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In The Name Of The Mother

Part Twenty-Two


North of Rysel, Aquatica Habitat, Planet Motavia

For millennia, the people of Algol, or at least the Palmans, have known that they were not alone in the infinite universe.  Their solar system has three planets each of which has produced its own intelligent species.  Palmans, if no others, have traveled to each world and seen life in all its diversity.  And beyond that, they know that somewhere far away exists an almost mythical planet whose sons traveled to Algol to build the machine called Mother Brain.

There are mysteries in the stars, but for the Palmans it is not a mystery of what if there is, it is a mystery of what it is like.  Although Mother Brain prohibited space travel after a spaceship crash (though some would have it that the crash merely provided a convenient excuse), Palmans have never forgotten that they have already conquered space.

But never before had any Palman encountered anything like what Bran and the others from Landen saw above them.  For none of the planets in the Algol system have ever possessed moons.

Their sudden appearance in the sky, hanging there like mesetas dropped from some unimaginable place, inspired one feeling - terror.  What were they?  What did they mean?  Where did they come from?  Because of the peculiar heritage of the Palmans, Bran and his fellows, in trying to find a way of explaining the phenomena, hit amazingly close to the truth.  They were like spaceships, they thought.  Appearing so suddenly, so close.  But also like worlds.

And, as Lune and Alair well knew, that was exactly what they were.  Laya's plan to make up for the loss of the Camineet and to neutralize Orakio's firepower had succeeded beyond her wildest hopes.

As they watched, bright yellow lines blazed from points on the horizon, signaling the automatic firing of Orakio's recently installed habitat defense systems.  But Laya's artificial moons bore with them the heavy shield generators that a paranoid alien race had installed in their systems to protect them from orbital attack.  Now they defended orbital attackers from the withering ground fire.  And in well-protected launch bays, refurbished shuttles awaited an opportunity to transfer their deadly payloads to the battlefield.

They were exactly like spaceships.  And this too helped to heighten the terror.  For Palmans have always had control over spaceflight.  The only time a non-Palman spacecraft had appeared in Algol was when the Noah arrived, filled with desperate men eager to colonize a new world with their super technology.  Now strange ships appeared again, created by the heir to those travelers' technology.  But colonization was not their objective this time.

Obliteration was.

Bran realized, as the specks descended from the moons, what was going on.  He still could not fully understand what had happened, but he did know from seeing it first hand, that those specks meant shuttles.  And shuttles meant Layan reinforcements.  His army was in shreds.  The Layans would have fresh troops and the seemingly inexhaustible strength of Lune and Alair.  There would be no hope of victory if they had to fight again.

He turned to his people to order a retreat, but over half the army was paralyzed with fright or amazement at the wonders in the sky.  They paid him no attention.  And Lune struck while the others hovered in indecision.

The monsters were few in number, whittled down by the solid defense of Orakio's machines.  But the Palmans, the fanatics, were still very much alive, and invigorated by the sight of the moons they had already been told were the work of their new god, Laya.  If not for the robots, the Orakians might have lost right then and there.

But robots did not stop and look up at the sky, and they feared nothing.  The Mieus blocked the initial advance.  Now that the enemy had united, there was no difficulty in discriminating between the more dangerous attackers.  The Mieus were ready to stop them all.  Bran waved his sword, shouting at the organic soldiers to retreat.  Mieun kept the foes off his back.  Not for the first time he thanked Orakio for the foresight he'd had to provide him with a bodyguard.  He'd never realized that a leader couldn't afford to do his own fighting.  The shuttles landed.  And without a word of warning, they exploded.

Or at least, they only seemed to explode.  For Bran and the other Orakians, there was little difference.  Rock and fire, wind and waves, ethereal blasts and liquid flame, all of it came rushing out of the hatches to slam into them.  Not even Mother Brain's science could stand against the forces unleashed from the shuttles.  Bran's vision went white at the impact and he stumbled away blindly, his mind in chaos, unable to comprehend the events around him.  He was dimly aware that others were following him, that the invasion that had become a retreat had now become a rout.  Looking behind him he saw dimly Palm shapes hurling energies at the Wrens and Mieus that were trying to cover their escape.

When the Wrens fired back their shots were absorbed a blue corona that surrounded the new arrivals.  The corona flashed scarlet and the gunfire rebounded back at the Wrens with devastating force.  Bran looked around for Kara in the seething turmoil of fleeing Orakians and blue-cloaked attackers.  He saw a Mieu try a counterattack.  A straight punch that should have gutted the blond man made contact, and there was a sizzle and zap as the Mieu's arm fell into ashes and her shoulder sparked brilliantly.  The man placed his hand against the Mieu's chest and an explosion knocked the Mieu flying.  Bran ran faster, hating to think what would happen if Mieun were required to defend him again.

