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In The Name Of The Mother

Part Thirty-One


City of Landen, Landen Habitat, Planet Motavia

"It was more than just a voice in my head," Lune said, his voice strained.  "It was thoughts and feelings I knew I shouldn't be having.  Every time I tried to understand it or to fight it, this incredible anger would come over me and I would forget about everything.  After a while, I just accepted it."

"Possession," Bran said.  "Dark Force was controlling you.  Like it controlled Lassic.  Like it controlled Mother Brain."

LUne shook his head.  "That's the worst part.  It wasn't control.  All it did was push a little.  And I...I did the rest."

The Dezo man had been unconscious when Dark Force made his dramatic appearance, Bran knew, and he shuddered, painfully aware of how Lune's words echoed Dark Force's.  All I did was ask for a wall.  You did the rest yourselves.  It hadn't taken much to bring about the destruction of Mota, he reflected.  Not much at all.

The two of them were waiting to hear from the healers.  Kara and Alair had been brought from the field to the city for emergency treatment.  So had many others.  And many others had been brought back for burial.  Thor might have been one among them.  Lune had come close to killing the man outright, but he had been crazed, searching everywhere for his sister's murderer.  And later he had told them what he had done.  The Technan hunter had given him the battle of his life, but Thor's broken body was a mute testament to the alien fighter's undeniable skill.

Sages with heavy golden neckpieces came to the aid of the Orakian healers.  Bran was told they could work miracles.  He could only hope that they could do it again for Kara and Alair.  But he had lost whatever small faith he had had in miracles when he had met Mota's rival gods.

At least the Sages had told him what had happened out there on the blood-soaked grass of Landen.  Their spell had been designed to eliminate Laya's enemies.  And now that Bran had uncovered the terrible truth behind the war he could appreciate what had happened when the spell was finally cast.  Orakio wasn't Laya's true foe.  The real enemy, the enemy of all Mota, was Dark Force.  The spell had done its best to kill the demonic entity, but had only been able to drive it from its hiding place - Lune.

Now Orakians and Layans had forged a hasty and definitely temporary truce in the face of the common enemy.  It wouldn't last.  Mota was hours or maybe even minutes away from complete annihilation.  But even if it hadn't been, Bran had only to look at the suffering Orakians who refused the attention of the Sages, and the Layans who likewise shrugged off healers' hands to see that the war was far from over.

But did it matter?

Did worrying about Alair and Kara and Thor matter?  If they were all going to die it seemed pointless.  Bran tried to imagine the habitat systems, clusters of seven lands, each breaking free from Mota and pinwheeling across space.  But all he could see was his vision of two armies smashing a yellow orb to pieces.  Orakio had confirmed his guess that even if the habitat systems survived separation, the stresses of the mighty Engine Systems would rip the mother planet apart.

And so he sat alone, across from the man he'd fought for so long, waiting to feel the vibrations of the Engine Systems.

Waiting for the end of the world, and listening to a tale of demonic possession.

Orakio and Laya had disappeared.  Bran wondered if Dezo's mistress cared about the death of Mota.  For all he knew, she was only to happy to help Orakio with his doomsday orders.  Mieun and Siren were nowhere to be seen either.  He didn't care about Siren.  The android had never been a great friend.  But he wanted to know Mieun's fate.  She had been merely his bodyguard, and had been unable to come to his rescue in his time of need.  She had tried to save him only because she had been ordered to, and when new orders came she had easily abandoned the old ones.  But somehow, where Siren had been less than a friend, she had been more than one.

Perhaps, he thought, it was because he so desperately wanted to understand the mind that was behind them both.  The part of Orakio that had created Mieun was definitely better than the part that had created Siren or worse, Rulakir.  He wanted to know if Orakio was turning his back on that better part of himself.  He wanted to know that Orakio was not simply a tool of evil.

But he couldn't answer that question.  All he had was Lune, and a bloody slasher that lay on the table between the two of them.

Lune seemed so miserable and ashamed at what he'd done.  But Bran couldn't bring himself to forgive the man.  Not even after discovering that he hadn't been completely in his right mind.  Not after he had been able to forgive the woman who had killed him and the man who had schemed against him and tried murder himself.  The taint of this war is in me, too, he thought.  I look at him and all I can see is a Layan.  An enemy.  There would be no lasting peace between the king of Landen and Laya's first disciple, either.

