[an error occurred while processing this directive]
"Why thank you. If I cannot see these plants within a natural environment, then I may at least cultivate them here. I find them emotionally satisfying." Daughter's voice, echoing from speakers set along the walls, had lost the mechanical, screeching edge it had always possessed - it was now thoroughly and undeniably that of a woman.
Maztim reached out, gently brushing the leaves of an iris growing within a niche set in the wall. As he passed another speaker, he caught the faint sound of birdsong emanating from within it.
"Daughter," he smiled. "What's that noise?"
"It is the Motavian emerald-winged thrush. It's song is most soothing, is it not?"
"Indeed," Maztim replied. "Where's Wren? I'd life to get started as soon as possible."
"You are expressing a wish to end the period of separation with your family in a minimal amount of time. Please forgive me. I have been an insensitive " A pause. "Insensitive "
"Host?" Maztim supplied.
"Yes. I have been an insensitive host. Thank you, Maztim."
"It's nothing, Daughter," he said, sighing. "Where's Wren?"
"Wren is in the main control room, where my matrix is housed." A yellow line flared into existence at Maztim's feet, shot off down the passage and around a corner. "Please follow the yellow line."
The main control room of Kuran was identical to the one on Zelan, but, like the rest of the satellite, Daughter had modified it. Set along the catwalk leading to the computer were large oak trees, flourishing in Kuran's artificial environment. The birdsong was louder here, too.
Wren stood beside the glowing green main computer. As Maztim entered, the large Android started forward, extending his hand in greeting. Maztim took Wren's hand and barely concealed a wince at the Android's bone-crushing grip.
"Welcome, Maztim," Wren said, releasing his friend. "How was your trip from Zelan?"
"No problems, Wren, thanks. How are you two?"
"My studies are progressing well," Wren told him, resuming his position beside the main computer. "I am doing some fascinating things in the field of warp mechanics. I believe it may be possible to propel a small craft beyond a quarter light speed."
"My studies are also progressing well," Daughter put in. "With the assistance of Wren and Demi, I have begun construction of a fully self-sufficient, totally non-organic, mobile frame for my matrix."
"Non-organic?" Maztim asked, curious.
"Many Androids, myself and Demi included, are at least partially created with charged organics - dead flesh preserved by the Android's systems. This was done mostly because it was cheaper then constructing an entirely non-organic Android."
"But we have no charged organics available to us," Daughter interjected. "I have to choice but to create a fully inorganic Android form. I have modified existing Demi-type schematics to a form suitable for my own purposes. It is progressing well."
"Fascinating," Maztim told them. "Is the Landale all loaded up?"
Wren nodded. "It is sufficiently stocked for a three day journey. Barring unforeseen circumstances, you should be back on Zelan within two. The Landale is also outfitted with the proper specimen collection equipment. You will maintain full communications lock with Zelan and Kuran throughout the collection, that Demi and I may instruct you in the use of this equipment."
"Excellent." Wren nodded again, then turned and started down the catwalk. "See you later, Daughter."
Within an hour, Maztim was on his way.
"I'm on approach now," Maztim said. His eyes darted between the main viewscreen, and the com-screens set to either side of the controls. One showed Demi, the other Wren. "I'm not within visual, but I can begin my scans from here."
He paused. "That's odd. The cloud seems to be jamming me, somehow. It seems to emit a sensor jamming frequency naturally, and that frequency fluctuates up and down rapidly. I can't figure out it's patterns, but it's certainly an interesting form of defense."
"Send us your readings so far," Demi told him. "Maybe we can help you with it."
"Yes," Wren confirmed. "While we look the readings over, try fluctuating your own sensor frequency at a slightly slower rate then that of the cloud. Perhaps you can match frequencies and get us an analysis."
"I'll try," Maztim said. He paused as he worked the controls, sending a transmission of his scans back to Wren and Demi. "Seems unlikely I'll be able penetrate it - there doesn't seem to be any cohesion to the pattern. It just changes "
"Try it," Demi said. "And remember, Maztim. There is logic to everything. If there's a pattern here, no matter how remote, we'll find it."
