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silentzone [2013/04/27 00:29]
doan created
silentzone [2013/04/27 00:29] (current)
doan
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 +"I wish I was home too, honey."
 +
 +It wasn't that he hated his job. Mining on Skure was well-paid, respected, he got to see another planet and be involved in a pioneering operation that would give Motavia access to large quantities of Laconia for the first time in history. He just wished it didn't involve spending so much time so far away from his family. It was only on this one day off every six months that he had a chance to talk to his wife and child at all, and even then, it was only through the cheap, blocky holograms and slightly distorted voice of the company Visiphone, where he would have to battle with the constant loud, low drone of drilling machines, the clatter of ore and rocks tumbling through chutes into vats, the occasional explosion when things proved hard to shift and the clanking footsteps and loud beeping reports of the security and maintenance drones on their daily patrols. Communications was supposed to be in a quiet area of the mine. This only meant that he didn't need protective equipment if he wanted to have any hearing left at all by the end of the day. He also only had half an hour on the phone before some other guy used it to call his own wife, or girlfriend, or boyfriend or whoever it is that the native Motavians talked to on the phone.
 +
 +Besides, background noise or no, he couldn't kiss his wife over a Visiphone, couldn't feel her soft lips and smell her freshly-washed hair as he ran his hands across her fine cheekbones. Her face didn't look the same on a badly rendered computer image either. The beauty of her youthful features, the expression of wry humour on her face, the way her naturally curled cobalt-blue hair flowed down her neck to the top of her shoulders. Edoald Lisle wasn't bad looking himself, in his admittedly biased opinion, but his features had been made rough by too many long hours, not enough natural light, too much disgusting canteen food and a thin veneer of grime that never seemed to quite wash off. His hair was fading to a kind of blue-white, his skin was getting paler and more wrinkled. He often joked with her that he was turning into a Dezolisian, except that the natives of the alien planet didn't have hair, while his was starting to refuse his attempts to comb it back and he was growing a layer of apocalypse survivor's stubble. Nerys wasn't the type of woman to discard him because he wasn't in perfect condition. Neither of them was perfect; nothing was.
 +
 +"I swear I'll put in some overtime, buy myself some time off and come to visit you two for a few days, okay?" he promised his wife.
 +
 +"It isn't just the long absences," she said, "I get worried about you up there. So many things could go wrong. A cave-in, an explosion, one of those machines going out of control.."
 +
 +"Relax, the Mama Brain doesn't let things like that happen. We're as safe up here as you are down there. Well, mostly," he qualified. 
 +
 +"The 'Mama Brain' is supposed to keep Biomonsters from attacking people," she replied, "Hell, there aren't supposed to be any Biomonsters. So don't you dare just rely on someone else to keep you out of trouble!"
 +
 +"You know I would never do anything that might stop me coming home to you. The health and safety protocol is ridiculous anyway, it's a miracle they let me anywhere near the actual mine. I think if they could stick me in an office in Paseo with a joystick for moving one of the Heavysolids, they would," he laughed at his own joke. The jokes they made in the bar about the Heavysolids had a lot more expletives and a whole lot more bitterness. If his hypothetical situation became reality, it wouldn't be him or any of his friends operating the Heavysolid, it would be somebody younger than him who was already conveniently in Paseo and knew how to sit in offices pressing buttons all day, "Look, you've got me worried now. I heard it was getting pretty bad with the Biomonsters."
 +
 +"They don't come into populated areas, but yeah, if you step out of the gates, you better carry a knife and watch yourself," she said, "I've heard it's worse in Zema. Nobody really leaves town any more. They have Hunters guarding the gates."
 +
 +"They're close to the labs there," he replied, "Figures they'd be coming out of the labs. I guess your Grandma hasn't come round to visit, then."
 +
 +"Yeah, they don't let her near the Biomonsters, it's a violation of international law to use weapons that cruel, even on monsters," she said. Then her expression became more serious, "I'm worried about Leilwyn, though. She knows not to play outside the gates or go anywhere without an adult but I think she sneaks out secretly. She's been saying she wants to be a Hunter. I don't want her talking to Hunters any more than I want her going near monsters- they get violent when they're drunk!"
 +
 +"I'll try and talk to her."
 +
 +"She asks about you a lot, you know," said Nerys, "She wants to be like daddy, so she go up and work with Daddy where all the cool machines are. She'll probably want to go on and on at you about Aerotanks. I thought girls liked flowers and dresses."
 +
 +"I thought she wanted to be a Hunter."
 +
 +"Kids her age don't make up their minds about big decisions like that yet," she said, "I had about six different things I wanted to be at her age. I even wanted to be a cat."
 +
 +"Did you want to be a singer?"
 +
 +"No, I was a singer anyway, why would I want to be it when I grew up?" she chuckled again. Nerys really was a natural singer. Her expression was one of serenity as she made it look effortless to sing like a Kitedragon heralding the morning sun, rather than Edoald's attempts at singing, which sounded more like a dying Toader. She wasn't just any bar-room entertainer, she was working for the famous composer Ustvestia, singing the lyrics they made up together to his latest piano compositions,  "Look, stay safe, or I'll go to the clone labs and get you replaced."
 +
 +"You too, honey," he said, "Can you put Leilwin on now?"
 +
 +"Lei-Lei! Daddy's on the phone!" she yelled. He could already just about hear the shrill, unrestrained voice of an excited small girl. It brought a broad smile to his face. After a few minutes of whispered talking, Edoald saw his daughter pressing her face right up to the Visiphone and yelling into it at the top of her voice, as she usually did, so that he saw a massive face distorted so that it looked like he was peering into the concave of a spoon that was making a noise distorted by feedback.
 +
 +"Hello, Lei-Lei," he said, "How have you been today?"
 +
 +"Daddy! Guess what! I saw a Flarewolf today! It ran away, though."
 +
 +"Um... that's nice..." he tried not to think about how dangerous the average Flarewolf was or what exactly she would have done if it hadn't 'ran away', "Say, mummy told me you want to be a Hunter..."
 +
 +“Yeah, like Anna Zirski! She's the strongest and coolest girl of all!” she explained.
 +
 +“Anna is cool,” he agreed, trying not to think about some of the other conversations he got into about Anna Zirski with his workmates in the bar after hours. One of the guys even had pictures he swore on his life were genuine.
 +
 + "Me and the other kids got some big sharp sticks and Owen got his daddy's hunt knife and we're chasing away the Buzzers and Fire Ants!"
 +
 +"Listen, if you're going to do that, can you make sure you do it in a big group and you only practice on the small things until you're bigger and stronger, okay? And you should always tell the trained Hunters where you're going, and if you see anything bigger, tell them straight away so they can keep the town safe," he said, "Promise? It's what the real trainee Hunters do."
 +
 +"Do you think I'll be allowed into Hunter school?"
 +
 +"You have to finish real school first," he said, "And come home if you get into trouble. And stop upsetting your mummy!"
 +
 +"Hey, daddy..." she gave him an impish grin that implied she wasn't going to keep any promises to anyone, "Can I come to the mine one day? I want to ride on a Cooley61 or an Aerotank!"
 +
 +"I... don't think anyone actually rides them, but... hey, do you want to see a cool trick?" he said, "Wait just a moment..."
 +
 +Putting the Visiphone on hold for a second, he peered out of the door into a corridor. He could tell there was an Aerotank around from the whining noise that the thing was making as it hovered up and down the corridors, beeping, announcing small security violations and maintenance issues out loud to itself and soldering a metal plate back onto the wall. Holes in the wall could let in the intense cold of the Dezolisian climate, which wasn't good for the pipes.
 +
 +"Hey, over here!" he called, waving at the floating mini-tank until it swivelled its small blue flashing optical sensor to regard him.
 +
 +"Is there a problem, employee Lisle?" it asked in its deep, obviously synthesised voice that was deliberately designed to sound mildly terrifying, to remind people that they were armed and had no morals whatsoever, "I am designated to deal with serious maintenance flaws and security violations. Wasting my time is punishable by tier 3 staff disciplinary procedures!"
 +
 +"Which is why you're wasting your own time mending walls and making long speeches about how precious your time is," he retorted. Verbally baiting the robots was pointless, as irony and sarcasm were lost on their primitive programming, but it was satisfying in its own way, and fairly harmless, as they were programmed to shoot at him for trespassing, not for back-talking them.
 +
 +"Is there a problem?" repeated the Aerotank.
 +
 +"Yeah, in the Comms room. he said, "Um... I think I'm being hacked. By protesters," he added as an afterthought. The robots hated protesters. Protesters threw paint at them.
 +
 +The Aerotank swivelled around and followed Edoald into the Comms room, where he hit the pause button again, "Look, Lei-Lei, a real Aerotank!"
 +
 +"No security violation detected," said the machine, its lights flashing red as it swivelled around and around, scanning the communication devices, much to the hysterical laughter of Leilwyn.
 +
 +"Oh, um, I think it must have gone now," he shrugged.
 +
 +"You are being reported," it said, before floating out of the room.
 +
 +"Hey, you could at least pose for the camera! Oh great, now I'm gonna get the cleaning jobs as punishment again..." he sighed. Leilwyn laughed at him as well. He heard Nerys in the background demanding to know what was going on. Then the Visiphone beeped and flashed red to tell him he only had five minutes left.
 +
 +“Daddy needs to go soon,” he said, “But I'll come and visit you some day soon, I promise. I've got a special present for you. I'll show you next time I call you, once I've finished setting up the surprise.”
 +
 +“It is an Aerotank?” she guessed.
 +
 +He laughed, “It's a surprise. Pass the phone to your mummy, I need to kiss her goodbye.”
 +
 +
 +"Hey, Mog!" he called. He wasn't very imaginative when it came to inventing cat names. It was his first time.
 +
 +At the sound of his voice, a small, yellow-furred feline face appeared from under the cheap, ghastly institutional green plastic sofa, mewing inquisitively at him. She was small for a cat but her tail was large and bushy, more like a fox or squirrel tail. It hadn't been long since Edoald first bought her from the pet shop and introduced her to her new home (if his cramped dormitory room could reasonably be called a home and not an open prison) but she had adjusted to the unfamiliar environment remarkably well.  She had stayed in her cage for most of the first day but she quickly became inquisitive, wanting to investigate every square inch of the room. There wasn't really anywhere he could put her where she could have privacy apart from behind the sofa, but he tried to give her some space while she became used to the room. She had already become an important part of his routine, just through remembering to feed her with some kind of regularity, letting her run around the corridors of Apartment Block P-2 (everyone called it Cell Block P-2) where she could get some exercise and freedom but would still be safe, what with all the other miners who had cats of their own, and security drones who had been programmed not to let small yellow fast-moving objects out of the Residential District.
 +
 +The cats were popular ever since the pet store had opened up in the Commercial District as a solution to the drop in morale (and subsequent drop in work efficiency and rise in alcoholism and cabin fever) during long-term mining operations where there was no time to contact friends and family. There were also rabbits and some kind of orang-utans that had been bred to be smaller, calmer and generally easier to restrain for lab experimentation, but they weren't selling as well as the cats, what with the cats being affectionate and endearing, the rabbits creepy and the orang-utans still capable of wrecking the place if left unsupervised for five minutes. Of course, a pet was never a substitute for a real family but they were good company and they brightened up the place, especially when some mad scientist had invented the Magic Caps and they had actually worked.
 +
 + After a few seconds of listening to a cat meowing and expecting a reaction – a little longer than he felt comfortable, knowing that he looked and felt like he was already turning into a crazy cat lady - Edoald heard his Magic Cap, an ugly lime-green synthetic skullcap that was too large for him, go 'beep', then saw a red light flash on it. There was a sound like a Visiphone answer message starting up, then a mechanical voice said 'You smell suspicious and I wish to bite you.' Simultaneously, the cat stopped in its tracks. She had been about to walk up to him loudly demanding food. Her ears flattened and the hairs on her back stood on end.
 +
 +“Oh, c'mon, I don't smell that bad! Well... no worse than yesterday!” he protested.
 +
 +“Go away, you heinous scoundrel,” she bared her teeth at him and began to hiss. When he didn't disappear as requested, she darted under the sofa and continued hissing and growling at him, swiping at his ankle with her claws when he came too close.
 +
 +“Okay, this thing's definitely not working,” he sighed, taking the rapidly beeping cap off his head, “Piece of crap. I thought they were selling it off a bit too cheap. They better accept the receipt or I'll... I'll ram it on their head and drop a cat on them!”
 +
 +Gradually, with a lot of cajoling and bribery, the cat began to calm down and even let him pet her, although she still gave him the occasional glare, as though he had committed some kind of unforgivable sin. He wondered if the faulty Magic Caps worked by translating everything you said into the cat-speak equivalent of a detailed description of their mother's sexual exploits. Or maybe they just hated the colour as much as he did. Maybe they were laced with bad catnip. There was even a rumour going around that a batch of bootleg Magic Caps had entered the market, and that was why the prices were going down. Several of his friends had taken home a Magic Cap only to find, when they looked at it closer, the tiny label stitched onto the hem actually said 'Mogic Cap', and was coming off at the seams. Whatever the case, sometimes the Magic Caps just didn't work, and instead of a stimulating intellectual conversation with the apparently highly intelligent cats (didn't cats mostly just think about food, sleep and sex?), they just immediately and inexplicably started trying to claw your ankles off.
