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

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

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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


Chapter 23

"I think we're going to need a change of plan," Xerian said unhappily.  "We're trying to take on an entire starship ourselves, and to be blunt, it's not working out.  Lautrec is out for the count, I've lost a limb, Rexx has lost his h-head and we've not really achieved anything more to show for it than trolling the Emperor.  We haven't even been able to rescue poor 'Zuki!
"We've been caught twice and only escaped by sheer bad luck and incompetence on the Emperor's part, plus the fact that Quirk's combat software is more m-murderous than whatever's installed in his own men.  But they're learning, and next time, we're not going to be so lucky."

"It does feel like the noose is tightening around us," Niall sighed.  "You're right.  We need help."

"What do you want to do, then?"  Quirk asked.  "I mean, we do have a bunch of ex-mooks if you think we need more manpower..."

"No," Xerian sighed.  "We need to contact the planet.  We need to at least warn them, get them to mobilise."

"And will they listen?"  Lautrec asked.  "They wouldn't listen to us before..."

"No, but they may listen to Eris," Xerian said.

"There is a comms two decks down from here," Toast said.  "But while the receiver is capable of picking up subetherwave broadcasts, I don't think the transmitter will function properly with the cloaking device up.  We'd have to take that down first."

"Usually I'd say 'pick one goal and stick to it'," Niall sighed.  "It feels like we're flip-flopping between our aims a lot.  But I can't fault your reasoning.  I guess I'd better talk to the ex-mooks and see if any of them happen to know about the cloaking device technology."

"While you do that, I'm going to fetch some supplies from the armoury," Quirk said.

*  *  *

"Look what I found!"  Quirk trilled, returning to the hideout with a severed arm clutched in his hands like a dog with a really fantastic stick.

"No..!"  Xerian looked utterly appalled.  "That's a Synth arm!  There's only one place you could have got that..."

"You'd better not have defrosted Rexx to get it," Toast said, eyes narrowing.

"Actually, I can think of quite a few places you could have got that," Niall said.  "Especially if you did get it from the planet somehow.  For all we know, Quirk held up a Synth Boutique at gunpoint.  'GIMME THE ARM!  NOW!'"

"It's not funny!"  Xerian sobbed.  "You're not helping!  That arm has most likely been ripped off from one of the Synths who was attacking us!"

"I didn't kill them," the protogen said indignantly.

"...I had him killed," Niall quoted.  Quirk looked angry.  "I didn't do that either!  I left them in the corridor with their legs tied."

"It was just a reference nobody will get," Niall sighed.  "Now, Xerian, as distasteful as this is, I think installing a stolen arm is going to be in your best interests, at least until we can get you back to the planet."

"Presumably there won't be any rejection issues?"  Toast asked.

"The nanites from the donor Synth will reset and reload the local blueprint," Eris said.  "Limbs are designed to be hot-swappable in case of emergencies like this.  Though it may make Xerian clumsy for a bit since there are likely to be subtle differences he'll need to adapt to."

"If we get out of this, hopefully you'll be able to return it to its owner.  If they still want it back," Lautrec said.

Xerian nodded reluctantly, and took the limb from Quirk.  Then he stood there for a few moments as if waiting for something to happen.  Quirk and Toast noticed this and stared back at him.  Eris was looking at the wall and Lautrec had shut his eyes.

Niall's headwings tilted asymmetrically for a moment in confusion until the penny finally dropped.

"Oh!" he said.  "Sorry!  You want some privacy!"

"You weren't going to watch, were you...?"  Eris asked, sounding shocked.

"You can go in my sleeping cupboard," Quirk said, punching a code on the wall.  "I won't lock it."

"Thanks," Xerian said, and went inside with the plundered limb.  "I'll just leave it open, that should be enough."

"What was all that about?" Toast asked.

"I'd forgotten that," Niall said.  "Synths have modular limbs, but they don't like to swap parts in public.  It's a taboo.  Makes it too obvious that they're robotic rather than flesh-and-blood."

"I'm flesh-and-blood and I have replaceable limbs," Quirk pointed out.  "Don't these worlds have prosthetics?"

"That's different," Eris said, looking embarrassed.  "I guess customs don't always make sense.  You're from different civilisations anyway, different rules apply.  Even so, Xerian will find it difficult to swap limbs with people watching, and the thought of observing him doing it... It's distasteful."

"Took me a while to get it," Lautrec added.  "We had a few embarrassing moments at first."

Shortly afterwards, Xerian re-emerged, flexing his hand experimentally.  He brushed the wall and began picking up small objects to ensure that it was responding correctly.

"So, how did you get that arm?"  Toast asked, watching as the android fumbled and worked to improve his dexterity.

