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Restoration

Chapter Thirteen


Unstable Daughter

Ruins--of a ruinous life. Hugh's breath passed harshly through his throat as he panted heavily in the basement of the Biosystems Lab. Tired, wasted, he felt withered. So little was left to him, so little ahead of him. He stood now in the remnants of his glory; each shattered vat around him a painful reminder of the past. They hurt like the blades of knives, but made him feel alive.

Hugh staggered the last few steps up to a massive computer. It was silent now, its lights dim. Unfamiliar, just as this whole room was unfamiliar. Many regarded the computer as inanimate, but the system had been Hugh's friend during the months he spent here.

"Seed," Hugh murmured, raising a hand to touch a monitor. Though dusty it reflected his visage back at him through the dim light of his flash. His face was haggard, the sallow areas magnified tenfold in the poor light.

He had been so proud when he was admitted to the Lab's staff. Mother Brain assigned him to the Genetic Engineering division, considered one of the best assignments for a scientist on Mota. All that was worthless now. Not even the factories were working yet, and it had been almost a year since Mother Brain's defeat.

Hugh turned his head to the side. Several development capsules rested in a row next to the computer. Most of them were dusty, empty, and coated with the decaying remnants of a sticky fluid that had sprayed from the shattered cases nearby. But a few still throbbed with the life-giving nutriatic juice. Developing organisms drifted lazily within them, in perfect equilibrium with their environment. Hugh did not know if they were dead or alive, or merely in stasis.

He took a step towards to another capsule, a very special one. Hugh shuddered in mental anguish. Here was another testimony to his folly, though it took him two years to realize it.

"Seed," he murmured, placing a hand on one of the computer's colored control tiles beside him. "Did you really deceive me?"

It had been an innocuous request, really. They needed a sample of Palman DNA for Hugh's experiment. There was no such thing as a generic genotype, and Seed deemed it inappropriate to use any anonymous donors as a template. It would be ideal to have the living genotype available for observation for signs of potential defects in the mutant strain.

Hugh gave Seed his own DNA. The computer had balked at the request that his project remain female, since Hugh was obviously male. Seed sharply reminded him that a female's sex chromosomes were XX while a male's were XY. It was the one of the most basic fundamentals of genetics. Hugh told Seed to duplicate his X so that his project would have two. Seed obeyed reluctantly. The computer apparently wanted Hugh's project to succeed as much as he did, if not more so.

"Duplicate chromosomes from the same parent sometimes produce defective zygotes," was Seed's final warning once a life capsule had been prepared for her. "She may die prematurely."

"If she's still in the fetal stage I'm willing to take that loss."

"And if she's not?"

But it was not the double X that had killed her in the end. No. Rolf and his friends did.

"Nei," murmured Hugh. A living tool for Mother Brain, that was what she turned out to be. Seed told him to take the night off, and that was the night the power surge from Climatrol occurred. That was the night Neifirst made her rapid growth, the night that had sparked her hatred toward Palmans. Someone had tried to kill her then, but why? Why at such a young age when she could not yet prove her own worth? She had been his experiment, dammit. No one else had the right! He designed her to help Mota. Mother Brain molded her to destroy it.

He shook his head. Why had he come here? To relive the pain knowing that if his creation never existed Mota might have been spared a little longer? No. Mother Brain would have done something else then. Seed might have reported someone else's experiment she would have used. What had Seed done that night? Did he really deceive him?

Hugh looked at his own reflection in the shattered glass of Neifirst's capsule. He could see her features within his. "I should not have used my own DNA. I never thought the bond would be this strong. If she was someone else's..."

Again he knew he was wrong. He realized his paternal emotions came from something deeper that genetics alone, but that did not ease the feeling of failure. At least here, surrounded by the remains of a previous folly, he could forget the pain of the present.

Hugh lowered his head, closed his eyes. "If there is a god, how many more sins must I take on before I stand before him in judgment?"

