It stalks the darkness of the surrounding forest like an avenging spirit, if such things even exist. It hunts at night. Bullets never find it. Only open flames can drive back the darkness, can keep it at bay.
Sometimes, even fire isn't enough.
They're using flamethrowers, newly arrived from headquarters, to fend it off, but the 'throwers burn the trees as well, cutting into the bottom line. Something has to be done. Mechified mercenaries were sent out, and found days later, their mechanical parts laid out, still bloodstained, like eggshells. All the flesh was gone. Eaten. A team of Biomade bounty hunters were sent out. The next morning, their psi-guns were neatly cut in half and hanging from the low branches of a tree. Still sparking feebly with faint pink light.
That was when the nightmares began. Loggers waking up screaming. Or not at all.
They say it can hear your thoughts, now. That it can disappear. A flicker, then a sudden flash of stripes from the side, from behind, colors washed out by the faint moonlight, and another logger, or guard, or foreman, snatched up by the neck, a shake of the head to break it, and it is gone.
Sometimes, it just uses bullets, large caliber sniper rounds, your skull exploding like a melon before the gun's report is even heard echoing out in the forest. But they say it prefers to feed on a fresh kill.
Slowly, it moves north. Crunching bones out in the darkness. Killing almost at will. It seems like there is no end to its hunger.
Getting closer and closer to the city.
You can hear it, laughing, the sound making your spine crawl, stealing sleep away night after night. It laughts when it kills, it laughs when it eats. Your neck broken, it bites down into your abdomen, mouth trailing entrails, your entrails, and it is the last thing you hear.
Damn Sue for dragging him into this. She had promised him a new world, a free world, where the Mechified didn't have to live lives of servitude to the Biomade. Surgeon was better educated that most Mechified, and for all his customization to repair and service other Mechified, he fancied himself a student of history more than anything else. He should have known it wouldn't have worked, he realized that much now. After all, hadn't the Biomade promised the same thing that Sue had when they'd led their own rebellion against the oppressive Allskin regime? And yet the moment the Biomade were put in power, well, far from a free society, they'd just replaced the Allskins at the top of the ladder. The oppressed became the oppressor. So it went. So it would have gone if Sue had won.
Ah, but Sue had seemed so convincing. There had been such passion in her eyes and in her voice. It had all gone so wrong.
Things were bad, now. Ever since Sue had been killed, and her head put up for all to see in the same square where Moses had tricked Goshi into believing he was surrendering, only to make a fool of them in front of the whole city. The head was still there, or so he'd heard. He hadn't had the chance to see it himself, and was beginning to doubt that he ever would.
The Goshi Investigator was waiting for his answer, but Surgeon abruptly realized he hadn't heard the question. He looked up. "What?" he asked.
The Investigator's face reddened slightly, and Surgeon was pretty sure it was anger and not shame that coloured the man's cheeks. ... He wasn't sure Biomade could feel shame.
"I ask again, Surgeon, are you now or have you ever been a UMA sympathizer?"
"No," Surgeon replied. His voice was thick and heavy, but the lie was getting easier with each repetition.
"Then you deny having associated with known terrorists?"
Surgeon raised an eyebrow. "What terrorists would those be?" he asked. It was a risk to be flippant, but such small victories were all he had, now.
"Then you deny having associated with Moses, Ascetalyne Sue, Daitokuji Kiyoshi, and a band of Karian insurrectionists in the service of the United Mechified Army?"
The Investigator looked towards the observers. "Let the record show that the suspect has denied association with the UMA." He opened up a briefcase and produced an official looking document. "Surgeon, I have here in my hand the signed, sworn testimony of three witnesses who claim that you were second in power only to Sue herself." He placed the document on the table in front of Surgeon.
Surgeon's heart sank into his knees. He looked down at the document. He didn't recognize the other two signatures, but Terry the Canary's panicked scrawl made his heart clench. A momentary surge of anger went through him. "It's a lie!" he hissed. "I tell you the truth, I did not know them."
"I did not know him."
"I did not know her."
"I did not know him."
The Investigator leaned in, and hatred seemed visible in his countenance. "What exactly do you know, Surgeon? You were named by three witnesses. If you can't give us someone else. Someone higher up in the ranks of the UMA, this board will be unable to help you."
Surgeon stared at the Investigator. He knew what that meant. Blacklisting. Once your name was on the black list, well, it didn't end well. Nobody would sell to you, nobody would go to your shop, all for fear of being named a UMA sympathizer. Like you. "... I..."
Surgeon's thoughts raced. There had to be some way out of this! If only... wait, that was a possibility...! "There was a girl," he said.
"A girl?" the Investigator asked.
"Nineteen, maybe. Red eyes. Pale skin. She was there with Moses. Helping him. Helping to plan his strategy. Her name was Rei. She was important, I'm sure of it."
The Investigator glanced at the board, and Surgeon shuddered as he felt an uncomfortable crawling sensation under his skull. His thoughts were being probed, now. He focused on the image of the girl and what he knew of her, forcing that to the forefront, making damn sure that nothing else was on the surface.
The Investigator smiled. "Thank you for your cooperation, Surgeon."
After a moment, the Biomade Oversight board nodded to the investigator.
"Is that all? Can I go?"
"Yes, you can go," the Investigator said. His eyes looked almost gentle now. "You've been quite helpful, Surgeon." He glanced towards another darkened corner of the room, where sat two men and a women, all clad in Goshi uniforms, all looking dreadfully official. "Put his name on the list."
Surgeon's eyes widened. "You can't! I cooperated! I told you what I knew!"
The guards were dragging him out of the courtroom, now, and his medical cybernetic appendages dragged out behind him.
"Yes, you did. But you haven't told us anything we didn't already know. Good day, Surgeon."
They cast him out of the room, and the doors swung shut with a bang.
Surgeon stared at the closed door blankly for a long moment.
At last, with a heavy heart and feeling utterly disgusted, he trundled off towards the building's exit. Bile rose up in the back of his throat, and he cursed the day that he had ever heard the name of Ascetalyne Sue.
Aimi flushed angrily. "What, am I your serving girl now to come when the Captain calls? I don't need you to defend me from your friends!"
Kiyoshi shook his head. "That is certainly something I never wish to test. But no, I simply meant that I thought you might have more to say to me, and was surprised you did not do so sooner."
"Why the hell are you doing this? Your friends are right! I am your enemy! I work for your enemy and if he ordered me to I would kill you!"
Kiyoshi stood and strode up to her. Close. He slipped his kimono over his shoulders, baring his chest. "Then do it." He tapped his breast. "Strike, now. You say that you are my enemy, so I must be yours. You strike down your enemies. Or do you prefer the throat?" He lifted his head, exposing his neck to her. "Kill me and be done with it if that is how you feel."
With a snarl Aimi's hand sped toward Kiyoshi's throat and stopped a millimeter from crushing the life from him. Kiyoshi had not twitched in the slightest. She hesitated, then said in a voice barely more than a whisper "Is it true?"
There was only one thing she could be referring to. Moses' message upon his door. "Can you not simply look inside my head to find that answer?"
She shook her head, looking close to tears. "Won't. I want to hear you say it. Or... not."
"What if I told you that I have a fiance? Do you expect me to set that aside for you?"
Her eyes flared and her fists clenched. "What! Who is it?"
"A nice respectable Allskin girl from a family with ties to Goshi. Amuro Namie. You might have heard of her... no matter. Now that my Clan is in disgrace I am sure the betrothal has been dissolved. It is probably for the best anyway. I had only met her three times in my life, as it was our families that set it all up." Kiyoshi directed a raptor's glare at Aimi. "It is none of her fault and I expect that she will live a long and healthy life. Understood?"
Aimi took a half step back and swallowed a lump in her throat before she realized what she was doing. Stopping herself she shook her head. "It's weird. I know I can take you, but sometimes when you look at me like that it scares the hell out of me." She shuddered slightly. "I think I like it." She looked back up at him. "But you said it's over right? So you're free again?"
Kiyoshi shook his head. "It is not that simple. I am twenty seven years old and a fugitive... I will probably never marry. But if I do, it will be to another Allskin. Every generation more Allskins die in duels or through accident or disease. Each generation more of us choose to forsake our heritage, our place in the plan of the First Minds and get genetic or mechafied enhancements, forever removing themselves and their offspring from the Allskin families. Every generation more Allskins fall in love and marry a Biomade or a Mechafied and their children are no longer pure, no longer Allskin. Just as surely as the Vorax, my people have been dying." He looked up and there were tears in his eyes. "Aimi, I know you do not care because you think we are obsolete, but I do. My people are disappearing and I will do my part to fight that in any way I can."
She looked up at him with a wry smile. "You big idiot, is that what you're worried about? I'm not asking to be your wife! I just want to..." Her smile changed to a scowl lightning quick. "Hey, no tricking me into saying things!" This was the mercurial girl he had first met in his office so long ago. Her emotions flitting about just as quickly as the subject...
Kiyoshi sighed. "Look Aimi, I like you for some reason I cannot possibly fathom. But do you really expect me to love you? I do not even know you! And despite what you may think I do not believe you know me either! We are practically strangers, and ones who have been on opposite sides as long as we have known each other. I cannot deny that there is... something... between us, which makes me feel like a dirty old man..." He shook his head. "You confuse me so much it is hard to think sometimes."
"Don't pull the age card on me! I may be younger but I've seen and done things that would make your hair curly." She paused and bit her lip. "If you don't love me then why did Moses write that? Why did you threaten your friends for me?"
Kiyoshi pounded his fist on the wall in frustration. "Damn it, I did not...!" He took a deep breath. "It was not supposed to be me threatening them. It was supposed to be me standing up for you. I know, you want to know why." He looked deep into her large, red eyes. "It is because of the potential I see in you. Your entire life you have been told what to do, bred and trained and forced into doing it. You have done many things that are dishonorable, maybe even evil, but... you have a chance to change that now. You can be free, and you can start making the right choices if you only come to realize that the choice is yours. No one is controlling you anymore unless you let them."
