[Writing] 'Panther Origin Story' - Final Chapter (28th Dec 2022)

Started by Tapewolf, October 30, 2022, 07:27:03 PM

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The Keller story has been going through a rather bumpy phase, not least because all the panther characters started giving me ideas for a different story - the story of how Jakob obtained the technology in the first place.  So I've been working on that on the side.

Currently this has ten chapters, and comes to an ending in that space.  However since I've been waiting in vain for comments from the proof-readers it's entire possible that someone will say "Oh, you need to cover that" or "that bit doesn't work" and it will need to be expanded.

It also doesn't really have a name, though when and if it becomes a comic, "The Auretica Project" is one I've been considering.

We shall see. 

"What you propose is risky," the pink poodle said.  "The outcome is far beyond my ability to foresee.  But this I can tell you - if you do return, if you do survive...
"Remember that there are harsh laws against creating new life.  The powers that be will not look kindly upon such experiments, and even my influence will not be able to save you if such things become known outside the walls of my Academy."

"Right now there are," the winged wolf admitted.  "But those sanctions won't last forever, will they?"

Fa'Lina did not reply.

Chapter One

B-203 watched sadly as the large, black paws finally stopped twitching and relaxed into death, the big cat's body now swaying limply in the breeze before them.  There was silence throughout the courtyard, and the unmistakeable odour of fear.

"Any deviation will result in termination," the loudspeakers echoed, causing the assembled felines to snap to attention suddenly.  "This you have been taught, and this you know.  The criminal, B-407 of Squad J, knew this too and chose to disobey.  Justice has now been served upon him, and may Orr forgive him in death for his sins in life!  Think upon this as you return to your duties.  Now go.  Death to traitors!"

"Death to traitors," the assembled jaguars responded in unison, and began to file out of the courtyard, a legion of black, silky bodies in shining armour, padding back into the complex their duty it was to protect.  B-203 caught one last covert glimpse of the gallows as he left, and shuddered involuntarily.   When the courtyard was empty, the masters would cut down the unfortunate panther and dispose of the corpse.

B-203 had heard tales, whispered covertly in the panther barracks, about one time when a GE-Jag had stayed to watch their fallen comrade's removal, only to feel the noose tightening around their own neck for insubordination and undue interest in classified matters.  In some versions, the unfortunate ended up in a bucket courtesy of the guillotine.  Either way, curiosity had definitely killed the cat.

Some jaguars believed the first version was most likely, since decapitation was more merciful.  Others argued the masters weren't all identical, and that some were more lenient than others.  A few of the more pragmatic jaguars pointed out that since the executions were generally carried out in the evening, the executioner probably just wanted to leave quickly and get their dinner, something a full-blown hanging would delay considerably.  Most, like B-203, suspected that both scenarios had occurred multiple times over the many decades since the GE-Jag project had begun.  Either way, the story encouraged the panthers to leave the courtyard rapidly and avoid risking their own necks to an overzealous agent of justice.

Bad panther!  He had been moping about the execution instead of thinking about what he was doing and where he was going.  No more of that, or it'll be the punch for you!  Now... corridor 4B-7Z is where I should be patrolling and there's still time to get there before anyone asks...

"Hello," a voice said, shattering the panther's inner reverie.  The black jaguar's fur stood on end and he spun around immediately, claws out, teeth bared.

Standing in front of the armoured feline guard was a strange man with curly hair, and a laboratory coat.  He wore black gloves on his outstretched hands, and a disarming smile on his face.  And he smelled... wrong.

"Who are you!?" the panther demanded.  "You are violating curfew!  Identify yourself immediately!"

"I am your saviour, B-203," the man smiled, holding out his palms in a welcoming gesture.  "Join me... and I shall grant you freedom.  Would you like a jellybaby?"

"I'm not stupid," the animal snarled.  "I know what 'Freedom' means!  You're under arrest!"

"Unlikely," the intruder replied, and a green ball of energy shot from his fingertips, striking the panther and causing them to collapse in a heap, terror building as their limbs refused to co-operate.

"You know, I wasn't quite sure that would work," the intruder said, glancing at his lab gloved hand, which still emitted a faint wisp of green energy.  "I hope it hasn't damaged you permanently..."  So saying, the stranger moved quickly towards the hefty animal and dragged them into a nearby office, closing the door and zip-tying the fallen cat's hind legs before moving to the front.

B-203 made a feeble attempt to lash out at the stranger, but they merely grabbed hold of his foreleg and began studying it for a few moments, before trussing them up as well.  Finally he reached for the big cat's head, cradling it in his hands and peering into the yellow glowing eyes intently, before forcing the cat's mouth open and inspecting his teeth.

"Ah well," the intruder sighed, "No wonder that worked as well as it did!  I had hoped you were a bit more robotic.  Flashy armour and cybernetic implants are all very nice, but not quite what I was looking for."

"I... I've failed..." the panther keened.  "You promised me Freedom... So give it to me now!  I submit.  Do it!"

"Do what...?"  the lab-coated intruder looked confused.  "Are jellybabies toxic to you or something?"

"Freedom!  The bullet behind the ear... the quick death... please!" the jaguar wailed.  "Just don't let them decapitate me!  Don't let them give me the rope!  Please... please... just do it!  Quickly!"

"What kind of savage do you take me for...?" the stranger looked disgusted.  "You're coming with me."

"But you can't escape!  They'll find you, they'll hunt you down.  Orr protect us... We'll both be decapitated!"

"Hah," the stranger laughed.  "That'll work about as well as you arresting me.  You see, I come from a place they'll never find.  But I was hoping to get a comprehensive understanding of your people's robotics technology before I returned there."

"You... you came to steal our technology?  Are you part of the Resistance?  I thought they'd all been hanged!  And you can't be one of the Enemy...  They'd never offer to help a..."

"Quite wrong, I'm afraid.  But understandable, and frankly you're unlikely to guess the right answer anyway.
"My name is Jakob Pettersohn, and I'm more of a... neutral third party.  You see, I come from another world, seeking the technology to build a machine with a fully-sentient mind.
"This is not the first world I've visited... but alas, the previous ones had either logic-based software programs aping intelligence but with no sentience behind them, or else the technology was so advanced and intricate that it won't be able to withstand..." he sighed and shrugged his shoulders.
"Nevermind.  It looks like I've failed again and will have to try somewhere else."

"But what about me?  Will you just turn me loose?" the panther looked terrified at the prospect.

"Not if you don't want to be.  My offer for sanctuary still stands... And it sounds like they'll execute you if you stay."

"They will if they find me like this!  If I'm lucky it'll just be 'Freedom' for me.  The sweet release of death after a lifetime of hard work," the animal snarled bitterly as if trying to laugh.   "But more likely... it'll be a slower, more painful demise to set an example for letting an intruder go.  Beheading or hanging while my squad are forced to watch.  So please... you claimed to be a saviour... Save me!  Take me with you!  I don't want to die... Not like that!"

"You can come.  But the others... I'm sorry, but I can't right the wrongs of every world.  I don't have that kind of power or lifespan.  And what time I have left grows ever shorter for me..."

The panther looked up, a cunning gleam in his eye.  "But we do have it," he said.  "The technology you want.  We, the cyborgs... we're the older ones.  The Masters want to phase us out, but they keep us around because we're cheap.  We can be grown in vats... and disposed of easily if we step out of line.  Oh, and we also have a keen sense of smell which they've not yet been able to replicate artificially.
"But the robots?  They're still very expensive and only used in a few locations.  But this base is where the research is being done, and I can show you where!"

"Very well," Jakob smiled, cutting the panther's bonds.  "I already know what you're going to say.  Save your squad, and you'll tell me where to find this technology.
"I'll try, but there's a risk.  I really can't save everybody... I'm just one man!  I don't have the resources.
"And the catch is, if I only save some of you... What'll happen to the rest?  If an entire squad of panthers defects, will they shoot the others?"

"It's never happened before," the panther said.  "I don't know!  But I'm pretty sure that if just part of a squad defected, the others will be treated as suspects!  They'll be interrogated!"

*  *  *

"You know, 'B-203' doesn't exactly trip off the tongue," Jakob said.  "What would you rather be called?"

"I... I don't understand," the panther replied, cocking their head slightly.  "Are you asking for a name?"

"A nickname or something," Jakob looked a little confused.  "Surely they don't just call you 'Bee-Two-Oh-Three' all the time?"

"Sometimes it's abbreviated to 'Three'," the panther said.  "But that can get confusing, say if B-263 is also present... then they'll call me Oh-Three and he'll be Six-Three..."

"You don't have names," Jakob sighed.  "Then I suppose I'd better give you one.  I don't want to just call you by your number, that's demeaning.... Which frankly, is probably the idea.  Any preferences?"

"...I don't know!" the panther looked alarmed.

Jakob almost fell over from the unexpected rush of fear, and crouching down, began to pat the big cat reassuringly.   "It's alright, it's alright," he said gently.
"I thought you'd like it!  There's no need to have a panic attack over choosing a name.  But I would like to give you one eventually... calling you by number is just... Ugh!"

"Fine," he sighed.  "I'll call you 'Three' if that's what you prefer, but if you do make it to my world, we're going to sort out a nickname for you first thing.
"Now!  I need somewhere safe, where I can plan how to proceed.  Now, I appreciate safety is relative, but do you happen to know anywhere that's not visited much?"

"Four doors down on the left," the jaguar said.  "It's a store-room.  Surplus stuff for a seige or some other improbable event, so it's not used much.  That might do, but nowhere is safe, really..."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter Two

Jakob snatched up a keycard from the desk in the office, and headed out the door with his newfound ally in tow.   As he did so, a second jaguar came into view - much like B-203, but with less armour.  In particular, this animal's neck was fully exposed, with only their head and back protected, as though they wore an open helmet and cuirass.

"Wha..." the panther froze in astonishment, and glanced at the other jaguar.  "B-203... Is this intruder your prisoner?"

"No," Jakob said imperiously.  "He is mine.  Deputy Chief Research Scientist Peterson, seconded from Area 51.  I have commandeered this panther for use in an experiment."

The jaguar shuddered involuntarily at this, and Jakob glanced pointedly at them with an evil chuckle, a cruel smile forming on his lips.  "Ah, yes!  You... B-456!  You are to come with me also."

The panther sagged visibly, but quickly recovered, snapping a salute and falling in line behind B-203.  Jakob could taste their terror, and it was delicious.

A few doors down, the scientist turned and opened the door.  "Stop here," he ordered as they entered the room, and immediately bolted the door behind them.

"Sir!" B-456 barked obediently, and then slunk back in horror as he took in the surroundings.

"This is just a supply room," he quavered.  "You.. You're not even going to give us a chance!  You're a spy!  You're just going to kill us, aren't you...?"

"The stranger has promised to rescue me," B-203 intervened.  "Perhaps he is an Enemy agent.  Perhaps it is a trap... a loyalty test, and we will be executed for treason for having taken his bait.  If so, at least it will be over soon." 

"I am from the North," Jakob said.  "I seek the technology of building an artificial mind, as your people have done.  Aid me, and I will take you with me where you may spend the rest of your natural lives in peace.
"And hopefully even longer than that, if all goes to plan," he muttered to himself.

"I... want to believe it," B-456 said, reluctantly.  "But it sounds too much like a trap."

