[Writing] Xerian II - Chapter 30 - Finale (23rd Nov 2023)

Started by Tapewolf, April 14, 2023, 09:57:53 AM

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Turns out I didn't actually publish the original Xerian story here!  The comic is just over halfway through, but I can link to the original written series on FA later.  Or bulk-post the entire story in another thread if people prefer that.

The original story starts here:  https://www.furaffinity.net/view/36864702/  - but is obviously a spoiler for the comic.  Xerian II is likely to have minor spoilers as well, mind.

...still, without further ado, here is the sequel.  It is possible that like Keller, it will get bogged down and erratic in terms of updates, but I figure I'd best make a start at it!

Xerian II - A Quirk of Fate

Chapter 1

Xerian snapped into wakefulness and looked around, grateful to find himself in his own bed.  It happened less often now, but he still had dreams - and nightmares - of being trapped in a crazy alien world with no way home.  Even waking up in a hotel gave him a fleeting moment of anxiety, a panic that he was somehow back in a land where magic was real and cybernetics were tightly controlled.

"Good morning, boss!"  Lautrec said, padding over.  It had taken the cyberjag some time to learn the local language and occasionally he would revert to Furrae Common if particularly distracted.

"Morning, Lautrec.  Any messages?" the Synth asked him.

"Zuki left a note asking if you would be around tonight.  Also there was another interview request and some more fan-mail.  At this rate you may have to hire a secretary."

"Yeah, I'll have to consider it."

"Good.  This kind of thing isn't really what I was trained for.  Can we go for a walk?  I'd like to see the shuttle again."

Xerian had been startled at first by the panther's insistence on being taken for regular walks like a dog.  Still - if I had spent most of my life patrolling the same building in a secret research facility, I'd want to explore too.

"Sure," the Synth said.  "I just hope we don't get mobbed."

"Turns out being kidnapped by aliens from another universe makes you a celebrity.  Who'd have thought it?"

"I had hoped the novelty would have worn off by now," Xerian sighed.  "Still, it's earned me more than ten years' pay as a courier."

Xerian waved a hand in front of the reader and the door slid smoothly open.  He turned towards the stairwell, and the cyberjag balked.

"Oh, right - I forgot," the Synth said apologetically.  "We can take the lift if you prefer, but... Well, if you don't try you'll never learn, will you?  And frankly the same goes for me.  I'm still a little unused to being plantigrade and the stairs help with it."

"I landed on my arse last time," the panther reminded him.  "And it chipped the steps.  We never had stairs much at Jayhawk.  Ramps, yes.  A lift system, yes.  Dimensional portals and warp-aci, but only a few stairs.  Never this many all at once."

"Just to the next level and then I'll carry you?" the Synth said coaxingly.

"Oh all right," the panther sighed, and hesistantly took a couple of steps down the stairwell.  Xerian went ahead and wait for the reluctant cat to descend.  It almost went perfectly as he got into a rhythm, but then suddenly lost his balance as he hit the last step and fell down into a heap.

"Well done," a disapproving voice said, clapping sarcastically.  "Still trying to house-train your pet, I see."

"Morning, Rexx," Xerian said, before Lautrec could respond.  The other red Synth looked at him irritably, blue eyes glaring balefully at him.

"You know, with all your new-found wealth, you could find somewhere larger.  Without stairs," he added, and then continued to the upper floor without looking back.

"What's his problem?"  The panther asked, making his way down the second set of steps, this time perfectly.

"I wish I knew," Xerian sighed.  "I think it's just jealousy."

"What, that he should be the only red Synth in the apartment complex?"

"Probably more to do with the whole fame and riches thing," the Synth sighed again.  "No doubt he thinks I'm crazy for just getting a larger flat in the same building... But I like it here.  Moving somewhere more ostentatious... that just feels wrong."

*  *  *

Lautrec stood by the lake, staring at his reflection and waving an elegantly-manicured paw at it occasionally.  Xerian stifled a laugh.

"It'll get old one day," the cyberjag said.  "But I've been an indoor cat for the most part, remember.  I got to see the reservoir at the power plant a few times but we weren't really supposed to go near it in case we fell in."

"I thought jaguars liked water," Xerian said.  "I take it they didn't model that in you?"

"Not much point if you're designed to patrol corridors," Lautrec sighed.  "Maybe we should have asked Jayhawk about fixing that... too late now, though.  Besides, Jakob and company were focused on protection, making us hard to kill and keeping our vital systems safe.

"Anyway, falling in is a hazard for us," the robotic panther continued.  "See, a real jaguar has lungs full of air that help keep them buoyant when swimming - even those pretty Synth panthers they've started making here have air-sacs inside them, like most Synths.  And you're largely made of graphene and carbon composites.
"But me?  I'm a hunk of metal and would sink like a stone.  One of the other panthers did, actually.  Sixie, I think it was - he slipped and fell in the reservoir.  Fortunately we are IP68-rated, so he was able to crawl along the bottom of the lake until he could reach the shore and climb out.  We were prohibited from going too near the power plant after that."

"'Safety regulations are written in blood,'" Xerian quoted.  "That makes sense."

*  *  *

On the shuttle, Lautrec watched the scenery fly pass for about fifteen minutes, before a voice distracted him.  Turning around, he jumped up on a railing to get a better look at a display panel which was showing headlines from some local news service.

"Oh," he said.  "There's been another one."

"Another disappearance?"  Xerian queried.  "I'm still not sure what to think about those.  People do go missing.  Sometimes they have an accident, sometimes they just want to drop out of society for a bit.  Hard to do as a Synthetic mind... It's not like we can live off the land.  But so many at once?"

"Could be the work of a cult," Lautrec said.

"Kidnapping people?!  That's horrible."

"Not necessarily," the jaguar replied.  "If someone wants to drop out of society for a bit, a religious order may provide them the alternative lifestyle they are seeking.  They may have joined voluntarily."

"Wishful thinking, I'm afraid," one of the other passengers sighed, a grey Synth with blue eyes.  "Some of the victims clearly didn't intend to leave.  Holoscreens left on.  Food left unfinished at the table and the cutlery missing too, like they suddenly vanished in mid-meal.  Heck, one of them apparently disappeared while showering."

"Really?" the panther asked, surprised.

"Yes.  They didn't show up for work for a week.  Nobody could contact them so the police were sent around to check in on them.  They had to force the front door.  And then they found the shower running.  They forced that too in case they'd had a nasty accident while showering or something.  But there was nobody there - just a couple of accessories they'd clearly removed while showering.  And the door was locked from the inside.  No other exits.  They were just... gone."

"Ooh!  Ooh!"  Lautrec squeaked excitedly.  "Breaking news - apparently they caught one on camera!"

"What?!"  several heads all turned towards the screen.

The screen changed to show the figure of a Synth standing inside a bus stop, clearly bored.  Moments later there was a flash and they were gone.

"Holy shit," the panther gurgled.  "They were vaporised?!"

"Don't say that!"  Xerian looked queasy.

"I doubt they were k-killed," one of the others remarked.  "The energy flash came from inside the shelter.  If it was an energy weapon it would have burned a way through the bus shelter too.  And there was a bang."

"You mean they exploded?!  Does that happen with Synths?!"

"Of course not.  We've had over a thousand years to ensure our power storage systems are perfectly safe," the passenger looked offended.

"No," the Synth looked thoughtful.  "Look at the replay... It surrounded them from all sides... I think it teleported them.  The bang would then be the air rushing in to fill the vacuum..."

"I take it you don't have that level of technology here," the cyberjag looked worried.  "It doesn't work the way our portals do.  I wonder if it's magic..."

"You think Bob might be kidnapping people again?!"  Xerian looked horrified.

"Either that or someone has just invented a teleportation system and is using it in a particularly antisocial manner," the jaguar sighed.  "Maybe it's aliens!"

"Strictly, you are an alien," the other Synth pointed out.

"Yeah, but I'm not exactly going to be invading anywhere," Lautrec pointed out.  "Even if I wanted to, I'm pretty sure conquering a realm would trip my safeguards."

"Please don't demonstrate that," Xerian said.  "I don't want to have to carry you home.  Again."

"But he kicked me!" the panther wailed.

"I said I was sorry!" Tych0 yelped.

*  *  *

"Don't forget, 'Zuki was hoping you could go visit,"  Lautrec said as they approached the gleaming apartment building.  "Should I come with or would you rather I went home?  I don't know what plans you two had but, well...  I don't want to get in the way if you had an intimate night in store."

"Why Lautrec, are you getting embarrassed?"  Xerian grinned.

"Not really.  Remember, I worked for incubi and succubi.  They were constantly letting off steam, lust is their main source of nutrition, after all.  If anything I'm happy that some of it's rubbed off onto you, got you more open about it all and allowed you to live a little."

"Having a full-on death experience does change your perspective," Xerian admitted.  "I'd say you only live once, but eh..."

"Yeah, it's your second turn," the cyberjag chuckled.  "No.  I don't want to put things off between you.  Though... well, I do kind of wonder what it's like," the panther said wistfully.

"Anyway.  I'll go," he decided. "See if I can find a frame-by-frame version of that video.  Send my regards to your boyfriend!"

"Are you sure you can manage the stairs?"  Xerian asked.

"Going up is fine.  Going down is the scary part," the panther said.  "And I can use the lift if I get stuck."

*  *  *

Lautrec had settled into a large dog bed which he preferred to sleep in, and had just begun to doze off when there was a chime in the back of his head.

"Jesus, Boss!  You never use the radio link... What's happened?!" he asked.

"Lautrec... get here now... Please!"  Xerian sounded desperate.

"What?!  What's the matter?"

"It's 'Zuki.  He's disappeared!"

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


Chapter 2

"Disappeared?!"  Lautrec asked, as he padded up to the distraught Synth in Zuki's apartment.  "Like on the news...?"

"Yes!  There was a humming sound, a bright flash, and he was gone!"

"Did you call the authorities?"  Lautrec asked.

"Yes.  But I'm scared... They'll take me away for questioning!"

"It's okay, it's okay," the panther reassured him.  "Meanwhile... I guess I had better make sure of something."

So saying, he closed his eyes and pressed his front paws together as if praying, which in fact he was.

Moments later, a thin, flat strip of piece of paper floated down from the ceiling and curled around his nose.

"Tickertape!" the cyberjag said, excitedly.  "It's a miracle!"

"You prayed to Bob...?" the Synth looked terrified.  "Do you really want to get Him involved after what He did to me?  What did He say...?"

"Oh," Lautrec said, straightening the message out and scanning through it.  "I don't know if that's better or worse..."


"That message is one more thing we'll have to explain to the police," Xerian sighed.  "And if He thinks we're in trouble, I'm terrified what kind of help He is likely to attempt."

*  *  *

Shortly afterwards, Xerian was sat on Zuki's couch while he was questioned by two officials, a female lizard and a blue-uniformed male Synth.

"I'm really sorry, sir, but you are in possession of alien technology," the police Synth was saying.

"You can't take his brain!"  Lautrec snarled.  "I am his bodyguard and I cannot allow you to kill him without a warrant to that effect!  And he is a celebrity, what's more!  You won't get away with this!"

"It is not Xerian's brains we are concerned about, Mr. Lautrec," the lizard said, rolling her eyes.  "It is you."

"No!" the cat yelped, looking terrified.  "I haven't done anything!  Well, apart from chipping the stairwell, but that was an accident!  You can't kill me for that!"

"We are not barbarians," the Synth reassured him.  "No harm will be done to you, but we must still take you into custody.  Both of you.  We do have a warrant for that, drawn up this morning."

"What?!"  Xerian whimpered.

"Please try to undertand.  Citizens of our world are apparently being kidnapped by an alien force.  Prior to this event, the only similar such event has been the disappearance of Xerian here.  We have to at least rule out either of your involvements in this situation!  Our orders are to bring you in for observation for one week.  If the disappearances continue unabated, which frankly I suspect they will, then that will clear you of suspicion and you will be released with full compensation for your trouble."

"Madness!"  Lautrec snapped.  "We called you to investigate the abduction of his boyfriend!  His lover!  And now you want to abduct us?!  What kind of service do you call that?!"

"They have a point," Xerian said softly.  "I trust you, Lautrec.  I don't believe you are responsible.  But you have to admit that you are an unknown quantity - at least let them rule out your involvement."

"But I can't cast so much as a light spell!"  The panther wailed.

"Yet your employer gave a statement that you performed a ritual to summon that creepy-looking strip of paper," the police Synth pointed out, placing the strip of ticker-tape in an evidence bag.

"It's true," Xerian said.  "If you were so inclined you could probably summon Bob and get him to do this."

"Boss, you're not helping!"  the cat retorted, looking upset and offended.  "Yes, I could pray to Bob, but so could you.  So could they!  And now we're being arrested on suspicion of witchcraft?!"

"Please, sir, don't make a scene out of this," the policewoman said.  "It will only be for one week - probably less - and you will be treated with dignity and respect if you cooperate with our investigation.  But we do have to bring you both in, willingly or otherwise."

"All right, all right", the armoured panther sighed, and sat down.  "But the compensation had better be good.  And if I find out that you're using this as an excuse to bunk off searching for his boyfriend in the meantime, there's going to be hell to pay.  I was built by lawyers!"

"Hush," Xerian said, holding out his arms.  "Come on, Lautrec.  They're being nice about it.  We should go with them, it's our civic duty."  Grumbling to himself, Lautrec jumped up and the Synth carried him along as they followed the policewoman out of the apartment, with the Synth official trailing behind.

"Wait here please," the lizard said as they reached the hovercar, and took out a communicator, calling ahead.

"Uh oh," Lautrec said, looking around in panic.  "Boss... I'm scared!  I can hear something!"

"What...?" the police Synth looked concerned.  "What the heck is that sound?"

"Help!"  Lautrec begged as a haze began forming around Xerian.  Suddenly a bright flash enveloped them.  There was a loud popping sound, and both Synth and robotic cat were gone.

*  *  *

As the flash cleared, Xerian found himself standing on a large, circular disk in a metal-walled chamber, big cat still clutched to his chest.  Glass doors slid open with a slight hiss as the air pressure equalised.

"Shit, shit, shit!"  Lautrec said, jumping from his employer's arms and looking around the room with an expression of fear.

"Oh no, no no no..."  Xerian moaned.  "Not again!"

Two metal objects which they had assumed were part of the machinery turned and moved towards the pair.  They were clearly machines, functional and metallic with little thought put into styling, personality or even charm.  They walked on legs made from bare struts of metal and stopped just in front of the chamber entrance.

"Subject retrieved OK," the first robot said.  "Warning: subjectcount greater than 1.  subject 0 = Synth, 95% confidence.  subject 1 = cello; violoncello, 60% confidence."

"What?!"  Lautrec yelped.

"Separate and place in suspension chambers.  Selected target = Synth."

"ACK," the other robot confirmed.  "Selected target = Cello."  So saying, they moved towards the pair with stilted, unnatural motions.

"Hey!" a voice said loudly.  "Excuse me!  Can you tell me the way to the nearest shoe shop?"

Both robots turned.  "Error: Subject has escaped," the first one said.  "Detaining.  Fork and resume procedure."

"ACK," the second robot confirmed, and turned towards Xerian.

As the Synth watched, a turquoise creature with an orange visor and dull rubbery-looking skin waved a glossy black-palmed hand at them, and then hopped out of the room, bouncing down a metallic corridor on agile legs with one of the robots in pursuit.  The second robot turned back and reached for Xerian.

Lautrec seized his chance and smashed at the creature's leg with a razor-taloned paw.  The other robot toppled over and the cyberjag leaped on them, clawing and biting until the fallen robot's head separated from their body and they stopped moving.

"Let's go, boss," he said, glancing around cautiously.  "We need to get out of here."

"Did you have to k-kill them?"  Xerian looked appalled.

"Shouldn't have called me a cello," the big cat remarked.

"That's not funny!"

"Calm down, boss.  I don't believe they were alive in the first place.  I mean, give me some credit - if they'd showed any pain responses at all I'd have given them the benefit of the doubt and just subdued them.
"But they didn't.  And you heard their speech - it was like a bunch of debug messages!  They reminded me of Trixie, actually..."

"Who?"  Xerian asked as they headed down the corridor in the opposite direction to the way the leaping creature had gone.

"Trixie was an evil death robot," the cyberjag said.  "And yes, people have called me that admittedly, but Trixie was a computer program, part of an illegal robot army built by a mad incubus called The Professor.
"Those robots only had limited AI capabilities, just pattern matching and logic with no feelings, no soul.  Trixie was just a machine in the truest sense, not a conscious intelligence like you or I.  I think the robot I attacked was like that - at least, I hope it was."

"I just hope you're right," Xerian said.  "We've had advanced AI and electronic sentience for so long, I've never really seen anything this crude..."

As they rounded the corridor, they almost ran into a short creature with a visored face, black fur and polished black armour.  He raised his gun and took aim, loosing a round above Xerian's head.

"Dive!"  Lautrec screamed, as the creature switched aim to him and fired, the shot ricocheting from his armour.  Xerian leapt aside and rolled as the cyberjag coiled ready to spring.  "Halt!" he warned, growling.  "Leave us alone!  Flee - or die!  I'm a deadly violoncello and I've already destroyed one of your robots!"

"Wait!  Wait!" the creature protested, lifting a leather-gauntleted hand and lowering his gun slightly.  "You're not Them!  You're from the planet!  Quickly!  Follow me!"

"What?!  You just shot me!" the panther snarled.  "Why the hell should we trust you?"

"No time!  If you've escaped, the robots will be trying to catch you!  Come with me!  Run!"

"I don't like it, but they're right - we don't have anywhere else to go,"  Xerian admitted, picking himself up.  "But keep your guard up!"

*  *  *

The fluffy creature quickly pressed a button on one of the corridors and a service hatch opened.  He gestured for the other two to get inside and then followed swiftly, pressing another button to close the hatch.  They crept down the maintenance corridor for a few metres and then came to a halt.  "That should do," the creature announced.

"Alright.  Who are you, and what do you want?"  Lautrec demanded angrily.

"Sorry," the creature said.  "I thought you were from Them. The name's Quirk," he added holding out a hand.

At that moment, the creature's red glowing eyes went out and were replaced by the word "KiLL" which flashed on his visor.  Xerian took a step backwards and Lautrec stood between them, eyeing the furred creature suspiciously and starting to curl up ready to pounce.

"Stoppit," the creature snapped, and punched his own head a few times until the word disappeared and his eyes returned.  "Damn implants," he said apologetically.  "I was built to be an assassin, but... I guess I didn't make the grade.  Not quite sure what happened after that, clearly I escaped the scrap heap somehow."

"So are you planning to assassinate my boss?  Because I am allowed to defend him with lethal force,"  Lautrec growled menacingly, and showed his claws.

"I don't want to kill him, no.  But the voices in my head say I should.  One second..."

Quirk pulled a device from his belt and placed it against his head for a second.  His electronic eyes displayed shock for a few moments, and then he stowed the device away again.

"Guhh!  Sorry, that will quiet them down for a while.  Normally I'd be able to get a repair job but... Eh, being a stowaway on an interstellar destroyer... not the best place for it."

"'The voices in your head'...?"  Xerian asked, backing away further.  "That is usually considered a sign of insanity."

"I'm a Protogen," Quirk said irritably.  "My cyber-implants are all loaded up with combat 'wares to make me the perfect killer...  They keep trying to override my free will.  But I can keep 'em in check.  Most of the time..."

"Is that why you're called Quirk?  Because you're... buggy?"  Xerian asked, looking appalled.

"Pretty much.  Now, you look like an abductee from the planet, so unless you're part of a clever ruse by His Imperial Majesty, I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to be here either.  So how about we band together?  I'll show you my hideout, we'll be safer there."

Xerian and Lautrec exchanged glances.  "I don't think we have much choice," the panther sighed unhappily.

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


Chapter 3

"So," Xerian prompted as they made their way toward's Quirk's lair.  "There was this blue-green guy who distracted our captors.  Are they your friend or something?"

"Oh, so that's how you got away?"  Quirk looked surprised.  "That sounds like P3T3R.  He's... weird."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but you're weird," Xerian said.  "The whole thing about hearing voices in your head...  That's not normal.  At least, not where we come from."

"That's probably what P3T3R has too," Quirk said.  "Maybe he does random chaotic stuff to block them out?  To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how he escaped being captured himself - but he's clearly not one of Them.  At least, not yet."

"Not yet?"

"Well, if They capture him..."  Quirk sighed.  "He'll become a drone.  They'll remove his free will and turn him into one of Them."

Silence reigned for a few minutes while Xerian and Lautrec digested this information.

"Okay," Xerian said finally.  "Let's get this straight.  Lautrec and I were teleported aboard a large starship, and nearly taken captive, right?  But you're running loose.  So are you some other captive?  Is that what the ship has been doing?  Moving from star system to star system and taking samples for study or something?"

"Nah, I'm just here to assassinate the Emperor," Quirk said simply, his face forming an expression of childlike glee.

"What?!"  Xerian yelped.  "That's horrible!"

"So is the Emperor," Quirk shrugged.  "Someone needs to end his evil reign.  Might as well be me, right?  As for the ship, well I'm afraid it's bad news.  You're right - the ship is taking samples for study or something..."

