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In The Name Of The Mother

Part Twenty-Six


East of Rysel, Aquatica Habitat, Planet Motavia

They had gone from being the leaders of half a world to being simple warriors, but Bran had the feeling it had been the right decision. Something about the five of them, together, on a journey to find the cause of his world's problems, struck a chord within him and gave him a feeling of rightness.

It was plain for all to see that they were Orakians. Even if Bran wasn't recognized, no one else would travel in the company of an N-class Mieu and a super-Wren. High technology was the Orakian way. And because of that, Bran knew Rysel would be a problem.

He had never forgotten that unnamed Rysellian who had helped him to understand that he had a duty to his people to become the king of Landen, and later leader of the Orakians. And as he came to realize that there was much more he had still to understand, those first steps became all the more precious to him. He had hoped that the people of Rysel would join him in the war against Laya, but Lune's attack on the Orakians army had changed all that. Rysel had closed its doors firmly to all intruders, Orakian or not. And Bran discovered the problem all honorable commanders throughout history have faced. He could not violate the Rysellians' wishes. He had to respect their neutrality.

So the five breakfasted on the shores of the great lake that had given Aquatica Habitat its uncreative name. Happily, they were well supplied - since only three of the five required food, what they had would go a longer way.

"So here we are, Bran," Thor said around a mouthful. "East of Rysel. I hope you swim well. I doubt Rysel will lend us any of their boats." Bran and Kara both looked nervous. Plains dwellers who had never traveled until they met Orakio, such a vast quantity of water was intimidating. True, Landen Habitat had its own smaller lake, but there was really no comparison. Besides, nobody ever crossed the lake. They only went around. Thor's hunters were trying to change all that, teaching the skills of boat-building the world-wise Draconians knew well, but Bran wondered how many Landen people would actually be willing to try the new technology.

"I don't swim at all," Bran said.

"I do, but I don't think I could make it across," Kara said.

Thor wiped his mouth. "And it's not a matter of crossing. If we're going by your theory, there's probably islands out there...big pieces of land surrounded by water...and we'll have to search for them. It's a big lake, anybody would get tired trying to do it. A boat's not much better, either."

"So how do we do it?" Bran asked.

"We've got two tireless workers right here," Thor said. "Let them get out and swim. They've got to be along for a purpose anyway."

"I will not leave Bran," Mieun declared, predictably.

Siren looked at the water. "There is no need for anyone to swim. The water may be traversed with little difficulty."

"How so?" Kara asked.

The android got to his feet. "Like this."

Once before Bran had seen something similar. When Orakio had faced Lune in an open field of battle, the robot had revealed surprising weaponry concealed within his body, protected by overlapping plates and components able, apparently, to slide around and reconfigure themselves. But this was far more amazing. Kara and Thor were incredulous.

Before their eyes, Siren's body was actually changing shape. He seemed to fall forward, but metal was springing out of his body. Wide, thin sheets spread from his sides along his arms, which were flung wide. His legs, too, went straight out at right angles from his trunk, but that had already split was somehow lengthening. His head went back at an angle impossible for the Palman physique. The legs folded, steel blades emerged. It was an unbelievable display of technology that not even Bran had dreamed was possible. And when it was done, Siren as they knew him was gone. In his place was...well, only Thor understood what it was.

It was a rather squarish, and certainly unlovely, boat. Siren had transformed himself into an oceangoing craft. And it looked to be big enough for the rest of them to crowd on, although they would have to be rather good friends. Thor looked for oars, but realized that the gently spinning blades on the back served a similar function. This boat could move under its own power.

"That's incredible!" Bran shouted, jumping to his feet. "Siren, how did you do that?"

Kara echoed his sentiments, laughing at clapping at the miracle. There was a slight pause. Bran, in dealing with Orakio, had come to understand that this was how androids dealt with the confusion an emotional outburst created. In a way, he had realized, it was their own expression of emotion. He wondered if Siren was embarrassed by their praise. "I am equipped with special parts allowing modular transformation into aquatic mode. Regrettably I am very limited in this form, but water travel should not be a barrier to you any longer."