Her lip trembled. "Is that why you didn't tell me you wanted me to stay? Because you didn't want to tell me what to do?"
He hesitated a moment, then nodded. "You know something of what we face. We could use your help." He held up a hand to forestall an outburst. "Also, when you are not trying to kill, capture, or sabotage me or my friends I actually enjoy your company. Keep in mind that I have experienced very little of that thus far." That last was said rather wryly. "If... if I forced you either way, to stay or to go, then I would be just as bad as all the others. I would be making your decisions for you, forcing you one way or another... I have to give you the chance to make your own decisions, to live for yourself, to make the right choices for once in your life. My friends don't trust you, and with good reason, because of your earlier crimes. I just put my life in your hands and you made the right decision. I am giving you one more chance to do that again. I am trusting you. Make of that what you will. Just know that I could never love someone who would forsake honor when given the choice."
Aimi stepped up to him, very close. He was so much taller than her she had to peer up. She placed a hand on his bare chest and felt his heartbeat. Fast. Like hers. She was breathing quickly too. The light reflected in his eyes in such a way that they looked completely silver as he gazed down on her. "I can always change my mind and kill you later. For now though... I'm not saying I'm staying or going, and I'm not saying I agree with you. I've always done what I want; no one controls me! But you said you wanted me to be free to make my own choices so I've made one. There is something I've been wanting to try. I don't know if an old man like you will be able to help me with it though. Maybe I should go visit that Raul guy..." She was unable to finish her sentence as Kiyoshi's mouth found hers.
"I think we need to talk. All of us. We've gone too long without explaining anything about what we're doing or where we're going. I know we're heading west, but why? Because the Dusk Sages live there? These 'Dusk Sages' haven't been helpful to us so far. They're extremely dangerous at best, and they may be actively hostile towards us. Why are we going to their retreat? Do we want their assistance? Are they likely to give it? Are we going there to kill them if what we saw is correct and they really are causing this Cataclysm?"
"Are we just following an arrow in the sky? But who put it there, and why? Are arrows in the sky trustworthy forms of guidance? And then there's the Enemy to think about. Almost every place we've visited has been attacked by the Oni. Does it advance our cause to bring the same fate down on the Dusk Sages?"
"I don't know how traveling west will help us deal with Katashi Blade and his DisLocators. He's summoning Oni, using the Enemy to gain power, isn't he? Provoking war between the Cheldrun cities? There's Nero to think about, too. He's out there, planning something. I think of the two he's the more dangerous." Rei looks at Una. "And he hasn't forgotten what you did to his arm." She waits a beat. "... Before we met up again, I gained access to the computer core of the Bosphorous. I used the ship's sensors to scan the planet and its immediate surroundings for Enemy signatures. There are now Enemy signatures in most of the Cheldrun cities, some scattered across the wilderness, some in the wilderness surrounding the Grand Chantry. But those aren't what worry me. What worries me is the source of Enemy signatures in orbit of the planet, where they're clustered so thickly that the ship's sensors could not distinguish individual signatures."
Rei looks up at the sky and points to the wandering star. "There they are now," she murmurs.
"And if they're sitting there in orbit, what are they waiting for? If I had a position in orbit of a world capable of resisting my invasion, and my goal was the destruction of everything, I would bombard the planet with asteroids until it had suffered so many Extinction Level Events that there was no chance of anything surviving. Why haven't they done that? What do they want if not our deaths?"
"The point is, we're flying blind, unless one of you knows far more about the situation than I do. We have to deal with the Enemy somehow. How are we going to do that? We aren't exactly an army ourselves. I'd like our odds a lot better if we had more people under our command, but we can't do anything about that right now. What are we doing? Why are we sailing west? What do we intend to do when we get there?"
Rei looks at each party member in turn, waiting for an answer.
I summoned the fire within myself, within Keibatsu, and unleashed it upon the Oni. That certainly got its attention. Unfortunately it then attacked us with some sort of unbelievable heat wave that blistered flesh and set cloth and hair aflame. We threw everything we had at the beast with seemingly little effect. Half of the time it simply sent a flock of the Eyeless Vorax to intercept the attack with their bodies. Clearly something more had to be done. I rushed over to where Aimi was bound and cut the cables holding her in place. In retrospect, not the wisest thing I have ever done, but it seemed the thing to do at the time. I pulled her to her feet and asked her if she knew how to use the ship's guns. With a disgusted snort she indicated that she did. So I squeezed her arm, kissed her forehead, and pushed her toward one of the gun emplacements. I am not sure why I did that either. It was instinctual; I was in the Void.
Next thing I knew giant lasers were streaking toward me from the sky. I was already exhausted but I called upon the kata and used Keibatsu to deflect the lasers back at the Oni, infusing them with the cold of the Void. Unfortunately this act took the last of my strength and I slumped to the deck afterward, unconscious.
I awoke what was probably only moments later to some vile-tasting concoction Zippora was pouring down my throat. I sat up... fast. Everything was moving in slow-motion except a strange green comet in the sky which was proabably Highdive. The Oni looked... smaller. But it was surrounded by a halo of energy that seemed menacing, pregnant. Explosive. Recalling the end of Garandu Oni I decided to take a risk and called upon the Kyo Tee Shee that seems to have attached itself to me, Tsukiyomi. I ordered it to eat Karaku Oni; if it wanted me to be prideful it would damn well do as I say. It seemed to respond as I heard the faint sound of hoof beats somewhere in the distance.
Then came Moses. He flew through the air at incredible speed. At least, it would have been incredible if I too had not been going that fast, and Una flying through the sky, and Rei, and... Mokuzai? Am I the only one of us who does not fly now? Anyhow, Moses hit the thing at full force and took its head with him as he went by. Unfortunately, that seemed to accelerate what seemed to be a building of some sort of explosive energy. I could tell we did not have much time left.
Mokuzai landed, and Rei with Aimi. Mokuzai called all of us together along with the other Prill, and Una joined us then, changing form faster than I had ever seen her do before and depositing a dripping Highdive. Everyone but Moses... he seemed to be going up still, not even having reached the apex of his flight. At the last moment I realized what Mokuzai's plan was and moved away. I approved of getting the others to safety, but I would not leave Moses behind. Surprisingly, Rei stayed behind as well, and Aimi, though she probably simply did not trust the old Prill. Una gave me one disgusted look then changed into bird form more swiftly than I had ever before seen her make the transformation, gripped Mokuzai's staff, and took off. Between us Rei and I worked out about where we thought Moses would land and I was about to direct Trencher to go there when the mass that had been building burst.
A gigantic explosion rocked the ship and sent us all flying into the railing. Enormous lasers lashed out and blasted holes in the city, the Rodan, the docks... everything. It is a good thing that we were farther away and a smaller target besides or we would have suffered more than a glancing blast to one of the ship's wings. Once the light cleared and we were able to see again the devastation was total. Giant swathes of destruction had been carved into Omexon for as far as the eye could see, buildings toppled, burning, in some cases completely obliterated. The Rodan, the mightiest battleship that had ever been built on Karia, was obviously in the process of sinking with gaping holes through its hull. I frantically scanned the sky for some sign of either Moses or Una. They were both much smaller than the ship and so unlikely to have been hit by one of the lasers, but the force of the blast could have sent them flying for kilometers... there was no sign of them, but I thought I saw the distinct form of a silvery horse feasting on the remains of the Oni. Typical.
Trusting that Una had had time to fly far enough distant to be safe, and that she would find her way back to us after, I decided that finding Moses was our first priority. Again Rei and I did some calculations and I made my way to the bridge and started directing the remaining Rogues. I directed one to start operating the sonar while Trencher piloted us in the most likely direction that Moses could have been blown. It was tense for a time until one of the Rogues announced a metallic object in the water not far away, about the size of our companion. I directed a couple of men to the deck with cable and winches, made sure we were on the correct course, and went up myself to see if he was still alive. I should have known better; Moses will outlive us all most likely. He did not even seem to be winded, at least not at first. Moments after he was dragged aboard however he passed out. I was about to call for some men to take him to the medical bay when I had the most peculiar feeling and darkness reached up to swallow me as well.
Some time later after Moses and I had recovered from our exhaustion we found ourselves with decisions to make. Una had found us and brought with her the staff, out of which popped Mokuzai, Highdive, and the other Prill. All together again we now had a ship, one that, with luck, might be able to get us to the western continent where the Dusk Sages disappeared hundreds of years ago. The Rogues seemed lost and confused and wanted to know who the captain was. Moses said that I was, with Mokuzai as my check. I eyed my mechafied friend and thought his choices well made. I had the most leadership experience of us but could not hope to match the Prill's wisdom. Still, I half suspected that Moses had so quickly named me captain simply so that he himself would not be asked to do it.
We decided that we needed to make port to gather supplies for the trip west. Many of the Rogues wanted all sorts of questions answered about procedure and rationing and... some guy named Raul wanted permission to cook oysters? These were the strangest bunch of sailors I had ever encountered. The former captain, Julian, wanted a word with me. He seemed despondent until I enticed him with promises of adventure and intimated that he could have the ship once we no longer had use for it. It also helped when I offered to send Una down to care for his girlfriend who had been hurt in the taking of the Rodan.
Then there was Aimi. I told her that I would not hold her as prisoner; that I did not think I would succeed even if I tried. I told her that once we reached port she was free to go, and in the meantime she was free to move about the ship. She seemed confused and angry. I am not sure why I found myself wishing that she would smile at me like she used to, like she was a cat and I the canary. I think this whole journey is starting to affect my sanity...