"It's the 'Or something' part that's the problem, isn't it?"  Lautrec sighed.

"Indeed.  Basically, the Emperor is planning to conquer your worlds," the protogen told them.  "He is abducting members of your race to determine your weaknesses and otherwise plan his invasion.  But I think they're winding down now... and preparing to move into the attack part of the plan."

"So, about your assassination gig," the cyberjag said hopefully.  "Do you take commissions...?"

"Lautrec!"  Xerian yelped.

"Sorry boss, warrior robot and all," the panther said apologetically.  "So who actually is..." he trailed away as the lights suddenly dimmed noticeably.

"What's going on?  Is the ship being attacked...?"  Xerian asked, looking worried.

"No, no," Quirk said.  "It's evening, shipboard time.  The ambient lights vary to simulate the day and night cycle.  We're almost at the hideout, and I should probably start preparing for bed once we get there."

"Perhaps it's for the best," Xerian sighed.  "It's getting on for my bedtime too.  I hate adapting to different lengths of day..."

"I will wake you if you need it," Quirk said.  "I have some beds I stole from the barracks.  Sometimes P3T3R comes by, so you can use his.  I might have to find something else for your panther, though."

"I can sleep on the floor if necessary," Lautrec said.  "But something soft would be nice if anything is available.  Just a mat or a rug would do..."

"There's some towels," Quirk said, fiddling with some wires on a damaged control panel until a hidden door split open before them to reveal a spacious room with some clutter and some storage cupboards and crates stacked against the walls.

"There's just one thing you need to know," the protogen cautioned.  "I sleep in a cupboard.  I will lock the door from the inside with a logic puzzle.  Please do not open it except in dire emergency."

"What?!"  Lautrec squawked.

"Remember, my combat implants," the protogen said.  "I might go into a killing frenzy if the software fires up while I'm unconscious.  So if you forced the door I might be in a dangerous state.  But if I open it myself... Well, I can only solve the puzzle when my murderous tendencies have abated," he added helpfully.  "See...?"

"I don't believe this..." Xerian wailed.  "I'm trapped on an alien spaceship with a mad murderer!"

"Rude," Quirk said, and disappeared into his cupboard.

*  *  *

"Good morning!" Quirk said brightly, emerging from his room in a shiny black dress and matching gloves.  The claws on his feet were now painted bright red.

"Oh no, oh no no no..." Xerian whimpered, and slumped heavily down on the floor in a prone position.

"What..?" Quirk said, brushing the frills and admiring himself in the mirror.  "Is there a crease...?  Did I miss a spot with the polish?"

"I don't think it's that," Lautrec said, looking at the Synth with concern.

"Have you ever wondered..."  Xerian asked, faltered and tried again.  "Sometime a year ago I was abducted by an alien being of immense power and left to fend for myself in a crazy world full of magical creatures with a very flamboyant mode of dress," he said, laughing bitterly and cradling his head in his hands.
"At one point I had a breakdown and decided I must have just gone insane and was hallucinating everything.  That I was really in a coma, or wandering the streets dressed in a rubber miniskirt and talking to myself..."

"Ohh," the protogen said.  "And here you are abducted again.  And suddenly waking up to see my causal wear... It's making you wonder if you've gone off the deep end after all.  Or for real this time?"

"To put it bluntly, yes," Xerian sighed.

"It's okay, boss, it's okay," Lautrec said, putting a paw on the Synth's shoulder reassuringly.  "If this isn't real, we've both gone mad together.
"That said, I've seen worse.  Remember, I came from that crazy world and was made by people who have a particularly 'artistic' sense of fashion compared to the other races.  So this kind of thing is pretty normal to me.  I say, if he wants to wear shiny clothes, that's his business so long as it doesn't endanger anyone in a combat situation.  At the end of the day, I'm just a sexless robot cat who can't even wear clothes...  So it makes no difference to me."

"I've been sneaking around here for years," Quirk admitted.  "Maybe I have been on my own too long.  But give me some credit - I don't wear the heels unless I'm sure I won't be doing anything combat-like."

"Where did you even get those clothes?"  Lautrec asked.  "And how do you keep them polished?"

"I had the replicators make them, and the polish," the protogen said.  "Same place I get my food.  Oh yeah, want any breakfast?"  So saying, he produced a nutri-bar of some kind and began to chew on it, the visor splitting into a cracked half around the area of his mouth, and showing a pastel-coloured maw within.

Xerian was staring at him, Lautrec's mouth had dropped open and he was similarly taken aback.

"What's wrong now...?"  Quirk protested between mouthfuls.

"Your mouth," Xerian began, not entirely sure how to say it.  "It's... well, I assumed your visor was completely solid.  I guess... I didn't think you had a mouth.  I figured you were entirely electrical or something."

"The visor is nanomechanical," the protogen said.  "We can form a mouth to eat things.  We do need nutrients after all, and what we can't digest directly gets converted to energy as a power source."

"If it's all the same, I'd rather not see that again," Xerian said.  "No offence it's just kind of... disturbing."

"I'm sure we'll get used to it," Lautrec added hastily.  "But seeing it for the first time, it's... a bit of a shock."

"Why did the replicators have evening gloves and high heels?"  Xerian asked.  "I thought this was a military vessel."

"It is, but even military personnel need to let of steam off-duty," the protogen pointed out.  "It can spent multiple years on a single mission, so the replicator database has design patterns for many different contingencies.  The recreational facilities aboard ship use them, and also... well, I've heard the Emperor might be that way inclined."

"I hope he's not an incubus," Lautrec said unhappily.  Quirk's visor made an expression of confusion for a moment, but then rolled his eyes and decided not to inquire further.

"I hope this isn't a personal question," Xerian began, trying to break the tension.  "But having seen your mouth go like that... Well - I'm kind of curious.  Whats under your visor?"

"What's under your visor?"  Quirk retorted.  "That's a bit personal given that I don't even know your name yet!"

"True.  I go by 'Xerian'," the Synth said.  "A lot of the space behind my visor is empty actually...  But well, where should I begin?  I think I'll need a moment to gather my thoughts."

"Fine,"  Quirk sighed.  "Well, since you've never seen a Protogen before, I guess you can't be expected to know about our taboos.  As it happens, what's behind the visor can vary.   Some protos have a proper face, though it still can't be removed as it's part of our life support.
"Others... Well, the older or more experimental designs... They just have their internal organs removed while the skull is rebuilt, and then they're rammed back into the head any which way, held in place with luck and nanites."

"Eww," Lautrec said.

"Quite.  It can be ugly - like the brain is pressed directly against the visor and the eyes are left kind of floating around or lashed to the sides.  It's not nice to think about and I... I don't want to know which type I am.  But regardless... Removing or puncturing the visor would be fatal without medical aid."

"I get what you mean about it being personal now," Lautrec said.  "That's not pretty."

"So... my visor is made of synthetic sapphire," Xerian said, trying to change the topic.  "It has internal displays - the outward-facing ones render my face, rather like yours.  The inward-facing ones can be used as a heads-up display, and there's a camera gimbal that runs on a track.  The HUD is picked up by the camera rather than being generated internally because we don't like directly inserting arbitrary data back into the brain module.  It would make a weak point for hackers to..."

"Brain module?!"  Quirk gurgled, eyes staring in a look of cartoon shock.   "You mean... you're completely robotic?!" the protogen gasped, mouth falling open slightly.  "I didn't think that was possible!"

"What the hell do you think I am?"  Lautrec demanded, thrashing his metallic tail indignantly.

"Very heavily augmented," Quirk said.  "Like, full body armour, or maybe just an organic brain in your head or something.  You've seen the servitor robots here, right?  They just run programs and pattern-match.  You.. You've clearly got emotions, or a very realistic simulation of them."

"I suppose that's reasonable," the cyberjag admitted, and sat down.  "The brain-in-a-jar thing has been tried, actually - but it didn't work out too well.  For your information, I am a Mark 9 Cyberjag, and one hundred percent meat-free.  Xerian here is my friend and employer, and he is a Synth - a kind of lizard android, if I may put it like that.  Synths don't like being referred to as robots because that does imply a menial, non-sentient slave, whereas we are certifiably alive in any sense that matters."

Quirk made a sad smile on his visor.  "I see," he said.  "The irony is, while I am mostly living tissue, I was built by the Emperor... specifically to be a menial, non-sentient slave."

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


Chapter 4

"Look on the bright side, boss," Lautrec said.  "Yes, we're stuck on an alien spaceship that kidnapped your boyfriend and are facing the prospect of seeing your homeworld invaded, but at least this time you won't have to worry about recharging.  That buys us time to figure out what the hell we should be doing."

"True," Xerian sighed.  "Getting the reactor installed... For a while, I wondered if I was being paranoid... yet here we are."

"Once bitten, twice shy,"  Lautrec said.  "Kind of glad we didn't have to go for the other option."

"What was the 'other option'?"  Quirk asked.

"Well, I have a microfusion plant," the cyberjag said.  "By design rather than as an add-on like Xerian here.  There's a hidden XLR4 connector on one of my shoulders and we could, at a pinch, have connected Xerian to it and recharged his systems off my power bus.
"However it... well, I'd like to be considered a bit more than just a battery on legs.  And also it feels a bit too much like a witch's familiar where they co-depend on each other and the witch drinks their blood.  No, wait - I think I got it backwards, the familiar drinks from the witch?"

Quirk and Xerian both stared at him blankly.  "What the heck are you talking about?"

"Uh... Some stupid folklore thing?"  Lautrec said, looking put out.  "Nevermind, I think we're all from completely different worlds anyway."

"What can we do?"  Xerian fretted.  "Can we prevent the invasion?  And what about Zuki?  We need to find out if he's alive and rescue him before he starves to death!"

"The robots said something about suspension chambers," Lautrec said.  "So I suspect he's probably safe for now - assuming that the Emperor's mooks know how to keep Synths alive and charged."

"But if they don't, that might be why they keep kidnapping more people!"  Xerian wailed.

"The ship does have stasis chambers," Quirk confirmed.  "And while the robots may be dumb as bricks, the people making the decisions will be aware of your need for recharging by now.  The folks running the ship have been studying your kind long enough to have a working translation model, after all.  So frankly, your friend is probably in a safer position than we are - at least for now."

"Okay," Lautrec said.  "That's good to know, but my boss is going to want to double-check it.  It might be best if I did a little exploration on my own.
"But, in order to come up with a plan, we need a lot more info.  For starters, who is the Emperor?  Where's he the emperor of?"

"If we don't stop him, he'll be emperor of your world," Quirk said.  "But the truth is, he's a psycho who took over the Aladare cluster.  I'm not sure where that is going by your reference.  He killed the rulers and had his enemies rounded up and either killed... or worse."

"He ate their souls?!"  Lautrec looked horrified.  "Where I come from, they chop your head off for doing that!  It's one of the only capital crimes left!"

"Uh..." Quirk said, his face adopting a confused expression.  "Either that's some kind of translation error or...  Weren't you talking about witchcraft earlier...?  Surely you don't believe in that?  You're a robot!"

"I come from another universe," the cyberjag said.  "One that is unusually abundant in magical energy.  However, we do also have technology.  It is a strange world I was created on... a mixture of futuristic buildings and technology in some parts, and wooden huts and swords in others.  And to further confuse things, the technology to make me was stolen from another universe again, which they accessed through magical means."

"He's telling the truth," Xerian said.  "I was dropped into his universe by a powerful multidimensional entity to perform a task for them.  I have seen ample demonstrations of magical prowess from that land's inhabitants, including soul-transfers.  That was... an experience."

"Listen, we can discuss that later," Lautrec insisted.  "Right now, I'm more interested in the Emperor.  We need to know what we're up against.  Now... he killed the rulers of this Aladare region, took over, and had his enemies executed.  But you said he did worse things too?"

"...Right," Quirk said.  "Yes.  Well, actually most of them weren't killed, you see... They were turned into his mooks.  They were... lobotomised.  Or reprogrammed.  Or both."

"Eww," Lautrec said, and backed away.  "Is that what you were saying they'll do to P3T3R if he's caught?"

"Exactly.  And me, too."

"What about us?"  Xerian asked, looking appalled.  "Is that what they plan to do with the Synths currently in the suspension chambers?  Hack up our b-brains?"

"Doubtful," Quirk said.  "And that's one of the things we need to put on our TO-DO list - find out exactly what their intentions are for the captives once the invasion is underway.  But since you're entirely cybernetic, I don't think you need fear being converted to one of Them.  Or your friends, for that matter."

"Hmm," Xerian looked doubtful, but gestured for the protogen to continue.

"Anyway, he ruled that region with an iron fist for a while until there was an uprising and he was deposed," Quirk said.  "They went back to a system of elected councils after that, but the Emperor didn't go quietly.  He commandeered this ship and fled, vowing revenge.  That's why it's in a bit of a state, because it's operating with about a quarter of the crew complement it was designed for.  Which is good for us because it means we have plenty of bolt-holes to hide in and supplies to steal."

"And these lobotomised crew of his?  Is that who we're hiding from?"  Lautrec asked.

"For the most part, yes.  The ship's crew are mostly Protogens like myself.  Some are allies of the Emperor who supported him back in Aladare - they make the decisions.  Others have been... converted.   And of course there are the robots."

"So is the Emperor a protogen too?" Xerian asked.

"I don't really know," Quirk admitted.  "He's pretty reclusive.  I figured he might be a Primagen or... Or one of the Progenitors!"

"I am getting deja vu here," Xerian sighed.  "When I was kidnapped before I had a tidal wave of knowledge to pick up about a universe with an ecosystem that incorporates magic.  Now I need an infodump about your races too."

"Yeah," Lautrec said.  "What's a primagen, and what's a progenitor?  And is there anything more we need to know about protogens?"

"Okay," Quirk said after a brief pause.  "Protogens are an artificially-created race.  We were built to be disposable slaves by an ancient race.   We start out... we're like genetically-engineered animals," Quirk said.  "We're not even sentient.  That comes with the implants."

"You're artificially uplifted?"  Lautrec said, looking at Quirk with new respect.  "That's kind of how my lot started out.  Not me, I was built from scratch, but my basic neural structure was based on scans of genetically-enhanced big cats.  Some of my older brothers actually were originally flesh-and-blood until they died and their consciousnesses were transferred into neuroprocessor arrays like mine."

"Synth brains are usually metal spheres like a tennis ball," Xerian began.  Quirk practically jumped with excitement.  "Positronic brains?!" he squealed.  "Someone actually built positronic brains?!  Wow!  I wish I could see inside your head!"

At that moment, Quirk's visor started to flash "KiLL" again.  Xerian leapt backwards in alarm as the protogen threw himself to the floor, wrestling one hand with the other until the flashing subsided.  Finally he picked himself up and began straightening the creases of his dress.  "If that ever happens in a combat situation, run," he advised.  "Anyway!  Were you saying that Synths have positronic brains?!"

"Uh, no," Xerian admitted, while Lautrec facepalmed with a hefty metal paw.  "They're just very high density neural networks.  I don't have one anyway - mine died and I was transferred into a neural processor array like Lautrec was saying.  I have a panther brain now, in fact.  It's a long story."

"Now I'm curious," Quirk said.  "But we can pick that up later.  Anyway, we protogens were built as slaves for the Progenitors.  After our useful lives were spent, unwanted protogens were either terminated or simply discarded on the assumption that we would just wither away and die without orders to obey.
"But some of those abandoned protogens had their mind-control systems fail and they broke loose.  Figured out how to disable the mind-control on their fellows, and began to make an army.
"There was a revolution against our creators and we were able to strike out on our own.  Some factions of Progenitors want to 'fix their mistake' by eradicating us, but for the most part they're content to let us go our own way."

"And the Primagens?"  Xerian asked.

"The progenitors' second attempt.  We protos are 60% organic, 40% cybernetic.  With the Primagens it's the other way around.  They're mostly robotic but still with an augmented organic brain.  They tend to be more callous and aloof than protogens and there have been conflicts in the past.  But yeah, basically the same thing happened again - they were sent off into space to scout for the Progenitors, but somehow ended up breaking loose instead."

"Either possibility makes sense," Lautrec admitted.  "From what you're saying, a primagen or protogen could decide to set themselves up as ruler.  Of course it could still be an incubus," he added.  "Or... even no emperor at all.  Like he's a puppet figurehead invented by his supporters."

"Soon you will find out if the Emperor is real, traitors!" a voice called.  Xerian and Lautrec turned to see an armed protogen entering the door to their hideout.  Unlike Quirk, who had a triangular symbol on one cheek and random noise on the other, this protogen had a lightning-like design that had a distinctly authoritarian feel to it, a look not enhanced by the assault rifle-like weapon he was aiming at the group.

"Excuse me," Lautrec asked.  "Can I just ask... How can I be a traitor to someone if I never knew they existed?"

"We surrender," Xerian added, putting his hands above his head.

"Silence, scum!" the protogen snapped, and shifted his aim to Lautrec.

Quirk reacted instantly, his visor flashing "KiLL" again.  There was a loud bang and his victim collapsed into a twitching heap with a hole punched through their visor, and blood pooling around their head.  The adjacent wall was splattered with red mess.

"No!"  Xerian whimpered, and collapsed to his knees.

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


Chapter 5

"It's okay, boss... It's okay..." Lautrec said, patting the fallen Synth on the shoulder desperately.  "I think he was one of the invaders...  He was a bad guy!  He was one of Them... One of the ones planning to invade our homeworld and kill a bunch of innocent people!"

"But..." Xerian wailed.  "He..."

"What the heck is his problem?"  Quirk asked, dragging the corpse towards the door.

"Must I spell this out?" the jaguar snarled.  "Xerian comes from a utopian society based on mutual cooperation.  A world so peaceful that even mentioning violence causes him to stutter.  He's never even seen death before, and now you've just blown someone's brains out right in front of him, while we were still talking to them!"

"Oh," Quirk said.  "Oops.   Ah.  Well... Look, let me move the body away from the hideout and then I'll explain something to you about... uh... well, the facts of death."

*  *  *

Xerian was lying listlessly on the spare bed when Quirk returned.  Lautrec had been standing guard in case the fallen protogen had been missed by their fellows, and did not look pleased when the assassin finally reappeared.

"Okay," Quirk said, adding the deceased protogen's gun to the collection in a weapons locker.  "Listen, Mr. Lautrec, I'll tell you first, you'll probably be better at passing the message on to your friend when he's suitably recovered.
"But firstly, things really aren't as bad as they look.  See... this ship has regeneration equipment stationed at regular intervals."

"Meaning what...?"

"Well, the guy I shot... He's still fresh.  I've put him where the robots will find his body.  Partly so he gets found away from the hideout but also so they'll find him quickly before his systems power down."

"...Are you saying that they can revive him?  But you blew his head open!"

"Yeah!  Cool, isn't it?  Our cyber-implants aren't just there to look pretty."

Xerian rolled over.  "...Did I hear you right?"  he asked, a pleading expression on his face.  "Did you say that that guy you k-killed... Might recover?"

"He should do," Quirk said brightly.  "Isn't technology wonderful?"

"So if something unfortunate were to happen to you..." Lautrec said, eyeing the protogen with an evil grin and tapping a gleaming claw against his muzzle.

"Oh no no no," Quirk said hastily.  "No threats, please.  My combat routines might take over and then you'll be in trouble.  Also, you're missing a very important point.  He's crew.  He's supposed to be here.  He'll be revived when he's taken to the resurrection machinery.  I'd be taken away and turned into a mindless drone.  I'd rather not be lobotomised, thank you very much.

"You l-lobotomised him," Xerian said nastily.  "Do as you would be done by..."

"Had to," Quirk said.  "With a hole through his brain he's not going to remember where we are once he's been put back together.  Also it'll take time for the machinery to fix that level of damage, during which time he won't be able to capture us, and they won't know where to look for us."

"Unless they have a way of tracking his position aboard ship," Lautrec pointed out.  "Through his implants, perhaps...?"

"It hasn't happened yet, but it won't hurt to beef up security.  I had best show you where some of the other hideouts are, too."

"And will his mind recover once he's alive again?"  Xerian asked, an expression of desperate hope in his eyes.

"I've probably killed him before," Quirk said.  "Like I say, most of us get backed up by the cybernetics, but the last half-hour will be missing.  I suppose I could have shot his implants out too, but, well...  I have my reasons.  Same as why I put the body somewhere obvious."

"For a self-proclaimed assassin, that's quite a humanitarian attitude you have there," Lautrec said, looking impressed.

"Call it enlightened self-interest," Quirk said.  "Think about it.  Right now, I'm strictly an irritant.  As long as I stay that way, they won't expend too much interest in hunting me down.  Someone would get a handy bonus for taking out a thorn in the Emperor's side, but that's about it.
"But if I were to start escalating things by perma-killing the Emperor's fan club, that'll change the equation significantly.  They'll make a concentrated effort to hunt me down, and I'm not ready for that.
"Yeah, maybe I've destroyed a few of his mindless drones, but if I start targetting his loyal henchmen?  They'd tear the ship apart piece by piece to find me.  I'll end up with my head on a pole in the Emperor's throne room, and my body stuffed into a matter converter.
"But as long as I don't play too rough, I get to keep the title of Quirk-With-His-Head-Still-On."