"I'll say," Bran said.

Kara nodded. "We've got our boat now, Thor. Forget the food. Let's find that base!"

With renewed enthusiasm, the other four piled onto the Siren-boat. The tiny, shaky craft slid out into the water on slim wheels, which retracted afterwards. The blades churned the water, and they began the search. Bran and Kara discovered, much to Thor's amusement, that seasickness was another thing they had in common.

"I know it feels strange," Thor said, after his fit of laughing had passed, "but it's not fatal. You just have to get used to it." Again, the Palmans peculiar approach to medicine meant that there was very little familiarity with diseases, since their strengthened immune systems could successfully fight off the average bug. An unwell feeling generally meant major trouble, and Bran and Kara both asked repeatedly if they were going to die, in spite of Thor's reassurances. Not to mention the fact that after a short time, there was nothing to be seen but the blue water stretching from sky to sky all around them. Bran and Kara knew fish lived in rivers, but you could wade through Landen's river if you had to, and their lake bottom could be seen quite clearly. Aquatica's lake, on the other hand, was far deeper than that, and the two from Landen were beginning to scare themselves imagining fish of an equivalent size.

It was actually Mieun who was the most comforting, though that was difficult to believe. She stayed right beside Bran, and thus incidentally by Kara, and told him that she would protect him from any other dangers of the water. The reassurance eased Bran's mind, and even let him deal a little better with the up-and-down motion. By the time they sighted land, they had regained a more normal coloration, and Bran swore never to get in another boat without a robot to accompany him. Kara fervently agreed. But they soon had other thoughts to occupy themselves with.

"Is that it?" Kara asked.  "It's got to be either this one or the island to the north.  But there's no way for even Siren to get there."

"Affirmative," Siren replied.  It was a little eerie to hear his voice coming apparently out of nowhere.  "But it is most perplexing.  The water currents twist in a manner that defies prediction.  The island, whether by design or not, is well defended."

Bran pulled a monitor out. "Well, it's on the map here. But there's no blinking light. No town."

"That's what we're looking for," Thor said. "A town that isn't here."

"Let's try the southern one first.  If there's nothing there, we'll see about crossing to the north."

They pulled up to the shore. The four got off, and the boat reassembled itself into Siren. He produced a large gun, a definite improvement on the Wren's Shots. Bran had a hunch that it had been based on Thor's abilities. He remembered the hunter besting Orakio, and the promise the robot had made to kill the hunter after the war. Siren's weapon looked like insurance. Mieun's weapons were always drawn. Her claws glowed eerily even in the sunlight. Kara and Bran kept their swords sheathed, but ready.

The island was not large, and it did not take much scouting work to locate what they sought. There was a village here, all right, and the fact that it wasn't marked on the monitor meant it had been built after Orakio's last planetary survey. After the war had started. Bran berated himself for ever assuming Alec had died out in the wilderness of his self-imposed exile. Back then, he had naively assumed that he would be lost cut off from Landen. Now he was more cosmopolitan. Alec had probably asked for aid from Rysel, or elsewhere, and he and his followers had simply established their own retreat. But back then he hadn't really understood how much more there was to the world than Landen.

"What's the plan?" Thor asked, as they conferred. "March on in? Or sneak around the back? Or what?"

"We go right in the front gates," Bran replied steadily. "We're not here to pick a fight. Let them get a good look at us. And if we're captured, so much the better. Alec is bound to come and talk to us, and that's what we want."

Thor shook his head. "I sure hope you know what you're doing. The leader of one side walking into the camp of the enemy doesn't sound like a good idea to me."

"It'll get their attention," Bran said. He winked. "Besides, are you sure they're the enemy?" He turned to face the town and set off, Kara and Mieun just a step behind him.