The earth erupted around him, and the skies had turned almost black enough to hide the moons as jagged bolts of thunder crashed down around the fleeing army.  He ran and ran, hating himself for abandoning his friends and his people but realizing full well that the only really honorable thing to do at this point was to save himself, and perhaps try again another day.

Cille had gotten separated from her husband when Bran had attempted to order a retreat.  Now as waterspouts smashed into her newfound friends, she struggled to rejoin him.  In the blinding flashes of light she lost her way and stumbled closer to where Lune's army was enjoying the spectacle.

Lune was laughing, and though Alair seemed saddened by the violence, she too appeared pleased by the easy, and to their side, bloodless, victory.  Lune shook his head.  "There's nothing Alec can say about this!" he exclaimed.  "This is the kind of attack we should have mounted in the first place.  I'm so sick of his convoluted plans.  Sheer force is the only thing these Palmans understand.  It's the only way to get them to do anything."

He shouldn't have said Alec's name with all these Orakians around to hear him, Cille thought to herself.  He just gave away the secret Layan commander the Orakians have been worried about.  And there goes the Layan advantage.  She looked around to see if Bran or anyone had heard him, but no one seemed inclined to listen in on conversations.

Alair smiled.  "I'm glad you two will stop fighting."

Lune took her hand.  "I know it's been difficult.  I apologize again for...everything."

ALair squeezed his hand in forgiveness.  "It'll be over soon."

"Yes, it will," Lune agreed.  "Take no prisoners!" he yelled to his reinforcements.  "If they are not Layans, then they are corpses!"

Cille caught her breath.  No.  He can't mean that.  I didn't think...

She turned and ran away.  She was luckier than most.  The vast bulk of the great Orakian army, robots included, perished in the first attack of Laya's new elite forces.

As she plunged into the tunnel she saw Bran, desperately herding frightened and bone-weary Orakians into the tunnel, keeping them orderly so they wouldn't crush each other in the narrow confines, or throw each other off into the depths below the catwalks.  She reached for him as she passed him, but he sent her on with only an acknowledgment that she had survived.  She was hurt by this, but she had to realize that she was a newcomer to his family.  He had lost dearer friends than her this day.

City of Divisia, Elysium Habitat, Planet Motavia

Alec could indeed say something about this.  And he did.  Lune, in an effort to keep Alec out of the chain of command, had not informed him of Laya's powerful new support, nor of the planned appearance of the moons.  He was less than amused by the surprise.

The moons had worked their terrifying power over him and his people of Shusoran, inspiring panic even in the cold, hard Alec.  While he had suspected that they were the work of Laya, he and his people lacked the fanaticism the Aeronians had that made them worship the moons as sacred.  Instead, he feared that things had gotten out of control.  Yet again.

And the appearance of the Palm-yet-not-Palm strangers made things even worse.  Lune, in keeping with the orders he had received from Laya to keep the Espers' identity and background a secret, had introduced them as "sages from a distant land," which was, of course, the absolute truth.  A dark-haired man named Gart was introduced as the Sages' leader, Brin having stayed behind in Larva with Laya to help her with finding new ways to use the Sages' power against the Orakians.

Alec did not trust the Sages.  They stood apart, like the people of Shusoran, clearly not the fanatical converts of the new religion that had brought so many people from so many varied lands to the Layan cause.  Even the reticent people of Mystoke were not as aloof as the Sages.  And the worst part was that the Sages clearly had power.  Self-control and power was a dangerous combination.  Alec knew that quite well.

In the light of day, the new moons could not be seen, but that did not prevent Alec from pointing at the sky and talking about them.  Or rather, yelling.

"And when exactly were you going to let me in on this little detail?" he demanded.

Lune shrugged.  "You know now, Alec," Alair said.  "You are merely our ally, not our equal.  We will tell you what you need to know."

"I have been building Layan temples across the world for your cause.  I have planned your strategy, fed you accurate information, and you don't feel the need to let me know about these abominations?"

"Nobody asked you to build temples," Lune said.  He had to admit they had been quite effective in bringing others to their side.  Terminus Habitat in particular had swelled the Layan ranks.  He wasn't about to give Alec the satisfaction, though.

