     *     *

Daniel watched Nei step through the torn metal of the door and into the passage.

"Would you like to continue viewing the records?"

"No!" Alina cried. "No, Seed. Please. I don’t want to see them all die."

Daniel bowed his head. He, too, had forgotten that they were viewing the records of a murderer, a psychotic.

"Jesus," he said, almost to himself. Worse than the violence were Nei’s expressions. It wasn’t enjoyment to her, it was rapture, cold and amoral. Savage and animal, like a grinning rapist.

Daniel heard Alina’s chair creak as she got up and left, leaving it spinning slowly in the light of the frozen monitor.

"Did anyone escape her?" Daniel asked quietly.

"That is probable enough to be almost certain," said Seed, "but I do not know. Neither can I tell if Professor Chrison was among them, but if Mother Brain has been using the Vahal droids to hunt the Palman fugitives, it is also likely that she -"

"Shut up."

Seed fell silent. Daniel listened to the silence, thinking.

"Seed?"

"Yes, Daniel?"

"What was Chrison’s first name?"

"Simon."

Daniel dipped his eyes, ashamed and saddened that he had taken this long to ask those questions. One curse of not thinking of such things, of hiding from emotion. Daniel wished he could stop it, and release his heart.

"How did she do it?" he asked, his voice still quiet, and then wondering at the probabilities whirling through Seed’s net, working out which ‘she’.

He chose the correct one.

"I can only speculate. Mother Brain does not have the specialist knowledge required to alter Nei’s genome, nor is she built for such work. I suspect that Mother Brain interfered with the nutrient feed or the power supply to the chamber or its systems, in which case her alterations would have been imprecise and their effects difficult to predict. Suffice to say that the specimen’s brain was corrupted as it developed, but I doubt Mother Brain could have known the exact results of her tampering."

"And what of the experiment? Was she as powerful as you wanted?" Daniel’s tone was slightly bitter, as if to the scientists of the Manhattan Project. Look at Hiroshema. Are you happy, now?

Seed, of course, took it literally.

"More so. Nei First has demonstrated extraordinary access to the black energy, far more than you have seen, but was unable to control it consciously, perhaps because of her mental state."

Daniel looked up. "Mental state?"

"Technically, there are no words to describe it. This is not ordinary psychology, like a chemical imbalance. This has no description. It is even possible that the emotions she felt have few human analogues."

"Jesus." Daniel’s head went back down, shaking slowly, his hand over his eyes.

"However, subsequent events have shown that she was, in some way, schizophrenic, and the primary personality was certainly violent, moody, demented and cruel. This entity was probably somewhat divorced from the section of the brain that controls emotion, and therefore had no empathy or morals.

"The other personality appeared to be a normal Palman psyche, but her empathy was increased by the horror of the crimes performed by her other self. She was not aware of her schizophrenia, and took some time to determine the truth behind the mutations. She then tried to kill herself on three occasions either to stop the other personality’s crimes, or to assuage the guilt she felt for her unwilling part in them. She gave up on all three attempts."

How very cold of you, Seed, Daniel thought.

"The second personality eventually physically separated herself from the first."

Daniel looked up again, surprised. He had forgotten about the two Neis. Physically separated?

"What? How?"

"A utilisation of the black energy with no recorded precedent. I have records if you wish to view them."

Daniel paused.

"Nobody dies," Seed reassured him.

"Alright."

The screen flickered.

Nei First was in a passage, just moving her hand away from her head, as if she had a headache. She shook her head and walked on. She walked strangely, but Daniel couldn’t put his finger on why. She had hair, now, down to the base of her skull, vividly blue, and she looked a lot older somehow, although she was still obviously a child. She had also found some body-tight polycarbon armour to match her hair.

"This record is four months after her attack on the facility. At this stage she has been using my files to create the genetic mutants for two months. Nei First is also ageing at an accelerated rate, although I am not sure why. It was not part of the genome specification."

"Two months, and she’s a geneticist?"

The image paused as Seed answered.

"Nei First is a savant. Her intelligence was always intended to be high, so that she would be able to understand the process behind her instinctive Techniques and be able to teach any others."

"You mean us."

"You were not born with the skill and do not have the instinctive control over it you have developed as a child for, say, language. Neither do you have the evolutionary instinct for using the black energy as your race did not evolve here."

The playback resumed and Nei stopped and touched her head again, blinking rapidly.

"At this stage, her eyes are unfocused, her heart rate is beyond human tolerances, and her temperature has risen dramatically. This last may be an side effect of utilising the black energy."

Nei shuddered, and bowed over. Then she threw her head back and howled.

"This is the first indication she has ever shown of pain."

Nei snapped her teeth over the howl with an audible click, and then hissed through them. Her hands moved to her face, but she withdrew them almost immediately, as if there was a rash she knew she shouldn’t scratch, but wanted to.

