[Writing] Xerian II - Chapter 22 (29th Sep 2023)

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

Previous topic - Next topic


Chapter 19

"What...?"  Eris stared at Niall with a mixture of terror and confusion.

"You know exactly what you did," Niall said thickly, pinning her against the wall.  "I should smash your face in for this!"

"Then explain it to the rest of us," Toast insisted, trying vainly to separate the two of them.  "Because I'm not seeing how she's responsible."  Niall glared at the protogen venomously and then turned back to the struggling lizard.

"You loaded my panther up to the hilt with those stupid fucking safeguards!" he snarled at her.  "You made sure that he'd collapse like a bag of fucking noodles if he ever attacked a Synth.  And now look what's happened!  Look what you did!  Your blind stupidity has killed us all!"

"But he is an alien!" the lizard protested, terrified.  "A violent stranger from a violent world!  He's a war robot!  We had to protect the public!"

"Well congratulations, because you've just done the exact opposite!" the fox yelled.  "All the people on all your planets will now suffer as slaves or science experiments for a mad tyrant!
"All your happy, peaceful Synths will be turned into gun-toting lobotomised zombies... And all because you wanted to cripple my friend!" he sobbed.  "I hope you're fucking proud of yourself!"

"Please, sir, recriminations are pointless," Toast said, placing a gauntleted hand on Niall's metal shoulder.  "Can we fix your robot?"

The armoured fox slumped a little and released the lizard woman.  "You're right, Toast," he said, forcing himself to remain calm.  "The Emperor will win if we fight among ourselves.
"Though I might remind everyone that Lautrec didn't trust Eris before.  Now she has made that problem a hundred times worse.  Assuming we can recover him at all."

"Boss, I am still here," the stricken cyberjag pointed out.  "I may not be able to move, but I can hear every word you're saying.  You 'Cubi always say 'It seemed like a good idea at the time', right?  Well, for all my bitching and sniping about it... Eris is right.
"Fact is, I am a warrior robot on a planet far more civilised than Furrae.  They needed some kind of insurance policy against a barbarian like me, and the fact that it's backfired... Well, that's just unfortunate.  She can't possibly have foreseen me needing to fight an army of Evil Death Synths."

"That's very magnanimous of you, Lautrec, but it doesn't solve the problem," the fox said testily.  "I meant it... Without you, we are in serious trouble."

"Listen, boss, it's not the end of the world," the panther insisted.  "You're a military-spec android yourself, and Eris can't shut you down.  Plus, you've got a bunch of protogens who've been un-lobotomised sitting around with no idea what to do.  And you can make more!  If I'm out for the count, you can still use them as an army!"

"But they're unarmed," Niall pointed out.  "Maybe we can have Quirk unlock an armoury, but let's face it... Without weapons they'll be sitting ducks.  Realistically we need your help to get them weapons in the first place!"

"Quirk has weapons caches looted from people he's shot," Lautrec pointed out.  "We'll probably need more, but it's a good start."

"That is a good plan," Toast said.  "But we must be careful.  They know too much about our movements, and we need to find out how.  Meanwhile - unlocking the cat robot.  What do you need for that?"

"A remote," Niall said.  "A diagnostic device that connects to Lautrec's supervisor board.  I brought one with me, but it has been captured.  Also, unlocking him is a protected function and I bet anything you like that smarty-pants here has changed the code."

"...Yes," Eris admitted.  "I'm sorry.  We were only trying to protect the public from a potentially-dangerous warrior robot of unknown provenance.  Could you not override it, though?  I'm sure you have built some emergency backdoors into his systems."

"Yes," Niall said, calming down somewhat.  "But we'd have to strip him down to get at the reset port.  If it comes to that, we'll have to beg Bob to send him back to our universe for an overhaul.  And we'll all be dead or captured before Jakob or Dorcan can complete that level of repair."

Toast looked at the policewoman with polite interest.  "I don't suppose you brought this device with you?"

"I didn't," she said.  "I was about to go off-duty, and besides, with Lautrec and Xerian missing, what would be the point?"

"So that leaves two options we can practically take," the protogen said.  "Looking for Niall's remote and hoping that our friend here remembers the code... Or fetching a remote from the planet."

Niall spun around.  "Toast..." he said.  "Do you mean to say that you know how to operate the transporter?!"

"No," the protogen said.  "The teleporter was not part of my basic training.  I suspect they feared I might use it to escape.  But our ranks have swelled lately, and I have been talking to our recruits and refugees.  Oram does know."

The fox suddenly started as he realised Xerian had been very quiet.  Looking around anxiously, he saw the red draconic android sitting in a corner, head in his hands.

"Xerian," Niall said, kneeling down.  "You must forgive me.  I've been so concerned about Lautrec's condition that I haven't given a thought to you.  How are you holding up?"