Unfortunately the others did not agree with me. Well, Rei did, unsurprisingly, and Mokuzai seemed mostly ambivalent. High Dive seemed intent on getting her off the ship anywhere, anyhow. Most surprising though was Moses and Una. Both of them looked at Aimi with what I would have called hatred in any other people and talked about keeping her prisoner or abandoning her on a deserted island somewhere to starve to death all alone. Things were starting to get ugly when I stepped in. I told them that I had given my word; she was not a prisoner and was free to stay and help us or to go as she chose. Moses said that he would stop her from leaving. I nearly shouted at him. He had just named me captain and then turned around and tried to countermand my first decision? Worse yet, something about which I had given my word of honor? Did they not understand why things had to be this way? Instead I simply told him that I would stop anyone who tried to interfere with her. Una then piped in saying that I would try to do so. I looked at her aghast. Now she was threatening me? Una of all people?
I shook my head. A third giant Oni lays waste to an entire city and sinks a the greatest battleship in the world. Goshi attacking its supposed allies with teleporting soldiers and starting a war between Cheldrun nations. Thousands dead, countless injured, an entire species of Karian all but extinct... and they want to fight over keeping a single unarmed Biomade prisoner. I will not allow anyone to kill her, and leaving her to die would be just as bad. Having to transport, take care of, and guard a prisoner would be an unfeasible drain on our time and resources when we are going into unknown danger. And if she decides to help us she could be extremely useful. And those are my only reasons for doing what I am doing, damn it! They have to be.
Well, 'notice' is the wrong word. Her senses skitter off of the surface of the Void, and she knows that he knows she's there. 'Acknowledge' is a better term. More accurate.
He's practicing with Keibatsu. Sword forms. Flowing smoothly from one to the other with the skill of a master. Rei watches with an analytical eye, and is quickly forced to conclude that so long as he held Keibatsu, Kiyoshi could dispatch her without much trouble if he put his mind to it.
Not a pleasant thought, but then, not many of Rei's thoughts were pleasant. When Kiyoshi's exercises finally wind to a close, she steps out onto the deck and speaks. "So," she says, and that is all. She waits, then, watching for his response. Waiting for the beginning of an uncomfortable conversation. And her hand aches where Keibatsu cut into her.
My mind drifts with Karia's song, and I cannot help but feel awful for Una. I would reach out to her if I could but find the words. What does one say to someone who has lost her people? What solace could I offer her that would seem more than a mere pittance?
Then Kiyoshi, one of my charges. A smile crosses my face at the irony of thinking of him as someone who needed the protection of an old choir boy. A man of purpose and honor, but the disagreement over the pink-haired girl.... I would have thought him above threatening us, his companions, but then again, High-Dive was there. Perhaps it was a calculated risk on his part, to restrain High-Dive at the risk of estranging the rest of us. "He's a good boy, I'm sure he had his reasons."
Karia answers in her way. A symphony that only draws the inquisitor's gaze inward.
Moses... by far the strongest of us, but the one most dragged down by his burdens. I'm glad he and Zippora have taken a liking to each other. Nothing can lessen a burden like a companion. She's not a bad singer, either. "The boy's got taste, I'll give him that." I chuckle.
Karia gives a brief snort, spraying a whiff of the sea in my face. Apparently she got the joke.
Then there's Rei. A girl called Zero. I'm still not sure what to think about her. Sometimes she seems so vicious... heartless even. Then other times she seems... no, she IS vulnerable. I can't help but pity her. Far as I can tell, her mind is in shambles. Like a child forced to watch a massacre. Numbed even. The father in me wants to help her, but I doubt she's willing to just open up her thoughts to some old fox, however cunning. Maybe if she simply knew I would be willing to listen...
High-Dive... chaos incarnate. If myself and my companions are all so heavily involved in the coming fate of Karia, I cannot help but dread whatever role High-Dive will be playing. She seems hell-bent on destroying everything any sentient being would hold dear, save for her precious nuts. Perhaps she is meant as a balance to the rest of us, something to keep our heads about us. Whatever her role, I'll have to see it to the end. "I never thought a Zipsum would be the greatest test of my patience," I tell the wind.
Karia's gulls laugh in response.
The-One-Who-Opens-Doors said that The-One-Who-Unravels-Mysteries had gone mad and started this mess. The mask I now carried belonged to mad Dusk sage; left behind to guide us in the "right" direction. Hmph. What is the "right" way anyway? Peace. My goal is right. I know this deep in my soul. As for the directions the powers at be try to pull me... I cannot help but wonder. It is apparent my companions and I are pawns in some great game. I want to help guide them, to keep them on the right track, to steer them away from this looming... catastrophe. How can I know which Sage to trust? I want to believe the words of One-Who-Opens-Doors, but the words of the mad Sage bore into my mind. How can I trust one source over the other? The former seems more stable, but I cannot help but see myself in the place of The-One-Who-Unravels-Mysteries, judged by the Council of Elders who deemed my quest madness.
The Sealed Chamber...
The mad guardian...
My eyes snap open just in time to catch a spray of salt squarely. I scarcely even notice the searing burn. The book is the only sign related to the mad Sage I have yet to fully explore. I whirl around and run to my chambers, hoping for any shred of information that could point me in the "right" direction.
Seems my mind is full of hope these days.
A fire burns in the west.
Back when Moses still slept he would lie down, but his body was never completely still. The heat from his furnace pulsated. A fan in one of his motors whirred. Beneath his metal skin, moving parts remained active, generating a current. Zipporah rested her head on his flesh arm and let the mechanical symphony lull her to sleep. It became comforting to her. Back when he slept.
Now he doesn't sleep, but he still dreams. Looking out a port hole aboard Sennin there is nothing but water until the horizon, but his eyes are full of flames.
The Difference Engine speaks to him in an analog language that he almost understands. It is the language of his dreams. It tells him that a fire is burning in the west. A fire which cannot be quenched. It instructs him to seek it. He does not know why.
The ship's engines also rumble, and the sound of the waves rushing by, is like a lullaby. They are soothing sounds that make Moses remember what it was like to sleep. It was good. But he left that behind, like the mines, and Geneva Prime and, he supposes, like Zipporah left the Chantry. And now they have all left behind the continent and civilization itself to follow... what?
An arrow in the sky?
Or the dreams... seeking the fire, which burns in the west.
The Difference Engine speaks. What is its purpose?
There's always the question, how do you go back? How do you return to everyday life when you've seen things that have changed you, scarred you, at times nearly unmade you? How do you turn from the fantastic to the mundane? How do you leave it all behind and get on with the business of living, knowing that life will not wait for you to catch up?
That's the rub.
He saw Terry the Canary around, sometimes. She was working with a deep mining team. Mickey knew how that was. Not the mining, but the need to be away from... everything. Seemed he couldn't turn a corner these days without knowing that it had been drenched with the blood of his friends. His friends... he saw Brick the other day. They'd ended up in the same lift. They hadn't said anything to each other, but just waited in uncomfortable silence for the ride to end. Then Brick had gotten off, and Mickey had stayed behind. There were guards everywhere, now. Goshi soldiers with masks for the dust. They seemed creepier than they used to, and things were worse. Much worse. Sometimes, Mickey wished that Moses had never come to them at all. Sometimes he hated Moses. Sometimes he wished that Sue and all the others had just worked their way through their lives. It's less trouble. Don't stand out. Don't draw attention. Do your work. Be useful. Good boy. You want to be useful, don't you?
Mickey wanted to be useful. Maybe that's why he was keeping a journal, now. He never would have done that before, but with all that happened, well, even a mixer needs to write it all down sometimes. So he did. He sat and he wrote, and sometimes cement sloshed out of his mixer and spilled onto the page and he had to start over, and sometimes he woke up with the ashes of burned pages all around him, but mostly he wrote and preserved what he wrote, and he never seemed to realize that every time he put his pen to the paper, his scribblings became feverish, frenzied. He saw things. Things he knew he had to write down, because whenever he saw them, he saw a teenage boy's blood red eyes. The eyes looked, and Mickey did what they wanted. It was easier that way. Less complicated. Less painful. When he did what the eyes wanted, things didn't seem so unbearable. It all made sense. Tears made him rust. That was bad.
The voice was supposed to have gone away. The one that made it had gone away. ... Why hadn't the voice gone away?
'Don't cry, Mickey,' he thought, again and again. It had become his mantra. His incantation against the darkness of his surroundings. 'Don't cry. You'll rust.'
He wrote all kinds of things, and it never occurred to him to read over what he wrote or wonder why he had written it. He wrote about the state of the Goshi soldiers. He wrote about the deposit of White-Rock. He wrote about the Eyeless. He wrote about the former members of the Underground Mechified Army. He wrote about all the things that a mixer should never see but did, because nobody worried about what a mixer might see. And when he wrote, he wrote in First Mind script. Over and over. A message for those with eyes to see. And he knew it was right. That it was useful.
Mickey wanted to be useful.
The feathers are laid out in curved rows in front of me. I stare at them. My mouth opens to talk to them, admonish them, comfort them for all they became. Then an oh-so-small voice whispers, "It's just your feathers, not even theirs...the rest of your race is no more." No more. Last. I am the.. For some reason I force myself to say it, blankly, "I am the last Vorax."
Red rage blinds me, blue loneliness freezes me. "It cannot...it cannot be...I cannot...I cannot be the..." I feel like I'm suffocating. Part of me wishes that I would die, here, now, in my anguish. My bed in front of me is soaking wet. I'm so used to crying that I no longer note the moisture descending down the well-traveled planes of my face.
I gather up the feathers that are mine but really should be them. Them that I gather to my heart, not feeble plumage. I walk to the deck clutching my sanity for all it's worth, and shift forms. There above the deck of the gunship Sennin the very last funeral flight of the Vorax is performed, as feathers drift down into the cold, unforgiving sea.