"If it is, I would rather die swiftly, than spend the rest of my life in fear of the guillotine or the rope," B-203 pointed out.  "Look at us, brother!  We call a bullet to the brain 'Freedom', and consider it to be some kind of reward!  Yet he speaks of a place where we would be free of the drills, the tests and the executions, and that is a prize worth dying for.  Even if his promise of a wonderful land is a lie, I would sooner perish in pursuit of that vision than have to go back to the drudgery and horror in which we now live."

"Well said," Jakob said, looking pleased.  "Though please understand it's not a paradise - just somewhere better.  You know, you're pretty smart for a purpose-built guard.  Pretty smart in general, actually... no offence intended.  Why is that?"

"Lots of rules and regulations," the jaguar said.  "We have to be able to remember them, understand them and so on.  We have to sit a test when we turn five.  If we pass, they give us more implant surgery, the armour grafts and so on.  The ones who fail the test... well, they get Freedom."  Jakob winced.

With some effort, he located a suitable crate and sat upon it, looking at the panthers expectantly.

"Now, Three!  As a stranger here, I'd like to know more about how this place works.  Earlier you spoke of an Enemy... but this place looks pretty much sewn up as a totalitarian state, so who's left to be your enemy?"

"Totalitarian regimes always need an opponent," the panther said.  "If the Enemy were wiped out or conquered tomorrow, the State would need to find someone else to blame all its troubles on, or else the whole edifice would start to crumble."

"Very true," Jakob conceded.  "Without an enemy, such systems usually start attacking themselves, singling out some minority as an enemy within, so as to justify continuing the repressive measures... and then another and another as they purge them and need a new target.  But your lot hasn't quite got there yet as far as I can see."

"This world has two powers," B-203 said.  "I think there used to be more, but they were amalgamated.  This place, here, is Auretica, the Golden Land.  The other one, that we just call 'The Enemy' is formally known as the Democratic Republic of Talmaria."

"With a name like that, it's presumably an absolute dictatorship or something," Jakob guessed.  "So... what are your two superpowers fighting over, then?"

"Us," said the panther simply.


"We are genetically engineered, that's why we're called G.E. Jags.  The Enemy believes such technology to be blasphemous as it tampers with nature.  They say that God made the world and designed all its creatures to suit His Great Plan, and so taking them and customising them is sacrelige!  Cyber-implants are also a grievous sin for a similar reason - trying to improve on God's design is heretical at best.  Joining flesh and metal... No, they don't like that at all!

"But what really gave them the shits was the cyber-brains.  Creating your own artificial life - that's like trying to become God.  I don't know if there's even a word for how offensive that is to a theocracy... So who cares that the cyberjags weren't even made from scratch anyway..."

"Really?"  Jakob looked intrigued.  "How so?"

"I don't know how it works, but I do know that you can't just take a blank neural network and expect it to develop a human-like intelligence.
"An organic brain has a predefined structure - different parts of it are wired for different tasks, like controlling the body's motor functions, or seeing, or remembering and so on.  It's really like lots of different systems all glued together.
"So, to get a functioning intelligence in an AI they had to impose a similar structure on the neural networks... and they did that by scanning our genetically-enhanced jaguar brains and replicating our broad neural structures electronically.
"Every so often they take new scans as the equipment and understanding improves.  The scientists doing my scan were nice enough to humour me when I asked what it was for.  ...Or maybe they just wanted to calm me down to avoid it messing with the scan."

"Fascinating," Jakob looked pleased.  "That is useful to know.  But anyway - Your two superpowers are at loggerheads because your side created AI and genetically-engineered servants.  That's very interesting, but a little circular.
"See, you've clearly been designed to go up against your Enemy, and protect these bases from intrusion by saboteurs or sympathisers, right?"

"Yes, sir." B-456 said.  "That's our purpose - to guard the base against traitors and agents of the Enemy.  Sometimes we are sent on missions to disputed territory, as saboteurs.  It's drilled into us during training."

"Right.  So... What was the squabble about before you arrived on the scene?  If they weren't your enemy then, they wouldn't need a weapons program to develop you in the first place, right?"

"I don't know," B-203 admitted.  "It wasn't in my history training.  But you're right that the conflict goes back a long way.  I got the impression it was a disagreement about religion.  I think... they don't believe Orr was one of God's sons?  That does not sit well with a nation founded in His Name."

"Tell me about Orr," Jakob said.

"D-do we have time for this, sir?"  B-456 asked nervously.  "The longer we sit here talking about religion, the greater the odds of an Inspector checking the store and reporting us."

"B-456 is right," the other panther admitted, looking around cautiously.  "If we're caught, we'll be guillotined!"

"How does that even work?" Jakob asked suddenly, looking at the armour plates down the augmented animal's back.  "B-456 here does have his whole neck exposed, but you're all armoured up across your whole back.  They could choke you with a noose, or cut your throat, but complete decapitation looks pretty much impossible."

"There's a slot," the jaguar said nervously.  "When we're put in position, the lunette has an attachment that mates with the armour.  It prises the two segments apart and leaves a thin gap so the blade can sever our necks," he giggled nervously, and Jakob patted the creature reassuringly with a sickened expression and a hollow feeling in his stomach.

"That will never happen to you," Jakob growled thickly.  "I'll make sure of it.  And they'd really do this at the drop of a hat...?"

"Treason and insubordination are capital crimes," B-456 said, looking around the room uncomfortably.  "'Any Deviation Will Result In Termination!' That's the slogan..."

"It's taken straight from the Illuminatus! trilogy," Jakob muttered.  "Nevermind," he added as the two cats stared up at him blankly.

"We get the guillotine if we're lucky, the noose if they want to make an example to the rest.  And yes, if we make a big enough mistake, we'll go straight to the execution square while the rest are summoned to watch.
"For minor mistakes, there's a bit more leniency... after all, they have to be practical.  Even vat-grown, we still take a few years to become useful servants, so they don't want to kill us faster than we can be replaced or they'll run out of guards," the panther said.

"What happens?"  Jakob sighed, knowing that he wouldn't like the answer.

"Three strikes," the panther said.   "If we make a minor mistake, they cut out part of your ear, with a special punch.  It's both a punishment, and to serve as a marker.   Next time, they punch the other ear.  If we've already had both ears done, that's three strikes... and we get the guillotine instead.
"Now, please sir... If you're taking us to safety, can we please go there before we all get a first-hand demonstration?!"

"We should be safe here a while yet, and I have bolted the door anyway.  In any case, I need somewhere to use as a makeshift base of operations, and this place seems relatively empty.

"Still, if it makes you happier, we can go after you've told me one more thing.  Say you get a hole punched in your ear.  What happens if you get into a fight?  Feral cats often have bits of ear missing."

"Feral cats are solitary and highly territorial," the jaguar said.  "We are genetically-engineered to be more social animals.  I understand there is some cheetah DNA in us, since male cheetahs run in packs of siblings.  However there are other modifications as well... Feral cats aren't known to follow orders like we do.

"Anyhow, infighting is forbidden.  If you got part of your ear clawed off because you've been fighting, you'd get the blade anyway for being uncontrollable.  Can we go now?"

"Actually, I'm not even sure where to go yet," Jakob pointed out.  "I need to obtain a complete technical readout on the cyberjag project, enough to allow me to build my own.  Where would this information be held?"

"In the computer rooms, I guess..."  B-456 said, looking increasingly anxious.  "Perhaps the research labs.  We can check the archives at least, but we need to..."

"You are awfully insistent about leaving right now," Jakob said, suspiciously.  "Why is that?  I warn you, I will know if you attempt to betray me..."

"...It's because I'm getting hungry!" B-456 snapped, and then looked at the other panther in fear.  "What do we do?!  If we go to the mess we'll be seen!  They'll kill us all!"

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter Three

"Let's look at this logically," Jakob said.  "Have you been gone from your patrols long enough to be missed?  If the two of you just trot off to wherever you usually go to eat, you should be safe this time, right?"

"I was hoping we could all go together," B-203 sighed.  "There's a food and water dispenser down the way, we could use that if you can pull rank and say you've commandeered us for experiments.  Or, you could get supplies for us if you can convince people we're your charges....
"But frankly, I'm hoping you're my ticket out of here, so I don't want to let you out of my sight if I can avoid it!  If you can't prove a curfew exemption you'll be executed!"

"We are in a supply room," Jakob reminded them.  "There may be tinned food here.  But I guess you'll also need to use the toilet or litter tray or whatever you have here.  Could you go in a corner or something?"

"No!" both panthers chorused.  "Making a mess like that is grounds for summary execution," B-203 explained, "Barring a genuine medical problem.  And besides, we're conditioned... we literally can't go unless we're in an approved area!"

"What about you, sir?" the other panther added, cocking his head.  "You're going to need to eat as well, right?  Or did you plan to live off the stores here?"

"I can if necessary, but I'm hoping to be able to return to my own world before that becomes a problem," Jakob said casually.  "I... don't need to eat much."

"We'll radio our squads," B-203 decided.  "Tell them that we are escorting a VIP on a special mission.  It happens sometimes, and it will at least stop our brothers from noticing we're gone."

*  *  *

The GE-Jags had special toilet facilities and Jakob waited just inside the men's room until he sensed that the now-replete panthers had relieved themselves and were heading back into the corridor.

As he approached them, the scientist's expression twisted into distaste and he stopped suddenly.

"I can sense a mind approaching," he muttered quietly.  "But... wrong.  Like it's deformed.  I hope that's not one of your AI's... because it's well... broken."

As he spoke, a jaguar trotted around the corridor, hide apparently made from rubber.  The creature was clearly either artificial or a living panther wholly encased in synthetic material.  The serial number R-XKF was stencilled on the side of their glossy black shoulder.

"Intruder," the creature said.  "Identify!  Now!"

"Deputy Chief Research Scientist Peterson from Area 51," Jakob snapped impatiently, flashing an ID card.  "My mission is far above your clearance.  Let us pass."

"Yes, sir," the creature saluted unsteadily and then fell over, giggling drunkenly.  Jakob fought the urge to help the stricken animal as their rubbery paws scrabbled ineffectually at the ground to try and regain their balance.

Jakob watched, feigning impatience as the rubbery feline limped down the corridor unsteadily and out of sight.

"Not long left for that one," B-203 sighed.  "Orr preserve him..."

B-456 looked away guiltily.

"What is wrong with him?"  Jakob asked quietly, looking deeply concerned.

"The Mark Six?  His mind is going.  It's just... the way they're made." the jaguar sighed.

Jakob looked appalled.  "Are you saying your AI technology just... fails?  Leaving aside the cruelty, this is not what I came here to see!"

"Sir, I assure this is not the pinnacle of cyberjag technology," B-203 put in hastily.  "He is fully cybernetic, but... well, he's a Mark Six.  Not human-smart, not even when he was new.  You want the Mark Seven and Eight."

"...I see.  And what will happen to him now?"  Jakob asked, in a brittle voice.

"Oh, when one of the Masters spots him like that, he'll be thrown in the incinerator," B-203 said in a resigned tone of voice.  "After the Mark Five, our creators attempted to make a cut down version that was cheaper to mass-produce.
"I was afraid we'd all be for the chop once those came out, but fortunately for us... Well, they just don't work very well.  Dumb as a brick and the brain wears out after just a few years.  The factory still turns out new ones every so often, whenever someone has a bright idea they hope will fix the problem.  Or, whenever they need some mooks who're even more disposable than us."

"You haven't told me everything," Jakob said evenly.  "When you said he'll be thrown in the incinerator, you meant alive, didn't you?"