 +
 +It was coming up to midday and he was only off work for another day after today, so he decided to take the hat back immediately and maybe look around some of the other stores in the Commercial District and somehow avoid eating at the refectory before inevitably ending the trip at the bar. The Commercial District was busy with other staff who had the same idea and he found himself constantly having to duck out of the way of people with trolleys on more ambitious shopping trips, mall security androids suddenly darting off after someone they suspected of shoplifting, someone's pet escaping from its carry cage or one of the huge queues in front of the general store that stocked extra Visiphone credits, newspapers and beer. One of the queues was in the process of being capped by two Gun Bust androids who stood in front of the entrance, preventing access by any more people until the first group had left. Edoald recognised one of the people yelling at the androids and trying futilely to thump them on their front armour plates: Harald Kuran. Not someone he would normally want to hang out with, but they usually worked the same shift and it was good to get to know people you were going to have a chance to see regularly in a place like Skure.
 +
 +"Hi, Hal," he said, waving.
 +
 +"Edo! Get your ass over here and tell this heap of junk that I was here first! Some asshole pushed me out of the way!" he growled. While he was a head taller than Edo, heavily muscled and had the look of someone used to handling themselves in a fight, he was rather ruining his imposing image by the fact that he had been attempting to intimidate a twenty foot tall, heavily armed and armoured robot that was probably only programmed to know how to stand in front of a door.
 +
 +"You do know that thing is too stupid to avoid stepping on you if it has to turn around, right?"
 +
 +Hal took a sudden step backwards but refused to lose his composure. When he saw the Magic Cap in Edo's hand, he squinted at it and said, "What'cha doin' with that?"
 +
 +"Taking it back to the shop," he told his workmate the whole story. Hal immediately snatched it off him and sniffed it.
 +
 +"Ain't burned out," he said, then turned it over and over in his hands and squinted, "Doesn't look like a bootleg. Can't tell the O's and the A's apart sometimes, though. Talked to a guy in Technical, once, said the difference between the faulty ones and the working ones is tiny. Just one switch up or down, or on and off, or something."
 +
 +Yeah, because you know so much about everything, thought Edoald, but he didn't want to get Hal even more wound up, "He say how to fix them?"
 +
 +"Nah, you can't fix 'em, they wire them so they ain't user serviceable," he said.
 +
 +"What about taking them back? Does that work, or do they have an excuse for that as well?"
 +
 +"I've heard you shouldn't get rid of 'em. You should hang onto them, because," he leant closer to whisper conspiratorially into Edo's ear. He already smelled of beer, "Some of them have... weird effects on other things, apart from cats. I've even heard that some of them let you speak Dezolisian."
 +
 +"I thought speaking to a Dezolisian through a Magic Cap was a really, really..."
 +
 +"Bad idea. But not the faulty ones. They work fine - no making stupid mistakes, no pissed-off Dezolisians, no lying or price hikes, just a normal conversation," he grinned, "Better than talking to a cat, eh? In fact... I think we should try it out."
 +
 +"What... right now? Just go down to Dezolis?"
 +
 +"The booze is better than recycled crap they serve up here. Dezolisians like their liquor hard," he said authoritatively, "You were gonna just hang around the bar anyway, with the same old people, about the same old things. I know you. Maybe you can chat up a Dezolisian lady."
 +
 +"Hal... do you even know how to tell which ones are female?" he sighed.
 +
 +He shrugged, "Maybe you could ask for me."
 +
 +"Yeah, because that always goes down so well as a chat-up line," he said, "Look, I'm married. And Dezolis is cold in the evening. Very cold. And you don't even like Motavians, what makes you think you'll get on with Dezolisians?"
 +
 +"Dezolisians don't smell of garbage. Tell you what, if you agree to this, I'll let you borrow my Magic Cap for as long as you like," he said, "And I know mine works. I use it on my Orangoo. It was the most boring conversation I ever had in my life."
 +
 +Trust Hal to choose one of the apes, thought Edoald, "I guess it'd be more interesting. Especially if it works. But, Hal... if you get me frozen to death, or we get drunk and fall into a snowdrift, or get some kind of Dezolisian holy war declared against us... you're paying the clone lab bills."
 +
 +"It's a deal. Life's no fun if there aren't clone lab bills involved," he declared, before yawning, stretching and wandering off straight through the queue. Edoald swore again and started off after him.
 +
 +Normally, he knew better than to take Hal up on stupid plans, but something had come over him, some strange kind of insanity. Maybe he was still spooked by the botched conversation with his cat, and was still expecting things to be slightly surreal. Maybe it was the atmosphere of Skure, second only to a space station at the best of times, and somehow worse than usual at the moment. Lately, he had felt like he needed to get out of the mining complex at all costs. It was a sudden urge that rose quickly, and it hit him at random times. It wasn't anything definable, just a shift in the mood that he felt was going to bad at any minute, like the way Hal knew when an argument in the bar was going to turn into a full-on brawl, except that he didn't then immediately run towards the trouble on purpose.
 +
 +Speaking of trouble, the protesters were back. It looked as though it was going to turn nasty - a unit of Spectre-class robots had been released and were warily patrolling the Ryuon entrance to Skure, positioning themselves between the gates and the potential rioters. As well as the usual cans of red paint, placards and shouted slogans, he could see some of the protesters pick up rocks, jagged pieces of piping and even makeshift fire-bombs, organising themselves to use their sheer weight of numbers and determination to press an assault. He didn't see why they bothered. They would never get past the androids, those Spectres were almost military class, they would most likely get people killed. It wasn't like there was even anything worth protesting over. They weren't defacing the natural landscape of Dezolis; there was nothing on Dezolis for entire continents except huge stretches of snow and ice, arid plains or enormous jagged mountains, all of which were indestructible, sparsely populated and lethal to explorers. Skure had created thousands of jobs and the Laconia they mined, a near indestructible metal that could be used in weapons, storage containers and cooking pots alike, was indispensably useful. It wasn't even sponsored by an Evil Corporation; the mining operation had been organised directly by Motherbrain. Not that most of the protesters liked Motherbrain, but they couldn't seriously expect to overthrow the computer system that controlled an entire solar system by throwing rocks at the door of a Laconia mine.
 +
 +Most of all, it occurred to Edoald that none of the people protesting against the Unnatural And Despicable Invasion Of Dezolis were actually native Dezolisians - and he knew all too well that Dezolisians could be vindictive bastards when they wanted to be.
 +
 +Of course, he might also be a little tempted away from Skure by the Dezolisian landscape. He had to admit there was something profoundly beautiful about the snowy plateau, with its crystals of ice that refracted in the soft rays of the sun, which was unnervingly smaller in the sky than it was on Motavia. Whatever you did in Dezolis, the snow covered it every time you left, erasing all evidence that you had ever existed. Sometimes the wind would pick up and all you could see was a curtain of fine snow that slowly covered an already endless white landscape. Hal had been true to his word in getting him some decent cold weather gear, at least, and his boots made deep imprints as he plodded through the snow, huddled in the Eletusk fur lining of his parka.
 +
 +No Palman had ever seen an actual Dezolisian settlement, and the aliens had made it clear that the intruders would never be invited into one of their homes, but there were Palman settlements springing up as more and more Palmans had reasons to stay longer and longer on the ice planet. The miners didn't really have time to leave Skure but there were scientists, explorers, Laconia merchants and Laconia smiths, the occasional person who couldn't live on Motavia any more because Motherbrain didn't like them. The settlements were based a few miles away from the exits from Skure and gave an ordered feel to the map of known Dezolis. Ryuon was in the south-east quadrant.
 +
 +The place to meet Dezolisians in a Palman town, as everyone knew, was the marketplace or the bar. Or possibly the jail. Dezolisians came to towns like Ryuon initially to see what the fuss was about, because they were curious as to why new towns full of alien species making a horrendous din were suddenly popping up out of nowhere, then to trade with the Laconia merchants and to enjoy strong drinks and awful jokes. Most of the bars in the four major Palmans towns on Dezolis already served Dezolisian spirits bought from the locals for large amounts of money. They either looked like water and could be used to remove Skure's new paint job from the outer walls or they looked and tasted like congealed, fermented Eletusk-milk butter and were probably made out of just that. While they weren't widely loved, Palmans were at least curious enough to try them once. Abion's was one of the larger bars in Ryuon. It looked functional and designed to last, but temporary enough that they couldn't afford comforts, as mining and frontier towns didn't last all that long; it had steel corrugated walls and large ceiling fans, blue neon strip-lighting and furniture that was easy to wipe down and difficult to pick up and throw. Hal immediately winked at a girl as he walked in; Edo tried to pointedly ignore both of them. He had spotted a group of twelve Dezolisians at their own table near the bar, talking loudly in their flowing, high-pitched, sing-song language that involved lots of finger-waving gestures. Something was apparently extremely funny.
 +
 +He found himself already starting to understand words here and there. It was an odd experience; he could hear the words overlapping with the translation just as he could still hear the cat meow when the hat turned the noises into words. It was distracting, like two people talking to him at once, but his mind was managing to adjust already, comprehending one fully and ignoring the other. However, in the time he had taken to realise what was happening and adjust to it, he had lost awareness of his environment. He had been standing there staring directly at the Dezolisians for five minutes and now they were beginning to notice. The white-robed one with the tall hat, the one that was acting like a leader to the group, regarded him with coal-black pupils under the slit-thin gaps of lazy eyelids. His leathery green-skinned face looked as though he was studying him hard, his brow furrowed. Suddenly self-conscious, Edoald looked sharply away and tried to appear casual as he joined Hal at the bar.
 +
 +"Try the firewater," suggested Hal, "Kicks like a Rappy, and you can taste it once you get used to it, honest."
 +
 +"Sure," muttered Edoald, and swiped his card against the holder. 500 Meseta: a rip-off for a drink he couldn't even taste and would probably make him blind. He downed it anyway. It sort of tasted good on the way down, and it took the edge off the cold: the name was certainly fitting.
 +
 +"There are Dezos over there," said Hal, motioning with his eyes.
 +
 +"Yeah, I saw."
 +
 +"And...?"
 +
 +"I think it's working. I'm certainly picking up something."
 +
 +"Go on then, what are they saying?"
 +
 +"I can't hear it from here with this much noise." It didn't sound like trade. There weren't enough big numbers involved, and they weren't arguing vehemently enough about it.
 +
 +"Can you at least tell if they're girls?"
 +
 +He shrugged. Their voices were all the same pitch and their appearance was, to his alien eye at least, identical: tall and spindly to a degree that was extreme by Palman standards but not unthinkable, completely hairless, with leathery green skin and very flat facial features. They also dressed for survival, not to accentuate their features, in long, fur-lined robes and either fur-lined leather caps or infeasibly tall hats, both of which covered up most of their head.
 +
 +"Hal, I don't think they're even mammals. They look like frogs," he said, "They probably can't mate with Palmans. We probably don't even look like people to them, we're just weird animals that happen to be intelligent."
 +
 +"Don't you want to test that theory out? C'mon, it's what we came here for," he said, "Unless you're too scared."
 +
 +"I'm just a little nervous," he said.
 +
 +"Well, buy another drink. And buy them a drink. That always makes people talk," he grinned.
 +
 +"Tightwad, it's your idea, you buy the drinks!"
 +
 +"But then it won't be you buying them a drink."
 +
 +Edoald sighed and swiped his card again. It was a sign of the times that a frontier town like Ryuon had a functioning link to the universal credit system, as well as a medical centre, a clone lab, a data memory centre and even a teleport bay. Everything had worked straight away, and the signal from Motherbrain was as perfect as it was on Motavia. He wouldn't be at all surprised if the first time someone talked their way into a native Dezolisian settlement, they all turned out to have their own clone labs and teleport bays. Actually, Edoald imagined them as steppe nomads, wandering the icy wastelands with laptops and visiphones.
 +
 +Steeling himself, he put the drinks on a tray and walked over to the table. He wasn't sure what it was about the way they looked at him that made him so nervous. Maybe it was that they were paying any attention to him at all. They were acting as if they had already spotted him a long way off, like thieves identifying an easy mark. He wouldn't be an easy mark, to walk passively into whatever the hell Dezolisians plotted to do to people; he would meet them head on.
 +
 +He could see as he came closer that the leader kept their eyes on him, following him around the room with his alien gaze, and now the others were beginning to notice him too. The leader opened his mouth and said a few words that he managed to pick up.
 +
 +"... Trouble must be about to start soon than I expected."
 +
 +"I know, but we should keep away. They have to find their own way through it."
 +
 +"That one looks likely, though, don't you think? There's something different about him. I can feel it in his *untranslatable concept, closest analogue: a soul, spirit or ghost that exists in the form of a flame* - that there's something left in him that can endure when he has to leave the nest."
 +
 +One of them peered at him closer, the one in the black robes and matching tall hat. Oh hell, they really are talking about me, he realised. His heart wanted to run away from the situation that had gotten so weird, his head wanted to be stubborn, to refuse to back down from Hal's challenge, but all they could manage was to balance each other out and be frozen in place, everything dark except the Dezolisians staring at him, like some perverse cinema, "So sad to meet them again, when they're so doomed."
 +
 +"But it's necessary. There's a sickness in them that needs to be *untranslatable concept, closest analogue: a wound in the soul or in history that is cauterised with flame; also, to purge with a holy flame* - and history hasn't repeated itself for so long. Some things fall off the wheel when it turns."
 +
 +"We've always helped before..."