"Bad," the Synth said, voice warbling slightly.  "Quirk warned us... But I didn't believe it...  Didn't want to believe it!  Corrupted Synths... How could they do such a thing?!" he wailed.

"You're afraid that 'Zuki is one of them, aren't you...?"  Niall said gently.

"Yes," Xerian sobbed, and curled up into a foetal position.  "What if he's one of the ones who a-attacked us?!  What if we've h-hurt him?!  What if he s-starves, locked in the cupboard?!  And if he's been affected, will we ever be able to get him to snap out of it...?"

"I wish I could give you an answer to that," Niall said softly.  "But I honestly don't know."

"Frankly, I suspect he is elsewhere," Quirk said, looking up from the task of polishing his long gloves.  "Toast is right that they know more than they should.  Looks like I'll have to go a-hunting," he hefted a sniper rifle and checked the charge level it.

"Don't," Xerian protested.  "Please... try not to k-kill anyone!"

"I'm going hunting cameras," Quirk said.  "Or hidden listening devices.  It's quite possible they've been repairing them, especially now we've suddenly jumped up the Emperor's list of priorities.  So I'm just going to look for those and blow away any I find."

Xerian nodded.  "You were saying that 'Zuki might not have been..." he couldn't finish the sentence.

"The Emperor and his buddies will know from my cyberspace enquiries and the assault team we shot up, that we are looking for a specific Synth, and now they will even know the abduction date.  From that point on, it  has only been a matter of time before they connect the dots.
"Of course, there is a risk that the Emperor will join the dots up wrong and decide we are engaged in some kind of gang warfare," he shrugged.  "He's a fruitloop so he might assume that our aim is to kill the Synth we find because they stiffed Xerian in a drug deal."

Niall, Eris and Xerian stared at the protogen as if he had gone completely insane.

"It's not likely," Quirk added hastily.  "Though to be fair, given our success in taking out even his crack troops and officers...  The idea that his men have abducted a gang of hardened criminal thugs by mistake isn't as far-fetched as you might think."

"I guess that's true," Niall admitted.

"What I was trying to say is that the Emperor isn't exactly a rational actor, so we can't assume anything.  But, my money is on him correctly deducing that Xerian is trying to rescue his mate.  And even if he assumes, against all evidence, that Xerian is out to murder 'Zuki, it still puts us in the same position - that he is clearly valuable to us - alive and intact - and the Emperor will know it.
"Our hypothetical Druglord Xerian can't take vengeance on a corpse, and Real-World Xerian will make overthrowing the Emperor his number one priority if anything has happened to his true love."

Toast nodded.  "I agree.  The fact that the goons were lying in wait beside his pod speaks volumes to me...  If 'Zuki is missing, it seems most likely that the Emperor has taken him as a hostage.  Or at least as bait."

*  *  *

"I say we take the plasma gun and finish this," Quirk said.  "We've got an bunch of mooks to distract everyone, and if any of them get killed, they'll just get taken back into the surgery units anyway.  Let's just melt his brains and call it a day."

"What about Lautrec..?" Niall demanded.  "How is murdering the Emperor that supposed to fix him?"

"With that evil bastard out of the way, we'll get a lot less resistance from the others," Quirk pointed out.  "We can teleport Xerian and the others back to the planet.  Then, once he's safe, that Bob creature can return the pair of you to your homeworld so Lautrec can be unlocked."

"That sounds far too much like 'Kill him and let god sort it out'," Niall sighed.  "I would still prefer to have a peaceful solution, if only for the sake of Xerian's sanity."

"There's a time and a place for morality," Quirk said, sounding exasperated.  "And it isn't while your planets are being invaded!  You have to stop that emergency first, by any means necessary!  Then, and only then, is it safe to let the wheels of justice do their thing."

"I have never been fond of that line of reasoning," Niall said.  "Emergency situations may need emergency measures, but at the same time... It's very authoritarian.
"Corrupt officials love emergencies!  They're a great excuse to make themselves rich, or to have their rivals executed as communist heretic traitors or something.
"No.  The due process of law is a shield against that evil, and cannot be lightly thrown aside.  But even ignoring that, there is something else which concerns me greatly."

"Oh?"  Quirk asked irritably.

"It's just one minor point to clear up before you get too kill-happy," Niall said.  "As I understand it, you've been out for the Emperor's blood for quite a while, correct?  In all that time, have you ever considered that the Emperor may have wired the Vengeance to explode if he dies...?"

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


True, using an emergency as an excuse to seize power is like page 1 of the dictator book


Chapter 20

There was a shocked silence.

"No," Quirk said stubbornly.  "I don't buy it.  What has he got all the resurrection machinery for if his death will blow up the ship?!  What if he slips in the shower and bangs his head?
"Besides, I did manage to top that little shit once," he said, hefting the sniper rifle again.  "Splashed his head all over a portrait of himself!"

