The Other Side
Part 8 - Hakaisha <Destroyer>
"Of course, we cannot be sure that our new strategy of first contact will work, but we do know that our previous ones have not. At least we are trying something new."
- The Restoration, by John William Lewandowski
Flora hated the dark emptiness of the sub-levels, and knowing of the invasion during the last shift made it worse.
The Warren stood silent vigil next to her - a precaution and one she was glad of - as she peered into the open junction box with her penlight held in her teeth. She was trying very hard not to jump at every hiss and creak of the mechanisms and pipes around her. It would be better with some company other than the ceramic lump next to her.
At least it was a simple problem. Quick.
Flora reached for her tool belt and found a screwdriver. She used it to flick a small metal tube from its placement, but missing the catch as it fell, and hearing it clatter between her feet. She fumbled in her hip bag for a replacement, checked the numerical code on its side by her torch, and, satisfied, clicked it into place.
She put her screwdriver back, closed her bag, and then took her torch from her mouth and shone it on the floor, scanning for the metal canister. She spotted it, and bent down to get it.
Something chittered somewhere in the darkness.
Flora didn’t move, except to raise her eyes to the passage, empty and black. The Warren hadn’t reacted.
A pipe, some hydraulics, electronic thermal shock, something like that. Had to be.
She grabbed the canister, rose quickly, and jerked her head to beckon the Warren. Her walk was hurried, barely controlled. The Warren’s was heavy and measured.
It was a voice too quiet and too far away for Flora to ever hear, and it spoke to a patch of darkness, slightly deeper than the shadows.
"No…" it said, rough and sibilant. "Let her live. Let them live. We have… our instructions. Let them think us gone with the false years. Let them fear only our return. It is enough… For now, it is enough…"
The Shadow hissed, its eyes flaring whitely, hungrily.
"Come," ordered the voice, a master to a dog.
A green cloak billowed from a shadow as the magician turned to retreat deeper into the darkness.
* * * * *
"We have failed," Gerard said. "Palma is gone."
There was no emotion in his voice. He had no energy left for it. He had been awake for thirty-two hours, since Mother Brain had reported that subversives had seized Gaila, and he had not been sleeping well since the crisis had begun with the seizing of Vahal and the Biosystems Lab down on Motavia.
There was a silence around the table.
"We have to contact them. Now."
Gerard looked over to the speaker. Allan Austin, one time opponent of the Restoration, but who had eventually been brought over by its apparent success.
"I do not advise that," said Mother Brain.
"We don’t have the time to debate this, we must -"
Mother Brain cut across him.
"Must rush out a denial before anyone thinks to connect us with the crime? No. Speed is not required. The deed is done and cannot be reversed. The System Government is controlling the situation. Further, to rush out an ill-considered denial is often the first act of the guilty."
"But we’re not guilty!" That was Saskia Raes, the last person Gerard would expect an outburst from. She was usually a cool one.
"Of course not," said Mother Brain soothingly, "but I am thinking of impressions. As yet, the Natives do not know of your race, only of me. It may serve us later to keep the two separate."
Gerard winced. Mother Brain’s words were echoing strangely through his headache, paining him.
"How do you mean?" That was someone Gerard knew, but not well, and his name refused to come to his sluggish mind.
"In a worst case scenario, you could save the Natives from my ‘evil’ influence."
She paused a moment to let that sink in, and then continued.
"There are no time constraints on us, and I can see few advantages to admitting responsibility at this time," Mother Brain summarised.
…at this time…
"Honesty?" suggested someone.
"I never said to admit responsibility. It was them who -"
"We are responsible," stated Mother Brain. "We cannot escape our part in this. Were it not for us, Palma would be intact."
"Mankind has been plagued for centuries by its insistence that it is always another’s fault, the shifting of the locus of control. I had thought this was left behind on Earth.
"We are responsible. It was our technology. We did not pull the trigger, but we left the gun where they could find it and we did not explain its danger. The first error, the first level of fault, is ours."
…fault is yours…
"But we…" someone started, but Gerard had had enough. He stood up.
"Enough," he snapped said without looking, and then moderated his tone, "please." He took a breath, trying to get his mind working.
"Half of us want to take the blame," he said, "and half of us do not. It changes nothing. No difference, so why are we arguing about it?"
He passed his hand over his eyes tiredly.