 +
 +"He's not the one we need to be helping. He's not the *untranslatable concept, closest analogue: a historical figure who has appeared again later in history, the ancestors of a historical figure who perform the same role again*, he's just the first we've seen who is going to survive."
 +
 +"So, we need to keep looking?"
 +
 +"It's possible that things won't go the same any more. I don't think we should be so open about it. She is watching..."
 +
 +"You know, I think that one over there understands what we are saying," said the first, causing him to flinch.
 +
 +"It's hard to tell. He doesn't look like he understands much of anything. The aliens are very weird. Their faces are so squishy, and their mouth changes so much. How can anyone understand what emotions they are conveying? And they say rude things, and demand massive discounts on such expensive luxury goods..."
 +
 +"But we do need to learn more about them," he said, "Especially when they *untranslatable concept, closest analogue: to enter a new era in history*, so we don't have to *untranslatable concept, closest analogue: a societal and/or religious shunning*."
 +
 +"I feel uncomfortable being stared at. She will come. We will leave, now. The ones we need won't come here. We will ask for assistance from *untranslatable concept, closest analogue: priest, person of power, *seditious concept censored**."
 +
 +Then his faulty hat started beeping loudly and atonally, directly into his ears. He was broken from the trance instantly. He almost dropped his tray, so he slammed it down on the nearest table, spilling two of the drinks. Swearing loudly, he grabbed the hat and wrenched it from his head. It gave him a small electric shock and a short lecture about incorrectly shutting down the machinery. The clasp broke under his desperate tearings, then he threw it down onto the slightly sticky floor, now making the same noises at him out loud.
 +
 +It was only when he put the tray on the table and looked up, did he realise that the party of Dezolisians had left and were already heading out of the front door. As it slammed shut with a clang, he realised that nobody should be able to move that distance at such a speed unseen, never mind a group of twelve.
 +
 +Hal glared at him; the woman started laughing and told him that she would be happy for him to join in the night she had been planning for Hal, although she was a little disappointed there wouldn't any Dezolisian double dates involved.
 +
 +"I'm heading back to Skure," said Edoald, draining the second drink.
 +
 +"Don't be like that! We have hours left until sundown! Who's gonna finish all those drinks?"
 +
 +"You can have them. You owe me for them, though," he muttered, before leaving the bar himself. He could hear Hal protesting as he slammed the door shut but he no longer cared. Maybe it was the drink - he should have known not to underestimate Dezolisian spirits - but he felt a surge of strong emotions building within him. He was angry at Hal for wasting his time, angry and humiliated at himself for looking like an idiot in public, paranoid about the Dezolisians that could even now be watching him and strangely sorrowful, as though he had lost something important. The words had been incomprehensible for him, even the ones that the Mogic Cap had been able to translate, and they had sounded important, both powerful and critical to the future, the kind of words that didn't get said any more. He wished he had time to ask for an explanation, wished he had the guts to even walk up to them and talk to them. Most of all, the feeling of wrongness in the very air had returned. Something was going to go very wrong and he was too drunk to retreat from it like a sensible person instead of stubbornly going ahead with what he had planned to do.
 +
 +The weather in itself was getting dangerous. It was beginning to get darker and colder and the wind was picking up again. He could barely see far enough in front of him to know where he was putting his hands. The lingering effects of the firewater gave everything a slightly fuzzy, blurry veil. Imaginary shadows flitted in and out of his vision like phantoms. He thought he saw the Dezolisians mocking him, or maybe Hal still chasing after him. He heard the cries of wild animals, Elephants or maybe Dezo Owls, over the mournful howl of the biting wind. He saw smaller animal shapes darting through the snow, quickly hiding themselves in the banks. Mechanical noises shook the ground beneath his feet as well, both the enormous drills of the mining system and the androids that served Skure, tiny in comparison but still twice a Palman's size. He thought he heard heavy weapon fire, motorcannons and micro-missiles; had it gone so badly with the protesters?
 +
 +Then he saw the first of them.
 +
 +He had thought them to be one of the small Dezolisian animals, until it sprung out of the snow upon seeing him instead of darting for cover from what they recognised as a large and intelligent predator. It tensed, sniffed the air and stared in his direction with soulless pink eyes before chittering and baring its sharp teeth. A rabbit, one of the pets on sale. They must have finally managed to escape from the complex. He didn't really think it would take that long before someone slipped up, the guard robot on duty malfunctioned and one of the critters just got lucky. It probably wasn't just one of them; they were probably producing more of them right now, and in under a week, Dezolis would be overrun with creepy-eyed fluffy bitey rodents. Rabbits were indigenous to Dezolis anyway, so it wouldn't be that disastrous to the local ecosystem, they would probably get bred out by wild rabbits or exterminated by Motherbrain. The only real worry was that they would transmit new diseases that only existed on Skure, but Edo wasn't sure if such a thing existed and he imagined there was probably a policy about it.
 +
 +"Go away, you're freaking me out," he snarled, advancing towards it and hoping it had the intelligence to run away from him. It was only when it had already sprung at him, a dervish of teeth and claws that screeched like a fiend of the lowest Hells, that he could see it clearly enough to realise that it wasn't an ordinary rabbit and hadn't been one for a long time now.
 +
 +It was the rotting carcass of a rabbit still imbued with life, blood matting its ragged fur, bones and entrails showing where something had been eating away at it. Its eyes glowed red, not the usual pink, and blood-speckled froth trickled from its mouth.
 +
 +Screaming, he instinctively swung a fist at the demonic rabbit. The punch connected with a sickening crunch, hurling the rabbit back down into the snow, a trail of blood showing where its body had ploughed a trench. That won't stop it for long, he realised. It had already died once. For all he knew, it might not be able to die any more, not until he had burned it to ashes and locked the ashes inside a small metal box and thrown the box into the deepest mine shaft. He drew his hunting knife - everyone kept light weapons on them these days, especially in a hostile place like Dezolis - and dropped into a combat stance, waiting for the next assault.
 +
 +Then he thought, what the hell am I thinking? Is my brain so alcohol-addled that I've accepted this as my new reality within only five minutes? Pet rabbits don't come back to life as zombies and try to kill people! There was a perfectly reasonable explanation. Maybe a Dezo Owl had spotted it and torn a hole in it, and it somehow survived through luck and adrenaline. A domestic rabbit wouldn't know how to keep hidden from predators. Driven mad by pain and fear, it had attacked anything that moved while it found a nice place to die. The adrenaline had given it unusual strength for a rabbit. He was unlucky, and rabbits probably knew how much he hated them by some primal instinct. That was all. There were no such things as demon zombie rabbits.
 +
 +Then he heard soft plops from all around him, and he saw five more of them. They were surrounding them. He could tell by the way they moved, like a pack of Flarewolves, that they were perfectly aware and intelligent and they were deliberately hunting down a prey that was larger than them, but that they could overwhelm through sheer numbers. All delusions that this was a natural phenomenon were shattered, along with his morale. Swinging at the first rabbit to clear a path, he ran for it.
 +
 +They hounded him as he ran, snapping at his heels, occasionally catching up and giving him a nasty slice with their wickedly sharp claws before he managed to kick them away. Please don't let zombie rabbit disease be infectious and transmitted through bites, he prayed to any deity that would listen to a foolish and blasphemous miner.
 +
 +I have to get to Skure, he thought. Whatever's going on here, the rest have to be warned about it. Or if they already know, he'd still be safer there. The drones would get it under control. Anywhere would be better than the Dezolis wilderness, with things like this after him. There were hundreds of small tracks that crossed through trails of blood, going every which way but all leading out into the snow. The gunfire was growing louder and more heavily concentrated. The drones must have spotted the rabbits by now...
 +
 +In his blind panic, he tripped over a cooling pipe that was half-covered by the snow, leading out of Skure to one of the nearby annexe buildings. The mistake saved his life. A spray of machine gun fire tore across the space where he had been, bursting the pipe and sending out a shower of coolant fluid. One of the Cooley-61 androids that had fired at him was hit full in its head. Sparks flew from its inner workings and it staggered back, still firing wildly even though it no longer had optical sensors or targeting systems. Two of the rabbits were caught as well, freezing them instantly. Trying to ignore the growing pain in his leg, Edo crawled away from the malfunctioning android that had even now activated its auto-repair system, aiming to hide behind one of the pillars that held the front end of Skure off the ground, then make a dash for the stairs. A light flickered in the robot's left eye and it began firing at the first target it found; the pack of rabbits that surrounded it, sniffing as they tried to find its weak spot. Just his luck; the one time he actually needed to speak to one of the robots instead of it just being a hindrance, it was so faulty that it was firing at staff members.
 +
 +From behind the stilt, he had a better view of the scene, and he realised that assumption had been wrong too. The situation was much worse than he had imagined.
 +
 +It was a scene of utter carnage. Human bodies were strewn everywhere, hit by missiles or railcannons, or torn apart by the packs of rabbits that were feeding on them even now. By the looks of it, the robots had fired on the protesters first but they hadn't gone out without a fight; there were burnt-out shells of robots, even a Specter, that had their processing units torn out with bladed weapons and thrown explosives. At some point, the human security staff came out to see what the problem was, only to find themselves also fired at. There were bloodstains all over the front door, which had been wedged open using a destroyed Gun Bust robot. There had been a desperate retreat and the facility hadn't automatically sealed up to stop the invaders. There were still the sounds of gunfire and screaming, as well as other sounds, sounds not made by a human or any machine or animal Edo had ever heard.
 +
 +Edo had no doubt, now, that Skure had become Hell on Earth. No, not even that; a Hell on an alien world, with horrors he had never thought possible. Once he stepped inside, he was going to find worse. But he had to go in, nonetheless. The only way off the planet, the regular space shuttle from Motavia to Skure, was in the centre of the complex so that it could serve all visitors to all quadrants of Dezolis. Convenient, handy for stopping illegal immigrants, but a nightmare if you ever needed to evacuate Skure. Of course, there would be no reason to need to evacuate Skure. Everything in the plant was strictly under Motherbrain's control and was incapable of going wrong. The security measures were only a precaution for extremely unlikely situations, and to reassure people. I've lied to my wife and child, thought Edoald, neither of them are ever going to forgive me. There was a chance he wouldn't be able to go home and own up to what he had done. If everything else could malfunction, why would the shuttle be working? What was to stop the robots from tearing up the room in a frenzy of bullets, along with everyone who tried to escape? He had to try, though. There was no sense in dying here like rats in a trap, or letting them hunt him down in the middle of a snow field in Dezolis. If there was any chance of survival, he had to go towards it. At least the shuttle was part of Motavia's computer system, not Skure's.
 +
 +He heard a loud explosion from behind him and he instinctively threw himself to the floor. Flaming wreckage landed at his feet. Where the robot been, there was nothing left but strips of charred scrap metal. The rabbits had managed to confuse the robot by surrounding it and jumping in and out of its blind spot, then chewed through something vital. If they could destroy a ten foot tall humanoid mining robot with claws for hands and shoulder-mounted explosive launchers, even a faulty one, they would make short work of him. Staying low, he scampered for the stairs, which had been torn off their casing but not completely collapsed, then he hauled himself up them, using them like a thick metal rope with convenient footholds. They swayed and creaked and his heart lurched. If they didn't hold, he would be deposited right in the middle of a screeching horde of rabbits that were already snapping at the bottom of the rope, clamping their teeth around it, disturbingly close to figuring out how to climb it. With a final shoulder-wrenching pull, he hauled himself up to the top of the staircase. He began to step over the Gun Bust but then withdrew his foot sharply when it twitched, its light blinking feebly. The motion almost pitched him over the edge of the staircase so he grabbed the closest object for balance.
 +
 +It was a cable leading to a display terminal. The monitor had been wrenched halfway out of its fixture on the wall but could still hold his weight, for the few seconds he needed to pull himself back onto the platform, and was still operational. It was flashing red, the sign for a major emergency. He could hear in the distance that the klaxons were blaring for an evacuation. The code symbol that blinked on and off the screen was for a biohazard; more specifically, a poisonous gas leak.
 +
 +He hit the touch-operated display to get more information. First of all, he brought up a map to show which areas were affected. The immediate answer was: all of Skure. Every single room in every sector.
 +
 +Poison gas could spread quickly but the complex was designed to seal the doors even faster if there was a leak. However, he suspected the systems hadn't activated. It didn't make sense for there to be a gas leak at all, especially one that could affect so many of the pets. For any normal poison, the chemical analysis systems would have identified it and activated systems to disperse it and inoculate all the mining staff before they went anywhere near the mines. However, this was the first mining operation on Dezolis, so of course the systems had no data on poisons that would be resident underground in Dezolis, they could only try and extrapolate from what they knew about the hazards of Motavian mines and biochemistry in general. The system's archive was vast but, upon request, the computer had been unable to identify the poison. It was a new element, something that had just now been discovered on Dezolis the hard way. The computer only knew that everyone in the base was dying, dropping like flies, and that the chemical analysis had revealed only that it was a gas. Edo guessed that it probably caused some kind of wasting disease, one that rotted away organs from the inside in humans and did a lot more damage to smaller animals, and that was what happened to the rabbits to make them look like zombies. Some poisons were nasty like that. At least they weren't really zombies.