Quirk gave a deep and happy sigh at the memory.  His eyes flashed "KiLL" again briefly and Xerian shifted position uncomfortably.

"But the Emperor got better," Niall said.  "For the reasons you have outlined, it is unlikely that a cessation of his vital signs would immediately blow the main reactor.  And as you have mentioned, the implants are very good at keeping said vital signs running.
"But suppose you did manage to vaporise him?  The system may be programmed to allow a grace period of say, 8 hours, in order for the Emperor to be reanimated before the countdown starts and we get vaporised too.
"Even if we have a whole day to get clear of the ship, that's not anywhere near enough time to rescue all the Synths in the stasis pods!"

"...I don't know," Quirk admitted sullenly.  "You're right... We'll have to find out."

"Saving the worlds will be cold comfort to Xerian if his true love doesn't live to see it," Niall pointed out.

"Don't!"  Xerian whimpered.

At that moment there was a knocking on the door of their hideout.  Niall tensed before realising that agents of the Emperor would not have been so polite.  Cautiously he opened the door, gun in hand.

"Hello," P3T3R said.  "May I come in...?  Are you busy...?"

Quirk looked surprised at the presence of the furtive creature, but gave a shrug.  The turquoise kangaroo robot hopped into the room and Niall closed the door behind him.

"Well, this is unusual," Quirk said.  "You're not big on company.  I'll be honest, I'm not sure if I trust you."

"Then this will probably not help," P3T3R said.  "A crisis is coming, a showdown between yourselves and the Emperor.  I do not know who will prevail.  But before this happens, I feel obliged to warn you..."

"Go on," Quirk said.

"If you are looking for the evil mastermind responsible for all of this chaos, you are looking in the wrong place," the protoroo said.

"What do you mean?" Xerian asked.  "We know where the Emperor is...  Or do you mean there's another even more evil power behind the throne...?"

"Yes," the robotic kangaroo said simply.

"Then who is it?"  Xerian asked, looking horrified.

The robotic kangaroo slumped slightly, dropped on all fours and then sat down.

"You?!" Niall looked appalled.

"You would have realised eventually," the ProtoRoo said.  "Or maybe not.  Either way, I feel it is my duty to come clean with you, even if it means my destruction."

"Why?  If you're as powerful as you say...  You could have kept on playing us for fools."

"It would not be right," P3T3R said.  "I may be responsible for this, but I am not without a sense of duty and honour.  Whatever you may think of me for being an artificial intelligence."

"We are all artificial intelligences here," Niall said.  "Well, Eris aside, anyway.  So that is neither an excuse, nor even a good reason to hate on someone.  Now, you're not acting like a supervillain, so I figure this wasn't exactly a career choice."

"The Emperor's ascendancy is my fault," P3T3R said simply.  "We do not have time to go into the whys and wherefores right now, though we may be able to do so in future.  Suffice to say that things did not go as intended."

"I see,"  Toast said.  "But if you gave him the throne, why does he want to kill you so badly?"

"Because he fears me.  The fact is, I created him - and that means that I can also un-create him.  This always happens with authoritarians... those who raise a dictator into power are swiftly eliminated in case they change their mind and raise someone else in his stead.  And this is my intention, assuming I can regain access to his implants."

"You mean... he can be cured?"  Quirk look astonished, and then upset.  "But... But I wanted to vaporise him!  Or cut off his head and throw his body out the airlock!"

"Quirk!"  Xerian yelped, appalled.

"He has it coming," the Protogen insisted stubbornly.

"You must act as you see fit," P3T3R said.  "But remember, your friends could have written you off as incurable."

Quirk sighed and threw his hands in the air.  "No argument there."

"We still don't know if it's safe to kill him at all," Niall reminded them.  "If I was a psychotically evil absolute monarch with this level of technology, I'd have wired up a dead-man's switch."

"That too is most likely," P3T3R said.  "And now, if you will still permit me to leave after confessing so great an error to you, I must return to my sanctum to plan my next act of treason against the Empire.
"I ask only that you keep in mind what I have said when deciding the ultimate fate of my errant child.  I pray we will speak again later."

Quirk moved as if to stop him, but Niall had already opened the door and the robotic kangaroo hopped away into the corridor.

"I wish you hadn't done that," the protogen sighed.  "I don't trust him."

"Perhaps not," Niall agreed.  "But we do seem to be on the same side."

"We should at least give him a chance," Lautrec pointed out.  "He saved us from being put into stasis, after all."

"Alright, fine," Quirk sulked, and began inspecting his miniskirt.

"Now then," Niall announced, sitting back in his chair.  "Let's review the situation.
"Our main goal has been to disable the ship's cloaking device.  We took a detour to try and find Zuki in case the Emperor got him.  But it looks like that has happened anyway.  And now Lautrec is incapacitated as well.  So, I suggest we focus our efforts on getting a remote first, and then we can return our full attention to the cloaking device project."

