DREAMTIME - The Gil-Garem
In the year five-million forty-six, the Sorisentine Dominion fought a fierce war against the Gil-Garem. By its close, many outlying Dominion cities were destroyed, their citizens left for dead. The Gil-Garem were driven to extinction and in ten years there have been no sightings of a living Gil-Garen. They're now one of many dark shadows in history, useful only for scaring young children or as verbal fodder for old soldiers trying to relive their glory days. The rest of the population largely prefer the comfort of forgetfulness, pretending the war didn't happen and that the Gil-Garem never existed at all...
Through a transparent pane of what appears to be glass, Edmund's vision is filled with air bubbles rising through the dull blue water underneath, and glowing faintly as they hit the other side.
A shape from the darkness beyond develops into the form of Eurydice - a beautiful, athletic woman adorned in intricate blue and gold, her features muted by water and darkness. She reaches the glass, banging her fists in propelled punches from her suit's internal thrusters, hitting the barrier to no effect. Vague shapes flit in the water far below like ghosts or demons. Edmund's fists strike the pane repeatedly in the same spots on his side of the glass, timing them to land as hers pull away in an effort to weaken and break it. The banging noise grows progressively louder and quicker as they become more desperate.
Eurydice breathes in water and chokes. Her movements slow down as she runs out of the precious oxygen needed to continue her struggle. She strikes the pane again... and again... and again... and a last time, but then her body goes limp. Her eyes stare motionless into Edmund's, boring into his soul. For a moment they flare bright as spotlights, speeding forward and obscuring everything else in darkness. Edmund recoils, covering his eyes. The lights go out.
Ten years later. Edmund Mortani abruptly sits up sweating. A moment of panic engulfs him as he stares into darkness, tempered only by the faint neon-green aura that keeps him hovering above a metallic bed slab. Lights turn on, bathing the chamber in a pale blue. Edmund blinks and calms down. He still carries the hard, well-kept body of a military man, but a decade of worry and stress line his face.
The neon glow dissipates as it lowers Edmund to the surface of the bed slab, which retracts into the wall as he gets off and stands. The far wall becomes transparent and he walks toward a bright morning view of the city Ranore filtering through. It's a well-developed urban center in the middle of a desert, protected by a domed energy field with circular walls and a generator tower rising above the other buildings. Many of them were large, but the generator was the only skyscraper, firing an energy beam straight upwards that splits from a central point and arcs over the entire city before touching down along the outer face of the city's walls.
The flashbacks were worse this time. The years never made them easy to bear, but this time they were different. After the usual torment of watching Eury die, he could swear there'd been a sensation of movement - he was sure of it... and bright lights speeding toward him, then... pain? It didn't make sense.
An audible beep draws him out of his thoughts. The voice of his room's A.I. comes in through the comm system. It sounded authentically human, and it should. It's the voice of his dead wife, as comforting in waking as it haunts him during sleep. "Incoming transmission for you, Edmund."
"Thanks, Eurydice. Who is it?"
"Captain Patroclus, from the Command Center."
"Put him through."
The hologram of an older man extends from the ground to full height. William Patroclus was Edmund's Second-in-Command, his senior in age and an old comrade in arms, but a less commanding presence. "Were you asleep? I hope I didn't wake you."
"Don't worry - you didn't. Something need my attention?"
"We've lost contact with the Kirtari scout party. They've disappeared off the tracking radar too. Just thought you should know. By the way, you look awful."
"Thanks, William... that was Alex's shift, I think. Was she in that unit?"
"I'll find out for you - give me a minute to bring it up." Edmund lifts his gaze up from the city below. Beyond the walls, dust clouds swirl in an endless desert broken only by the distant Kirtari Mountains. Black clouds above them were hurling lightning at their peaks, the only light that penetrated the darkness. "Electric storm's coming. We'd better get ready in case it decides to come this way."
"Lieutenant Solisari was assigned to the Kirtari scout party... maybe the storm's interfering."
"This bothers me." Edmund says. Electromagnetic storms were notoriously unpredictable, but they didn't normally cut communication. "Send out a search party to be on the safe side. I'll be up to Command Center shortly, but keep me posted and get the storm shelters prepped. I have a feeling this will be a bad one if reaches us."
The transmission ends and the hologram drops back into the floor. Edmund remains looking out at the storm.
Far off, on the other side of the Kirtari Mountains, a lone messenger flies through the narrow valleys and deep crevices that separate their plateaued summits. According to ancient myth, one day the mountains became so thirsty they began eating the world itself to bring water to them by force. Soon they grew so large and so tall that they were beginning to challenge the sky itself. Enraged by their insolence, the sky sent its Gods to put them back in their place. A fierce battle ensued, and the Kirtaris were flattened, their goal just out of reach. Forever after they marked the border between barren desert on one side and verdant forest on the other. The sky has ever since been angry with the Kirtaris and periodically sends its Gods to darken the sky and smite them with lightning, lest they forget its watchful gaze. At least that's how the story went.
The man wasn't much interested in the old myths right now, given the urgency of his mission, but it was hard to ignore the Kirtaris, eager as they ever were to call attention to themselves. Though he couldn't see it, and perhaps because his attention was diverted by the strange rock formations, another flier was approaching him from a distance behind, fast and silent.
Several shots whiz by, narrowly missing him. He swerves to avoid more shots, his thrusters humming loudly as he dives ahead, speeding forward into the canyon below. This made him an easier target, but also put him in a better position to find cover and lose his pursuer - or turn the tables if he's lucky.
"Come in! Come in!" He shouts, toggling his wrist's view-screen in a useless effort to make it work.
More shots pass and he turns sharply through a narrow crevice bisecting a plateau. Clearing it, he fires a propelled energy grenade back at his pursuer. It hits on the wrist and explodes. He speeds ahead, then slows down a little to get his bearings now that the pursuit was over. Whoever it was, they were dead now and would trouble him no more.
Blasts hit the rocky face just beyond him, jarring him to attention, and he turns back to see his attacker firing at him with their good arm. The lower section of the other arm was missing, like it was amputated, and it was sealed with a metal plate, but electricity courses through it and begins reconstructing a new arm. The robot fires at him again with its good arm, again narrowly missing.
Realizing his error, the man takes off again, but not before seeing the robot already reforming a new hand. It didn't make sense. Time and again, engineered soldiers beat their mechanical counterparts. Robots were at best training assistants, but never much use in actual combat. They lacked the ingenuity and adaptivity of an enhanced soldier. He makes another sharp turn into a fissure. The machine keeps pace, firing, then bursts forward and looses a rapid volley of blasts, each one uncomfortably closer than the last.
The man arcs above it, but a well-timed shot upward hits his chest. His energy shield absorbs it as he completes the rotation and charges the robot from behind. It shifts to the side, hovering in place, and kicks him, the force throwing him into the mountainside. He plunges downward, his suit scraping stone as his pursuer dives after him.
The robot closes on him, and he reverses hard, firing an energy net head-on that latches around the robot and traps it. He bursts away as fast as his thrusters allow while the robot drops to the ground, then fiddles with his wrist communicator again. Why wasn't the damn thing working? Were the robots jamming it? But how?
"Someone! Come in! Anyone! I'm being followed." he shouts. He glances back to see the robot generating an energy field, charging the net with energy. It explodes and the robot takes off to continue the hunt.
"I need help! Now!" The robot fires at him several times.