Fractals unfold before her eyes as Rei finally completes the repairs to her computer. It is nearly two weeks since the journey began, and much has happened, and very little has happened. Sea voyages are like that. Two weeks in, and she finally fixes the computer, boots it up, and observes the spinning Stochastic fractal imagery.
And there it is. The eye-watering, stomach-wrenching visual language of the journal of Inase Spark. An angle. An intersection. A pair of sweeping lines.
The command prompt.
Her hands fly across the keyboard accompanied by the sound of rapid typing. On the screen, the message appears, though not in words: Father, we need to talk.
High Dive is capable of anything.
Maybe that's why I fixed Aimi's gauntlet. It doesn't seem right to leave her without a weapon like that.
The thoughts of the Rusty Nail Rogues are silent. Shock. This is shock. It is a strange thing to look into the minds of everyone around me and see the same stunned silence in every one. They did better than I expected them to. I'd thought that they'd all be cut down within thirty seconds of beginning the attack. That any of them survived is more than I'd planned for. No matter.
I open the door and step within. It's really not more than a storage closet, and the mattress on the floor takes up most of it. The floors and the wall here are smooth, acrylic surfaces. I can see force and energy moving through them in pleasing patterns. The designers of this ship spared no expense. They must have hired some real artists when they were installing the power conduits.
She's there. Not meditating, not exactly. I remember those exercises. Mama Pa... Doctor Pain and Doctor Soren taught us how to shield ourselves against the outside world. I was never able to learn the trick. But Aimi did. And Sever, and Stitch, and Nero, and Malicious. Half an hour of the exercise every day to maintain the training. To keep the walls strong.
I shut the door, sit down just in front of the mattress, and wait. I'm surprised that she doesn't break the exercise when I come in. Is it because she doesn't think I'm a serious threat to her, or does she trust me? ... The former, I suppose. Her thoughts are muffled behind her mental shields, like a faint buzz of conversation in another room that is just too indistinct to be made out.
Twelve minutes later, she opens her eyes and looks at me like I'm an annoying insect that's crawled into her room through the floor. "What do you want?" she says.
I stare into her eyes, and for a moment, I see myself in them. Strip off the excess makeup, change the colour of the hair, age her four years, and we could be twins. We are, I guess. Six variations on the same DNA. And there she is, asking one of the Questions. "... That's a complicated question," I say. "It's one of the things that defines us, isn't it? Nero asked the same question. I've been asking the Questions for a long time now. 'Who are you? What do you want?'"
She's looking at me like I'm crazy. Maybe I am. I continue.
"I know I'm not very good at expressing..." I trail off. Why is this so difficult? Damnit. "I'm not very good at this. We've never been much of a family. Our people don't really have that. But family is important, and..." I trail off. Her eyes are unreadable, her thoughts a dim, muted hum.
"I know what you're thinking," I say. Instantly, her shield contracts, and the sound of her thoughts fades to barely more than a whisper. I shake my head. "Not like that. You're probably thinking that if family is so important, maybe I shouldn't have brought my friends Home with me and let them kill Mama Pain, right? ... I guess I can't really answer that. It probably doesn't help to know that we were all scheduled for liquidation anyways." I shake my head. This isn't going well. "What I'm trying to say is..."
She glares at me impatiently, and I sigh and move on.
"I guess by now you know that Doctor Pain and Doctor Soren didn't make me. I was... residual biological mass, salvaged from an earlier project. Project Scion. You and the others were an attempt to recreate the project. To use Silex Niveus to usher in a whole new era for our people. ... You saw it, didn't you? The memories I gave you? ... Nero. First in the Blackrock Mine. Then again beneath the manor of Lord Tsuchinaga. Then in the wreck of the Bosphorous. He's gone mad. He knows what we are. Him. Me. More white-rock was used in his creation than in any of you. I don't know if you and Sever and Stitch are the same, but I hope not. He says that the Enemy can be so much more than just the Oni, and I think he's determined to be that."
"I can't deny what I am any longer. It's been proven to me. I didn't believe Nero, but after what the ship's sensors showed, and then Keibatsu..." I smile faintly, feeling vaguely lost. "And you saw what happened today."
"I saw," Aimi said. She gave me a speculative look. "You hate Goshi, but you make free use of their technology. I never pegged you for such a hypocrite. Keep that up and those red eyes of yours..." The corners of her lips turned upwards in a nasty smirk. "Well, they'll still be red, at least. Your friends will probably say that it isn't quite the same thing."
I open the sheath on the pant leg of my leathers and produce the device in question: the DisLocator. "But I haven't," I say. "I haven't put it in. Haven't used it."
She looks at me disbelievingly.
It does sound weak. I rise to my feet. "I just... needed to tell you. Everything. You deserved to know. It affects you too. And since Nero killed Inase Spark..." I look at her, and my resolve grows strong within my heart. "Don't die, Aimi. If you died, it would bother me."
She continues to watch me silently, saying nothing, her eyes unreadable.
I produce her gauntlet and toss it to her. She looks surprised. "I couldn't fix it completely. I didn't have the parts. But I repaired everything that I could. It won't work very well, but it shouldn't be too hard to fix it yourself once you find usable parts." Silence for a beat. "You should hide it," I say. "If anyone finds it on you, they'll probably destroy it."
Silence. Icy, icy silence.
After a moment, I shake my head, step out, and shut the door behind me.
That went well.
Then Zipporah is next to him, leaning into him, singing softly. Rain hasn’t hit him for some time now, simply landing elsewhere in response to her. He leans into her as well – carefully.
“We know she’s going to betray us. Or, even if she doesn’t, Goshi will find her and get the information out of her. They’ll know where we’re going, and they’ll follow us. They’ll find…wherever it is we’re going, and then…it’ll be like here. For whatever Karians live there. It’ll be like here.” He can’t look at her. She watches him, looks out into the night and the quieting storm, looks back now and then.
Around them, at various points on the ship, are the sparking remains of ruined communications gear. Now it's just an embarrassment, and Moses can’t look at it either.
“I understand Rei. She’s messed up, and Aimi is her sister, and she…does stupid things sometimes because her thinking is all wrong. Well, maybe sister isn’t the right word. Test-tube-mate, or something like that. And…well, I know Rei will stick up for her. Whatever. But Kyoshi? He’s…he doesn’t…I thought he was, I dunno, changing.” Moses glances at Zipporah out of the corner of his eye, and she’s not looking but listening with all of her self, trying to seem casual. “I guess some people sort of…don’t. But…dammit. I dunno. He threatens us like…like an asshole, that’s what. Like an asshole.” Moses doesn’t go on to say what else he’s thinking, but he glares into the night and his armored fist clenches.
“I’m glad I took her glove, whatever it is, and smashed it. If you’d met her before, you’d see – she’s a lot less cocky without it. Kyoshi is probably like that. Take that sword, and what’s left? A skinny guy in a kimono with a stick up his ass.” Zipporah lays a cool hand on his shoulder. Without noticing, he relaxes slightly.
“Aimi, she’s just being who she is. Nasty, tempermental, cocky – well, not as much now – selfish. I wish…” he trails off. “I wish a lot of things.”
They stand, swaying with the motion of the ship, for a long while.
“It feels like a long time ago, when this all started. What…well, what ruined my life...at the time. Killed a lot of people. It started lots of places, but one place it started was with me, down in the mines. I told you about those” she nods slightly, now watching him, unreadable, “and a little about what happened. Someone…someone pushed me, pushed us, too far. He – they – treated us like we were tools. Like we didn’t matter. And if we didn’t do what they said, they’d threaten, and then they’d…they’d hurt us. Our families. Telling us what we had to do, what we had to risk so they could get rich. Threatening.” He pauses.
“I’m not going to live like that ever again.” After a while, “But if I talk to him now, and he does it again, I…I don’t know if I’ll be able to just hit the door. And he’s – dammit! – he’s acting like an idiot! Can’t he see? Its so obvious!”
Zipporah smirks despite herself. “What’s obvious? Moses. Listen. He’s not…he’s not thinking very clearly. He’s…Moses, he’s in love.”
A long pause. “I know.” He sighs. “I just don’t get it. She’s…Zip, she’s such a bitch. I mean, she’s like Rei, but without the redeeming qualities.” Zipporah raises an eyebrow. “Exactly. And Kyoshi’s family is pretty rich, and, you know, they didn’t come from vats or anything. Allskins are made…uh…the old-fashioned way” they share a little smile at that, at the new and strange thing – them together, over a month now “and they’re all about tradition and honor. Honor! The thing that Aimi is, like, the opposite of. I mean, compared to her, Rei is honorable. I mean, come on. Rei.”
Zipporah smiles more broadly. “Oh yes, Moses, that’s a very good point. They are quite different, aren’t they?” She brushes his thigh with her tail, then laughs at him and looks away. It’s a bit infectious, and Moses, far from laughing, grins and pulls her closer. “Imagine that – two people so different…falling in love.”
Moses quiets, becomes more still.
In Prill now, “Zipporah, you know –“
It’s still hard for him to say it out loud.
In the dark, their silhouettes meld for a few moments, then separate again, still standing close.
“Well, I’ve still got some metal. And since I won’t get to bolt Aimi to the deck – and I was really looking forward to that – I’ll put it to another use.”
They are out on the deck for a long while yet, until Zipporah has to go to sleep or she’ll fall over. Moses walks her to their room, sits with her until she’s asleep, then locks it behind him.
With a gasp, Kyoshi wakes up to the sound of something being spot-welded to his door. There is a bright, red spot that is slowly growing on the inside surface of the door, and when he rushes to get close, he can already feel heat radiating from it. The handle burns his hand slightly as he pulls it open –
And Moses is outside, his right arm ending in a welding torch. He nods at his handiwork, then walks off down the corridor, silent.
