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The Amber Robe
by Rune Lai

Hugh knew the others were talking about him even before he entered the room and silenced everyone around him. His companions were alternately fresh and weary as he looked at each of them. Rolf, Rudo, and Kain had just returned from the Blue Dam. Anna and Shir were relatively relaxed, having rested between this dam and the previous. Amy should have been as well, but her simple drawn look at his face was enough for everyone else to turn around as though he carried a plague. Perhaps he did, but he would see this through the end.

"Where were you?" asked Rolf. "We dropped by after opening the Yellow Dam but you weren't here."

Hugh waved a hand dismissively. "Touching up Nei's grave."

Amy seemed about to say something, but apparently thought better of it and turned away. She knew that the grave needed no more touching up and couldn't understand why Hugh paid it so much mind, not that he could tell her. A person could miss a brief friend of a few weeks, but not truly grieve. Hugh was grieving. Unknown to the others, Nei and Neifirst were his creations, daughters of his genetic code, and they died fighting each other and him because of someone's sick twist of an idea. He had no proof of this someone, but this person's existence became more and more apparent as Rolf pieced together the feeling that someone was out to destroy Mota, and that someone had used Neifirst as an instrument of strife.

"How was your mission?" Hugh asked.

Rolf shrugged. "Blue Dam is open. Now we only have the green one left. This time I think everyone should go. We barely made it out of the last one. I think the government is stepping up security."

"If only they knew we were helping them," grumbled Kain.

"The Commander does," said Anna.

Kain snorted. "Yeah, but what good does that do us?"

"We also found a lot more equipment in the dams," said Rolf, resuming control of the conversation. "Red Dam had some stuff if you recall. Well so did Yellow and Blue Dam. I don't know why these weapons and armor were hidden there, but they've proved useful for us so far. But there's one item we found in Yellow Dam that doesn't fit any of us. You weren't here at the time, but we thought it might just fit you."

Hugh admitted he was interested. Judging from the equipment the party currently carried with them and what he remembered Rolf telling him about the Red Dam, they had found nothing suitable for him. He preferred the lighter knives and daggers to a sword, and firearms didn't often fall into the category of ancient powerful weapons.

Rolf pulled something out his sack and tossed it to Hugh. At first the biologist thought it was another sack, but then he realized as he held out the cloth that it was a garment; a robe to be exact. It was soft and warm to the touch with a mellow amber color. The robe did not look particularly feminine and was too long for Amy or Shir to wear. He did not know if Rolf had proposed Anna wear it, but he doubted the trim guardian would allow herself to be caught in anything that allowed for less than maximum maneuverability. The robe was not made for the broad-shouldered either, rather instead for a smaller, more slender man. Hugh's frame was narrow enough that the robe could fit comfortably, but would this actually be of any protection in combat?

"What's this?" he finally asked.

"An amber robe," said Rolf. "We have no idea what it does, but I'm guessing it's a form of body protection like the various crystal armors we've been finding."

Hugh took a piece of the fabric between his thumb and forefinger to test the thickness. It seemed stronger than any sort of cloth he had ever seen, but surely not as sturdy as his ceramic chestplate. A part of him wondered if there might be something special about it, after all it must have survived years, even decades without so much as a scuff on it, but he could not bring the logical part of his mind to accept that it was better than what he currently had.

"We're heading out early tomorrow morning," said Rolf. "You might want to take it with you."

The biologist resisted the sudden urge to stuff the robe down Rolf's throat. Take it with him? He supposed it would do no harm, but he would not wear it.

* * *

Hugh wore it. He hadn't intended to, but the following morning when he woke in Rolf's house, he rose to find the rest of the party arming themselves in the living room. Bright new arms of crystal and unknown alloys covered his companions like the shields of heroes. And here he had a frumpy amber robe. It looked nice, if a bit plain, but it was no protection. So he went back to his room, put on his ceramic chest and then pulled the robe over it. He supposed he looked a bit stiff, but at least then he could show up in his stupid piece of dam equipment and be done with it.

When he emerged, Amy smiled at him. He flushed, unable to help noticing how radiant she looked in her new crystal cape and snow crown. Truly, he was lucky to have her with him. As the party stepped out into the early morning light of the city, he offered her his arm. She accepted gladly and stayed close beside him as the group quietly headed towards the jet scooter that would take them to Green Dam.