A Ranorian patrol squad of three floating tanks and a convertible command vehicle were moving through the desert, which seemed to blur around them in the heat. Dry lightning crackles as it strikes in the Kirtari Mountains up ahead, the sky still darkening as they approach. Alexandra Solisari felt on edge. She wasn't superstitious and could care less for old myths, but she couldn't shake the feeling that they were being warned to turn back. These Kirtari storms weren't natural, or if they were, they were sufficiently strange to make it seem otherwise. Why was there never any rain?
Patrick Reynolds was sitting in front of her, piloting from the tank's cockpit, with his hands resting in glowing orbs that controlled navigation. A view-dome surrounded him, making him seem to float outside, which just reminded her how hot it was out there. Her own dome was filled with weapons diagnostics and targeting.
Alex glances at the climate controls, thankful they're functioning properly. As her eyes return to the center of her view-dome, her vision's drawn to flashes of light in the distance.
"Laserfire!" she announces. A hologram of Arthur Reynolds, Patrick's brother and their squad leader, appears on her dome as an overlay, showing him inside his command craft.
"Where?" he asks, looking at Alex.
"In the mountains!" she gestures and an overlay on the front section of the dome zooms in to the Genokan being chased by the robot.
"Careful everyone. Communication's down and we're too far out to get any backup." Arthur turns back to his control panel, holding his hand stationary to keep the zoom in place. "That's a friendly from Genoka. Accelerate to intercept. Someone's gone to a lot of trouble to try to stop him from reaching us. You ready Patrick?"
"Don't worry. I'll make sure you don't look like too much of a fool. After all, don't I always?" Reynolds engages the tank's thrusters, bringing it up to speed.
"Protect the Genokan." Arthur accelerates and the squad tanks close rank to follow, being slightly heavier artillery vehicles.
The robot continues firing at the Genokan, gaining on him. The man loops through a radial fissure separating a mountain from a nearby ridge, and comes back out firing at the robot from behind. It quickly adapts, reversing out of the entrance, and blasts him rapid-fire, shattering a leg and arm thruster. Gravity begins to take over, and he starts losing height and momentum as his thrusters fail to compensate, and plummets towards the desert sand. He sees the Ranorian patrol squad now and adjusts his trajectory accordingly. He rushes toward them like a human meteor.
"Time for some action!" says Reynolds with excitement, glancing back at Alex.
Arthur stiffens in anticipation. "Get Ready... wait for it..." The messenger kept growing as he approached, still falling. "Wait for it..."
"One minute before his thrusters lose vertical and he hits sand." says Patrick. The robot closes behind the Genokan.
"Now! Fire!" Arthur commands, and they all fire repeatedly at the descending robot. Some shots miss, but enough hit its shields to repeatedly jolt the robot upward and to the sides as the blasts are deflected or absorbed. None manage to penetrate its defenses.
The robot pulls back to get out of their line of fire, then dives rapidly toward the ground and energy begins coursing from its extremities through to its chest. Its chest opens to reveal a glowing sphere spinning inside an energy chamber, attached on all sides but the front with braces. It flares brightly and fires a beam directly into the Genokan. His shields crackle and fail in a deafening explosion and his thrusters shatter, his body propelled into the sand like a rag doll by the explosive force.
"This isn't working!" shouts Alex, firing several more ineffectual shots from the turret. "What do we do?"
"Fire as one!" orders Arthur as his command craft nears the robot. The Ranorian crafts lock-on and fire blasts in unison, at different speeds, but all hitting the robot at once. Their efforts slow it down, but still can't penetrate its shields. It keeps coming.
Arthur leaps out and rushes the robot, firing at close proximity. It bats him aside with one arm and tosses a magnetic mine back at him with the other. The explosion rocks his shields in a massive burst of light. They hold briefly, but then short and the explosion blows through and flings him down into the sand.
The robot lands without slowing and begins seamlessly running at the nearest tank. Its suit glows and it accelerates to enormous speed, covering the ground between them almost instantly. It rips directly through tank and shield with a massive energy punch, then clears without so much as missing a step. The tank explodes behind it and it continues toward the next one.
The two remaining tanks break away to avoid the explosion while the robot curves its running path to match its next target.
"Reassign shield energy to the turrets! Fire!" Alex cries.
Both tanks' shields cut out as they make the adjustment to fire. The two blasts do nothing, but Alex fires another as the robot rams through the second tank. The blast hits just as the robot enters, the tank exploding before the robot can clear, destroying both in a burst of light.
Alex relaxes slightly, but Reynolds zooms in manically to different locations looking for his brother.
"Patrick... do you see him?" she asks him.
"There he is!" says Reynolds with relief, more to himself, as he zooms with one hand and a spec enlarges to become Arthur. He changes the tank's course and sends it moving, then slows it as they near.
Alex thrusts out and over to Arthur as Reynolds finishes bringing the tank to a stop. Arthur sits up, his helmet's fogged up.
"Sir, can you hear me?" She bends down and retracts his helmet as Reynolds arrives. Arthur looks past her to Reynolds, in pain, and tries to speak but coughs blood instead.
"You're gonna be fine. Stay with me." chokes Reynolds as Arthur has a convulsion, coughs more blood, and falls back down. He grips Reynolds' arm, has another convulsion, and goes still. Reynolds closes his brother's eyelids with a trembling hand, then drops to his knees next to him, and the tears come. Alex gets up and puts her hand on his shoulder, looking down at Arthur.
"Take a moment." she says. Reynolds barely registers, but mouths "Thanks."
Alex walks a couple steps to give him space, then boosts over to the Genokan messenger. She bends down to check for vitals. He was dead, but there was something clenched in his hand. She pries out a holographic recording chip and immediately plugs it into her wrist communicator. A mini-hologram pops up showing clips of Genoka Fortress being destroyed.
"I guess you're in command... now that he's..." says Reynolds, landing lightly behind her, carrying Arthur's body.
"From what's on this, I don't think he's the only one..." She replies gently and picks up the Genokan, looking uncertainly toward the mountains. "We'd better get back, okay?" He nods and they return to their tank.
Edmund walks through a passage to the Ranore landing bay, flanked by Representatives Richard Tungian and John Larkin. A gap opens in the wall as they enter, revealing a passage filled with an energy field that passes through the city-walls to the desert outside. As they walk toward it, the field cuts out and the search party enters with Alex and Patrick's tank in the center.
The search party lands and maintenance technicians approach as the crew begins to disembark. Edmund and Larkin approach the two survivors. "Am I to understand that you encountered some kind of robot?"
"That's correct, General."
"And you're the only survivors? I had to hear it for myself."
"It wasn't exactly a walk in the park sir."
"I know. You both did a fine job. This isn't something we can take lightly." He shakes his head in disbelief. There hadn't been functional combat robots for over a thousand years. They kept improving, but counter-robotics always outpaced their adaptability. Until now. "The bodies... will be attended to..." he motions to several officers in the bay, "but I must see this hologram immediately. You understand, right?"
"Thank you, of course sir."
"This way." Edmund leads the other three into a side room, square with a larger central platform and a path around it. Alex takes the hologram from her communicator and plugs it into a slot on the wall. A massive hologram of the attack on Genoka Fortress rises out of the platform. The hologram is somewhat damaged, making the audio and video rather grainy. It shows robots attacking the fortress exterior. Genoka Fortress is an oversize military version of Ranore, with heavy plating and large armaments everywhere. Heavy fire rages between the many fortress turrets, Genokan aircraft, and the attacking robots. The robots swarm the outer defenses, undeterred by those that short or explode. More fly at Genokan aircrafts and latch on midair, tearing them apart en mass or blowing through them with charged speed attacks. Overrunning the turrets, robots turn them on the inner fortress as more swarm through the fresh holes they create.