Welded to Kyoshi’s door is a hunk of metal, and burned into the surface of it, beneath the fresh, cooling weld, is (in careful, surprisingly smooth script):
Keeoshi. I get it that you love Aymee. But if you want to be my friend, if you want me to stick up for you and fight next to you and trust you, then you never threaten me again. Or our friends. And you never tell me what’s going to happen. Ever. You respect me, or you fight alone. And I’ll fix the other door.
When we let Aimi off the ship, Moses isn’t there. He makes himself busy repairing the ship, with the help of a few of the Rogues who know more about how it works technically. Zipporah is sitting nearby, and suggests that no one talk to him until Aimi is gone.
I think that being a pirate has made me a little crazy. And...I didn't really think about how big the ship was going to be. It's like a huge lizard-Vorax thing. It's...I don't even know how they built it.
Doesn't matter now. We're on a barge carrying a load of blackrock onto the ship. We're going to capture it, and go west, and maybe get some answers.
Or make them up, like we have been.
The taste of salt spray makes me glad, one more time, that I switched out my alloys. The shaped titanium is rust-resistant. And it still stops bullets.
The soldiers guarding the barge when it comes up into the ship aren't a problem. I feel a little bad for them because...it doesn't seem fair. But I know how this works - we'll have more than our share to deal with sometime today. All of Goshi's enemies are meeting in one place. The Vorax are going to...do something to themselves and try to blow up the meeting. Or something. And we're stealing the biggest ship on the oceans.
Someone, or something, pretty nasty will have to notice that.
Squeezed into a storage locker, I've got a lot of time to think. The nice thing is, I don't. I doze off. I wouldn't have done that before, but I do now. Whatever is coming for us is going to happen, and we'll deal with it. Oni, Hei-Shi, crazy Vorax...whatever. Everything will work out.
I realize what I'm thinking, and that's when I really get nervous.
I hear the fireworks! It's time.
Swelling, surging up and out, it goes past where I think it will, and suddenly I'm looking down on the ship; the others are like mice swarming around my feet - except for one. He's not Kyoshi's brother, but he looks like he means business. He's fast, but it's like fighting a Zipsum - I'm too dense for most of it to get through.
I notice little bursts of black cloud in the sky, and...my heart leaps. I admit it.
I want them here. The mecha-fighter and I agree - first things first.
I squash and scatter blue-beetle Hei-Shi, and the mecha slices them up. I can't tell, behind his mask, but I know I for one am smiling.
For just a bit, I think - I want to go back to Geneva Prime someday, and do this until there aren't any Hei-Shi left.
We clear the deck, but there are something like a million soldiers on their way. But this ship has other ships inside of it, and we head down to one of them. I'm eager to get on our way before we get swarmed, and we're all tired. (Well, not Highdive). We go down into the hold - I'm carrying a huge container of blackrock. We reach the smaller ship, still bigger than anything I've been on but the blackrock barge, but someone's beaten us there. Kyoshi goes down to deal with whoever it is...
I remember when we first met, and I made her a promise.
I keep my promises.
She's tricky - she's going to stab Kyoshi so he can't move, and then probably run when she sees Rei - I don't think she can fight them both. So I hunker down next to the door to grab her when she goes past. I know my one shot is to just smother her and not let go until...
Well. I don't wait long. I time it so before I even see her pink hair I'm on top of her, using my weight and size. Rei is coming up after her. Everything goes red-tinged, and I'm back in the blackrock mine, fighting Goshi, seeing people die, smashing Hei-Shi and eyeless, and here she is, all the way from that past I wanted to leave behind. I can end it here. Kyoshi will be furious, and she's Rei's sister, but Aimi will never learn. Titanium is a lot harder than bone. I -
"Moses, don't hurt her!"
Aimi goes limp under me, and Rei is there, but I don't look up.
And I realize...I don't want to kill her. I just want her to leave us alone.
But she never will.
Rei and Kyoshi and Aimi talk, and I start building a steel cage for her out of the broken container of blackrock. She laughs at the ropes Rei takes out.
Lets see her laugh at being bolted to the deck.
Outside, the clear, bright air fills with wonder on wings - a flight of Vorax, the last flight, circling and dancing on the thermals, flitting along the paths of the breezes, turning and falling and climbing, twisting around each other. Una is watching.
She watches as they dance, trying to remember, to save this moment forever.
And then it changes. The dance turns. The Vorax are swooping down and tearing into people down below. But one of them swells and grows. His aged skin splits and his entrails pour out of him, wrapping around, crawling across his swelling form, viscera and tendons and muscle glistening sickly in the sun
His beak unhinges, swells, grows, thickens, his eyes bloat and slide out of their growing sockets, followed by gouts of thick, dark blood.
A voice shakes the air, so that we all hear it, the city hears it, Una hears it as if she is the only one there.
I am Karaku-Oni, The One Who Burns!
Una might try to forget, but she won't.
"You're certain that the effort to take Rodan is failed?"
He nodded. "We ran into unforeseen resistance. Moses was there, and the others. They did things... I've no explanation for. The Omexon Navy was about to board in full strength and our losses would have been too heavy. Furthermore, if the bridge had been secured as planned the Rodan would already have begun firing on the city, but her engines and her guns were silent. Something went wrong."
Rain grimaced, something went wrong, indeed. The Executor had assured her that his agent (the one he stubbornly refused to identify) would not fail in taking the bridge. It was not like him to miscalculate. Whoever that agent was, he had better be dead. If Blade ever got ahold of him now...
No matter. Rain had survived as Acting Vice President of Security at Goshi Corp longer than her predecessors because she never went into a situation with only one plan. She could pull success out of the jaws of failure yet.
"You are injured. Report to the infirmary, but on the way relay my command to the 7th battalion to initiate the Swarm Protocol."
She turned her back on the Hei-shi as he limped away. Her eyes were avidly scanning the tablet, absorbing information, discerning patterns and making evaluative predictions. There would certainly be costs for her actions, but they were bearable ones and Goshi would be able to count this a significant victory. As she considered the ramifications she knew already what her next three steps would be.
Pacifying the League would need to be done quickly and decisively. A good thing, she thought, that she was the one giving the orders.
She couldn't deny that some small portion of her mind was still annoyed about the former Director Daitokuji Kiyoshi and his companions. 28 years ought to have been sufficient to get that problem taken care of. She thought she had been inordinately clever delivering two of these interlopers to League facilities in Omexon, and a Biomade Oversight Council lab in Marina. As predicted they had escaped, causing significant destruction and earning the enmity of those bodies in the process. Let them be your problem.
Separating them by the length of the continent should have been more of an obstacle, it seemed to her, but when it came to Kiyoshi and friends, reason didn't enter into it.
Nevertheless, she wouldn't obsess about them. The way to solve a mountain is to go around. To defeat an earthquake, take to the air. They were frustrating, true, but she had no doubt that if they attempted to bring their fight directly to Goshi they would be no match, and so long as they stayed at the edges they could only interfere in minor ways.
A whirl of smoke in the air preceded the arrival of a small squad of Hei-shi directly into her office. They immediately snapped to attention. One of them had blood all over his breastplate.
Her expression was stern as she looked them over. "Report."
"Mission successful, Director. With the chaos on the Rodan and around the waterfront no one saw us come in or go out. We encountered almost no resistance."
With one eyebrow raised she nodded to let him know to continue.
"All the members of the command council of the Yogensha League, save the Liaison from Marina and the Mayor of Omexon who we believe were aboard the Rodan during the conflict, were located. Every last one of them is dead."
He slowly pulls himself together, realizing that they are all around him. He is surrounded by Vorax. They are tall and fierce and angular, feathers blowing in the sharp wind. And they are very, very angry.
He stands awkwardly, to appear as little like cowering prey as possible.
One of them, not the male who snatched him from a tree where he was resting but another male, older looking, sneers. "I wouldn't believe it until they showed me. An Anakarix. Your people were once wise. Perhaps they still are, but you are some kind of...pariah. But I never would have believed it. An Anakarix, hunting us." He spits on the ground in front of Jin-Kalys. "Sickening".
Jin blinks blearily, clenches his jaws to stifle a yawn brought on by the sunless weather.
"Ah. Now, you see...there has been a misunderstanding -" he begins, but just then a Vorax on the outside of the group yanks on a chain and Varissa comes into view, her eyes darting around and her muscles so tense that she is shaking slightly. "Ah."
The older male continues - no one has introduced themselves thus far. "A misunderstanding? Maybe we jumped to conclusions. From the look of it, you are helping this Jevumm hunt us. Following us from nest to nest like starving vermin. We could've easily evaded you, but I thought perhaps we should talk, before we kill you both."
As a matter of course, Jin-Kalys seems destined to be threatened with death on a regular basis. Gogajin threaten to pummel him if he won't 'shut up about tha bleedin' sun already!' Jevumm want to eat everyone, but can be placated with poetry. Zipsum are disappointed that he is unimpressed by their exploits, and as it turns out, they are also quite territorial. Prill...well, Prill have yet to threaten to kill him, which is quite nice. But these are not Prill. They are about five dozen glaring raptors, flexing claws, shining eyes and beaks.
Jin sighs. "Yes, we were hunting you." There are sounds of surprise and confirmation in the group, and a few produce weapons. Jin quickly continues "But! Not to eat you. I needed to find a Vorax - a particular Vorax - and Varissa was the most direct means by which this could be accomplished. She was...demonstrated to me. It doesn't mater. Now we've found you, or perhaps more accurately, you have found us."
They stare silently, a few coming closer with downright predatory looks. There's only one escape. Keep talking.
"I know what you are doing. What you intend." Surprise, suspicion, growing resolve to kill him. "I know, and it is a hideously terrible idea, and I know that I cannot stop you - I will not even try to do so. Rather, I simply wish to speak with one of you. To speak, briefly, and that is all. After that, I ask that you let me go, and continue with your...intentions."
