Author's Note: I got the idea for this story while thinking about Joel Fagin's The Other Side and "The Lost Man," in which he explores the nature of Neifirst's abilities. That in turn set me to thinking about Nei...and this story popped out.
Everyone has their own battlefield. Hugh Thompson had taken up weapons and armor to fight monsters directly, but his true arena was here in the laboratory. Despite the fact that Mother Brain's robots were pursuing Rolf Landale, Hugh, and their allies as criminals even as they hunted down the last of the Biohazards unleashed from the Biosystems Lab, the Commander of Mota still firmly believed in Rolf's innocence. That was why Hugh had been allowed the use of Central Tower's laboratory facilities.
Right then, Rolf was pursuing the Commander's objective, to release the four dams of Mota and prevent catastrophic floods that could kill thousands and wreak havoc on the planet's food supply. He'd taken several of his companions with him--Josh Kain, the wrecker, Rudolf Steiner, whose heavy guns provided the best attack against armored targets, and Anna Zirski, the blade-throwing Guardian. He hadn't taken Hugh, because the majority of Hugh's techniques only worked on organic targets, not the machines they would be facing.
Besides which, Hugh suspected that Rolf cared a lot more about the answers Hugh was looking for than he did about his own quest.
Hugh was looking for the mysteries of Nei.
What they knew about Nei wasn't much. She'd clearly been different from normal Palmans from the moment of their first acquaintance. Her long, pointed ears and catlike movements were clearly not usual, and her body language often resembled an animal's more than a person's. She'd been a puzzle for Hugh from their first meeting, and it had been hard for him to suppress the desire to submit her to a battery of questions about her origins.
They'd found certain things out in the course of confronting the Biohazard mystery. The one behind that had been "Neifirst," a creature strongly resembling Nei that had apparently been created in the Biosystems Lab but had gone insane, killed everyone present, and set the lab to creating monsters. Spreading destruction appeared to be her only motive--she had also turned her attention to Climatrol in the hope of sabotaging Mota's environment.
When the group had confronted Neifirst, it became clear at once that she and Nei were familiar with each other, but that Nei had not shared Neifirst's destructive instincts and so had separated from her "sister." Neifirst had claimed that Nei would die if she was destroyed, but that had not stopped Nei from attacking Neifirst so precipitously that before any of the others could react, Neifirst had crushed the life out of her.
Rolf had nearly gone off his head then. Hugh had never really understood the depths of Rolf's feelings for Nei before that moment. He still didn't know whether those feelings were brotherly or romantic, but there was no doubt of their intensity. Neifirst had possessed incredible power, projecting a kind of energy duplicate of herself that attacked with a strength and speed the bioengineered creature could not match physically, but she had been no match for Rolf's pain and the driving need for vengeance that had filled him.
The strange thing was what had happen to Nei's corpse--not Neifirst's, only Nei's. As Neifirst died, Nei's corpse had degraded into a nearly unidentifiable biomass. The clone center had verified what Hugh had suspected--that it would be impossible to create an active-memory clone from the remains. There simply wasn't enough left that was human.
The lab door slid open and a short, red-haired woman entered.
"Have you had any luck?"
Amy Sage was a medical doctor, the only one of the group that had a good working knowledge of the concepts Hugh was dealing with. He wondered if it was coincidence that she, too, had been left behind by Rolf.
"None," Hugh groused, shaking his head. "None at all."
"You can't explain what happened to her, or why it didn't happen to Neifirst?"
"No." He pointed through the window at the remains of the two sisters in their testing modules. "Look at it, Amy; there's no internal structure at all--skin, bones, organs, nothing."
"Does it extend to the cellular level?"
"Does it--? Take a look at this. Computer, display results of cellular scan, subject N-2."
Amy's eyes rose.
"That's impossible, Hugh. Those are embryonic cells, from a stage prior to the development of any recognizable part of the body."
"And that's only part of the mystery. Computer, display results of genetic analysis on subject N-2."
Amy's gaping mouth accurately summed up her reaction.
"Hugh, how can there be no genetic material present at all?"
He threw up his hands helplessly.
"I don't know! If I hadn't seen it myself, I'd have sworn that someone switched Nei's corpse with a supply of base material from the Biosystems Lab."
"It's the stuff they grow Biohazards from, as well as more useful bioengineered creations. Essentially, it consists of artificially-created 'blank' embryonic cells like these. The scientists design the genetic material for the creature, insert it into a small group of these cells, and stimulate growth."
"So this is what Nei was originally made from."
"Yes, but the alteration is permanent. When a bioengineered organism dies, it just...dies. It doesn't revert back to its original state. Just look at Neifirst, or at any clone that dies, or all the Biohazards we fought."
"But apparently something did cause Nei to revert, something that happened right after Neifirst's death," Amy concluded.
Hugh was forced to agree.
"I think Neifirst knew what would happen," he said. "After all, she did tell Nei that killing Neifirst would be killing herself as well."
"Nei knew that," Amy murmured, "but she chose to attack Neifirst anyway. She chose to sacrifice her own life to stop Neifirst."
"Well, I'm not planning to clone Neifirst so I can ask her what she meant. It wouldn't work, anyway; Rolf's last Nafoi did a number on her. The brain damage is too extensive to generate an active-memory clone. Besides which, that would take 'playing with fire' to a whole new level of meaning."