The hologram shifts to show inside the fortress. Genokan soldiers stand at the ready a short distance back from the interior entrances, now sealed off. Blasts from the outer turrets blow holes through the walls and robots swarm in, tossing around nearby soldiers and blasting at the rest, among heavy return fire. There appeared to be data corruption and the hologram gets caught in place, skipping back and forth, then jumps forward to an interior chamber of the fortress.
Victoria Genokani and her soldiers were making their last stand in a large chamber. Robots swarm in. They blow up some, but more keep coming and the soldiers slowly drop. Victoria bursts up at a robot opening its chest for a beam attack and blasts its core, then blasts another into friendly fire as the first one explodes. Her honor guard take note and follow suit, attacking the energy cores, and bring down a number of robots, but the robots switch focus to the honor guard and eliminate them with their energy attacks. There were just too many of them.
Her guards gone, the robots overtake Victoria. They tear off her blasters and thrusters with their hands, then toss her to the ground and a domed-ring of them form around her, aiming their blasters at her. Moments pass and she looks around, then part of the dome opens up, forming an igloo, and a more advanced robot, their commander, strides in through the opening. It walks toward Victoria and the hologram cuts out.
Edmund removes a memory stick from the slot next to where Alex placed the original. "Tungian, I need you to relay this hologram to the Capital for immediate review." He hands it to him and Tungian leaves. Edmund hesitates. "Reynolds, what's your condition?"
"Got scratched up a little, but otherwise I'm fine."
"I'm glad to hear that, but that's not what I meant. You just lost your brother. You're definitely not fine. If you need to talk to anyone, make sure you do. I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of those things and we need to be ready. Go now and do whatever you need to pay your respects. If we're attacked, there may not be another good opportunity. I'm sorry for your loss. Arthur will be missed."
"Thank you sir." Reynolds and Alex turn to leave toward the landing bay, but Edmund interrupts.
"Alex, a moment-" She halts and turns back while Reynolds continues walking.
"You did well. I'm glad you came through alright. That was fast thinking and good instincts."
"Thank you, sir. I learned from the best." Alex replies, beaming at the complement. She came to Ranore a young orphan whose parents died in the war. She was given the standard Solisari surname since there were no records to trace her parents. Edmund was the closest she had to a father.
Larkin, still staring at the hologram platform, now turns to Edmund and asks him what he thinks. Alex takes her leave.
"I'm not sure," Edmund replies, walking to the hologram emitter and taking out the hologram chip. "It's strange they'd only attack Genoka. They may be a military target, but they're not exactly hostile to neighboring territories." Genoka was a city that developed out of an old fortress. It'd been in the Genokani family for centuries. It still honored its traditions, but Victoria was the polar opposite of some of her more belligerent predecessors, working hard to foster treaties rather than break them. It was, or had been, Ranore's nearest neighbor within the Dominion. Edmund had intentionally built Ranore outside Sorisent's influence and, while the desert was far from an ideal location for any kind of settlement, it ensured a degree of independence otherwise impossible... and Victoria had never challenged it. Now that Genoka was destroyed, Ranore's isolation was a liability instead of an asset. It meant Edmund could only rely on his city's more limited defenses in case of attack. There was little of value out here besides the sun and even that had questionable appeal, given that it was largely abundant elsewhere and partially outdated by the invention of the first micro-fusion energy drives in ancient times. There had never been much threat of attack until now.
"Maybe they wanted to send a message." suggests Larkin, interrupting his thoughts.
Patroclus comes on the intercom. "You have a communication request from the Regnus. He demands a holographic conference."
"Of course, prepare the conference room. I'll be there momentarily."
Edmund looks out over the desert to the Kirtari Mountains far away as he walks through the shield tower to the conference room. He hadn't spoken to the Regnus in years and would prefer to avoid it, but he didn't really have a choice. A scanner reads Edmund's face as he reaches the door. A holographic James Mortani, Edmund's brother and elected Regnus of the Dominion, rises from the ground and sharpens as the connection feed locks. He's dressed regally in current Sorisent fashions, Sorisent being the capital of the Dominion. Edmund enters and walks to greet him.
"It's good to see you."
A brief flashback overcomes Edmund and he sees Eury drowning again. "Yes, it's been a long time, brother."
"We could still at least pretend to act like family, you know."
Eurydice's frozen eyes stare at him through the water. "You have my wife's blood on your hands or have you forgotten that?"
"Yes of course, because I put her on her knees and shot her in the back of the head." James rolls his eyes.
"You may as well have."
"You were in enemy territory during an attack. You let her drown and now you blame it on me to make it easier for yourself. As much as we may not like it, Edmund, people die in wars. It's been what? Ten years now? You need to move on. Find a pretty Sorisentine woman, swim in the ocean a few times, and you'll forget all about her."
This wasn't the only reason they don't talk anymore, but it was definitely at the top of Edmund's list. James could have called off the attack. Solgaren hadn't even been involved in the conflict. It was a neutral territory and what his brother really meant was that it'd had a sizable Gil-Garem population. That was enough motivation for the Dominion to invade. They'd wanted them all dead and no loose ends. If he'd called off the attack, Eury would still be alive... along with many innocent civilians, and the Gil-Garem would not be extinct.
"However you want to justify your decisions to make you feel good about them, you're still responsible for a genocide and not only of the Gil-Garem. You know that, even though you refuse to acknowledge it. If you ever acknowledged it, you'd have to deal with your conscience, and the consequences of your actions. I kept making excuses for you in my head, but Eury's death was the catalyst that made me open my eyes to see you for what you really are. You could have stopped it. You didn't."
"Officially, perhaps I could have, but you of all people know how some generals can be, Edmund." says James, but softens his tone after the jab and continues. "I'm sorry things had to happen the way they did, but it was a necessary evil for the safety of the Dominion. Nothing more and nothing less. If you want to live in a cave, that's fine, but you're still part of the Dominion and I expect you to cooperate."
"My apologies, I would never think to challenge the divine authority of His Royal Highness, Emperor James Mortani." Edmund pauses thoughtfully, remembering Victoria being taken prisoner in the hologram. How would he feel now if their places were reversed, if it was Eury who was imprisoned and not Victoria? "Actually I am sorry. I'm sorry about what happened at Genoka... and to your fiance."
"What? We've been unable to contact Genoka all morning. What happened? Tell me what you know."
"Strange, I thought you'd already know." says Edmund, referring to the hologram he sent.
"Well I obviously don't, so why don't you tell me?" snaps James. Of course. Now that it was his woman in danger, he wasn't so calm about it. Edmund felt annoyed, even though he knew he shouldn't under the circumstances. As Regnus, James was used to getting his way. Edmund breathes in before answering.
"We lost contact with a patrol squad this morning and sent a search party after them. The patrol encountered some kind of highly advanced military robot on the Kirtari border. Only one of our tanks made it out. The robot was chasing a messenger from Genoka. The man died in the battle, but the two survivors retrieved this hologram showing Genoka getting destroyed. It cuts out at the end though, so we don't know what happened to Victoria-"
Edmund takes out the Genokan's hologram stick and a holographic screen pops out of it. He presses a button on the hologram and a progress bar appears as it's transmitted. "The search party came back just earlier. I asked Representative Tungian to relay it to the Capital, but apparently it didn't get to you in time."