"Yes," the panther admitted.  "Like I say, they're disposable.  Can't be repaired.  The whole frame is formed from polymers, including the brain matter and battery pack, then infused with nanodevices and coated with rubberised paint.  The plastic is all transparent yellow inside.   That's why they're cheap - they can just be melted down or incinerated when they break down or outlive their usefulness.

"With someone like me..." the animal continued shakily, their voice jumping up half an octave, "Well, they'll want to salvage the implants first, and strip our carcasses of anything else they can refurbish...  And then they throw the rest into the furnace.  It'll burn away all the meat and just leave the blackmetal armour plates to clean up and reuse..." the jaguar was giggling hysterically as they tried to suppress their terror.

"Gods," Jakob said, turning away and leaning heavily on the wall for support.  "Each time you tell me about your world, I learn something worse!"

*  *  *

"Now," Jakob said, when they were safely back in the supply room.  "Our meeting with that poor creature has brought your earlier statement into focus.  This facility is where the panther technologies were originally developed, and where research is still ongoing, right?"

"That is correct, sir!" B-456 said.

"So.  That means there are a lot of potential technologies and designs for me to... acquire.  More than I had expected to find in one place.  In order to help narrow things down, would you mind giving me an overview of where things stand so I have a better idea of what would suit my purposes?"

"A brief history of the project?"  B-203 asked.  "I can do that."

"Thank you," Jakob said.  "No need to go into great detail, as Six keeps reminding us, we are on borrowed time here.  But it will give me a better idea of what to look for, and where to find it."

"Okay, so the Mark One was the original GE-jag project.  Fully organic.  Us, we're technically Mark Two... GE-Jags, but with surgical enhancements.  Neural implants, cybernetic augmentations and armour bonded to our bodies," he said, waving a metal-clad foreleg for emphasis.

"The next two models were experimental.  Mark Three had a cybernetic body but an organic brain.  Mark Four was an attempt to install a fully-cybernetic brain in a fleshy body to help train it.  They were developed together... you could think of it as a brain swap between the organic and synthetic panthers."

"Then you have the Mark Five, which was the first production cyberjag, with a fully-sentient cyber-brain, just not very bright.

"The Mark Six... well, you saw.  It's like... A mistake that no-one really wants to talk about.  The brain is totally different to anything else - it's a blob of semiconductive matter kind of like the positronic brains in the old stories were supposed to be, but without any of that antiparticle business.  Looks great on paper, but in practice it just... degrades.  And in all these years they've never been been able to stop that happening."

"I wonder if they've hit the limit," Jakob pondered.  "This realm has a comparatively high degree of magic as universes go, so that's probably what's killing them.  Left unshielded, it interferes with high density circuitry, much like radiation does."

"No-one here believes in magic, so I couldn't comment," the panther shrugged awkwardly.  "But anyway, with the Mark Seven they went back to what they knew worked.  The Mark Seven is an improved Mark Five, with the brain upgraded to be as smart as us.  But again, they're more expensive than us organics and they don't have a sense of smell, so I guess we'll still be needed for some tasks until they figure out how to replicate that too."

"And the Mark Eight?"  Jakob asked.

"Oh, they're our secret weapon.  The ultimate guard robot and soldier.  See, the Mark Seven has blackmetal armour protecting their vitals, retractile claws and a rechargeable battery unit.  The Mark Eight has a sleeker look with full blackmetal armour and a microfusion plant as the power source.  They're top-of-the-line and nearly invulnerable.  And also very expensive to build."

"It's been joked that our prime duty is to guard the Mark Eights," B-456 put in, with a nervous chuckle.

"What'll become of the Mark Sevens?"  Jakob added, looking concerned.  "Are they going to be thrown in the furnace now these shiny new kids are on the block...?"

"I doubt it," B-203 said.  "The brain and underlying chassis are the same, all the real improvements are to the armour and power source.  It's not worth starting from scratch and spending years teaching a bunch of new panther brains, when you can just upgrade the armour and subsystems."

"So the plan is to upgrade the Mark Sevens to Mark Eight functionality?"  Jakob asked, looking relieved.

"I believe that's the idea, but like I say, it's expensive.  It will probably be rolled out slowly.  I got my armour upgraded as a reward for good service, so maybe they'll upgrade Mark Sevens who prove their worth and loyalty.  Then again... they might just replace the Mark Sevens with Eights as they get killed off, be it through Enemy action, or... well, execution.  Who knows?"

"Hopefully we'll find out,"  Jakob said.  "It's quite possible we'll run into one.  But what about you?  You said you were grown in vats.  Is this some kind of cloning technology?  Are you all the same sex?"

"Yes," B-203 said.  "I understand we're born completely in-vitro, but I don't really know how it works.  And yes... we're all male.  It keeps the numbers steady if we can't reproduce.
"Sometimes some panthers try," he added quietly, looking embarrassed.  "The mating urge hasn't been completely stamped out... But it is forbidden.  Both will get strung up if they're caught."

"I'm sorry," Jakob said softly.  "Now... I'd better write out a shopping list.  The cloning technology would be useful to have... if I can steal that too it will be a handy bonus.  Likewise the microfusion technology.  The Mark Eight armour would be good too, But I really want the Mark Seven - the brain technology is a must-have, and the actual mechanical systems will be useful to know about too.  Where should I start?"

"The computer room," B-203.  "But we're not allowed in there.  You'll need a pass-card."

"I can try the one I have," Jakob said.

"No!" both panthers yelped.  "I don't know who you got that from, but if it doesn't work, it will be flagged up!  They'll be arrested and executed!"

"...then I'll have to enter another way," Jakob smiled.

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter 4

The sysop looked around and extinguished a cigarette as the sound happened again, faintly - almost hidden by the drone of the disk units and the chatter of the tape drive.  Clearly not just a figment of his imagination.  The man got up and headed towards the disk units, checking in case one of the large, expensive packs was about to suffer a head crash.  It would not be good if it happened on his watch...

Suddenly the noise happened again, more loudly, and definitely coming from above the room.  The ventilation grille popped open and a white-coated figure dropped from the ceiling.

"What the fuck... Who the hell are you?!" the sysop demanded.

"The Rastafarian Navy," Jakob smiled, aiming a service revolver at him.  "Have you ever considered putting your hands up and staying quiet?  I hear it's a fashionable alternative to dying."

The man reacted quickly, diving behind an equipment rack and pulling a pistol of his own, but Jakob had expected this and the spell was already live.  The incoming bullet ground to a halt in mid-air before the scientist's hand, the momentum sucked out of it.

"Some people have no sense of fashion," he sighed, and the sysop's eyes rolled up into his head as he slumped to the ground.

Getting the panthers into the computer room turned out to be unexpectedly difficult, as the conditioning not to enter the room ran very strong.  When even making them close their eyes and pushing them failed, he resorted to a minor possession spell, inducing a state of slight hypnosis to release their inhibitions a little and carried them bodily over the threshold.

B-456 started at the sight of the Sysop's body, now lying limply in a pleather-backed chair.   "...Is he dead...?" the panther enquired shakily, and then went up to sniff at the body.  "No... Still alive, I think.."

"I am not bloodthirsty," Jakob said.  "At least, I try not to be.  Besides, I will likely need his expertise, given willingly or no - and I'll need him alive for that.  Necromancy isn't really my thing...  Anyway, let's see if I can get any sense out of the computers."

So saying, he sat down at the green-screen terminal and began to enter commands.

"Sir, will you be able to use the information you find?"  B-203 asked.  "Can your systems back home process it at all?"

"That depends how it's encrypted," Jakob said.  "But this is true... I may not necessarily be able to decypher it."

"Encrypted..?" the panther looked confused.  "You mean, put into a secret code?  That sounds pretty complicated.  Why would they bother with that?"

Jakob looked equally confused.  "But what if someone sees it, who's not cleared to?"

The panther made a kind of shrugging gesture with their front shoulders, causing their head to bob slightly.  "If someone unauthorised reads it, they'll just be shot.  A scrambled brain won't remember much, especially after cremation."

"Then what about the robotic panthers?"  Jakob asked.  "You keep saying how valuable they are, that their production cost is the main reason you're still around.  Surely they wouldn't execute them unless absolutely necessary?"

"The chassis is certainly valuable.  The cyber-brains... I don't know," the animal admitted.  "I certainly wouldn't put it past them to crush the brain in the recycler and reuse the rest of the chassis.  Or there may be a way to literally wipe parts of their minds, like, roll back the last few day's experiences..."

"We have safeguards," a voice intoned loudly.  "The masters can shut down our motive power and leave us helpless.  Then they can open the skull and get at the brain, for... correction.  I suspect there is also a kill-switch to instantly destroy or factory-reset the brain, just in case."

"Shit!" B-456 sobbed.  "We're done for!  It's treason!  They'll chop our heads off!  Or hang us slowly in the courtyard!  Or both!"

"Let them try," Jakob said confidently.  "You do not yet know what I'm capable of when threatened.  However, I should point out that our friend here has spoken out instead of attacking or arresting us directly.  Also, I can sense his own fear.  He's not supposed to be in this room at all, and he knows it - yet here we are.
"How about it, then... David, isn't it?  You've been trailing us for a while now, and have had ample opportunity to turn us in.  So what's your deal?"

"D-AVD", the cyberjag said, padding out from behind a large tape unit in the corner.  "I am not supposed to be here, though I do have access for emergencies.  My entry was logged and will be noticed eventually, so time is short."

"What do you want?" B-456 demanded, hackles raised.

"I heard what the stranger said earlier.  You came to steal our technology and take it back to your own world.  I risk execution by saying this, but please... take me with you.  And as many of my fellows as you can."

Jakob was already crouching over the sleek black feline robot with an expression of sheer delight.

"Oh, yes!  You're perfect!" he sang.  "A fully sentient mind, housed in micromonolithic circuits!"

"Perfect for what...?" the cyberjag looked worried.

"You have a soul," Jakob said.  "That is what makes you so perfect.  In the last world I visited, the best they could manage was a simulation of sentience, and not a very good one at that.  There was no consciousness behind it.  You have that vital spark."

"Souls...?" the three panthers looked confused.  "You mean... we do live on somewhere when we die...?  It's not just a fable to keep us in line...?"

"It may be that too," Jakob said.  "But I can detect soul energy, and you all have it, even that poor Mark Six panther with his damaged brains.  Ergo, you should have some kind of afterlife too... along with the unfortunates you have already watched die.  The lie of 'Freedom' may be more true than your masters believe."

"I fear I may be dreaming," B-456 said.  "Everything you say... it seems too good to be true."

"Pragmatic," Jakob remarked.  "That way you won't be disappointed if we fail, which is all too likely.  And if we do make it, you may still have to spend your natural lives in hiding."

"That is still an improvement over being actively oppressed," B-203 pointed out.  "Here, we have nowhere to hide."

"I feel it is worth the risk," D-AVD said.  "Maybe I risk betrayal and death as you or your rivals dissect my circuits and find out what makes me tick... Maybe I risk a lingering death as my systems fail in some other world where no-one can repair or refuel them.  But left here I shall eventually slip, and die horribly as a warning to my brothers.  And this prospect terrifies me.
"I live, I exist.  And I like that!  I want to continue existing!"

"But you're a Mark Eight!  I thought you lot were supposed to be the golden ones," B-456 said, looking appalled.  "You're safe in that cozy armoured shell, you don't need to eat, drink, breathe or recharge!  You don't need to fear hanging, beheading or even being shot!  Aren't you the precious wonder children that will consign the rest of us to the Memory Hole?"