"Speaking of meaning," Amy changed the subject, "do you know what the name 'Nei' means?"
"Didn't she say it was 'the human who is not a human'? Fitting, that."
Amy shook her head.
"That may be what she said, but it's not true."
Hugh stared at the inert mass of cells.
"Maybe, or maybe she thought it was true. I looked up the word in the library's linguistic databank. It didn't turn up until I hit archaic records from nearly a thousand years ago. It means power."
Hugh's gaze transferred to the other form, the blue-haired fiend that had unleashed the nightmare on Mota. He remembered the crushing grip of the giant hand projected by Neifirst's will seizing him and hurling him against the Climatrol wall, breaking ribs and nearly killing him.
"It fits," he said. "Especially for her and..." His voice trailed off as a thought crashed through his brain like a thunderbolt. "Amy, why was Neifirst called 'first'?"
"I don't know--because she was first, I suppose."
"Right, but no one would name her that way. It doesn't make sense. The natural thing for a scientist to do would be to have called Neifirst 'Nei' and Nei 'Neisecond' or "Nei II' or something like that."
Amy thought that over. She was the doctor, the one with the knowledge of psychology, so it wasn't surprising that she got to the answer before Hugh.
"Neifirst must have given herself that name. It must have been very important to her to remind herself that she was the original, the first one. Particularly, I suppose, in the face of how her sister had been able to find an existence in Palman society, which must have been what the experiment that created her was about: a better breed of Palmans, one that could manipulate the 'power' that Neifirst could use."
"Except that Nei couldn't do that. All she could do was to use standard techniques, and any of us except Rudo and maybe Anna are much better at that than she was. She didn't have any special powers."
Amy looked at him curiously. Perhaps it had been something in his tone of voice, or a look on his face. "You're on to something, aren't you, Hugh?"
"It's crazy, but it's the only thing that makes sense. Consider the evidence: Neifirst had incredible power of a type unknown in Mota; Nei did not. Nei's life was dependent on Neifirst's, but as we saw, Neifirst could live on without Nei. Nei's body reverted to some kind of primal state after Neifirst's death--not her death, but Neifirst's--while Neifirst's remained intact. Then there's the importance in Neifirst's mind of her being the original Nei."
Amy shivered as if her usual yellow, short-sleeved dress was suddenly too cold--but she didn't shiver from a chill.
"Hugh, what are you saying?"
"I'm saying...that I don't think there ever was a Nei."
Amy just stared at him.
"I don't think," he continued, "that when Nei said she separated from Neifirst that she meant she ran away. I think that she meant it literally, that the two of them were one entity, and then they became two."
"Hugh, that's crazy! People can't just split off like a cell dividing."
"But Neifirst and Nei weren't people. They were artificially created. Or rather Neifirst was. When Neifirst destroyed the scientists at Biosystems, though, a part of her insane mind rejected the violence."
"You mean that Nei was a...a multiple personality? Part of Neifirst's fragmented mind?"
Hugh nodded slowly.
"I can only speculate; the security data was unrecoverable and so were the files on the Nei project, but I think that the one we knew as Nei used Neifirst's power to generate a separate body for herself. Only, rather than being a projection of pure energy, it used that base material to build from." He pointed again at what was left of Nei. "Instead of a temporary projection, it became permanent through animating the body, but it was still a puppet, operated through a corner of Neifirst's brain."
"But not that permanent."
"No. Clearly Nei was continually drawing power from Neifirst to hold the transformation in place. So long as Neifirst was alive, Nei's body appeared perfectly normal--even down to the molecular level. It probably could even have been cloned; it was treated at the hospital to repair injuries. When Neifirst died, though, Nei--the personality that was Nei, I mean--died with her, the power was withdrawn, and Nei's body became what we see here."
Amy shook her head in disbelief.
"How can that be?"
"Whatever the name 'Nei' meant, whatever type of power Neifirst possessed, it's nothing like anything we know. I'm sure if we run a Manxham screening on Neifirst for the genetic code that manipulates magic, we'll find it, but I'll also bet that her creators 'tweaked' it to create a new, more powerful type of Esper. A new power for the new race."
"Power enough to mutate the base material cells into a recognizable form, like legends of shapeshifting?"
"That's a good idea, Amy."
"Not really; it goes beyond speculation all the way to pure guesswork...but it is consistent."
"Without either one alive, we'll probably never know for sure if we're right or just making things up." It was just lip service to scientific objectivity, though. In truth, there was no doubt in his mind.
"Poor Nei," Amy said. "She tried so hard to escape, but she never could."
"We've all got our own inner demons to deal with, but Nei..."
"I doubt she even knew the truth, not consciously. Just a lurking fear in her subconscious until she came face-to-face with herself." She looked sadly at Hugh. "Inner demons, you said...that's all Nei really was, one of Neifirst's inner demons. Her conscience, you might say."
Hugh glanced over at the doctor.
"Come on, Amy, let's go. I...don't feel like staying here any longer. I can run that screening in the morning."
She preceded him out of the lab. Hugh paused at the door, taking a last look back, then snapped off the lights. The last thing he saw before the darkness filled the room was the face of Neifirst. It was not the face of the rage-filled destroyer, nor did it have the fearful, hunted expression that so often haunted Nei. It was calm and placid, as if somehow, somewhere, her soul had finally found peace.