"Well, I took Xerian's forearm," Quirk said.  "See, it's burned away at the elbow.  I figured if I melted the floor a bit and left a charred limb there, they might think that I'd killed Xerian in a fit of pique!"

"I see," Toast said.  "I'm not sure whether that would be better or worse."

"Anyway, eventually a bunch of mad Synths came along and saw it.  Most of them took it back to the 'slug king', but one of them was left behind to stand guard, so I waylaid him."

"Such a report is likely to confuse the Emperor," Niall said.  "I say we move now, try and take out the cloaking device while he's distracted."

"Then let's do it," Xerian said decisively.

*  *  *

"This is the cloak room," Toast said.  Niall looked at him strangely.  "That may not have translated perfectly," he said.  "Where I come from, a cloakroom is a room for keeping coats.  With hooks and suchlike to let them dry out."

"Ah," Toast said.  "We don't wear full-body clothing much, except protective equipment.  Gloves are popular as fashion accessories, especially when working with other races as our claws can be alarming to some.  The Emperor always likes to wear black gloves, and rumour says he is also fond of boots and other garments.  As is Quirk," he added, nodding at the miniskirted assassin.

"Are you stalling?"  Quirk snapped.  "Get in there!  We don't have much time."

"They may have ambushed the cloaking device control room," Toast pointed out.  "The Emperor knows we mean to derail his plans, and may have ordered key areas to be staked out."

"I'll go," Niall said, putting his helmet back on.  "I've got the best armour here."

"Unless they have plasma weapons," Toast said.  "Even if your armour survives it may melt your internal circuitry.  No... I'm far less valuable.  I should go."

Before they could stop him, the red protogen ran into the centre of the room.  A look of shock appeared on his face.  "Run!" he yelled.  "It's a trap!"  Two other protogens landed on top of him.

Niall ran in, assault rifle in hand, but one of the officers held out a hand in command.

"Stop!" he ordered, as the other one pushed a large gun against's Toast's head.  "The traitor is ours!  Back away slowly, or we'll destroy his implants!"

"Go!" Toast croaked.  "Save yourselves!"

Niall lowered the weapon and took a step back.  "You know we've confiscated all your foot-soldiers," he pointed out defiantly.  "And I don't think the Emperor has too many Officers to spare.  So what's to stop us from following you?  Sniping you from a distance to get our friend back?"

"If you want to follow us to the Emperor, he'll be happy to see you," the protogen retorted.  "You'll be doing our work for us!  But to answer your question..."

"The slugs are calling," a group of demented voices chorused, and a squad of black Death Synths came down the corridor, firing aimlessly at the walls.

"Run!"  Xerian urged.  "We can't fight those poor Synths!  We'll have to retreat!"

"Dammit," Quirk said.  "I'll just shoot their legs."

"The hell you will," Eris snapped, and the group turned tail, with the mocking laughter of the officer ringing in their ears.

*  *  *

Toast was frog-marched down corridor after corridor by the two officers.  They had gone quiet now, as if sombrely contemplating what was going to happen to Toast.

Finally, they turned into a warehouse, where the Emperor was stood, dressed in a shiny black outfit, like Queen Admaria about to pass a death sentence.

"Oh... Toast, Toast," Lord Cyra said, shaking his head.  "You've had your chances, I'm afraid."

"I'm sorry, your Majesty," Toast said.  "I know I owe you much, and I wish I could serve you with all my heart, but what you are doing is wrong!  I can't help you enslave innocent aliens!"

"I know," Lord Cyra said.  "And normally I would have you lobotomised for that, so that your body may still serve our cause usefully even though your mind rebels against me.  But alas... We are still having technical issues there.  That accursed kangaroo has locked us out of the control system for the healing suites."

"Are you going to shoot me, then?" Toast asked quietly.

"No.  Instead, you are going to put these on," the Emperor said, picking up a frilly dress made from PVC and some curious high-heeled boots designed for a protogen's digitigrade feet.  With an expression of relief, the frightened cyborg eagerly donned them.

"Good," the Emperor said, looking at him approvingly.  "Now..."

Toast started as the officers grabbed him, forced his hands behind his back and tied them with a leather strap.

"No..." he whimpered, an expression of terror in his eyes as the noose dropped down in front of him, the macabre object reflecting in the polished surface of his visor.

"Yes," the Emperor crooned.  "Goodbye, Toast."

A look of despair filled the red protogen's features as the rope closed around his neck and lifted him up, crushing his throat and silencing his protests.  He kicked and struggled for a few minutes, and then everything went dark.

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


I might have to borrow the idea of someone being made to don something frilly before being hanged, sometime...