 +
 +He wasn't sure if he trusted what the system had to say. Even if the system had genuinely not known about the poison, it could only have come from a vent in the rock, and the mines were environmentally sealed off from the upper sections of the complex. Had anything managed to leak into the complex - maybe because of a sudden failure in the environmental systems - there were other emergency systems. The cabins of the machines had gas shields on them and there were boxes with gas masks in them next to the fire extinguishers. The maintenance robots could all fix gas leaks. The system could have done something. And poison gas wouldn't make security robots go haywire and start murdering humans. For so much to have gone wrong in such a short space of time, practically every system in Skure must have malfunctioned at once. He could explain away zombie rabbits but he couldn't think of a single thing that could explain the madness inside Skure, durable, unhackable, Skure, directly connected to motherbrain at the lowest level, designed to withstand anything an inhospitable alien planet could throw at it.
 +
 +A thought occurred to him; if someone knew about the gas already and had time to write about it, they might have had time to pick up a gas mask. He peered down over the rail and saw that the guards were wearing full gas masks, not combat helmets as he initially assumed they were. Some of them looked obviously chewed and the rabbits were making occasional attempts to make holes in others as they fed on the corpses. He didn't want to jump down there among them but he wanted to be in Skure without a gas mask even less. Die a horrible, almost certain death or die a slightly less certain but slightly more horrible death; it was a crappy decision to have to make, but a necessary one, and putting it off would just mean that one of the choices would end up being selected for him by the will of the Gods. And he had heard from the PR department that the Dezolisians worshipped some pretty nasty Gods and were pretty fanatical about their worship. This was probably a fairly normal Hell to them. Maybe it happened all the time on Dezolis.
 +
 +"Computer," he asked, his voice coming out in rags, adrenaline making it difficult to breathe, "Please show me the escape shuttle room. Does the shuttle still work? Is it still there?"
 +
 +CRITICAL SYSTEMS ERROR. SHUTTING DOWN, read the sign on the terminal. Then he heard the familiar low drones and whirrs of a Gun Bust starting up, seconds before he was pitched over the edge of the balcony. The balcony's subsequent collapse was the only thing that stopped the robot filling him with holes; a series of large dents thudded into the underside of the falling balcony. It landed railing-side up. If it hadn't, he would have been crushed underneath it seconds after being saved by it. However, its protruding from the ground above him meant that it failed to destroy any rabbits on its way down. Apart from the one he had landed on, they were all staring at him like an unwelcome stranger in a bar, twitching their noses and emitting a thin, shrill wail, their blood-red eyes flashing. He had their undivided attention.
 +
 +He had vowed only to face the rabbit pack in order to acquire a gas mask, so he ran straight for the nearest one. A rabbit that stank of rotten flesh jumped at him, slicing with both its claws, and he only barely managed to swing his arm around in time to ram a knife into its throat. Those times where bar brawls had gone ugly, or he had walked up the wrong alley after closing time in the Residential District, were paying off. He regretted the names he called Hal, the way he had blamed him for all the trouble they got into. That last stupid trip to Dezolis was the only thing that had stopped him being on Skure when the whole thing went down. His cat would probably have eaten his body after he succumbed to the gas.
 +
 +"FOI!" he screamed, thrusting forward his outstretched hand. His vision was bathed in red and a splitting headache hit him. Then his hand glowed with a red aura like a piece of Laconia from the forge - it felt as though someone was hitting it with a hammer too - and a gout of flame erupted from it, setting the nearest rabbit on fire and causing it to screech and ran straight into another rabbit. The pain made him want to throw up, but it was better than dying. He hated techniques. He was lousy at them. He only knew them because they were a compulsory module in the Skure work training programme: Res for basic first aid and Foi for self-defence. Foi was a bad idea down a mine, but so was any alternative, and at least a complete beginner with no psychic talent whatsoever could be taught Foi.
 +
 +The pains in his arms, legs and shoulders where he had been bitten told him that Res would be a good idea as well, just as soon as he could relax for five seconds without being eaten by a rabbit. Now wasn't the time; it was time to keep running, grab a mask, try not to look at the marks on the body he lifted it from, then keep running and find a way into Skure.
 +
 +The first gas mask he grabbed, it pulled away from the chewed body too easily. The straps had been gnawed through in order to gnaw at the face underneath; the rabbits were learning fast. He threw it in disgust at the first rabbit to catch up with him, bowling the dementedly chittering rodent over and frantically scrabbling around in the pile of corpses for another. The next one resisted when he pulled, and he had to pause to remove it. It meant a little less space between him and the rabbits but it was worth it for a fair chance at longer term survival. As he bent down, he caught sight of something else that gave him just a tiny spark of hope: an opening in the side of the wall, where a panel had been pried off the armour plating to leave a jagged hole. At first he was afraid it had been made by one of the rabbits, that their teeth could chew through metal, but they seemed to be avoiding the hole. They mostly scuttled in and out of the main entrance, although there was now an angry Gun Bust in the way, firing at anything that moved. Most of them were staying out of its way but an increasing number of them had stopped and were watching it, trying to learn the pattern of its erratic fire, trying to discern its weak spot. Edoald, the lone surviving Palman, was no longer the most interesting thing on the battlefield outside Skure.
 +
 +Of course, other things could have made a hole like that – most notably, an out of control mining robot – but Edoald didn't care any more. It was a way inside that wasn't obviously a suicide charge. He scrambled for the entrance and climbed inside.
 +
 +Darkness. It was better than tiny, unblinking red eyes like the laser sight of a sniper rifle. He was in a narrow corridor somewhere underneath the floor of the Skure-Ryuon main passageway, possibly a maintenance hatch, ventilation shaft or garbage chute. He hoped it wasn't a garbage chute; those led to the incinerator. All around him, he heard the vital sounds of the behemoth organism that was Skure: low hums, whooshes and scattered beeps, punctuated by an unearthly rattling, hammering noise that shook the ground,  and the occasional scheduled-sounding explosion. Whatever had happened to Skure, it hadn't shut the facility down. Now that was something he couldn't ever imagine: Skure falling silent. It sounded a little subdued compared to usual, possibly a little more chaotic. In his completely inexpert opinion as a doctor, Skure was definitely very sick.
 +
 +He continued crawling for a long time, bathed in an inky darkness that almost felt like sleep and was bringing his weary, overstretched body and mind perilously close to its sweet succour, and to its big sister, Death. It was warm here, and peaceful. He hadn't expected a place where the life support systems didn't bother regulating the temperature for Palmans to be warmer. He couldn't tell which direction he was heading in any more, or for how long, or whether there was anything around him. When he checked his pocket for his Recorder, he found that he didn't have them, or the pocket where they had been, only a large tear in his trousers and a smear of blood down it from a wound he was too tired to feel any more. The rabbits had probably found a way to eat it by now. He had always hated the Recorders they gave you in Skure on away missions, the cheapest and most primitive handheld communication devices they could possibly get away with, that didn't even wire up to Data Memory. At least they had a compass and a clock, and you could call up your workmates in an emergency. They were such basic amenities these days, you never thought about how screwed you were when they failed. Well, he did, because he was unusually paranoid, but he hadn't seriously expected them to fail. He noticed every single thing that was wrong with Motherbrain technology, including how dependent on it you got, but he never expected it to actually let him down at a crucial moment. He supposed that even Motherbrain couldn't predict emergencies involving alien zombie cannibal rabbit plagues.
 +
 +If he had time to look for his Recorder, he had time to sit down, breathe a little more normally and use Res on his wounds before he psychically exhausted himself. As he began the tedious process of telekinetically healing himself, he thought about this a little more: Motherbrain failing you. It wasn't the sort of thing you were allowed to think about. It would be like thinking about what would drive him to kill his workmates and what wouldn't, and whether he would eat their corpses if he was starving. He wondered if this was one of the stories they told you about, when desperate or surreal situations made you think in ways that you never dreamed you would be capable of: or maybe this had been part of him all along, and he was only now facing it head on. He found himself thinking about the anti-Motherbrain terrorists you heard about in the news: the real nasty cases, not the idiots with the  paint cans, but the ones who sabotaged things like Climatrol and the Central Dam floodgates and who could probably hold their own against a Gun Bust or a Cooley-61 even though there were only eight of them. Their leader's name was Rolf, and there were rumours that he knew where Motherbrain was and had planned to destroy civilisation itself. Edoald, like any normal person, had always believed that Rolf must be a truly psychotic, twisted individual, and was afraid that little Leilwyn would meet someone like that one day. Now that there was nothing to see but his own thoughts, where the only noise was that of the bowels of a hungry, diseased, insane machine and the only feeling in his body was a dulled pain, he found himself growing in realisation.
 +
 +He empathised with Rolf.
 +
 +He did not feel like a modern-day Palman, connected to Motherbrain and civilisation. Although having the wires wrenched out of him was as painful as being a storage device incorrectly disconnected from a USB port when the computer was switched on, he was dangerously close to not wanting to be reconnected. And that was just one more missing rung on the broken ladder that you fell down: not wanting there to be a Motherbrain, wanting something sudden and permanent and violent to happen to a Motherbrain. He didn't want that yet – it might result in harm to his wife and child – but he could see what could lead a man down that route. He was like a bird that realised its cage door was open and so was the window, but could also hear the cry of hawks in the skies. But he had also seen rabbits overpower a heavy-duty security android, so he could imagine birds taking down a hawk, if there were enough birds and not enough hawks, and something changed in the birds as it had to the rabbits.
 +
 +He couldn't call himself an ordinary person any more, and he found that it didn't bother him at all.
 +
 +An unbearable itching told him that his last wound had closed up, so he rolled over to his forward-crawling position and carried on in the direction he remembered as being counter-rabbitwards. The increase in the noise – although it was still too quiet – told him that it was also closer to the hub and the mines. He crawled on for another indeterminate length of time, then he was relieved to find that he could stand up. The tunnel was narrowing into a small maintenance room, barely bigger than a storage cupboard.
 +
 +Then he was moving sharply straight upward, as though he was in a lift, except that lifts didn't grab you with their strong hairy arms and hoist you into the air while whooping a victory cry.
 +
 +Edoald screamed and pulled himself back just as a furry, almost human face lunged out at him, sharp saliva-flecked teeth bared, breath smelling of bloody fur and rotting meat. It was hard to make it out clearly through the gas mask but he knew exactly what it was. He managed to wrench one of his hands free from the creature's grasp. Screeching its frustration, it made another grab for him, its jaw snapping shut in thin air. He had already reached for the knife at his belt and was stabbing at the orang-utan's other hand that now held his wrist in a death grip. It screamed and dropped him hard onto the floor below. He darted out of the door as soon as he hit the ground.
 +
 +It's cry had set off a cascade of answering screeches and hollers: there were a lot more of them up there than the one who had attacked him. They were scrabbling towards him, clattering off the walls in the tunnel above his head, calling out to each other to inform each other where the prey had gone. There were more, somewhere further away from him, moving towards him. He could just hear their footsteps. It was impossible to tell how many of them there were altogether, only that it was enough to outnumber and overwhelm him.
 +
 +He hadn't thought about the orang-utans. In his initial fear of the rabbits, which he had always known would turn on him some day, and his worrying about his cat, who didn't deserve a fate like this, no matter how many insults it hurled at him whenever his Magic Hat malfunctioned, he had forgotten the orang-utans even existed, never mind that they could also have been turned into killers. That was why the rabbits hadn't been using this tunnel; they had detected another predator in there, one larger and more intelligent than them. Prey wasn't scarce enough to intrude into the domain of something that belonged a little higher on the food chain yet.
 +
 +Inside the Maintenance District of Skure, the kind of resigned despair that was the aftermath of panic reigned. The area had been locked down, and the display terminals along the walls flashed on and off, so that the only lighting of the room was a pulsing neon red. The systems didn't expect anyone to be foolish enough to remain here; the order to evacuate had been given hours ago. One of the terminals had been torn off the wall by a Cooley-61 and there were jagged rents made by its mining claw, the size of a human arm, in the other wall. It had shorted out as a result of whatever made it randomly tear apart the corridor, and its lifeless husk had been left on the floor in the middle of the corridor, grey smoke pouring listlessly out of its bear-trap of a mouth. Edoald didn't trust it to actually be damaged beyond recovery, so he ran past it. Arrows lit up on the terminals to direct any remaining personnel towards the evacuation shuttle, alternating with an overall map of the facility. He wanted to stop and memorise the map a little more but as soon as he heard another simian screech, he carried on running in the direction indicated by the arrow.
 +
 +He reached a crossroads between four of the corridors in the maze where Skure was maintained quietly in the background - the place he had always called the 'rabbit's warren', but that particular joke didn't seem as funny any more. It was normally so busy he couldn't stand still without being run over by a Heavy Solid or a technician with a trolley and a clipboard. The only Palmans he saw were corpses on the floor, four of them in a corner. They looked as though they had tried to fight back against whatever killed them, probably a robot, although one of them had no marks of injury on him at all. He looked like a medic, and had been hiding behind the others. Physically weaker than the average miner, he had succumbed to the gas first. At least it didn't mutate Palmans. He didn't see any weapons apart from knives like his own and a laser rifle that was flashing its 'no charge left' light, although he pocketed a couple of dimates that the team hadn't been able to use on time. A few drops of blood had managed to hit the display terminal above their heads but Edoald could still tell which way the arrow was pointing, so he followed it, noting that the trail of destruction was leading in the same direction.
 +
 +Halfway down the corridor, the clamour of the orang-utans above him had died down - there must not have been tunnels above that particular corridor - but another sound drew his attention: a loud clanking and whirring, followed by an announcement, in a flat tone:
 +
 +'Target identified: Edoald Lisle, Sector 2B Mine Worker. Guilty of multiple accounts of level 1 security violations. Initiating disciplinary measures.'