Maztim shrugged. Then, "Wow! I got through, just for a second, when the frequencies matched. Whatever it is, it isn't a gas cloud I'm transmitting my readings now. They're kind of garbled. I only got through for about a second, but maybe you guys will understand it a little better."
"There is a fair bit of fragmentation in these readings," Demi said after a moment.
"I'm in visual," Maztim said suddenly.
"No!" Shocked, Maztim turned to see Wren, his mouth hanging open, staring at the readings. "Maztim! Withdraw! Withdraw immediately! Abort!"
Demi gasped at Wren's reaction to Maztim's transmission. She gaped at him over the private link she had to Kuran, for the moment ignoring Maztim. "Wren!" She cried. "What's wrong?"
"Abort!" Wren cried again, then, he hung his head. "Oh, no," he murmured.
Suddenly cold, Demi turned back to Maztim's screen and she gasped.
The screen had dissolved into static. Maztim was gone.
But that didn't frighten Demi as much as what she saw on Wren's face. Absolute, crippling terror.
"It is an impossibility," Wren told Demi and Daughter several hours later, on Kuran. "It should not exist."
"That doesn't answer my question, Wren," Demi said. "You know what it is, don't you? You saw something in that scan that I didn't. What is the anomaly?"
"Observe," Wren said, ignoring her question. "Daughter, would you please replay the Landale's logs for the last few seconds of transmission?"
"Certainly, Wren." One of the green panels on the main computer sizzled for a moment, then snapped into a view of the Landale, over Maztim's shoulder. They could see the gas cloud looming before him. It was a plain, grayish color and didn't seem to be moving.
"There is a fair bit of fragmentation in these readings," Demi heard herself say.
"I'm in visual," Maztim said.
On the screen, Wren began to cry out. Demi saw herself, in the com-screen, turn away and begin speaking to Wren. For a moment, the cloud flickered, and a red light flashed from it straight towards the Landale. The cockpit was filled with a flare of light, and the screen dissolved into static.
The viewscreen returned to it's familiar emerald hue.
'The cloud fired on him?" Demi continued staring at the screen, long after the image had vanished.
"It is not a cloud," Wren replied, shaking his head. "It is an extremely complex sensor cloak which, as Maztim learned, fluctuates it's jamming frequency rapidly up and down, making it more difficult to penetrate then a normal Canceller. It fooled our more basic sensors into thinking it was a dust cloud with a unique form of defense against our ship's scanners. It also possesses electromagnetic shielding, which seems to have been altered to project the illusion of a gas cloud."
"Maztim is dead, isn't he?" Wren nodded slowly, once. Demi sighed. "Alys I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
"I understand the pain of your loss, Demi," Wren said placing a hand on her shoulder. "But this is no time to mourn. All of Algo is in danger."
"I have analyzed Maztim's sensor logs, and I fail to see any indication of an electromagnetic shield of any sort. A natural anomaly that could project such a field would be most rare."
"It's an aspect of the cloak," Wren said. "In effect, it shields the shields. Demi, Daughter, please observe."
Demi looked up, her face tear-streaked. "How could you be so callous? He is dead, Wren. Dead!"
Wren turned, slowly, his usually unreadable face grief ridden. "I am not callous, Demi, nor am I cold. I knew Maztim as well as you did. But if I am right, a time of darkness looms on our horizon. The time to mourn is not now. Allow me to explain, please, and then you will understand."
"Thank you. Daughter, queue the logs to .5 of a second prior to the laser blast. Freeze the log at the exact moment the cloud fires."
"I fail to see the purpose of such an experiment."
Maztim's log returned to the screen, moving in slow motion. Demi could see herself gaping at the screen, talking to Wren, then suddenly the screen froze. A faint red glow stood out at the heart of the cloud.
"Move forward .1 second," Wren commanded.
The cloud flickered, and then dissipated for a brief moment. Demi gasped.
What replaced the cloud was a ship. It was enormous, consisting of six domes linked about a central one in a circular pattern. Rising from each dome was a huge tower, and from the central dome rose a tower larger then all the rest. From one of the six towers on the outside of the ship, the laser blast was blossoming. Each dome was the same size, and the bases tapered downwards to points. It was the most incredible ship Demi had ever seen.
And it had killed Maztim.
"What is it?"