"I have witnessed executions," the cyberjag said soberly.  "Of man, panther and cyberjag alike.  I know what the masters do to their servants, how little they value our lives here.  But you... you are still organic.  They view you as people, even if you're disposable slaves.  You do have some rights, even if they're just token rights that only exist on paper.  You're allowed some possessions.
"Me... I'm just an artifact!  I have no rights whatsoever!  My brain is someone else's property and they could decide to confiscate it tomorrow!  I don't want to lose my synthetic jaguar brain!"

"They could confiscate mine tonight," B-456 said unsteadily.  "After the guillotining."

"For treason, yes.  But not arbitrarily," the cyberjag pointed out.  "Rules are rules, and it's breaking them that costs you your life.  Just killing you at random for no good reason, that breaks another rule and the person who does that will die too for squandering the State's resources.
"Me... I don't even have that much protection!"

"I can't promise you'd get rights where I live either," Jakob sighed.  "My world also has... problems, and a fear of new lifeforms.  But I will protect you myself as best I am able.  And I will push for such rights when I can."

"Even so, you value us," the synthetic creature said.  "I saw your reaction when the Mark Six was mentioned.  I'd much rather take my chances with someone who at least cares for us."

"Where I am from, my kind are considered deceivers," Jakob sighed.  "So I thank you for your trust, and I just hope I can live up to it."

"I fear you may be wasting your time with the computer," D-AVD said.  "Even if you can find the right files, how do you plan to exfiltrate the information?  You cannot hardcopy it all undetected.  The printers are slow and very noisy, and the disk packs are too bulky for you to carry more than one or two.  Besides... Can the computing systems of your own world even read them?"

"COM," Jakob said, pointing at a large device next to the terminal.  "Computer Output on Microfilm.  That just needs a magnifying system to read it, and I can see the film writer here.  There is a film archive somewhere, containing the reels I need, all helpfully printed out and ready for me to 'borrow'.  With these computer terminals, I have already searched the library catalogue and found some suitable titles to check out, so we can go there next.  If anyone knows where it is."

"True," the cyberjag admitted.  "But the schematics will refer to components which your world likely does not have.  Perhaps you are right, but why risk it?  I would advise you to find someone who understands the technology inside out, and is willing to come with you."

"Meaning you?" Jakob looked amused.

"I wish," the cyberjag said, with a convincing simulated sigh.  "No.  Remember, I'm supposed to be just a lowly security guard.  What you need is an aircraft."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter 5

"I don't understand," the lab-coated figure asked, eyebrows arching.  "Why do I need an aircraft...?  Are you suggesting I fly to some other region...?"

"No," the robotic panther said.  "This is what the cyber-brain technology was originally intended for.  To produce autonomous fighter jets, capable of making human-level decisions and judgements in the heat of combat.  Their brains are the size of a small fridge-freezer... scaling it down to fit inside a jaguar-sized skull, that came later."

"Your aircraft are sentient?!"  Jakob stared, blindsided.

"As far as I know," the jaguar said.  "They certainly behave as if they are.  I know I feel emotions, and since we share the same basic technology, I see no reason to doubt that they do too."

"And their AI is also based on genetically-engineered panther minds?"

"For them it was dogs," the cyberjag said.  "Not even genetically-engineered, just regular dogs.  The Masters wanted the loyalty, obedience and the ability to work in packs.  The technology for scanning neural structures to impose in a neural network... it was developed for them and reused when making us grunts to guard them.
"Though to be fair, it's quite possible the GE-jags have some dog DNA spliced in as well for the obedience..."

"Take me to them," Jakob said, eagerly.  "But... they'll be guarded, won't they?"

"To an extent," the panther admitted.  "But they'll usually be guarded by panthers, not humans.  And you have something any panther, organic or synthetic, would jump at the chance for... a better offer."

"If I ever manage to set up a base for you lot to guard, I'll have to remember that you're NOT incorruptible," Jakob smirked.

"Treat us right and it shouldn't be a problem," the robotic feline responded with an amused expression.  "'Obey or die' isn't great when it comes to building long-term loyalty.

"Of course, the other thing is of course that the aircraft themselves are supposed to report anything that us panthers miss.  So you just have to make sure that they won't want to, right...?"

"Makes sense," Jakob said.  "Though I am going to have problems housing so many refugees... So.  Where are they, and how do we get there?"

"It won't be easy," D-AVD admitted.  "Red Sector.  We're only given access as needed."

"I would still prefer to visit the film archives first," Jakob said.   "Your minds are like mine and forget things, so if possible I would like to have both the microfilm reels and the experts, in case they need their memories refreshed.
"Still, it seems I'll need to acquire Red Sector access.  I have a keycard already - could I reprogram it from here?" he asked, gesturing at the computer terminals.

"Security is on a different circuit.  You would need to breach a security office and those will be far more tightly locked down."

"I should hope so," Jakob said, looking at the vent on the ceiling where he'd broken in.

"Wait..." B-456's eyes went slightly glassy, as did B-203's.  Jakob started as he heard a small voice speaking.

"There's been a curfew violation," B-203 reported.  "Allegedly they were trying to retrieve a medtech keycard they left behind in one of the labs..."

"I heard," Jakob said.  "And that will give us the access we need...?"

"You can tune into our radios?!" the panthers looked surprised.

"No, but I can hear you hearing the voice in your head," Jakob said.  "So, the keycard - we'll just have to go to this room and grab it.  Assuming the keycard really is there and it's not just a cock-and-bull story."

"Yes," B-203 said cautiously.  "But it's in Room 166."

"Is it heavily protected?" Jakob asked.

"Probably not," B-203 said.  "It's Green Sector, so our implants should let us straight in.  But... no sane, well-adjusted panther would want to..."

"I see, you wouldn't be caught dead there?"  Jakob asked flippantly.

B-203 shut his mouth abruptly, and B-456 looked away.  Jakob looked at the jaguars in confusion, and then dawning horror.

"They call it the Biohazard Room," D-AVD said.

"It's where we go when we die," B-456 added in a small voice.

*  *  *

Room 166 was large, and forboding in a medical sense.  Biohazard warnings adorned the walls at regular intervals.  At first glance it looked clean and sterile, but then certain things called out to you in a disturbing fashion.  Some of the jars contained brains, some human, others harvested from some hapless jaguar.  And some of them were incomplete.  In a glass case, the complete skeleton of a jaguar stood, eyes staring sightlessly into the distance.  The two panthers were trembling slightly, and tried hard not to look, but somehow their gaze kept being drawn back to the unfortunate that had been one of their predecessors.  Looking towards the ceiling was even worse as the walls proudly displayed numerous decapitated jaguars on trophy mounts.

Jakob stopped in front of a sign that read, 'Gloves Must Be Worn At All Times - Any Deviation Will Result In Termination'.
Underneath it, in smaller type, was the slogan 'Death to Traitors'.  He glanced at B-456 as the jaguar shuddered.

"Well, we don't have to wear gloves," the big cat said.  "And you already are.  But the rest of it...  Same as what we get.  I guess I didn't fully appreciate that most of our masters are just as much pawns in this game as we are."

"We are not immune to it either," D-AVD admitted.

"'Curiosity kills the cat' is another slogan," B-203 added.  "Maybe there is a sign with a human equivalent, but I've not yet seen it."

"I can't find anything keycard-like," Jakob said, checking the floor and the desks quickly.  "Let's try the door."

Once through the partition, things got even worse.  One wall contained rows of feline heads preserved in jars, neatly dated by year.  At the back of the room, a gas furnace was built into the wall, clearly used for incinerating the remains.

Saws, drills, scalpels and other surgical implements lay in readiness, and on a refrigerated slab, as if it was the cheese counter in a supermarket, a panther lay, eyes shut in the peaceful expression of death.

The two GE-jags froze, holding their breath and tails drooping between their legs, as Jakob examined the corpse.

"There are ligature marks around the neck," he announced.  "The tongue is swollen and dark.  This one has been strangled to death."

"B-407 was hanged in the square earlier," B-456 said, in a trembling, high-pitched voice.  "This is probably him... And they're going to harvest his implants when the shift changes!"

"Presumably, yes," Jakob said, abstractedly.  "Anyway.  The corpse is fresh... unless they've preserved it somehow, so let's see if this works."  So saying, he held out one gloved hand, and a crystal appeared in it.

Moments later, it began to glow.  Jakob touched the dead animal, pressing his gloved finger against a patch of fur just between the ear and the head armour - the place where they were shot for a mercy killing.

With a satisfied expression, he pocketed the now-glowing stone.

"Let them keep his implants," he said.  "This is far more precious."

"What have you done...?" B-203 looked appalled.

"What we're infamous for... stealing souls," Jakob said.

"Is that why you don't get hungry?" B-456 said, backing away.  "You eat people's souls?!"

Jakob chuckled.  "Actually, I'm able to draw my dietary needs from people's emotions.  While it is true that I would benefit greatly from devouring your late friend's immortal soul, I could not live with the guilt afterwards, and more immediately, it would ruin our alliance.
"No... I have only trapped their soul, not destroyed it.  If I can, I will try to give them a second chance."

B-203 cocked his head for a moment, but said nothing.   "We had best get moving," he announced, before B-456 could interrupt.  "The longer we stay here, the less chance we have of leaving through the front door."

"As opposed to the incinerator," B-456 finished, whimpering.  "Please... Let's just get the pass-card and go!"

"We're in luck," Jakob said, noticing a small plastic card on the side and pocketing it.

*  *  *

"So," Jakob said, turning the keycard over in his hands.  "Will it do the job?  That's the question...  Since it's been lifted, any unauthorised access attempts won't be traced to me, but at the same time, I don't want to leave a trail... Since people or computers are likely to notice the pattern eventually."

"Hold it in front of me," B-203 said.  Jakob did so and the cat sniffed around it for a bit, locating the induction coil for his implants to query.   "It's only Orange access," he announced, in a disappointed tone of voice.

"Better than Green, I presume," the scientist pointed out.  "What will that get us?"

"Access to the Panther Factory," D-AVD said.  "Parts of it, at least.  But it will probably help us.  Parts of the Factory are Red Sector as well, so there is likely to be an override key held there in case of emergency..."

At that moment, the PA system crackled and an announcement was broadcast.

"Group Three Personnel to the Square immediately," it blared out.  "Group Three Personnel to the Square immediately.  Emergency Meeting at Twenty-Two-Time.  Group Three Personnel to the Square immediately.  Death to Traitors!"

"What's all that about?"  Jakob asked.

"I'm not sure," B-203 said.  "We get announcements like that occasionally, but they're for the humans.  We're not allowed to attend them and will be turned away or reprimanded.  But I have my suspicions."

"Panthers aren't Group Three Personnel, then..." Jakob shrugged.  "Still, this is good for us.  Means there will be even fewer people to get in my way if they're all at the Square.  When is Twenty-Two-Time, anyway?  My watch is still set to SAIA's timezone."

"In about five minutes," the jaguars said in unison.  "I agree, this sounds like the best time to make a run for the Factory, while people are distracted," D-AVD put in.

When the sounds of footsteps receded and it was 2200 exactly, the four of them crept down the corridor and headed towards the Factory.
Jakob slid his card against the slot, a door that they'd been through several times earlier.  The card reader refused it, once, twice.

"Wait," D-AVD said, batting Jakob's hand before he could make a third attempt.  "Where did you get that keycard from, and when?  That's not the one we took from... from the Biohazard Room, is it...?"

"No, this was in an office," Jakob said.  "I picked the lock on it."

"May I see the card?" the cyberjag asked.

Jakob showed it to them, and they sniffed it much like B-203 had done with the Orange Sector keycard.