"I guess so," Xerian said mournfully.

"Once the cloaking device is down, the Emperor will know we mean business.  We might be able to bargain with him then... Hand over Zuki or we'll smash something even more important next!"

"What about the ex-mooks?"  Toast asked.  "Right now they're mostly sitting around playing cards.  Could we get them to help?"

"I say we save them for the attack on the cloaking device," Quirk said, paying full attention once again.  "The teleporter is more of a stealth mission, and a crowd will only attract attention.  But we will need your friend to operate the teleporter."

*  *  *

"I think this is the nearest teleport station," Quirk said, as they headed down the corridor.  "The ship has two of them, I believe."

"There are four," Oram said.  "Two of those are mothballed in case of emergency."

"Should we use one of them, then?"  Niall pondered.  "There's less risk of someone else coming in to use it while we're busy."

"It would take a long time to re-commission it," Oram pointed out.  "A full systems check and recalibration.  We would need at least a day, assuming nothing has deteriorated in storage.  Plus, firing up the unused systems unexpectedly is likely to trigger an alert as well."

Oram hacked into a terminal and began inspecting the logs of the teleportation system.  It took a while, but eventually he located the coordinates of Zuki's home.

"It is currently on the other side of the planet from here," he pointed out.

"Do we need to wait until the continent is visible to the ship?"  Xerian asked.

"No.  After all, the transit beam is able to pass through the ship's hull.  It can pass through the planet just as easily.  But it does mean that we can't monitor the location properly.  We can either send you there blind, or wait until our orbit gives us line-of-sight."

"We'll risk it," Eris decided.  "Are you coming, Xerian...?"

"Yes," the Synth said firmly.

"Two to beam down, Mr. Oram!"  Niall said, and received strange glances from everyone else.

"Stand in the circle there," the protogen said.  He reached out to press a large button, and then suddenly pitched backwards with a choking sound.  Red mess dripped down an adjacent wall.

Quirk spun around and returned fire, killing the sniper instantly.  The enemy protogen slid down from their perch and fell to the floor with a crash.

"No, no, no!"  Xerian wailed.

His cry was answered.

"Xerian... Xerian..." two voices moaned.  Two black Synths with red eyes and energy weapons were approaching down the corridor.

"Xerian...  Come to us... No!  Run, get out!  Help!" the voice added urgently, as if they had suddenly regained lucidity for a moment or two.

"They're coming," Niall hissed.  "Quick!  In here!"

Leaving Oram and the sniper for the maintenance robots, the team ran through a door, hoping it would lead them back to a corridor.  It didn't.

"Hell," Toast said, looking around the room.  There were a couple of display screens, but no other way out.

"Xerian... Xerian..." the voices wailed outside.

"Yes...?" the Synth asked, opening the door a crack.

"The slugs are crying out for your death, Xerian..." one of the black Synths said, eyes staring wide.

"Are you the slugs?"  Niall asked.  The Synth fired through the gap, narrowly missing Xerian's arm.  He quickly slammed the "close" button and locked the door.

"Holy gods," Niall said.  "They make Quirk seem completely sane."

"Don't joke about it!  It's not funny!"  the Synth yelped.

"I'm not," Niall responded.  "We're trapped, unless we want to fight our way through a bunch of innocent Synths who have no idea what they're doing."

At that moment one of the video screens sprang to life.

"Ah, hello!" the Emperor said pleasantly, rubbing his gloved hands together.  "I think it's time we had another chat.  Are you busy...?"

"Do you mean right here, or in your throne room?"  Niall asked.  "Because there's a bunch of Evil Death Synths outside who are hassling passers-by.  We might find it difficult to make the appointment.  Can you slap an anti-social behaviour order on them or something...?"

"Not a problem," the Emperor smiled.  "I'll send for an escort.  And please do try to make it.  Xerian in particular... I've found something of his and I think he might want it back."

The screen went blank.

"Well, that wasn't at all ominous," Niall said.

"How the hell did they find us...?"  Quirk demanded.  "I shot up all the cameras!"

Toast ran over to the video screen and began entering commands into it.  Shortly afterwards, the display changed to show the crowd of black Synths standing in the corridor, swaying slightly.  "Uh oh," he said.

"Xerian... Xerian... the slugs are calling..." the voices moaned, louder now as they came through the monitor's speakers.  "Join us... Hearken to the slugs..."

"I checked that camera on the way in!"  Quirk yelped.  "It was still destroyed!"

"Look at the edges of the picture," Toast said slowly.  "That's all torn plastic.  The shell of the camera may be all broken, but it looks like they've hidden a new sensor module inside it."

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



Chapter 21

"They hid spy cameras inside the shot-up security cameras...?"  Niall whistled.  "That's a neat trick!"

"Much is explained," Toast said darkly.  "I said they knew too much."