James turns his head away from Edmund and stares off at the hologram on his end, watching it, then returns his attention to Edmund after it finishes. "This troubles me. Did your scouts learn anything else from this messenger? Was there anything beyond this hologram indicating what might have happened to Victoria after this cuts out?"
"No, the robot reached him before any of my patrols could. He got hit by a pretty powerful blast. We're lucky the hologram survived at all." An awkward moment passes between them, before Edmund breaks the silence. "There may be other clues or evidence at Genoka if there's anything left there. I'll lead an expeditionary force to investigate and see what I can find out. You'll hear from me as soon as I get back." He'd prefer not to get involved in this and let Sorisent deal with its own mess, but his hands were tied. At least this way it was still Edmund's decision and he'd still control the investigation... and his men if there was any trouble.
"Find out where they took her and whatever else you can about these robots... Also, bring Representative Tungian with you. The Senate will need to convene and they'll want to hear from him." The hologram disappears as James terminates the session.
Edmund leaves the conference room, watching a swirling sand cloud far in the distance. It hadn't always been like this. Their father had fought in the first war... and died a war hero. It affected them each differently. They both had seen the necessity to protect the Dominion and keep it safe, but where Edmund saw honor in the sacrifice his brother saw only the death. James went into politics, disgusted by a system he felt turned men into nothing more than cannon fodder, determined to change it. He was consumed by Sorisentine politics and wasn't the same after that. The more power he accumulated, the more he enjoyed giving orders and forgetting why he went there in the first place.
Edmund glances outside his commandcraft as it flies above Genoka Forest, lush and green, with a broad river winding serenely through it, unaware of any recent violence within its borders. But what would a forest care for the problems of mortals anyway? He surveys the five Ranorian fighters accompanying his ship in the air. All seemed well with them, and nothing but trees in the distance.
Edmund returns to his present task, walking through the command craft bay and surveying the troops. A holo-dome runs its full length, showing the outside world. Ten hover-tank crews were tweaking their vehicles while three-score soldiers in armored flight suits were watching the passing landscape, chatting idly as they double-checked their gear. They all notice him as he passes, not solely because he was their commander, but also on account of his unique battle suit that glows wherever light touches it. Tungian was accompanying him, clarifying the specifics for his eventual report back to Sorisent.
As they reach Alex and Reynolds, Genoka Fortress comes into sight, looming ahead larger as they approach, dark spots on the walls growing into gaping holes, revealing a ruined inner fortress. The shield tower, formerly protruding from Genoka, no longer exists. Its top lies in pieces outside the fortress walls.
"Would you look at that?" Tungian says, breaking the silence in awe of what he was seeing.
"Do you think there's anyone left?" asks Reynolds, more to Edmund, also staring at the devastation. "How could anyone survive that?" The ship seemed to come out of its collective reverie and the other soldiers start returning to their tasks.
"Simple. They didn't. That's the whole point." says a smiling Tungian.
Alex butts in. "We don't know that. We have to try."
"They're all rotting corpses by now. Do we really want to stir up the dead?" Tungian says, looking away from the ruins to reply to her. They both knew he was fully aware she was raised an orphan, even if it weren't blatantly obvious by her Solisari surname.
Edmund, still staring at the ruins, tactfully ignores Tungian's implications. "We do if it will prevent us from sharing their fate. We have to find out what happened. Regardless, if we don't investigate, you can't send a proper report to the Senate and that would reflect poorly on you." He walks on briskly, forcing Tungian to scurry after him to keep up.
"I don't think corpses are the only thing rotting around here." says Reynolds as Tungian leaves, his voice quiet but still loud enough to drift to Edmund's ears.
As the fleet arrives at the fortress, the commandcraft comes to a stop and opens for the infantry, in their flight suits, to drop out and arc back above it. The tanks drop next, establishing perimeter within Genoka's broken outer-walls while the commandcraft lands. Once it has, Edmund and the remaining crew in the holding bay exit as the infantry now land and assemble as a group in front of Edmund.
"Now remember," instructs Edmund, intentionally quiet. His voice is transmitted into their headbands anyway, and he has no interest in making more noise than necessary, "we have a job to do. Do it quickly, do it carefully, and do it quietly. If you find survivors, bring them out with you after you've seen to their first-aid. Notify me immediately if you find anything that tells us more about the attackers or what happened after the attack."
They now split into squads of ten and prepare to enter the main fortress. Alex and Reynolds join Edmund as part of his group, along with seven other soldiers. Tungian breaks from his assigned group and walks over to them.
"What is it Tungian?" asks Edmund evenly.
"As I'm sure you know, I'm the official representative of the Dominion and in order to do my job properly, I need to know what's going on at all times." He meant keeping an overly watchful eye on Edmund and the Ranorians in hopes of finding something nasty he could report back to the capital.
"Well, I'll make sure to let you know the instant there's anything to know. I take it your communicator is still working?" says Edmund, glancing at Alex and Reynolds. The last thing he needed was Tungian picking a fight with either of them, but he wanted the two survivors with him for any potential insights they might have.
"That's not good enough. I think the Senate would demand that I accompany you personally to ensure that my records are accurate. I'm sure one or two of your men wouldn't mind switching to another squad."
"This'll be fun. Just like a picnic." says Edmund, waving off one of his Ranorians as he passes Alex and Reynolds. The groups finish their preparations and Edmund's enters through the fractured base of Genoka's main shield tower. Darkness engulfs them, save for the light being generated by their their flight suits. They set up light beacons inside and land to secure them. The beacons generate a bright glow, revealing many burned skeletons strewn across the floor and a transport shaft leading further down into the fortress, and darkness.
"So many dead bodies, but no robots destroyed. How do we stand a chance against that?" asks Alex, looking around at the bodies.
"Maybe they're just efficient at cleaning up." suggests Reynolds, in an effort to cheer her up, but Tungian won't stand for it. "Which is one thing distinguishing them from Cerellians. In the capital, they're all slaves. You'd like it there." Reynolds starts toward Tungian, but Alex holds him back.
"That was unnecessary Tungian, and this isn't the capital." intervenes Edmund quickly. "Unfortunately." replies Tungian.
Edmund motions and they all drop into the transport shaft, landing further down in a large, circular chamber filled with more Genokan corpses thrown against the walls or blasted on the ground. The pale light from their flight suits made the dead appear almost as spectral apparitions, unnaturally still in the darkness of the chamber. Doors lined the walls, mostly broken, and the shadowy corridors beyond hungrily consumed the light from their suits and returned dancing glimpses of more corpses. Tungian seemed to be right at home.
"This reminds me of the catacombs under Sorisent. So quiet - everyone dead." he says. "It's creepy." Alex immediately retorts.
"If we can get into the Energy Chamber, we may be able to reactivate the energy cells and restore power." Edmund says, looking at a holographic map projected from his wrist communicator. "It's this way."
He goes to one of the few intact doors and gives it a try - nothing. It was apparently still sealed from the inside. He motions for his squad to be at the ready while he accesses the door’s control panel. A hologram comes up with a variety of complex geometric patterns which he weaves and adjusts until they lock together to form the shape of the security code. The door releases and opens to reveal a long, arched corridor.
Edmunds motions to follow and walks in. Four Ranorians stay put to guard the door and the rest enter behind Edmund. Two soldiers move ahead quietly as scouts. Tungian and Reynolds take the rear. The six of them step carefully past corpses, which seemed to move ever so slightly in the dancing shadows between their lights, like they weren’t completely dead. No one says anything for the length of the corridor. One of the two scouts up ahead eventually turns to look back at them and his voice comes through Edmund’s flight suit. “Sir, we’re here.”