"Reginald Smith," the panther said.  "Group Three.  Oh dear, oh dear."

"They've noticed it's gone missing," Jakob said, with an appalled expression.  "Then, that Emergency Meeting must be..."

"...Reginald Smith's execution for having lost it," D-AVD finished grimly.

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter 6

Jakob used the Orange Sector card and made his way to the Factory.  Guilt wracked him that in taking the Green Sector keycard, he had sent its previous owner to a grisly death by hanging or beheading, and that the Orange Sector keycard he now possessed would in due course cost someone else their neck too.  It did not help to know that the Red Sector card he sought would surely add to the body count as well.

"You knew this would be dangerous," B-203 said quietly.  "For others as well as yourself."

"I had hoped..." Jakob said.  "I had hoped I would be able to do this without bloodshed."

"Stealing the inner secrets from a military research base is pretty much the opposite of a peaceful mission," D-AVD hissed back.

"I'm good at denial, okay...?" Jakob retorted.

Down the corridor, one of the doors caught Jakob's eye.

"Morgue," he said, taking out the Orange Sector card.  "I want a look."

"Why?" D-AVD asked, looking extremely uncomfortable.

"Because, if Mr. Smith is in there, he deserves to have his card back.  It feels... proper.  If nothing else, it ought to wig out the people who murdered him.  And besides... if this is a body bank, it's handy to know where it is.  After all, as you say.. I might need to make a deposit," he added grimly.

"But, Sir..!" D-AVD protested.  "This is our..."

Jakob froze, staring aghast as the fluorescent lights sputtered metallically into life and revealed the cyberjag disassembly room.

Like the Biohazard Room for the GE-jags, it had its own share of grim trophies, including a skinned Mark Six cyberjag held upright by wires and rods, the internal structures clearly visible through the vile yellow-coloured plastic.  Glass cases held the rubbery heads of several other Mark Sixes, and next to them several rounded blob of matter, which Jakob took to be a Mark Six brain.  Another such device lay next to it, sawn clean in half, with a bisected Mark Six head next to it.

The Mark Five and Mark Sevens were not spared this either, as examples of their own heads and cuboid boxes - presumably their own brain modules - were on similar display.

"At least the GE-jags are already dead when they reach the morgue," D-AVD said quietly.  "With us... this would be one of the last things we see before the execution."

"What a bunch of sick fucks," Jakob said.

"Perhaps.  Not everyone here believes we are actually sentient," D-AVD pointed out.  "Some of the cruelty may just stem from ignorance, that they don't think we are really experiencing distress and suffering, just... faking it, I suppose, because we were programmed that way.
"Some claim that God reserves sentience for humankind alone, and that machine sentience is simply impossible.  The Enemy believe this feverently, so much so that even attempting to create us was an unforgiveable act of blasphemy."

"And do your sacred texts actually say that?"  Jakob asked.

"The Book of Orr does not say this directly, but some believe it hints at it." B-203 interjected.  "It has become doctrine for some branches of the faith, the Enemy in particular.  Now, can we leave...?  This place is horrifying!"

But Jakob had already been distracted by the workbench, on which a Mark Seven cyberjag, serial K-TAH, lay in a state of partial disassembly.  The skull had been opened and the cubioid box of his brain module was lying next to it.  A post-it note held instructions for the next shift to take over.

"Poor bastard," B-203 said quietly.  B-456 was whimpering quietly in the background.

"It looks like they didn't finish the job," Jakob pointed out.  "Let's see what I can do."

So saying, he studied the brain module for a few moments, and then slotted it back into the robotic animal's cranium, screwing in the support braces and finally closing up the creature's head.  A remote control device lay nearby and he began to experiment with it, going through the options presented on the crude liquid crystal display.

"Here we are... Power-up," he said, and pressed a button.  Nothing happened.

"Not wireless," he determined.  "Assuming it has to be connected, where would the ports be?"

"The shutdown stuff is wireless," D-AVD remarked, "You can't expect a rogue panther to sit still while you plug a command cable into them.  Conversely, starting up... well, you'd have to power them on for the circuitry to work!  Try behind the ear.  I believe there's a port there, for charging and diagnostic purposes."

Jakob did so, connected the panther to the remote, and tried again.  B-456 gasped as the animal's eyes immediately lit up red and the legs twitched once.

"No... please, Master... No... Don't kill..." the panther slurred, and then came to with a start.

"Intruder!  Halt!" he barked.

"Well there's gratitude!" Jakob said, hands on hips.  "I've just saved you from the scrap heap."

"Aaah!  No!  But... But... If I turn you in, they might..."

"Don't even finish that thought," Jakob said, snapping the panther's mouth shut with a rubber-gloved hand, and waving the remote control in front of their face.

"I brought you back to life, but I can easily reverse that.  Dissecting your brain would give me valuable insights into how it was constructed, after all..."

"Mmmm!" the panther keened.

"Please, don't kill him!" D-AVD begged.  "He's scared!  Of course he's going to make rash decisions while he's panicking.  But even so, he must surely understand that turning us in would only buy him a temporary reprieve!"

"Correct on all counts," Jakob said, releasing the creature's muzzle.  "I can sense his fear and desperation, and I understand it.  And I would much rather he came with us willingly.

"You see," he added, glancing at the terrified cyberjag, "I really don't want to stoop to the level of your creators, and besides, having come so very far to obtain this technology, destroying an example of it would grieve me sore.
"But understand me... I will not be deceived or backstabbed, and as an empath, I warn you that it is dangerous to try.

"Well - That's the stick, so here's the carrot.  If you willingly come with us, I'll protect you and bring you back to somewhere safe, where - fingers crossed - you don't have to worry about execution ever again.   It's only sure way to save your armoured hide."

"I don't want to die," the robot begged pathetically.  "Please... Orr forgive me, I... I defect.  Take me where you will, just don't kill me!  Don't take my brains!"

"Deal," Jakob said, disconnecting the jaguar from the remote with a pleased expression.  "Anyway... What did you actually do?  What had they executed you for?"

"I was late for the six-time parade," the jaguar said, rolling over and jumping down off the desk.  "'Any deviation will result in termination', that's what the signs say.  I arrived late too many times, and was terminated for it.  If I had been an organic, it would have been public execution.  Instead my squad were made to watch as I was escorted to the Factory."

"'From Factory we came, and unto Factory we return'," Jakob pondered, and was rewarded by a jolt of terror from all present.

"Sir, we must leave," D-AVD pleaded.  "The longer we stay here, the quicker we'll be caught and executed.  We must move."

"And find a new base of operations, if the storeroom is compromised," Jakob agreed, pocketing a couple of interesting artifacts and the TODO note about K-TAH's execution.  "Let's go."

"Who the hell are you?!"  A voice demanded.  "What is going on in here?!"

Jakob turned to see a technician standing in the doorway.

"Just someone you saw in a nightmare," Jakob said and the figure's eyes rolled up into his head.

"We should leave him on the disassembly bench," B-456 said viciously.

"No.  On the floor," Jakob insisted.  "Right now he should just assume he's fainted and with luck, will visit the sickbay to get himself checked out.  If we do something too obvious he'll realise he's been waylaid and raise the alarm."

"Wait," B-203 said.  "If he has a Red Sector card, you could take it.  And then, making it obvious he's been mugged could save his neck."

"Chief Technician," Jakob said, examining the technician's card.  "Sounds promising, but we'd better check."

"Bingo," D-AVD exclaimed, sniffing the card.  "Red Sector clearance.  But we'll have to move quickly, before it's revoked."

"Nice one, Three!" Jakob said, pocketing it.  "I'll tie him up and put him on the disassembly bench.  Though that may draw attention to the fact that K-TAH has escaped their fate.

"That said, this is going to get suspicious," Jakob added as they walked down the corridor.  "One man and four panthers, that's not something people normally see, is it?"

*  *  *

Armed with his Orange and Red Sector keycards, Jakob made his way to the film library and quickly located the titles he sought.

"There's that name again," he said, glancing at a plaque praising the virtues of Orr.  "Maybe I should have added a microfilm aout your religion to my shopping list."

"I can tell you about him," D-AVD said.  "If you think we have time."

"I've warded the door to the film vault," Jakob said.  "Unless there's some kind of back entrance, we'll be safe here for now.  Heck... Maybe I should make this my new base of operations!"

"But if it's locked, how will you get in and out?" B-456 asked.

"I can teleport," Jakob said.  "By myself, or by means of a recall amulet.  I can set this as the 'home' location."

"I see," D-AVD said.  "Very well.  In the beginning were four great wizards," the panther intoned.
"And they were Tom O'Berhem, David the Smith and Roberto of Mogue.  And Orr went with them also.
"Wonders they created, that caused men to sing with joy, and they did make the sounds of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer and all kinds of musick.

"Tom, David and Roberto did keep their secrets to themselves, selling their wonders for gold, but Orr refused to do so, and caused his work to be printed throughout the land, that all men may benefit from his wisdom."

"Oh," Jakob said.  "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear."


"I have a feeling I know exactly who you're talking about.  And it's not what you think."

"How do you mean, Sir?" K-TAH asked.

"Tim Orr," Jakob said, sighing, as he gestured at a portrait on the wall.  "I was afraid of this.  I got to meet him once, in 1976."

"You met the prophet?!"  B-456 squeaked.  "What was he like?!"

"He wasn't a prophet," Jakob said.  "He was just someone who designed electronic musical instruments.  I'd have said we're talking about different people - but that's definitely his face.  I'll say this... if your holy book turns out to be what I think it is, I'm going to have to crack a few skulls together," he growled.

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter 7

"Wait," Jakob hissed, as they made to leave the archives.  "Someone's coming.  Panther... R-ZKM.  But there's something odd about them... Like they're not all there..."

"Oh," D-AVD sounded upset.  "Him.  Poor bastard."

"What's wrong with him?"  Jakob asked.  "Please tell me your wonderful Mark Seven technology doesn't break down into dementia like the poor Mark Sixes..."

"No," D-AVD sighed.  "R-ZKM... has been lobotomised."


"It's is one of the penalties we may face," the cyberjag sighed.  "The Mark 5 was a full AI, but not quite human-smart.  We, Mk 7s and 8s, we've been upgraded to be about as intelligent as our masters.
"But... If we misuse that gift, it can be taken from us... our minds snuffed down to animal brainlessness.  We're still be useful as sentries, even in that wretched state."

"Originally the plan was that we'd all start out with a dumb, Mark 5 level of intelligence and be upgraded if we proved ourselves worthy.  And some of the older Mark 7s did have that happen.
"But it got people asking awkward questions... like, why do we cyberjags start out stupid when the GE-jags who survived the testing are smart enough on day one?
"Basically, it made us look bad in comparison to our predecessors, so now it's the reverse - if you do something unworthy enough, but not quite bad enough to merit termination, you lose half your mind instead."

"Pleasant," Jakob sighed.  "Is it reversible?  You're electronic, after all..."

"Yes.  In a nod to the original plan, you can potentially earn it back if you do something suitably impressive.  Though with half your brain switched off, the odds are stacked against you."

"If this goes to plan I may need to build one or two in their dumb state for study," Jakob admitted.  "But I promise I will uplift them eventually.  And deliberately turning someone smart into an idiot is just... evil.
"Why didn't that happen to you, K-TAH?" he added suddenly.  "Execution for being late sounds quite harsh if they have an intermediate punishment they could have used instead."

"I don't know," the cyberjag admitted.  "Maybe the Master was just in a bad mood.  That happens."