"Yes, I'm sure," Thor growled. "Come on, Siren. We gotta clean this mess up, as usual." Siren didn't say anything, of course, but Thor felt the robot sympathized. As long as you weren't a Layan, he reflected, Siren wasn't all that bad. If you were, well, he probably took prisoners.

City of Shusoran, Aquatica Habitat, Planet Motavia

It wasn't long before Kara threw her hands up in frustration. Even Mieun looked a little irritated. "I don't get it!" the adviser said. "Where is everybody?"

The secret base's big secret seemed to be that it was uninhabited. And it was a shame, Bran thought, because it was a beautiful city. While it was small, smaller even than Landen, and its buildings were of the same homemade construction found everywhere else in the habitats, the buildings were decorated. Living little better than hand-to-mouth existences, most people never took the time to care for the exterior of their houses. The inside was different, after all, that was where you lived. But the outsides were generally fairly uniform - functional.

This city, on the other hand boasted carved decorations on its dwellings. And scattered here and there throughout the city were, incredibly, fountains. Bran had heard of them - Cille had seen a few - but he never thought he'd have the chance to see them for himself. They were the work of people who had achieved a higher life than anyone else. People who had leisure time, time to improve their lives instead of just living.

They were carved stone, mostly. Must have been brought from Landen, Bran thought, recalling the mountains surrounding the tunnel entrance from Landen to Aquatica. And water gushed merrily from the statues. Of course in Aquatica gushing water was commonplace, for Landen people it was something of a spectacle.

Siren and Mieun were unimpressed, and so was Thor, who had seen better sights in his travels around the habitats. Nevertheless, the fountains served as a nice meeting place for when the group had split up to search the deserted streets. Kara lounged on the edge of a basin, while Bran and Thor stood with the androids. Neither would admit it, but they felt a little annoyed by the robots' stamina, and were determined to prove a point. Kara, who was more comfortable than either of them with robots, had long since given up that fight.

Bran shifted his feet. "I don't know. This has to be the base, but... I expected it to be lightly defended, but this is ridiculous."

"That's one word for it," Thor said. "But maybe they got overconfident. Maybe for once we pulled their trick on us and attacked while they were off in the opposite direction."

"If that were true they'd be attacking somewhere," Bran said. "And Siren would have told us about it." The Palmans looked at the android. "You can contact Orakio, right? That's one of the reasons why I brought you along. I figured his 'brothers' would be able to reach him, and vice versa."

"Of course," Siren nodded. "I represent the latest in Wren technology. All of Orakio's experimental designs have been incorporated into my systems, in the hope that they may prove useful. I can contact him, and he can contact me. If there whole of the Layan forces had committed themselves to an attack, we would have been warned."

"So they're not attacking," Bran said. "I didn't think so. And that means trouble."

"I know what you mean," Thor said. "I prefer to know where my enemies are. I'd be a lot less uneasy if they'd just attack. All this sneaking around gets on my nerves after a while."

"How about the moons?" Kara asked. "Azura and Dahlia. They've been using them as staging bases to bypass Aridia and...and..."

"Go on," said Thor in an amused voice. "Say it."

"Hazzatak," Kara said, finally, making a face. It was a valiant attempt to pronounce the name of Orakio's Aridian base, a name which was never meant to be pronounced, but was simply a reference to a file in the vast databanks of Nurvus. It was obvious to Bran that the strange name was fast becoming a joke among the Palm people. Every person probably pronounced it a different way. He wondered what its inhabitants called it.

"There's something that's been bothering me ever since we found out that Alec was behind it all," Bran said. "The moons...I can't see him ever being a part of that. He's anti-tech, I can see why he'd join the Layan side, since they are against Orakio and his robots. But the moons just seem like too much. I don't think he'd like them. And I doubt if he'd go up there."

"You'd know him best, I guess," Thor said neutrally, which meant he disagreed but wasn't going to fight about it yet.

"He may not have much say in the matter," Kara said. "Lune seems to be the one calling the shots. He's Laya's real representative. Alec is a valued ally, but still just an ally. Just because he's in on their side doesn't mean he can do whatever he wants."