The door cracked open and both their heads turned, glad of an interruption.  Alair was up and walking, attempting to brush away the helping hands of a Sage.

"Alair!"  Lune cried, and rushed to her.

She smiled at him, weakly.  He hugged her close.  "I thought you were dead."

"We're tough to kill, Lune," she said.  "And we heal quickly.  We'll be together for a long time, don't worry."

"I...I struck you," Lune began.  "I ordered you around, sent you away from your friends.  I know you can't forgive me for those things."

Alair shook her head.  "The Sages told me what happened.  I don't blame you."  Her voice went a little cold.  "I blame that monster, that Dark Force."

Her brother smiled at her through his pain.  "I promise you, Alair.  No one will ever hurt you again.  I swear it."

She smiled back.  "Laya wants to see you.  She's going home for something, but she wanted to talk to you before she left."

As Lune departed, Alair turned to Bran.  "And you.  I owe you my life.  That robot...I know it must have been hard for you to do what you did."

"Yes," Bran said simply.  "Yes it was.  I had to stop one of my people from killing one of our enemies.  You and your brother have hurt us so much...  But the fighting has to stop.  We've killed enough people."

"I agree," Alair said.  "I think people are beginning to realize that.  But I don't know if any other Orakian would have done what you did."  She took his hand.  "You are a very special person, Bran.  I can tell these things.  I realized it when I first saw you.  And now I know it.  Thank you."

Bran managed a smile.  "And now here we are, Orakian and Layan, standing together and talking like normal people."

She laughed suddenly.  "True!  A historic occasion.  Just look at us.  Maybe we should make our alliance more permanent, hm?"

"Not a chance, Alair," said another familiar voice.

"Just a joke," Alair said, grinning wickedly.  "I know he's spoken for already.  Maybe I should go check on Lune."

Bran didn't notice her go.  His eyes were fixed on Kara.  She looked tired, more worn out than he.  Her clothes were a mess, cut away where dimate and trimate had been applied to her wounds to speed the healing process.  Her skin was paler than usual, probably from blood loss.

But she was alive, and she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

"They tell me I shouldn't really be up yet," she said.  "But I couldn't just lie there.  Alair felt the same way.  She managed to persuade the Layans to let us up and I managed to convince the Orakians.  Alair's actually not such a bad person when you get to know her."

He just stared.

"Well," she said.  "They told me what's going to happen.  They didn't have to tell me, really.  Everybody's talking about it.  But I'm sure Lord Orakio will come up with something."

"Orakio?  Kara, he can't do anything.  He couldn't even if he wanted to."  In a rush he told her the whole story, how Orakio had refused to accept the idea that his creator had died centuries ago.  How he had blindly obeyed the orders that had caused a civil war because the impossible had been more reasonable than the unlikely.  How Alec had worked to show him the truth.  How he had misunderstood everything.  "That's the problem with them," Bran finished.  "With all of them.  They can't imagine that things are different than the way they think.  They can't imagine that they're wrong.  They can't imagine anything.  That's the real difference between us and them.  Not the strength, not the speed, not the knowledge, not the logic.  They don't have any imagination.  They can't deal with the unlikely."

"I never knew," she said.  "Never even suspected that he was wrong."

"None of us did," Bran said tiredly.  "We grew up with the idea that robots were always right.  And never questioned it because they were just legends anyway."

"And when the legends came back..." she trailed off.

"Exactly.  It's no wonder we made them gods.  All right, one god and something just as good as one.  And now we know too late that the gods can make mistakes too."

"But it's not too late!  We know now.  You stopped the war."

"You can think Alec for that.  I was too blind to see anything.  It was staring me in the face the whole time."

She shook her head violently.  "No.  You made the same mistakes anyone would have.  But you kept fighting.  And remember that Alec did what he did because he knew you were the one who could change things.  You are Orakio's friend.  And you saved Alair's life, patched things up with Lune.  I'm sure Laya will respect what you have to say, too."