"Can anyone here see any reason why this cannot all wait until tomorrow? I really need some rest, and I think we all need to think over this and…" He trailed off, cleared his throat.
"Just… can’t this wait until tomorrow? Can even you, Allan," he gestured to the thin man, "think of a reason why twelve hours makes such a difference?"
Allan sighed and shook his head.
"No, and you’re right. We all need to think through this, and rely less on our emotions and reactions." He looked around the room. "Any dissenters?"
Gerard didn’t wait to find out. He just left, desperate for his bed.
* * * * *
As had happened over the previous week, Gerard did not dream, but there was something there in its place, something in his sleeping darkness, which left him with strange mixes of emotion upon waking and no memory of exactly what.
Not a dream, but…
* * * * *
Gerard felt only a little better when he woke just before lunch. It had not been a restful sleep. It felt like he had slept with the flu, that his night had been full of half-waking illusions and imaginary…
He rubbed his sleep gummed eyes. He didn’t know, really, but the memories were there, it’s just that they were empty, undefined, of things with no detail.
Mother Brain provided him with a fruit salad breakfast instead of his usual muesli and toast. He was irritated at first, but the tangs and sugars of the meal filled his mouth with welcome sensation. Everything else around him was just hard grey and cold, including the other lunchers. His bowl was colour and life, and he was grateful.
"Mother," he mumbled around a mouthful. "Report."
Mother Brain flicked one of her tight beams over to him to reply.
"The crew has accepted the truth of the matter, and are beginning to live with it. There have been no attempted suicides yet, but I expect that to change as it sinks in. Everyone is scheduled for a counciling session over the next two days, with the high-risk cases first. I have taken the liberty of waking extra councillors from the colony pool. They are finding it difficult, as there is much for them to absorb and do.
"I also took the liberty of moving some droids to Dezoris in order to search for the Palman fugitives." That surprised Gerard a little. Mother Brain usually at least consulted him, but it was a good idea, and made sense. He nodded assent at it as Mother Brain continued.
"They are encountering creatures identical to those which invaded the sub-levels during the last shift. With our previously limited presence there, I cannot say for certain if they are native creatures or magical in origin."
Gerard paused in his chewing.
"Espers," he said, swallowing his mouthful. Always the Espers.
"That is likely. Only they have the ability to teleport living organisms such distances without the required systems at this end."
Gerard seethed inwardly at their own complacent stupidity. Their intelligence on the Espers was non-existent. They had ignored them, and the potential threat of them, figured that they would leave them alone. Stupid. Even their being on Dezoris was assumption, completely unconfirmed. They were certainly not on any other planet, and Dezoris had a sparse population and permanent cloud cover. The other option was the ghost planet. If they could hide an entire planet with their magic…
Gerard took another dripping spoonful of fruit. "What else?"
"I have found no more genetic mutants on Motavia since yesterday. It is likely I have destroyed them all, but will continue searching for any remaining since there is little else for those droids to do."
Gerard grunted through his mouthful.
"The System Government still believes the mutants and the climatic problems to be my doing in spite of the actions of the Vahal droids. They have declared martial law in order to keep the citizenry away from them, and have also managed to repair the Climate Control link to Nurvus.
"The Upnapishtim has returned, and the Wrens have been returned to storage. The other shuttle is due in just under twenty two minutes."
Gerard suppressed the memories of those hectic, panicked, unbelieving, desperate hours. The Upnapishtim with the Wrens on board had been the second shuttle to leave for Gaila, in the hope that droids, who could withstand far higher accelerations, would get there soon enough to avert disaster. They had missed by seven hours, as Mother Brain had predicted.
But Gerard had not been capable of doing nothing. Who could believe, truly believe, that they would be too late, that the planet would be destroyed, that two billion people…
Mankind had always skated on the last minute, relied on the last hope. There had to be time. There was no other option.
There hadn’t been. This once, they had been too late.
"Finally, I have just scheduled last night’s interrupted meeting for two o’clock. This gives you two hours."
Gerard waved his spoon.
"I’ll be there."
* * * * *
Gerard sat in his utilitarian quarters, staring at the photos spread upon the table, trying to feel guilt. Or anything.
The photos were too dramatic to be believed. The look of them was close to movie special effects. A shot from Palma, of orange fire in a sweeping curtain across the heavens, the scorched barren line of destruction beneath it, and the wall of fire which echoed its passage on the ground. A picture from space, of the planet shattering, flame and magma spraying as it was released, the dark, red lined blocks of continental plates, vapour clouding around it all…
Brilliant, vibrant, beautiful - destruction always was - but also real. That belief would not come, though.