Alec glared at Gart, standing beside the two constructs.  He was the one sitting on the throne, but it didn't feel like it.  He might be the ruler of two cities, but these people had their eyes on the world itself.  "I still think you should have told me what was going on."

"Well, you'll just have to get used to the fact.  Now, I for one want to hear what Gart has to tell us."

Gart nodded.  "The Sages stand ready to assist you.  However, do not expect displays like the one in our initial assault.  We wasted a great deal of magical energy in that attack.  It was only in the hopes that we could destroy the Orakians in one attack that we tried it.  We prefer to work more subtly."

Alec snorted.  "I do the subtle around here."

Lune and Alair ignored him.  "Laya has told us you wish to remain in the background.  But what good can you do if you cannot attack openly?"

"A few Sages can come with each attack to assist.  Our magic can help tilt the balance in your favor.  But we will not risk be exposed to...other eyes.  There is also another plan, a long-range one."

"What's that?" Alair asked.

Gart smiled thinly.  "It should be possible, with enough work, to formulate a spell that will, quite simply, automatically eliminate Laya's enemies."

Alec frowned.  "A spell?"

"Magic," Gart said, with a withering glance.  "Like your 'techniques.'  Properly applied, the power we wield can accomplish a great deal.  Death spells are..." he shrugged, "not difficult, although understandably rarely performed.  And if we can muster enough power, and shape it in the proper ways, I think we can achieve the effect we are looking for.  Wouldn't it be good for Laya if her foes simply dropped in their tracks, or quite literally disintegrated before our charge?  The Sages can accomplish that."

"How long will it take," said Lune, folding his arms.

"Quite a while," Gart admitted.  "Such a spell has never been tried."

"Not something we should be counting on, then," Alec said.

"Magic is infallible," Gart said levelly.

Alec shrugged.  "All I'm saying is that we need to be continuing with our normal offensive.  It'd be great if the Orakians dropped dead, but I'm not going to hold my breath."

Gart sniffed and looked away.

Alair laughed.  "Here we go again."

Lune smiled, too.  "You two go fight it out.  Alair and I are going to get some rest.  We've been busy fighting."

Gart bowed.  "I fear I must adjourn as well.  Battle magic is exhausting, and we have not had much field experience."

The three from Dezo withdrew, and Alec was left alone to contemplate the new developments, and to contemplate his ever-shifting role in the new power that had come to Mota.

City of Landen, Landen Habitat, Planet Motavia

It was with grim faces that the newly reorganized Orakian leaders met.  Bran, Cille, and Kara were weary from the fighting in Aquatica and depressed by the horrible loss of life.  Thor carried himself with his usual cheerfulness, but he too looked tired, and his arm rested in a sling.

Bran noticed this at once.  So that was why he didn't say anything, he thought.  He knew what a loss of morale it would be for the Orakians to see our hero, the man who faced down Lune, injured.  Better to camouflage it, pretend he came through the duel unscathed.

He nodded to Thor as they took their places at the table.  "Your mission was a success, then?"

"Took a bit of persuading," Thor said, shrugging, "but they listened eventually, like I told you.  You have the support of Techna.  Probably all of Draconia Habitat.  And I took the liberty to go ahead and send people on to the other cities of Landen Habitat.  We'll replenish what we lost."

Kara looked up.  It was impossible not to notice that her eyes were redder than exhaustion could account for.  Bran wondered what friends or family she had lost in the battle.  "We can't replace the people we lost," she said, almost angrily.  But she acknowledged what Thor had really meant.  "But it's good to know that our army will still be able to defend us."

"We should have contacted the other cities sooner," Bran said.  He said it simply, not regretfully.  "There just wasn't time.  We wanted to strike back.  And we couldn't spare anyone to take the message on."

Thor said nothing.

"I suppose you've heard," Bran said.  "Rysel was just one big trap to lure us in and destroy us.  I'm just surprised they didn't stage another attack on Landen while they were at it.  That would have done the trick for them."

Cille nodded.  "They will soon, I'm sure."

"Landen couldn't survive another assault before.  Certainly not now."

Thor cleared his throat.  "I have brought a small army of hunters with me.  They're experienced warriors all.  They'll give the Layans a fight, you can be sure of that."  His light tone seemed all wrong in the somber atmosphere.

"I'm sure they're good fighters," Bran said, sighing.  "But the Layans have countered every move we've made.  Now they have some kind of super-people fighting with them that can do things I'd never even dreamed of."

"And the moons," Cille said.  "I've never seen anything like those.  If Laya can do that, what chance do we really have?"

"And just what do you suggest?" Thor said quietly.  "Surrender?"