Chapter 24

Quirk opened the hideout door cautiously and froze.  Perched upon his chair was the turquoise form of P3T3R.

"Bad news," the protoroo said.  "The Emperor has taken your friend, the one you call Toast."

"We know," Quirk said testily.  "But the Emperor is out for our blood now, and I don't know if we can get him back without losing anyone else.  Hell, we don't even know where Toast is being held!"

"I do," P3T3R said.  "But there isn't much time.  He is in Warehouse 6.  Go there soon, or it will be too late."

"I don't trust you," Quirk snapped.  "If this is a trap, I'll melt your head off."

"It is a trap," P3T3R confirmed.  "But not one of mine.  But if you think you can save him, you must try!  Quickly!"

So saying, he coiled, sprang clean over Quirk's head and bounded out of the room.

*  *  *

They found Toast five minutes later.

Xerian stared, hands covering his mouth in shock as he took in the makeshift gallows.  His expression was one of sheer horror, tear icons forming on his visor.  "Oh..." he sobbed.  "No... Oh, spirits... May he find peace..."

"This Emperor is one sick fuck," Niall said, looking at the body of their comrade, his headwings fanning out.  Toast hung there, gently swaying in the air currents from the ship's environmental systems.  His visor was blank and he was wearing what appeared to be a French maid costume fashioned from PVC.

"I mean, great gods," the robotic incubus continued.  "Even Johan Cross didn't do that.  He killed people outright, or banished them and faked their deaths.  But he didn't strip people of their dignity like this..."

Solemnly, Eris walked forward to where a placard stood on a pedestal.

"'As they are now, soon will you be,'" she quoted, appalled.

"...And your little dog too," Lautrec added bitterly.

"Maybe there's still time..." Quirk said.  He took out his sniper rifle and aimed at the rope.  Just then a shot rang out and punched through his arm.  The protogen screamed in pain and the rifle fell from his now-useless limb.

Xerian turned around with his hands already raised to see Lord Cyra striding into the room behind them, backed by half a dozen armed guards.  Two servitor robots went past them, bearing a large, golden throne which they set in view of the makeshift gallows.  The cargo doors closed shut behind the robots as they left.

"Ah, so good to see you all!"  The Emperor said jovially.  "You know, the last two times I've held an audience in my throne room, things have gone horribly wrong.  So I'm going to hold it here instead."

"So, what's the plan now?"  Xerian asked, raising his arms.

"Well, I did have hopes for reconcilliation," the Emperor sighed.  "But after the last time... Ah well. Deconcilliation it is, I guess.  Such a waste..."

"I'd ask what that means, but I think Toast already found out," Xerian said, looking at the floor.

"Indeed he did," the Emperor said.  "The placard should have made things clear.  At least, I hoped it would.  But nobody ever reads things these days, do they...?  Ah well...  Something to remember for next time!"

"If we're going to die anyway, we could go down fighting," Quirk said.  "What's to stop us from taking you with us...?"

"Well, you have a broken arm," the Emperor retorted.  "But, if you do resist... I shall destroy the major cities on this planet," he smiled, eyes narrowing evilly.  "The choice is yours - submit to your fates and you shall die quickly.  Otherwise you'll die slowly - after having first watched millions of people get evaporated.  Any questions...?"

There was silence.

"Excellent!"  The Emperor said, clapping his rubber-gloved hands together happily.  "Lieutenant!  Find a suitable dress for the lizard lady.  She will be next.  And don't be too quick to fetch it... I'm sure they'll want some time to say goodbye."

"At once," the protogen said and scampered out of the warehouse.

"Finally!" the Emperor purred to himself happily.  "At long last, things are finally getting back on track!"

So saying, he sat down heavily upon his throne.  Which suddenly exploded.

Quirk, Niall and Xerian were knocked off their feet by the shockwave.  Eris and Lautrec had been closer to the throne and the blast smashed them into the wall with horrifying force, along with two of the officers.  The others were scattered like bowling pins, while above them, Toast's corpse was spinning limply over their heads, his body swinging back and forth like a pendulum.  The Emperor himself had been scattered over a wide area.

Dazed and injured, the surviving officers fled the room in a panic, ignoring the group completely.  Niall gathered up Lautrec and made his way to where Eris was lying.

"Oh," he said, looking at the fallen lizard, her clothing torn and burnt.  "Oh shit."

Eris stirred, eyes half open.  "Uh..." she said, blood dripping from her nostrils.  "Xerian... If you can... Tell them that..." she gave a sigh and slumped over, eyes glazing.

"No...!"  Lautrec keened.  "Lizard lady!  You can't die!  No... NO...!"