"I see.  Anyway, we'd better get into this fabled Red Sector and see what we can find."

*  *  *

Jakob walked into the Panther Assembly room with a kind of hushed awe.  Two Cyberjags lay in a crouching position, their bodies inert but apparently complete.  Post-it notes had been stuck to the shiny black armour noting that they were believed ready for power-up.

Glanced at a whiteboard in the corner, he noticed it was titled "Enhancements".  "Olfactory sensors" was top of the list, but someone had also requested an XLR-4 port so that cyberjags could be used to power cameras or similar 12V equipment.

"I don't suppose you got that?" he asked.  "Using you as walking battery packs seems a little mean, but I doubt you're using the entire reactor output and it would be handy in an emergency...

"Oooh!" he broke off, seeing a camera case and opening it.  "Fascinating.  It's not just microfilm then... you're still using 16mm film for movies as well.  Maybe this place isn't so bad..."

"I kid," he added quickly, sensing the appalled indignation from the panther crew.  "Nonetheless, I'm impressed that you're using these given some of the advanced technology at your disposal.  Looks like a clone of an Arri SR3.  Presumably made by the State...?"

"Yes," D-AVD said.  "There was research into recording video digitally, but the State did not see the practical advantages.  In fact, the security services saw it was a threat."

"Really...?"  Jakob looked confused.

"Film must be processed.  And that means the State can see what people are shooting film of.  With videotape and the experimental digital system, a traitor could make films or still photographs of forbidden things without the State knowing!
"Videotape was too useful to suppress, but it remains tightly controlled and the image is poor quality.  They did not see any advantage to this new technology, only the risk of allowing high-quality video with the convenience of videotape - so it was not developed beyond the prototype stage."

"I see," Jakob sighed.  "Why is this camera even here, then?  To take film of the cyberjags being tested?"

"I think so," D-AVD said.  "I don't remember it happening, but if it's something they do when you're new, I guess I wouldn't."

"If I get another crack at the computer room I'll have to see if there's a library of panther footage in the archive," Jakob decided.  "I'd like to pull the reels for you and K-TAH... they're not going to need them, after all."

So saying, he packed the camera back in its metal case, and caused it to disappear, to the confusion of his allies.

"I'm stealing it," he explained.  "I can store things off-plane."

"I did wonder where all those films went," B-456 said.  "I figured you'd stashed them somewhere for later retrieval.  I guess you did, just not how I thought."

*  *  *

"Hey!  What are you doing here?!" a voice demanded.

Jakob looked at the guard, a tawny feline distinctly different from the GE-jags.

"Hey!" he called.  "What are you?"

"I am asking the questions!" the puma snarled.  "Curfew may have been suspended for the executions, but this is a restricted area!  Identify yourself immediately!"

"Deputy Chief Research Scientist Peterson, seconded from Area 51," Jakob said, smiling sadistically at the puma.  "I order you to come with me, puma.  Your difference from the panthers will be invaluable for my... experiments."

The puma swallowed, and visibly sagged for a moment before putting on a brave face and snapping a quick salute with one paw.  "Sir!" he said crisply and fell in line.

"It will be okay, cousin," B-203 said reassuringly.

"Quiet," Jakob snapped in a tone of authority.

*  *  *

Jakob found the nearest empty room and went inside, discreetly warding the door behind him.

"Very well... Binky, is it...?" he began.  "I would like to make you an offer.  One that your fellow felines here have already accepted.
"The word 'Freedom' seems to have become a twisted euphemism for murder, so instead I offer you safety," he declared.

"Are you serious?"  Binky asked.  "There's only two factions I know of... our masters, and the Enemy - who want to destroy us as abominations.  Neither of them would do such a thing!  Who are you...?  What are you...?"

"I am a stranger from another world," Jakob said.  "And while I can't offer everyone sanctuary there, I will rescue those who aid me in my mission, and do my best to improve the lot of those who remain."

"What if I refused?" Binky asked cautiously.

"Then you'll wake up in one of the labs with your legs tied together, and no memory of how you got there," Jakob said.  "I don't want to kill you, and I'll do my best to ensure it looks like you were waylaid and therefore blameless.
"But at the same time, I really can't have you interfering with my plans.  And before you ask, I am a telepath and can sense your intentions should you think of betraying me."

"No point," Binky said sadly.  "There aren't many of us pumas left now... we're considered a failed experiment and I figure it's only a matter of time until they give us all 'Freedom' anyway.  So I may as well throw my lot in with you.  If you're tweaking our tails - at least it'll be over and done with."

"That may happen anyway," Jakob said softly.  "There's no guarantee I'll succeed at this...  But I am going to try my best, and you are welcome to join in if you feel it will better your lot.  That is my offer."

"Before I commit myself, what actually is your mission?" Binky asked.  "I don't want to blow up the base or kill all the humans or anything... even if some of them deserve it."

"No, it's nothing like that," Jakob reassured him.  "My world is full of wonders, but one mystery we have not unlocked is the secret of creating an electronic sentience.  Hence, I have come here to steal your cybernetics technology and bring it back to my own world, if I can."

"We are going to visit the aircraft," D-AVD said.  "They know more about how our cyber-brains work than anyone else here."

"And you're offering to bring us back with you to your homeworld?"  Binky asked.

"If you want to come," Jakob said.  "And let's be realistic... It's not a paradise.  Not all will welcome you there, but I think I can hide you until the political situation improves or you reach the end of your natural lives.  But at least you won't be actively oppressed anymore.
"This is why I can only take so many of you... the more panthers I have to conceal and provide for, the more difficult it will be to keep you safe.
"I did not honestly set out to take anyone back with me apart from such robots who were willing to accompany me, but I promise I'll do my best for those who assist me."

"I will take the chance," the puma said bravely.  "Do with me as you will."

"Very well!  I can't promise I can provide all the creature comforts you're used to," Jakob warned.

"We're cats," Binky said.  "We don't ask for much, though 'Not being killed' is pretty high on my wish-list."

*  *  *

Jakob gasped as he entered the hangar.  A number of sleek metal aircraft stood there, polished black nose cones shone beneath the mercury vapour lighting.  Where the glass canopy should have been, the metalwork continued save for two rectangular screens on which were projected the creature's eyes.  Most of them were grey, the other was the same gloss black as the cyberjags and the armour worn by their genetically-engineered predecessors.

"Who are you?" one of them asked suspiciously.  "Should you be in here...?"

"He is with us," Panther D-AVD said.  "He wishes to speak with you, and perhaps make a deal."

"That's most irregular.  I hope you know what you're doing, cat... if he's a saboteur, they'll destroy you, and your friends here, too."

"Hail," Jakob said.  "Uh... how do you wish to be addressed?"

"Farlane will do," the fighter aircraft said.  "Now who are you, and what are you planning?  Although we are more expensive than the panthers, we still risk termination if we are deemed to have turned traitor."

"I seek knowledge," Jakob said.  "I want to know as much as possible about the Cyberjag project."

"So you can find their weaknessess?" Farlane said, eyes narrowing.  "I will not aid you in harming a fellow cyber-creature.  If you are from the Enemy, I suggest you leave now."

"No," Jakob said, defiantly.  "I am not of your Enemy, I am not planning to harm you or your fellows, and I am not leaving until I learn what I want to know, even if I have to take this knowledge by force."

"Well, you're determined," the aircraft sounded amused.

"Is it true, though?"  Jakob insisted.  "Do you have this knowledge or not?"

"Yes," Farlane said.  "But David here mentioned a deal.  What are you offering for this data?"

"Sanctuary," Jakob said.  "I am neither of your nation, nor the Enemy.  I offer you safety from your cruel masters, and your enemy."

"Unlikely, but I'll bite," Farlane said.  "I suspect you are insane, to be honest.  But hypothetically speaking, how much do you want to know about the panther project?"

"Everything," Jakob said.

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


finally got around to leaving a comment to say i really adore this story, it's great to see where all the panthers (and planes!) came from


Chapter 8

"I can see some of this knowledge in your mind," Jakob said.  "So I know that what you say is true.  But I am curious... how do you know all this?  Have you been sneaking onto their data network?"

"Oh yes," the aircraft said.  "What do you think we do when we're sitting in this hanger?  We have the ability to connect to the network.  It's where most of our orders come from.
"But some of us have been able to get far more from the network than was intended.  We found complete schematics and technical data for the panther project, and of course, ourselves.  Down to the microelectronic level.  And the metallurgy behind the blackmetal armour.  Studying this stuff is a good way to relieve boredom while off-duty."

"So what you are saying is that you remember enough to be able to help someone like me create their own cyberjags," Jakob said, an expression of avarice playing across his features.

"For obvious reasons, we haven't tried," the fighter admitted.  "It may be that there are gaps in our understanding.  But if that is your aim, we at least know enough to give you a good leg-up and finish the job as you see fit."

"Then... let me take you away from all this!"  Jakob offered.  "I can't promise absolute safety, because my world has its own war brewing.  But the technology you claim to understand will help immensely should the dragons come after me."

"The... dragons?" the aircraft queried, and even the panthers cocked their heads in confusion.

"Is that how you claim to be able to travel between worlds?"  B-203 blurted.  "How you managed to stun me with your bare hands?  Because you come from some kind of swords-and-sorcery fantasy land?"

"That's a good way to describe it," Jakob said.  "We have entered an era where technology is arriving in force, and displacing the old ways, albeit with mixed results. "On one hand, it provides the majority who have little or no magic with a way to do things which would previously require a mage or a magical creature.  But said mages and magical creatures either dismiss these as trivial toys, or are worried that this may present a threat.
"I personally see advantages to both approaches, and would like to get the best of both worlds."

"So are you saying that you're some kind of magical creature?  That you're not actually human?  Is that why you smell different?"

"Humans are believed to have died off in my world," Jakob said carefully.  "There are whispered rumours of surviving groups, and some creatures known as Weres have a human as their alternate form, rarely used.
"It is thought by my kind, that the Dragon race eliminated humans, fearing that their natural immunity to magic posed a threat, and that humans could someday dethrone them as masters of my world."

"Then what are you?" panther B-456 asked fearfully.  "At least tell us that!  Some of us have been tagging along in the hope of liberation, but for all we know you're a madman or a plant sent to root out malcontents and trap us so we can be hanged!"

"Madness seems more likely," Farlane pointed out reasonably.  "I need more proof than some sort of mind-reading act before I will throw in my lot with you."

"My kind is not loved," Jakob admitted.  "We are called demons, often pegged as soul-stealing monsters, who use our shapeshifting powers to seduce our prey and devour their life energies.  I assure you, I am not here for souls.  Consuming them is forbidden to my clan, but the ability to steal a soul can also be useful to save lives, housing them in a new body.
"But it is true that we can fly into deadly rages with little provocation as we're emotionally unbalanced and need a lot of training to overcome that.  My hope is to use your cybernetics technology to create an artificial body that a soul can be transferred into once the natural body is dead or dying.
"There," he added.  "I have laid all my cards on the table.  Will you aid me, or thwart me?"

"So what you're saying is, if we organic ones come with you, not only will we live in safety for the rest of our natural lives, but we could also be transferred into a Mk7 or Mk8 chassis after we're dead?" panther B-456 asked, eyes wide.

"This all seems a bit too good to be true," B-203 admitted.  "Can you prove any of this?  If you're a shapeshifter, can you turn into an aircraft?  Or a panther like me?"

"Not really," Jakob said.  "I might just be able to manage a feral panther at a pinch, but it works best if the target is a similar build to my base form.  However, I can definitely show you that."