They enter a large, open energy chamber with a shattered cylindrical power generator in the center, its metal all corroded. The floor was covered with glass, broken terminals, and more corpses. Three smaller generators nearer to them, filled with a mercurial fluid, appeared to be intact. “Reynolds and Tungian, backup generators.” he commands, and they move over to the generators’ control terminals, carefully stepping over bodies.
Behind the corroded cylinder in front of them lay a shield generator, charged matter in its cylindrical cores glowing a faint blue as it coursed through them. “Alex, see if you can get that shield up and running. I don’t want the ceiling collapsing when the generators start up.” She nods, crossing to it, and begins working. Edmund looks around for a few moments, then turns to the two unoccupied scouts.
“Contact command and let them know our status, then assist me once you’re done. Time to look for clues.” “Yes, sir.” One of them opens their wrist communicator, the armored layer sliding aside, while the other joins Edmund as he begins to inspect the control monitors on his right, near the shield generator where Alex was busily absorbed in her task.
Tungian tries one of the backup generator terminals, but it didn’t seem to like him much and refuses to cooperate. He cuts a hole into the generator with a thin laser fired from his arm, reaches inside, and zaps around with his fingertips. Defeated, the generator acquiesces and a dull gray light flickers on. He gets to work on the next one, while Reynolds pointedly circles around him to reach the generator terminal and adjusts it to emit a more steady glow, causing the monitors on the other side to flicker on briefly and turn off. Not quite there yet.
Stepping over debris, Edmund tries several intact control monitors in an attempt to power them on. Alex opens a panel on the nearby shield generator, zapping around inside it and rerouting connections in an effort to bring it back to life. She seemed to pause, hesitating, probably unsure whether she should ask Edmund what she was about to or just forget about it. “You fought in the Garemoth Wars...” she starts.
“Yes, I did. That was a long time ago.” One of the scouts walks over to Edmund. “What is it?” he asks. “Sir, communication’s down. Should I go out of the tunnel and try again?” Edmund pauses and looks at both of them, “Fine, but take him with you. I can handle things here and that way you can send him back with any updates.” He resumes working on the monitor while the scouts leave, but he could tell Alex wasn’t about to give up this opportunity. She’d always been persistent.
“What was it like?”
“People dieing for no reason. Here we go.” The monitor Edmund’s working on comes to life and a display screen pops up, but barely. It was still a ways from being usable. Alex drops the subject and gets back to work.
Reynolds successfully gets the first generator fully on. Its flowing, gray mercurial core glows more brightly now, and he moves on to the next one. Edmund ejects a memory stick from his wrist guard and inserts it into a slot on the monitor’s side. A message comes up: “Validation required”. His right gauntlet splits and folds back onto his wrist.
Alex stops what she’s doing and looks at him. “Sorry I upset you. What ever happened between you and the Regnus? I mean you are brothers after all.”
Edmund places his hand inside a control sphere. A blue light fills it and scans his hand. “He could have stopped the attack that resulted in my wife’s death... and the war too if he’d wanted. After we defeated the Gil-Garem, he declared their remaining cities enemy targets, including any that were neutral. If they had Gil-Garen inhabitants, orders were to take no prisoners. I refused and left with those who felt the same. How’s that shield generator coming?”
Alex tries another panel, “Broken. I’m seeing if it’s recoverable.” “Good.” The light in the sphere fades to a dull blue. Then in green “CLEARED” replaces the old message and disappears, leaving a blank screen. He motions inside the sphere and the heading “LOGS” appears at the top of the screen, followed by a list in numerical sequence.
“It’s just that I barely know anything about it, except for the attack on Dubitus. I was so young when my family died. If you hadn’t come through there, I would’ve too. You always looked out for all of us refugees.” she says, meaning the war orphans. “I haven’t forgotten.”
“I just did what any decent person would do under the circumstances. Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to find one in Sorisent. When credits or resources are involved, some people lose their morality in a hurry, and especially there.” He sets a search filter and the list shrinks. The log screen fades to the background. “UPLOADING LOGS: Please wait” pops up in front, along with a status bar.
“It’s probably not much comfort and it won’t bring your wife back, but a lot of us look up to you. You’re kind of a father to us. I, we appreciate everything you’ve done for us.”
He looks up at her, touched, about to speak, but his attention is drawn to a small hologram that comes out of the monitor, showing the arrival of the robots in glowing snakeships. They abruptly materialize, gliding and slithering through the sky at a rapid pace.
Alex looks over, “What is that?”
“Gil-Garem snakeships.” In the hologram, openings form on the snakeships and robots drop from them to the ground. The robots begin accelerating towards the Genokan tanks, rushing from the fortress themselves to meet the oncoming swarm. Reynolds and Tungian finish starting the backup generators and light floods in as power comes back. They come over.
Alex clenches her jaw, “Aren’t they all dead?”
“Yes, they’re supposed to be...” Edmund replies vaguely.
“So what were they doing here?”
Back in the transport shaft, the two scouts were still trying to get communication with the commandcraft going. The other four soldiers were standing at the corridor’s entrance, watchful and bored.
“This isn’t going to work.” says one scout to the other. “There must be a damaged transmitter here that’s pulsing out and blocking the signal. Try different frequencies.” They do, to no apparent effect. “Let’s just head back and let him decide how to handle it.” The other nods in agreement. They turn and begin walking back down the corridor to the generator room. Lights appear in the transport shaft behind them and and they turn to look.
On the far side, a blur surrounds a point of light in the air and grows into a bright hemisphere. An energy blast explodes out of it, taking out one of the door guards as a robot materializes around the glowing energy cell in its chest. Two more robots materialize as they enter from the corridors. The guards jump to the ready as the first robot rushes past them into the corridor.
The scouts try to block its path, shoving it back and attacking hand-to-hand. Neither of them could aim quickly enough to blast it at this range. It blocks every attack, but one of them manages to grab it from behind and attempts to hold it so the other scout can fire. The robot shakes lose and fires an energy spike point-blank into the second scout before he can get his shot off, tearing straight through armor and flight suit, and throwing him lifeless into the wall. It turns and attacks the remaining scout. He manages to keep fending off its relentless blows, but an energy-assisted punch forces him back. Another energy spike and the robot continues down the corridor.
Laser-fire echoes through the tunnel and into the energy chamber. Edmund pulls his hand out of the sphere and his flight suit folds back over his hand.
“Alex, we need that shield!”
“I’m working on it!” An energy field fires from atop of the shield generator, hitting the ceiling and spreading to encompass the chamber, but then flickers and cuts out. Out of the darkness of the corridor, a robot becomes visible, rushing towards them. Unlike the other robots, this one was embroidered in Garzelan runes, glowing faintly, and the flight suit was intricately detailed in standard Gil-Garen fashion. If this was an advanced prototype, it did not bode well for them.
“Get that shield back up!” shouts Edmund.
Alex tears another panel off, throwing it aside, and starts working inside frantically. The hologram reaches where it cut off before, and continues on to show the robot general finishing its walk towards Victoria.
Everyone starts blasting at the robot except Alex, who continues working on the shield generator. Edmund fires lasers from his arms that split into a matrix of beams and strike the robot all at once, knocking it down.
The hologram shows the robot reaching Victoria Genokani. She stands up to it defiantly. It pauses momentarily, then backhands her forcefully, knocking her to the ground. It lifts her one-handed by the back of her flight suit and throws her to several of its robotic subordinates.