 +
 +"Hey, it was just a joke!" complained Edoald as he threw himself out of the way of the inevitable laser cannon beam even before the Aerotank's gun slot opened and swivelled around. Speed and stealth weren't their strong points - they were for heavy artillery fire and welding. It struck him as ironic that, even as everything was going insane around him, as therapeutic pets became rabid killers and machines programmed to keep lifesaving equipment running and protect Skure from terrorists became indiscriminate war machines, he found the one thing in the whole complex that was still working, and wanted to kill him for the same reason that it wanted to kill him before the accident, a reason that was all his own fault.
 +
 +The beam had melted the far door of the corridor, so he didn't wait around to be tormented by his guilty conscience. He darted beneath the Aerotank, hoping that the rumour about them not being able to shoot straight downwards was true. That Aerotank normally patrolled the Communications District, so if it was really still working and it was where it was supposed to be, the corridor would lead out into Communications. The robots didn't tend to dock too far from where they worked.
 +
 +"Cease and desist! Resisting will only result in greater charges!" the Aerotank informed him as he rolled underneath it and scrambled for the door. Its lower rail gun swivelled around and sprayed the floor behind him, barely missing him. It tried to turn its laser cannon around as well, but the angle resulted in it hitting the ceiling above him. He heard a series of thumps as the ceiling began to fall in on it, then a cacophony of screeches. Suddenly, the loud report of its distorted voice became more frantic, repeating itself over and over, as it addressed each of the screeching, hooting animals that surrounded it, trying to pull its armour plating off it while avoid its wild shots. The door fell over, but Edoald was already at the end of the next corridor along. The sign on the far door told him that he was entering the Communications District and he should take care not to cause too much noise with trolleys or heavy machinery, and that robots should adjust their volume levels too, so as not to conflict with any of the communications equipment.
 +
 +As he opened the door, it met with some resistance, and when he threw his weight against it, one hand closing over the handle of his knife, something heavy fell away with a wet thud. A human body; someone had tried to run for the door and had been cut down from behind by something with sharp claws. An orang-utan, Edoald judged by the size of the wounds. He saw other bodies, a lot more than in the Maintenance District, some of them slumped halfway out of the soundproof doors that lined the corridors, each communication booths with the Visiphones or the Data Memory terminals, others of them with weapons drawn. Edoald flinched every time he thought he saw a gingery-tinged shadow flit from one body to the next like a ghoul, or something smaller and white, or the small red systems light of a robot reflected from around the corner. One of the lights, punctuated by a low beep, came from a room with a door propped open by a corpse. It had been Motavian, with an axe in one hand, and four orang-utan corpses lay strewn around it, one of them beheaded. Motavians always were dangerous when roused, although it was difficult to rile one enough to get them to fight you. This Motavian - he didn't recognise him, and Edoald usually got on well with the Motavians - had been protecting the last functioning Data Memory terminal with his life. It was still on record but the beep told him that it had detected no activity for fifteen minutes and was going on standby.
 +
 +The receptionist was dead - a shame, as Data Memory Inc. always hired the pretty young girls as receptionists - but she had left it password-unlocked, not having the time to reset it since it was last used. Edoald knew enough to operate the machine himself. He pressed the button to resume the recording, then the key combination to switch user on the same channel, often necessary for work teams to record what had happened during a shift, then entered his own user name and password and started recording. It instantly made him feel better. Whether or not he was turning into an anti-Motherbrain terrorist, there were certain things you didn't do, and one of them was forget to update your Data Memory records, especially when you were almost certainly going to die. The Data Memory records were your identity within Motherbrain's core systems, and therefore your identity, full stop, anywhere within the Solar System. If your Data Memory records fell behind, the Clone Labs wouldn't have any of your memories to give to your clones, so you would come back as an amnesiac, or if you had never made any entries to Data Memory at all, the Clone Lab would have no idea who you were, and would refuse to get you cloned at all. The doctor wouldn't treat you either and the Teleport station would refuse to let you in. You couldn't own a pay-card and, during times of emergencies when major cities were locked down to intruders, you got shot on sight by Polezis just for being in town. In short, you weren't a person, and you wouldn't live long unless you were some crazy survivalist. Even if he was going to live out in the wasteland of Dezolis in a log cabin and trap Elephants to survive, he would probably still go and update his Data Memory log every so often, that was how engrained into his unconscious it was.
 +
 +He closed the Data Memory girl's eyes before he left. It was the least he could do to repay her for keeping the machine running just a little while longer. Then he walked on down the corridor. The shuttle bay was right next to the Communications District, so that people could book tickets over the Visiphone, or tell their contacts on Motavia that they were late for the Shuttle again. If he was going to cut through Communications, he realised that it would be a good idea to try and contact someone - his wife, to make sure they knew he was alive and well and that he could leave here soon, to see if the news had reached Motavia yet, to make sure everything was still okay down on Motavia. He soon found that the Data Memory machine really was the only thing running in the entire District. None of the Visiphones or simpler communication devices, none of the other Data Memory terminals, he couldn't even find a goddamn newspaper. The Visiphone he had been using yesterday morning had been reduced to a smoking metal shell by a blast that had punched through the opposite wall and hit the Visiphone in the next room too, including three people in the way. A laser cannon blast; he wondered if it was the same Aerotank that had a personal grudge against him, trying to erase all evidence that he had ever existed.
 +
 +Despairing of ever contacting his wife - part of him hoped that she hadn't got the news yet, so she wouldn't be worrying herself to death over him - he followed the final set of arrows that led to the Space Port ('Think: Have You Booked Your Ticket In Advance? You Are Politely Informed That All Contraband Alcohol And Cigarettes Will Be Destroyed By Aerotanks. Update: Cats Are Not Allowed On Space Shuttles!').
 +
 +The checkpoint had been deactivated following the emergency, so that everyone could quickly leave. Jets of detoxification fluid, basically liquid that someone had channelled a permanent Anti through, covered him, giving his already obscured vision a blue tinge. As he stepped through the automatic doors, he realised why he hadn't seen all that many people yet, even dead people, and that, no matter what he decided Hell would be like, there were worse things.
 +
 +The automatic doors were kept wide open by the pile of corpses that poured out of the huge chamber of the main Space Port. There had evidently been a stampede, people trying to clamber over each other in a panic, so that a few had even managed to climb up to the rig where the space shuttle would be, except that it wasn't there any more. The shuttle was gone. A red 'X' flashing on all the terminals told him that it had never left Motavia; it was locked in port there by an authority that even an emergency signal couldn't countermand. Some of these people had been killed in the panic, some of them had taken off their gas masks in despair, others had been killed by one of the four Aerotanks he saw circling the room, shooting at any sign of life.
 +
 +"Purging contaminated life forms," the nearest one proclaimed in a loud voice as it shot at a rabbit with a blood-soaked furry muzzle that darted out of the pile of corpses. Edoald threw himself down before he was noticed too.
 +
 +It makes sense, he realised as he stared up from his hiding place beneath the bodies of others. They don't know how the gas behaves, how it resulted in the plague in the animals. It could be contagious. It could be human-transmitted. It could affect creatures on Motavia. The robots weren't firing at anything that moved because they were broken. Well, some of them had been damaged in the ensuing struggles, but...
 +
 +"Holy shi..." he whispered.
 +
 +"Meow!" came the forlorn response. A small, sleek yellow figure had sidled up to him and was now peering down at him with wide green eyes. It licked his nose and purred at him.
 +
 +It didn't look at all rabid or homicidal.
 +
 +Slowly, he reached inside his backpack until he found the Magic Cap that Hal had loaned him, the one he swore worked properly. As he pulled it over his head, he began to hear the words that overlapped with the meows in his brain.
 +
 +"Do not speak out loud. They will hear you. Come over here, quietly, and keep your head down. Follow the sound of my voice, meow."
 +
 +The last word was actually translated as 'meow'. He wondered if that was a bug that still hadn't been ironed out, or if cats did sometimes just say 'meow'. Watching the movements of the Aerotanks out of the corner of his eye, he crawled slowly forwards under the pile of bodies in a grotesque parody of one of his attempts to coax a cat out from under the sofa. He was surprised by what a massive relief it was that his cat - and he somehow knew that it was Mog - was unaffected by the gas. Any survivors he met were encouraging but he realised that he actually cared deeply about the cats, and had been worrying about them. Thinking about cats in a situation like this: he was really turning into a crazy cat lady!
 +
 +"That's right. You're nearly there. Carefully now," whispered the cat. Then it broke off into a yowl as something rolled across the floor with a clatter of glass that sounded like a gunshot to Edoald, who could hear his own heartbeat rising as he tried not to even breathe, in case an Aerotank heard him, or he breathed in the stench of death, of burning corpses and human waste. This must be what war smelled like, he thought, although war had not existed in a thousand years, if the history he had been taught in school was correct and he hadn't fallen asleep halfway through the lesson and dreamt the whole thing; war wasn't covered very often. It was kind of like butchering animals, if you closed your eyes, and he couldn't see much anyway, perhaps mercifully; he depended entirely on the cats' loud meows to tell him whether he was crawling in the right direction or not. To hear the cat's calm directions suddenly dissolve into a startled cry - and a tirade of untranslatable expletives - made him silently panic. Then the yowl was followed up by a low growl, then a hissing and spitting, and the sound of running and heavy gunfire. He froze, trying to make out what was happening, wondering if he should just run forwards, in the opposite direction to the fighting, and hope it was the right direction.
 +
 +He tried to tell himself to be sensible, but he couldn't help feel guilty that he would abandon his cat. No, it wasn't a cat, it was his guide, the only friendly survivor in a hostile environment. It didn't matter whether it was a cat or not. But he couldn't save her. He would just die if he ran to her aid...
 +
 +There was a loud scuffle of something running extremely fast, then a thud, and suddenly the machine stopped repeating its meaningless warnings and combat reports and its voice rose in pitch, sounding slightly frantic, as it went into emergency mode. The Aerotank stopped firing, then its servomotor screeched to a halt with a noise like tearing metal, and it clanged out of the sky, all its alarms blaring. Edoald heard something else as well: a technique being used. Not Foi, something else that he didn't know how to use, something stronger than the generic.
 +
 +"The others are coming, meow, let's make a run for it!" said the cat, chirruping in satisfaction as cats did when they caught prey. An image came to him unbidden, grossly inappropriate humour for his situation but he knew he was already going insane, of Mog dragging in an Aerotank by its antenna and dropping it at his feet, like it was a mouse.
 +
 +As he burst out from behind his cover, gasping for breath, he saw the small yellow cat darting away from an Aerotank on the floor, still able to spin around on its swivel and try to fire its disabled gun at them, barking an incomprehensible threat of deadly force. The cat dashed out of the far door and he followed. They ran without stopping through a waiting room in almost as bad condition as the shuttle bay itself, then a station cafeteria that had been ransacked by raiders who had realised they wouldn't leave Skure alive but failed to get away before the nightmare happened. Mog still managed to find food, sniffing underneath a table and pulling out some kind of disgusting pre-packaged food that was probably made of vat-grown protein and dyed bright yellow. She quickly devoured it as she ran, then darted into the porter's trolley booth and underneath the nearest trolley. Edoald wasn't sure how he was supposed to fit under there and wondered if Mog even realised he wasn't a cat, but at least he could lock the door and nothing large could get inside - if he was lucky, it might even have trouble shooting at him.
 +
 +"You shouldn't eat that crap, you know," he whispered, "It comes from the biosystems lab. They're having trouble with their quality control. It might eat you back."
 +
 +"I can make it stop moving, meow," she said, licking the worryingly fluorescent sauce from her whiskers, "You should eat too. Don't hunt the rabbits, meow, they smell rotten, and someone ate one and got sick."
 +
 +"There are more cats?"
 +
 +"More of us than there are of you, meow," she commented. He wondered if 'meow' was the equivalent of a shrug.
 +
 +"How the hell are you surviving?"
 +
 +"The gas leaks don't affect us, and we hide well in small spaces. Rabbits do not scare us, and we can hide from the small apes, and the large metal creatures have their weak spots, if you are good at pouncing."
 +
 +"Did I see that right, back there, then?"
 +
 +"I pulled out the part that made it fly. It can't do anything if it can't fly. I've seen it before."
 +
 +"But I thought I saw you use a technique."
 +
 +"Yes, the parts are sensitive to Thu."
 +
 +"Cats can really do that?"
 +
 +"Yes, of course, we have minds," she yawned, "We need to leave now. They will come back."
 +
 +"Where can we go? There's nowhere left!"
 +
 +"We are going to Dezolis."
 +
 +"To do what? The things living on Skure can follow us, and we'll be in the middle of nowhere, in the freezing cold!"
 +
 +"I found a way. It is underground, so it will be warm, and it leads to where there are people living. It felt odd, but I definitely heard them."
 +
 +"We can't go underground, that'll take us closer to the gas leak!"
 +
 +"The poison gas did not come from underground. I will show you," she said, "We can go there on our way out. But first, we can stop the metal ones following you. I can hide from them, but you can't, and they will corner you eventually."
 +
 +"They're really firing at me on purpose?"
 +
 +"All of this was 'on purpose'. I overheard that, too. They do not understand that cats have minds, and they even made us able to understand each other, meow," he commented, "Yes, the metal ones know who you are. But they don't have to. I saw how you tell them, and I saw one of you make it go away, when they thought it was broken."
