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In The Name Of The Mother

Part Twenty-Four


Beyond the Edge

Everything was black.  All that he could see were the stars of the night sky.  He remembered watching the stars with Cille.  He remembered her screams as the moons appeared overhead and discharged their deadly cargo.  But all that seemed very far away right now.  The cares and responsibilities he had shouldered felt light and distant.  He simply watched the blackness in peace.

But as he watched, he noticed that the sky full of stars was not as black as the sky he knew.  It was really more of a deep purple, like twilight just before it became truly night.  And the twinkling lights were in motion now, moving across the field much faster than true stars.  It was hard to feel any emotion about it, one way or the other.

Until the sky seemed to pull back, and Bran felt an icy wind against him.  It was no sky at all, but some kind of living being, impossibly huge.  It turned to face him.  Its face was horrendous, twisted, ugly.  Huge jaws split open to reveal curving white fangs, glistening as its dark purple skin did with tiny lights.  Two scarlet lights glowed above the evilly grinning mouth.  Bran trembled with a fear as instinctive as breathing.  It reached out a massive clawed hand for him.

He flung up an arm in terror, stumbling backwards across a stony landscape.  There was a bright flash, and cautiously he lowered his arm.  A young woman, dressed in clothes he had never seen, but which looked similar to his own, was fighting the monster.  It took great sweeps at her, reared up and hammered its fists at her, but she met each attack with her sword, and shouted her defiance into its face.

Bran wondered if he had ever met her before.  She did not look familiar, but there was something about her long brown hair and her sword...was it the sword?  It glowed the bluish silver of laconia, and it reminded him of his own.  But in this place, this time, he was unarmed.  He pulled his cape around him and watched the battle, fascinated by the spectacle.

She could not hope to win.  Her only chance was to run away.  She had only been lucky so far.  Things were bound to go badly for her.  He could not understand why she did not flee when she had the chance.  Should he help her?  No, he had no weapons.

But he could not let her fight all alone.  Perhaps he could buy some time for her to make her escape.  He flung his cape off to the side and ran to join her.  At her side he braced himself for the shock of the next attack, perhaps for death itself.  He looked at the girl, and she smiled at him, a kind and gentle smile that almost made him forget the demon that raged before him.

"Go on," he said.  "Run.  I'll try and distract it."

"No.  Thank you, but no.  I have to fight it."

"You have to?"

She nodded gravely.  "And so do you."

"No."  He shook his head.  "I can't fight something like this.  I don't even have any weapons."

"No?  Then you'd better find some.  I could show you..."

He shook his head again.  "I don't think so.  That's not the kind of person I am."

"What kind of person are you?"

"I...I don't know."  It was strange to have a philosophical conversation in the middle of a battle, but Bran was hardly aware of its peculiarity.  Everything that happened seemed perfectly natural.  "I'm not a fighter.  I'm more of a thinker."

"Then you'd better outthink it."

He looked up at it.  "Can I?"

Her voice sounded very faint.  "You'd better..."

The monster roared again and rushed at Bran, faster than he thought possible.  He stared directly into its gaping maw as it engulfed him.  He floated again in darkness.  But now he saw other things, images and events unfolding around him.

He saw an old man gather together three orbs:  one yellow, one blue, and one white.  The old man blurred, shifted, became a machine, grotesquely alive.  It smashed the blue orb.  He felt his gaze drawn to the yellow one, pulled in closer to it until he saw on its surface two tiny armies, one led by a man, another by a woman, who fought each other until the yellow orb broke into fragments as well.

He saw many things, things he couldn't understand.  He saw a man raising a silver sword against a machine he had built only to kneel and present it to it.  He saw Mota people deciding whether or not to help the Palm people dying of starvation out on the beautifully manicured plains.  He saw a yellow creature, perhaps a cat, tearing a hole in a pipeline and flooding a dark cave with poisonous vapors.  He saw two soft caps, almost but not quite the same, and somehow, felt a terrible tragedy waiting to happen.  He saw a man with dull blue hair, saving the life of a dying woman, her purple clothes torn where another woman dressed all in blue had attacked her, and saw the woman in purple later kill that man.  He saw a great ship traveling through space and stopping by a blue world, one of three.