A scuffle sounded from the entryway behind him, as of a boot scraping glass against the metal floor. Hugh reacted slowly, with the movements of a waking dreamer. His flash passed over the shattered life capsules and the dusty desk at which he had worked for so long. At last the light came to rest on Kain and Lore. Kain held his own flash, pointed downward so that it would not shine where Hugh could see.

"We all have sinned, Hugh," said Kain. "And if there is a god, I believe he is as forgiving as our hearts will allow. He can't forgive you, until you forgive yourself."

Kain stepped forward and offered a hand towards his friend. Hugh glanced away then back again, frightened.

"Come out, Hugh," Lore said softly, moving behind Kain. "Come out of the dark."

Hugh shook his head and turned back to look at the capsule that had housed Neifirst. He had created her three years ago, and he felt as though he had done nothing with what he had learned from her existence. He was beginning to understand Amy's words from their meeting last month. Perhaps he still had not matured. But he needed help. You have friends, and we're willing to listen, Lore had told him. He looked over his shoulder at Kain and the proffered hand. Hugh nodded slowly, almost smiled, and reached out for help.

* * * * *

"Are you feeling better now?" Kain asked after Hugh had taken another sip of water from a canteen.

The trio still remained in the basement of the Biosystems Lab. Hugh had dusted off a counter to sit on while Kain stood beside him. Lore paced near the entryway, speaking lowly into Kain's cellular visaphone.

"Yes, much." Hugh's voice came out hoarsely, but he tried to smile as if to make up for it.

Kain shook his head and grinned briefly. "I suppose. So, you created Nei?"

Hugh nodded. "I did. Though I now wonder what I was thinking then. It might have saved Mota a lot of trouble had I never considered creating sentient life. Mother Brain could hardly do anything with a plant, no matter how much she mutated it."

"Nei was a good person though, even if Neifirst hadn't been."

"They were the same person," said Hugh, drawing open a drawer and lifting out a slide. "Nei and Neifirst were one and the same; two aspects of the same being, neither separate nor wholly united. Neifirst was dominant," --he looked reflectively at the slide-- "but Nei is what she would have been had she been given the chance. I don't know that for certain, of course, and it's unscientific for me to say so, but I believe it. I have to or I had no right to her in the first place."

Kain said nothing as Hugh turned the microscope slide over and over between his hands. The biologist lifted the slide up to their meager light. "Look at this," he said. "I made it while everyone else was opening up the dams. It's a sample of Neifirst's cell structure, taken immediately after our battle with her. When I saw what she had become, I had to know what changes had happened to make her turn out so differently than I expected. I didn't think so much about personality, having seen how Nei turned out, but I had to know why she had grown so fast. I believed that had I been there the night of the power surge, I might have been able to change her. She would not have been the monster we saw at the peak of Climatrol."

Hugh lightly tossed the slide back into the drawer. "Had I been there, things might have been different. But I won't ever know. I finished analyzing that tissue sample in time to join everyone in opening the last dam. Her growth was cancerous. It was the only way Mother Brain could make her grow so fast and deviate so far from her own DNA. Nei, Neifirst, they both would have died within a year of their birth whether I saved her or not."

Kain let out a breath, glanced at the floor, then looked back at Hugh. "You've been holding all that inside you for so long. I suppose it's no wonder you've been so depressive. Noah was just the icing on the cake. Not that it was a good thing."

Hugh took on a determined look at the mention of Noah. "I'm going there."

"You are," said Kain. "We came here to get you and do just that. Lore's got all your equipment stashed outside with the rest of our stuff. We're ready to go as soon as you are."

"Already? So soon?"

Kain nodded. "We don't want to pull this off too close to the Council's own mission to Noah next month. Alis only knows how long this is going to take us. But Lore's checking up on things and she's made all the arrangements. If we're going to go, we'd better do this fast."

"I'm ready."