"As I said," Wren replied slowly. "It is something which should not exist. It is called Alisa III."
"That sounds familiar," Demi noted.
"Accessing," Daughter's voice rang out. "Parmanian colony ship, designation Alisa III. Class - planet ship. Maximum human capacity - thirty five million. Consists of seven circular biodomes, intended for use as a space going vessel that would be used to carry colonists to habitable planets outside the Algo solar system. Alisa III and it's sister ships, Alisa and Alisa II, were used by Parma's people in escaping the Great Collapse. Alisa and Alisa II both crashed down on Dezolis, but Alisa III is believed to have continued on, out of Algo." A pause. "This is the closest approximation my databanks could uncover. But the ship approaching Algo does not match precisely the schematics for Alisa III that I have in my system. In particular, the towers rising from the environmental domes appear to be alien in construction."
"It is the Alisa III," Wren said.
"How can you be so sure?" Demi rose and examined the ship. "And if it is Alisa III, then why would if have fired on Maztim?"
"Firstly, I have carefully compared the sensor readings we received from Maztim to existing schematics of the ships which escaped our solar system. The Alisa III is the only exact match." Wren sighed and shook his head. "And the alien towers - It seems likely that Alisa III is no longer in human hands."
Tareela watched the tiny ship go up in a flare of red light as their lasers struck it, stripping away it's hull and laying bare it's single occupant to the vacuum of space. Behind her, she could feel Nevak's eyes boring into her.
"We are entering transport range for both Mota and Dezo," the young man at the controls said. Tareela turned.
The room was dark, lit only by the light of the stars showing through the window, and the faint red light of the control panels. This was the nerve center for the Alisa III, the weapons, environmental and Android controls. Nevak, ever present, sat at a table pressed against the wall.
Tareela swept over to the man at the controls. "Excellent," she said, seeing Nevak rise out of the corner of her eyes. "The Wrens are ready?"
"They are prepared, my Queen."
"Chancellor," Tareela turned to face Nevak. "Perhaps you would like to give the order?"
The aged man shook his head. "I will not rebel against you, Tareela. But I will have no part in this."
Tareela moved across the room faster then Nevak would have thought possible and slapped him soundly across the face. She took his chin in her hands, forcing him to look her in the eyes. "That is rebellion," she hissed. "And you know the punishment for treason, Nevak."
"Will you execute your entire populous, then, my lady?" Nevak's voice was level and calm. Coldly logical. "You are well aware of general feelings toward your plans."
"But there are none so audacious as to oppose me outright!" Tareela cried, releasing Nevak. "Do not cross me, Chancellor. I am stronger then you think." Turning she, pointed at the man manning the Android controls. "Begin," she said.
Two days out from the Machine Center, in the clearing in which they camped for the night, Lant found the package. The Land Rover, sleek and glistening, was at rest near the edge of the forest.
He had been looking for his sleeping bag, but the wrapped canvas package he found grabbed his interest because he didn't recall packing it. Whatever it was, someone had slipped it into his things.
"Probably Chaz's idea of a practical joke," Lant muttered. "It'll be something disgusting, like a dead snake." But the package was rigid, not limp and lifeless like a dead animal would be. Lant sniffed it experimentally. Didn't smell dead. Well, Lant told himself, then it's in a box. He knew immediately that was wrong. But no matter what it was, Lant was not going to let Chaz see him open it.
"What're you doing?" Rika's voice rang over the stillness of the evening. "Hurry up, Lant!"
Lant glanced around uncomfortably, cradling the package in his hands. "I think I left my sleeping bag in the Land Rover," he called over his shoulder. "I'll go look for it."
A moment later, inside the Land Rover, Lant seated himself in one of the passenger's chairs. He fumbled for a moment with the cord holding the wrapping in place. After a moment, it fell away. A flash of light illuminated the Land Rover for a second, as the sword within caught the light and reflected it back, a thousand times brighter.
Lant gasped as he raised the sword to examine it. It's blade was a silvery color, and he could almost see a strange, unnatural pattern dancing with the metal of the sword. He didn't recognize the metal the blade was forged from. The hilt was golden in color, it's simple crosspieces arcing upward slightly at their ends, like wings. The pommel was circular, the golden metal darkening to a light blue. The dim light in the room caught the metal and made it glisten brightly.