"That's true, too, but that doesn't seem like Alec either. You remember him, Kara. He's not the type to take orders from anybody."

She nodded. "But if he's not there or here, where else could he be? Dezo? That's out, too, by your logic."

"Well, maybe they all packed up and moved off to Divisia. There can't be that many of them anyway. I can't remember everybody who left with Alec, but it wasn't an army by any means. But this city means they've been doing well."

"They've been supported," Thor said. "Somebody else, maybe the fanatics or the monsters, has been providing them with their food. And in between fighting us and attacking defenseless people, they carve statues."

Thor sounded angry, and Bran sympathized. It wasn't right that such beauty should be produced in such a monstrous fashion. But his dream kept coming back to him. He wondered if he was thinking things through well enough. "No. No, that's silly. Why carve statues and make the city nice if what you really want is to take over the world? The city should have been just a base but instead it's beautiful. It's not designed for combat."

"You're right," Kara said suddenly. I didn't think about that but you're right. It's far too nice a place for an army. You wouldn't build like this if you expected fighting."

"I still think you're overthinking this," Thor said, folding his arms. "They knew the town was well hidden. They counted on it, gambled, and lost." Bran shook his head. "A man who's been planning ahead for our every move? He knew we'd come looking for this place eventually. If we'd come with an army like we should have, we'd have found it even more quickly than we did."

Thor straightened.  "Then you think it's a trap."  It was a statement.  Thor's hunter's instincts were on full alert.

Bran nodded.  "I think it's a defense like we've never seen before.  A fake town.  We're supposed to think we've got it all wrong.  Wait here for people to return, while they're off someplace else."

"A fake?  But...so much work went into it." Kara said.

"So the real base is on the northern island?" Thor asked.  "Makes sense.  The water currents...that could be the work of the Sages."

"I don't think so," Bran said.  He was smiling.  "I think that's misdirection, too.  It's too obvious.  I'm willing to bet the real base is right here."

Thor scratched his head.  "I'm afraid you've lost me."

"The one thing that doesn't fit here.  What is it?"

"All the decoration," Kara said promptly.  "We already discussed that."

"Right.  It even draws attention to the fact that the town is too good to be true."

"You're right there," Thor said.  "I never heard two people talk about carvings and statues so much."

"So why do it?  Because you have to.  These decorations are covering something up.  And I bet it's the real base."

"So the real base is...inside this city?"

Bran grinned.  "Thor, have you forgotten Nurvus?"

The Technan slapped his head.  "Underground!"

"I think the Layans have done more than feed Alec's bunch.  I think they've developed a secret city.  And somehow these decorations are the key to it."  He stretched a hand out to Kara.  "So let's get started.  We're going to have to check out every decoration in this town.  We'll split up again."

"Right," Kara said, accepting and standing up.  "But I don't think we need to go far."  And with that she took a quick step backwards.  Into the fountain.  Which immediately began to sink.

Or rather, the bottom of it sank, around the central pipe which spouted water into the air.  The pool of water ran off the sides of the lowering platform, and drained away through slots in the stone floor below.  The fountain basin came to a stop just above the floor, revealing to Kara through a spray of water a long tunnel stretching away underneath the 'city.'

It also revealed her to a pair of guards who looked quite startled, in addition to wet.  But before they could draw their swords the adviser was on them.  She flung herself at the one on the right and knocked him down, then kicked the other full in the face with a move that would have done Mieun proud.

Hearing the groans, Bran and Mieun immediately jumped down, but Kara had already taken care of the problem.  The fountain floor rose back up, showing the three underground a metal pillar supporting it, but it soon dropped with Thor and Siren riding it, the hunter crouched and ready, the android standing tall with his gun sweeping the corridor.

"Looks like you got it again," Thor said.  "But how did you know, Kara?"

"Just the obvious place," she said, shrugging.  "If it was in the carvings, they never would have gone to the expense of the fountains.  But with the fountains, it would seem silly not to decorate the buildings as well."