"So assuming you do manage to kill the Emperor, what's to stop his buddies from putting him back together?" the jaguar asked.

"If I told you that it would upset your peace-loving friend," the protogen pointed out reasonably.  "Let's just say that he'll have to have a corpse for them to revive."

"So, if you have advanced medical technology here, does than mean you've had to use it yourself much?"  Xerian asked, attempting to steer to topic away from Quirk's murderous plans.

"Yeah.  My right arm's not original," Quirk said.  "See, I was throwing a frag grenade at one of the robots and I didn't notice the low ceiling.  Slammed it right into the doorframe.  Lucky it didn't kill me outright I guess, but it hurt like hell and I needed a new arm and tail afterwards.  I'm just glad we're modular."

"That is a handy part of our design too," the Synth admitted.  "Anyway.  While I'm not sure k-killing the Emperor is the best solution, he does need to be stopped somehow.  But first, I have to know if 'Zuki is okay!  Is there a way we can get to the stasis chambers?  Or see who's there?"

"That's rather selfless of you," Quirk said.  "I kind of figured that you'd want to go straight to the teleportation chamber and be beamed back down to the planet so you could warn the authorities or run away or something."

"I can't abandon my boyfriend," Xerian protested.  "And yes, maybe we could rescue him and flee, but what good would that do?  The authorities tried to arrest us on suspicion that poor Lautrec was somehow kidnapping people!  And now I've disappeared - there's probably a warrant for our arrest on every world in the Outer Rim!  Having technically evaded arrest, do you think the authorities would listen to me raving about a invisible alien spaceship kidnapping people?

"And what if they did?" the Synth continued, miserably.  "What could they do against a warship filled with superior technology?  If they try to evacuate everyone or broadcast a warning, what good would it do?  You implied that the ship's crew understand my language from studying our broadcasts, so if they're monitoring our communication channels, it will tip them off that they've been discovered!  And then they'll start the invasion immediately!  And even if they didn't, even if my government somehow managed to evacuate everyone to another world in the Outer Rim, it will only be a matter of time until the ship goes there too!"

"At a pinch we could probably bail on this whole universe," Lautrec said softly.  "I have an open arrangement with Bob to warp me back to Furrae if I need emergency aid that can't be provided here, or if things go bad and I have to flee.  But whether Xerian would want to do that... leave his home, everything and everyone he ever knew and abandon them all to enslavement and possibly genocide by a troupe of biomechanical fluffballs..."

"I couldn't," Xerian whimpered.  "Not even if we brought 'Zuki back with us... I wouldn't be able to live with myself if that happened and I'm not sure he would either!  Just because we're synthetic, that doesn't make us immune to survivor's guilt!"

"That doesn't leave many options," the cyberjag said.  "It boils down to... well, helping Quirk kill the Emperor is one obvious option.  If we can get rid of their leader, it will become a lot easier to subdue his underlings, assuming they don't just surrender once their chain of command has been decapitated.
"Or, Quirk could take his place, assuming all that power doesn't go straight to his funny little head, of course."  Quirk's visor scowled and flashed "KiLL" briefly at this remark, but he made no further comment.

"Another option I can see is surrendering, going directly to the Emperor, and pleading with him not to go ahead with the invasion.  Frankly, I don't expect that to work, but it's the only plan I can see that wouldn't offend Xerian's sensibilties.  And who knows?  It might work."

"Fat chance," Quirk said.

"Then what does that leave?"  Xerian asked, knowing that he wouldn't like the answer.

"Well, the only sure way to stop the invasion is to scuttle the ship," Lautrec said slowly.  "Blow up the power plants, trigger the self-destruct mechanism, whatever.  Obviously, destroying the ship will kill everyone aboard it - the Emperor, his mooks, the folks in stasis and us too, unless we can beam to the surface or take an escape shuttle or something before that happens.  But it would save our worlds and the people on them.  A sacrifice for the greater good."

Xerian looked horrified and Lautrec gazed back up at him unhappily, concerned that the Synth was going to have a meltdown over their predicament, but then the robotic lizard's eyes narrowed as a new thought occurred to him.

"What if we just disabled the power plants?"  Xerian asked.  "A hard shutdown of all the energy systems?  The ship remains intact, but nothing works.  No power, no invasion, right?  I don't even know how he intends to do that of course, but if he has some kind of big energy weapon, that won't work.  If he means to send down troops, he won't be able to do that either!"

"And we won't be able to escape," Lautrec pointed out.  "They may very well be able to repair the power plants eventually, but there is also the very real possibility that it would kill all the Synths currently in stasis pods, such as 'Zuki.  If we leave the ship in the dark, they are likely to leave stasis and require energy to keep themselves alive.  Energy which we no longer have, nor any practical way to return all of them to the planet."

"Okay, how about this?" Xerian mused.  "There is one way to tell the authorities on our world, a way they can't ignore.  The ship is in orbit around our planet, right?  But nobody has detected it even though we have interstellar travel.  So it's being hidden while the crew carry out their evil plans."

"Ohh," Lautrec said.  "If we shut down the cloaking system, an evil alien ship will suddenly appear to Space Traffic Control, and the authorities will be aware that something bad is happening.  We could sabotage other things too, say part of the power systems.  If we cause enough mayhem we might be able to distract the Emperor and his crew enough to rescue the captives and escape.
"At that point, our civic duty is done and it's up to our elders and betters to actually do something about the alien menace.  I agree.  There's no reason we should shoulder the entire burden of protecting the Outer Rim.  I'm just a robot cat.  Saving worlds is way above my pay grade."

"I like it," Quirk said.  "It's just a holding measure until they repair the cloaking device, of course, and it will probably cause them to get serious about hunting us down.  But the chaos it would cause has a definite appeal to it.  And it might confuse things enough to let me get at the Emperor."

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


Chapter 6

"Okay," Lautrec said.  "Trying to de-cloak the ship and alert the authorities to its presence sounds like the best plan that we can all agree on.  Though with only three of us, well... I don't know how it's going to pan out.  We can change direction if we have to, but hopefully it won't come to that.  I shall pray for our success."

Quirk looked at the panther as if he had gone mad.  "...I have never come across a religious robot before," he admitted.  "But if you think it will help... Don't let me stop you."

"It will do something," Lautrec said firmly.  "Whether it will be better or worse... I don't know."

So saying he made the praying gesture with his paws and was silent for a number of seconds.

"Well," he said eventually.  "We'll have to see what happens next."

Quirk rolled his eyes, and then suddenly displayed a shocked face on his visor as a strip of paper tumbled down from the ceiling.

"What the...?"  He gurgled.

Lautrec had eagerly pounced on the tickertape message and with Xerian's help unfurled it and began reading it aloud, translating the Furrae Common to the Outer Rim's main language for Quirk's benefit.


"I was afraid of that," Xerian sighed.  "When Bob 'helps' it doesn't always make things better."

"You mean they are real?" the Protogen looked scared, and then began trying to tidy his dress again in case Bob was still watching.

"Yes," Xerian said.  "Long story short, he accidentally killed me by bringing me to another universe where my original Synth brain module wouldn't work.  In that realm they had a technique allowing a soul to be transferred into a new brain.  Hence I ended up with a replacement brain using the same technology as in Lautrec here.  As for Bob, He is an extremely powerful hyperdimensional entity with godlike powers, but He is not infallible."

"Okay," Quirk said, looking visibly rattled.  "So we may or may not get useful aid from this entity.  Meanwhile, there are still a lot of unknowns.  For instance, we'll need to figure out how to use the teleporter to get off the ship.  And more urgently, we don't actually know how the cloaking device works and thus how to sabotage it.  If we mess around we might disable the life support or something we actually need.  However, I may be able to find that out."

"Oh no," Xerian looked horrified.  "Please, don't t-torture anyone..."

"Actually I was going to hack into the ship's computers," Quirk said reasonably.  "No point in looking for trouble if I can get what I need without.  Also, people lie under torture."

"But... If this ship was designed by your lot, how come you're so good at breaking into it?  Are you some kind of hacking expert?"

"It's included in the combat software suite on my implants.  They're not just for killing people opposed to the Emperor, there's also full tooling for hacking and electronic warfare.  Some of the ship's systems are hardened, but I have been breaking into things pretty much from day one."

"But that doesn't make sense either," Xerian said.  "Surely if they built this, they'd have made sure their own systems are proofed against it too, right...?"

"You'd think that, wouldn't you?"  Quirk said.  "Imagine if you will - if you can - that you're an insane tyrant dedicated to wiping out inferior members of the Protogen race.
"You're going to find pretty soon, that after eliminating or imprisoning the deviants who don't fit your mould, the ones who think differently and can see around corners, you're not going to have a great time maintaining your technological superiority, because it turns out the folks who are good at that kind of thing tend to be a bit odd.
"And it only goes downhill from there.  See, if someone sees a problem with something under that kind of environment, they won't point it out or attempt to fix it because doing so would draw attention to themselves.  They'd be branded as a troublemaker and get demoted or even executed.  And when all your engineers are too afraid to look for security holes, the data network is going to start resembling a sieve."

"Makes sense," Lautrec said.  "We cyberjags were built by a totalitarian regime.  I've heard stories from older brothers who lived under that system.  It was brutal, and technology evolved slowly unless it was for a specific aim, like making a bunch of disposable guards to patrol a military base."

"So," Xerian asked.  "How long will it take you to learn about the cloaking device?"

"There is a catch," the protogen said.  "Two, really.  Firstly, since the interesting stuff is on a separate network, we'll need to go to a specific location to access the appropriate data jack.  So we will risk detection by going there.  Hopefully we'll just encounter patrol robots, if we're lucky.
"Secondly, while I'm actually hacking the ship, I'll be in a trance-like state and unaware of my surroundings.  So far I've been deliberately sticking to easy targets or bailing out if I can't manage the intrusion in a sensible time frame.  Finding out about an entire topic like this will take time."

"So you'll need us to guard you," Lautrec sighed.  "Xerian isn't going to be much good for that, but I should be able to handle myself in a tussle.  My boss can at least go and warn you while I deal with our enemies, or at least hold them off..."

At that moment there was a bright blue flash.  Quirk spun around and started flashing "KiLL" again, and the others turned to see a winged vulpine figure in the room behind them.  He collapsed to the ground and then slowly picked himself up, dusted down his long gloves and looked around.

"Oh fuck,"  Niall said.  "Lautrec!  Xerian!  What are you doing here?  I get the feeling I'm not in Kansas anymore.  What gravity is this?"

"Master!"  Lautrec cried, prancing with excitement and delight.

"You know I hate it when you call me that," Niall said.

"Sorry, sir." the cat said.  "And I'm afraid it's my fault you are here.  I prayed to Bob for aid, and he brought you here."

"Shit," the incubus said.  "I was afraid of that."

"What's going on?"  Quirk asked.  "Who is this?  What are they saying?"

"This is Niall Daryil," Xerian said.  "He is one of the people who saved my life in Furrae.  I think... there are two of him and I'm not sure which one we've got."

"R. Niall, I'm afraid," the vulpine said, catching his name in the middle of the alien language and deducing the context.  "I guess Bob figured a real incubus might be crippled in a low-magic environment such as this.  Makes sense he'd be cautious after his last attempt nearly killed Xerian."

"Why are you so pleased to see him?"  Quirk asked the panther after that was translated.

"He is my creator," Lautrec explained happily.

"This is going to be a problem," Niall said in Furrae Common.  "Lautrec, it sounds like you know their language well, correct?"

"Yes, boss," the panther said.  "It took me a while but I have a decent grasp of it by now."

"Right.  I must ask a big favour.  I need to connect to your XLR port and access your computing centre."

"What for?" the panther looked worried.

"Just your computer, not your neural matrix," Niall added hurriedly.  "I know you panthers can be very skittish and protective about your brains, and I guess I would be too if I came from a hellhole where they could be removed and destroyed at any moment for no good reason.  Still, call this a favour for dragging me into this mess, okay?
"Listen.  Your... our speech processing and language is shared between the neural matrix and the support system, so the underlying language model is accessible to the support OS.  That's why Xerian woke up being able to speak Furrae Common, because dad and my twin had installed that as an extra."

"You mean... You want to download my understanding of the Outer Rim language?" the panther looked surprised.  "I didn't know that was possible."

"I've never tried it, admittedly," Niall said, "But it should work.  The one at risk here is me, not you."

"What are they saying?"  Quirk asked.  Xerian and Lautrec both tried to translate together, and then the panther took over.

"I designed his brain," Niall added, looking at Laurec proudly and patting him on the head with a shiny gloved hand.  "Well, improved it, at least."

"But... But this Niall just said he had the same type of brain!"  Quirk said, looking between Lautrec and R. Niall as the panther translated.  "How can he have designed his own brain?!"

"It's complicated." Lautrec supplied.  "He is an android replica of the original Niall.  He designed the improved brains and built me before that happened."

"Anyhow, I'd better try and see if I can cross the language barrier," Niall said, unclipping a remote unit from his shiny jeans and connecting it to the nervous panther.  "All done," he said shortly and disconnected it.

"Now," he said, sitting cross-legged on the floor.  "This is the scary part.  If this goes wrong, I want you or Xerian to pray to Bob, okay?  Get him to send me back so I can be repaired."

"Yes, sir," the panther said, looking miserable.

So saying, Niall opened a hidden port behind his ear and plugged an optical cable into it.  He closed his eyes and pressed the button on the remote.  Then he twitched and collapsed into a heap.

"Master!" the jaguar yelled, distraught, and began trying to shake the limp incubus' gloved arm.  Xerian crouched and examined the fallen vulpine.  Niall shook himself and rolled over.

"Once upon a time there were three little wolves and a big bad pig," he said, and opened his eyes.

"Master...?" the panther asked, looking appalled.

"Please don't call me that," Niall said in Common, and then his eyes glazed for a second.  "Zurf!  Okay," he said, looking at Quirk.  "Ambidextrous wildcats.  Can you understand me now?  Am I speaking Outer Rim?"

"Yes," Quirk said.  "You said something about cats that made no sense, but you are now speaking a language my translation implants can handle."

"Just testing," Niall said, unplugging the cable from his skull and closing the port back up.  "Nice dress, by the way.  Now, would someone care to fill me in?  Clearly something really bad must have happened for Lautrec to have summoned me here, but I don't know what."

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



Chapter 7

"So,"  Niall said.  "We're aboard a spaceship crewed by protogens who are intent on attacking Xerian's homeworld and have been abducting Synths and organics from said planet.  They are doing this on behalf of their evil Emperor, who may or may not be a protogen himself.  The resistance consists of you two and Quirk, who is a stowaway and has been living in the cracks in the ship like a semi-cybernetic rat.  Am I right?"

"Basically, yes," Lautrec said.  "Though naturally we are hoping you will help us too."

"All the information we have comes from Quirk," Niall pointed out.  "Do you trust him?  Remember, as an android replica I do not have thought-reading powers and these fancy head-wings are just for show."

Quirk looked offended and his visor began flashing "KiLL" again.  He coiled as if to leap on Niall but the android simply reached out and grabbed him by the throat, lifting the cyborg off the ground.  Quirk struggled for a few moments and then his eyes went back to normal.

"You're stronger than you look," Quirk said as the android incubus put him down.  "Even so, please don't threaten me.  I'm not in full control of my combat software."

"I have an experimental military spec chassis," Niall said.  "Tightly controlled.  And I will keep that in mind.  My kind can suffer temper tantrums as well, so I'm used to it.  Either way, please forgive my scepticism, but I would like to see a bit more proof of the Emperor's evil intentions before I actively go around breaking things to thwart an emperor whose name I don't even know."

"It's not good luck to say it," Quirk looked around furtively.  "But if you must...  He goes by Lord Cyra.  I don't know if that's his given name or a title or what.  That's all I know, and remember I was built to mindlessly kill his enemies, not ask questions."

"Lord Cyra?"  Niall asked, looking appalled.  "He's your Emperor?!  And he's invading Xerian's homeworld?!"

"You know the Emperor?"  Quirk looked at him suspiciously, and his visor flashed "KiLL" again for a moment.

"It might just be a coincidence," Niall said.  "But Cyra is a major power in my world.  She is one of about a dozen key players in the incubus and succubus world.  One of the few remaining ascended clan leaders.  She's 50 paws tall... Wait, that doesn't make sense.  She's uh, about the size of a large building, and exceptionally powerful.
"In her youth she accidentally destroyed a city and has been reclusive after that, both to protect herself and also to avoid causing more tragedies.  She had a daughter who survived for 7000 years and is suspected of ending the dragon race, and also a grandson called Daniel.  And, to escape the war that she inadvertently started, she fled into space."

"You think the Emperor is this Daniel Cyra?!"  Xerian looked scared.

"I don't want to believe it," Niall said.  "Daniel was brought up believing he was an ordinary mortal and not an incubus.  I met him at the Academy.  As a young incubus the thought that he might grow up to be a monster terrified him.  He was a nice lad and I can't believe that of all people, he would throw his concerns for regular folk aside and become an evil tyrant.  That would make him everything he hated."

"'If you live long enough, you get to see yourself become the enemy,'"  Lautrec quoted.  "And you 'Cubi have very long lives."

"That did happen to dad, admittedly, but he grew out of it," Niall said.  "And his tyranny was more about intimidation than actually killing people.  He was feeding on their fear and you can't do that with dead people.  Still, I won't believe that your emperor is Daniel Ti'Fiona without further proof.
"Besides, in coming here he'd lose his link to Cyra and that would do both of them a power of no good, especially in this low-magic environment - he would be significantly less powerful here.
"Really, 'Cyra' means 'Star' so it's possible that it's just a coincidence or some kind of translation issue.  Though the idea that he might be an incubus is... disturbing."

"I should probably have asked his before," Quirk said.  "But when you say 'incubus', what do you mean?  We've spent a lot of time talking already, but if our enemy is one, I need to know what we're up against."

"Well, in Furrae there are several different races," Niall explained.  "The normal folk are called 'Beings'.  But the more powerful ones, with magically-enhanced metabolisms are collectively called 'Creatures'.  Some of these races outwardly resemble mythical creatures from other parts of the multiverse.  Apparently that's just how the multiverse is.
"Anyway.  Among the varied races of Furrae there are incubi and succubi, generally referred to as 'Cubi.  I was built as a replica of one, and have all his memories up to that point.  I think of myself as his evil twin," R. Niall sighed happily.

"But I digress.  Actual 'Cubi have a slew of abilities including empathy, telepathy, shapeshifting and can feed on emotions as our primary energy source.  'Cubi wings in particular can be sharpened to points or blades, which means we can stab or decapitate someone with no additional weapons.  Unfortunately we also suffer from emotional instability and without training can fly into violent rages before we realise what we're doing.
"In the past, some 'Cubi would abuse these powers to cause suffering, and we were almost exterminated for it.  Turns out 'quit yer shit or become extinct' does tend to make you buck up your ideas as a race.  So these days, most 'Cubi don't do much worse than a some subtle tweaking to provoke delicious emotions from others around them."
"Part of that means that 'Cubi who are attuned to lust, like I was, tend to dress sensually.  And even though I'm an android now and incapable of sensing or feeding on people's reactions to it, I still enjoy wearing sexy clothes for the hell of it," he finished, gesturing with his shiny opera gloves.  "'Cubi love to look pretty, even if Beings think it's weird."

"I see," Quirk said, and the expression on his visor became rather happier.  "So when you were saying 'Nice dress' earlier, you really meant it?  Xerian reacted badly, so I guess I figured you were humouring me or something."

"Yes," Niall said simply.  "'Cubi love to dress shiny, and the more provocative, the better.  Personally I find skirts a bit of a nuisance but it can be nice sometimes, just to feel them drape over your legs.  Usually I prefer a catsuit these days."

"Told you it was normal where I came from," Lautrec put in smugly.

"Protogens don't have much sexual dimorphism anyway, from what Dad told me," Niall said.  "Male, female, other - you tend to look the same unless you've specifically chosen to resemble a given gender."

"Bob also admired your dress," Lautrec reminded Quirk.

"Bob was once an incubus," Niall pointed out.  "He was given godlike powers by an even more godlike race known as the Fae.  Point is, he retains our attitude towards clothing.  'Old man said, you are what you wear - wear well'."

"Anyway, we could talk about fashion all week.  We should probably start putting this plan of yours into action."

"Yeah!  Go team AI!" the panther cheered.

"Ahem," Quirk said, looking offended and tapping his head.  "Cyborg, remember?  There's a living brain up here."

"But you're not really using it," the panther said.

"What?!" the protogen's face turned angry and the word "KiLL" briefly flashed over his eyes.

"You said yourself that you're some kind of lab-grown animal, that you're not even sentient until the cybernetics hardware is installed in your head!" Lautrec argued.  "About how your implants allow you to survive the destruction of your brain.  That makes you an AI like us, just with an organic co-processor."

"No!  That's not... I..."  Quirk sagged, leaned against the wall and collapsed heavily to the ground.  "...Shit."  He said.  "You're right.  I... I am just a machine."

"I'm sorry," Xerian said.  "But it's really nothing to be ashamed of.  Lautrec and I, we're machines too, but we still think and feel like organics."