A few of them exchange glances. They look to an elder Vorax, near the back of the group, who Jin can barely even see. There is a nod, or some other small movement. A new Vorax speaks to him.
"The taste of lizard is disgusting. And we're keeping the Jevumm, to deal with ourselves. But we'll let you go. We have nothing to say to you, but we'll let you go."
Jin swallows, winces slightly. Sighs. "I brought the Jevumm - Varissa - here. I found her, convinced he to help me find you. I cannot allow her..."no, change, bad idea "I cannot...leave her to be killed. Please. I just need to -."
One of the Vorax rushes forward to stand inches from Jin's face - only his long training in meditation keeps him from frantically diving backward. "You need to leave. Now. You've said enough." Then breathing silence. Wind. Distant sea-noises. Predatory silence.
That night, Jin is surprised by two visitors. The first is a young, lovely, sad Vorax. She hands him a leather satchel, heavily insulated with feathers and fur, reverently. She looks into his eyes. "I knew you would come. Remember us. Tell of what you see tomorrow - our final flight. The last thing the Vorax will do in this world, until we fade and are lost forever." And then she is gone.
The second is Varissa, holding the broken wreckage of her heirloom bow, covered in cuts, scratches, and bruises, limping, furious, ferocious. She hurls the pieces of her bow into Jin's fire and looms over him.
"What could possibly have been worth that? No, don't answer. I'm going to gut you."
Jin doesn't answer, but reaches into the leather satchel and retrieves a single, fist-sized egg.
"Worth it? We'll see." Varissa stops, teeth bared, and slowly relaxes in surprise.
"Is that -"
"Yes. It is. And no, you may not eat it. We have a lot of work to do. If watching this world die doesn't interest you, you need to listen to me, and then we need to decide what to do next."
'The city hasn't changed much,' Rei thought, and pointedly did not adjust her disguise. Not that blue contacts for her eyes was much of a disguise, but when paired with a clothing she felt reasonably sure approximated what a normal nineteen year old Omexan girl might wear, it worked well enough. At the very least, she didn't look like a Goshi Assassin, and that was good. It was all second-hand clothing, and twenty years out of date as far as sty le goes, but that was fine. She'd briefly considering applying makeup to complete the disguise, but discarded it almost immediately. Rei was a girl with many skills, but her grasp of all things domestic went only as far as hearsay. That is to say, she'd heard people say things on the subject, but had never actually been involved in the conversation herself. Neat and functional were her bywords, almost by necessity, but also by choice: she had no desire whatever to be like Aimi.
Omexon was basically a series of concentric crescents. Built on a vast network of terraces descending from the top of the massive sea-cliffs down to sea level, the city made for a truly impressive sight, and the sheer scale of its construction was sure to inspire awe in even the most jaded tourist.
At least, that's what the travel book said. No, really. It's right there in the introduction. Right after the table of contents (which included such gripping entries as 'where to eat' and 'where to shop').
Rei tossed the Omexon Tourist's Guide travel book into a disposal bin outside of the tavern where she was scheduled to meet with her contact. Yes, tavern. Omexon was the sort of Cheldrun city that had taverns. Rei didn't care much for it. She hadn't cared much for it the last time she'd been here, either. Of course, the last time she'd been here, it had been as a tag-along on one of Aimi's early training missions. Technically, she'd been supposed to make sure Aimi didn't get into any trouble, but Aimi and trouble are sort of like salami sandwiches and scrambled eggs: two things which you wouldn't think would go together very well, but inexplicably wind up paired more often than not. But that's another story, and certainly not one that Rei was thinking about.
What was Rei thinking about?
Well, there were a number of things on her mind, the first and foremost of which was murder. Unfortunately, Nero was nowhere within easy reach, so she had to content herself with the second thought that was on her mind: information gathering. She needed to find her friends, after all.
Rei took one last look at the city. The air was still, the sea-breeze curiously absent today. The sky was thick with blackrock smoke, and the forts atop the sea cliffs that bordered the harbour on either side gleamed dully against the twin contrasts of sparkling ocean and murky sky.
She ducked into the tavern.
The first thing Rei did when entering a room was make a note of all of its entrances, exits, and of the positions of everyone in it. It wasn't something she needed to think about anymore - it was second nature. Enter a room, take in the layout and scan the crowd for possible threats. It was a sensible approach to room-entry. Or possibly a paranoid one. Either way, it took her a few seconds to locate her contact, seated as he was at a clean, well-lit, cheerful sort of table in the middle of the room (the dark corners were all, regrettably, occupied).
Rei sat down in front of the man, pointedly ignoring the content of his thoughts. "I was told you had information for me," she said. Her voice was pitched not to carry beyond the table.
He looked at her for a long moment. "... Your disguise sucks, kid," he said.
Rei felt a brief flash of irritation, but gave no outward sign of it.
When she didn't react to his insult, the man smiled, and seemed to relax. "You'd be surprised how often people like yourself get flustered by a comment like that. Downright unprofessional. But seriously, it sucks. Unless you're going for 'social outcast.' Not my business, though. I'm Adelphos." He held out a hand, and it hung there in the air between them for a few moments before he lowered it again.
Rei watched Adelphos, her face blank, showing no visible manifestation of her annoyance. Calmly, she handed him the first of her two datapads, this one showing the descriptions of a motley group of seemingly completely dissimilar people: a male Mechified, a female Vorax, a female Zipsum, a male Prill, a male Allskin. It was not strictly necessary, but they had already established that the handing over of the datapad and its content would be the last signal to confirm her identity to this contact.
Adelphos let out an amused snort as he read the description of the allskin male. "Kid," he said, "If I knew where to find Daitokuji Kiyoshi, I wouldn't be working this place. I'd be living in a mansion in the Park District, squandering my newly acquired fortune of twenty eight years on fine wine, women, and fancy clothes."
"My name isn't 'kid,'" Rei said.
She was silent for a moment, and in that moment, the mask came down ever so briefly, and Rei looked deeply troubled. Up it went again. Impassive. Stoic. "You can call me Mikomi," she said.
"Mikomi?" Adelphos asked dubiously. "You feeling ironic on your naming day?"
Rei did not reply, but allowed a small fraction of her killing intent to escape from her psychic shields: not enough to truly indicate said intent, but enough that Adelphos and anyone else who happened to be making eye contact with her at that moment felt a chill run up and down his spine.
"Eh," he said, "Fair enough. Anyways, like I was saying, there's nothing I can do to help you find Daitokuji. The others, though, I may have a few leads on. Depending, of course, on what you've got to trade for it."
Rei produced a second datapad, this one containing copies of several files relating to DisLocator research, placed it on the table, and slid it over to Adelphos telekinetically.
Adelphos raised an eyebrow when the datapad slid over to him seemingly of its own accord, but said nothing. He scooped it up and quickly scanned over the information contained therein. After a moment, he whistled appreciatively. "Looks like we're in business, Mikomi. Can't say I've seen any sign of your Karian targets, but the Mechified... well, there's a pirate named Maverick who fits that description. Sails with the Rusty Nail Rogues."
Rei raised an eyebrow. Apparently when Adelphos thought of 'Rusty Nail Rogues' he thought of himself punching a blonde fop in the nose, and of said fop running away crying to... well, that was an odd image. "Never heard of them," she said.
"Neither had I until just recently," Adelphos replied. "They've been making a nuisance of themselves lately. Hitting minor shipments here and there. The Omexan Navy would take them out, but frankly, it's got better things to do. There's supposedly a few coastal villages that cater to the band." He shrugged. "It's all here." He produced a small datapad from his pocket and slid it across the table.
Rei took the datapad. "Thanks," she said.
"Any time, Mikomi." He gave her a considering look. "Hey, tell you what. You ever get tired of your current line of work, I could use someone who knows her way around the finer points of corporate espionage."
Rei didn't bother replying.
The search for the Rusty Nail Rogues consumed the next two days as Rei followed up on the leads she'd been given. She was almost disappointed at how easy it was to find their recruiters in a little village within a few hour's walk north of Omexan. On the plus side, finding their recruiters so quickly had left her with plenty of time in which to get caught up on current events.
The Yogensha League was holding a major summit on the subject of the excesses of the Goshi Mining Corporation. Goshi had diversified its interests, it seemed, no longer simply mining blackrock, but now expanding into the realm of private armies... fully equipped with teleportation devices.
Yeah. That's a doozy. At least, the members of the Yogensha League thought so, hence, the summit to discuss the situation. The plan had been to call Geneva Prime to task for their management of the company, but when Geneva Prime had declined to attend, implicitly throwing its approval behind Goshi's activities, the summit had taken on a much more militant feel. That was the reason for the large crowds in Omexan, and for the ridiculous levels of security that Rei had noticed when entering the city.
All in all, Rei thought that the whole thing made a dreadfully convenient target, and fully expected Goshi to show up with their teleporting troops to assassinate the leaders of their only serious opposition in Cheldrun society. At least, that's what she would have done, if she'd been in charge of Goshi. She was surprised that the summit was even going forward, actually. Especially with such an old-fashioned show of military force as unveiling a new battleship. The Rodan, it was called. The introduction of the DisLocators had changed the playing field: Goshi didn't have to play by the normal rules of warfare anymore, and the members of the Yogensha League apparently had not realized that yet. If Goshi knew its business, it would not give them a chance to do so: once the DisLocators had been conclusively demonstrated, everyone would adapt their tactics and planning accordingly, but until that happened, there was a window of opportunity in which the Yogensha League was uniquely, supremely vulnerable.
It was enough to make a girl grin, and grin she did.