And dimly, he saw several people, and knew somehow that they were joined by a common bond though separated by many years, fighting an evil that they could not see.  He saw a flash of emerald hair in the group, and thought of Lune and Alair.  It was the first thought he had had of his own struggle.  He felt himself being pulled back, and was just able to catch a glimpse of a final scene, of a yellow-haired man weeping beside a grave, being comforted by a woman who looked much like a Mieun, save for her pointed ears.

He felt the rocky ground under his feet, and saw that he was back where he had begun, some distance away from the titanic struggle between the demon and the girl.  He heard nothing, but saw the flashes as blade met claws and both rebounded.

A voice filled his head, a voice similar to the girl's and similar to his own.  It was a quiet voice, full of peace and certainty.

"This is the third great crisis."

There was silence, and then it spoke again.

"You are the protector of this age.  You and your friends."

"Friends?"

"There will be five.  The darkness grows.  The end of the millennium draws near.  Four is no longer enough."

"I don't understand."

"You will fight to protect those you care about, will you not?"

"Yes."

"And you know what it is you must fight?"

"I thought I did.  But now I don't think I know who the enemy is any more."

"No?  Then you must find out who your enemy is."  The voice died away as a wind whipped up.  Bran shielded his eyes as it blew around him.  A wave of vertigo came over him, suddenly.  When he lowered his arm, he saw a violet flame burning.  It blazed up and suddenly melted away, revealing a familiar face.

"Thor!"  Bran cried.

The hunter smiled, but it wasn't the easy smile Bran remembered.  It showed far too much teeth.  "Am I your enemy?" he said.

Bran shook his head.  "No.  You're my friend."

"Friends can become enemies."

Another flame roared, melted away to reveal Cille, looking the way he remembered her from their first real meeting, in Divisia.  "Am I your enemy?" she asked.

"I...I don't want you to be."

"But that doesn't mean I'm not."  She stepped back beside Thor.

Again the fire.  This time was Alec.  "Am I your enemy?" he asked intently.

"You're dead."

"Am I?"

Again the fire.  Orakio.  "Am I your enemy?"

"I'm fighting for you."

"But am I fighting for you?"

Again the fire.  A stranger, a blond woman he recognized only from Cille's descriptions and Orakio's confirmations.  Laya.  "Am I your enemy?"

"You're the one I fight against."

"Do you really know anything about me?"

Again the fire.  Another stranger.  A dark haired man with a superior expression on his face, dressed all in blue.  "Am I your enemy?"

"I don't know who you are."

"Do you really think that matters?"

Fires blazed up all across the dead landscape, filling the blankness with people.  All kinds of people.  Some he recognized, like Mieun and Siren.  Some he did not, like a man with only a very little blond hair, who moved stiffly, as if in pain, and a golden haired man who dressed in blue like the other.  Each asked if they were the enemy, and each time he could not give them a real answer.  Kara gave him the most pain, as she asked him coldly to prove that she loved him at all.

There was Lune, clutching his slicer, a slicer so black it was almost as if it was a hole where a slicer had been, like a little piece of space itself.  "Am I your enemy?"

"Yes!" Bran cried.  "No!  I used to think you were.  I know I don't like you.  But I don't know that you're evil.  You didn't attack anybody until we killed some of your people first.  Maybe you're not my enemy."

Lune laughed and threw his slicer, caught it lightly.  "But maybe I am."

But the last was Bran.

He faced his doppelganger, standing in front of a crowd of people who might be his enemies, and stared.  "Am I your enemy?" he heard himself ask.

"Maybe you are."

And in one voice, or rather, in one voice that was composed of many other voices, including his own, they all said.  "Maybe we all are."

He sank to his knees, his mind in chaos.  He had only one last thing to say, before succumbing to the despair he felt, the hopelessness of fighting a war he did not understand.

"But maybe...maybe none of you are."

And he felt a sudden warmth about him, and looked up to see himself in the middle of a great shaft of light, pouring down from some unknown source.  Under his feet the hard ground shifted to the familiar grass of Mota.  The people before him melted away.  All except two.  The girl he'd seen before, fighting the demon, a happy smile on her face, and a man with dull blue hair, who wore a haunted expression.

"Maybe not," the calm voice from before said.  "Maybe not.  But there is an enemy, and that is what you must fight."

He found his voice.  It came to him easily, in fact, he felt as light as he had before, almost drifting.  "I said before, I'm not a fighter."

A warm chuckle.  "No?  Well, that is all right.  In times of peace, it takes a warrior to change the way things are.  In times of war, it takes someone with a clear head.  Always the one must be someone who sees things differently from everyone else."