She flicked her head in pain, and her hands moved to her face again, clenching into fists.

Then Nei fell to her knees with a cry, and her fingers came up to her face, hooked like claws. She started pulling at her own face, leaving red lines on her cheeks, and hissing each time she pulled.

Then static exploded onto the screen in a blast of white noise that made Daniel jump.

"What the hell?"

Seed paused it.

"What was that?" Daniel demanded, just as he realised that Seed had undoubtably paused it to tell him. A human would probably have said "I was just going to tell you," and Daniel expected it for a microsecond.

But this was Seed.

"Energy can not be converted into alternate forms of energy without wastage," he said. Daniel knew this. Electrical circuits got hot, and fission reactors got radioactive. It was a lamentable fact of science. There would always be some wastage.

"However, this does not seem to be the case with the Native magic users," Seed continued. "There is no detectable radioactive leakage except directly from the magic’s effect. Considering the energy forms converted, normally the magic-user would be subjected to gradual and eventually lethal radiation doses.

"Professor Chrison theorised that any such wasted energy was redirected back into the dimensional ether, converted back into black energy, removing it and its harmful effects from this dimension.

"The levels of power manipulated here by Nei, however, appear to be too much, or perhaps concentration is required, and she lost it. Irrespective of the cause, the camera was subjected to a powerful electro-magnetic field that, although it did not damage the camera, scrambled its signal. The field remained for two minutes, fluctuating wildly, and then took a further thirty seconds to fade to the point that the camera’s signal was useable.

"This is the image three minutes later."

The screen changed, and Daniel gaped.

Two Neis lay collapsed on the ground. The copy was naked, and her hair was a different shade, redder, and ragged. The first Nei seemed to be locked in a contortion of pain, completely unmoving, as if dead and beset with rigor mortis. Sweat shined on her skin, and her cheek was resting in a pool of spittle. The second Nei was just lying there, as if fallen.

"A complete copy," Seed told him. "Direct energy to matter conversion. The levels of power and precision required cannot be estimated, but are extremely high."

The copy stirred, and looked around. She saw her twin, and began crawling away from her.

"She is crying, and it appears to be from an emotional cause."

Nei First’s eyes snapped up, and her teeth clenched in an awful grin. She grabbed her copy’s ankle.

"No, sister. Stay," Daniel heard her say, and was surprised. He could get by in Palman - everyone was required to learn it - but Nei First had spoken in English.

"Her first words," said Seed.

The second Nei had a look of complete panic on her face and kicked at her twin, crying out incoherently.

"Stay with me, sister." ‘First’s voice was a hiss, and Daniel realised that she had only been exposed to human speech. It made her incongruous and uncomfortably familiar. An alien and bestial psychotic speaking English was unaccountably disturbing.

Then the second Nei turned and launched herself at Nei First, her long nails slashing at her. Nei First didn’t react to the cuts that opened on her cheek, except to grin. The second Nei gripped her under the chin and came to her feet, heaving ‘First into the air and tossing her down the passage. The camera flickered as she did.

More randomised black energy, Daniel supposed.

Nei First crashed against the wall, but rolled to her side and flicked herself to her feet, smiling a cat’s smile. Daniel noticed something flickering in the air around her. Her ghost form, but it was pale and wan. Perhaps the split had taken it out of her. Daniel knew there were limits to even the most powerful of magic users.

Nei leapt straight through the ghost, and tried to ram her elbow into Nei First’s face. Nei First caught it two handed and twisted Nei aside. Daniel winced at the crack of what must be Nei’s shoulder dislocating.

Nei First giggled, and her ghost flickered and faded.

"You don’t like me, do you? Do you?" she asked.

Nei’s mouth moved strangely, like she was trying to figure it out.

"nnn… nnnhhhnoh… NNNo," she said. And then again, shouting as she grabbed at Nei First’s ankle. "No! NO! NO! NO!"

Nei First danced out of her way, laughing sweetly.

Nei planted her palm on the ground, flat and with the fingers spread, and glared at her sister. Nei First came back in close, swaggering and confident.

"You are my sist-"

Nei kicked off the ground, using her hand as her support and her pivot, and brought her heel up under Nei First’s chin. It connected with a crack, and she turned as she came back down from the attack, then rising up beneath the staggering Nei First, with the heel of her hand moving fast.

Nei First was lifted from the ground and sent sprawling, bleeding from mouth and nose.

Nei leapt onto her, and her hands found ‘First’s neck, and she squeezed. Nei First’s eyes went wide, and she started kicking, trying to knock Nei off, her mouth desperately open for air which couldn’t pass her throat. Her ghost form flickered once or twice, but it was pale, useless, weak.

Nei ignored the blows, and the nails tearing at her forearms, and choked Nei First until she had stopped struggling. Nei then let out an inarticulate cry of anguish and all but threw her sister’s head back on to the floor.