"I'm going to run for it," Quirk announced.  "I'll try and distract them.  See if you can get out of here."

Before they could stop him, the protogen had opened the door, run outside and pushed one of the Synths over.  He snatched up their weapon, clubbed a second android with it and then ran.

Niall, Toast, Xerian and Eris made their way to the corridor, with the vulpine snatching up the dead sniper's weapon just in case.

As they cautiously looked around the corridor, a group of armed protogen officers arrived.

"Halt!"  Their leader snapped.  "We are here to escort you to the Emperor."

"The slugs," one of the crazed Synths babbled, hobbling around the corridor behind them with an unsteady gait.  "Listen to their song!  Take them to the slug king!"

"Praise the slugs...?" Niall asked helpfully.  The officer glared at him.

"Come," the protogen said.  "The Emperor wishes to have you all alive.  But that is strictly his preference.  If we have to bring him your corpses, he will quite understand."

"I understand too," Xerian said, raising his arms.

Niall sighed and threw down the sniper rifle.  "Let's go and see what he wants," he agreed reluctantly.

"A wise decision," the officer said.  "Praise the Emperor!"

*  *  *

Soon the group was once again in the holding cell.  The door opened and Lautrec was carried in and dumped at their feet with a metallic clang.

"Heya boss," the panther said.  "Fancy meeting you here!"

Moments later, Lord Cyra himself entered and surveyed the prisoners.

"Where is Quirk...?"  He asked, eyes narrowing.

"He ran off, your highness," Niall said.

"Send out a squad," Lord Cyra demanded, turning to the officer.  "I want him brought here as soon as possible, understand...?"

"Yes, Majesty," the protogen said, snapped a quick salute, and left.

"Now then," the Emperor began, leaning back against the cell wall with an insolent pose.  "Are you all familiar with the word 'purify'?"

He paused for a moment.  Niall and Xerian looked at the floor.  The Emperor smiled and continued.

"It means 'to ceremonially cleanse, to remove of extraneous elements'," he continued, fixing the group with a menacing stare.

"You are extraneous elements," he said, pointing at them accusingly with a black rubber gloved hand, "And if you continue to defy my will, you shall be cleansed, with as much pomp and ceremony as we can muster.  Do I make myself clear...?"

"If you don't want us here, why did you kidnap-" Eris started angrily.

"Apparently I have not made myself clear," the Emperor interrupted, eyes narrowing to slits.  "So let's try again!  Two words: Public... Execution."

"Understood," Xerian put in.  Eris slumped forwards, cradling her head in her hands.

"Splendid!  We shall speak again shortly," the protogen said, and left the room with a flourish of his shiny black rubber cape.

"It could be worse," Toast said after the cell door had slid shut once again.  "At least he is giving us one more chance.  I feared he would slay us all out of hand."

"Wouldn't the robots try to repair us if we were killed?"  Eris asked.

"Not if our bodies were jettisoned into space," Toast said glumly.  "And the wholly robotic ones could either be dismantled or put into space as well.  Also...  There's the rope."

"Hanging?  Does that even work on a protogen?"

"We are 60% organic," Toast pointed out.  "Even if that remaining 40% is doing the heavy lifting, being 60% dead is still a Bad Thing.  Regardless, if you hoist someone up by the neck in one of the warehouses, and leave them up there for a week after the kicking stops - good luck resurrecting that."

"...And the robots won't be able to get at someone dangling in the air," Lautrec said in a subdued tone of voice.

"Exactly," Toast said.  "So..."

At that moment the door opened and an officer walked in.

"You!  Toast," he said.  The red and black protogen slumped back and buried his face in despair.

"In his benificence the Emperor has given you this," the officer said, dumping a camera case onto the terrified protogen's lap.  "You are to document the surrender of the troublemakers.  Do not fail in this task, or his majesty will have your head."

*  *  *

The throne room was dimmed as the prisoners were led inside, wrists bound behind their backs.  One of the officers carried Lautrec, placing him on the floor so that the paralysed cat could watch the proceedings.

Once the five of them were arranged in a circle around the Emperor, he drew a small rod from his belt, and at a press it emitted a glowing blade of energy.  By its light, they could dimly see a Synth kneeling before him.

"This is a variable sword," the Emperor informed them.  "Just so you know, it can go through hardened steel like a stick through water.
"Now!  I have your true love here, Xerian.  One wrong move, and he dies!"

Lautrec stared for a second and then began laughing hysterically.

"Silence!" the Emperor screamed.  "Stop!  Stop at once, or your master's sweetheart loses his head!"

"Will you tell him... Or shall I...?"  the cat managed, before succumbing to another laughing fit.

"I mean it!" Cyra snapped.  "Obey me, or your boyfriend gets decapitated!"

"Sir, that's not my lover," Xerian said simply.  "That's Rexx.  He's one of my neighbours, and we don't like each other."