The robot in the energy chamber gets back up amid their fire and opens its chest to loose a blast at the control monitor.
The robots bind Victoria with restraints and lead her away, the general close behind.
The shield springs out of the generator and holds this time. The hologram stops and the screen changes to “UPLOAD COMPLETE”. Edmund flies to the control monitor and pulls the memory stick as the robot’s blast hits the energy field. It shorts, but not before reflecting the blast back into the robot. Electricity pulses through it as it overloads, causing it to glow brightly before exploding in a burst of light and shards.
Edmund places the memory stick back in his flight suit and hears more laser-fire echoing through the corridor from the transport shaft. He turns to Alex, giving her a nod of approval. “Good job, but we still need that generator. Have Tungian help you fix it. Reynolds, use the terminal and try to contact Command. Get that shield up again and stay inside it.” Edmund goes into the corridor. Was it wrong to be enjoying the thrill of battle again?
The last of the three robots was exchanging fire with the two remaining guards in the transport shaft. They’d managed to destroy its companion by blasting the energy cell, but it killed the one who took the shot. It rises abruptly at an angle, then drops down on the nearest soldier from above. The second guard rushes it as the other crashes into the ground.
The robot’s head turns and it gets knocked back, but its thrusters catch and ricochet it back into the second guard, slamming him into the wall. The robot turns and rushes the first soldier as he gets back up, a blade forming along the length of its arm, and swings forward, slashing through his chest as it passes and instantly killing him.
The second guard, now behind the robot, rises into the air on his thrusters, blasting and firing grenades. It avoids them, then curves in sideways and does an uppercut while thrusting upward, slamming the soldier forcefully against the wall as it connects. The wall cracks behind him and his thrusters rupture, dropping him down the wall into a sitting position as their glow flickers and goes out.
The robot flips gracefully and drops to the ground. It walks to the stunned soldier, pauses momentarily, then opens its chest armor in preparation for an energy blast.
When the task is accomplished, it rushes down the corridor, toward the energy chamber beyond. Growing light ahead indicated that the Ranorians had successfully restored at least some of the backup systems. It must hurry. It increases its velocity, but abruptly falls down as it gets clipped by an unseen attacker.
Edmund grabs it by the legs and swings it against the wall. It rights itself with its thrusters almost instantly and surges back at him with an energy punch. He dodges back as it passes and the robot’s fist punches through the wall, and lodges in it. Maximizing his advantage, he smashes the robot from above with both hands, the assisted force from his flightsuit hammering the robot to the ground, its fist ripping down through the wall, with an accompanying high-pitch squeal of metal sheering apart. The robot rips its arm out of the wall, hurling a large chunk of jagged metal at Edmund in the process. He again dodges back, hovers, and rushes the robot as it gets up.
The robot ducks back and blocks with both forearms, shoves forward and pulls its forearms down to grab Edmund by the arms. The robot lifts him up and smashes him into the ground, then fires energy spikes, but Edmund thrusts straight backwards under its legs, knocking it over in the process.
Man and machine get up and turn to face one another, each waiting for a move by their opponent.
“You are superior to these other Sorisenti in fighting ability. I am Rith-Kan. Are you their leader?” says the robot, its suit mapping its voice from Garzelan into Ornelan, the official language of Sorisent, and causing its lips to lose sync with the resultant sound.
“Yes, of these. I am Edmund Mortani.” he responds in Garzelan, forgoing translation.
Still tense and motionless, they watch each other carefully.
“Where did you get your armor? It is not standard Gil-Garem armor. The design is Sorisentine.”
Edmund hesitates a moment, wondering whether or not to answer the question. “A friend made it for me before the war.”
“I see - what happened to this friend?”
“She died in the war.”
“I am sorry. It is a shame I have to kill you. You seem honorable.”
“We should talk about this.”
“That’s not possible.”
Rith-Kan surges through the air at Edmund and does a spin kick at the last moment, knocking Edmund hard into the wall. He moves to return the attack, but it fires several energy spikes directly into him and he falls back heavily against the wall.
Rith-Kan’s flight-suit charges to fire. Edmund fires a blast directly into its glowing energy cell and it overloads, about to explode. The robot rips out the energy cell and hurls it away as Edmund fires an energy net on it. The net clings to Rith-Kan as the energy cell explodes, throwing them both to the ground.
Edmund gets to his knees and crawls over to where Rith-Kan lies shorted. His vision momentarily goes dark and a strong wind seemed to pick up. It stops and his vision returns to the robot lying in front of him. Slinging Rith-Kan over his shoulders, he slowly returns to the energy chamber, illuminated in the distance by the shield’s glow.
The others see him as he approaches and take down the energy shield so he can enter. Reynolds stares in awe when he sees the robot he’s carrying. “Sir?”
“How did you do that?” asks Alex as she approaches to look at Rith-Kan. Tungian just looks at all of them suspiciously.
“No time to talk now. There may be more and, if there are, I want to be out of here before they come. I handled this one, but that’s my limit for today. Help me carry this.” He drops the robot off his shoulders.
Alex and Reynolds pick up Rith-Kan and fly into the corridor as Edmund and Tungian lead. Clearing the corridor, Alex and Reynolds start to rise up the transport shaft while Edmund and Tungian check the bodies of the Ranorians. After confirming they’re all dead, they join Alex and Reynolds above.
Edmund hears a soft breeze and, seeing a flash of light in one of the adjacent corridors below, pauses behind the others. The corridor appeared to be empty. Tungian looks down at him. “One of your friends come back to feast on your bones?” Reynolds gives the Representative a nasty look.
“What is it?” asks Alex from above.
“You go on ahead. I need to check something out. Keep your communicators on.” He lands on the ground as they continue up the transport shaft.
The steady breeze returns and there was a sound of movement. Edmund enters the corridor and passes through a blurry haze of smoking rubble. He coughs and waves the fumes out of his face, then looks around, blinking.
The corridor ahead seemed to blur and distort as he walks forward, his vision throbbing like fists pounding on a drum. Streaks of blue and gold smoke fly together forming a cloud in front of him that materializes into the form of a cloaked woman. She removes her hood, and Eury looks just as he remembered.
“Long time no see, love. You miss me?” she says.
He stares at her longingly, “...but how? How are you here?”
“I’m here because you need me to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“I never had a chance to give this back to you and I have a feeling this time you need it more than me.” She hands him a tiny glowing orb filled with a miniature of Eury in Edmund’s arms, her head on his shoulder and each looking at the other. She closes his hand over it, “Good luck darling.” and kisses him slowly.
“You okay?” intrudes Alex’s concerned voice. Eurydice disappears into a cloud of vapor, along with the charm she handed him. “You weren’t responding to your communicator.” Alex steps forward into the corridor, but scrunches her nostrils and a helmet forms around her head.
Edmund drops to his knees, but she reaches him and catches him under the armpits before he falls down. Alex drags him into the clean air of the transport shaft and sets him against the wall. She retracts her helmet, now that they were clear of the fumes.
“I feel insulted. There we are carrying away your trash while you’re off having a private sauna.” Edmund coughs in response. “Come on now... breathe.” He coughs several more times, then takes a deep breath. “That corridor’s sitting on a mineral vein. Why didn’t you engage your helmet?”
“Disoriented.” he replies, shaking his head. “Flashback or something... from before. Sorry... thanks.”
“No problem. If you’re alright now, I think it’s time we get moving.”
Edmund looks again at his empty hand. “And your instinct would be correct.” He stands up and they boost up the shaft.