If they are not Layans, then they are corpses.  "It's the only way to save ourselves.  They mean to kill us all."

"You have no guarantee that the Layans will accept a surrender," Bran said.

"Or does she?" Thor interrupted.  He looked straight at her.  "Do you?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Cille demanded, her voice rising.

Bran looked at Thor.  The Technan relaxed a little.  "Nothing.  Just a joke."

The king of Landen shook his head,  "Now's not the time for jokes, Thor.  We need a plan.  We need troops.  We need something to match their power.  And we've got nothing."

"That is not true," said a familiar voice from the door.

Bran turned.  It was, of course, Orakio.  And...someone else.  He looked at the newcomer curiously, trying to figure out what about him was so disturbing.

It looked like a Wren.  And it also looked like Orakio.  Like a Wren, it wore no clothes, the smooth angular metal of its body giving the appearance of a man in armor.  Its hair was a mop of red like Orakio's, but where the systems controller's was a dull red, like a dying flame, this was a vivid scarlet, bright enough to rival a Mieu's.  But the difference between it and the other androids Bran had met was its face.  It was...not there.  It had no synthetic flesh covering.  It was as metal as the rest of it.  Its eyes were smooth, blank ovals.  The mouth was a hard slit.

"So you're back, too,"  Thor said, breaking the silence.  "And who is your little friend?"

"This is Siren," Orakio said.  The android in question remained motionless, impassive.  "He is..."

"Your son?" Thor inquired.  Maybe it was just because they were tired, maybe they were relieved that Lord Orakio had come back to take charge of the situation, but Thor's bad joke made the others burst out laughing.

Orakio waited until they stopped.  "More like a brother, actually," he said.  There were a few muffled snorts, but they kept straight faces.  "I am quite serious.  Powerful technology has been incorporated into his design.  He is not my equal, but he is...effective."

"Good," Bran said, smiling.  "We could use some effectiveness around here."

"I have also brought you new weapons and troops," Orakio said.  He raised a hand.  "I am sure at least some of you have seen that the satellites above us are defended from my defense systems.  But I have some ideas as to how we can deal with those as well."

The heavy atmosphere was starting to lift.  Orakio was just as cheerless and heavy-handed as ever, but somehow his simple presence made things seem better.  It was why people needed gods, Bran supposed. To take care of insurmountable problems.  He chided himself for thinking it almost as soon as he had thought it.  Orakio wasn't a god, and the people of Landen could solve their own problems.

Still, he thought, it never hurt to have Orakio on your side.

Kara had stood up and gone over to Orakio, asking him about his travels.  Cille had folded her arms on the table and looked to be asleep.  Thor judged the moment was right, and motioned to Bran to meet him in the next room.

Bran assumed that Thor wanted to talk about his arm, but Thor had another topic in mind.

"What is it?" Bran asked.

Thor sighed.  "I had hoped you'd have figured it out by now.  But I see that you haven't.  I didn't want to be the one to have to tell you."

"Tell me what?" Thor was being unusually serious.

"Bran..." Thor grimaced.  "We've been worried about this mysterious Layan commander.  The one who knows our every move."

"Right."

"We've been thinking that there's some Palm person working with Lune and Alair."

"Right."

"Someone intelligent, someone who knows what we're doing."

Bran frowned.  "I think I see where you're going.  You mean we might have a traitor among us.  A spy for the Layans."

"Yes."

"And you think you know who it is."

The hunter took a deep breath.  "It's obvious.  Someone privy to our highest councils.  Someone who arrived out of nowhere with a story guaranteed to win their way to our side.  Someone who knows Lune.  Someone who has a very good reason for wanting the Layans to win peaceably.  Someone who suggested we not send scouts to Rysel so we'd walk blindly into the trap.  Someone who even now is urging us to surrender."

Bran felt dizzy, weak.  He did see now, quite clearly, where Thor was going this.  "No," he murmured.  "No, it's not true."

"Maybe she's got a good reason for it.  If her people are held hostage, who could blame her?  Then again, maybe she's always been a Layan.  She told you she rejected Lune's proposals, but so would I if I was your enemy."

"It's not true!" Bran yelled, grabbing Thor's tunic and shaking him.  "You don't know what you're talking about!  You thought I made the wrong decision and you're trying to justify it!"

"I'm sorry, Bran!" Thor said, brushing his grip away.  "I'm more sorry than I can say.  You had the best reasons in the world for doing what you did.  But that doesn't alter the facts."

"It's got to be Cille, Bran.  Your wife is the one who betrayed us."

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