"Lights!" the Emperor commanded, and studied the red Synth kneeling in front of him.  Slowly he turned back towards Xerian.  "You're bluffing," he said, looking unsettled.

"Nah.  You got the wrong one," Lautrec giggled helplessly.  "This guy's an asshole.  If anything, he's the closest thing I have to an enemy on Xerian's world!"

"Please..." the terrified Synth croaked.  "Xerian... Cat... I'm sorry... Please...  Don't let him k-kill me!  I don't want to d-die!"

"Your majesty, I am not a vindictive man," Xerian sighed.  "I don't like Rexx, but even so, I don't want to see him d-die either.  Please, I beg you... spare him!  I surrender."

"That's better," the Emperor said, lifting the weapon away from Rexx' neck, but keeping it ready.  "But your... neighbour...  Is still a hostage to your good behaviour.  Yours too, cat."

"Oh?"  Xerian looked confused, and slightly relieved.  "I assumed you were going to freeze me or t-tamper with my b-brain..."

"We will need some of your kind left unaltered as a baseline for research," the Emperor said offhandedly.  "And some of you may yet join our cause willingly.  But as it happens, you are special and I would prefer to keep you alive - if I can.  But do not test my patience."

"Oh," Xerian looked worried.  "May I ask why, Majesty?"

"Several reasons.  For one, we have been monitoring your subetherwave broadcasts and we know that you are famous.  At the very least, that will make you a useful hostage for when we announce ourselves to this world.
"But even without that, we know that your brain is different to the usual designs.  You contain the same technology as the cat and your vulpine friend use...  And that technology is something we are very interested in adding to our own corpus."

"Oh," Xerian sounded worried again.

"We will get much more useful data from you intact," the Emperor said.  "But make no mistake, if you cause me too much trouble, I'll settle for dissecting your brain and learning what we can from disassembled corpse.  Is that clear...?"

"Perfectly clear, Majesty," Xerian said.

"Good!  Then my first command is that you describe your loved one to my men.  They will be located and you will be allowed some time together.  After all, I am not an unreasonable man."

"Thank you, Majesty," Xerian said.  "But after that they will be your hostage...?"

"Precisely.  So long as you obey, they shall be kept safe and well.  Behave, and you will be allowed regular contact.
"Defy me - and you shall watch your lover die, and this other one too.  I shall have their heads teleported to the planet as a warning.  On a platter."

"Understood, Majesty," Xerian said unhappily.

"Um," Niall said unhappily.

"What is it now, fox...?" Cyra demanded, glancing at the armoured incubus with an irritable expression.

"Well, your Majesty, I don't like to get involved in local politics," Niall started, "But I can't help feeling that you're playing a dangerous game here by pushing Xerian too hard.

"I mean... If I am reading your offer correctly, it boils down to 'Be good, and you and your boyfriend can watch as your world is invaded and your friends are enslaved,' right...?  If you want my unbiased opinion, I'd recommend sweetening the deal a little."

"Bold of you to suggest that," the Emperor said testily, circling the energy sword in the air above Rexx's horns.  "Remember that the alternative I am offering them is death."

"But that's the point, Majesty," Niall said.  "You're laying that on too thick!  And remember, Xerian is different to other Synths!  Yes, he's pacifistic by default, but if you push him too hard he is liable to snap.  He has a warrior robot brain, after all.
"Don't you see...?  If he believes that he and/or 'Zuki are going to die regardless, what has he got to lose by taking you down?  Your resurrection machines won't work on him, so it's not like you can threaten him with dying twice.
"Hell, he might take the whole ship with him, killing everyone aboard in order to save the millions you are threatening in the Outer Rim."

"Your opinion is noted," the Emperor said.  "But I must have an army.  That is not negotiable!  The ship does not have enough biomass to create an entire fighting force of protogens, therefore we need to raise them by some other means.  Do you have a counter-proposal, fox?"

"Yes," Niall said slowly.  "I am a roboticist as well as a robot.  And in my professional opinion, Synths aren't the answer to your problem.  "They're pacifistic and their design is close enough to an organic lifeform that they need occasional medical attention which you can't provide.  And warping their minds to turn them violent has simply left them raving about slugs, your majesty."

"True," the Emperor sighed.  "What is your solution, then?"

"Let Xerian and Zuki go, let his planet at least govern their own affairs, even if they end up as vassal states paying tribute to your glorious Empire.  You can still gather raw materials for your projects from space, without needing to conquer inhabited worlds," Niall said.

"In exchange for this, I will tell you everything I know, and give you all the assistance you need - to build an army of intelligent warrior robots."

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


Slight gap as I was stuck on chapter 23 for longer than planned.  I how have up to chapter 26 in the can so hopefully that will see us through to the end without any further delays!