Palma was too far away, a place Gerard had never been, filled with people he had never known. It was a disaster in another country, lamentable, but it hadn’t happened to them. It wasn’t real. It was news.
His shift, his people, and mankind’s technology. Not his fault, but certainly his responsibility. That is what he was there for, that was his job. Ultimately, however, he was divorced from it all, sealed away in a shell of metal which had been his entire world for too long. Everything else, the universe outside, was just data and reports. He didn’t care.
It was a callous thought, but true of human nature. He didn’t know them, and didn’t care. Not really, not emotionally, only intellectually. You help, you think you’re sorry, but really your glad it’s not you and secure that it would never happen to you. What he cared about, really cared about, what was personal to him, was the Restoration.
His priorities were all wrong, but at least he could see it. And change them, intellectually, if not emotionally.
Gerard moved to tidy the photos into a pile, but checked himself. He left them as they were, spread out and visible, and left for the meeting, new purpose in his stride.
* * * * *
"Aid," said Gerard firmly.
"But, the Restoration…" started Allan.
"The Restoration was on Palma," Gerard snapped. "All we have left is farmers."
"I think Commander Gerard’s concern is that the Restoration is ultimately self-serving," said Mother Brain, smoothly taking over. She had been doing it a lot since… Gaila. It made sense, though. She had the coolest head - figuratively - of anyone on board, but still…
She continued: "The Restoration is less about helping the Natives and more about redeeming yourselves."
"We were trying to avoid a war," said someone to Gerard’s left.
Gerard took back the floor.
"This is at least somewhat our fault, and countries back on Earth would provide aid to each other at the drop of a hat. I think it is the moral and proper thing to do, and to hell with the Restoration." Gerard leant forward, leaning his arms on the desk.
"Any dissenters?" A deliberately loaded question.
"Yes," said Mother Brain.
"What?" And Gerard was not the only one surprised. She had been defending the idea just moments before.
"There is no aid to give," Mother Brain explained. "The only survivors from Palma were already on spacecraft, so our shuttles are useless for evacuation purposes. Our food stocks were produced by the Biosystems Laboratory, and that is in subversive hands. Finally, the Palmans do not trust my droids, and it would be unwise to have them directly assist. I repeat: there is no aid for you to give. At this time, you are better remaining unknown. The longer we wait, the less the chance that we would be connected to the calamity."
The conference room’s main screen came on, displaying the faces of six Palmans. Gerard was stunned. Mother Brain had dismissed his idea and just rolled over the top of it, assuming everyone would agree. He was about to speak up, when she started talking.
"However, I concede most of the fault for the accident lies with these people. It was they who attacked the Biosystems Lab, Vahal and Gaila. One of them must have been a biologist to have understood Seed’s data and created the genetic mutants, and I have just confirmed this in the System Government files."
Gerard suppressed his anger with her casual disregard of his idea. She would know what she was doing, and he would ask her later in private. It would not do to have the Command structure arguing.
One of the faces on the screen expanded, a thin man, with lavender hair.
And then so did another, to lie next to Hugh. A red haired woman, only not the pale gingery red of human redheads. Her hair was a deep and pure crimson.
"Probably assisted by Doctor Amy Sage. This third man," and the next face was of a blue haired man, expanding out to the far right, "is Kain, other names currently unknown. Certifiably insane, but very knowledgable about mechanical systems, and the likely instigator of the attack on the Vahal facility and its subsequent reprogramming."
To create military droids. Fortunately - one of only a few blessings - they did not know enough to change their codes, and Mother Brain had then used the droids to clear out the monsters.
"They were being hunted by the System Government when they struck at Gaila. Their motivations elude me. Currently their only goal appears to be chaos. Even so, I cannot believe they intended the result that occurred.
"The culprits escaped Gaila before it crashed, aided by Chris Tyler, a shuttle pilot who went AWOL from Shift A along with three others, an ex-military cyborg a technician and a programmer." The screen cleared to make room for photographs and details on the four humans. The shuttle pilot’s was highlighted.
"I do not know what he was doing there at that time," Mother Brain continued, "but it appears to be somewhat coincidental." Doubt was in her tone as she said that.