"Nei First is still alive," said Seed into the silence, "but she is unconscious."

Nei seemed to realise it, too, and tried to renew her grip, tears streaming down her cheeks. She flexed her hands around Nei First’s neck once or twice, trying to work up enough will , but it obviously wasn’t within her to kill her sister, and she pounded Nei First’s chest in frustration, still crying.

Then she rolled off her sister and curled up next to her, and wept.

The screen flickered forward in time, but little had changed.

"Five minutes later," said Seed.

Nei’s head rose and took one last look at her sister, sniffing back her tears. Her expression was torn, both hating and loving, but she turned it away from the camera before Daniel could interpret it fully. She began to crawl away, moving into a half run, her fingers still touching the floor for balance, as she moved out of the camera’s range.

"At this point, she leaves the complex. I do not know what has happened to her since."

The screen blanked.

"Which Nei did we find?" asked Daniel after a pause.

"First."

Daniel thought about that.

"Good."

*     *     *     *     *

(v)

Daniel walked, but his view of the world did not rock with his step.

The Biosystems lab was empty, and he was searching for someone, anyone, but the gliding corridors were long and unpopulated, coldly lit by grey lights. Doors slid open either side of him as he passed them, and he looked in each of the rooms, but there was no one around.

Where was everybody?

He wondered what the time was. That might explain where everyone else was. Perhaps it was lunchtime, or...

Or… didn’t something… wasn’t something supposed to happen?

The corridor lights faded to a deep flashing red, and dull sirens sounded somewhere in the distance. Daniel started running, but he didn’t know where he was, really, let alone where he was going. The control centre is the place to be, he thought. He would find out what was going on there.

One of the doors opened into the dark, red-lit expanse of the control centre, and Daniel stopped running. He approached the door carefully.

Inside, people were panicking. Something was going down. Some form of… containment problem. Biological waste, perhaps.

No… it was…

"Nei!" said someone. Daniel entered.

"It’s breaching the containment." The voice was unbelieving, and came from a man working at a console.

Daniel turned to let someone past, although the man didn’t seem to notice him.

"Impossible. That’s Glassteel," the man said, leaning over the shoulder of the first, looking at the screen there.

"Send a droid," called someone.

"She can’t get out."

"Containment has cracked." That was Chris. What was he doing here?

"No. She can’t get out."

Yes, she can, thought Daniel.

"Nei means ‘power’, remember? That’s what we have. Now we deal with it. Send a bloody droid."

"On way." Seed.

"Containment is about to breach!" The beginnings of panic.

"Jesus…" said Chris.

"Bring it up on a monit-"

A sharp noise from the console’s speaker, like glass exploding. Chris jumped.

"Breach has occurred!"

"She’s out," someone whispered almost in awe. Chris turned to look, and saw Professor Chrison.

"You did this," he said, accusingly.

"Guilty," he whispered, "As are we all. Why did we think we had learnt our lesson, I wonder?"

"Hope," said Chris simply, and he turned away from him, and saw Nei, on the monitor, tearing through the armoured security droid like it was foil. Fear suddenly swamped over him. They were all going to die - how did he know that? - they were going to die!

He turned, in treacle, and moved to run, but it - she was in the door. Already. How?

Her eyes glowed like lava, casting the room in red - or was that the emergency lights? She opened her mouth, and Chrison saw teeth like a shark’s. She was a demon, complete with the horns…

…ears…

…horns, serrated and…

…she leapt into the crowd.

Chrison ducked, and she sailed over him, arms spread, catching people in her embrace and bearing them to the ground. Chrison scrambled to his feet and ran, risking only one look behind him.

Nei was atop a pile of those she had swept to the floor, her long fingers full of someone’s dripping flesh, raised exultantly…

Her eyes were alight, with fire and joy. Her hair was flame in the blood light…

Chrison ran.

The power was out, the passages dark and full of shadows. Torn wiring and piping drooped from every wall panelling. How could she destroy so much in so little time?

He ran past a group of security guards. They paid him no heed, but fired beyond him, their lasers purpling the passage, and sharpening the shadows.

"How do you kill something which won’t die?" one screamed, panicked. Chrison heard an incoherent yell of enjoyed rage behind him as he fled past. As he ran, the guards all began screaming and their guns ceased their firing.

She must be right on his tail.

Something caught him from behind, jerking him from his feet. He landed heavily and rolled over to look at his attacker. It was her…

…but not her.

"Get up," she said. "She’s coming."

Alina scrambled up, and took Nei’s hand, trying to pull her away.

"No," Nei said. "She is my sister. No one else will stop her but I." She yanked her arm from Alina’s grip. "You must go."

"Too late," hissed a voice. They turned.

Nei First’s hair was floor length, spilling in a great pool around her like a cloak. On her head it was flame coloured, but on the floor, it was flame. She walked forward and the flame moved with her like cloth, like a trailing cape.