Lore snapped the visaphone into its more compact form with a loud click, drawing the attention of Hugh and Kain. She nodded to the two men. "We're set to go. Rudo has drained all the fuel from the Palman shuttles, Cass is covering all the dummy paperwork, and Rolf's clearing everyone out so no one will be near the roof of the Command Center when we take off. With luck, no one will be able to confirm it was us."

"Then this is it." Kain punched his fist into his open palm. "I can feel the adrenalin rush already."

Lore smiled with a sense of black humor. "More of a stomach turning sensation if you ask me. Now we just need to head back outside, grab our things, and meet Rolf at the Command Center. He'll be waiting for us."

* * * * *

Kain knew the location of every working surveillance camera in the Motavian Command Center and lead the three through the routes that bypassed them. The trio scuttled through the halls, taking pains to not be seen by the building's living guards as well.

"You guys are really going out on a limb here," whispered Hugh.

"We have to, just in case," said Lore as she fumbled with the lock to the stairwell leading to the roof. "The Council's up to something. Kain'll explain when we get on the ship. For now," --she grunted as the lock gave way and opened the door-- "stay quiet. There's more to this than recovering your sanity."

Lore winced as the door groaned. She moved it open only a crack and slipped through. Hugh followed and Kain closed the door behind them. The hinges protested weakly until the door locked with an automatic click.

The three were greeted on the windy rooftop by Rolf. The blue-haired agent waved smartly to them as they came up the stairs.

"Good to see you made it," he said. "Anyone see you on the way in?"

"I doubt it," Lore stated as the wind whipped a mess of onyx tresses about her face. She set her duffel bag on the floor by her feet and used a hand to hold back her hair.

"Is the ship ready to take off?" asked Kain.

Rolf nodded. "It's fueled and ready to go. I don't know if the autopilot is enough to take you to Noah though. It knows enough to fly to Skure, but a wandering spaceship? You might have to wake Lutz to get there. He's probably asleep by now, and I don't know if he'd understand."

Kain dismissed the matter. "I can try flying the ship. As long as the autopilot handles the landing it can't be much harder than piloting the jet scooter."

"Can the autopilot do docking?" asked Hugh.

"Does Noah even have a place to dock?" Lore added. "I hadn't thought about that..."

Kain scowled. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there. We're committed now. Too much has been set into motion already. This is our only chance."

The agent nodded. "If you guys don't leave within the next fifteen minutes or so the whole lot of us might get caught. The shuttles aren't used much anymore, but if they get wind of you guys leaving, they'll started refueling as soon as they realize their tanks are empty."

"Which is why we have to be out of reach before they get started," said Kain.

Lore agreed and turned to Rolf. "You're right about the time. We'd better get going. Wish us luck." She picked up her duffel bag and slung it over her shoulder. Objects dully rattled into each other at her movement. "I've got a couple more telepipes with me too in case we need them."

The agent smiled. "Good luck then. I wish I could go with you."

Kain chuckled. "Three of the warriors who defeated Mother Brain all vanish at once? Not a good idea. We wouldn't be able to do this without you though. You're the only one with the influence to keep us out of the red." He waved his farewell and trotted up to the ship's airlock.

Lore watched Kain go then glanced back to Rolf. She nodded her goodbye and walked steadily after the wrecker.

Hugh let out a breath. "And I'm going."

"Take care," said Rolf. The agent held up a sheathed sword and offered it to Hugh. "And take this with you."

"The Neisword?" Hugh accepted it and tentatively pulled the blade from its sheath to confirm its authenticity.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"There may still be dangers on Noah. Our departure did not doom all the monsters that dwelled there. Even without the Earthmen to guide and power the ship they still may have survived. And if there are any remnants of Dark Force's influence in there, the sword may be your only means of protection."

Rolf clapped Hugh on the shoulder. "Lore and Kain have told me you've been through a lot. Don't disappoint them."

Hugh looked down at the sword in his hand and knew the weight of its meaning. He nodded. "I won't. It will be hard, but I won't."

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