"I'm sorry," Niall said quietly, checking her vital signs.  "I think she's gone.  There's nothing more I can do for her."  He knelt and gently closed her eyes.  Xerian crouched on the ground, sobbing.

Behind him there was a thump as Toast was lowered to the ground.  Xerian glanced at what Quirk was doing and his eyes narrowed in disgust.

"You ghoul," he wept, staring the floor while Quirk robbed the deceased protogen, plundering one of his arms.  "This was all your doing, wasn't it?!  You've k-killed a police detective, you've k-killed the Emperor himself, and now you're c-cannibalising poor Toast of his arms!"

"The robots will be here soon," Quirk replied, flexing his stolen limb with a look of concentration.  "We will leave Toast and Eris here for them, and pray that the healing suites can still do something for them.
"I'll give Toast my broken arm.  If he makes it, that arm will be repaired or replaced.  If he doesn't... well, organ donation is a thing.  Try not to judge me by your own cultural mores, Xerian.  We are different races, after all, and we are in a tight situation."

"I guess that's true," Xerian admitted bitterly.  "And while I hate what you've done, protesting about it won't bring him back.  So yes, I guess that right now, you need it more than he does."

"What about the Emperor...?"  Niall asked.  "Eris and Toast being revived would be good, if that's possible.  The Emperor... I'm less fussed about him, unless his absence causes the ship to explode."

"I'm not sure the robots will even recognise him as a corpse," Quirk said.  "Maybe I planted too many mines.  Either way, we need to get out of here fast."

"Indeed," Niall said, gathering up Lautrec and heading for the exit.  "You may have killed the Emperor, but in doing so you have stirred up a real wasp's nest."

"Bad analogy," Quirk retorted.  "Wasps all die without their queen, don't they?"

"Eventually," Niall agreed.  "But they can royally fuck you up before that happens.  And I suspect his underlings intend to do exactly that, if the ship doesn't self-destruct first."

"Where are we going?"  Lautrec asked worriedly.

"Let's try the hideout first," Quirk suggested.  The group turned a corner and took one of the elevators.

Shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Sorg returned, bearing a shiny black party dress, fresh from one of the replicators.
As he approached the warehouse entrance, a convoy of servitor robots emerged, carrying a number of corpses between them.  He dropped the garment with a cry of dismay and hit the nearest panic button.

*  *  *

"Not good," Quirk said, taking point and seeing a number of heavily-armed protogens loitering near the entrance to his hideout.

"As I feared, it looks like they're hunting us down," he said.  "And I'll need to recharge my rifle soon."

"Could we use the teleporter?"  Xerian asked sadly.  "Oram had it pretty much working, I think.  If it's still set up, we could drop Lautrec and Rexx's stasis pod off on the planet.
"Then we can make one last try to find Zuki and flee, with Toast and Eris if possible - alive or d-dead.  If the ship does destroy itself, then... That would be terrible, but at least the Emperor's threat would be ended.
"If it doesn't, we can tell the authorities and try to rescue as many people as we can while the ship is still in a state of confusion."

"I owe you that," Quirk admitted.  "I've dragged you into my war on the Emperor against your will, and I've achieved what I set out to do.  While he should be gone for good this time, we've paid a high price for that - three of us killed, and your cat crippled.  And that's all because of me.  I will help you as best I can."

"Thank you," Xerian said gratefully.

*  *  *

The officer turned and a look of shock filled his face.  Then a hole formed in his visor and he crumpled, the assault rifle tumbling from his grasp.  The other tried to flee and received a shot in the neck, killing him almost instantly.

Xerian sobbed as Quirk stood there, a demented grin on his face.  "Ro-bots!"  he yelled, "Here, robots!  Tasty corpses for youuu!"

"Stop it!" Xerian squawked, hands balled into fists of frustration.

"Too soon, Quirk!"  Lautrec complained.  "Remember, my boss isn't used to this!  He's not used to death at all and now we're three down!"

"True,"  Quirk said, sobering up.  "I apologise.  Meanwhile, we need a set up a barricade.
"I've locked the bulkhead doors for now, and I'm going to try and break into the monitor system.  If I can find the surgery machines Eris and Toast are in I can put Lautrec there so he can watch."

"And listen out for the prognosis?" the cyberjag asked.

"That's the idea," Quirk said.  "Niall and Xerian can help me move some of the crates in the store cupboard to set up a barrier."

"Well, I'm not good for much else," Lautrec sighed, "Even if my limbs were working.  It's hard to push things around on all fours."

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


Depending on how things play out, this could be in rather poor taste. However...

Protogen Eris Jensen: "I never asked for this."
Conservative Democrat or Liberal Republican: You decide!
The Centrist line has moved a long way to the Right over the years.