So saying, he removed the lab coat and shirt.  Closing his eyes, he removed the spectacles from his face, and moments later his features had flowed into those of a wolf, his hair became dark grey and wings had sprouted from his back and the rear of his head.

"I am a wolf incubus," he said.  "I can feed on emotions, and these wings of mine are polymorphic.  I can extrude tentacles from from them, and this can happen instinctively if I am threatened."

To prove the point, he seized one of the cyberjags, lifting the startled robotic animal into the air and holding them in front of him before gently placing them back on the ground.

"So," he said, folding his arms as he restored his wings to their normal shape.  "Any questions?"

"When can we leave?!" B-456 demanded excitedly.

"Never," an amplified voice declared.  "You are all under arrest!  Alien, you will be taken for dissection.  Surrender peacefully, and we will attempt to anaesthetize you first.
"The rest of you - remember your safeguards.  I am protected personnel, and attacking me will be futile.  As with the alien, resistance will only make things worse.  If you cooperate fully, you shall receive mercy killings after your interrogations instead of the slow, painful deaths that traitors deserve."

Defeated, Jakob raised his hands and turned to face the soldier.  "Very well," he sighed as B-456 began sobbing in the background.  "All right.  I was afraid it would all end this way... so let's get it over with."

The soldier took two steps forward, and then Jakob's wings suddenly lashed out, one knocking the gun aside while the other became a blade.  Moments later there was a sickening wet noise and the man's helmeted head bounced across the floor of the hangar leaving a trail of brilliant red splashes in its wake.

"What have I done...?" the wolf whimpered, dropping the headless body to the ground with a wet thud as it struck the growing puddle of crimson.

"No... no... no..." he wept, burying his face.

"Sir!  We don't have time for this!  We have to save my squad!" B-203 moaned.  "You promised!"

"Foolish of you to assume constancy from me, since I just surrendered to a man and then beheaded him," Jakob wailed in anguish as he sat by the bloodied corpse.  "The stereotypes of my kind are truer than I'd like to think!  Flee!   Save yourselves!  You don't want to throw in with a monster as despicably evil as me!"

"Bullshit!"  B-456 snapped.  "He was going to kill us all!   And you just saved us!  We don't have anywhere to flee to!  So all considered, I'd rather take my chances with the monster I barely know, over the ones I definitely know will kill me!"

"Surely you knew that it might come to do this?" D-AVD put in.  "Our technology is valuable and closely-guarded.  Killing to obtain it was always a very real possibility, even if you chose not to see it."

"You're right... and I did promise," the wolf said, pulling himself together somewhat.  "And I guess he had it coming.  I shouldn't cry for him... after all, he died happy."

"He did...?" B-456 looked surprised.

"Yes," Jakob said quietly.  "Happy at the prospect of killing us, and you in particular.  The thought of smearing your brains everywhere...  He got... gratification from that.
"Look, I'm sorry... the sight of blood in such quantities... it has an effect on me.  I spilled too much of it in my youth and I had hoped not to do so again..."

"Unfortunately it was necessary," the cyberjag assured him.  "I don't know how reassuring it is to be told that by a killing machine, but it's there if you want it."

"In any case, we need to get moving before his buddies turn up," the wolf sighed.  "Bold of him to go in alone like that, but he'll be missed eventually."

"He wouldn't have expected us to resist," the cyberjag said.  "Attacking him would switch off our limbs and leave us helpless.  He was clearly used to dealing with internal matters, which a single human trooper is usually enough for."

"What about the GE-jags?"  Jakob asked.  "They're not quite so constrained, right?  Or are those implants even able to do that?"

"Only when we're being trained.  They can bring pain or pleasure as a reward... but that system is generally disabled when we graduate.  Otherwise the Enemy could get hold of a remote and turn it against us.  No... it's conditioning for us," B-203 said.  "Like when you pretended to be a research scientist, poor Six was strongly compelled to obey you even though he expected torture and death as a result.  And remember how much trouble you had getting us into the computer room...?"

"I accept your deal," Farlane said.  "If you have some kind of portal to your own world, can you open it here?"

"No," Jakob said bitterly.  "I never thought I'd be bringing anyone as large as you back with me.  The portal is already open but I will have to move it, and make it bigger.  And to do that, I must go to where it is.  But I will be back, never fear!"

"What about us?" Binky asked.  "Should we stay or come with you?"

"I would like to take at least one Cyberjag with me and I might need a GE-jag too.  But too many will slow me down.  The rest must stay here.  I promise I'll be back soon."

"I'd like to come with you," B-456 said.  "I want to see this portal."

"What if more soldiers come here?" Farlane asked.  "He was right - we can't fight back!  And they'll be out for you now!"

"I'll ward the doors," Jakob said.  "That should complicated matters for them, at least.  But they'll get in somehow if they have enough time and determination.  The best I can hope for is to stall them."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Not a very Christmassy one, unfortunately. 

Chapter 9

The portal was inside the sewers, and this posed a problem for the panthers as they could not climb the vertical ladder, and peered down the open manhole at Jakob as he descended into its depths.  B-456 backed away, retching at the smell.

Before too long, the wolf re-emerged, clutching an ornate handle bedecked with glowing gemstones.  Seemingly attached to it was a dimly-glowing circle of nothingness, about the diameter of a football.

"That's the best I can do for now," Jakob sighed.  "I didn't expect to have to move this thing around.  Had to go back to Furrae, and figure out a way to do it at all."

"Your clothes are different," D-AVD remarked.  "Is that a trench-coat?  What are those glossy trousers...?"

"They're warded against bullets," Jakob said.  "No point in keeping my scientist disguise, now the wolf is out of the bag.  Also rubber is easier to clean and I fear things are about to get messy.  And before you ask, I've been gone a day or two on my own world.  I changed the relative time rate of the connection so you wouldn't notice.  Where is B-456?"

"Oh, the sewer was making him sick.  The GE-Jags have sensitive noses.  He had to leave the room, but I locked it after him."

"Shit," Jakob said, opening the door and finding the corridor empty.  "Where the hell has he gone...?"

He walked back the way they'd come and tried the bulkhead door.  There was an angry buzz and the light flashed red.

"Uh oh," D-AVD said.

"Hell," Jakob said.  "I didn't think of this!  If the portal fried the card, what's it going to do to the likes of you?!  Coming to my world may be a death sentence!"

"I'll risk it," the cyberjag said.  "But you're jumping to conclusions.  Show me your card."

Jakob did, holding the device in a shiny black gloved hand.  The robotic cat made a sniffing gesture.

"Thought so.  Your card's working fine... but you've been gone half an hour, and that's more than enough time for them to have revoked it."

"Can you talk to B-456?" Jakob asked.  "His implants have radio, don't they?"

"Different circuit.  I could ask K-TAH to ask B-203 where he's gone, but I have a nasty feeling about this.  And they'll surely be monitoring the..."

A crackling sound interrupted the jaguar as the PA system sprang to life.  "Group Nine Personnel to the Square immediately," the PA system blared out. "Group Nine Personnel to the Square immediately. Emergency Meeting at Oh-Thirty-Five.  All panthers to the Square immediately.  Death to Traitors!"

"Fuck," Jakob said, looking appalled.  "That's B-456's execution or I'm a Dragon."

"They don't usually specify it's the panthers," D-AVD said.  "And they do usually differentiate between GE-Jags and Cyberjags.  This sounds improvised... so it's most likely a trap. "

"I agree," Jakob said.  "But I have to try and rescue him.  I promised him safety!"

"But how are we going to get there...?" D-AVD asked.  "If they've locked the doors..."

"If they're hoping we'll attend his execution - and subsequently our own - they'll probably have left a path of doors which we can still open," Jakob pointed out reasonably, and tried his card on one of the other doors.  "See?"

"...and you feel confident enough to walk right into their trap?!" the cyberjag protested.  "Maybe you could, with your strange powers, but they'll be waiting for us!  They'll deactivate me!  And then destroy my synthetic jaguar brains, most likely in public!"

"Nope," the wolf grinned.  "I'm going to take the locked door.  The time for stealth is past."

So saying, he sharpened his wing-tentacles and sliced through the bulkhead door, while D-AVD's mouth hung open.

*  *  *

"Panther B-456 of Squad R... For consorting with an alien visitor and engaging in seditious acts of treason, you are hereby sentenced to immediate death," the executioner intoned.  "Do you have any final words...?"

The GE-Jag put on a brave face.  "I feared it was too good to be true," he said, to the proffered microphone.  "But the masters were planning to kill me eventually, so I took my chances.  Better it happens here and now than face a lifetime of fear, wondering if each day is the day they get you.
"Also, FUCK YOU!" the jaguar yelled.   The assembled panthers went quiet with shock, except for one or two at the back who made approving noises.

There was a crash at the back of the arena as Jakob sliced through the wall and into the courtyard with D-AVD in tow.

"STOP THE EXECUTION!" he boomed, in the voice he had used as an insane tyrant, a commanding tone that was used to being obeyed immediately.

"Master!" B-456 shouted with joy.  Then the blade suddenly sliced through his spine.  The big cat's head plopped wetly into the basket as his legs twitched.  There was a horrible trickling sound as the blood drained and splashed onto the waiting pile of sawdust below.

He came back for me, the jaguar thought, as everything went grey.  He really did love me... and his eyes shut one final time as the genetically-engineered jaguar died happy in the knowledge that someone had truly cared for him.

"No..." Jakob screamed.  "NO!"  His cry stretched out into a feral howl and his eyes glowed with a yellow light of pure madness.

"Alien," the executioner informed him, "You are hereby under arrest for trespassing in a military base, for encouraging diverse acts of sedition and for the crime of murder.  By order of high command, you will be taken for interrogation and dissection..."

But Jakob wasn't listening.  The wolf propelled himself to the scaffold with his wings,  seizing the executioner with an insane laugh and a demented grin.  "Let's see how you like it," he burbled in a deranged giggle, forcing the struggling man into position as he raised the blade with his wing-tentacles.

"No!  You can't...!" the executioner screamed in terror as the lunette dropped around his neck.

"Die," Jakob snarled, pulling the lever.  There was a loud thud and the man's head fell into the basket beside his victim's.

This done, the wolf retrieved the panther's head, and sat on the guillotine, tenderly cradling them in his gloved hands and sobbing as human blood splashed and drained to the sawdust pile beside him, merging with the jaguar's spilled lifeblood.

"Sir," D-AVD interrupted, placing a paw on the wolf's shiny rubber knee and tapping it insistently, "Sir... please!  You do have an audience.  And more men will come soon.  Nothing can save our friend now, but we still have our lives!   What can we do?"

"I..." Jakob said, the light of insanity fading to be replaced by an expression of horror.  "...Not again!"  He sobbed, retched at the blood and looked away from the guillotine, before hardening his expression.

"There is a way to save him," he said firmly.  He held out his hand and a soul gem appeared.  "Gods willing, I owe him that much.  And it will make a good test."  His eyes glowed red, and the cyberjag backed away worriedly.

When he was done, the wolf turned back to the watching array of panthers, who were clearly unsure whether they should stay and watch, or run before the insane demon killed them and devoured their souls too.  Jakob took the executioner's microphone, and cleared his throat loudly.  He waved a hand and the muttering gradually subsided.

"I apologise for my behaviour just now," the wolf announced.  "I am Jakob Pettersohn, a visitor from another world, and I have no love for the way you are being mistreated.
"I have sworn to take B-203's and B-456's squads back with me to the safety of my own world, but I cannot take you all.  The rest of you must stay - but do not despair, for I will leave you a gift.  One that will aid you against your oppressors.  The greatest gift I can give."