Armed with an evil (Rei would have said 'cheerful') grin, Rei strode confidently into the tavern that she knew the Rusty Nail Rogue recruiter was waiting.
It didn't take long. Five minutes, and the Recruiter was sitting at her table. His name was Raul. He obviously thought that he was handsome, though he didn't spark Rei's interest. Of course, nobody sparked Rei's interest, so perhaps that's not surprising. Rather like trying to judge the image-quality on a kicked in holo-screen: it's only possible if the screen actually works. The Spanish guitars were a nice touch, but ultimately lost on the young Biomade.
"So you're with the Rusty Nail Rogues?" Rei asked. She'd known from the moment they first made eye contact that this was going to be difficult. This 'Raul' was a clever one, hiding his true thoughts behind layers and layers of lust. It was an effective psychic shield, and one that Rei had only encountered before in mundanes who were truly accomplished at resisting telepathic interrogation.
Raul smiled confidently, and his white teeth gleamed in the light. "Raul is willing to discuss the matter," he said, looking Rei in the chest. I mean eye.
His thoughts were full of images of she and he caught up in... well, Rei wasn't terribly familiar with the physics of the act itself, but she was reasonably certain that what he was thinking about now was not physiologically possible. Every thought of his fellows, every thought of the Rusty Nail Rogues led only to the thought of getting laid. 'What a mental defense!' Rei thought to herself, and forced her features to remain carefully neutral. It was exciting, the thought of interrogating a true professional. Rei knew of two ways to break through such a disciplined defense: one was to play into it while carefully, ever so carefully worming through the cracks in the facade until the whole mind lay bare before you; the other was to break through with sheer brute force. Now, as much as she might have favored the subtle approach, this was one area in which subtlety was simply not within the realm of possibility for her. Aimi might have been able to pull it off, but not her.
"Why don't you tell me all about it in a less public location?" Rei asked. It was clumsy, but it was the best she could think of.
It worked. It sent his surface thoughts into far flung and convoluted fantasies, and she almost grimaced, but managed to restrain the reaction at the last moment.
She walked quickly towards the exit, and he followed. Then, once they reached a dark, out of the way alley, she turned. He was opening his arms to embrace her, and words were half-formed upon his lips, but she had no interest in hearing them. A few well-placed blows sent him tumbling into unconsciousness.
Rei looked right, looked left, and then dragged Raul's unconscious body away. She'd already prepared a place in the basement of a nearby building. Once he was securely bound, she sat down and waited for him to wake up.
His dreams were dirty.
Rei's eyebrow began to twitch.
A few hours later, Rei watched him stir and smiled.
Good. It was time to begin. He tested his bonds and then looked at her.
"Raul did not know you were into kinky bondage, little minx. What is safety word?"
Rei's eyebrow twitched again. She'd been examining his mind the whole time he had been unconscious with no luck. Even now, staring him in the eye, all she could sense within him was his desire to impress, seduce, and otherwise enjoy the presence of women. It was almost enough to make her think that the only reason he had joined his band of pirates was because he thought it was sexy.
No. That couldn't be it. Perhaps she just wasn't looking hard enough. "Here's how this is going to work, Raul," she said. "You're going to answer my questions, and each time you fail to answer, I will cause you pain. I've prepared a number of instruments to use in this interrogation. You can see them there on the table in front of you." She gestured towards the tool-covered table. "They cover the four basic methods of torture: cold, hot, sharp, and blunt." Still nothing. Damn. "Out of professional respect, I'm going to let you pick the first type I use."
Raul smirked. "Raul picks hot and blunt." The image that flashed in his mind when he spoke left no doubt of what he meant.
Rei lost her cool. Enough was enough. Glaring at the man, she picked a small hammer off the table. She then knelt down near Raul's feet and with a single precise strike, broke his big toe with a nasty crack.
"AAAAIEE!" he shouted. "You have hurt Raul!"
"Answer my questions," she snapped as she replaced the hammer on the table.
"But you haven't asked any yet!"
Rei blinked. "... Oh. Right." The irritation she had felt was slow in fading. "Perhaps I got a little carried away," she admitted. "Tell me about the Rusty Nail Rogues, Raul. Tell me everything, and perhaps the worst you will get from me is a broken toe."
Raul talked almost immediately. Actually, scratch the 'almost.' He talked, and he talked, and he talked. He spilled everything he could think of, and then kept on talking.
Rei stared at him. It hadn't been an act? He really WAS the way his surface thoughts showed him to be? ... Wait, the Rusty Nail Rogues were *IN THE TAVERN* where the two of them had met?
Utterly disgusted, Rei gagged Raul with an old sock and then headed back up to the tavern.
This was going to be a long night.
She could feel a headache coming on. The ease with which she joined the group after a few words spoken to their leader, Julian, only made it worse. She'd thought these were professionals, but they were nothing of the sort. But Maverick was a part of their group, and Maverick was her only lead on the location of Moses. So she'd help them. She'd help them plan their assault on Rodan. She'd put up with them. Putting up with them was harder than planning the assault on Rodan.
When Raul was brought up a few hours later speaking of a kinky bondage orgy which he had enjoyed in the basement, Rei's headache got still worse.
This was going to be a long night. An irritatingly, endlessly long night.
First Minds help her.
A whisper of wind rustles the leaves in the surrounding wood, a hint of the stormy weather outside, but within this realm it is calm and warm. Mokuzai looks up and sees clouds rushing overhead like time-lapse photography. In front of him a tea kettle nestled in the coals of a dying fire begins to whistle. A face covered in feathers appears in the steam wafting through the air with a mocking expression and a breathy voice.
The old lore-singer grunts and waves the steam away with his hand before picking the kettle up and pouring himself a cup of tea. "Can't I drink my tea in peace," he says.
The steam reforms into the laughing face, "I'm afraid not, old man. You made your choice back in the Chantry. No peace for you."
Mokuzai pays no attention as the voice goes on, "You've seen the madness that is The-One-Who-Unravels-Mysteries. You've heard his ridiculous prophecies and his slanderous accusations. Do you intend to pay them heed old man?"
Eyes made of steam narrow as they examine the Prill before them. Mokuzai sips his tea, looking at a leaf blowing in the wind. The sky begins to darken and the face speaks again with a prickly tone.
"If you've any sense you'll quit this foolish game. The mana in you needs to be returned. Feed yourself to your Kyo-Tee-Shee, and have it done. There's your answer to the riddle of peace!"
The wind gives a great sigh and the light returns to normal, while the face of steam puffs out one cheek and then the other, bored.
"Seriously, you're going to be in here for a long time with me while your friends take you safely to Omexon. This will be dull if you don't at least participate in the conversation. Surely you have questions. Who was The-One-Who-Unravels-Mysteries, Featherface? Why did he set up this whole prophecy, Featherface? How did Elder Winter get this mask? Where did this staff come from? What's the cataclysm, Featherface? Why does the Wandering Star, wander? C'mon..."
The mountaintop is tranquil while Mokuzai sips noisily at his tea with a little smile turning up the corners of his mouth. The floating mask, the one called Featherface, or in the old-tongue, The-One-Who-Opens-Doors, waits impatiently...
I stare at him for what seems like an eternity. He looks so... different. So old. He's hunched over, and his hair is thin and white. His eyes look in different directions - the left one is clouded over with cataracts.
Finally, I find my voice. "... It's Rei now," I say.
He blinks, and looks at me closely, his caratact-covered eye rotating almost independently of his healthy one. "Rei? That doesn't make any sense."
I shrug. I'm not sure what to say. What to do. Strange children wander all around us, and every one of them looked a little bit like him. "So you're him? ... You're Inase Spark?"
"That's me," he says.
I swallow. I haven't felt nervous in a long time. Not since the day I first met Una, Kiyoshi, High Dive, and Moses. There's so much I want to say. So much I want to ask. What is a person supposed to do in a situation like this?
Kiyoshi would know. Moses would know. Una would know. Even Mokuzai would know.
Now, what would High Dive do?
The ensuing mental image makes me try to forget that I ever wondered that.
"I've been looking for you for a long time," I say.
He nods. "Oh yes. For at least fourteen..." he looks at me again, studying me, "Well, probably more like eighteen years."
I'm not sure how to respond to that. "I found your journal. It's what led me here. I have questions..." I hold up my portable computer, with his journal still plugged in.
His face lights up at that. "Aaah, I haven't seen one of these in ages!" He takes it from my hands, and I let him. He walks over to a terminal near the wall, and I follow him. His mind is utterly silent. I wonder whether I could push through his mental shielding if I wanted, but decide not to test it. He plugs the computer into the terminal and presses a few buttons.
A vast holographic display pops into existence for a moment, and I have the briefest glimpse of a fractal-filled screen. Then there is a loud pop, then two softer pops, and blue smoke flows out from the sides of my portable computer.
I stare. "... You... BROKE my computer?"
"Oh yeah," he said. "Now I remember why I haven't used one of these in years."
I snatch the machine back from him and clip it back against my belt. For the briefest moment, I consider killing him. Then a stab of guilt washes the thought away, and I look up, hoping he hadn't sensed that. I don't even know what kind of telepathic ability he has, but he has impressive shielding, at least.
I'm annoyed, and irritation looses the dam that had held back my questions. "Why did you come here? Why did you make me? What did you hope to accomplish with Project Scion? How long have you been here?"
"You talk a lot," he says.
My jaw snaps shut with an audible click, and I stare at him incredulously. I talk a lot?
"Well, come along. My kids have made us some dinner. It's time to eat."
I glance at one of the children, taking in his clubbed foot, then another who was putting a steel bowl filled with... something, on the table - Lysa. "What's wrong with them?" I ask.
Spark shrugs as he sits down at the table. "Flawed. Imperfect. My mistake."