Outside Ranore, the commandcraft descends to reach the outer walls. A portion of the energy field cuts out as they approach, letting them in, then engages again as soon as they enter the landing bay. The aircrafts land and everyone disembarks. Fifteen soldiers come forward as Edmund and the others carry out the shorted Rith-Kan, still bound by energy nets. They drop him at the feet of the gathered soldiers. Edmund addresses the commanding lieutenant.
“Take this away to the lab. Make sure the energy nets stay on and keep it tight. If it wakes up, you probably won’t live to remember it.”
The soldiers all look at the robot nervously. “Yes, sir. We’ll be extra careful.” The lieutenant turns to the other soldiers and motions toward the robot. Several pick up Rith-Kan and carry it out while the rest escort them with weapons drawn.
Edmund turns to his crew, “You’re all free to go. I’ve got to report back to His royal majesty.”
“You should be more respectful. He’s not just your brother - he’s also the Regnus of the Dominion.” says Tungian.
“If he were less busy being Regnus, maybe I would.”
“I don’t care what happened between you two. He’s still Regnus and that position should be respected.”
Reynolds points to Rith-Kan and interrupts, “Respect out here has to be earned. We came here to avoid that.” Tungian turns toward him and Edmund leaves quickly while Tungian’s preoccupied.
“To avoid what?”
“Mindless automatons.” says Alex and starts to turn. “Come on Patrick, let’s get out of here.”
Tungian smiles, “That’s right. Unless you want to end up like your brother, you should listen to Solisari, but then again Cerellians aren’t known for being especially bright.”
Reynolds moves to hit him, but Alex is quicker and restrains him from behind. He stares daggers at Tungian.
“Just forget about it. Let it go.” says Alex, deftly switching position and pushing him away from Tungian. Reynolds turns abruptly and strides off toward the city, Alex close behind. Tungian waves after them, smiling. Alex sees and makes an appropriate parting gesture with her hand.
Safely inside the confines of Ranore station, which was to say the control tower itself, Edmund finds himself waiting in the conference room as a holographic James flickers into existence once more.
“You did well, retrieving the holographic log from Genoka. It appears the Gil-Garem have returned in force.”
“Despite your best attempt to annihilate them.”
“It’s unfortunate. Were there any trajectory tails in the air? Anything that might indicate where they took Victoria? The hologram you sent didn’t say.”
“The only ones we found were from Genokan craft and none of them escaped. If the robots left any, they must have figured out a way to clear them, like they removed all other traces that they’d been there.”
“Do you have anything else to tell me?”
Edmund pauses. He has to tell James about the robot, but he didn’t want to - not yet, at least. Still, it couldn’t be helped.
“I captured a robot inside the ruins at Genoka. It seemed almost alive. I’m not sure it’s one of the ones responsible for the attack, but it did attack us.”
“It attacked you, but you don’t think it has anything to do with the other attack?” says James incredulously, then continues after a pause. “What was different?”
“The way it talked and fought. It was analytical and the flight suit looked almost Gil-Garen. The ones in the hologram didn’t.”
James rolls his eyes, “I’ll take that into consideration. You said you spoke to it. What did you talk about?”
“It asked me who I was. I tried talking to it to calm things down, but it attacked me. It seemed almost disappointed that it had to fight me. I’m not saying it wasn’t dangerous, because it was. I’m just not sure why it was there. Genoka was already wiped clean before we got there, at least of any evidence robots had been there.”
“I see. Well there are other ways to get information out of it. Bring this robot to the capital. I’ll have technicians disassemble it and use it for research so we can better defend ourselves. We’ll learn where the Gil-Garem are hiding.”
“Like I said, these robots looked different, almost like real Gil-Garem. I’m not convinced they’re the same robots from the attack. It wouldn’t hurt to try to talk to it now that we’ve captured it. We can scan its memory systems right here while we interrogate it and crack whatever encryption it has on it. That would get you information much quicker than bringing it to the capital.”
“That’s not what I asked you to do. We’re looking at the possibility of a major war and we need the largest edge possible. I understand that your regret over loosing Eury makes you anxious to try and help anything resembling a Gil-Garen you come across, but there’s more at stake here. We need to be prepared and I need to find Victoria...” James hesitates, “if she’s still alive.”
“You don’t need this robot to be prepared and destroying it could even be counterproductive. If we talk to it, it’s possible we’ll learn something useful about Victoria long before a memory scan completes. Assuming it even knows anything. It could be a potential ally.”
“There’s no time for this. I’ve always given you free rein to run your little city experiment however you wanted. True, I have the Senate send a representative to check up on you, but I’ve never interfered, and I think we’d both like to keep it that way. Bring this robot to the capital.”
“You’re threatening me? You don’t have that kind of authority.”
“You’ve been gone from Sorisent a long time. The Senate has bestowed on me the responsibility to do whatever is needed to neutralize threats to Sorisent and the Dominion. Your little village is outside its geographic bounds, by your own choosing. Bring the robot to Sorisent. This is not a request, Edmund.”
The hologram cuts out and drops to the floor. Edmund immediately leaves the room. He hadn’t expected James to agree with his interpretation, but it’d been worth a shot. There was something distinctly odd about these attacks and he wanted to know what it was. If James was demanding the robot, it meant he had to act fast if he wanted to try and learn anything from it before the handover.
Edmund activates his wrist communicator, “Patroclus, I just finished my conference. I need to talk to you.”
“Can’t talk now. Give me a minute...” Edmund looks out over the city, but really he was checking the reflections to make sure no one was around. Patroclus comes back on the comms, speaking quietly “That badly? Tell me what happened.”
“He made it clear in no uncertain terms that we’re to bring the robot to Sorisent immediately. We don’t have any choice in the matter.”
“I know what you have in mind and I think you’re right. After what happened at Genoka, we need to know whether there’s any danger to Ranore.”
“Exactly. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him...” He looks around again to make sure no one was watching. “I’ll see you shortly.”
Night. Reynolds walks into the darkness of his quarters and puts a holographic cylinder containing a miniature of his brother on a desk surface as it slides from the wall. He sits abruptly in a chair and looks out at the city - quiet and full of light. People were strolling or flying about in the distance, but it seemed like a separate reality. Reynolds puts his head in his hands, fighting back tears, then turns abruptly to the cylinder.
“Activate.” Across from him a full-size hologram of his brother springs up. He looks around, then at Reynolds.
“Did you stop the robot?”
“You know you’re dead, right?”
“It’s like my body’s under local anesthesia. I’m here, but it’s not. How are you coping?”
“I should’ve done a better job.”
“We were overpowered. It’s luck that any of us survived. Don’t beat yourself up over it. At least one of us is still alive.”
“Mortani captured a robot at the Genoka ruins. He’s got some serious skills. Tungian on the other hand...” Arthur shrugs and says nothing. “Anyway, what do you think?”
“You already know what you want. So really, you’re asking me if you should do it or just leave well enough alone.”
“I don’t have an answer for you. I’m not here anymore. You need to use your own judgment. Do what you feel you have to.”
Reynolds looks up at him. “Thanks.” He calls up the intercom. “Alex, can you meet me at the rock gardens?”
“Yes, of course. Is everything ok?” she asks, “Well I mean, obviously it’s not, but-”
“It will be. Bring your suit.”
“Okay... I’ll see you there.” she says with hesitation.
He gets up and activates a panel on the wall. A retractable closet opens in its place complete with a mirror in the center as it arcs out to the left and right with his wardrobe. He retracts his civilian flight suit and replaces it with his combat suit. He checks the charge levels once it’s fully formed, then shuts the closet and leaves his quarters.