"There there,"  R.Niall said, patting the protogen on the head.  "It's not that bad, and I've been both.  Well, technically I've always been a machine, but I have the memories of being organic loaded into me.  I remember what it's like.  Yes, I'd love to be able to cast spells, read thoughts and eat banoffee pie, but besides that, being an AI has a lot going for it."

*  *  *

"Do you really think we should be doing this mission with you two dressed up like you're visiting a nightclub?"  Xerian asked.

"Strictly speaking, we are going out clubbing," Niall said, hefting a length of pipe.

"That's not funny!"  Xerian said.

"Halt!" a voice commanded as they approached a turning in the corridor.

"Must we?"  Lautrec asked.  Quirk's visor started flashing "KiLL" again and Niall quickly grabbed him to prevent any incidents.

"The Emperor commands," the protogen said, covering the group with his assault rifle.  Their fur was brown and they had the red lightning bolt insignia on their shoulders and cheeks.  "Praise the Emperor."

"Oh!  Are you the Emperor?"  Xerian asked, raising his hands.  "Pleased to meet you, your highness!"

"Obey the Emperor!" the protogen intoned, pointing his gun at the Synth threateningly.  "All must obey the Emperor."

"So, uh... What does the Emperor command?"  Lautrec asked.  "Right now we have no orders to obey."

"Emperor's orders.  Traitor has malfunctioned.  Must be processed or destroyed.  You must be prisoners.  Follow," the protogen commanded, gesturing with one hand.  At that moment he turned and began walking in the direction he had indicated.  Niall's pipe came down hard on the back of his head and the unfortunate cyborg crumpled.

"I take it this is one of the lobotomy victims?" he said sadly, relieving the fallen soldier of his weapon.

"Not for long," Quirk said, taking out his handgun and aiming at the side of the other protogen's head.  "NO!" Xerian yelped and pushed the assassin aside.  The shot went wild and made a hole in the floor tiling.

"What is wrong with you?!"  Xerian demanded, looking horrified.  "You can't k-kill him!  The other one might have been self-defence, but this... It's flat-out m-murder!"

"But I'm putting him out of his misery!"  Quirk protested.  "The poor bastard's had his brains scrambled.  Surely it's better to end it all than keep stumbling around in a trance, robbed of your free will and personality?  Let me destroy his implants and end his suffering!"

"If we can end the Emperor's reign, we might be able to fix him," Niall said.  "It depends how much of him is in the brain and how much is in the implants.  In the meantime, speaking as an evil death robot, I have to agree with Xerian.  Don't do it."

"This squeamishness will be the death of us all," Quirk protested, but holstered his gun.

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


Chapter 8

Following their attempted capture by the brain-damaged protogen drone, Lautrec had begun to take point, being the smallest of the group.

"We're clear," he hissed, and the group hurried towards him.

"How much further to the computer room?"  Niall asked.  "And how are we going to get inside?  It'll be locked, surely!"

"Second corridor on the left," Quirk said.  "And don't worry about the locks.  I'm a hacker."

"Hey!  Robot," Lautrec hissed.

"Rude," Niall said.  "...Oh!  You mean patrolling?"

"Duh," the panther said.  "One of them, coming this way in a minute.  I don't think it saw me."

"Fun," Quirk burbled, and his eyes started flashing "KiLL" again.  The others held back, not quite sure whether to stay or follow.  Crouching, Quirk took a small device from his belt, pressed it twice and then threw it out in front of him so that it slid along the ground for a short section and out of the view of the others.  He slid a grenade towards it too for good measure and then stood up.

"Wheee!" he yelled, jumping in the air and waving his arms as if he had gone crazy.  The robot, built like a squat tank, made an angry beeping sound and made a bee-line towards.  Quirk ran, taking a hit to one of his ears from the robot's energy weapons, and dived out the way.

As the tank robot drew close to the proximity mine there was a sudden and very violent blast, reducing it to scrap metal and leaving a large scorch mark in the metal flooring.

"They'll hear that," Xerian opined.  "We'll have to hide."

"In a properly-functioning and well-manned ship, yes," the protogen pointed out, pulling a med-kit from his belt pack.  "Here... Not so much.  Even security robots like that one... They aren't known for their curiosity."

"I am a security robot," Lautrec said, looking put out.

"Yes, but you're fully sentient,"  Niall said, patting the jaguar on the back reassuringly as they trotted off to scout the next junction.  "What about cameras and audio pickups, though?" he added, glancing at Quirk. "Surely this place is covered by security monitors?"

"I broke them," the Protogen said, looking proud of himself.  "How else do you think I've survived so long without being detected?  They've either run out of replacement cameras or decided that it's not worth the effort over little old me."

"Are you going to be all right?"  Xerian asked, looking at the hole burned through the protogen's ear.

"I've had worse," Quirk responded, patching himself up with some kind of synthetic skin.  "I might have a bald spot for a bit but since my skin's dark too it won't be that noticeable."

"Guys, trouble!" Lautrec said, bounding back with a worried expression.  "You know that turquoise kangaroo guy?  I saw him!  He's been captured!"

*  *  *

"The nearest medical facility is down here," Quirk said.  "That's probably where they'll take him."

"Why haven't you sabotaged it?" Lautrec asked.  "If that's where they convert people into zombies, destroying it might be a good plan, right?"

"Firstly, I'm just one man," the protogen reminded them.  "I can't take on an entire starship single-handed.  Secondly, I need medical facilities too.  So long as I go into there under my own power, and can specify the procedure myself, my brains will remain unmolested.  Finally, if I blew it up and one of the Emperor's toadies died as a result because they couldn't be revived in time, it would be head-on-a-pike time.  Anyway, we're here."

"How are we going to get in?"  Xerian asked, watching in horror as the struggling kangaroo creature was forced onto an operating table and restraints slid out, clamping him in place.  "It's locked!  It seems to need a pass-card!  Can we smash the window?"

"It's reinforced,"  Quirk said.  "But I can hack the door.  Whether I can hack it in time, though... " He spurred into action, pulling the cover off a nearby control panel and tinkering with the wiring.

"Info: Anaesthetic administered successfully...  Subject unconscious."

Niall watched helplessly through the window as sinister probes and energy blades powered up and moved into position beside the captive Protogen's skull.

"Info: Locating prefrontal cortex..." the robot said.  A red beam of light scanned across the protogen's head.  There was a harsh beeping sound, and the scan repeated two more times.

"Error," the robot said.  "Error: Brain not found (this should never happen).  Info: Checking vital signs...  Warning: Subject unrecoverable.  Info: Retreiving bag for disposal."

So saying, it touched a control and the restraints unlocked and slid smoothly back into the slab.  The ProtoRoo lay there lifeless and unmoving as the robot headed out of view.

"No!" Xerian gasped, looking distraught.

Lautrec gave a concerned glance at the horrified Synth, but this was all he could spare.  At that moment the robot unlocked the door, stepped through and was promptly mauled by an angry metal jaguar.  Niall joined in and Quirk delivered the finishing shot, blasting at the robot's carapace with an energy pistol until something vital failed and the machine collapsed inert.

Quirk dragged the broken machine out of the way, and Niall went to attend Xerian.

"I'm sorry," the android said.  "We can try and put him into stasis - maybe we'll be able to revive him in future.  Either way, we'll make this Emperor pay for..." his voice trailed away.  The turquoise protogen was glancing around furtively.  Suddenly he sat up, orange face blinking onto his visor.

"He's alive?!"  Xerian looked astonished.  Quirk and Niall entered the room quickly to assist the kangaroo creature.

"Thanks for the help," P3T3R said, "While the effort is appreciated, you needn't have bothered.  You think this is the first time I've been caught?"

"I've never been caught," Quirk retorted.

"Well I have," the protoroo stated.  "However their conversion procedure hasn't been designed for the likes of me."

"It couldn't find your brain," Niall said.  "Nor any vital signs.  I appreciate that a protogen might not have a detectable pulse with artificial arms, but still!  How did you do it?"

"Ah, you have made the same error," P3T3R said.  "They are looking for an organic brain..."

"Go Team AI!"  Lautrec and Niall chorused.

"Alas, I work better alone," the kangaroo said.  "But I suspect we will meet again soon."

Quirk made a sour face as the creature hopped down the corridor and was swiftly gone.

"Is that guy your ex or something?"  Niall asked.  Quirk's visor flashed "KiLL" for a moment and he turned away.

*  *  *

It took Quirk a few minutes to rewire the server room door, but they finally got inside.

"Well, this is it," he said, pointing to a couch.  Next to it was a control panel and a length of cabling.  "I sit in the couch and plug myself in.  You wait, and guard my body from intruders.  Hopefully I'll be able to break into the protected files and learn enough about the cloaking device to carry on with our intended plan."

"And what happens if it goes wrong?" Xerian asked.

"Well, if they find me and kick me out, I'll wake up immediately, possibly disoriented and sick.  If that happens, we need to run before the guards arrive and kill us.  Or worse - take us to the Emperor."

"What happens if we need to leave immediately?"  Lautrec asked.

"Hit the emergency stop button on the wall," Quirk remarked, gesturing at the control panel.

So saying, the Protogen took the cable and lay on the couch.  Carefully he connected the cable to a port behind his ear, and suddenly went limp.  His visor displayed little X symbols where his eyes should be and his mouth went sad.

"Well, that's not ominous at all," Niall remarked.

"Oooh," Lautrec said, looking pleased with himself.  Niall looked at the panther in askance, and Xerian looked a little concerned.

"What are you talking about?" the Synth asked.  "Have you seen something?  Is this some kind of feline sense we don't have?"

"No," the panther said.  "I was just thinking about it...  This is a bit of an odd way to hook yourself into a computer system, right?  If you're just linking direct to get a nice head-up-display or something so you could perform a couple of database queries more rapidly than usual, you wouldn't need the couch.  You'd just sit in the chair like a regular computer terminal.  He wouldn't go all dead like that."

"Oh!"  Niall said.  "You think he's in a virtual environment?!  Cyberspace hacking, like in the old science fiction novels?"

"If so, you'd want some kind of cutout to stop his limbs moving, like when someone is dreaming," the panther said.  "Look at him now!  His face is changing, like he's concentrating on a video game."

"A good point," Niall said.  He reached over and inspected the control panel.

"Don't touch..." Xerian protested, as Niall pushed one of the controls.  The screen lit up and displayed a strange wireframe world, where crude polygon objects were firing things at the point of view.  Other things were fired from the screen's perspective and struck the enemy object repeatedly until it flickered and vanished.

"I hope this is him attacking the security automation," Niall said.  "If he's dragged us out here into peril just for a gaming session, he's getting a pipe over his head as well."

"Interesting," Lautrec said.  "But don't forget, we're supposed to be guarding his body.  We mustn't get too distracted by whatever it is he's doing.  In fact, I'd better get back in the corridor."

About fifteen minutes later, the screen went blank and Quirk's eyes went back to normal.  He sat up and disconnected himself from the terminal.

"Any luck?"  Niall asked.

"Some," the Protogen said.  "I didn't get hammered too badly by the defences, but I didn't learn as much as I'd hoped before I ran out of time.
"What I can tell you is this - Sector G on Gamma Quadrant, Deck 2 is one of the places where the cloaking generator is controlled from.  But I think there are others and I'm not sure where yet.  I might need to use another terminal, one nearer to that location."

"Well, that's more than we knew before!"  Niall said brightly.  "Anything else?"

"Yes," Quirk said eagerly.  "There is an experimental weapon on Deck 8, near the bridge.  And I want it!"

At that moment there were three metallic taps on the door.

"Someone's coming!"  Lautrec said, when they opened it.  "Quickly!  Hide!"

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


Chapter 9

The Protogen had dark blue fur and a black uniform with fine leather gloves.  Entering the computer room, he placed his hand near one of the terminals and held it there until the login screen cleared.  Selecting an option on the menu, he stood back as the screen switched to show another uniformed Protogen.  Behind him, several more were operating computers or other equipment in the background.

"Lieutenant Sorg," the dark blue Protogen said.

"Commander," the underling snapped.

"New orders," the commander said.  "His Imperial Highness wants one of each colour.  In His wisdom He has determined that these robots are ranked and colour-coded according to combat ability.  When we have a suitable selection, we shall test them in the arena."

"Sir," the other protogen said, and snapped a salute.  "I shall change the search criteria accordingly.  Praise the Emperor!"

"Praise the Emperor," the officer said, and the screen went blank for a moment before showing the menu again.  He signed off and left the room.

Xerian climbed out from behind the rack of equipment where he'd been hiding and the others did the same.

"Holy Vader," he muttered.  "That Emperor is off his rocker."

"Be more specific,"  Quirk said.

"He's... Trying to kidnap one of each colour of Synth," Xerian said quietly.

"And...?  I mean, that's a pretty shitty way to decide who to kidnap, but he's a pretty shitty person.  How else would you do it?  Roll a pair of dice?  Ask for volunteers?"

"You don't understand," Xerian said, and held out his arm in front of the protogen.  "Watch."

"What am I supposed to be...  Oh." he faltered as Xerian's fingers began to turn blue, then black, white and finally red again.

"That's quite impressive," Quirk said.  "Nanomechanics?"

"Artificial chromatophores, like in a squid or a chameleon.  We can change our default skin colour by reprogramming our blueprint or temporarily override it by conscious control like I just did.  We usually come out of the factory white and pick a suitable colour scheme as we grow up."

"That's going to make life interesting for the Emperor," Quirk said with an electronic gurgling sound.

"Screw the Emperor, it's going to make life very interesting for his kidnap victims."  Xerian protested.

"Or very short," Niall said.

"You're not helping!"  Xerian snapped.  "What will he do when he discovers that he's kidnapped a whole bunch of people unnecessarily?!  We have to stop it before he k-kills them!"

"It might not be so bad," Quirk reassured him.  "He's insane and evil but also pragmatic.  Keeping them as hostages might help him force a surrender."

"But he's going to make them f-fight to the d-death in a combat arena!"  Xerian wailed.

"Only when the mooks have got enough," Quirk pointed out.  "Now, their brains aren't not firing on all cores, so all we have to do is make sure their goal is never reached.  That will delay things until we can figure out a way to rescue them."

"Hey, boss," Lautrec said, padding back towards them as they left the room.  "I've just spotted something I think you should see."

*  *  *

At a nearby regeneration room, a brown Protogen was lying on a slab, restraints surrounding him just as had been done with P3T3R.  A robot was operating the control console.

"Info: Vital signs stabilized," the robot said.  "Cybernetic life support deactivated."

"That's the guy Niall hit with the pipe," Lautrec hissed, front paws resting on the window ledge as they peered into the room furtively.

"Info: Brain activity satisfactory," the robot intoned.  "Warning: Custom module loaded.  Switching to unofficial post-revival process."

At this, the probes and energy blades they had seen before emerged from a hatch in the side.

"Info: Locating profrontal cortex..." the robot said.  "Info: Prefrontal cortex located OK.  Initiating surgery."

There was a whirring sound and the probe bored a hole in the side of the protogen's skull, sinking visibly into the fluffy creature's head for a few moments as it did its evil work.  The cyborg twitched slightly as its mind was violated, gloved hands clawing helplessly at the air, and strange groups of pixels changed on the visor, garbling the face for a few moments.

Xerian stared fixedly at the floor and leaned against the wall queasily.  He would have thrown up if he had been organic.  Niall's headwings drooped noticeably but he kept watching, and Lautrec stared at the procedure as if hypnotized, wide-eyed with horror.  "No, Master... Not my brains... Not my delicate positronic brains..." he muttered and finally dropped down on all fours to avoid seeing he rest of it.  Quirk seemed a little subdued, but kept watching.

Finally the probes retracted and the wound was patched shut by a similar device.  The restraints were withdrawn and the creature sat up.

"Info: Operation completed," the robot said.  "Orders: Patrol the ship for intruders.  Info: Returning to (own) patrol."

"Praise the Emperor," the Protogen said, saluted, and marched out of the room, filing after the robot.

"Well," Quirk said slowly.  "That's what we're fighting against."

Xerian nodded unhappily.  Lautrec had curled up tightly and was whimpering softly.  Niall stroked the stricken cat's head reassuringly.  "It's okay, it's okay.  Daryil said he was sorry..." the fox crooned.

"I know, I know," Lautrec sobbed, "I know I don't even have a positronic brain... But you know how scary it is to have your brain owned by someone else...  All the horrible things they did to positronic robots in the stories...  I'm scared..."

"Shhh, shhh, it's okay," he said.  "They'll never get through your armour.  You're safe... probably safer than anyone else here."  Quirk looked at the panther with a confused expression.

"For a killing machine he seems to have a bit of a weak spot," the Protogen observed.

"Our cyberjags were originally designed and built on a world that treated them as disposable slaves," Niall sighed. "Kind of like how Protogens started out, in fact.  Ours like Lautrec here, are highly prized - but the basic neural map they're all preloaded with still has a few traumas from the totalitarian hellworld.  It didn't help that someone pulled off a cruel prank that convinced half our panthers that they were about to have their brains harvested."

"Y-yes," Lautrec said.  "I think I'll be okay now, but seeing that...  It didn't do me any good.  Didn't think it would be that bad."

So saying, he stood up and flexed his gleaming red claws.  "And now I want to put these through the Emperor's visor," he snarled.  "Maybe I can rearrange his brains!"

"How does it know?"  Niall asked suddenly.

"What?"  Quirk glanced at him with a look of incomprehension.  "What are you talking about...?  Did I miss something...?"

"The resurrection machinery, and/or the robots tending it."  the vulpine said slowly.  "You've said that the officer class keep their minds after resurrection, while the others are reduced to shambling idiots.  How does the system know who's an officer and who isn't?"

"Oooh," Quirk said, looking pleased.  "If I hack the surgery unit, we can sabotage that check!  We can make it lobotomise the Emperor's little friends too!  Maybe even the Emperor himself!"

"No!"  Xerian yelped, appalled.  "You can't do that!  Deliberately making people b-braindead is... That's just evil!  You've just seen it happen!  You said so yourself - that's exactly what we're supposed to be fighting against!"

"I guess so," the protogen admitted, looking put out.  "Sorry... Assassin, remember?"

"We are killing machines too," Niall said, patting Lautrec.  "But we do have standards."

"What about the reverse, though?"  Lautrec asked.  "What do you suppose would happen if the brainless mooks weren't operated on after resuccitation?  Would they still be brainless?"

"That's stupid!"  Quirk objected.  "They've already been destroyed!  If you have a letter and you cut the top off, gluing on a fresh piece of paper won't bring back the writing."

"But it will mean you won't get lobotomised if you need a resurrection," Niall pointed out.  "And for your information, I am not so sure.  As someone who has dabbled in necromancy and has a working knowledge of soul-transferrence, I think their minds might be able to heal once the blocks are removed.  There's more to consciousness than the purely physical aspect, so I think it's worth a shot."

"Nonsense!"  Quirk spluttered, looking scandalised.

"Is it?  You keep going on about how you people are backed up in your implants.  If he's restored from backup intact..."

"If the backup has been reprogrammed then it's not going to make any difference, is it?"  Quirk snapped.  "What good is a backup of corrupted data?"

"But if that's the case, why do they need to neuter the brain again after the revival process?" Niall asked reasonably.  "That implies that the brain is being fully repaired as standard procedure, and they need to alter it again afterwards."

"But..."  Quirk started to reply but stopped and just looked back at him unhappily.

"Look.  I think it's worth an experiment, at least," the vulpine said encouragingly.  "If it doesn't work, it doesn't work.  And in that case, we'll be in the exact same position as we are now.  But if it does...  We could have an army against the Emperor!  And you'll have a safety net in the case that you're killed!"

"Alright, alright," Quirk said, throwing up his gauntleted hands.  "We'll go back to the terminal and I'll try and hack the control system.  It's worth it in case I need to be revived - but I still think that trying to un-lobotomise people is a fool's errand."

As the opened the door to the computer room, they saw two Protogens already inside - the dark blue commander from before, and a red-furred underling.  Quirk's visor flashed "KiLL" again and he surged forward, but before he could do anything, a shot rang out.  Quirk spasmed horribly and slumped to the floor, a hole neatly punched through his visor.

"Huh..." he said.  "K-Kill..." and then his visor went blank.

"Good," the commander said, examining the body while the red protogen covered them with a firearm.  "No implant damage.  Excellent!  As a drone, he shall serve the Emperor well."  He glanced at the others.  "Consider this a warning.  And repayment for the damage he has done to our glorious cause."

"Noted," Xerian said, raising his hands.  Lautrec sat down like a dog and sheathed his claws.

Niall raised his own hands too.  "Take us to your leader," he said.

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



Chapter 10

Xerian, Niall and Lautrec were left in a holding cell for some time.  Minutes stretched on, until more than an hour had passed, and the armoured security door finally opened.

"His Imperial Majesty will see you now," the blue commander informed them, entering the cell with two mooks behind him.  "Please do not try anything stupid, or you will be terminated.  And then I'll have to explain it all to Him."

*  *  *

The throne room was brightly lit, and surrounded by screens set into the walls, giving the impression of a starship captain's bridge that had been remodeled by an insane autocrat.  Which is basically what had happened.

