[Writing] Xerian II - Chapter 7 (25th May 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