 +
 +"You can't mean..."
 +
 +"I'm afraid so. You must delete your Data Memory records."
 +
 +It was disheartening to have to backtrack. It had taken all of his mental reserves to get this far, and he had left a lot of things behind him that he didn't want to be killed by as soon as he opened the door. This was the least of his worries now. He was about to quite deliberately do something so stupid, so completely against common sense, that there wasn't any way in which he could make it worse. At least maybe if he was killed now, he would do so before he deleted himself from existence permanently. Maybe he would even wake up in a clone lab somewhere with a huge bill that he could still pay, because his credit hadn't been erased due to his non-existence. Or maybe he would wake up and be immediately killed again by a passing police robot.
 +
 +The cat had a plan involving taking a trolley with them and using it as cover. As usual, the plan completely ignored the fact that he wasn't a cat.
 +
 +"I apologise. It is difficult to remember. Your accent is improving, and you no longer make the dreadful social faux pas that you used to. Had I realised you were not a native, I would have been easier on you, meow."
 +
 +"You said you had heard from someone about what was going to happen," said Edoald, gasping for breath. He had pulled some canvas sheets over the trolleys and was pushing it in front of him, the cat riding backwards on the lower shelf of the trolley and peering at him. He was glad to have someone to talk to again - it reassured him a little just to hear the quiet little meows overlayed with the sarcastic, deadpan responses. Cats apparently had an evil sense of humour, as well as being much more intelligent than he gave them credit for. There were more serious things he needed to know, though, "I met some people who were talking like they knew what was going to happen, a while before it happened. They were on Dezolis. I also needed one of these hats to talk to them."
 +
 +"What is going on with all these people not being able to talk to us and needing hats and things, meow? We all just used to be able to talk to each other... Do they not teach languages in school any more?" 
 +
 +"I'm being serious, Mog. When people know about disasters before they happen, it looks like they caused the disasters to everyone else."
 +
 +"Or that we've suspected something for a very long time and we've been watching out for it, meow."
 +
 +"You haven't had time to watch us! How could an alien species know that something was going to go wrong with the settlers before they even arrived?"
 +
 +“We've met you before, and history repeats itself, meow."
 +
 +"So, talking to cats really isn't a new thing, is it?" he laughed, "I was going to bring you back with me to show my daughter, you know. If it wasn't too much of a hassle to get an animal through the spaceport. Not that I'm calling you an animal," he added, to be polite, "But the port authorities can be so restrictive. It seems like everything's contraband these days, and if there's any issues with a potential infection, sometimes even if you have the flu, they'll try and quarantine you, and..." he sighed, "I'm never gonna get back home to see them, am I? I'm going to die here on Dezolis."
 +
 +Mog purred reassuringly at him, "We will leave here. Then we'll be safe."
 +
 +"Safe to do what? We won't be on Data Memory! We won't be able to go anywhere or anything!" he snapped, "Palmans can't just hunt mice and sleep all day, you know!"
 +
 +"You're in a panic. You revert to your old self when panicked. This won't allow you to think clearly and survive," she said, "I don't hunt mice, I hunt rabbits."
 +
 +"I'm sorry, I just wanted a straight answer, I guess," he muttered, "But you can't give me that. You can't promise what you can never deliver. Nothing on Palma, Motavia or Dezolis is going to get me back to my family."
 +
 +"I don't really have a family," said Mog, "I don't want kittens, and adult cats don't stay with their mothers."
 +
 +"Sorry for that too, I guess, and for treating you like a pet or an animal."
 +
 +"Cats just are," Mog twitched her whiskers, "Come on, we need to cross that corridor. There is one metal enemy. We can't avoid it, so we will fight our way past it."
 +
 +Edoald stopped dead and concentrated on his hearing. He could only just hear a faint whining of servomotors and the distorted yelling of an Aerotank. So far, Mog had found a way to circumvent the space port itself, which was a blessing. He didn't think he could go back in there. Being near it at all, having to hide around a corner or curl up inside the drapes of the trolley with the cat balanced on his lap - he had found out that they really did both fit - whenever a patrolling Aerotank randomly turned the corner - being reminded what had happened here and knowing that he wouldn't be able to just run away and leave it behind - that was enough.
 +
 +He pushed open the door to the Communications District. A chunky, armoured metal shape immediately floated up to him, having shot down the corridor, and a single mechanical eye regarded him, its light blinking on and off several times. He didn't recognise it until it began talking.
 +
 +"Edoald Lisle, please come quietly, due to your repeated attempts to resist disciplinary measures, your allotted punishment has been upgraded to a Class S-5..."
 +
 +"Wait, isn't that the Government code for using high explosives on a confirmed terrorist base?" Edoald recognised it from the television, "C'mon, surely that's a bit harsh!"
 +
 +"Edoald Lisle has admitted to the charges levelled against him," reported the robot, before spraying the corridor with motorcannon fire. Edoald threw himself into a side room and hid under a desk with a broken Visiphone on it. He heard a yowl and an almost child-like screech, then a crackle like a small lightning bolt as the cat launched a Tsu technique right at the robot's eye. It made a protesting sound like twisted metal, sparks flying from its useless optical cables, then it blindly chased the sound of the angry cat who ran down the corridor, easily springing away from its wild bullet sprays. Still, he found himself praying silently that the stupid furball didn't get herself killed for his sake. It wasn't like he was doing anything worthwhile with the time she was buying him.
 +
 +He crept down the now silent corridor until he came to the door of the Data Memory station. It was labelled 'Don't Forget!' with a cartoon of a cheesy caricature of a typical Data Memory girl, holding a telephone and smiling like a soulless automaton. He was glad that he had thought not to log out of the session, so that he could come back later if for some reason he couldn't leave Skure on the shuttle straight away, and he needed to update his record again - or that he hadn't thought to quit out of it so that nobody did anything malicious to his records, such as delete them. His hands shook as he reached out to tap on the correct icon, and the first time he tried, he accidentally brought up a complete record of his activities, including the people before him who had saved data on the same account. He hoped he wouldn't be deleting their records too - not that any of them were alive, but some of them might be lucky and get cloned by someone who realised they were dead.
 +
 +The 'Are You Sure?' message came up five times in a row.
 +
 +Edoald knew that phrase; it was computer-speak for 'what you're about to do is unbelievably stupid, and I've warned you not to do it four times in a row now, so when you do it and it goes horribly wrong, don't blame me for being there at the time; in fact, I feel so bad for the future you I'd really rather you didn't do it at all'. Every time he tapped through another window, he felt his resolve waver, as though he were swimming further down into an undersea temple, through heavy stone gates, knowing that he had enough air to make it down but unsure about getting back again, especially if he was tired from pulling back gates and weighed down with treasure chests.
 +
 +Then, suddenly, he had done it, he had hit 'delete', and he was lying on the shore, gasping for breath, unsure whether it was really himself who did it. Everything in his data bank had been deleted in order, as it was too large a file to manage straight away, so he had seen his whole life melt away before him; his birth records, filled with all the information he never wanted to know about childbirth, his education records, which were sparse and didn't take long to erase, his work records, mostly different mining and construction jobs around Palma and Motavia before Skure finally opened, a few criminal records, an endless stream of shop purchases and credit transfers, visits to the doctor and exactly five painfully-remembered visits to the Clone Labs, and last of all, notes of every time he had recorded his data. The last thing to be removed from the memory banks was his name. Edoald Lisle no longer existed; there weren't even more than one Edoald Lisles, it was a fairly rare name for a Palman, being two letters too long.
 +
 +He picked himself up, his heart beating too fast, his breath coming out shallow and slow, his eyes staring so wildly that he could see the wall in front of him in great detail but nothing else. He tried not to look back at the screen. The depths of his horrified trance was below anything he had seen before, worse than piles of trampled corpses inches before what should have been their exit, worse than the living corpses of pets feasting on their very dead owners, worse even than the realisation that Motherbrain was no longer the benevolent protector and maintainer of Algol he had been raised to believe with utter certainty that she was. Cold, deliberate destruction of self, that was in a different category altogether. It was only the cat's meow that interrupted him from his horrified trance.
 +
 +"Perfect, meow, now we won't be deliberately targeted by the robots," she sounded satisfied that she had memorised the word 'robots', "But we still shouldn't get in their way, meow, they will shoot at moving targets that are acting suspiciously."
 +
 +"Wait, where'd you even come from?" Edoald blinked, still dazed from his experience, "Weren't you running in the other direction? How'd you shake off the tank?"
 +
 +"They don't fit inside small spaces, meow, I would suggest to the military that they built smaller tanks, but some humans with big guns can panic when cats start talking to them," she noted with a wry flick of her tail.
 +
 +"Are we getting out of here now?"
 +
 +"Yes, but there is a slightly different route I want us to take. I must show you something, meow," she said. Then she darted off down the corridor, leaving Edoald to run after her.
 +
 +He soon discovered that she had been telling the truth about the robots. As long as he moved slowly and deliberately around them, they did not register his existence at all, and the cat often managed to walk underneath the floating ones, although he wished she would stop doing so on purpose to demonstrate that it was safe, he had seen a lot of fatal accidents begin that way. Their trek through the Communications and the short trip through Maintenance that followed were relatively uneventful. He soon realised that he was being led through to the Research District. It was an area of Skure that he had never needed to venture into, and as it was also the second highest security region of Skure, outside the central control systems themselves, he never went there. He had a vague idea of what happened there - mostly the kind of research that was supposed to save his life, such as finding out whether the planetary crust of Dezolis contained harmful gas vents, whether the safety equipment worked properly and whether the robots could break down. A fat lot of good that had done them. He was also vaguely aware that more experimental work was being done in there, work that either involved tests on the climate of Dezolis or that were only possible on Dezolis. There was a rumour going around that the animals had originally been used in the tests until the idea of selling pets had started making more money than whatever they were working on.
 +
 +"Is this about the animal experiments?" he guessed, "Have you furry guys been plotting violent revolution?"
 +
 +"I don't think so, somehow," she swished her tail sharply from one side to the other, "Those laboratory animals are incredibly crass and rude. If they wanted other animals to help them, they wouldn't have said such undiplomatic things in our last meeting. At this point, civil war is a more likely outcome than a revolution. They didn't even have the same excuse as you - they were not wearing silly hats!"
 +
 +"Can you talk to the rabbits and monkeys too?"
 +
 +"Most orang-utans will bite your face off if you call them monkeys to their face, but yes, I can talk to them. Although, why anyone would want to talk to such insufferable boors is a mystery to me..."
 +
 +Suddenly, the cat stopped from its casual leaping gait to a hunting posture, looking directly up and swishing her tail menacingly.
 +
 +It was halfway down the last corridor of the Maintenance District before it tapered off into the Research District. There was no sharp divide but it was fairly easy to tell when one began to start and the other to end. Where the Maintenance District looked bare and functional, the lighting exposed and severe, the walls unpainted metal, full of large chunky machinery, the Research District was whitewashed, sterile and had the air of something unpackaged and straight out of the factory, rather than permanently under construction. It was quieter, and also under much higher security. Solid steel mechanical outer doors separated the District from the rest of the complex, with a password lock, a voice-activated lock and a handprint scanner to go through before the door would open. Even then, there were increased patrols of drones in that area and a couple of bored-looking human guards at the door at all times. Now, perhaps fortunately for him, all that was gone. From the looks of it, the guards had been murdered by the drones, two of the drones had been hit by return fire in the conflict and their IFF had malfunctioned, causing them to fire at the other drones. An explosion had made a hole in the door - something trying to get in or out in a hurry, or possibly just a casualty of the increasingly large battle - and there were marks of orang-utan presence there, robots that had parts of them pulled off and thrown, and bodies that had been partially devoured.
 +
 +They had been discussing the orang-utans but hadn't realised that they were following corridors that had vents over them again, and that there were more chewed cables and eaten corpses around this area, and that they could hear the screeching noises again. Now a pair of small but powerful ginger-furred arms were pulling their way out of a hatch in the ceiling, followed by a ferocious face that bristled with bloody fangs and dark staring eyes that held nothing but the urge to kill and devour.
 +
 +Yowling, the cat jumped at the orang-utan’s face and became a blur of slashing claws. It screamed in an almost human voice that sent a chill down Edoald's spine, blood running down its face from a patchwork of lacerations, then tried to swipe at the cat, to grab it between its own hands and tear it in two, but the motion caused it to lurch wildly as it let go with two of its limbs. That was the only time Edoald needed to pull himself through the hole in the door. His already bloodstained and slightly charred shirt caught on the jagged metal outline of the hole, so he tore it the rest of the way off his back rather than let it slow him down. It wasn't like the facility was getting any colder; the air conditioning clearly made the place heat up too much when it broke down, so he was going to collapse from heat exhaustion, not hypothermia, if that was any better.
 +
 +"I wish I could take my fur off, too," commented Mog, as if she had read his mind, "It is also dirty, and I don't have time to wash it, and it is becoming hot in here."
 +
 +"I wish I could just lick myself clean, so we're even," he replied. He was glad she had survived her encounter, although he could hear the enraged chatters of more orang-utans behind him. He had no illusions that they couldn't get through the gap easily. Behind the door - he had secretly always wanted to peek inside, but never in circumstances like these - he saw more neat white corridors, more rows of identical heavy doors with combination locks and labels with some kind of numerical code that told someone with knowledge of the code, the people who needed to know, which experiments were being performed in which room. All the doors had been torn off their hinges by explosions or the repeated efforts of demoniacally strong and persistent claws and teeth. He could tell by the tracks in the trails of blood and worse that there had been many more animals here. He could hear them even now, and felt their beady eyes on him; he was surrounded, and they could attack any time.