"Wow," Lant heard a voice from the doorway. "What is that?"
Lant's head snapped up quickly, and he made a feeble grasp for the canvas that had bound the glorious sword. "Tamgren!" He gasped. "It's nothing," he tried desperately to conceal the blade behind his back, but Tamgren crossed the room quickly and took it from him.
"Too light for Laconium," Tamgren noted clinically. "And you've never been to Dezolis. Where'd you get this, Lant?"
"I found it, Tamgren. It was slid into my pack - I thought it was just Chaz - you know how he can be - but " Lant trailed off. "Please don't tell anyone."
"Why not?" Tamgren turned the blade idly, watching how the light reflected off it, dancing across the walls.
"I don't know Mom and Rika don't think I'm old enough to own a sword - like Rika is," his voice dripping sarcasm. "She and Chaz think they own the world, and there's only four years distance between me and the twins. I might need a sword, Tamgren."
"But what if the rightful owner comes by? Looking for it?"
Lant sighed. "There isn't a settlement around for miles - the nearest is Krup and nobody from Krup comes out this far into the woods anyway. Besides, it wasn't just lying on the ground or anything, Tamgren. It was slid in my pack." Cautiously, Lant reached out to retake the sword. Tamgren let him have it.
"Your choice, Lant," he told the boy. "It's up to you - you found it."
"Warning. I am detecting massive surges of power emanating from the Alisa III. They appear to be employing a mass molecular transmitter, similar to the type used prior to the Great Collapse."
Wren turned quickly. "Just what are they transporting?"
"They seem to be moving large forces of AI's to points all over Dezolis and Motavia. Scanning." A pause. "They appear to be Wren-type Androids, fully armed with weapons arrangement A1C. This configuration includes "
"It's all right," Demi interjected. "We all know what A1C is. A1C was designed for use in strike forces, crack troops, paratroopers Wren, is this what I think it is?"
"Yes, Demi," Wren said. "I'm afraid so. It is an invasion force, obviously sent by alien life-forms to take control of Algo."
"I'm going back to Zelan," Demi exclaimed, rising. "I have to prime it's defense systems. I hope they're still functional Wren! What about Alys and the children?"
Before Wren could speak, Daughter began. "There is a large force of Wrens transporting into the Nalya area, near the crater. Some appear to be moving towards Aiedo, others towards the smaller town. I do not have a positive lock on the children's location, though there is a strong concentration of Wrens in the forests near Krup. "
"I've got to go help Alys," Demi said. "I'll bring her to Zelan."
"No!" Demi turned to face Wren. "You must return to Zelan with me and prime it's defense net."
"Do not worry, Demi. There is someone we can send."
Lukas had risen early that day, gone about his schedule as he always had. It was a nice day - the sun was warm and there were no clouds in the sky. Moving to Nalya, he reflected, was the best thing he had ever done.
As evening descended, Lukas hung the 'Closed' sign on the shop window and locked up, as he had done every night. Before leaving for home, he went into the back room to retrieve some papers he kept on his business dealings.
Right about now, he knew, Yaiya would be preparing the evening meal for her, Lukas, and their three children. He wondered what it would be, but knew that whatever his wife made would be wonderful.
Then he heard the screams.
Turning, he rushed from the back room and out the door of his shop, where he froze in horror. There were monsters in the streets. Horrible, inhuman creatures with metal protrusions growing from their bodies, the monsters, in strange, unearthly armor, moved about the streets, killing all in their path. The screams rose from a low moan to a high, keening wail that filled the night sky.
Moving through back alleys, Lukas fought down nausea at the sight of bodies, some fried by the monster's strange weapons, some simply broken and bent and bloodied until they were beyond recognition. Lukas' only thought was to save Yaiya and his children. Rushing from the alley, he darted onto the street he lived on.
His house was burning, and one of those awful creatures stood before it, watching it blaze. He could hear the screams of his wife and children rising from the inferno. A scream of rage, wild and incoherent, escaped from Lukas' throat, and he snatched up a rock from the ground by his feet. His only thought was to save his family, as, howling, he charged the monster.
No one survived the massacre that night.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]