I'd argue that's a horribly shallow argument, except it's completely true. ~ooklah


Chapter 25

"Here!  There they here!" a voice yelled as the final crate slid into place.  "They must pay for this foul act of regicide!  Kill them all!"

"Was that a request?" Niall asked, and took a pot shot at the officer, missing his head but punching a hole through his large, fluffy ear.

"Nearly there," Quirk said, logging into the teleporter.  "Xerian, put Rexx in the circle.  We'll try and beam him down first."

Struggling a little, Xerian lifted the stasis pod and placed it on circular plinth Oram had pointed out last time.

"Okay," Quirk said.  "Let's see what happens."

At that moment the lights flickered and the teleporter went dead.  Dim backup lighting systems kicked in.

"FUCK!" Quirk yelled.

"Is... Is it the reactor?!"  Xerian looked appalled.  "Is the ship about to blow up because the Emperor is dead?!"

"There would have been a warning," Quirk said, eyes narrowing.  "They've cut the power to stop us escaping.  Look... The corridor's still lit!"

"You will all be shot for this!" a voice yelled angrily.  "We shall incinerate your corpses!  The Emperor will be avenged!"

Energy beams shot out from behind the barricade, and one of the crates exploded, rupturing the barrier.  Through the smoke they could dimly see a large mob of very angry officers.

Xerian had retrieved Lautrec and was standing next to the teleporter console with a look of confusion and terror.

"Get behind me," Niall told him, clutching his rifle grimly.  "I'm harder to kill.  But frankly... I think this is it.  May Bob save us."

"I always wanted to go out in a blaze of glory," Quirk said, flashing "KiLL" across his visor.

"Wait!" a new voice commanded.  "Hold!"

"But, Lieutenant..."

"No!  Stop!" the voice demanded.  "New orders... Hold fire!  Stand down!"

Niall and Quirk looked at each other as the gunfire abruptly ceased.  The lights flickered again and came back to full brightness, and the teleporter console began to reboot itself.

"A trap...?"  Niall asked.  "If so, I'll go first.  You stay back..."

Lieutenant Sorg walked slowly and deliberately out from behind the makeshift barricade, gauntleted hands held in front of him.

"Do not kill him!" Xerian and Niall said together, as Quirk took aim.  "He is surrendering!"

"Not quite," the officer said, approaching with his hands raised.  "But I am here to bring you a message.  From the Emperor."

"What...!?" Quirk said.  "But I blew that little shit to atoms!"

"Was this message left in the event of his d-death?" Xerian asked.

"His Majesty cannot be slain so easily.  In various secure vaults he has had a number of replacement bodies set aside for such an incident.  Cloned from his flesh and kept in stasis, awaiting the installation of his cyber-implants.  Which, I might add, are specially hardened and survived the explosion intact."

"Dammit!  I knew I should have blown his head out the airlock," Quirk pouted.

"QUIRK!"  Xerian snapped.

"His implants are regularly backed up," the officer pointed out.  "You would be hard-pressed to permanently kill him without first destroying the entire ship.  And I might point out that if you somehow succeeded, that would trigger the self-destruct protocol."

"Told you so," Niall said quietly.

"So you're saying we should surrender?" Xerian asked worriedly.  "Is that even still an option...?"

"That is not in my briefing.  However, the Emperor does request your presence," the officer said.  "With a guarantee of your safety.  I have been sent to tell you this, and to bring back your reply."

"'Requests'...?  Not 'commands'...?"

"He urgently wishes a parlay.  Indeed, he has made a large number of excessively generous concessions to try and win your cooperation.  The security robots and troops have just been stood down, and among other things, a pardon issued as a token of his good faith.  He will not attempt to kill you again, or impede your attempts to leave the ship.
"But in exchange, he desperately needs to speak with Xerian.  I and my men have been sent unarmed to bring this message, and to escort you back, should you agree to see him."

"He wants me to go alone...?" the Synth looked worried, as a couple of other officers arrived, hands similarly raised and empty of weapons.  Some of the other officers had left their posts and were watching the scene unfold, visibly confused and perturbed.

"The invitation is for you specifically, but it is assumed that the rest of your group will want to accompany you," Lieutenant Sorg said.

"No," Quirk said stubbornly.  "I don't trust him.  Let him come here."

"I had expected this," Lord Cyra said, stepping out from behind a crate.  "Though I cannot say I blame you."

"What do you want with us now?"  Xerian asked, miserably.  "Why are you here?"

"There is a saying in most cultures," the Emperor said.  "'If you can't beat them, join them.'"

"You... You want to recruit us...?"  Quirk looked perplexed.  "After all we've done to thwart your plans...?  You expect us to give up and throw in with your lot...?"