The children gather around the table. I don't catch all of their names, but the boy with the club-foot is named Clubber, and there's a boy named Dany and a girl named Gina. Their minds are very simple. Very easy to assume as my own. I shake my head. Easy or not, I know that they are not me. Lysa serves up a dish made from some sort of plant matter mixed with rodent flesh. They offer it to me, and I decline, saying, "I can't digest meat."
"Huh. That's a new one," Spark says. "All my children were flawed in some way. I guess you got off pretty easy." He sends Dany off to bring their other guest, and I don't think much of it.
We talk, then, and he is not what I expected, not what I'd hoped he would be. I wanted someone with all the answers. I wanted him to explain Project Scion to me. What I found was a man who had given up.
Here he was, Inase Spark, the genius of Project Scion, my own creator, trying to engineer fertile children with enough genetic viability to produce a stable population, hoping that maybe they'll go unnoticed by the Cataclysm that's coming. Mikomi. He'd named me 'Mikomi.' Hope. But he'd lost it. I try to show him that he hasn't failed. I try to show him the Kata Kariana. It doesn't help. Seeing me shrouded in darkness, a vaguely me-like silhouette of darkest night... well, maybe it sent the wrong message. I want to tell him what he told me. I want to tell him how we are fighting for each other's sake. How we have to be willing to sacrifice ourselves by the hundreds - by the millions - for one another. That nothing will be left for him and his new family if all the world falls around them. Instead what I say is, "This isn't what I expected."
"What did you expect, dear sister?" Nero asks as Dany leads him into the room. My eyes widen.
Before I even know what I'm doing, I'm on my feet, and my psychic knife is burning a bright blue on my gauntlet. "What are you doing here?"
He slips in past my mental shielding as easily as if I were nothing more than a child. I feel a faint mental nudge, and my psychic knife flickers out. "Now, now, we wouldn't want to spoil this reunion with violence, would we?"
Spark nods. "You are both welcome here only so long as you behave yourselves. I won't have squabbling children at my table."
I stare at Spark, then at Nero, and then at last, reluctantly, sink back into my seat.
Nero sits down and helps himself to a bowl of glop, though he doesn't seem interesting in eating it. "What am I doing here?" He asks, addressing my question at last, "The same thing you're doing here, I expect: getting information."
I let that sink in for a moment, then my gaze travels down towards his arm. The arm Una destroyed. "How's the arm?" I ask belligerently.
He holds up a gloved hand, and gently pulls the glove off, revealing a solid silver hand beneath. "Much better."
I smile unkindly, and the image of his flesh being flayed from his bones replays itself in my memory. "Una has that effect on people," I say. And then, "What do you want, Nero?"
"What do you want, sister?" he shot back.
The question. The Question. It rings through my brain as if it were a tolling bell. "I..." I look up. "That's one of the Questions, isn't it? The Questions that define us? 'Who are you?' 'What do you want?'"
"You don't know the answers to either one, do you?"
"I want to stop this... this cataclysm," I say.
"And the other?" he asks.
"... at least I'm trying," I say.
He rolls his eyes. "I know why you came here. You came here in hopes of recapturing the childhood you never had, didn't you? You thought you could come in here and your daddy would make it all better. Pathetic."
Hatred. Hurt. I glare at him. "You don't know me," I snap.
"I've known you longer than you have, Rei. I knew you when you were nothing more than a quivering mass of telepathic tissue strapped to your bed back Home. Did you know that Aimi wanted to call you 'Nee-chan?' 'Dear older sister?'" He shook his head dismissively. "I thought 'nothing' was a much better name. And it is much better, don't you think? Even now, you don't really know who you are. I bet you have trouble telling the difference between yourself and Clubby over there in the corner."
Hatred. Hurt. Shame. I want him dead. I want him DEAD.
When I don't refute his assertion, Inase Spark looks visibly disappointed, and my sense of shame becomes intense.
"I know what you want, at least," I snap. "The same thing you've always wanted: power."
Nero nods. "That's true, I do want power. But that's only part of it."
"Why do all this? Why steal memories from me? Why attack Lord Tsuchinaga? Why try to steal the files from beneath his mansion?"
Nero looks to Spark. "Why don't you tell her the truth?" He directed his eyes back my way, and every time my gaze met his, new hatred rose up within me. "You should already know this. The pieces are already there. You know what the White-Rock summons. You know that we were made with the White-Rock."
I blink. "I know that Silex Niveus is a conduit that draws energy here from 'elsewhere,'" I say cautiously.
"Where do you think it draws that energy from, sister?" He smiles, and I hate him for it. "From the Enemy. We are half-Enemy."
Shock. Surprise. Disbelief. "You're a liar. Project Scion doesn't have to end in the same place as the DisLocator experiments. None of us has become Eyeless."
"No," he says, "The Eyeless and the Oni they summon are beautiful, but we can be so much more."
I stare at him. I feel a sense of horror rising up within my stomach. An awful, quivering sort of feeling. I see again Garandu-Oni. I see again Asamu-Oni. I remember the love I felt for each of them, even amidst the horror and the bloodshed.
The hour when death is like a light, and blood is like a rose;
You never loved your friends, my friends, as I have loved my foes.
"The Oni are... magnificent," I concede, "But I think the word you're looking for is 'horrific,' not 'beautiful.'"
He looks visibly disappointed. "Sister, sister, sister, you can't fight what you are. Who you are. You can either embrace it, or be miserable."
I look to Spark, and when he doesn't deny Nero's statement, my heart sinks. Why would someone like me be chosen by... Karia? I liked her pain. I reveled in it. I felt the whole of it and longed only for more.
No. No. I won't. It's not about what you feel. It's about what you choose. "Is that all you came here to do? To taunt me with this?"
Nero smiles a sunny smile. "No. I also wanted to see the look on your face when I did this."
That sinking feeling? It's quickly becoming my closest companion. And it's proved right when all sixteen people at the table rise to their feet and attack me.
The next few minutes are a flurry of hatred and violence. The Fire rises up all around me, but I dare not let it loose. Not here, where it might burn my creator to a cinder. I twist it sideways and pull out three threads, and three of me leap out across the room even as I retreat to a better fighting position. Two go down almost immediately as energy pistols are fired into them. They break apart like smoke, and are gone.
"Why would someone want to create clones that are Half-Enemy? Why would someone DO THAT?" the surviving simulacra shouts into Nero's face.
He twists to the side to avoid its attack, and it bursts into smoke against the overturned table.
I know when I am over-matched. If I stay here, I will die.
I can't afford to die. Not when living might allow me to stop Nero. Somehow.
I swallow my pride. I run.
As I flee, I hear Nero's voice behind me saying, "Damnit. ... Kill each other."
The sound of knives hacking into flesh fills the corridor. I turn around in horror just in time to see Inase Spark take a blast of energy to the face. Light pours out of his eyes, and he falls, dead.
The next thing I remember, a voice calls out to me. His voice. Spark's voice. I am injured, though I don't remember being injured. A knife wound, and several nasty burns. I grimace.
I look to the source of the voice.
"Identify yourself," he says. His image is young, and translucent, and alive.
A hum begins to build. "Subject 'Rei' not recognized," he says, and I realize with a start that I must have given my name.
"... I was named Mikomi," I say.
The hum ceases. "Mikomi recognized."
"Who are you?" I ask. I feel distant. Faint. I...
"I am Inase Spark," he replies.
I stare. "... I just saw you die," I say.
He looks uncomfortable. "I'm sorry to hear that. I am here to help you if I can."
"... How can you help me?"
"What do you want to do?" he asks.
"Find my friends. Una. High-Dive. Mokuzai. Moses." I think about it for a moment, "Maybe Kiyoshi, too."
I do have access to the mainframe."
"The Mainframe?" I ask.
"The ship's mainframe. If you can provide sufficient power, I can activate the sensors if that is your wish."
I spend the next several minutes dragging generators over to the terminal and plugging them in. When I am done, the holograph asks, "What shall I scan for?"
I think for a moment. I remember distantly how the KyoTeeshee said that the Enemy will follow us wherever we go. It helps to think about something other than Inase Spark. "Scan for the Enemy," I say.
"Within what range?"
"Planetary, including orbit," I say.
A three dimensional representation of the planet Karia snaps into being above the projector. Red dots begin appearing scattered across the it. Most of them are within Geneva Prime, but there are some scattered here and there, a large group in the woods outside of the Grand Chantry, and a few in the other cities.
... There is something in orbit. Something filled with so many of the Enemy that the scanners could not identify the individual signals.
A thought strikes me, then. I zoom in the display on the wreck of the Bosphorus.
Two Enemy signals radiate there.
I zoom it in on my specific location.
I am the Enemy.
All the horror stories I ever heard are true, and they're about ME?
I stare at the screen for a long moment.
"Energy reserves are running low," Spark reports. "Do you wish anything else?"
"... Scan for unique energy sources that correspond to my... non-enemy energy source?"
It is 45 seconds later that concentrations of unique energy sources begin to appear on the globe. Much is concentrated around the Grand Chantry. Absurd amounts lie on the western continent. Lines of it flow across the globe in a strange, regular pattern, like a spiderweb across the whole world.
"Filtering..." Spark reports.
The other sources fade, and I see where my companions are.
One in the jungles southwest of Matamos.
One off the coast from Omexon.
Two in the ocean north of Geneva Prime, moving west.
I ask the computer to extrapolate a possible destination for the two on the ocean, and it reports that the likely targets are Marina or Omexon.
Looks like I know where I have to go.
Even as the computer powers down behind me, I leave the ruined ship, my heart sunken down into my shoes.
Inase Spark is dead.
I am the Enemy we fight.
Two thoughts prevent me from sinking into despair:
The first is the thought of seeing my friends again.
The second is the knowledge that I can't let Nero get away with what he's done. What he chooses to be.
... I swear by all the First Minds, I will kill Nero for what he's done.