"Yeah, maybe," he sighed.  "And maybe if we had a few years it would make a difference.  But I doubt if we have a day."

"I have faith in you, Bran," Kara said, seriously.  "You're a very special person, you know that?"

He laughed.  "That's what Alair said.  And Alec said as much.  But I'm just me."

"Everyone knows it.  It's what brought Orakio to you.  Everyone comes to you.  Everywhere you go there's a little line of people trailing along behind you.  And I'm happy to be one of them.  And I can tell that you're going to go after this Dark Force.  So I want you to know I'm with you, Bran.  For however long we've got left."

"No," Bran said.  "I couldn't do that to you.  You don't want to spend your last few hours on a suicide mission."

Suddenly, Kara's legs shook and gave out from under her.  Bran had let her fall once before.  He wasn't going to let it happen again.  Almost before he knew what was happening he was across the room and catching her, easing her down to sit against the wall.  She hissed in pain but seemed more exhausted than anything else.

He slid down next to her.  "You've got to back to bed," he said.  "I don't need your help."

She looked at him.  He was suddenly aware of how close they were.  "You're the same fool who wouldn't wear a crown," she said softly.  "When will you learn to just accept the things I give you?"

"Like your help?"

"Like my heart," she whispered.

He felt for a moment that he must be feeling what Lune had felt, as his arms seemed to move of their own will around her and his mouth came down over hers, but he knew that these thoughts and these feelings were absolutely right in every way, and then all thoughts of Lune and everyone else just melted away.

Dezolis Biosystems, Planet Dezolis

Laya looked around her.  Larva was one of the last remaining systems on Dezolis.  The Dezolisians had done for most of them.  She herself had cannibalized the rest, and Skure as well, to provide the material to build Azura and Dahlia.  Very little was left of Mother Brain on the icebound planet.

And she was contemplating destroying more of it.  But the difference between Orakio and Laya was that Orakio had never been driven to extremes by situations that he could not control.  He had never had insufficient resources to complete all his goals and been forced to choose between them.  He had never dealt with people like the Espers, who lived half in a world beyond anything an android could understand.  So he could never have made the decision she was about to make.

She knew it was more than likely she would never return from whatever happened on Mota in the next few hours.  She and Orakio had both come to that conclusion.  And although she might have stayed on Dezolis in Larva and been safe, she couldn't.  Because of what the two controllers had learned.  Orakio still had things to settle.  But she didn't.  Not anymore.

Except for one last thing.  Orders she couldn't compromise.  There had to be someone to watch over things for her.  There had to be a successor.  She looked down at her clenched fist.  A chain was draped over it.  When she opened her hand she could stare into the depths of the stone attached to it.  There was a glimmer in it, something that might have been microcircuitry, or maybe something beyond that.  She had learned much from the Espers, and from the Sages, she reflected.  In fact, part of her trip back here had been to pick up the Espers' Elder.  It was time to patch things up.

She clenched the pendant again and looked purposefully at the computer banks.

"Larva, access file Imago.  Run."

The screens came to life and images flowed across them.  A soft but persistent beep filled the air.  She had been expecting that.  She read the screens.

Error code two.  Design:  Imago specifications incompatible with primary restrictions.  Recommendations:  adjust Hair:  Blond to Hair:  Green or adjust Basic Shape:  Palman to any other body type.

Of course it was incompatible.  She reached for the keyboard.  Her fingers sped across its keys even as she also snapped out orders for the audio sensors.

It has been said that there a computer-robot team working together is unbeatable.  No other team can work so perfectly together at such high speeds, never once making a mistake.  And this is true.  And the reverse is also true - there is nothing as amazing as a robot hacker.  The restrictions of biologic designs were hardwired into Larva.  Mother Brain had never seen fit to put the same restrictions in her servants.  They were loyal to her, they couldn't dream of disobeying her.  But Mother Brain was dead.  And Laya needed to get a specific job done.  She worked desperately to find a way of processing her design in spite of those restrictions.

The screens flashed like strobe lights as they spit out error messages of varying type and altered designs she refused to accept.  And finally the screens went dead altogether.  But she could hear with her heightened sense the rumble of the machinery buried beneath Dezolis's icy surface.  She knew she had been successful, at the price she had reluctantly decided to pay.  So she walked quickly out of her home, and strode toward the relative safety of a shuttle, already covered in a layer of snow.