"No," the Emperor said.  "I am here to surrender."  The officers looked at their master as if he had gone insane.

"What?!"  Quirk gurgled.  "No!  It must be a trick!"

"It's not.  I give up.  Invading this world was a stupid idea."

"My Lord!" Lieutenant Sorg looked shocked.

"If it was so stupid, then why did you do it at all?"  Niall demanded heatedly.  "You've ruined people's lives!"

"I don't know," the Emperor said sadly.  "All I can say is that after I was revived...  I couldn't remember why it seemed so important."

"Because you're short and wanted to get back at the universe?"  Lautrec asked.  Lieutenant Sorg curled up into a foetal position like the juvenile protogen in the tank and covered his face, waiting in terror for his master's wrath to explode over them.

"Yes, it was something like that," Lord Cyra admitted, looking thoughtful.  "Admittedly, being swindled and generally abused by my clients was frustrating and humiliating, but becoming an evil overlord seems a little disproportionate, don't you think...?"  He looked down at himself and studied the back of his hand for a few moments.  "Re-engineering myself to be taller and blacklisting those clients would be far less effort."

"Did they put the Emperor back together wrong?"  Lautrec asked, looking astonished.

"No.  I have been put together correctly, for the first time since this whole business started," the protogen said.  "What I have being doing... That is not the mark of a properly functioning ruler."

"So what are you going to do to us now?"  Niall asked.  The Emperor turned to face Xerian, and unpinned the cape that attached to his shoulders.

"Hail, Emperor Xerian!" he said loudly, kneeling before the astonished Synth.  "May your reign be long!"

"Take these as the symbol of your office," he added, proffering the cape and some shiny black gloves that had been designed for a Synth to wear.

"But I don't want them!" Xerian protested, staring down at the uniform with amazement and horror.  "I don't want to be emperor!"

"You must," Lieutenant Sorg said.  "We need an Emperor.  The robots are programmed to require one.  So are our... mooks, as you call them.  Parts of the ship's systems will respond to our Emperor, and him alone.  If it has no leader for more than one day, the ship will enter self-destruct sequence.  If it impacts the planet it may cause an extinction-level event."

"Told you," Niall said.

"Very well," Xerian said, reluctantly donning the rubber gloves and cape.  "But this is strictly as an interim measure until we can remove that dependency."

"Are you saying that all I had to do was wear a latex cape and evening gloves?"  Quirk said, appalled.  "And I could just have taken over the ship at any time?!"

Lord Cyra cocked his head slightly.  "That is possible," he admitted.  "The robots and individuals whom I had cruelly enslaved would certainly have been fooled, but the others would not.  It would likely have resulted in a very messy situation, a civil war aboard the Vengeance."

"What about Lieutenant Sorg?"  Niall asked pointedly.  "He seems to have been a loyal henchman to Lord Cyra."

"Lord Cyra gave me the gift of these implants," the Lieutenant said.  "I owe him this long life and the enhancements he has made to me.  If his wish is that I should serve another, even one with different aims, then I shall do so to the best of my ability."

"Very well," Xerian said.  "But I'd like someone to check you over, just to make sure you're not brainwashed into subservience.  I don't want you devoting your entire life to me, that wouldn't be fair."

"I could do with a holiday," the protogen admitted.

"Talking of messy situations, what about the kangaroo creature?" Xerian asked.  "He's a bit of a wildcard."

"He is now your problem, your highness," Lord Cyra said, bowing his head.  "His fate is yours to command.  As is mine."

"We'll get to that later," the Synth decided.  "Now, I believe you have the remote device taken from Niall here.  I would like that back so that Lautrec can have his limbs reactivated.  Arrange for that as a priority, if you please."

"At once, Majesty!"  Lieutenant Sorg said, snapping a salute at Xerian.  "I shall bring it to your throne room."

"Talking of which, check the spare thrones for explosives," Quirk suggested.  "I don't want to kill two Emperors in one day, especially not this one!"

"It will be done," Sorg saluted and briskly left the room.

"If I may make a suggestion, majesty, a public broadcast to the ship would be wise,"  Lord Cyra said.  "My men here know that I have abdicated, but the rest of the ship will not.  Until that has been done, there may be resistance."

"Will there be resistance afterwards?"  Niall asked, looking concerned.  "Will some believe that you made this announcement under duress and plot to restore you to the throne?"

"I hope not," Lord Cyra said, making a face.  "Running this place was a bit of a strain.  It makes a nice change for it to be someone else's problem."

"If you've got all this power," Lautrec said hopefully, "Can you use it to get the band back together?"