Upon an ornate chair, a diminutive Protogen sat.  Standing, he would probably have reached four feet tall, but not much beyond that.  His fur was purple, with occasional dots of white that vaguely suggested the night sky.  His cybernetic parts were glossy black metal, and he wore polished black rubber gauntlets with white stars on the backs of the hands.  His cheeks, hips and shoulders had a red star design on them and from his black visor, a single purple horn protruded from his forehead.  A cloak was fastened to his artificial shoulders and it was gloss black on the outside.  The lining was spotted to represent a starfield.

"Behold your Emperor!" the commander proclaimed loudly.  Xerian began clapping enthusiastically until the blue-furred commander placed a hand on his shoulder with an angry look on his electronic face.  The Synth bowed his head, visor blushing with embarrassment.

"At least he's not Daniel Cyra," Niall muttered, and then glanced back with a start at a noise behind them.  As they watched, one of the officer-grade Protogens led a mook into the room.  They walked forward until their charge had drawn level with Xerian, who started suddenly as he realised who he was looking at.

"Praise the Emperor," the black Protogen said blankly, saluting stiffly before the throne.  He was still wearing the rubber dress, although black leather gauntlets had been placed on his hands, covering the opera gloves he had been wearing before and which still seemed to be present underneath.  The shoulder displays had the thunderbolt design.

"Oh Quirk..." Xerian wept.  "What have they done to you...?"

"Finally!" the Emperor crowed.  "The traitor has become one of my minions once more!  Commander, you shall be well rewarded for ridding us of that infernal nuisance!"

"Just doing my duty, your highness!" the blue protogen knelt, with a happy expression on his visor.

"That is a nice dress," the Emperor said, looking Quirk over.  "Perhaps I shall have him visit my chamber after this audience is concluded.  Since he has proved a failure as an elite guard, he may make a better concubine."

Quirk showed no expression.

"Now!" the Emperor said, turning to face the others.  "Robot..."

"Yes, your majesty?" Lautrec and Niall chorused.

"Not you, the red one!" the Emperor snapped.  "Ugh.  What is your name?"

"Xerian, your highness," the Synth said, kneeling before him.

"Xerian, then.  You are one of the natives from the planet, correct?"

"Yes, your highness," Xerian said.  "If I may be permitted to ask... Why are you doing this to us?  What is it all for?"

The Emperor's men started slightly, expressions of surprise and shock displaying on the visors of the Commander and the other officers for a moment.  Some of them glanced at each other nervously.

"Hah," the Emperor said, looking amused.  He rubbed his black gloves together with an annoying squeaky sound and sat back in his throne.

"Once, I was a great hero," the Emperor began.  "I became famous.  I singlehandedly saved entire worlds!"

"Have you considered getting back into that line of work...?" Xerian asked.  The commander gasped in shock.

"Why?  So they can laugh at me again?"  The Emperor snapped.  "I saved their worlds, but did they give me a thimbleful of credit?  No!  Did they lift a finger to help?  Ensure I got enough supplies to do the job?  NO!
"They sold me the equipment at a mark-up just because I was a stranger!  I saved their lives, their families and to them I was just another stupid little fluffball!
"Well, fuck them!" the Emperor said, waving his rubber-gloved fist in the air.  "Fuck them, and fuck their worlds!  Soon I shall return... and this time they shall beg for salvation... Salvation from ME!"

"That was extremely shitty of them, your majesty," Niall agreed.  "I too have saved the ungrateful - Defended the lives and souls of people who would not only have beheaded me without a moment's thought, but would then have celebrated my death if they had ever realised I was an incubus in disguise.
"So I can definitely see where you're coming from, though if you want my advice, I'm not sure this is the right answer.  May I ask, though...  Why involve Xerian's world?  We are all neutral third parties here."

"I came here to raise an army, fox," the Emperor said, with an eager tone to his voice.  "A robot army... that will scythe through my foes as a harvester reaps grain!"

"You want an army of combine harvesters?"  Xerian looked confused.  "Why didn't you just ask?  We can build as many as you need!"

"No, simpleton!" the Emperor snarled.  "I want an army of you!  With a million of you robots in the stasis chambers, loaded up with our combat software, they shall crush the fools who overthrew me!  When this ship returns to the Zenith Sector it shall return bearing vengeance!"

"And how is that going, majesty?"  Niall asked.  "Any luck with the combat software?"

"Soon!" the Emperor said.  "Their microcircuitry is more complex than my engineers had expected, but that is but a temporary setback!  We will understand it in the end!  We will find the key to unlocking their aggression soon!  Whatever safety systems are inhibiting them now those shall fall before our superior technology and their full combat potential shall be ours!  Power... Freedom... Death!"

Niall winced and his hand twitched slightly as if he was struggling not to face-palm.  "They are pacifists," he said slowly, as if he couldn't quite bear to watch the Emperor dig himself further into that hole.  "They are specifically designed not to be aggressive.  Partly as a safety feature, but partly because it's just not what they were intended for.  Just trying to talk about violence makes them stutter."

"Then what were they built for?" the Emperor demanded.  "Tell me now, or face my wrath!"

"They were designed to pick fruit, your majesty," Niall said, bowing.

"Nonsense!  Look at them all!  Who would build so many robots if not for an army?"

"It's a simplistic description, but essentially correct, your highness," Xerian said apologetically.  "Our creators needed a lot of agricultural labour, but they couldn't afford to feed that many people.  So they created artificial farm-hands who could perform delicate tasks such as picking fruit, which cannot easily be automated otherwise.  This was long ago, of course.  Now we are regular citizens so our numbers tend to reflect the population trends of our organic colleagues."

The Emperor blinked with incomprehension and his face looked appalled for a moment.  "But...  But...  Are you telling me that you have no army at all?!"

"We never needed one, your highness," Xerian said apologetically.  "It was a time of turmoil, or so the history books say.  The bulk of our civilisation collapsed and only the colonies that encouraged mutual cooperation flourished.  The ones that chose v-violence... d-died out.  Two thousand years of selection pressure towards peaceful cooperation doesn't leave much room for soldiers, I'm afraid."

"You chose a pacifist planet to raise your army, your highness," Lautrec said.

"But they made you, cat!" he protested finally, pointing at the robotic jaguar with a black rubber gauntlet.

"Nah, I'm an import, your majesty," the jaguar said.  "I don't think they have the tooling to work this kind of armour.  Sure... they've been making their own cyberjags, but based on Synth brains, Synth technology and with that same pacifist streak.  I am from another universe entirely, lent to Xerian as his bodyguard, and they have loaded me up with safeguards."

"You, cat!" the Emperor asked, looking pleased.  "Have you considered a change in careers?  You are built as a predator.  I can free you from your safeguards!  By my side, I can give you all the violence and blood your carnivorous little heart could wish for!  With an army like you I will be unstoppable!"

"Umm," Lautrec said, glancing nervously at Niall.  "You know, that is kind of tempting.."

At that moment the lights suddenly went out.  The Emperor looked around wildly.  "What has happened...?  You!  Find out!"

"Yes, Majesty," one of the officers said, and ran out of the room.

A few moments later, the lights came back on.  The door opened to reveal the officer, but instead of entering the room he toppled over and collapsed on the ground, his visor displaying little X's for eyes.

"Who's done this?!" the Emperor screamed.  "It must have been the kangaroo!  Find him!  Bring him to me!  I want to watch him die!"

"Die..." Quirk said suddenly in a toneless voice, and his visor began flashing "KiLL" again.  Xerian and Niall threw themselves to the ground as the crazed Protogen went berserk, all inhibitions removed without the effort of will that had kept him sane before.  He leapt at the nearest target he could find - one of the officers.  "Kill, kill..." he repeated in a monotone voice, snapping his victim's neck and relieving them of their weapon.

"Kill," Quirk slurred, firing the weapon wildly to no apparent purpose as random lines began appearing on his visor - his combat software glitching out and going completely haywire.  The Emperor fled, vanishing through a secret passage to some kind of panic room or hideout.

Niall seized the weapon from a fallen mook, and strode towards the insane cyborg with a hard expression on his face.  "Quirk," he said.  "Quirk - snap out of it!  Please!"  The black Protogen turned to face him.  "Kill," he said again and reached for Niall's throat.

"I'm sorry, Quirk..." the vulpine said softly, and shot him under the chin.

"Guh," the Protogen choked and collapsed, his visor blank.

"No!"  Xerian screamed.

"Boss?!  What the fuck?!"  Lautrec screeched, looking appalled.

"No time!" Niall said.  "We have to go!"

"Go where?!" Xerian protested.

"I don't know!" Niall said, running towards the door.  "But we have to leave!"

*  *  *

"Boss, you murdered Quirk!"  Lautrec protested, as they ran down the corridors.  "What the hell's wrong with you?!  What will the Commission say if you get back home?!"

"He was already gone," Niall said.  "They'd lobotomised him.  And you saw him... he was a danger to everyone!"

"That's no excuse!"  Xerian snapped.  "He was our only ally here apart from that weird kangaroo, and I'm not sure I trust him either!  He knew they layout of the ship!  He knew how to hack the doors open.  Without him we're completely f-fucked and we might as well surrender!"

"I have a keycard," Niall said.  "It was around an officer's neck."

"And that's supposed to make me feel better?!"  Xerian snarled.  "They'll be able to track it!  They'll cancel it the moment they see what's happened!"

"Think," Niall snapped back testily.  "What happens to dead Protogens here?"

"Oh," Lautrec said, sounding a bit happier.  "He'll be put into the resurrection machinery!  But... then they'll lobotomise him and we'll be back to square one."

"In here," Niall said, opening a storage room door with his plundered key.  "Yes.  Quirk will be taken away to be reanimated and lobotomised - or so I hope."

"That's horrible-" Xerian started, then paused as he considered the implications.

"This is my plan," Niall said.  "We're opposite what I hope is the nearest medical facility, so I'm assuming they'll take him there.  Lautrec, you watch from the shadows and tap on the door rapidly if you see the robots coming with his body.  When that happens, we follow them.  We wait until the robot has started the procedure, and then take them out."

"Ohh!"  Xerian looked relieved.  "You want to retrieve Quirk after he's been revived, but before they s-scramble his b-brains?"

"Precisely!"  Niall said.  "I'm not a monster, Xerian.  Or at least, I try not to be."

"What happens if we can't rescue him in time?"  Lautrec asked.  "What if they take him somewhere else instead?"

"Then I guess I'll have to shoot him again," Niall sighed.  "Though I really hope it doesn't come to that."

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



Chapter 11

"I was so hoping that this was all a big misunderstanding," Xerian sighed, as they waited.  "Quirk said that the Emperor was evil, but we only really had his word for it.  Quirk might have had a grudge, or the Emperor may have had noble intentions that have gone astray.  But here we are again... another evil mastermind making my life a misery.  Why!  Why?!"

"It's part of the mindset," Niall said.  "You have to have an idea, and be ruthless enough to see it through, regardless of who you hurt.  Fortunately, on worlds where the balance of power is split relatively equally, it's fairly rare that the desire to harm and the ability to cause harm on that scale line up properly.  Though I do say so coming from a world where Demons were strong enough to treat most other races like playthings."

"Does that put you in a good position to judge it, though?" Xerian asked.

"I would say it puts me in an ideal position," Niall said.  "Since I have lived long enough to have seen the system out of balance, but have also seen sanity prevail in the new world order.  As with your civilisation, most of our lot have seen that cooperation has greater rewards than infighting."

"Of course," he added, "As you say, there's nothing to stop the great and the good going off the rails.  As you know, that happened to Dad... And I guess it happened to the Emperor if what he was saying was true.  Hmm.  I wonder..."

"What?"  Xerian asked.

At that that moment there were three rapid taps on the door.  Niall opened it.

"Go-time, bosses," Lautrec said.  "Robots coming this way, with Quirk and a bunch of his victims."

"What'll happen?" Xerian asked.  "How will it cope with having to revive multiple Protogens?"

"I assume they've thought about that," Niall said.  "Either the robots will deliver each one to a separate medical station, or they have some way to keep them stable until the surgery machine is free.  Suppose there was an explosion or other accident that took out a bunch of them in a single room?  Surely they must have provision for that."

*  *  *

"Okay," Niall whispered as they watched the robots through a crack in the storage room door, having wedged it partly open.  "Looks like they've split up - guess they can only revive two people per station.  And Quirk isn't going into this one."

"Agreed," Lautrec said.  "They took the left turning at the end of the corridor.  I'll follow, you trail me and keep alert."

At the regeneration room, they crouched beneath the window, listening to the procedure.

"Info: Vital signs stabilized," a robotic voice was saying.  "Cybernetic life support deactivated."

"Now," Niall hissed, and ran his stolen keycard through the door, which opened immediately with a hiss.

"Info: Brain activity satisfactory," the robot intoned.  "Info: Recovery completed."

"Oh shit," Niall said, running into the room.  "It's not him!"

"Urrgh," the protogen said, and a face appeared on his visor.  Suddenly it displayed shock as Niall poked his gun at the cyborg's visor.

In the background the robot froze.  "Warning: Surgery unit obstructed.  Please clear the area.  Please clear the area."

"Get up slowly and move to the wall," Niall said warningly.  "I don't want you to have to go straight back into this thing for a brain replacement."

"You won't get away with this, traitor!" the protogen snapped.  "The Emperor will punish you with great vengeance if you do not obey His wishes."

"Wrong answer," Niall said.  His aim shifted slightly and the creature suddenly received a hole through their large, fluffy ear.

"Aaah!" he yelled.  "Okay!  Okay!"

"That's better," Niall said.  "Xerian - tie him up."

Unhappily, the Synth took a length of cable Niall had liberated from the storeroom and began to bind the protogen's arms behind his back apologetically.

"Save your apologies for the Emperor," the creature snarled.

Meanwhile, the servitor robot had taken Quirk, who had been lying on a pull-out shelf connected to some kind of life-support system, and placed him in the recovery unit, ignoring the intruders completely.

"Info: Scanning subject," it said.  "Info: Severe trauma detected.  Info: Stabilising biochemistry.  Info: Molecular inpainting in progress..."

"That's some pretty impressive tech," Niall said.  "We'd need magic to pull off anything like that kind of repair so quickly."

"If it's reconstructing his brain from library data, that presumably means it's highly specific to protogens," Xerian said.  "Pity.  It would have been useful to have such stuff in the Outer Rim..."

"What do you suppose happens if they put a non-protogen in it?"  Lautrec asked.

"It will convert them," the officer interjected sullenly.  "Most of us aboard the Vengeance were grown in tanks and augmented the usual way, especially the drones.  Others were converted into our kind.  I am one such," he added proudly.  "And this is one reason I am loyal to His Imperial Highness.  He has given me strength, intelligence and a lifespan far beyond normal for my race.  I and work to repay Him for His generosity in giving me such a wondrous gift."

"So is that it?"  Xerian looked dismayed.  "You plan to take Synths for your army, and convert the organics into Protogens?"

"Why not?" the protogen said.  "Even traitors such as you can yet serve Him and find forgiveness.  And the people of this planet shall be become something greater when they accept His gifts!"

"I'm sorry," Xerian said, "But you should always ask first before turning someone into another lifeform.  And while you may call me a traitor, I only want to protect my world and my loved ones.  To do otherwise would make me a traitor to the Outer Rim."

"Hmmf," the Protogen said and went quiet.

"Info: Vital signs stabilized," the robot said a few minutes later.  "Cybernetic life support deactivated."

"Oh!" Niall said.  "Looks like our cue is coming up."

"Info: Brain activity satisfactory," the robot intoned.  "Warning: Custom module loaded.  Switching to unofficial post-revival process."

"Now!" Niall hissed.  Lautrec leapt at the robot, knocking it over and began clawing at it.

"Warning: Unexpected event during surgery."

"Grab him!"  Niall yelled, as they fought to prevent the robot getting back up.

Xerian found an emergency stop switch and pressed it, the restraints sliding into the operating table.  Quickly, he picked up the limp protogen and hefted them onto his shoulder.

"Time to go," he said.  Niall and Lautrec backed off and headed out of the door, leaving the robot and the trussed-up officer behind.

"Error: Patient not detected.  Aborting procedure," was the last thing they heard from the robot as the raced to the nearest elevator.

Niall tried his stolen card on another door, stuck his head in and then gestured for the others to follow.  Quickly, he raced out again and ran the card through the readers on a few more doors, hoping to confuse matters.

"Okay," he said.  "I say we need to get back to Quirk's home territory but I'm not quite sure of the way.  Meanwhile, we'd best see how he is."

"Urrgh," the protogen said, as Niall shook him gently.

"Quirk?  Can you hear me?" the vulpine asked worriedly.

"Fox," he said.  "Niall... Xerian...  I don't feel too great.  What happened?"

"Praise the Emperor...?" Lautrec prompted helpfully.  Xerian scowled and prodded the cat angrily with his foot.

Quirk's visor flashed "KiLL" for a moment, and he shook his head.  "That's not funny," he snapped, and looked around groggily.  "Oh," he said.  "Oh no.  Oh no...  They... They got me, didn't they?"

"I'm afraid so," Niall said.  "But I'm really glad your're back."

"If what I think happened... really happened..."

"I appreciate you're recovering from major surgery, but we need to move before the Emperor's friends find us," Niall said.  "We can help you if you need it.  I can carry you, but we're not quite sure how to get back to your den.  Where's the nearest hideout?"

"I think I can walk," Quirk said.  "I'm just... It's a bit of a shock."

"Are you sure you're okay?"  Xerian asked.

"No... I'm not," Quirk said, and his visor looked miserable.  "But I don't think it will stop me from coming with you."

*  *  *

"What's up?" Xerian asked with concern when they had reached one of Quirk's outposts.

"Okay," the Protogen said.  "Given how foggy my recollection of the last few hours is, I'm guessing that it's something like this - they killed me, and turned me into a mindless drone."

"Yes," Niall said.  "They took us to the Emperor, who turned out to be every bit as evil and crazy as you told us.  They brought you in as well, like some kind of trophy.  Then the kangaroo, P3T3R switched off the lights, and your buggy implants went completely haywire."

"Shit," Quirk said.  "I hoped that was a dream."

"The Emperor liked your dress," Lautrec put in.  "And I think he had the hots for your as well."

"Did I get him?" Quirk asked hopefully.  "I guess that's too much to ask for, right...?"

"'Fraid so.  He ran to some kind of panic room, while you killed three or four of his officers," Niall said.  "And then... well, I had to... Well, power-cycle you.  With a gun."

"I knew it," Quirk said, and slumped into his chair.  "But how did you reprogram the surgery unit?  Did P3T3R help with that?"

"We used brute force," Niall said.  "Grabbed you after it had patched up your brain, but before the lobotomy procedure could start."

Quirk made a sobbing sound.

"That means..." he said.

"This is why you didn't want to hack the surgery units, isn't it?"  Niall said gently.  "Because you know that you'd have to confront your guilt."

"Yes," the Protogen admitted.  "I told myself I was putting them out of their misery... Ending their suffering... That they were already gone and just empty shells.  And now... Now I'm living proof that they could have been cured!"

"Take comfort that their souls are free," Niall said.  "In that sense you have ended their suffering.  But I do understand this kind of regret... I too have slain and caused the deaths of people, and I regret it."

"One more thing to make the Emperor pay for," Quirk snarled, and flashed "KiLL" briefly again.  "What should we do next?"

"Well, if you want my advice, we should make modifying the surgery units our next priority," Niall said.

"But, Zuki!" Xerian wailed.  "We made a start with the cloaking device.  Now we have to find out if he's okay!  The Emperor might use him for some horrible experiment!  He might just k-kill all the captives if he thinks their usefulness has ended!"

"Surgery first," Niall said firmly.  "That gives Quirk a safety net in case things go south, which they probably will.  But then, immediately afterwards, we look into the captives.  I agree, that is definitely overdue."

"And then," Quirk said, grinning evilly, "I want the weapon from Deck 8.  When I meet the Emperor again, he is toast!"

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


Chapter 12

Quirk was still a bit shaken from his resurrection, so Niall and the others gave him a while longer to recover.  Looking in the mirror he caught sight of the Emperor's insignia on his cheek displays and quickly switched it back to the triangular sigil he had worn before.

Afterwards he sat in front of the mirror for a bit as if meditating.  Xerian gave a start as he realised that the creature was playing Defender on his own visor, using the mirror to see the game display.

"Do we have time for that?"  the Synth asked, looking a bit put out.

"It's important," the Protogen retorted.  "Usually this is something I'd do when I'm bored.  But right now...  Well, I want to see how it matches my high-score."

"Ah," Niall said.  "I think I understand.  You're worried that something is missing or not right."

"I've had my brain cut up," Quirk sighed.  "Part of it has been regrown.  Call it hypocritical if you like given that I put other people through this myself... But I want to be sure I'm still me."

"I quite understand," Niall smiled.  "When I was created I did something similar."

"That'll do," Quirk decided, quitting the game.  His visor flashed briefly and then displayed a satisfied expression.  "Close enough given that people have been talking to me.  No offence intended."

At that moment there was a yell and a crash.  Quirk and Niall ran over to the other room where Xerian was lying sprawled under a mass of black metallic objects.

"Something fell on me!" the Synth protested, and began to push the objects off of him.  "Is it part of the ship...?  Are we safe here...?"