She was in time to see Dezolis Biosystems explode from the safety of her seat in the shuttle.  Fireballs erupted from the broken system, but she could see that the processing area was as well-shielded as she had hoped.  She jumped back out of the little ship into slush as the heat waves rolled across the area.  And she lifted out of the wreckage a limp Palman form.

Palman, that is, except for the faint blue shimmer that haloed her from head to feet.

City of Landen, Landen Habitat, Planet Motavia

They were all there together.

Orakio and Laya, Bran and Kara, Lune and Alair, Siren and Mieun.  Brin and his Elder. Even Rulakir was there.  And so, to Bran's amazement, was Cille.  Laya had brought her on her way back from Dezolis, and Brin's Elder as well.  And the Sages had been more talkative.  She had been polite to him, had greeted him, but there was a distance there that hurt him, in spite of his new happiness.  He wanted to put things right with her, but he could tell she was going to have to come to terms with what she'd done by herself.  She had never needed anyone's help before.  She had always been her own person.

But Alec and Gart were not there.  They were dead, numbered among the casualties of a senseless war.  And Thor was still in critical condition in spite of everything the healers could do.  They had already broken the news to the other Orakians - he was not expected to survive the night.  But then, were any of them?

Orakio stood.  "We are all familiar with the situation.  Yes, shortly the Engine Systems will activate and send the habitats into space.  There is nothing that can be done about this.  I have received my orders."

"You know they aren't from the Mother," Bran said quietly.  "And that doesn't make a difference."

Orakio hesitated.  "No, it does not make a difference.  They were accompanied by the appropriate codes.  I must obey.  But I do acknowledge that the creature who transmitted those orders was not the Mother.  It was the entity referred to as Dark Force, who is apparently quite real."  He hesitated again.  "You said certain things to me before the battle, Bran.  That I was mistaken in my conclusions.  That the war was in many ways my responsibility, because I failed to recognize the truth of the situation."

"It wasn't your fault.  You were just doing your job."

"I am glad you realize this," Orakio replied.  "I can be no more or less than I am.  I was created to do a job by the Mother."  He looked around.  "And I intend to do that job.  The creature called Dark Force has made an error.  I think it is clear that it plans to destroy this world, and to use me to accomplish that.  But it failed to take into account the standing orders the Mother left to protect the inhabitants of this world.  Before I can launch the habitats, there are certain steps I must take to safeguard the people."

Kara frowned.  "Surely a direct order would take precedence."

"Only with a priority code.  Such a code was missing from the instruction."

"What does this mean?" Lune asked.

"It means that we have some time," Orakio said, turning.  "But only a little.  Most likely, when Dark Force perceives a delay, it will transmit those priority codes."

"So we've got, what, a few days?"

"Less," was the flat answer.  "I would estimate we have a few hours."

Bran sat back.  "I thought as much.  So what good does that do us?"

Orakio shrugged.  "Overall?  None.  But something might be accomplished in that time.  Sensors have located the energy signature of Dark Force.  It currently inhabits the Layan temple south of here."

"The one on the edge of the lake?" Alair asked.  "That one doesn't even go anywhere."

"No," Lune agreed.  "Alec said it would divert attention away from the ones that can be used as teleports.  There's nothing there at all."

"There is Dark Force," Orakio said.  "And perhaps in the time we have left to us we might destroy it."

"Revenge?" Bran wondered.  "I didn't think you were capable of such a thing."

"I see it as the only chance we have.  Maybe we can destroy it before it can transmit those priority codes.  We would lose the habitats, but we would be able to preserve the planet.  And the people as well."

"Then let's do it," Bran said, standing up.  "You've got one volunteer already."

"And me," Kara said, starting to rise.

But Orakio held up a hand.  "No."

"What do you mean, no?" Bran scowled.  "You can't give us a chance like that and tell us you're not going to act on it."

"But I am going to act on it.  You, on the other hand, will not."

Bran frowned.

"I will go myself, and engage this Dark Force in combat.  Perhaps even if I cannot destroy it, it will destroy me.  I will of course oppose this course but I can admit that the overall plan may be helped by this."