"Good thinking," Bran said.  "Maybe we'll figure this out yet."

He prepared to lead the way, but Mieun darted ahead of him.  "I will go first," she said.  "There is danger."

"Mieun..."

"She's your bodyguard," Thor said.  "Trust me, listen to her."

Bran shrugged.  "Then let's go!"

The five charge down the corridor.  It worked amazing well.  There were a few guards, but they were easily overpowered by the lightning fast Mieun, who was also more silent than the others.  The corridor twisted and turned.  A stair loomed up before them, and they took it in quick steps.

And they emerged into a large room.  It was much more like typical Palman construction.  It reminded Bran of the council room, or Cille's palace.  That was it.  This must be Alec's palace.  But you could only get there through the secret passage.  In an emergency, the place could be flooded with guards.  It could be held with just a few people against a whole army.  But when there was no warning, when it was just a handful of people...  It could be done.

They slowed down now, and looked around.  Even the palace was set up to be defensible.  The halls twisted and doubled back, providing defenders with corners to spring out of, and to slow down intruders who didn't know their way around.

But all too soon they emerged into the throne room itself.  And it surpassed Bran's expectations.  Just as he had hoped, there were few soldiers.  But Alec was there.  He sat on what could be called a throne only because it sat at the end of the room.  It was a simple carved chair.

Alec was deep in discussion, and glanced up with a look of surprise that lasted just a second.  An expression of pity crossed his face.  "You picked a lousy time to visit, Bran," he said.

"Alec!  We've come to talk to you.  About peace."

A dark-haired man to Alec's right, who had been talking to him, altered his look of shock to one of disdain, and sniffed.  "It's too late for that."

"I'm afraid you're right," Alec said.  "But maybe we'll chat in the dungeon."  He nodded to the dark-haired man.

The man, whom Bran recognized both from his dream, and, just a little bit too late, from Kara's descriptions of other blue-dressed people, raised a hand almost casually, and Bran felt enclosed in an iron grip as gravity in his general vicinity underwent a forced increase.

"May I introduce Gart?" Alec said.  "He's the Sage's liaison here on Alisa.  And this woman..." he indicated the blond woman to his left.  "Well, I believe you probably know the lady by reputation if nothing else."

"Laya." Bran said, struggling against Gart's magical hold.  "Laya herself.  Lune and Alair couldn't make it?"

"Busy elsewhere," Alec said.  They'll occupy the Orakian forces while we make the final attack."

"What...do you mean?"

"The overspell, of course.  I'm sure Cille told you.  She'll be joining us later, went to see her people to the north.  The overspell is ready.  The one that's going to destroy every Orakian on the planet.  Half the world's population gone in a flash.  And Laya will rule supreme."

"With you just under her, I assume?"

A look flashed across Alec's face again, disappointment?  "I don't want anything, actually.  Just being on the right side is enough for me."

Gart smiled, but there was little humor in it.

Alec shook his head.  "Take them away.  They won't expose Shusoran where they're going.  We've got to get back to planning the big battle."

Laya walked over to them.  Gart glowered for a moment.  Bran realized dimly that he must be adjusting the gravity field to allow Laya to approach.  "So this is the one Orakio has chosen," she said, musingly.  Her voice was as Palman as Orakio's.  And she hid herself like a Mieun, completely covered in flesh.  But Bran knew very well that she was steel underneath.  She gripped his chin in one hand, too cool to be truly alive.  "I am unimpressed," she said.  "This one is just a Palm person like any other.  Yet he was able to defeat Lune and Alair for so long?"

"He had help," Gart said.

"Don't underestimate him," Alec said.  "Let's get him and his little friends out of the way."

He stood up and walked toward the door, motioned them to follow.  Gart walked behind them, maintaining the spell.

"Yes, indeed, Bran," he said, as showed them to a room with a door that locked quite securely, and which furthermore had a faint but noticeable glow, betraying magical protection.

"You picked a bad time to visit."

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