"Feeling better?" she asked.

"A bit," he replied.

"I wish you would tell me what's wrong."

"Maybe, in time. I still have to sort things out myself." She looked sullen, so he nudged her lightly and grinned. "Look, you're with me so I know I'll be okay."

At that she returned his smile and Hugh felt willing to fight all the government robots of Palm if she wanted him to. He was not of much use in most forms of combat, but more important than that was the feeling of being needed. If he could be there for Amy then that would be enough.

The group boarded the jet scooter. It was a tight fit with everyone on board, but somehow they managed. The ride down the aqueduct wasn't so bad and thankfully the Green Dam was the closest of the four major dams to Paseo. They stepped inside with Rolf in the lead. The dams weren't designed with human navigation in mind, and as a result, the path from the entrance to the floodgate controls would be twisted and convoluted at best, downright maddening at worst. Complicating the problem was the fact that they were all wanted by the Palman government for making Mother Brain go mad.

But it wasn't them that had done that. That was someone else's doing. Likely the same someone who had twisted Neifirst and caused her to split into herself and Nei.

Hugh tightened his grip on his acidshot. What was he doing here? His laser knife would not do him much good against the tougher machines that made up the Palman security forces. A ranged weapon with a certain amount of firepower would have been better. Perhaps he should have listened to Kain and accepted some practice with the lasershot, but organically based weapons were better suited for him. The biologists at the Biosystems Lab had been trained with those weaker types of firearms in order to control their experiments should they get out of hand. In those cases, the object being fired at was worth hundreds of thousands of meseta and shouldn't be killed lightly. Against the robots with reinforced armor, the acidshot could eat away at what his knife could not touch, but it was still poor compared to the more lethal means gun wielders such as Rudo and Kain possessed.

Up ahead, Rolf discovered more of those ancient arms. These were a pair of sleeves. As with his amber robe, they were in excellent condition. They were too slender for a muscled man such as Rudo to wear, but thankfully Rolf gave them to Anna rather than Hugh. The biologist would have hated to be considered the useless piece of clothing man. Anna pocketed the sleeves rather than wear them though.

"Shhh!" warned Shir, waving her hands at the various heads of the party. When she had everyone's attention she pointed in one direction and hunkered down. The rest of the group followed suit.

Once the sound of their own conversations faded away Hugh could easily make out the clanking sounds of machinery in the distance. This was something over and above the noise generated by the dam itself. Whatever headed their way was extremely large and heavy.

"More of the eyesore class robots?" whispered Rudo.

Shir shrugged.

"Would have to be," said Anna in that same hushed tone. "Nothing else has that kind of weight."

"I think there's only one of them," said Rolf. "Better let it pass by and move on after it goes."

At that moment Hugh wondered just why the robots were patrolling the dams anyway. Granted the robots were meant to hunt the group of them down, the dams weren't exactly a criminal hanging spot. They should be searching somewhere else. On the other hand, Rolf had already opened the other three dams. That he would attempt to visit the fourth one was hardly a difficult deduction. Did the government of Palm realize what Rolf and everyone else was doing here? If the dams weren't opened, Paseo would flood, and instead the government was more preoccupied with capturing criminals, perhaps even stopping them from doing a deed that was ultimately beneficial to them. Go figure. Maybe Mother Brain really was mad.

The behemoth that rounded the corner was not an Eyesore, although it appeared to have been based on the same model, a low-riding bulky body slung between two massive legs. Its chassis had been sprayed with a metallic grey paint rather than the telltale rust color of the Eyesore. Something about it seemed more ominous as well.

"A hyvsolid." Anna shook her head. "At my work we called them heavy solids, though that's not quite their real name. They're very rarely used. The government must be getting desperate."

A bright red dot flared at the hyvsolid's nose, swiveling as it swept its gaze across the area.

"Heat sensor!" said Rudo, giving Shir and Amy each a shove to move further away from the monster. They remained rooted to their spots however.