"And what if it just reaches out like it did last time and puts those orders in your head?"

Laya rose.  "I am going with him to prevent that."

"There is no need for anyone else to make such a hazardous journey.  In fact, in view of the current situation, I cannot allow any one else to undertake it."

"No."  Bran said.  "You'll allow three more to undertake it."

"What?"

"There must be five."  He held up a hand.  "No, don't ask me where I came up with that.  You'd never believe me anyway.  But trust me on this one.  You've got to have five to even stand a chance."

Orakio and Bran looked at each other for a long minute.  "I will trust you," Orakio said.  "You have been right so far.  Very well.  I shall take Mieun."

"My place is with Bran," Mieun said.  "I have failed him once already.  I cannot leave again."

Bran smiled.  "Thanks, Mieun.  But you didn't fail me.  You had your orders.  Go on with him."

Mieun looked back and forth from Bran to Orakio.  "Very well," she said.  "I will go with Orakio."

Lune stood up.  "Take me, too."

Laya frowned.  "You have been possessed once already.  That is too great a risk."

"Never again," Lune said grimly.  "And if it does possess me, then you can just kill me and make things easier, right?"

"Lune!" Alair said sharply.

"I don't want to die," Lune said.  "But I have to make up for this somehow.  I want to be a part of this last battle."

"With that understanding," Laya said, "You may come with us.  Your skills will be useful."

"Thank you, Laya," Lune said, bowing.

"One other," Orakio said.

SIren and Rulakir stepped forward.

"Siren," Orakio said,.  "You will come with us."

Rulakir raised his fists.  "Why?  Why not me?  Is there something wrong with me?"

"Yes," Orakio said simply.  "Your design was flawed from the basic idea.  I have come to accept this as well.  If I had my choice I would neutralize you to correct the mistake.  But I have promised you your life and you may keep it.  But you must leave this place.  You are an abomination."

Rulakir shook with rage.  "I'll remember this.  You're the one who did this to me.  All of you!"

"Remove him," Orakio said quietly, and a pair of Wrens entered and escorted the crazed man away.

"I will come," Siren said into the awkward silence afterward.

"Then we have five," Orakio said.  "Will that satisfy you?"

"There's one more thing," Bran said.  "Neither you nor Laya have any weapons."

"Laya, take mine," Alair said, offering her bow.  "I'm not going, anyway.  And I'd like to know that I made at least some kind of contribution."

"And as for you, Orakio," Bran said.  "Take my sword."  He offered it the android across his arm.  "It's my fault you lost yours.  And I don't think I'm going to be needing a sword again.  So go ahead.  You can paint it black if you want to."

"I will," Orakio said.  "Thank you."  He paused.  "This is odd."

"What now?"

"If I were to paint it black...it just suddenly occurred to me that I have a sword identical to this one, already painted black, in my deep storage at Nurvus."

"What is it, your spare?"

"No.  And the unusual thing is that it is filed under the same key - LCDN.  And I never before remembered I had such a thing."

"That is strange," Bran said.

"Perhaps my memory is degrading.  But there will be time for maintenance later.  I will accept your gift.  Now we should prepare.  Time is of the essence."

The five filed out of the room, leaving the rest behind.

Kara leaned over to Bran.  "Do you think they're going to win?"

"I hope so," Bran said.  "Someone once told me that maybe all this is just a game, someone's fantasy.  Well, if it is, I hope this is the final fantasy for us."

"One way or the other," Kara said, "It'll be over soon.  I just wish there was something more we could do."

"We're behind them," Bran said.  "Our support is all we can give.  But you know what?  I think it might be enough."

She kissed him softly.  "Bran the optimist?  I like it."

"Let's see them off," Bran said.

The two of them were joined slowly by the others.  And then, by the other Orakians and Layans.  Everyone came to watch them go.  Not everyone knew where they were going or why.  But they could all sense that something was going to happen.

Like Kara had said, one way or the other, it would soon be over.

A sword, a slasher, a shot, a bow, and a claw.  And the faith of a world.

The protectors of Mota stepped forward as one.

The first step on the last road.