"What the hell...?" the protogen exclaimed.  He looked at the ceiling, saw that there was no damage and his ears drooped with a worried expression on his visor.  "Is it that creature again?" he asked.  "The Bob?"

"Has to be," Niall said.  "That's my combat armour from Furrae.  There is no other way it could be here."

"Does that make this Holy Armour?"  Lautrec asked.  "Does it have a +5 class?"

"More like +1000," Niall said.  "Wait... there's some tickertape in the helmet."


"How is He going to do that?"  Xerian asked, as Niall put on the armour.  "I don't think you people ever made armour for a Synth."

"If we'd known you were going to be kidnapped and caught in an explosion, we probably would have," Niall said.  "Of course, that might be why he hasn't sent it yet.  I'd offer you mine, but you're larger than me so I really don't see it fitting."

"What are we going to do with the message?"  Xerian asked.  "The Emperor's men won't understand it, but...  Do we really want them to find it if they break into the sanctum?"

"Just flush it down the toilet," Niall said.

"The... what?" Quirk looked confused for a moment.  "Oh!  Sorry, that's at the front of the ship.  Far too close to the Emperor's quarters for us to risk an assault, at least for now.  But there is a rubbish disposal system."

"Hold on," Niall said, looking at the protogen as if he was insane.  "Are you seriously telling me that there's just one single toilet on the entire ship?"

"Yes," the protogen said simply.  "We don't need them ourselves - organic waste is either vapourised or converted directly to energy by our augmentations.  So the only toilets installed are for the convenience of other races, and that wasn't a high priority for this vessel.  However, the ship does have showers and washing facilities at regular intervals, if that helps...?"

"No matter," Niall said.  "I'm entirely robotic, can't eat.  So is Lautrec.  Xerian... I think he can, right?"

"Yes," the Synth said.  "We can eat specially-designed food.  We'll do that voraciously if we're reconfiguring our bodies and need the extra material, or have taken significant damage.  Otherwise we just need an occasional snack to provide material for our self-repair systems.  And yes, we do have special toilets.  However, I don't think I'll need one for the foreseeable future."

"Not that we can foresee very far," Quirk sighed.  "Anyway, let's get to the computer room."

*  *  *

"Well," Quirk said, picking himself up from the cyberjack couch.  "I've reprogrammed the surgery units - I think.  We'll have to see what happens next.  Keep in mind that as soon as the Emperor or his sycophants figure out that their drones are acting less drone-like, they'll realise what I've done.  And it may not be so easy to repeat this once they know what to look for."

"We can but try," Niall said.  "Now, let's get out of here before someone else shows up."

"Yes," Xerian said.  "I want to see their captives."

"First I'll need to jack into cyberspace again," Quirk pointed out.  "But not here, because they have likely detected the intrusion and will be sending mooks to-"

At that moment there was a scratch on the door.

"Trouble, boss!"  Lautrec said, diving as a hail of laser and projectile fire struck the wall next to him.  "Ow!" he added, taking a couple of hits to the back.

"Remain where you are," a protogen said thickly, entering the room.  Quirk's visor flashed "KiLL" again and he shot the newcomer in the head.  Xerian gave an electronic-sounding wail and dived to the ground.

Lautrec jumped over the dying grunt and tackled one of his colleagues, pinning them to the ground, while Niall, now fully armoured, went hand-to-hand with one of the surviving mooks and put them in a choke-hold.

Quirk left the room and promptly received a round in one arm.  He screamed with pain and then went completely insane.  Niall backed off, holding his captive in front of him like some kind of meat-shield.

"K-Kill," Quirk babbled, and then promptly collapsed in a heap.

Lautrec poked his head out from the computer room, suspicious at the sudden quiet.  "Ewww," he said, looking at the carnage.  Three protogens had been shot in the head.  Another was lying decapitated in a pool of blood, and there was just one survivor, a red and black protogen being held tightly by Niall.

"Stay back in there, boss," the cyberjag warned, glancing at Xerian. "You won't want to see this."

Cautiously the robotic panther padded towards Quirk, who suddenly sat up and shook his head.  "Ow," he said, looking at his arm which hung limply by his side.

"Waste not, want not," he muttered, crawling towards one of the fallen protogens.  Taking off his leather gauntlet, he touched the shoulder joint of his broken arm in a particular way and it suddenly fell off with a crash.  He performed a similar maneuver with the dead soldier, removing their light grey furred arm and plugging it into his own shoulder joint.

"That's better," he said happily, flexing the clawed fingers on his new arm and replacing the gauntlet.  He glanced at his shoulder, which was still displaying the Emperor's insignia, and a few moments later it cleared to show his usual triangular device.

"You fiend," the captive snarled, watching with disgust as his underling was pirated out for spares.  "The Emperor will wreak great vengeance upon you for this depravity!"

"Oh, you can talk?" Niall said, sounding surprised.  "I figured you were one of the zombies."

"I can soon fix that," Quirk said, drawing his gun.

"Hold it, hold it," Niall scolded.  "You can't shoot an unarmed man... or whatever they are."

"You people are so squeamish," the black protogen complained, and set about re-attaching his broken arm to the protogen he'd just robbed.

"Yes, I can speak intelligently," the captive said.  "For now.  The Emperor will not be pleased at this failure...  I will likely pay for it with my mind."

"Oh, let's just kill him," Quirk protested.  "One little bullet to the head and he won't remember any of this.  If he dies in action and loses the last 30 minutes of his memory, the Emperor won't have any reason to punish him!" he added happily.

"Robots!"  Lautrec barked.  "Hide!  Or something!"

Quirk glanced around.  "No, ignore them," he said.  "They'll be distracted by the bodies.  Reviving crew members will take priority unless you actively attack them."

"Warning: Casualty detected.  Attempting standard restoration procedure," the first robot said.
"Warning: Casualty detected.  Attempting standard restoration procedure," the other said.  There was a brief conflict as the two robots attempted to retrieve the same corpse at once, but eventually they resolved the conflict and the four bodies were hastily removed to the nearest medical facility.

"See?"  Quirk said brightly.  "Sometimes I leave them fresh bodies as a distraction."  Niall gave him a dark look.

"Hey boss, it's safe to come out now," Lautrec told Xerian.  "Hopefully those guys are getting rebuilt shortly.  We should probably move along before anyone else shows up."

"What about the captive?"  Niall said.  "We can't let the Emperor lobotomise him, it's not right!"

"We can't take him with us," Quirk said.  "I still say shoot him.  He'll wake up none the wiser."

"They'll burn out my brains!" the captive wailed.  "I don't want to become a vegetable!"

"Science experiment!" Quirk said enthusiastically.  "If he's been flagged for lobotomy, shooting him will tell us whether my modifications worked."

"No!"  Xerian and the protogen wailed together.

"Either that or we hit you with a pipe," Niall pointed out.  "Or lock you in a cupboard.  But then you might try to get back into your master's good graces by telling him about us."

"No!  I'll be quiet!  I need to think."

"And just why should you be allowed to sit and think?"  Quirk demanded.  "Why shouldn't I leave your head on the Emperor's bed as a warning?"

"He's a coward," Niall smiled.  "When things went to shit, he panicked.  Could have done a lot more struggling and fighting back, but instead he's been pretty well-behaved.  So far, at least.  So I'd guess he's trying to work out our odds against the Emperor to see which side is most likely to win."

"...Yes," the captive said sullenly.  "Just don't tell the Emperor that."

"Put him in the cupboard," Xerian pleaded.  "There's been enough death here already!"

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


Chapter 13

"Okay," Quirk said, jacking out of the cyberspace terminal.  "That went pretty well.  The ship has sixteen suspension facilities spread throughout it."

"Crap," Xerian exclaimed, looking dejected.  "We'll never be able to check all of those for one Synth before they catch us!"

"Hold up, I'm not finished," the Protogen said.  "Obviously we can't search for your boyfriend by name, but they have divided the facilities into organic and synthetic lifeforms.  Also more than half of them are empty."

"Can we narrow it down any further?"  Niall asked.  "The Emperor was talking about categorising them by colour or something."

"Not really," Quirk said. "Since that was a recent decision they have been freezing their acquisitions in the order they were abducted.  I know how many blue Synths there are and which facilities they are in, but since there are several in each facility we'll have to try all three."

"That's a start," Xerian said, looking grateful.  "Though we will still have to check out the organics as well.  It is our civic duty."

"So was being arrested, and look what happened," Lautrec sulked.  "Heh, maybe we can see if that policewoman is a captive!  Wake her up and say 'I told you so'!"

"And how will they react to that?"  Niall asked sternly.  "Being revived on an alien spaceship by people she doesn't trust?"

"On the other hand," Xerian mused, "She could be a valuable help."

"Whenever you're in trouble, just ask a policeman!"  Niall sang.  "Hmm, that definitely worked better in the original language."

"Point is, she is likely to be better at handling herself in an emergency situation, which this definitely is," Xerian pointed out.  "And we will be informing the authorities of this situation, as is our duty as good citizens.  Can you find her, Quirk?" he asked.  "If she's here, we can narrow that down to organic female lizards taken after we were abducted!"

"I'll see what I can find," Quirk said.  "I need to go back into cyberspace anyway when things have calmed down as I don't yet know how to bring people out of stasis."

"You do that," Niall said.  "I'm going to talk to our captive, just in case they know anything about the suspension system."

*  *  *

Sitting on the ground, the red protogen started as the door opened.

"Hello," Niall said.  "How are you doing?"

"Now I am worried," the protogen said.  "You're going to bring the psycho traitor in next, right?"

"No, Quirk's busy committing treason," Niall said.  "I, on the other hand, would like to see if you've decided to join us or not.  On the understanding that Quirk will probably kill you immediately if you betray us.  But at least you'll keep your mind intact."

"Until he splashes it over the walls," the protogen sighed.

"So you just need to avoid giving him a reason," Niall said.  "Anyway... what's your name?"

"In your language I would be called 'Toast'," the protogen said sullenly.

"Well met, Toast," Niall said.  "Actually this isn't my native language either.  Anyway... What do you usually do when you're not sent to capture escaped prisoners?"

"I am a videographer," Toast said.  "My duty was to document the Emperor's glorious achievements.  However, I also documented him running into his panic room and this did not improve my career prospects."

"So you were sent to watch over the mooks?"

"Yes.  And I was warned that if we failed... I would become one."

"Then it does sound like you'd be safer with us," Niall said.  "I can't promise absolute security of course, but we'll try our best."

"I am not sure how much protection you can offer against the full force of Lord Cyra's will," the protogen said.  "But if I am to be lobotomised, I would at least like to push that day as far into the future as I can manage.  I will aid you if you can."

"Good choice.  Now... Do you know anything about the suspension chambers?"

"Not much," Toast said.  "You... You're not planning to destroy them, are you...?  Blow up the stasis banks?"

"Certainly not," Niall said, raising an eyebrow.  "However, we would like to make a withdrawal.  And most likely, a few deposits as well."

"That I can probably help with," Toast admitted, sounding relieved.  "I am not an expert, but I will try, at least."

"Good.  Come with me, then.  When we've decided which facility to investigate first, we may need your help."

Niall reached down, and helped the black-and-red protogen into a standing position.  Toast glanced at his shoulder, and concentrated for a moment.  The lightning bolt sigil on his arms, cheeks and hips vanished and was replaced with a circle.

"I'll think of a better one later," he said.

*  *  *

"Guh," Quirk said.  His electronic eyes were facing different directions for a few moments and his mouth displayed a tongue poking out.  "We should get out of here," he groaned, and stumbled, twitching slightly.

"What happened...?"  Xerian asked, concerned.

"Cyber-defences got me.  I'll recover in a bit, but they know exactly where to find me.  We need to run before that happens, or we'll have a bunch of robots and mooks firing at us."

They hurried out of the room to find Niall and Toast heading towards them.  Quickly they headed back to the store-room that Toast had been kept in and hid there until Quirk felt well enough to move on.

"Oh yeah, I think I found your policewoman, though," Quirk said, when he had stopped shivering.

"Oh?"  Xerian looked pleased.  Lautrec did not.

"The database tagged people who are believed to be authorities," the protogen said.  "Even if it's not your acquaintance, they might still be helpful to have on our side."

"We'll check her out after we've found Zuki," Xerian said eagerly.

"Actually she's in the closest facility to us," Quirk pointed out.  "We should go there first.  Keep in mind we have never done this before," he reminded them.  "It might be better to experiment on someone less dear to you."

"Also, we will need a charger for Zuki," Niall reminded them.  "While I'm all for locating him, setting him free might have to wait until we're sure he's not going to die as an unintended consequence."

"I can't argue with that," Xerian said, looking despondent.

"I'll have another look through the database later," Quirk decided.  "If the Emperor is serious about building an army of Synths, he must also have been building life-support infrastructure for them - or they won't live long enough to complete basic training, let alone conquer the Zenith Sector."

"The robots and mooks have gone," Lautrec said.  "But the lights are dimming in the corridor."

"Yes," Quirk said.  "We should get to bed.  I'll set up the barrier."

"We do only have one spare bed here," Xerian pointed out.  "That was okay before Niall and Toast joined us, but we'll have to do something about this later."

"I like beds too," Lautrec said.  "But I can manage without at a pinch."

"I don't need to sleep at all," Niall said.  "Even my organic twin doesn't need to.  But I... We... have been an adventurer and have slept rough as part of that to maintain my disguise."

"What is an adventurer?"  Toast asked.  "And what's with the 'we' pronoun?"

"Long story," Niall said.  "The short version is I'm an android replica of a living person, originally made as a decoy.  I have his personality and his memories up to the point I was created.  Our language, and yours for that matter, isn't really equipped to deal with this situation, where I remember doing things, but they strictly speaking, happened to someone else.  So I just muddle along as best I can."

"So you don't need to sleep because you are an android?"  Toast asked.  "But Xerian is, and he does.  So does the panther robot."

"It's optional," Lautrec said.  "But since Xerian does need to sleep, I figure I should too.  Besides, I like sleeping."

"My kind," Niall said, "My creator race and my twin, that is, we do not need to sleep.  We feed on emotional energy and can enter the dreams of other people.  However, as we come into our magical powers and become less dependent on things like eating, drinking and sleeping.  Eventually we lose the ability to dream entirely, and most people simply stop bothering to sleep after that."

"Adventurers are warriors for hire," he added.  "In the bad old days the normal folk were plagued by dangerous magical creatures who would kill them for sport, or as a way of improving their prestige.  Adventurers tried to defend the weak and slay monsters.  But it was never that cut and dried.  We 'cubi were considered monsters who had to be slain."

"You betrayed your own kind?  You hunted your fellow creatures?"  Toast looked appalled.

"Look who's talking," Lautrec said.

"That's not true!"  Toast protested.  "I have begun to doubt the Emperor's plan, but I am not looking to slay others of my kind!  In blindly following him I would help enable the slaughter of many on my own worlds when the Emperor returns with his army."

"Then why did you help him at all in the first place?"  Lautrec asked.

"One, I am a cameraman," Toast reminded him.  "I never signed up to be an active combatant.  Two... saying 'no' to the Emperor is not recommended if you wish to keep your brains inside your head, let alone intact."

"...I can't argue with that," Lautrec said, looking throughly cowed.

"Our panthers are very squeamish when it comes to brains being damaged or destroyed," Niall said quietly.  "Can't say I blame them."

"People make toasters and washing machines to last a few years and then be scrapped," Lautrec said in a small voice.  "I can't quite shake the idea that we're any different."

"You're sentient, and that gives you far more rights than a washing machine," Niall said, patting the cyberjag reassuringly.

"Anyway.  Getting back to your earlier question, you must understand that not all magical creatures shared the same goals," Niall stated, looking at Toast earnestly.  "We 'Cubi, before we become full adults and get our magical powers, we think and act very much like Beings - the mundane folk, I mean.  Many of us were brought up not even knowing we were different.
"As a result, some 'Cubi feel a kinship with Beings, even though it's not reciprocated.  And even the warrior clans, who tend to view themselves as superior, saw this kind of adventuring a useful way to train their clan members and keep them fighting fit in case the Dragons tried to wipe us out again.
"So I helped defend Beings for that reason, but given the genocide against us I'd draw the line at killing a fellow 'Cubi unless there was no other option.  Had the rest of my adventuring group realised what I was, they'd have lopped my head off immediately and considered it a win, even though I was only trying to help them because I felt sorry for their lot."

"I see, so you feigned sleep as part of that disguise," Toast nodded.  "This makes sense."

"Eventually there was a great upheaval and the adventuring industry largely collapsed," Niall said.  "Once Beings and Creatures were not constantly at each other's throats, the need for adventurers greatly diminished.  There are still guilds around, but they have much less work to do.

"Anyway, point is, I don't need a bed.  I can keep watch, or find some way to amuse myself until 'morning'."

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


I love how quick you got Toast in yesss more protogens


Quote from: Merlin on July 15, 2023, 03:29:06 AMI love how quick you got Toast in yesss more protogens

Hah, I rewrote part of his introduction after posting this and forgot to update it.  Done now.

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


Chapter 14

"Okay," Niall said, when Xerian and the others had woken up, had breakfast as applicable, and were generally ready to go.  "So.  Which way is it to that stasis facility?"

"Gamma Corridor, Deck 4," Quirk said.  "We'll need to take the elevator."

"Mr. Niall," Toast said, as they headed down the corridor.  "Yesterday you said a lot about magic.  I still find it difficult that you believe in such things, given that you come from a technological civilisation."

"I have seen it," Xerian said.  "When I was in their universe.  Improbable or not, it worked there.  And... well, I could probably summon something from Bob if you want a first-hand demonstration, though His powers are limited here and I'd rather not waste them on trivia."

"It just seems... unscientific," the protogen complained.  "For a world that also built robot cats..."

"We have both," Niall pointed out.  "Magic does seem to be waning and as such, our society is making a lot more use of technology than it did when I was young.  For what it's worth, we stole the AI tech used in the panthers and myself.  That came from another universe - which my father used magic to gain access to.
"In any case, I don't see why you find magic a big deal.  In fact, I suspect you may be thinking about this the wrong way."

"How do you mean?"  Quirk asked.

"Well... Have you ever considered the possibility that we are living in a simulation?" Niall asked.

"Ohhh," Toast said, stopping abruptly in his tracks.  Quirk did the same, causing Xerian to run into him.

"If the multiverse is a simulated environment, then each universe becomes a partition in that system.  Magic becomes a way to bend the rules by hacking the system...  Or requesting a manual intervention from some AI or living operator monitoring the system.  They would effectively be gods.
"Certain inhabitants of the multiverse such as Bob and the Fae might have higher privilege levels, or possibly direct interfaces to the fabric of the simulation.  Looking at it as a software developer, the fact that there can only ever be exactly 2438165 Fae throughout the entire multiverse would suggest some kind of static allocation -  with the arbitrary value possibly more making sense in some other number system.  Their godlike powers may stem from direct access to the data storage medium representing our reality..."

"Jesus, boss!"  Lautrec said, pointing with his claws at the two protogens who just stood there stunned into silence, their eyes displaying patterns of shock and horror.  "Stop that!  We need them both to be alive and sane in order to get off this ship!"

"Urgh," Quirk said, shaking his head.  "Hopefully there will be time to ponder those implications later, assuming I want to think about that ever again.  We do need to get moving, before someone spots us."

"It's just a theory anyway," Niall shrugged.  "It might be elephants all the way down and science itself is an illusion, an island of rationality in an otherwise magical cosmos."

"Are these the elevators?" Xerian asked hastily, hoping to forestall any more existential horrors.

"Yes.  But not that one," Quirk added quickly, as the Synth pressed the call button.  "Take the one on the right."

As they watched, one of the lift doors opened halfway to reveal a scene of utter devastation.  The other half of the door was jammed, and the metal walls of the lift had bulged outwards by the application of some titanic force.  The plastic trim was charred and molten.

"What in the gods names happened?!"  Niall gaped.

"I filled it with explosives," Quirk said simply.  "Waited for one of the robots to enter it and then threw in a timed grenade.  That was fun!"

Niall tore himself away from the sight and followed after the protogen, shaking his head slowly.

"He does these things," Toast said sadly.  "Fortunately he has not yet done that to an officer, or we... Uh, they would have made a concerted effort to end him.  But the robots... they can be replaced easily."

"And can the lift be replaced easily?" Xerian asked.

"No," Toast replied sullenly.  "Fortunately we have eight of them.  Well, seven now."

"If capture was inevitable, this is how I planned to go out," Quirk said happily.  "A 'Viking funeral', I think you'd call it...?"

*  *  *

"Okay," Quirk said, as they left the other elevator.  "This is it."

He hacked the door and they slipped in as stealthily until they had established that nobody was on active duty in the control room.  Lautrec scouted around quickly.

"Looks like we have the place to ourselves," the cyberjag said.  "For now, at least.  So let's find what we came for and go before they work out where we are, or the robots turn up to store a fresh victim."

"So, from a practical point of view, how does this work?"  Niall asked.  "Is each stasis pod capable of being revived independently or is there a dedicated machine for revival?  Do we just go to the pod we need and press a button there, or do they have to be pulled from some kind of storage pool like an automated tape library?"