Solemnly, Xerian surveyed the assembled protogens who were kneeling before him.

"I'm not used to giving orders," he told them.  "I don't want to command anyone.  I don't believe in kings or emperors.  However, Lautrec is right.  I would very much like to have 'Zuki returned to me.  He is a blue and black Synth with orange eyes who was abducted shortly before I was.  I also require medical attention for the lizard lady Eris, and the protogens known as Toast and Oram.  Then, we will look into communicating with the planet and agreeing the return of the abductees."

"At once, Majesty!" the highest-ranking officer said.

"Oh, and get rid of that horrible symbol, please," Xerian said sternly.  "We're through with that fascist crap.  Pick something else, something more friendly."

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


Chapter 26

Toast twitched and opened his eyes, causing the visor display to light up with an expression of confusion.  He was clearly in a surgery unit.

"Info: Brain activity satisfactory," a servitor robot intoned.  "Recovery complete."

At that moment a face loomed into his vision, peering down at him.  Toast let out a piercing scream and Lord Cyra quickly withdrew.

"I am not here to kill you," he said hastily.  "And I'm so sorry about lynching you earlier.  If you'll come with me, I'll lead you back to the Emperor."

"But... That's you," Toast gurgled, staring with confusion as the other protogen helped him out of the surgery bay.

"The Vengeance is under new management," the purple protogen explained.  "I have abdicated and am hoping to get back into the hero business, if I am permitted to keep my life and my freedom.  I'll admit that escorting you back to his majesty isn't exactly the epitome of valiant deeds, but as you can see, I need all the practice I can get."

"What's that symbol...?"  Toast asked, pointing at the device on his shoulders.

"A smiley face," Lord Cyra said.  "I should probably have it too, but I'd rather keep my stars for now.  When my future is clearer, I will decide what to do with it.  Assuming I have a future."

"What about the others...?"  Toast asked unsteadily.  "If this isn't some kind of trap... Tell me... Are they all okay?"

"Well, I didn't actually see what happened on account of being blown to pulp," Lord Cyra said.  "A very hard reset that has finally brought me back to my senses.
"But I understand the others are safe except for poor Eris, who unfortunately perished in the blast as well.  Oh, and of course Oram lost his brains to my snipers, so his resurrection has been unusually involved.  However, I believe he should be regaining consciousness soon as well and I will be attending to him next, once you are safely back with the Lord Xerian."

"I am glad to hear that," Toast said, and began to remove the maid dress with a worried glance at the former emperor.

Lord Cyra sighed.  "Well, if you're sure...  But it does look good on you," he added wistfully.

*  *  *

"Toast!"  Lautrec said, bounding across the throne room as the red protogen entered, and prancing around him like an excited dog.

"This is all very confusing," Toast admitted, taking in the scene of Xerian, who sat on the throne uncomfortably, dressed largely in the shiny black uniform of the Emperor.

"You have no idea," Lord Cyra said, hovering awkwardly at the side of the room.  "I am so used to sitting in the throne.  I hope I don't forget myself and accidentally commit treason."

"I want to replace the position with an elected council," Xerian said, waving a black-gloved hand.  "But I'll need to figure out the details first.  We can't have your old supporters winning a vote to invade the Outer Rim or taking the Vengeance to embark on a career of piracy."

"I can probably help with drafting that," Niall said.  "Any news on the others?"

"Regarding 'Zuki, we have three candidates roughly matching your majesty's description," Cyra said.  "But none of them are a precise fit.  My... er, Your subjects are arranging to have them released from stasis.  The Vengeance has enough charging infrastructure to support them for now, and your plans are to eventually relocate them to the planet anyway.
"However... I fear that... it is possible that your consort may have been... processed.  I am striving to find out whether this is the case."

"Ah yes, your hideous experiments at creating a Synth army," Xerian said, eyes narrowing.  Some of the officers present cowered.  "And that's another thing that needs fixing.  Is it possible to revert them to their prior behaviour and personalities?"

"I'm not sure," Lord Cyra admitted.  "I had already ordered research into this in case it became expedient to form a truce with the planet... Or with you."

"It will not make contacting the authorities easier if we still have zombie Synths roaming around listening to imaginary slugs," Lautrec pointed out.

"I will do what I can, majesty," Lord Cyra said, bowing nervously.  "And now, I should check on the other revivals!  By your leave, Majesty...?"

"Go on," Xerian said offhandedly.

"I'm going with," Quirk announced.  "I don't trust him on his own."

*  *  *

"Do we need to contact the planet?"  Toast asked, bowing before Xerian.  "You have command of the ship, majesty.  You have only to click your claws... Er, if Synths can do that, I mean... and the crew will begin defrosting the prisoners and transporting them back to the planet.  Can't we just quietly return them all..?"