Chapter 22

Lord Cyra smiled.  "Your proposal has merit, fox!" he said.  "But I warn you - do not try to deceive me.  Remember, your synthetic friends are still within my power for now..." he gestured menacingly with the variable sword.  "And as you say, we don't have much medical infrastructure for them at this stage."

"You'd really do that?"  Lautrec sounded horrified.  "You'd seriously build an army of death machines for that fluffball?"

"If doing so will save Xerian and the Outer Rim, I would do it for their sake," Niall said.

"That's a terrible idea, boss!" the jaguar whimpered.

"Silence, cat!"  Lord Cyra snapped.  "Any further insolence and your friends will suffer!"

"But it is objectively a bad idea!"  Lautrec protested.  "What will Quirk do if he hears Niall has gone over to your side?!  He'll kill us all!"

"Ah, I see!" the Emperor smiled evilly.  "I'll take care of Quirk.  His interfering days will soon be over.  And then, my new golden age can begin!"

At that moment, the throne room door glowed cherry-red and melted.

"Special delivery for Lord Cyra," Quirk yelled, waving his plasma rifle.  "Your death-a-gram has arrived!"

Aiming the weapon with a crazed expression, he pulled the trigger.  There was a warning beep and nothing happened.

"Kill him!"  The Emperor screamed.

"KiLL," Quirk said vacantly, his visor flashing the word again.  He clipped the drained plasma weapon to his belt with one hand and with surprising speed pulled a handgun with the other like some kind of bad western movie.

"Stay back!"  Lord Cyra screamed.  "I mean it!  Stop now, or they die!"

Quirk fired at one of the officers, slaying them instantly.  "Kill, kill, kill," he burbled.

"I warned you!" The Emperor screeched.  "I warned you all!"  His black-gloved hand came down with a decisive stroke.

"NO!"  Xerian screamed, as Rexx's head toppled to the floor, bouncing and coming to rest in a growing pool of purple fluid, a look of shock in his eyes.  The red Synth's body toppled over, slumping to the ground as his tail and limbs quivered.

With an expression of naked fury, Niall pulled his arms apart and shattered the manacles that bound them.  Reflexes clocked up to maximum, he turned to Lord Cyra, batting the energy blade aside with one armoured glove, and with his other, he punched the Emperor full in the nose.  The visor cracked and the protogen fell backwards to the ground.  He lay there twitching.

Relieving the Emperor of his weapon, the fox used it to slice through the manacles binding Eris and Toast, before deactivating it and throwing it to Quirk whose visor was now displaying a coherent face once more.  The fox strode quickly towards the fallen Synth, while the half-crazed protogen busily dispatched any remaining officers who had not yet fled.

"Rexx..." Xerian was sobbing.  "No..  No!"

Niall lifted up the dying Synth's head and examined it critically.  "We can put him in stasis," he said, tucking it under one arm.  "That should keep him alive until we can effect a more permanent solution."

"Yes," Eris said.  "After Xerian's incident in your realm, it was strongly recommended for Synths to have extra power storage installed in their craniums.  Previously, decapitation would be fatal within 30 seconds - but assuming he was upgraded he should last for at least 15 minutes."

"That's still not long," Quirk pointed out.  "We have to get there, maybe fight our way there, and operate the machinery while he still has reserve power."

"It was also recommended to get an emergency power socket added," Eris pointed out.  "Look at the base of the horns.  It's polarity and voltage protected.  But whether we can rig together a suitable connector in time..."

There was a blue flash.  Eris uttered an oath and a length of cable appeared in the centre of the room.

"It's a miracle!"  Lautrec said piously.  "Praise Bob!"

"Yeah.  Sorry about this, Lautrec," Niall said.  "We're going to have to plug this into you."

"I don't like Rexx," the panther admitted.  "But I don't want him to die, either.  Do it."

Niall located the armour flap on the paralysed jaguar's shoulder and opened it, plugging the cable in and linking the robotic cat to the severed head of Rexx.  The blank visor flickered and his eyes appeared, an expression of pain and fear.

"Can you hear me, Rexx?"  Niall asked gently.  "I don't expect you can speak.  But you should be able to blink, right...?  One for no, Two for yes...?"

The Synth did so, blinking twice.

"Good.  I've connected you to an emergency power source.  We're going to try put you and your body into stasis as I'm not sure I have the tooling or experience to repair you right now."

At that moment, several robots entered the throne room and swiftly removed the Emperor.  Niall tensed, fearing that the robots might also attempt to retrieve Rexx, but after a brief pause they moved past him and made off with the decapitated protogens Quirk had provided.

"Pick him up and go," Quirk insisted.  "We don't have much time - reinforcements will arrive, and they'll guess where we're heading!"

Toast picked up Lautrec and they ran down the corridor, Quirk leading the way as the others followed bearing the two crippled robots.