 +
 +"There really were lab animals here, weren't they? What were they experimenting on?" he asked, giving Mog a suspicious look, "Was it how to create intelligent technique-using super-animals?"
 +
 +"Don't be silly, meow. I've always been intelligent and a technique-user, meow," she yawned at him, "Those experiments weren't really all that interesting, meow, mostly the normal things, how well different animals react to the Dezolisian climate, whether we got new diseases, putting us down the mines to see if we died of poison gas, that sort of thing. A few Dezolisian animals got themselves captured and all sorts of tests ran on them. Unpleasant things, but now what I really want to show you."
 +
 +"Are we going to be eaten by escaped lab animals?"
 +
 +"Only if you stand there worrying about it instead of moving," she commented, "We leave right after I've proven it to you."
 +
 +She scampered on, deftly jumping in-between the bloody trails as though it was an Oputan child's game of avoiding the cracks between the metal plates of the pavements. As they proceeded through the maze of corridors, the labelling system too fiendishly bureaucratic for Edoald to comprehend, the menacing chittering sounds in the background became frequent and so did the warnings such as 'high security' and 'environmental hazard'. There had been more security measures on the doors at some point, and an empty rack on the wall had once contained biohazard suits. The torn remains of one or two of them still remained on the corpses scattered around the entrance to the large glass and metal double doors with the 'highly restricted: authorised personnel only, danger of death' signs on them.
 +
 +"Don't worry, meow, the worst concentrations of it have spread out by now," the cat assured him.
 +
 +"Worst concentrations?" he asked dumbly. Then he pushed the doors open and bit back a curse with a sharp intake of breath.
 +
 +In the centre of the room was a cluster of large metal gas cannisters with biohazard signs on them, all connected by thick black pipes to a series of large metal chutes around the room. The labels on the chutes made it clear where they went to: they were each labelled with the name of one of the districts, and from the direction they lined up with, they were probably designed to meet up with the ventilation shafts.
 +
 +"What the hell are these?" demanded Edoald.
 +
 +"I'm sorry, but my contacts within the laboratory animals found these one day when they escaped. It has been planned for a long time, before this facility was set up, meow," said the cat.
 +
 +"But why? What good would this do anyone? The gas has killed everyone here! Nobody could have escaped!" he yelled, "Whoever did this must have not cared that they were going to die along with everyone else... they must have been suicidal, homicidal nutjobs... but even then, what would anyone have against us, to want to kill us all in a horrible way like this?"
 +
 +"Maybe they wanted to test the experiments out on Palmans, meow," suggested the cat, "A lot of poisons affect different kinds of animals in different ways, so testing them out on cats won't work if you want to use them on Palmans."
 +
 +"But then why not test it on prisoners? There's a damn space satellite that's nothing but a prison - why test it on miners who are actually doing something important? This place rakes in millions, and cost millions to set up in the first place!" he said, "And if it was an experiment... it would have been set up so the scientists died too. Even the crazy protesters couldn't have done this without it killing them - the robots started firing on anyone who came close, including the protesters - and a Dezolisian wouldn't have let the zombie rabbits escape onto their planet. There would be no way for someone to set up the experiment and then leave in time to not be killed. Especially not with the... oh shit..."
 +
 +"What is it?"
 +
 +"The shuttle was prevented from leaving by someone outside Skure, someone who outranks the people on Skure," he said, his voice suddenly shaking, "Someone very close to Motherbrain. They wouldn't have to be anywhere near to Skure in order to set the whole thing up. They might not have ever been affected by Skure or even seen it in their lives."
 +
 +"Why would these people want to kill us, meow?"
 +
 +"I really don't know. I don't know anything about these people either," he said, walking over to inspect the cannisters more closely, "I didn't think Motherbrain would let them mistakes. I thought Motherbrain couldn't make mistakes, and that it was in control of what everyone was doing. But then there was the thing with the Biomonsters and they tracked it down to the biosystems labs. That had to have been someone's fault as well, because they were clearly doing something down there, but they couldn't really point to anyone, because everyone there was dead, it was just like everything had stopped working at once and something at the top level had stopped anyone from fixing it. And now it's happening in Skure all over again. I can't go home, Mog, they're on Dezolis and they're on Motavia, and they expect me to be dead. But if I don't go home, and they're right, what else am I going to do? And what if they do something next that hurts Nery or Lei? Damn it, there's no way I can save them," he hissed, kicking the empty cannister, "I can't even exist any more without dying for it. Something's gone really wrong with the whole of Algol, hasn't it? And we don't even know how it works, so there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it."
 +
 +"They said they knew you would say that eventually, meow. It was lucky that they saw you when you were on Dezolis, and that I was awakened, and I was your cat."
 +
 +"It really was those weird Dezolisians, wasn't it?" he said, "What they were saying... I thought maybe they were just threatening me again, that the hat wasn't working, or maybe even that it was them who were planning all of this. But it makes sense now. I don't understand how the heck they can know something like this, though, you never even see Dezolisians when you go onto Dezolis, most people on Motavia and Palma have never seen one in their entire lives..."
 +
 +Then he noticed the terminal set in the middle of the cannisters, wired up to them so that they could all be activated at once. A red light on the side of the display pulsed vividly. The words on the display said 'A direct process of Motherbrain has been activated on this terminal and is in the process of shutting down. Please do not shut this terminal down or remove any devices connected to it before the process has completely terminated, or your connection with Motherbrain may be permanently compromised. All damages must be paid for. Remember that disconnecting a terminal from Motherbrain without authorisation prevents critical systems operations from taking place, and to prevent loss of lives, it has been made a felony. The Agency.'
 +
 +Underneath the message was a flashing icon that was the official logo of Motherbrain and the Central Command who had the highest access to it: a white outline of a slender woman holding one arm up to the sky, fingers outstretched, and inside her womb, the three planets of the Algol Solar System and its myriad stars.
 +
 +Edoald began grabbing handfuls of wires and pulling them away from the cannisters and the power supply, ignoring the warning sirens that this set off.
 +
 +"You are going to attract the robots to us if you act in such a manner, meow," commented Mog.
 +
 +"I don't care. We're going to be hunted down and killed anyway," he said, "We're going to leave, now. We're going to get away from Skure, and from Motavia, and from any of the towns on Dezolis. We'll have to find some way to live by ourselves. Unless your friends know how to stay away from Motherbrain."
 +
 +"I know a way out from here, meow. We need to go deeper inside the mines. There is a cave that connects the region you call Aukba to another region that can't be accessed from Skure normally. I hope that you can trust me that the poison gas isn't coming from the mines."
 +
 +"Well, I guess its pretty clear now..." said Edoald. Then he was suddenly quiet, as he heard a thumping noise, loud enough to shake the metal floor and knock one of the cannisters over, so that it rolled along the floor to the other side, unnervingly loud enough to attract the attention of anything that was watching them, "What the heck was that?"
 +
 +"That's strange, I can smell a big animal..." said Mog, sniffing the air and licking her fur with a disgusted snort. Then another sound revealed the identity of the thing that had made the first noise: a loud trumpeting bellow, furious as the horn that called a nation to war. There were more thumps, louder and with increasing frequency, until the floor was pounding so badly he felt as though he was going to be knocked over. Leporine chitters and simian screeches echoed in ripples as flurries of skittering movement were set off by the enormous animal's encroaching presence. Most were retreating - there was a limit to even the most brain-fried rabid animal's courage - but there were still others that had melted into the cracks in the ceiling and walls and were plotting an ambush in their sinister squeaking voices. Maybe they thought a large, slow, cumbersome animal could be brought down with large enough numbers and greater manoeuvrability, no matter how much it resembled a war machine on four legs. It was odd how a pack of evil rabbits could inspire you. He still wanted to mess himself.
 +
 +"It's an elephant," whispered Edoald, "It's a sodding elephant. Mog, why are there elephants in the middle of a mining complex?"
 +
 +"The big animals can live in the caves, meow, some of the cave mouths are large enough to fit many of them. And your scientists have been taking all kinds of animals from the surface of Dezolis. I told you that already, meow."
 +
 +"But an elephant? With nobody noticing?"
 +
 +"Did you ever ask the scientists whether they had an elephant, meow?"
 +
 +"Well, no, but..." he sighed, "You don't happen to know if that thing affected by the gas like the rabbits, do you?"
 +
 +"I think we will soon have the opportunity to ask it, meow..."
 +
 +"Shit! Hide!" said Edoald, looking around for any tight space at all in which he could fit and be obscured from view. The most obvious answer was the vents, and perhaps underneath a pile of the cannisters at a push, if he could find some way to strap them down, but it felt so morbid, somehow even worse than hiding underneath corpses, he couldn't help looking for any other solutions at all. Then again, he had been hiding in the maintenance hatches and they had been full of poison gas too. Everything was, by now. The cat had already jumped inside the nearest one, so he followed suit.
 +
 +Curiosity made him peer out of the shaft from inside its dark confines, full of mysterious hollow metal echoes. The elephant's trumpeted warnings had turned to bellows of genuine pain and rage when the rabbits jumped out at it, sinking their teeth into the backs of its knees to try and pull it down while others attacked its face to disorient it. They hadn't counted on its speed and titanic endurance, and although it was covered in hundreds of gashes, the pain only made it more ferocious, and the pachyderm had soon shook its attackers off with swings of its tail and ears and stamps of its mighty feet, bashing them off by slamming into walls or pulling them away with its trunk, often eating the unfortunate rabbits that hadn't managed to struggle out of its grasp and retreat in time. From the pupil-less bloodshot eyes, devoid of rationality, and the foam around its huge pointed jaws, Edoald knew that the elephant was as affected by the gas as the rabbits - either that, or it was driven beyond sanity by the confinement and experiments, followed so soon by the chaos and panic and the constant things attacking it. Edoald saw the torn remnants of shackles attached to its legs and a tag on its right ear with a code similar to those on the doors of the laboratories.
 +
 +After throwing the last of its attackers on the floor and trampling the ones that didn't immediately escape, the elephant gave a victory trumpet and reared up, slamming its hooves down into the ground so hard that it dented the metal floor plating, cracking it in part and revealing a hint of bare wires underneath. A cannister rolled towards the elephant and it immediately snatched up the cylindrical object in its trunk, lifting it up to its eyes so that it could examine it in more detail, turning it around and peering inside its hollow interior in case it contained food. When none was to be found, it roared its frustration, crushed the cylinder in its trunk, then threw it across the room with enough force to put a small dent in the opposite wall. Then it picked up the next closest cylinder, wrenched it from its moorings and repeated the process. Maybe it had been fed out of similar-looking crates during its captivity. Edoald didn't want to go and investigate. He had never realised quite how terrifying elephants were. He had been told to avoid going anywhere near them on field expeditions to Dezolis, no matter what they were standing in the way of. Soon, it was going to either get bored and go off in search of food somewhere else, or it was going to destroy the entire room out of sheer rage or boredom.
 +
 +"Where are you, Mog?" he whispered, turning to look deeper into the vent. He couldn't see anything in the pitch darkness. His Recorder had been providing him with light in the darker vents, but the batteries must have finally died out. He tried to listen out for meowing, but all he heard was scrabbling and snuffling. That could be a cat, but it could be any number of other things.
 +
 +"Mog?" he repeated. Then something grabbed him and pulled him sharply forward. He screamed and lashed out, his knife already in his hand and swinging wildly, but he was already falling, tumbling into a blackness without limit.
 +
 +For a long time, blind panic ruled Edoald's senses absolutely. He lashed out again and again with the knife, stabbing at something until it reared back or stopped moving, then going on to the next thing. Still, there were hands around him, clawing at him, grasping at his arms, legs and face, two more for every one he kicked or shoved or slapped away. It stank of fear and blood and worse, and the cacophony of animal screeching and his own terrified screams echoed around the metal pipes, as though he was trapped forever inside the bowls of some mechanical Hell-beast.
 +
 +Worst was the falling. Falling was one of those primal fears that overwrote everything else like he had overwritten his Data Memory records - and the two felt fairly similar, like once you started, once your feet weren't on the ground, your life was already snatched away. You were dead if you hit the ground, you were probably dead before you hit the ground, and something in him was also terrified he would never stop falling, that he had screwed up something so fundamental back there in the Data Memory that the world was gone along with his own records, that the world had been consumed in this deep darkness along with the one who had destroyed it.
 +
 +He had to stop himself grabbing onto the things he was escaping from, if only to stop himself falling. They had to be able to stop their own descent, to know where they were going and have some control over it. Whenever he dragged one of them down with him, he was damning himself as much as he was saving himself. No, that's bollocks, he told himself, these things don't take prisoners, they bite and they kill and they eat, and the only thing you can do to stop yourself being eaten is to fight them with every last remaining scrap of energy left in you.