He flies through the city and drops to land as he approaches the glow of the rock gardens. Located in the shadow of Ranore tower, rock and metal were merged together in elegant patterns illuminated by holographic plants blanketing the ground. Water was too precious out here for recreational vegetation.
Alex was already there pacing nervously as he arrives and shoots him a concerned look as he lands nearby.
“I’m not sure we should do this. It’s a bit dangerous and reckless. If you ask me, we should just hit back a few at the pub and leave well enough alone.”
“You can’t tell me there’s no appeal in it for you. It’s people like him who’re responsible for your parents’ deaths. Think about it.”
She does, “...that’s true. You’re sure I can’t talk you out of this?”
“Well I guess we’d better get on with it then. What doesn’t kill you... doesn’t kill you.”
“Well at least it’s true.”
“Fair enough. Shall we?” They check no one’s watching, then take off together, passing the perimeter of the rock garden’s luminance into the shadow beyond.
Edmund and Patroclus enter a modestly sized room with glossy, camouflage green-grey walls that never quite resolve themselves into one or the other - the kind of shade that might encourage one to stare at it pondering the nature of color and how it’s perceived. Edmund approaches a massive terminal on one of the walls and pulls up charts and diagrams of Gil-Garen anatomy. On a large table behind him was the shorted robot, still in its debilitating energy net. Patroclus looks around outside, then closes the door behind them and locks it.
Edmund walks slowly to the table, double checking his suit’s energy readings one last time. Safety first. A tray slides from the side of the table and rises to float near his hand as he reaches for an energy knife. He picks it up and a blade appears on its front.
The tray moves out of the way as he cuts the energy net. He places the net on the tray and it whisks away into the table. The robot’s flight suit lights up as the recessed runes on its surface resume their faint glow. He feels the back of the helmet until he finds a spot on the neck that he was looking for. Pressing it, the helmet retracts into the robot’s flight suit. Rith-Kan’s face was aqua with a plastic look to it. The rest of the flight suit retracts into itself until it’s a solid rectangle.
“Gil-Garen...” says Edmund, and spends a moment just staring at it. It didn’t make sense. If it was synthetic, why would anyone go to this much effort to duplicate a dead species? A second tray comes from the table and he puts the folded flight suit on it, then motions it away.
Patroclus approaches and looks at it, then at the scan results on the view-screen. “It’s not real. It can’t be. I mean they’re all dead...”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, I’m not your brother...” he says, looking back at the viewscreen to double-check what he was saying, “but the scans definitely indicate primary silicon composition. It’s definitely a robot... but it’s also definitely Gil-Garen.”
“These weren’t in the records of the attack.”
The door slides open as Alex and Reynolds enter.
Patroclus turns from the view-screen, “You aren’t supposed to be here.”
Alex ignores him and looks at Edmund, “Come on, you bust up a robot the Regnus wants, and you expect me to think you’re not going to take a look for yourself before handing it over to him? Anyway, I was curious.”
Edmund glances from Alex to Reynolds, observing their facial expressions. “As it turns out, I was just getting to a few questions that you two might be able to answer. You can stay, but nothing leaves this room. Not a word.” Alex and Reynolds smile faintly at each other as he turns back to the door’s control panel, sealing it again.
They all relax a little and Alex glances down at the robot on the table, then looks at it more keenly, with interest. “Is that a robot?” Edmund nods in reply. “It looks... almost alive.” Reynolds glowers at it.
“That’s what I wanted to ask you about. We have the records of the Genoka attack and there aren’t any of these in them. We don’t have any records from your squad’s encounter, which means we can’t compare, but maybe you can. Does it look the same to you?” He pulls up the schematic of the flight suit on the view-screen, and it projects a holographic version of it to where they’re standing.
Alex circles the hologram, inspecting it. “Well, it does look different on the outside, but I mean the inner workings... energy core in the center... ramps up the weapons and movement... it all seems the same as the one we fought out in the desert.” She looked mildly baffled that he was asking her a question that should be obvious. “Was there something more specific you were looking for?”
“I’ve never encountered anything like this before. It’s far more advanced than anything I’m aware of.” Edmund crosses to the viewscreen and highlights Rith-Kan’s torso, back, and rear skull. The sections highlight in response on the hologram, with overlays popping out to show interfaces on the robots from the Genoka attack. “Normally there would be interfaces... but the scans didn’t pick up any.”
“And you’re confused because they need some way to initially program it, not to mention service it.” Reynolds says, breaking in. He’d been standing back, listening to the talk while assessing the schematic and robot on the table.
“And there’s nothing here more than the standard voice and holographic communication.” continues Alex, walking to the far side of the table so she’s standing next to Rith-Kan. She looks down into its face. “So it’s a clone then?”
“We thought that...” starts Patroclus, but leaves the statement hanging. Edmund glances at him and he continues, “... but it’s composed of silicon instead of carbon for the parts that matter... so it can’t be.”
“At the same time, it’s functionally a living, breathing Gil-Garem...” says Edmund. This information startles Alex and she abruptly motions for the tray, taking the energy knife off it, its blade glowing faintly. Everyone looks nervously at Alex. What was she doing? “We should remove another layer and see what it looks like inside.” she says, bringing the blade to Rith-Kan’s neck.
“Alex - wait! -” implores Reynolds, stepping toward her.
“Put away the knife, Alex.” instructs Edmund firmly. He understands her motivation, but he can’t let her do this. “You’re not the only one who lost someone in the war... or otherwise. Our shadows are all that’s left of us when we die. Don’t disgrace their memory.”
She looks down and moves the blade away. “I’m sorry, sir - I didn’t mean...”
Rith-Kan’s eyes open and his arm grabs Alex’s wrist in a vicelike grip. She drops the knife. He throws her by her wrist and stomach into the wall, sitting up in the same movement. Edmund presses a control on the table and a current runs through it, knocking the robot out cold again. There went their chance to ask it anything. Alex rubs her wrist as Edmund and Patroclus put Rith-Kan securely back on the table.
“You were at Gi-Garemoth. What do you make of it?” Edmund asks Patroclus. He doesn’t say anything immediately. His eyes seemed lost in memory, running through events from a decade earlier.
“Some must have left prior to the army’s arrival. That’s the only thing I can think of. Either that or they made these robotic clones during the war and Sorisent never found them. The robots started duplicating and now they’re doing what they were designed to do - attack Sorisent.”
“Maybe...” says Edmund without conviction. If they’d had these, the Dominion probably would’ve lost the war and the Gil-Garem would still be alive... and maybe Eury along with them. He cracks his neck and refocuses. He couldn’t dwell on the past right now. “But why leave these for guard duty instead of the others?”
“Well they both nearly killed us. That’s one thing they have in common.” states Reynold.
“True.” says Edmund, and looks at Patroclus. “Any results on the memory scans?” Patroclus goes to the view-screen and pulls up the information for Edmund. “Inconclusive... it’s either deeply encrypted or its in a format we haven’t seen before.”
“Or it’s not being stored digitally.” suggests Alex. Patroclus smiles politely, but Edmund turns to the view screen.
“It’s possible,” says Edmund diplomatically, “but that would imply something bordering on a legitimate silicon consciousness.”
“All the more dangerous.” says Alex earnestly, casting a savage glare at the robot sprawled on the table. Dangerous and unpredictable, Edmund thinks as he ushers them out and begins re-prep on the robot for tomorrow’s flight.