"We can revive them individually through the controls on each pod," Toast said.  "Note that the pods are vertically stacked to save space, so if your pod is on a higher level, you'll need to pull out any other ones below it to make room.  It could probably be fully automated, but we have not had the need so far.
"This control room is for monitoring the process as a whole.  It could also be used to revive everyone simultaneously, though I'm not sure that would be a good idea.  More to the point, it will show us information about the pod you are interested in."

"Quirk?" Xerian said, looking eagerly at the other protogen.

"017F" Quirk said.  Toast logged in and keyed in the number.

"Okay," he said.  "That'll be row 00, column 5F.  Pod 3."

"Ah, you are using hexadecimal numbers for this?"  Niall said.

"We do have four claws per hand," the protogen pointed out.

"Usually that results in a preference for octal," Niall said.  "In our case, we have a lot of species and races with varying numbers of digits.  Most of our computing technology was copied from a world where five digits is the norm."

"Same here," Xerian said.  "We Synths usually have three digits per hand, but our organic creators tend to have five digits, so obviously we use their conventions instead of making our own up.  Besides which, it is said that a lot of our science and technology conventions originally came from a precursor race, who were also believed to have five digits on their hands."

"Anyway," Toast said, "Each stasis facility has 65536 pods.  They're arranged in a 128x128 grid with four levels."

"So you have to frogmarch the captives all the way down here and hope they don't escape en route?"  Lautrec said, looking skeptical.

"No.  They're put into stasis near the teleport facility," Toast said.  "Then the suspension pod would be moved into the nearest appropriate storage area by the servitors."

"So when the Emperor talked about getting an army of a million Synths, he wasn't necessarily kidding," Niall said.

"Some would have to be placed in the organic suspension facilities, but the ship certainly has capacity.  And that's just for suspended individuals."

*  *  *

"What..." the policewoman blinked, confused.  "Where am I...?  What.."

"Hello there," Niall said.  "Are you feeling okay?  Can you tell me your name?"

"Who are you?  Wait... That's Xerian!  I knew he was involved in this!"

"So are you," Niall pointed out.  "And to answer your question, I am one of the aliens who cared for Xerian after his first abduction."

"Abducting an official is a very serious offence," the lizard said angrily.  "Return me at once!"

"I wish I could," the fox replied.  "Sadly we don't know how to get off the ship yet.  Now come with us, please.  We need your help."

"Then you have a very odd way of asking for it," the lizard snapped.

"Do you remember your name?"  Niall insisted.  "Please, we need to know if you're alright."

"Detective Inspector Eris," the lizard said.  "You had better have a very good explanation for this outrage."

"This was always a stupid idea," Lautrec said, eyeing the lizard with a venomous expression.  "She's just as dickish as she was back on the planet.  She's being obstructive and will just get in the way.  Put her back in the freezer."

"No!"  Xerian snapped. "We have to rescue her!  It's our civic duty!"

"Also, we don't know how to restart the suspension field generator," Quirk put in.  "Experimentation might kill her," his visor flashed "KiLL" for a moment or two, causing the lizard to step backwards, banging her head on the rear of the suspension pod.

"What kind of Synth is that?!" she asked, taking in the black figure with surprise and fear.  "And what's wrong with them?"

"I am not a Synth, I am a protogen!" Quirk said, smoothing the creases from his dress.  "We are cyborgs.  My Emperor has decided to invade your world, assuming I don't kill him first."

"Then... this isn't some contrivance of your cat?" she asked, looking at Xerian and Lautrec with confusion.

"I'm not a fucking familiar," Lautrec growled.  "Just because I have a casual acquaintance with a hyperdimensional entity, doesn't make either of us sorcerers!"

"Talking smack to a police official is usually a crime too," Niall pointed out sternly.

"I think an alien spaceship is rather outside her jurisdiction," Lautrec retorted.  "Otherwise we could simply have her arrest the Emperor and call it a day.  I'd love to save the world through bureaucracy!  Besides, I'm hoping that if we can save the world they'll be too happy to worry about any little misdemeanours like that," he added, batting his eyes in what he hoped was a winning expression.

"Will someone please just explain what is going on?" the lizard said, facepalming.

"Traitors," a voice said.  "Surrender.  Obey the Emperor."

"Shan't," Lautrec retorted loudly.

"You must be destroyed," the approaching protogen said.  Quirk shot him, splashing red mess all over one of the suspension pods.

"By the Spirits," the lizard said, looking horrified.  "You just killed them!"

"They'll get better," Quirk said.  "Now come with us if you want to live."

"Or, go with them if you want to die," Lautrec added helpfully, pointing at the approaching servitor robots.

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


oh no i cant decide which character to gush over because theyre all good


I recommend lying on one's back paralyzed with delightful indecision, that's how I'm handling it.


Quote from: InhumanInterest on July 25, 2023, 05:24:51 PMI recommend lying on one's back paralyzed with delightful indecision, that's how I'm handling it.

i tried it and jasper has come and sat on me so this is good advice


Tried that, wouldn't recommend too 'indefinitely'... bedsores are nasty. :B

Dragons, it's what's for dinner... with gravy and potatoes, YUM!
Sparta? no, you should've taken that right at albuquerque..


Chapter 15

Quirk's shooting at the servitor robots had put him into some kind of kill-frenzy again, so Niall forcibly grabbed the deranged protogen and carried him out of range of the suspension pods in case the firefight damaged them and the occupants inside.

Reluctantly, the vulpine warrior fired on the surviving enemy mook, shooting them in the leg and causing them to collapse with a scream of pain.

Abruptly the servitor robots broke off their attack and set about removing the dead and injured protogens.

"Right,"  Niall said, shaking Quirk until he snapped out of his combat mode.  "Where's Toast?"

"Here," the red and black protogen said, clutching his arm.  An unhappy expression on his face.  "They got me, but not too bad, I hope..."

"We'll patch that up," Xerian promised.  "Meanwhile, we need to get out of here."

"Or we could shoot someone else and take their arm," Quirk put in hopefully.

"No!"  Xerian, Niall and Toast responded in unison, looking appalled.

"Just a thought,"  Quirk said, looking at his own mismatched arms.  "Okay - back to the hideout on Deck 3, then," he decided.  "That's closest."

*  *  *

"Right," Eris said once they were back in the safe-house.  "Let met get this straight.  We're on a cloaked alien spaceship..."

"The Vengeance," Toast put in.

"...Which is orbiting Prime and has been abducting people by means of a matter-transporter.  The ship is commanded by an Emperor-in-exile who stole it after being deposed and is hoping to raise an army from the worlds of the Outer Rim."

"That is essentially correct," Niall said.  "To the best of my knowledge, anyway.  These aliens are cyborgs, although their minds do seem to be mostly electronic like your Synths.  And the rest of us, for that matter," he added, patting Lautrec.

"And you are an interested third party who just so happened to turn up when our planet was invaded?"

"I created Lautrec," Niall said.  "I have an interest in his wellbeing, but for your information, I've been drafted in to help by the same power that abducted Xerian a year or two ago by your calendar."

The lizard's eyes narrowed.

"Look," Niall sighed.  "In Bob's defence, he borrowed Xerian to try and solve a problem and didn't quite think it through.  He's powerful, but not infallible, and he made a mistake.  The Emperor, on the other hand, is actively malicious.  Like it or not, we are in this together.  Unless you really do want us to put you back in the freezer while we try and save your worlds."

"We were hoping you might be able to help," Xerian said.  "If we find a way to signal the planet, you might have a better idea of what to tell them, and who to tell as a priority."

"So, do you actually have a plan?" she asked.

"So far our best option seems to be to disable the cloaking device," Niall said.  "That will make the ship visible to your planet, alerting them to the danger at the very least.  Other options include sabotaging the process of collecting Synths for his army - though that also means that we won't be able to return the existing captives to the planet."

"I just want to kill the Emperor," Quirk said, his visor flashing "KiLL" again.

"Uh... How are the voices?" Xerian asked Quirk, looking at him with concern.  "Are they troubling you again?"

"They've been unusually quiet," the protogen answered.  "I think having my brain rearranged has shut them up, at least for the moment."

The policewoman and Niall both looked at him suspiciously.  Toast rolled his eyes.

"The voices in my head tell me to kill people," Quirk said as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  "It's part of my combat implants.  Usually I'm able to ignore them."

"Does the red one have this problem too...?"

"Me?"  Toast asked, looking insulted.  "No!  I was hired as a videographer, but that doesn't mean I hear voices telling me to take photos either.  There's something wrong with him."

"If you were created to be an assassin for a mad tyrant, you'd have a few problems too," Quirk retorted.

"Changing the topic," Xerian said, pushing the two protogens apart from each other in case a fight broke out.  "In terms of immediate next steps, I want to rescue Zuki.  Then we can deal with the wider issues."

"Or scram," Lautrec said enthusiastically.  "If we can get him, then we've done our part.  The detective here can fix everything, that's her job.  Xerian's job is running packages - or more recently, telling people about Furrae over and over again."

"But..." Eris protested.

"I'll be honest, I'm a little worried about the size of the party," Niall said.  "While there is strength in numbers, it increases the risk of our being detected.  Plus we'll have to provide for him.  Chargers don't grow on trees - not here, anyway."

"So we take him and run," Lautrec said eagerly.  "Find an escape pod.  Xerian, Zuki and I flee to the planet.  Maybe bring the detective too since she can inform the right people.  That brings the party down to size, right?"

"No!"  Quirk looked scared.  "It'll ruin everything!  This is the first chance in years I've had allies... Friends even!  I can't do this alone!  I need help!  Please, Lautrec...  You're an armoured war robot!  Our ace in the hole!  Without you I'll be hunted down and lobotomised!  Or flat out scrapped for parts!"

"I'll still be here," Niall said reassuringly.  "Lautrec has better armour, but I'm not too far behind him."

"But you're only here because Lautrec summoned you," the protogen said miserably.  "If the god creature looks down and sees you're no longer protecting his precious cat, he might send you back home too!"

"In which case the Emperor will win," Niall pointed out, looking at Lautrec.  "And Xerian will no longer be safe."

"Sorry," Lautrec said, looking miserable.  "But I was appointed as Xerian's bodyguard.  Protecting him is one thing... protecting an interplanetary civilisation - talk about feature creep!  It's not in my job description!  I'm just one cat!  Imagine if you were told you had to take on the entire Dragon race singlehandedly!"

"We could find your friend and liberate his suspension pod," Toast pointed out.  "If you're worried about not being able to keep him powered up, we can take him to safety and keep him suspended until we're in a better position to let him out."

"...Can't argue with that," Quirk said.  "But I think our next move should be to do a bit more hacking.  Find out what I can about how the Emperor is planning to feed his prospective Synth army."

*  *  *

Quirk didn't trust Toast enough to leave him unattended, and Eris didn't want to be left on her own either, so the entire group made their way to the nearest computer room.

A firefight ensured involving a security bot, which Quirk destroyed with explosives.  They also encountered an officer and a couple of mooks.

To the distress of Eris and Xerian, Quirk shot both mooks in the head and would have dispatched the officer in a similar fashion had Niall not intervened.

"But it's a science experiment!"  Quirk protested.  "We can see what happens when he's resurrected!"

"He can always surrender," Toast said.

"No!" the officer looked terrified.  "The Emperor will destroy me!"

"If you don't, I'll destroy you myself!"  Quirk said, visor flashing the words "KiLL" again.

Trembling, the officer quickly pulled an energy weapon.  Xerian leapt back, but the officer placed it under his own chin and would have shot his own brains out if Niall hadn't made a grab for it and ruined his aim.  The shot burned a hole through his large, fluffy ear.

"Let me die!  Let me die!" the officer pleaded.  "If I go back to him remembering any of this..."

"Into the cupboard," Toast decided.  "He may reach the same enlightenment that I did."

"Alright, Alright," Quirk protested.  Prisoner locked up, they made their way to the computer room.

*  *  *

"You're not going to like this," Quirk said, after jacking out of the VR system.  "The good news is that I've located the workshops where chargers are being mass-produced.  They're on Decks 4 and 5, Delta Corridor.  We can pilfer some and test them on Xerian, I guess, before looking to free your Zuki or any other Synths."

"And the bad news?"  Xerian asked.

"The Emperor's technicians have made some kind of breakthrough," Quirk said.

"Uh oh," Lautrec said.

"First," Quirk said.  "What can you tell me about Helper Bots?"

"They're... Well... Helper bots," Xerian said helplessly.  "I mentioned them to Niall before... No, wait!  That was his twin."

"His twin?" the policewoman said.

"I am an android replica of an existing person," Niall said.  "I was made as a decoy for a dangerous mission.  However, since I am fully sentient and possessed of a soul, I continued my life from the point where I was branched off.  I call myself his evil twin.  It's a joke," he added quickly.

"Point is, there are two of him and I explained helper bots to the other one," Xerian said.
"Helper bots are... well, like pets, really.  They're orbs that float around on a gravity planer and can perform simple tasks.  Carrying shopping, helping to water flowers, and act as companions.  They are based on Synth technology but their brains are simpler and not believed to be fully sentient, though without the fancy empathic powers from Niall's home universe, we don't know, so we treat them kindly anyway, just in case they do experience emotions the same as we can.
"The short version is that they're robotic assistants.  Which sounds a little silly given that we Synths were built as robotic assistants, but there you go."

"Bigger fleas have smaller fleas upon their backs to bite them," Niall mused.

"I guess so," Xerian said.  "Anyway.  That's basically it - when I first saw Lautrec I assumed he was the local equivalent of a Helper Bot."

"That's kind of what we intended to do with them," Niall admitted.  "And they do make good companions.  However we were looking more at defensive roles for them to begin with since that's what they're best at.  Lautrec was assigned as your bodyguard, for instance."

"Okay," Quirk said.  "This is the thing - some of the Synths and Organics the Emperor has kidnapped had their Helper Bots with them at the time they were taken.  The Emperor had these orb-robots taken away for experiments.  On their brain circuitry."

"What?!"  Xerian and Eris looked horrified.  "That's... That's awful!"

Quirk gave them a side-eye and continued in a deliberately even tone.  "These... experiments have taught them how to introduce violent behavioural abnormalities in their Helper Bots."


"It gets worse," Quirk said slowly.  "By turning the Helper Bots into crazed killing machines, they've increased their understanding of how Synth brains work too.  And they are attempting to make the same modifications to your kind as well."

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


lol i'm picturing toast with the word "FILM" flashing across his visor


Chapter 16

"That's..." Xerian put his head in his hands.  He seemed to be crying.  "T-That's m-monstrous!"

"Modifying a Synth brain without authorisation and a clear medical reason is incredibly illegal," the policewoman said, looking sickened herself, and even Niall's headwings were drooping at the prospect.

"I told you this guy was an asshole," Quirk said, smoothing out the frills of his shiny dress absently.  "But I don't see why this comes as such a shock given that he's already been lobotomising protogens such as myself on a regular basis."

"Our civilisation would not stoop to doing anything as barbaric as that either," Eris snapped.  "This is not the dark ages!"

"It will be," Toast said quietly.  "If we can't stop the Emperor."

Lautrec tapped on the door urgently.

"Chop chop," he said.  "Everyone out!  There's a pair of officers coming!"

"Back to the hideout," Niall said, leaving the room quickly.  "Via that store cupboard.  Let's see if our captive has come to a decision."

While Quirk was clearly put out at the prospect of avoiding a good fight, they hastened to the corridor where they'd left their captive.

"Uh oh," Lautrec said as they approached.  The store cupboard door was open.

"That little shit escaped," Quirk said.  "I knew I should have shot him!"

Lautrec gingerly stepped into the cupboard, in case of an ambush.  He jumped back very quickly.

"No," the cat said slowly.  "He didn't escape."

Niall entered the store cupboard himself, and drew a sharp breath.  "Oh shit," he said, taking in the scene of the slumped protogen and a red mess splashed across the wall.

"Yeah.  I guess he did off himself after all," Lautrec said sadly.

"That's the trouble," Niall said, carrying the corpse out of the cupboard and placing it in the middle of the corridor.  "His hands are still tied."

"Quirk?!"  Xerian snapped, looking appalled.  "We told you not to k-kill him!  And how did you manage to..."

"Move," Quirk hissed, looking scared.  "It's a trap!  Back to the hideout!  The other one!"

*  *  *

A large squad of mooks came around the corner just as they entered the elevator.  Quirk took it to another deck, picked at random, and then took it back down to the storage level.  Leaving the elevator they scurried into a warehouse, and at length they crept through the cargo and stores area until they reached the opposite side.  From there they took the nearest elevator in the opposite side of the ship to the one they had used to enter the deck.

They went down to the medical deck and made a similar detour through a series of laboratories, mostly empty.  In one room, a couple of large tanks stood.  One was dark and empty, the other glowed faintly revealing a small Protogen suspended in some kind of fluid, a mask attached to their visorless face and a tube apparently connecting to their spine.

"So that's where Protogen babies come from," Niall said.

"Yes," Toast said sombrely.  "This one will be ready for the synch pod in a few days.  The implants and cybernetic grafting will be automatically performed at that point.  Maybe this one is for some new project of the Emperor's... or maybe to replace someone Quirk has destroyed."

The black protogen looked at the ground and said nothing.

*  *  *

When they reached the elevator, Quirk insisted on going to the executive level before diverting back to deck 1 and his other hideout near the teleportation facility where he had first met Xerian.

Possibly to distract himself from thoughts of impending doom, Quirk immediately went to the mirror, took off his leather gauntlets and began inspecting his dress, opera gloves and leggings.

"Okay," he said, polishing the areas that had gone dull.  "Looks like they're onto us.  Might have repaired some of the cameras, we'll have to do a sweep of that area and ensure it's safe."

"I hope the officer recovers," Xerian said sadly.  Toast nodded in agreement.  "Assuming it was the Emperor's men and not some third party, he might end up... processed," the Protogen said unhappily.

"By which you mean lobotomised," Niall said pointedly.  "I guess he's about to become Quirk's science experiment after all.  If he keeps his marbles intact, we know the hack was successful."

"And they'll know to fix it," Quirk said darkly.  "Fingers crossed they'll just revive him per standard procedure... But we'll find out eventually, I guess."

"So..  What do we do now?"  Xerian asked.  "I still want to get Zuki to safety, you know that.  We'll need to steal a charger, but if what you say is true, they may be expecting that now!  They know we're interested in the stasis chambers, and I'm sure they can guess the rest!"

"Especially if they've been collating the cyberspace intrusions," Quirk said.  "Listen - I think we might have to split up."

"No!"  Lautrec said, looking horrified.  "Never split the party!"

"If they're running by that playbook, they won't expect it," Quirk pointed out.  "Also, it means we can make two strikes at once.  Up to now we've specifically gone after one goal at a time.  A two-pronged attack is liable to shake them up a bit."

"Okay," Niall said.  "What are you planning?"

"Niall, Toast, you see about getting a charger," Quirk said.  "Take the lizard lady with you.  Xerian, I'd like you to come with me."

"Where would we be going?"

"To the security deck.  We need the experimental weapon, and I'd like someone to cover me while I'm hacking.  Once I have that, it won't matter whether they're expecting us or not!"

"Sounds like a worthwhile advantage," Lautrec said.  "I'll come with."

"Well, I was hoping you could help spy out the land for Niall, Toast and Eris," Quirk said doubtfully. 

"But I'm Xerian's bodyguard!"  Lautrec protested.

"Well, I guess both are stealth missions when it comes down to it," Quirk said.

"I should be less conspicuous," Toast said.  "I can probably do that if you want to take the panther.  And while hacking isn't my forte, I know enough to be able to get the doors open if you need it."

"And I can handle a firearm," Niall said, toting one of the rifles from Quirk's collection.

"I have stun-gun training," Eris admitted.  "I should be able to help if you need it."

*  *  *

"All clear guys," Lautrec said softly, padding back from the open area he had been slinking around, to where the Synth and the Protogen were hiding behind an ornate central column.  "At least, there's nobody around.  But I think there's security cameras."

"Figures," Quirk sighed.  "It's not somewhere I've been very much lately."

"It's a bit suspicious if you ask me," Lautrec said.  "We made it from the elevator to the grav shaft, and we've seen one person so far."

"A lot of it's automated," the Protogen pointed out.  "We did have to slip past a couple of security bots.  And the ship is very under-staffed.  I suspect the Emperor has recalled a lot of the folks who would be here to work on some pet project like lobotomising your orb robots."

"Don't!" Xerian flinched.

"Point is, we mostly have to worry about the cameras," Quirk said.

"If we shoot them, they'll know where we are anyway," Xerian pointed out.

"No stuttering?" Quirk said, turning to face him with a crazy grin across his visor.  "We'll make a psycho out of you yet!"

"Cameras aren't thinking, feeling beings," the Synth retorted irritably.  "It's just damage.  Anyway... Which is the lesser evil?  Having the cameras mysteriously stop working, or having an intruder seen walking around?"

"True," Quirk said.  "Okay, let's try this.  Can you fire a gun?"

"Not as such...  But I've used energy tools and we Synths are quick learners," Xerian said.  "Give me an energy w-weapon and I can probably commit vandalism with it, if that's what you mean."

"Take this," Quirk proffered a small pistol in one gauntleted hand.  "Might be worth shooting a couple of the light fittings to ensure you have the hang of it.  I am going to hack the door in bursts while the camera is turned away.  If I yell, shoot it."