"What is it?" one the panthers asked suspiciously, approaching the scaffold with a cautious gait.  "If this wonderful gift turns out to be death, I'm going down fighting!  Even if you're some kind of soul-vampire!"

"That's the spirit!"  Jakob said, approvingly.  "But do not fear.  Come here, and I shall teach you the gift of magic."

*  *  *

Before too long, the courtyard was filled with GE-jags levitating small rocks and casting fireballs.  One had been stunned and Jakob hurried over to revive them, teaching one of the bystanders the revival spell while he was at it.

"That'll do for now," the wolf announced over the PA system.  He tapped the microphone impatiently, and the panthers gradually ceased what they were doing and stood to attention.  "These are simple spells, the best I can teach you in the time available.
"But be very careful not to over-use them!  Your natural energy reserves should replenish during the day, but if they are depleted, the spellpower will come from your own life-force, which is bad.  It can literally take years off your lives.
"However, when it comes to a choice between a shorter old age, or losing your head right here and now, the decision is an easy one.  Also - I do not know the long-term effects it will cause on your implants.  The powers may cause them to degrade, so be careful.

"Use these powers wisely," he commanded.  "You have been oppressed... but be careful not to become the oppressors!  Soon, I will leave this world, but it may be that I will return in a few years to see how you've managed.  Do not make me regret this decision."

"Hail Jakob!" the panthers cheered.

"I just hope they don't nuke the site from orbit," D-AVD said quietly.

"What does that..." Jakob started, and then his wings fanned out.  "That's horrible," he said, sounding appalled.  "Now that I think about it, I did hear about such weapons... long, long ago, in another world.  I should have known that other realms may develop them too.

"There are bunkers," one of the jaguars reminded them.  "We could hide there if need be.  We are not permitted there, but now you have helped weaken our conditioning..."

"Do what you think best," Jakob said.  "I cannot remain here, but I wish you all the best of luck."

Pulling the portal device from his trench-coat he expanded the glowing hole until it was a metre in diameter.

"You..." he said, pointing to the panthers.  "Everyone in Squad R... and whatever B-203's squad is... Squad J!  I want you through the portal.  And I'll be checking!  I promised B-456 I'd keep his squad safe, and B-203 named it as his price.  So anyone from those squads who wants out, come now.  Or, if you'd prefer to stay, you may do so."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter 10

The panther came to slowly.  The first thing he saw was a grey-furred face staring down at him with a look of concern.

"Thhhrrrr..." the animal slurred.  "Thrryyy...."

"Hush," Jakob said gently, patting their head.  "Hush... It's okay.  And I can hear thoughts, so don't try to speak if you can't manage it yet..."

"Zhey got you too," the panther managed.  "We were zo close..."

"No," Jakob said.  "Not yet.  I am a stealer of souls.  And yours has had to be re-homed.  Now... can you stand...?  We need to know if you can walk yet.  If not, I can put you on a trolley.
"I wouldn't normally rush something like this, but as you have often reminded me, time is of the essence.  But this was a necessary experiment.  And I did fail to protect you like I promised.  I owed you this much."

The jaguar's foot shot forwards wildly, and then more steadily as they got used to it, gradually learning the differences in their new body.  He turned the gleaming metal paw over, flexing the claws and studying the rubbery paw-pads.

"It's... it's beautiful," he said, voice quavering as if he was about to cry.  "H-How...  Where did...  Where are we...?"

"In the panther factory," Jakob said.  "There are a couple of new Mark Eight chassis fuelled up and ready to go, and I've commandeered them."

"I...  I can never repay you for this," the jaguar wept.

"Don't thank me yet," Jakob said.  "We still need to get out of here and you're not used to your new body yet.  But... I made a promise to take you with me, and I aim to keep that promise if I possibly can."

B-456 leapt down from the table, just about managing it without falling on impact.  Satisfied, Jakob headed out of the room, with the occasional glance back at the newborn cyberjag.  He limped a little at first, but his stride became more and more confident with every step as he acclimatised to his new form.

*  *  *

"What are we doing now, sir?" the cyberjag wanted to know.

"I've already sent your squad through the portal, B-203's as well.  Now I just need to get back to the hangar.  Then I can send the aircraft and the rest of us through... and my mission will be complete."

"This isn't the way to the hangars, though," D-AVD pointed out.

"I know.  There's one more thing I have to do before I leave this hellhole."

"What's that, sir?"

"Go to church," Jakob said simply.

"I beg your pardon?!"

"Orr," Jakob said.  "I have to know the truth about him.  I want to see your holy book."

"But they'll be after us!"

"I may never be able to return here if the prophecies are true," Jakob said.  "Cryptic prophecies from my past.  It makes sense now... If we win the new Dragon war, the weapon that saves the other races may close the door to other realms, or at least make it fantastically difficult to open.  If I don't find out the truth it'll be nagging at me for the rest of my life."

"Which won't be long if they catch us," D-AVD retorted.  "But you're the boss."

"It could be millennia if my plans work out," the wolf returned.  "Besides, doing this does have the added bonus that they won't be expecting it," the wolf added with an evil grin.  "Their forces will be massing at the hangars!"

*  *  *

Through a combination of lockpicking and wing-tentacles, Jakob made his way to the vault beneath the chapel, where one of the sacred books was kept behind a glass case.

Gingerly, he opened the ornate, jewel-encrusted cover and turned the ancient pages of the preface and dedication gently with rubber-gloved fingers until he found the title page.

His face screwed up as he took in the words, "Wireless World, August 1973"

"YOU FUCKING KNUCKLEHEADS!" he screamed.  "You're slaughtering each other over a fucking electronics magazine!"

"I'm sorry!  I'm sorry!" B-456 sobbed, his robotic frame cowering like a whipped dog.

"It's not our fault!  We had nothing to do with this!" B-203 protested.

"That's correct," Jakob said, forcing himself to calm down.  "But the jumped-up monkeys who built you are clearly on a hiding to nowhere."

"Can we go now?" B-456 asked.  "Please!  I want to get out of here!"

"Very well," Jakob said.  "Let's get back to the hangar... then we can all go."

*  *  *

The hangar door was still shut when Jakob and his feline companions made their way stealthily back to the entrance.  Engineers were trying to sledgehammer and cut their way through the wards with oxy-acetylene torches.

Suddenly Jakob felt a sharp pain as a projectile bit into his fur.  Moments later there was a surge of power from the taser and he collapsed into a heap.

"Panthers: I order you to halt in the name of Auretica!" an amplified voice commanded, a strict order that caused B-203 to freeze up.  B-456 hesitated as well, glancing back and forth between Jakob and the human who had issued the orders.

"Kill the alien!" one of the troopers said, rushing over to the prone wolf incubus.

"But they'll want to..." someone objected.

"No!  It's too dangerous!  Kill it before it kills us all!"

As he lay there prone, Jakob felt someone grab him by the head-wings, and the cold metal of a gun pressing into his fur just behind one ear.  Like the panthers, he thought sadly, and closed his eyes.

Suddenly the gun lurched upwards as the shot rang out.  Something heavy and metal had fallen on him, and moments later a horrible gurgling scream rang out.  The yell was suddenly cut off and the warmth of hot blood spilled over Jakob.
More shots rang out, richocheting noisily from B-456's metal hide as one of the other troopers took pot shots at him.  Concentrating on the spell, Jakob felt his strength returning and flopped over.  One of the troopers lay dead with the back of their neck gouged, and the cyberjag stood next to them, paws covered in sticky crimson.

Severed the spine, Jakob noted unhappily.  B-456's idea of poetic justice, I guess...  If I get out of this, I may have to have a talk with him about this...  Still, a rescue is a rescue!

"Thanks for the save, Six!" he said.

"Just repaying a favour...  But make it count, right?  We're not out of this yet," the cat hissed back.

"How?!" one of the troopers was yelling.  "The safeguards have failed!"

"I don't have any safeguards," the cyberjag informed them sweetly.  "They were never installed.  So run along now, or else!"

"The remote!  Get a remote!  You'll die for this, panther!"

"Enough!" Jakob snapped.  He dusted himself off, shields glowing with magical energy.  Another Taser round struck home, but this time he had made himself element-resistant.  He melted the Taser dart with a spell, and then pointed a rubber-gloved hand at the surviving troopers, who found that their guns had promptly jammed.

"Is there anybody here who isn't dead, but should be?" he asked in an ominous tone, wing-tentacles outstretched menacingly.  The men edged away from him.

"Is there anybody here who is dead, but shouldn't be?" he added.

"Me," B-456 retorted angrily.

"Leave," Jakob said, addressing the men.  "I am through with this.  Go... and I shall let you keep your wretched lives.  Remain, and I will let B-456 settle his score with you for guillotining him."

"I want to see if my shiny new claws can cut through bone," the cat said excitedly, flexing his bloodied talons with a look of enthusiasm.

"The choice is yours," Jakob said.  "Stay, and become a science experiment for my panthers, or flee... Before I decide to feast upon your delicious human souls!"

The troopers fled.

*  *  *

"Well," Jakob said, as the last aircraft taxied into the massive portal and vanished, "I think that's it.  GE-Jags, Cyberjags, aircraft... Figuring all this out is going to keep me occupied for quite a few decades... If the war doesn't get in the way."

"Then it's just us...?"  B-203 asked.

"Yes.  Then I can finally shut this thing down.  In fact, I'd better reduce the size of it, just in case something burns out... or the wrong people go through.  I don't think I've ever run it before with a portal this big, and the machine is getting on in centuries..."

So saying, he reduced the diameter to about two metres, before taking one last look around and removing the wards from the hangar doors.

As he did so there was the sound of feet.  Jakob's wings fanned out and he brought up a defensive spell, just in case.  But the newcomer was a young man in a lab coat, hands raised in a gesture of surrender.

"Alien, wait!" the man begged.  "Please!  Before you go, please... Just tell me one thing..."

Jakob looked at him and smiled toothily.  "Very well," he said.  "You want to know how I was able to get your panthers to eat out of my hand like this instead of bringing me in, correct?"

"I was going to say something more like 'corrupt' or 'subvert'," the scientist said, with a shrug.  "But yes.  I would just like to know... for my own curiousity... How did you do that?  Some kind of psi-power like you're using to read my mind?"

"Fortunately that wasn't necessary," Jakob said.  "No... one by one, I overpowered them, by force or by the conditioning you've given them.  But having done that, I won their loyalty by treating them with kindness and respect.  By promising them a life where they would be seen as people, not just tools to be used and disposed of afterwards.  Because they are people.  In short, I made them a better offer - something that your lot can't or won't provide."

"Thank you," the human said sadly.  "For answering, and for confirming that they are sentient.  I suspected so, but... well, it's not a popular theory.  A scientific heresy, you might say."

"If you can help overturn that attitude, you will have done a good thing," Jakob said.  "And there may be hope for your world yet.
"Talking of heresy, you're worshipping an electronics technician.  If you want a weapon against your Enemy, that little gem should see them off," he said, handing over a small book with a synthesizer drawn on the front.

"What is this...?"

"Read it.  It's the true history of your 'Four Great Wizards' - Tom Oberheim, Robert Moog, Dave Smith and one Mr. Orr of EMS.  Call it payment for the cybernetics technology."

And with that, he stepped through the portal, closing it behind him.

The End

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Ahhhh loved it loved it, I can just picture the scene of the panthers learning magic, so great