A new machine had swept in behind the party. It was a low powered variant of the formidable aerotank, often called a van by those who derided it. Hovering on jets of air, the newcomer swiveled the muzzle of its weapon to focus on the party. Hugh did not have to turn around to learn that the van had alerted the other machine to their presence. He turned on his laser knife with a press of the button and lifted his acidshot in his other hand. The blade would not be of much use against these foes, but something was better than nothing.

Shir opened up the fight with a quick dash at the van's motors. Rudo followed up with a shot from his laser cannon. Rolf, Anna, and Kain tackled the hyvsolid. Amy drew up her staff to protect herself, searching for a defensive position where she could be of access to any of the group at any time. Hugh found himself at a loss, then decided that Rudo's firepower would be able to account for the majority of the damage the party could do. Anything Hugh added to the van fight would be minimal at best. The biologist raised his acidshot and fired at the hyvsolid.

The battle dragged, and though they wrecked the two machines, the rest of their travel through the dam was fraught with combat after combat. The robots the government had sent after them were not there to apprehend them so much as kill them. That much became evident as the group suffered from increasingly grievous wounds. Amy patched them up as best she could with her various healing techniques, but she was running out of strength. Hugh possessed a limited ability himself, as did Rolf and Shir, but they only had so much as well.

The fight on the outside of the dam, suspended on the walkways above the aqueduct, was the worst. Their medicinal supplies ran low, and all but Amy had run out of healing technique. Hugh was at loathe to leave her side, but when the robots came he gave her some space and prepared his weapons.

They were pressed on all sides, and no one could be offered protection by another. The blue sleeves of Rolf's shirt that showed through the gaps in his armor were stained dark with his own blood. Anna's slashers flew with a little less speed each successive time she threw them, but Shir tried her best to use her unfailing dexterity and reflexes to patch those she could with the last of their medicine.

"Amy! Do you have any technique left?" shouted Rolf. "Something that could heal all of us?"

"Just a little!" she said. "But I-"

Amy collapsed, a laser burn having tore a hole through her protective cape.

"Amy!" Hugh tried to go to her, but a twigtall blocked his way.

"I can't reach her!" said Shir.

Hugh mentally pleaded that someone disengage from combat and help her, but he knew that was not possible. The twigtalls had them too closely pinned. Amy was still alive. He could see her try to pull herself up on her hands and knees. Damn it! If only the robots hadn't managed to cut her off from them!

He swore and fired another capsule of acid at the twigtall nearest to him. If anything happened to Amy, after so much had happened to Neifirst and Nei... He thought of those who depended on him, both here and elsewhere. Whoever was behind all this must be stopped, but not at this cost. He needed to heal her, but even if he had enough technique strength left he could not reach her to cure her wounds.

An opening appeared between the twigtalls and Rolf urged him to use it. Hugh had no idea why he bothered, but he tumbled through and sprinted for the petite doctor. Lasers fired after him momentarily before they were distracted by the enemies closer at hand.

"Amy!" He called her name as he knelt by her side.

She looked at him with eyes glazed over by pain. She mouthed something he could not hear.

"No, don't..." he murmured, reaching a hand out to her shoulder.

A warmth filled him, a warmth of caring. He looked, mystified, at the sleeve of his amber robe, now realizing what Amy had seen. His robe was glowing and his eyes lit with the knowledge of the gift this garment possessed. Healing. He held her close as though to use the gires technique, but drew the power from the robe itself. The amber robe flared bright and the skin closed around the burns and abrasions Amy had suffered.

She gazed at him for a moment with pleasant relief before exhaustion overwhelmed her and she closed her eyes. Around him, Hugh became aware that the sounds of battle had subsided. The last of the medications had held out to keep the group alive, and now that Hugh realized the latent ability of his amber robe, he realized that they would be in a better position to take care of themselves. And if his robe had this ability, then what of the other items they had found in the dams? They should check them all.

The group took a quiet watch up on the walkways of the dam as they waited for Amy to revive. It would not have been wise to do so, but Hugh wanted to sit up on the railings and shout over the land that he was going to find those bastards that screwed up his planet. Yes, maybe Nei and Neifirst was gone. But he still had Amy, he still had something to fight for. For his daughters and for his future he could fight. For the ability to heal both soul and body, he would fight.

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