"I think I can do that," the Synth said.  Unhappily, he examined the weapon closely before narrowing his eyes and shooting at one of the pictures on the wall.  A few burn marks later and he was satisfied.

Just then there was a snarl and a thud behind him.  Quirk looked around, glanced and the camera and shuffled out of its vision.  Xerian, taking care to avoid being seen himself, sprinted back to the source of the noise, to see Lautrec sprawled over a protogen officer.

"Now you stay nice and quiet," the jaguar purred, or I'm going to put one of these claws through your visor!" he tapped the creature's electronic eye with a gleaming razor talon.

"Let him go," Xerian said quietly.

"Boss...?" the jaguar looked up in surprise to see Xerian coming towards the captive with an uncharacteristially cool expression and an energy pistol in his hand.  The Synth crouched down, and pushed the gun hard behind the protogen's ear.  Lautrec stared in shock and concern.

"Get up," the Synth said.  The officer quickly did so, face showing an expression of terror.  "You're from the planet," he whimpered.  "The red one with the war-robot brain!"

"Yes," Xerian said crisply, relieving the protogen of the keycard around his neck and patting him down for weapons.  "Get in the cupboard," he ordered.  The creature obeyed, hands raised in the air, and only glanced around nervously as Xerian swiped the card and locked him in.

"Holy gods," Lautrec said.  "Boss...?  What the hell happened?  Are you okay?!"

"Shh!"  Xerian hissed as they headed back to the open area.

"Trouble?"  Quirk asked, hacking at the door again.

"It was amazing!" Lautrec said.  "Kind of scary, actually!  I've never seen a Synth threaten to blow someone's head off before!  What did you do to him?!  I didn't think he could do things like that!"

"I c-can't," Xerian said, collapsing against the wall of the central column in relief.  "I'm so glad that worked...  He wasn't armed.  Didn't try to fight back either, probably a specialist like Toast rather than a s-soldier."

"Ohh," Lautrec said.  "You were bluffing?"

"I had the safety catch on," Xerian said.  "Only way I could do it.  Had to choose my words carefully to avoid stuttering."

"That's my boss," Lautrec said, looking extremely happy.  "Congratulations on passing your intimidation roll!"

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


Chapter 17

"Come to Master," Quirk giggled as he lifted the weapon from its plinth.  Xerian glanced quizzically at him before remembering that Protogens didn't have parents in the conventional sense.

"So, uh... What does it do?" the Synth asked, worriedly.

"Watch this," Quirk said, and aimed the weapon at a nearby metal wastebin.  There was a strange rising whine for a moment and then a glowing ball of plasma drifted lazily out of the muzzle of his new toy.  It passed cleanly through the bin, instantly vapourising both the metal and the wastepaper inside, and struck the wall behind it.

"Holy Vader," Xerian breathed.  Then the two of them dived to the ground with a yelp from Xerian as the plasma ball bounced back towards them leaving a massive scorch mark on the wall.  It floated over their heads in a great wave of burning heat, vapourised a light fitting and then finally fizzled out as it touched the floor to one side of them.  The spots where it had touched were glowing cherry-red.

"Did you see that?!  That was awesome!"  Quirk burbled, an expression of sheer delight on his electronic face.

"You could have k-killed us!"  Xerian screeched.  "K-killed me!  You know I won't be reanimated by the resurrection machinery if I d-die!  And if that thing hits you full-on, you won't either!  I'm pretty sure you have to be in a solid state of matter for it to put you back together!"

"True," Quirk said, sounding a little more sober, and stood up with an awkward stretchy noise and the slap of rubber snapping.  "Shit," he said, glancing down at the ruined frills.  "I think it melted my dress to the floor."

"I think it could melt me to the floor too," Lautrec added, with a look of deep concern.  "I hope you know how to aim that thing."

"What do we do with the captive?"  Xerian asked.

"Kill him?" Quirk suggested hopefully, his visor flashing "KiLL" again.

"No no, not with that thing!" Xerian looked appalled.  "He hasn't done anything to us!"

"I was only going to kill him a little bit," Quirk said.  "One little hole in his visor and leave him out for the robots."

"I was thinking of giving him his keycard back," Xerian mused.  "It will only be another way for the Emperor to track us when they find the body.  I could just throw it in and leave him to escape on his own."

"Find out whether he wants to join us," Lautrec said.  "Remember, they shot that other guy.  Sounds like they might not be taking chances with defectors.  We could make him an offer he can't refuse."

"But then we'll have yet another recruit whom we don't quite trust," Quirk sighed.  "Oh, alright."

*  *  *

"How are you doing there?"  Lautrec asked cheerily.  The protogen stared back with a look of fear on their visor.  "We've come to make you an offer."

"Look what I've found!" Quirk burbled, waving the plasma gun.

"What do you want?!" the protogen whimpered.

"I want to test this on a living target," Quirk said.  "But the others don't want me to.  So, seeing as the Emperor's men murdered the last person we left in a cupboard, I figured you might want to join our gang?"

"Or you could make a run for it," Xerian said.  "But if you immediately tell the Emperor about us, then if we run into you again, Quirk is liable to have you... er, Made Not."

"Like this," Quirk said, firing the plasma gun and evapourating the nearest security camera.

"Quirk!" Xerian and Lautrec yelped in unison as the plasma ball destroyed a light fitting and set fire to the picture Xerian had earlier been shooting at.

"Okay, Okay!  I'll come with you," the protogen said, "Just keep that thing away from me!"

*  *  *

Quirk, Xerian and Lautrec returned to the hideout with their captive in tow.  Quirk set to rewiring the exposed panel of the door and the hatch slid open.  Quirk froze.

"Oh shit," Lautrec said.  Inside the hideout was a group of protogen mooks, who all turned to face the door at the sound of it opening.

Quirk hefted the plasma gun.

"No!" Niall yelled, pushing the gun aside.  "Quirk!  Stop!"

"Don't shoot!" one of the mooks said plaintively.

"What the hell has happened?!"  Xerian asked.  Holstering the plasma rifle, Quirk began laughing to himself as he realised what had occurred.

"Help us," one of the mooks said.  "We have woken up as if from a bad dream.  Niall said that the Emperor had lobotomised us, and that you have somehow reversed it.  If we are found, they will surely turn us back into shambling idiots!"

"You left me prisoner in a cupboard where I was found and shot in case I defected," one of them said.  "They planned that I would be Processed and left mindless if my body was found in time for revival."

"Oh!"  Xerian said, sounding relieved.  "I was so worried!  I am glad you are well!"

"Thank you.  It has definitely helped me come to a decision," the ex-officer said.  "I will help you against the Emperor."

"We managed to get a charger," Toast said.  "But when we left, there was this crowd of drone protogens.  I think they'd been sent to capture or kill us."

"The voices told us to go there," one of them said.  "It seemed like we should, or people would start to wonder why we hadn't obeyed them.  We could be destroyed!"

"They'll work it out eventually anyway," Toast cautioned.  "I just hope we can find somewhere to hide them all, as we're running out of space."

"Anyway," Niall said.  "Let's see if our prize is going to work on Xerian.  Then we can finally set about finding Zuki."

"Thank you," Xerian said, looking incredibly relieved.

*  *  *

"Okay," Quirk said, unplugging himself from the cyberspace terminal.  "I was able to narrow things down to the day you were kidnapped.  Looked for blue Synths, and I think this should be it."

"You actually found Zuki?!"

"I think so.  Deck 5, Alpha Corridor.  Location 06FC."

"Can we go there now?" the Synth asked, eagerly.

"I want to get supplies first," Quirk said.  "But yes, we should go there as soon as possible.  Each time I do this, I give away our location, and the more detailed the query, the more information our enemies will have.  If they don't know already, they will soon have guessed that we are looking for a specific blue Synth."

"They will try to use this information against us," Toast said.  "We have discomfited the Emperor by escaping from his very throne room, and this is not something he will readily forgive."

"What do we need to get first, then?"  Xerian asked, as they left the computer room.

"Bombs," Quirk said gleefully, flashing "KiLL" on his visor again.

*  *  *

"But I don't understand why you want those!"  Xerian protested, as Quirk selected a sniper rifle and lined his belt with grenades.  "We're trying to rescue Zuki, not k-kill everyone!"

"Not all explosives are created equal," Quirk said.  "I have a few proximity mines in case we meet any security bots, but the rest are for the mooks."

"Why?!"  Xerian wailed.  "They can't help themselves!  And when they're pulled in for overhaul it will cure them!  Why do you want to blow them to k-kibble when they could be useful to us?"

"They're here!"  Quirk hissed.  Xerian whimpered.

"Obey the Emperor," chorused the protogens, turning the corner.  "Apprehend the traitors!  Praise the Emperor!"

Quirk chose a pair of grenades, and hissed a warning to the others.  "Cover your faces," he said, and threw them at the feet of the approaching group before anyone could stop him.

There was a loud bang and a bright flash.  When they looked back the drone protogens were lying dazed on the ground with various injuries to their limbs.

"Casualties detected," a patrol robot intoned, and began to haul the more urgent cases away.

"Now's our chance," Quirk said.

"Flashbangs?"  Toast asked as they hightailed it towards the stasis facility.  "Not a bad idea."

"Normally I'd have shot them in the head," Quirk said, sounding far too cheery about the prospect.  "But now I think it's in our best interest to maim large numbers of the drones so we can recover as many as possible before the Emperor's goons figure out what happened and revert my changes."

"I..." Xerian said.  "I don't like it, but you're right... if doing this will restore them to their normal selves, that is... the least amoral course of action, I guess."

*  *  *

"Uh oh.  That's not good," Toast said, attending to the main control console in the stasis facility.  "Looks like they've locked my account."

"Quirk can probably unlock it," Lautrec said.

"Yes, but we can't use it now, and more to the point, they'll know where we are.  We'll have to be quick."

"But how can we be quick if we don't know where the pod is?!"  Xerian wailed, gesturing at the vast warehouse in front of them.  "There's over 60000 of them in this room alone!"

"The coding isn't too difficult," Toast said.  "What was the number again?"

"06FC", Quirk supplied.

Toast's visor went blank for a moment and then displayed a rotating circular pattern.  "Pod 0..." he said vacantly, "Column 63... Row 3..."

"Oh!  Niall said.  "Is it just the three coordinates packed together into a 16-bit number?"

"Yes," Toast said, face reverting to normal.  "However, the computer would also have told us the status of that pod."

Xerian ran over with the others in hot pursuit, finding the row and column they had indicated.

"Pod 0 is the ground floor," Toast called out.  "So we won't need to un-stack them..."

Xerian's expression of eagerness melted away into disappointment followed by concern.

"...It's empty!" he exclaimed.

"Uh oh," Lautrec said, looking around suspiciously.

"Did they set a trap for us?"  Toast called out, sounding scared.

"Yes," said an armed trooper, jumping down from one of the stasis pods in the level above them.  "His majesty has commanded that you be arrested.  All of you."

"I surrender!" Xerian said, raising his hands.  "Just tell me one thing..."

"You can put your questions to the Emperor..." the protogen began, and then promptly received a round through his visor.  Xerian screamed as the enemy cyborg made a choking sound and collapsed in a pool of blood.

Three more protogens jumped down from their hiding places and opened fire.  Xerian had dropped to the ground and was doing his best to assume an obvious position of surrender, while Lautrec leapt at one of the squad, knocking them down.  There was a gurgling scream as the jaguar killed him.

Quirk had not been idle and the other two protogens were soon lying on the ground, bleeding from ugly wounds in their heads from his sniper rifle.  Gore had been sprayed over multiple stasis pods.

As silence fell, Niall reached down to pull Xerian to his feet, and the Synth recoiled in horror.  The vulpine had been shot in the side of the head, exposing some of the mechanisms that actuated his face.

"Iss justh a flesh wound," he slurred.  "Well, kind oth.  Now come on, we hath to run for it!"

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


you cant keep being allowed to write stuff i hella wanna draw right now but cant


Chapter 18

"Will they live?"  Xerian asked anxiously.  "I know they're evil but... I don't want to know that I saw them d-die!"

"They wounded my master!"  Lautrec spat.  "I should have diced them into cubes!"

"They should live," Quirk said.  "Remember, we have a lot of implants and nanomechanics, and those will automatically stabilise injuries.  It's not infallible but it gives us a big window to get healed in.  And if the body is still fresh the surgery units can even jump-start a corpse."

"Where's Toast!?" Xerian asked suddenly.

"Oh thit," Niall slurred. "Thereth a hole in the conthrol room window!"

He ran and emerged carrying Toast, who was limp and unresponsive from a wound in his forehead.

"Fuck," Quirk said. "We'll have to leave him for the robots."

"That's risky," Lautrec said.  "If the others are revived first they might detain him!"

"If we don't, he'll die," Quirk pointed out grimly.  "Nanomechanics can only keep him alive for so long.  I'll get one of the weapons, make sure he has it when he's found.  Fingers crossed he'll be able to make his own way back to us."

As they left the room, three robots were entering.

"Info: Distress signals detected," they said.  "Info: Locating casualties."

There was a brief moment of panic when one of the robots saw Toast and attempted to retrieve him from Niall's grasp.  Eventually the android relented and their colleague was taken away.

*  *  *

"Are you sure you're going to be okay, boss?"  Lautrec asked, looking appalled at Niall's factial injuries and the metallic framework beneath his artificial skin.  "Should I try and summon Bob...?"

"No," Niall said.  "Don'th wath it!"

"What did he say?"  Eris asked worriedly.

"'Don't waste it'," Lautrec said.  "And I guess he's right.  Really this deal with Bob was to rescue me if I was going to die otherwise.  I don't really know how much credit I have with Him and I shouldn't squander His goodwill on something which isn't vital."

"Exthactly," Niall lisped.  "Don't take the rithk.  Coulda done without thith, but I turned down the pain and the naniteth will repair ith thoon enouth.  Glad ith me inthead of real Niall, though!"

"Maybe you shouldn't be talking so much," Xerian said, looking concerned.  "Moving your lips won't help it heal."  Niall nodded reluctantly, and then donned the helmet from his armour.  He found a bed and lay there, waiting for his missing cheek to knit itself back together.

"This is what he was built for," Lautrec said, reassuringly.  "Going into dangerous situations which might kill a flesh-and-blood member of Daryil's clan."

"Speaking of dangerous situations," Xerian began reluctantly.

"...You want me to try and find out where Zuki is," Quirk sighed.  "Why his pod is empty.  But they'll be waiting for us."

"Let them wait," Eris said.  "I need to sleep."

"Point," Quirk said.  "It's getting on, we've had a long day and we still need to sort out quarters and provisions for the new recruits before we sleep.  Of course, that gives them more time to arrange a nasty surprise for us, but it's a risk we'll have to take, since most of us need to sleep."

*  *  *

By morning, Niall's muzzle had rebuilt itself to the point where he could talk normally, but the synthetic fur had not been restored properly, leaving an ugly scar.  He donned the helmet again.

"I can get that fixed when I return home," he sighed.  "No sign of Toast, I take it...?"

"No," Quirk said sullenly, putting on a miniskirt to replace his damaged dress.  "If that little shit has betrayed us..."

"He knows how to operate the stasis machinery," Xerian snapped.  "We need him!"

"We have others now," the protogen pointed out.  "We might not need him as much as you think."

"Well I certainly owe him," Eris pointed out.  "Now, where can I get breakfast?"

"True," Quirk said, and handed out a few energy bars.  "I'm not sure how well these will suit your metabolism, but they should at least be non-toxic.  Given that some of us are converted from other races to begin with, protogen rations tend to be pretty universal."

"If they don't suit her, we'll have to return her to stasis.  Or the planet," Lautrec said.

"That's not the only problem," Niall said broodily.  "I haven't forgotten what Quirk said about there only being one toilet on the entire ship.  And that being in the VIP section for alien guests where the Emperor hangs out.  Us having to arrange an armed escort to the bog for Eris isn't out of the question," he sighed.

"Worst case we may have to improvise," Quirk said.  "There is the shower, and things which won't go there could go in the general waste disposal system.  Unpleasant, but... Well, we have to make do with what we've got."

"Or we could..." Lautrec started, and then put a paw in front of his mouth, looking around guiltily.

"Lautrec..." Xerian said sternly.

"Well," the cyberjag said, looking embarrassed.  "It was something one of the officers said... And what Quirk just said about the rations!  The healing suite can convert people into protogens!  So I figured... If we injured her enough, she'd get all the implants, and then she wouldn't need to use the toilet ever again!  It... It was just a thought.  I guess it is a bit of an extreme solution..."

"Your suggestion is noted," Eris said evenly.  "And yes, if I get shot up, that's a risk I will have to take if the alternative is death or life-changing injuries.  But until then, I would rather avoid having alien technology grafted to me, no offence intended."

"In any case, you'd need a training period to adjust and learn how to use your implants," Quirk pointed out.  "And besides... Well, Xerian was hoping you'd be able to tell the authorities about the ship.  But with your face missing and all the armour grafts - your own people aren't going to recognise you, right?  Good luck convincing anyone of what you're telling them!"

"They might just think it's armour of course," Lautrec mused.  "But you're right, it certainly won't help our cause if they take her for a medical examination and see all the improvements."

"Anyway," Quirk said.  "I guess we can't put this off any longer.  I'll have to jack in somewhere and try and find out what's happened to Zuki, or whoever was in that stasis pod.  And Toast as well, for that matter."

*  *  *

Quirk lay on the cyberjack couch with his face staring at the ceiling with an expression of unfocused concern.  Xerian paced while the protogen did his work.  Eris had not seen this before and watched with confusion.

Suddenly there was a tap on the door from Lautrec.

"Bosses," he said.  "Visitor for you!"

Xerian cowered, expecting for a moment that it would be the Emperor himself, but instead Toast ran inside with a worried expression on his visor and the handgun attached to his utility belt.

"You made it!"  Niall said.

"Yeah, but we have to get out of here!  They know where you are!  I managed to break free from the officers with that weapon you left me, but..."

Just then there was a frantic series of taps on the door.  When they opened it, the cybernetic panther was gesturing incoherently with one paw.  "Quirk!  Get Quirk!" he babbled, an expression of shock on his features.

"Yes!"  Toast said.  "I told you!  We have to go!" he ran over to the wall console and reached out to press the emergency stop button.  Before he could, Quirk gave a great gasp and lay there twitching on the couch.  His eyes were mismatched again and he seemed unable to stand.

"They're coming this way!"  Lautrec insisted.  "Synths!"

"Zuki!" Xerian exclaimed with delight.

"No!  No!" Lautrec wailed.  "It's a death squad!  Get Quirk!  We have to go!"

"Urgh..."  Quirk said, rolling over and falling off the couch.  "Defences got me... They're coming..."

Toast hauled the other protogen to his feet and they made their way to the door, which suddenly opened.

Two Synths strode into the room, skin black and glossy, eyes red like Quirk's.  Each was armed with some kind of laser assault rifle.

"Surrender to the Emperor," the first one commanded, aiming his rifle at Niall's chest, since he was closest.  "Obey!"

"No!" Xerian wailed.  The lead Synth's eyes narrowed and his aim shifted to Xerian's head.  "Obey or die," he commanded.

Xerian raised his hands in surrender.  Lautrec coiled and sprang at the leader, claws out.  Both enemy Synths opened fire, and a look of shock crossed the jaguar's face.  "Oh no," the panther keened.  "No no no no no.."  He slammed into the black Synth, fell to the ground with a crash and lay there inert.

"Lautrec!"  Niall yelled, horrified.

"Subject terminated," the lead Synth said, looking at the panther before fixing the others with an ominous stare.  "Survivors, you are ordered to surrender.  Praise the Emperor!"

Niall leapt at them himself, face a mask of rage visible through the visor of his helmet, eyes glowing red like those of his opponents.  The energy weapons played across his chest, but to no avail as the blackmetal armour easily deflected it.

"No!  Don't kill them!"  Xerian begged.

Enraged, Niall tore the gun from the leader's grasp and threw it to Quirk, who fumbled for a moment and then caught it.  The second trooper opened fire, only to have Niall rip the energy weapon from their grasp too.  The Synths looked down at their empty hands, blinking in confusion as if they didn't understand what had just happened.  "Kill," the leader said.  "No!  Run!  Help me!"

"Hold them," Niall told Xerian.  "I'll fetch Lautrec."  Quirk and Xerian set to it, holding the leader Synth in a head-lock.  The second Synth was looked around as if trying to escape.  Toast grabbed at the Synth, who toppled over.  Unclipping the weapon, Toast removed his belt and began binding his opponent's legs together.  Quirk and Xerian took their own captive and locked them in the cupboard.

Cautiously, Niall approached the inert panther and removed his helmet.  "Lautrec...?" he called softly, headwings drooping, face lined with worry.  "Can you hear me...?  What's happened?"

"Help," the panther sobbed, lying on his side.  "Help!"

"Oh shit," Niall said, donning his helmet again.  He lifted the big cat up and carried them back to the hideout without saying a word.

"What's happened?" Eris asked.  "What's wrong!"

"You," Niall turned on her, face a mask of fury and his wings trembling ominously.  "You did this!"

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