Black carbon stained the floor where it had been.

Stay, little mortal… the voice continued. The flame lit Nei First from the bottom, casting devilish shadows across her face as she spoke.

"You are my plaything."

My toy...

Nei crouched slightly, arms ready to move, ready to attack. Her sister just walked forward, calmly, assured.

"Fear me, mortal."

…I live on your fear.

"I feed on your soul."

Nei saw something layered over her sister, faint, as though described by starlight. A larger body, bulky, moving with hers, but without her seductive, confident walk. It spoke in symphony with her in a voice like rough shadow.

You are mine…

"Little sister, all mine."

Then they laughed together.

I am the future, mortal. I am the death of stars, the extinction of galaxies, the corrupter, and you, all of you, are my puppets, my playthings…

Nei First’s shade form was demonic, a sunken eyed taloned thing, with eyes like designators, and it was armoured in a moulded shell that creaked as it moved.

I am become death, destroyer of worlds…

Nei backed off, her heart seemingly stilled by fear, her breath caught in her throat.

Real people need to breathe, the thing suggested, and it laughed then, as Nei gasped and fell to her knees, clawing at her throat as it heaved in painful breaths.

Dream on, little Earthman…

Daniel raised his eyes to the thing, glowering at it from under shadowed brows, still breathing hard.

I am impressed that you can sense me, even here in the world of minds, lost as you are in dream…

…but I don’t care…

…I …have …already …won …

And Nei First leapt for him, laughing in the beast’s deep voice, shedding that form like smoke. Her claws reached for him, her hand passed into his chest in a painless spray of blood, and he felt her touch on his heart, just a touch, gentle and icy, but he felt his heart skip a beat, seize, jolt, stop…

*     *     *     *     *

Daniel cried out as he woke, chilled and alone in the darkness, his heart thumping heavy pulses of blood through his veins.

He sat up, pulling the covers up around him, and huddled there, shivering, trying to steady his breathing, his mind full of random emotion and fading shards of dream memory.

Nei… and Alina was there… and the feel of it… being lost in a haunted forest, alone in the world with shadows and monsters… hunted.

But Nei… she had killed him. He remembered that. He would for a long time.

God, that was terrible. His heart felt sensitive from her imagined touch, tight, withdrawn into the hole of his chest and thrumming in fear.

And that was all there was left of it. Nei, and the emotions. Strange, undefinable mixes of emotion, except the end, when he had dreamt his death, and his system had flooded with adrenalin, shocking him awake.

God…

Daniel reached over for their portable light, but he wasn’t lying down, and didn’t quite know where it was from up here. His hand knocked it, and he fumbled around its shape for the switch.

He found it, and turned it on, squinting against the sudden light. He shut his eyes and let them get used to the glare against his lids before opening them again. Still squinting slightly, and stood up, dragging his bedclothes with him.

Alina was gone.

Daniel threw off his bedclothes, and grabbed his jacket from the corner, somehow glad Alina was awake somewhere. Finding her would take his mind off the dream, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to go back to sleep anyway. Not with the dream fresh and sharp, ready to return. Nightmares always did that to Daniel, but he had never had one continue on when he went back to sleep. The fear was still there, though.

Daniel left the room in a mincing quickstep on the cold tile floor, and wandered down the corridor, looking.

Part of his dream came to him as he did. It had been here, in the lab, and he was searching for someone in the endless passages. Daniel shuddered.

"Seed?"

"Daniel, you should come to Operations immediately."

The feeling of the dream dispelled a little. Seed was real enough.

"Is Alina there?"

"Yes. We have a communication from Chris."

Daniel started jogging on tiptoes to save his feet from the cold. Operations wasn’t too far away, but the chill air was beginning to get to him.

Daniel turned sideways to get through the opening Operations door. Alina was there, sitting at an active screen. Daniel glimpsed the shape of Chris’ face there.

"God, I’m cold," he hissed through his teeth. "What’s up?"

Something fell somewhere in the room, and made a soft noise as it hit metal.

Paff.

Daniel’s eyes caught a silvery point of movement as it happened. A tiny pool of water, no more than a drop or two, glistened on the console.

Alina caught her breath in a sob, and the sound came again.

Paff.

Daniel saw it this time. A tear, fallen from Alina’s cheek, splashing into the pool, spreading it into drops and trails. Her hand was over her mouth.

The surreality of his dream flooded back to him as he crept forward, his eyes flicking over to the screen, and Chris.

Chris was haggard, his eyes red, his temple bleeding from a gash. He looked beaten down, lost, despairing.

"What is it?" Daniel asked, fearfully.

Chris bowed his head, somehow shamed. His voice broke as he spoke.

"I’m sorry, Daniel. I couldn’t stop it, I just couldn’t."

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