 +
 +Suddenly, his left hand slammed against something metal jutting out of the wall - a rung in a ladder - and he instinctively grabbed it. Something clamped itself around his leg, and he kicked out as hard as he could, but when it retaliated by hissing and yowling in words that were instantly translated as some of the most disgusting expletives he had ever heard, followed by a Wat technique that almost hit him in the face, he stopped his struggle. While the cat took the vanguard, repelling the oncoming hosts of orang-utans with the savagery of an exploding blender, he felt around for more handholds. He discovered another rung beneath his feet, then another. A total of five rungs down, his foot hit a metal grid that gave way when he kicked it, falling down with a clang onto the floor after a few seconds - not too far down for him to jump, although the landing would hurt. Everything he tried to do so far had hurt in some way, so he reckoned he might as well keep up the pattern. Letting go of the final rung, he let himself drop. When he landed in a crouch on another metal floor, he wasn't in darkness any more. Pale blue light bathed the room. He couldn't see that much other than the floor, his own shadow and some dead orang-utans that had fallen out of the chute along with him. Three seconds later, Mog landed on his head, digging her claws into his temples to try and gain purchase on the slippery surface. He screamed expletives at her and tried to pry her away from his scalp, a process that lost him some of his hair at the roots.
 +
 +"That's not a nice way to thank me for watching your back," she commented, "I'm not going to be able to do it all the time, you know. When we're not in a confined space, I'm usually too small."
 +
 +"It doesn't give you the right to claw my head! What kind of bodyguard are you, saving me one minute and trying to kill me the next? You'll never get a good reputation like that!"
 +
 +"I saved you from the flying metal robot, too. I thought you were the one who promised to protect me from danger."
 +
 +"That was back when I thought you were a pet! It doesn't count if you're not really a pet and you don't even tell me!"
 +
 +"You weren't listening, meow," she licked her paw nonchalantly, "Now, shall we carry on going, or do you want to continue this pointless argument?"
 +
 +"I don't even know where we are! How do you know where we are, anyway? Did you actually plan for this to happen?"
 +
 +"The sign on the chute said where we were going, meow, and besides, I've been here before. This is the central control system of Skure."
 +
 +Edoald stood up and looked around a little more. It was the first time he noticed that he was standing on a balcony above an enormous crevice. The safety rails were intact - a miracle in itself - but it still looked dizzyingly far down. He had heard Central Command was in a weird place. He wondered if it had just been built above the main mine shaft - he could see a drill the size of the space shuttle above him, leading down into the depths, and the enormous tunnel was ringed with platforms that were bays for the smaller machines, the kind that he would operate to collect the Laconia and dig down into the tunnels that split off from the main shaft. This balcony was larger than the smaller platforms, and led out slightly into a ring-shaped platform, upon which a Podhead was placed, wires leading upwards in a stream. Edoald hadn't seen a Podhead up close before. They looked like giant cocoons divided into a body and a head with a terminal on the front of it. Covered in cables, the head occasionally moved convulsively. The two spheres on the side of the head were the access hatch. They were hollow, and could be directly controlled from inside to gain access to the control systems, although it was rare for anyone to be authorised for such privilege.
 +
 + Normally, you wouldn't see a Podhead in a mining plant at all, it was for the big Government installations where you had to be in a very direct link to Motherbrain for long periods of time. He only knew they existed because of a friend he had who had been promoted from prison guard work to senior prison management, a job that involved a lot more sitting around Government offices in Paseo looking at computer screens, although he was fired a week later because he still had the mentality of a prison guard, not a Government official, not matter how good he was at being a prison guard. It seemed to be a thing that Edoald and his friends had in common - their complete unsuitability for Government work. He wondered if it was contagious, or if people like him were drawn together in clusters, whether or not they knew they were people like him. This friend saw his first Podhead in charge of all the prisons, as a point of Central Control. He noticed straight away that the door could be locked from the outside and the pod inside had the right kind of mechanisms on the chairs to be fitted with restraints. Later, having a little mechanical experience, he realised that the link between a Podhead and its user was so direct that you could get your brain burned out if there was a power surge. Edoald never wanted to meet an inhabited Podhead, but fortunately, this one was running on automatic. He knew that because it was the first thing the Podhead informed him of.
 +
 +"Welcome. This facility is for authorised users only. Please enter your authorisation code and password to continue!" it had told him in a distorted, slightly manic voice.
 +
 +"Look, do you even realise that everyone in Skure is dead? That the mine's not going to run any more?" he asked, "Or did you order this to happen?"
 +
 +"I am not at liberty to provide you with classified information until you provide me with a..."
 +
 +"Keep calm, meow, we don't need this information from the computer, and a computer can't tell you something that it's programmed to hide from you!"
 +
 +"I just wanted to know," he said, "Is it really Motherbrain that ordered this to happen?"
 +
 +"You don't need to talk to this computer at all, meow... I checked, and the exit we need isn't blocked off at the moment..."
 +
 +"You have to help me if I'm in danger of death and there are no administrators around. It's an overriding authority. The technicians told me about it," he said, "You have to give me whatever open reports on Motherbrain's status exist, and this is an emergency that would make any reports on the mine open. You have to help me get out of here. I'm not just jumping down a mine shaft. I want to pilot a Heavysolid. One with it's automatic functions offline, so it doesn't kill me."
 +
 +"Edoald..." whispered the cat.
 +
 +"Applying under emergency guidelines. Please state your name," said the Podhead.
 +
 +"Edoald. Edoald Lisle."
 +
 +"Edoald, this isn't necessary, and you're making a big mistake, meow..."
 +
 +"Edoald Lisle. The report is back from Motherbrain. There are no records pertaining to an Edoald Lisle in Data Memory. You are an outside agency to Algol and you are trespassing on highest priority Government property. The military has been notified, and I have been ordered to protect myself at all costs."
 +
 +"OH SHI..." began Edoald, leaping out of the way just in time as the front panel of the head compartment lit up and a bolt of laser energy shot from it.
 +
 +"Idiot!" hissed the cat, before bolting down the corridor and jumping off the balcony. He didn't want to ignore the cat's advice again, after what had happened the first time, but it rather looked like the feline had become tired of life and was finally electing to take leave of it. He was in two minds only up until the point that he barely got out of the way of a second bolt, and only because it wasn't cleanly aimed at him, but at the supporting girders of the platform, all of which were sheared through. A series of loud metal thuds followed by a lurching sensation told him that he was soon going to have the choice taken away from him. He leapt, hoping that he could at least jump in the right direction.
 +
 +He fell a few metres until he spotted what the cat was aiming at: a tall crane, extended fully out, with a cutting laser attached to the end of it, to perform some kind of repair service to the primary drill. He grabbed hold of one of the many suspension cables that supported its arm and managed to hoist himself up in-between the cables, so that he could sit inside the part where they joined. The cat balanced easily on the cables, too easily even for the normal agility of a cat. Edoald suspected she was using Ner or Shu. He wished she knew Saner or Sashu, so she could share with him. His arms burned, the power of his muscles stretched to the limit, and the panic at falling, at being above a near bottomless pit, was creeping into his senses again. A low klaxon alarm sounded and he could see shapes mobilising, Aerotanks flitting in the sky, Spectres and Heavysolids pouring into the tunnel ahead of him, something he had never seen before, like a Spectre but flying, with three gun barrels instead of the one. A full military robot, he guessed. Everything he had gained by deleting his Data Memory records, he had ruined, made worse, in a single moment of stupidity. He still didn't know the truth about what the heck was going on down here, and he was probably going to die along with everyone else in Skure.
 +
 +A Large Miner - basically a Cooley-61 painted green that the company tried to kid you into thinking was an upgraded model - walked up to the crane controls and, before Edoald could even yell out, shoved the controls sharply upwards. He was flung up into the air like a rag doll. He heard yowling, then a sound like the sky being torn apart, punctuated by an intense flash of light that blinded him. Something began to spark and fizz, then there was a lot of clanging and rattling, followed by more yowling. Then a loud ringing in his head drowned out everything else, a physical sensation as much as a noise, a pressure that filled up his entire head and welled up against the sides like a floodgate of light suddenly being released. He was swimming upwards through a sea of bright white light in which motes of light floated like a swarm of fireflies. This is death, he thought, I'm dead right now, my consciousness is just taking longer to release itself from my grasp over it, like the files couldn't be all deleted at once in an instant when I initially erased my identity. That's what this is: the world catching up with the paperwork, making sure it fits in with how Motherbrain says it is. Wouldn't want to contradict the Mama...
 +
 +“Res! RES! MEOW!” something cold and wet was prodding him in the ear while sniffing at him and vibrating at a strange frequency, while yelling, “Okay then, Gires! … Rever? No, wait, I don't know actually know Rever, meow, please don't be dead...”
 +
 +Edoald gasped for breath – he wasn't sure why he was holding his breath in the first place, except that it sort of felt appropriate – and then looked around him, his eyes wide, panting, as though he had been woken from sleep while sleepwalking. The cat responded by clinging to the sides of his head so that it wasn't pitched off by the sudden movement, while purring even louder.
 +
 +“What are you so happy about? I nearly died!”
 +
 +“Purring isn't just for when you're happy - it relieves intolerable pain and prepares you to accept death. Everybody knows that, meow. Honestly, Palmans...”
 +
 +“So, I'm going to die anyway? What am I even doing here? What have you done to me?”
 +
 +“Rescued you, meow, not that I get any gratitude! These things are actually really easy to operate, meow, I watched that robot and I saw it didn't have opposable thumbs either, so I thought, it can't be that hard for me to use...”
 +
 +“You operated a crane? YOU STOLE MY JOB? A CAT?” he screamed, forcibly extricating the cat from his hair and standing up. A headless Large Miner was slumped on the floor, the space where its head had been still smoking. That can't have been a regular Tsu, he thought, someone knows second-stage techniques and hasn't been letting on. He doubted there was anything that cat couldn't do, apart from help him in a way that doesn't involve scratching him or pulling out his hair. The crane had been parked at a strange angle, backwards on its hinges, having taken out a large chunk of the opposite wall so that it could fit in the gap. The laser had cut a path downwards and then been broken off. Edoald understood how he had been deposited on the floor, but not how he had survived the process.
 +
 +“Sorry about the rough landing, meow, I'm not perfect at operating it yet. I don't think I'd get a job here if I applied, meow, not that cats need jobs. We can sit around all day and people feed us.”
 +
 +“Not if they find out how talented you are. We look after you out of charity, because it doesn't make any sense to ask for things in return. You can't have it both ways, meow,” he said, then swore, “Did I just say 'meow'? What did you just do to my head? WHAT?”
 +
 +“Calm down, meow, you're being very paranoid, and you won't survive if you panic and stop trusting your friends. I told you before about that,” she said, “I know! I should learn Hinas. Then I can use Hinas on the end of the crane...”
 +
 +“Can we stop inventing new ways to break cranes, and get out of here? If you're so worried about your future, we should come to a deal: you don't tell anyone I'm not Motherbrain's pet any more, I won't tell anyone you're not anyone's pet.”
 +
 +“Don't come yowling to me if you ever need a crane breaking,” the cat's whiskers twitched, “Anyway, you're lucky this is actually anywhere near the way we're supposed to be going. We'll have to backtrack through Ryuon but it doesn't take as long if you go through, not around. Oh, and there's a Spectre behind you.”
 +
 +Edoald threw himself out of the way, hiding behind the broken Large Miner, just as the stealth fighter robot materialised where he had been. Just as it opened fire, a solid bolt of electricity tore through it, dissolving its CPU and melting the balcony behind it. It fell down into the space where the balcony had been. Then the two of them ran down the bare rock tunnel before the other Spectre inevitably materialised. Paradoxically, the sounds of drilling and rumbling became noisier, the very rock shaking, only half an hour before they dissipated altogether, leaving only the soft drip of a natural underground lake and the hoot of a Dezo Owl. A great peace filled him, like a soul fully castigated, out of Hell and back into the cycle of reincarnation, the instant he knew they were away from Skure and would never have to go back.
 +
"How are things in Ryuon?" asked Edoald, "Will things be as bad out there as they are inside?" "How are things in Ryuon?" asked Edoald, "Will things be as bad out there as they are inside?"
Line 41: Line 696:
"Edoald, why are you going the wrong way? I can't see you if you go that way!" "Edoald, why are you going the wrong way? I can't see you if you go that way!"
-He blinked and started at the noise. He had gone completely into a trance. He tried to look back at the cat bt, as much trouble as it was having seeing him, he was having more trouble spotting the tiny yellow figure. The wind was picking up again, whipping up the snow...+He blinked and started at the noise. He had gone completely into a trance. He tried to look back at the cat but, as much trouble as it was having seeing him, he was having more trouble spotting the tiny yellow figure. The wind was picking up again, whipping up the snow...
The muffled sound of snow being hurled out of the way as something erupted out of the bank, then the harsh report of a distorted mechanical voice, and the blast of gunfire - all of the sounds registered in his mind in the space of a second, but it was already too late by the time he had turned around. There wasn't all that much pain before he couldn't feel much of anything at all, and he was descending into a long tunnel of darkness, into a place where he knew who the girl was, and she had already been there, and how could anyone in the entire solar system ever forget her name... The muffled sound of snow being hurled out of the way as something erupted out of the bank, then the harsh report of a distorted mechanical voice, and the blast of gunfire - all of the sounds registered in his mind in the space of a second, but it was already too late by the time he had turned around. There wasn't all that much pain before he couldn't feel much of anything at all, and he was descending into a long tunnel of darkness, into a place where he knew who the girl was, and she had already been there, and how could anyone in the entire solar system ever forget her name...
 
silentzone.txt · Last modified: 2013/04/27 00:29 by doan
 
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