*  *  *

"There," Toast said, as the stasis field formed around Rexx.  "That will keep him suspended until you are able to fix him up."

"Good," Quirk said.  "Now, let's get out of here.  I think it's time we got our reinforcements."

"Not so fast," Xerian said, putting a restraining hand on the protogen's shoulder.

"What?!"  Quirk looked unsettled at the Synth's stony expression.

"Why should we trust you or your plans?"  Xerian asked coldly.  "I have not forgotten that we had almost reached a compromise with the Emperor, Quirk.  It wasn't perfect, but it would at least have given us breathing space!
"It would have given us hope, a starting point to negotiate a proper solution that everyone could agree to!
"And then, just as things were starting to look up, you burst into the room and k-killed everyone and now Rexx has been b-beheaded and the Emperor is out to f-finish us all off!  You've ruined everything!"

Quirk stood there trembling slightly, an angry and hurt expression on his face.  He pointed an angry finger at Xerian, but before he could say anything, Niall interrupted.

"It wasn't entirely his fault," he said slowly.  "Quirk has been very good about not going into murder mode lately.  But the second the Emperor himself says the word 'kill', suddenly he goes berserk.  Literally.  Don't you think that's an interesting coincidence...?"

"Oh," Xerian said, and looked at Quirk with an appalled expression.  "You mean...  The Emperor accidentally switched on his combat implants?"

"Remember, he was built to be Lord Cyra's pet killing machine," Niall said.  "A verbal trigger seems an obvious feature, does it not?"

"Shit," Quirk looked miserable.

"Well, the good news is that you immediately started killing the Emperor's buddies," Niall pointed out.  "So it clearly doesn't put you under his control.  If we're lucky, he'll be more careful next time."

"If there is a next time," Toast said glumly.  "You heard his speech in the holding cell - he'll kill us out of hand now."

"True," Xerian sighed.  "Alright, Quirk," lead on.

*  *  *

"What was your deal with the Emperor going to be anyway?"  Quirk asked suspiciously.

"Well, I think it's academic now,"  Niall sighed, "Nobody gets everything they want when agreeing a compromise, and yes, I think you were the party with the biggest losses.  But... I offered to help him build robots based on our technology.  In exchange, he would let Xerian and the other Synths go."

"And what about me?"  Quirk demanded angrily.  "What about my people?  All the protogens he has enslaved?  Think of all the civilisations he could conquer with that kind of technology!  And do you think that bastard actually would leave Xerian's worlds alone when he could knock them down like dominoes?"

"Perhaps not," Niall said.  "But it was worth a try.  What you forget is that even with their fancy matter-fabrication tech, it would take at least a year to get a prototype working, most likely more.  That would have bought us time, Quirk.  A year for Xerian to warn the authorities and for for his people to build defences.  A year for you to escape and regroup - as the Emperor did - or arrange a truce with him, or to neutralise him if that is your wish."

"That's true," Quirk grumbled.  "But it still feels like you were selling me out."

"Not willingly, Quirk.  I hoped to minimize the harm to you.  After all, if I had truly intended to betray you, we'd have delivered you to the Emperor by now," Niall pointed out.

"There they are!" a voice yelled.  "Take them for the Emperor!"

Blaster shots flashed beside them, narrowly missing Xerian's arm.

"Run!"  Quirk yelled, and bolted for the nearest door with the others in tow.

"This ought to slow them down," he grinned evilly, locating a fresh power module and clipping it onto the plasma gun.

"Quirk!  No!"  Niall yelled as the protogen poked the gun out the door and fired once.

Yells of panic rang out as the glowing ball bounced down the walls of the corridor, scattering the oncoming troops.  Quirk fired again, but this time the orb of plasma richocheted off the ceiling and straight back towards him.

The protogen leapt aside and the sphere grazed Xerian's left elbow, incinerating it instantly.

"Was this some act of vengeance?!"  Niall snarled, taking Xerian by the shoulder and disconnecting the destroyed limb from the screaming android.  It was still hot to the touch.

"I'm sorry!"  Quirk protested with an appalled expression.  "I'm sorry!  It was an accident!  It seemed like a good idea at the time!"  Niall eyed him strangely for a moment.

"Well, disconnecting it should stop the pain," the incubus sighed.  "I know that much.  What I don't know is whether it would be better to reattach it so that his self-repair systems can regrow it, or whether we'll need to replace it."

"Thank you," Xerian said, looking distressed.  "I'm not a medic, but damage like that... It would take weeks to repair.  Usually we'd swap it out unless there was a good reason, like...  Sometimes Synths are prone to the Theseus Complex and disassociate from replacement modules.  It's not rational, but beings who experience emotions aren't guaranteed to be."

"We'll figure something out," Niall promised.

"We'll have to deal with this later, when the situation is stabilised," Quirk warned them.  "Right now, we have to run for the elevator and get the hell out of here!"

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