"Often," the girl said, surprising Bran a little, who had thought that only he could hear the voice, "it takes a shock to make you see differently.  The death of a loved one, perhaps..." Her voice drifted off and the blue-haired man bowed his head.  The girl put a hand on his shoulder.

"Are you trying to tell me that someone I love is going to die?"

"It has already happened," the voice said.  "And now, perhaps you will see a little more clearly.  And think a little more."

"All this...death...to make me understand something?  As a lesson?"

"Your heroes fought and died to create the world you now live in.  Now you must understand what it is they created, and what it is you must do about it.  First, a rebellion against tyranny freed the people.  But too much freedom can be a bad thing.  The second crisis taught them that with freedom must come responsibility.  Now you face the third crisis, and the lesson you learn here will create the final world."

"Final world?  I...what is all this?"

"Call it a dream," the girl said.

"A nightmare," the man said.

And the voice chuckled softly, again.  "Call it a fantasy."

"A fantasy?"

"A game, if you like.  But now you must return."

Bran clutched his chest.  A sudden pain shot through him.  "My...my heart."

"Indeed," came the voice again, faintly.

The girl smiled again at him, "I didn't think I was much of a warrior, either.  But in the end, I did what I had to.  You will, too."

"I know who you are, don't I?"

She nodded.  "I think you might.  And it's flattering to be remembered."

"And...and I think I know who you are, too."

The man looked up with sad eyes.  "Then remember me, too.  Remember that I fought for a cause that turned out to be the wrong one, and it took death to make me understand."

"Both of us did," the girl said, seriously.  "All of us thought we were doing the right thing, and then we took another look at it.  And I've seen things that might have been, futures where I didn't understand who the enemy was."  Her eyes grew distant, and for a moment, Bran thought he could see another woman in her, an old, bitter woman whose head was held firmly by violet claws, preventing her from seeing the hideous monster behind her.

"Remember us both," the man said.  "Remember that we are just like you, and you are just like us."

Then they faded into a gray mist, and Bran, feeling the pain pounding through him with each beat of his heart, opened his eyes.

City of Landen, Landen Habitat, Planet Motavia

It would be very nice and romantic to say that Kara was the first thing Bran saw when he opened his eyes, and that for a moment he thought he was in that afterlife the Layans had mentioned, and that it was indeed a paradise.

But things rarely happen so poetically in real life, and while he did open his eyes to Kara's face, his heart had been magically stopped while he was asleep, and he was not aware that he had been as good as dead for quite some time.  So his first reaction, after a certain amount of sleepy confusion, was to simply wonder what was going on, and what Cille was doing.

"Has there been an attack?" he asked, and was surprised to feel how dry his mouth was.  He looked around.  "Is there any water around here?"

Kara threw back her head and laughed.  "Bran, you always manage to surprise me.  Somehow I never thought you'd come back to us asking for water."  She wiped her eyes and Bran was startled to realize that she was also crying.

"I'm sorry," she said, sniffing.  "It's just...you're back."

Bran remembered his dream-nightmare-fantasy vividly.  "Back?  What do you mean?" he asked cautiously.

Abruptly, she sobered.  "Bran...I don't know how to tell you this...somehow I thought you'd know what happened to you."

"What happened to me?" he asked, dread creeping over him.  He tried to sit up but his limbs weren't functioning properly.

"You were dead, Bran.  For...quite some time."

"Dead?"

"Thor found you in here.  He tried to wake you...then he couldn't find your heartbeat."

He remembered the pain in his chest from the dream.

"We called in the healers.  They did what they could.  They brought you back, but you wouldn't wake up."  It was difficult to explain in a language that had no word for coma.

"You've been asleep for a long time, Bran.  A...very long time.  I didn't know...if you'd ever wake up."  She was having trouble again, Bran noticed.  He wished he could offer her a handkerchief or something, but he felt so tired.

"How did it happen?" he asked, weakly.

She didn't say anything, but after a while she reached over to a little table, and picked up a piece of paper.  "Thor found this on your body."  She thrust it at him.  "He read it to me.  I, um, never learned how, you know.  To read, I mean.  But he read it to me."

"Where is Thor?"

"Looking for Cille, I think."

"Is she missing?"

"I think you'd better read the note."

He looked it over.  It was short and to the point.  It was from Cille.