"The group of Natives were last sighted leaving for Dezoris in a ship stolen from the Central Tower in Paseo, the capital of Motavia. I assume they are either fleeing the reach of the System Government or seeking the aid of the Espers. The System Government has little influence on Dezoris. I suggest we aid them, and allow the truth to reveal itself once they are captured.
"To this end I have taken the liberty to move some droids to Dezoris," Mother Brain told them formally, "but require final authorisation to go ahead with the search."
Gerard looked around the table as he spoke for them.
"At this stage, I can’t see any harm in that," he said. "Does anyone have a point to raise in its regard?"
The table was silent, and Gerard crisply gave Mother Brain the required authorisation.
"Thank you, Commander. Now there is the matter of the Biosystems Laboratory that remains in subversive hands. I suggest further aid there. I can have some droids ready to attack within two hours."
"Wait a minute - they blame you for this? Think you’re damaged?" Gerard glanced over to the voice and saw it was the dark skinned Gary DeVires.
"Then I say no," Gary said, looking around the table. "Leave it, but monitor the situation."
"I agree," said Saskia. Gerard nodded as well.
"I must ask why," said Mother Brain.
"They don’t trust you," said Gary, sounding a little surprise that she had asked. "Dezoris is different. The System Government doesn’t have any presence there."
"I must consider recapturing the Biosystems Laboratory as a high priority."
"No," said Gerard. "Gary is right. Leave it for now, but keep an eye on things."
"What about this Chris and the others?" Allan asked suddenly.
"I do not know what their motives are," said Mother Brain, "and have no evidence against them except coincidence, but I believe we should find them as quickly as possible, if only to remove a random and uninformed element from the situation."
"Do we have any idea where they are?"
"No, which suggests they are in space, on Dezoris, at the Lab or at the Vahal facility."
"Just keep an eye out for them, then," ordered Gerard. "We don’t want to push the Government into some form of pro-active response by seeming belligerent."
"I understand. Are there any other points people wish to raise?"
Glances went around the table, but no one had anything to say. Gerard closed the meeting, dismissing its participants, but he himself hung back, letting them all leave before him.
"Those droids on Dezoris…" he began, once they had.
"Are already searching for the Espers. Information is never a liability," said Mother Brain.
"Good," said Gerard.
* * * * *
The remainder of the day passed, and then the night. Gerard slept better than he had thought he would. Things were happening. They had some measure of control over events, had decided their own path. It was a luxury, and a satisfaction, after the days of panicked reactionary orders with little or no time to consider options.
The conspiracy broadened the next day, as Mother Brain reported to him in the evening. He was in the Operations Room, looking over the map of Dezoris, trying to divine where the Espers might be, when Mother Brain told him on a tight beam so the others in the room would not hear.
"Jean-Paul Grey has deactivated Zelan."
Gerard suppressed his instinctive curse.
"You sure it was him?" he asked, keeping his face carefully neutral.
"Yes. I have video footage. It is possible that this was the reason Chris Tyler went to Gaila."
The conspiracy was widening. The Espers, their agents, and now four of their own. Why?
"You think they’re part of it?"
"Perhaps not," Mother Brain allowed. "It is possible that they are systematically shutting down the stations to stop the Natives, and they were too late at Gaila."
"So why didn’t they hand over the Palmans from Gaila?"
"Perhaps they did not know who they were." It didn’t sound very convincing to Gerard.
"And if they are part of it?"
"Then it is likely that Jean-Paul shut down Zelan to deny me access to the droids on the surface."
Gaia! He hadn’t thought of that. Oh, Christ!
"However," Mother Brain continued, "I can realign some of the dishes on the Noah to track Dezoris. It will mean that I can only order the droids when the planetary spin brings them around to face us, but since they are involved in a general search, and not require specific moment-to-moment instructions, this should not be a problem."
"Find them. I want to speak to those bastards."
"All of them."
"I will find them, Commander. Don’t worry."
* * * * *
It hung from the ceiling as a tree stays fixed to the ground, its roots fractaling through the metals and plastics and into the room above.
The dark shape stirred, rippling faint light across its slick, organic surface. Thick lubricant dripped heavily from the creaking joints. Teeth shone sharply beneath eyes sickly and wan with pale light.
Everything Mother Brain believed was perfectly reasonable, which was why it worked. The dark creature was a master at manipulation.
But it had won. Palma was gone.
And now there was only survival. Survival, and perhaps… enjoyment.