I was not a traitor, but you have made me one.  I came to you for support, and found suspicion.  I am now a Layan, and I have done my best to kill your leader.  If we meet again I am your enemy.  But I have not forgotten that you took me in, and I will tell you that the one you were looking for is Alec.  He is the traitor who advises the Layans.  The ones we fought at Rysel, with the strange powers, are called Sages, and the Layans have made them allies, not friends.  They came here from Dezo on the moons Azura and Dahlia, and they are working on a spell which will kill every Orakian on the planet, just as I have killed Bran.  I do not expect you to understand or forgive me.  It was my punishment.

You're wrong, Bran thought, gently folding the note.  I do understand.  He thought of her as she had been in his dream.  Am I your enemy?  I don't want you to be.  But that doesn't mean I'm not.

"And Thor," he said aloud, licking his lips.  "Thor is looking for her?"

Kara nodded.  "He hasn't spoken to anyone since he found you.  Just comes and goes."

She explained to him that there had been many battles since then, and the battles were terrible in their evenness.  Where Orakio's robots could be brought fully to bear, the Layans lost.  But there were not enough robots to go around, and when the Layan monsters fought real people, the Orakians lost.  The hunters from Draconia could change things, but so could the Layans' Sages.  No really decisive battles had been fought, and she was afraid many people would adopt the Rysel attitude of uninvolvement.  "We need more people," she said, "but no one likes the thought of war.  The Layans have fanaticism on their side, we can only hope that people will understand our cause is the right one.  But still, the Layan temples are everywhere."

She showed him a 'monitor' a portable version of the map screen Orakio had shown him at Nurvus.  Of the seven habitats, the Layans controlled Elysium and Frigidia.  The Orakians controlled Landen, Draconia, and Aridia.  The heaviest fighting was in Terminus, where hunters fought Sages, and in Aquatica where monsters battled robots.  Aridia was not much use to anyone, but the base at the mouth of the river (which Orakio had given the impersonal name of Base HZTK) did a lot of good in that it's defenders could whittle down moving armies.  It was that that had kept Aquatica safe.  In order for the Layans to reach it, they had to cross at least one Orakian-held habitat.  "But Orakio thinks they're working on ways to get around that," Kara said.  "They could use the moons to bypass the tunnels, for instance.  I'm worried they might make their own tunnels."

Things had not improved, nor had they particularly worsened.  They had simply become grimmer.  The war was a stalemate until one side or the other produced another trump card.  But if Cille's note was true, Bran knew the stalemate had to be broken before the Sages could complete their ultimate spell and eliminate the Orakians at one stroke.  "I've got to talk to Orakio," he said.  "We've got to do something about those moons."

Kara pushed him back down easily.  He hadn't been able to rise too far anyway.  He trembled, exhausted from even that minimal exertion.  "He'll see you when you've rested," she reassured him.  "I know you don't like the thought of staying in bed for a while but, well, compose some music or something."

Bran grimaced.  It was an old joke - only one piece of formally composed music had survived Mother Brain's destruction (or was that supposed destruction) was a rather discordant piece called, quite simply, Musik, and Palm people were always swearing they would compose more.  Only who had time to write music when your next meal was never very certain?  And nobody knew how to go about writing music anyway.

"I'll do that," he said.  "If you'll bring me some water."

"Done," said Kara.  She got up, then hesitated.  "There's something else."

"What?"

"Orakio has picked up another friend...one of his 'brothers.'"

Bran remembered Siren.  "Siren gives me the creeps.  This one any better?"

"Hardly.  He's...well, you'll have to see him for yourself, I guess.  You don't know the creeps until you've talked to him."

"Well if he talks he can't be that bad.  Siren won't give you the time of day."

"Siren hates the Layans.  As much as a robot can hate.  But this one...  I think he hates everybody."

Bran was quiet.

"He frightens me.  And it's worse because I knew him..."  She trailed off as Bran's eyes, looking over her shoulder, widened.

"Is that..." he squinted past her.

Kara spun around.  A tall form filled the doorway.  A man with very little blond hair, who moved stiffly, but quickly and silently.  He was dressed all in green, and his face was twisted in a scowl.  Kara stepped backward, a horrified look on her face.  She stumbled against the chair she'd been sitting in, collapsed into it.

Bran stared at the man.  "Kale?"

He shot Bran a look of loathing.

"My name is Rulakir."

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