"It's not quite that straightforward," Lautrec said worriedly.  "As I understand things, the authorities in the Outer Rim know roughly who's been reported missing, since that's why they arrested us.  If those missing persons all start randomly reappearing in the capital cities at once, the authorities might suspect that they've been replaced with android replicas!"

"One, rude," R. Niall said.  "Two, Synths are androids anyway."

"It's a good point, though," Xerian pointed out.  "We will have to contact the authorities to arrange the transfer.  It won't help us if we startle them, or they start arresting the people we've returned too."

At that moment, the door opened and Lord Cyra returned, bowing profusely.  His expression was nervous.  Quirk slunk in, with an odd expression on his features.

"My Lord," the purple protogen reported, "I bring news.  But you won't like it."

"Yeah," Quirk said.  "Do you want the good news first?"

"Please," Xerian said.  "And then the bad.  But a teaser would be helpful.  How bad is it...?  Has anyone d-died...?  It is about... 'Zuki?"

"It is not about 'Zuki,"  Quirk said.  "And no-one has died.  The opposite, in fact.  The good news is that Eris has been revived.  But there were... complications."

"Oh," Xerian said.  Quirk opened the door and Eris walked in.

"Hail, Emperor Xerian!" she said crisply, snapping a salute with gauntleted hands and kneeling on the carpet before the astonished Synth.  The face on her visor was glowing green, and she had the smiling face device on her cheeks and shoulders.

"Eris...?"  Xerian asked, appalled.  "Is that really you...?"

"I... I don't know," the protogen said, sounding terrified.  "I... died.  Now half of my body has been rebuilt or messed with... I have a head-up display, computers wired into my brain and I feel strange!  I don't know how much of me is still real!  How much of me is left...  How much of me is just a computer program running in the reanimated corpse of the real Jane Eris...?"

"You have a soul," Niall said firmly.  "We know Xerian does, and it would be nonsensical to assume that he does and you don't.  So calm down."

"But... I saluted the Emperor," Eris sobbed.  "I know he's just Xerian... But the voices told me to!"

"You learn to ignore them," Quirk said helpfully.

"It might be better if they were silenced," Lautrec pointed out.  "Even though she arrested me, I don't we want her enslaved.  And if Xerian actually does want that, I'll eat my tail.  Or his."

"This is all normal," Sorg said.  "Newly-converted protogens... They usually need some kind of calibration.  By default they don't know what to do so the conditioning is turned up high.  But since she is an honoured companion of our new Emperor, I shall turn things down so that the voices only disturb her in emergency situations."

"Thank you," Xerian said.  "Please see to that shortly.  And I would prefer it if you used less aggressive default settings on future conversions."

"Anyway, there's no need to panic, Eris," Niall continued.  "Even if you're right and some of you is compromised, that will fade.  Your soul will assert itself over time."

"Oh!"  One of the officers said.  "Is that why we kept having to reprogram the mooks?  They kept gradually recovering their personalities, we never did figure out where it was coming from."

"Most likely," Niall agreed.  "Ms. Eris, I was an android construct duplicated from someone else.  I have his memories and personality.  So I definitely know a thing or two about existential crises, and if you need help in that regard, just let me know and I'll do what I can for you."

"Thank you, sir," she said, moved her hand as if to salute him, and then stubbonly forced it back to her side.

"See, you're improving already!"  Niall smiled.

"But can I return to the planet like this...?" she asked plaintively.  "What if I need medical help?!  I may never be able to go home!"

"Unless the Outer Rim s-shoots down the Vengeance, I suspect we'll be in orbit for a while yet," Xerian said reassuringly.  "Worst case, I would hope you could return for repair.  Maybe we could even get one of the healing suites installed on the surface if all goes well."

*  *  *

"Cat...?"  Oram said faintly as he opened his eyes to see Lautrec looking down at him from the side of the surgery unit.

"That's right," Lautrec said.  "I am a cat.  Are you a cat...?"

"I don't think so," Oram said, struggling to sit up.  "But I don't appear to be a mook either.  What happened?  You're moving again!  Did they manage to get the unlocking device from the planet...?  I guess I was shot..."

"You were," Lord Cyra said, reaching down to help the protogen from the surgery unit.  "And before you panic like Toast did, a lot has changed.  I have been demoted and Xerian is now in control of the ship.  I am acting as his flunky until such time as he is able to decide my fate.  I have left him a lot of messes to tidy up, unfortunately."

"You just stepped down willingly...?"  Oram asked doubtfully.  "I didn't think you would cede control as long as you lived!"

"Funny that," the protogen said.  "They stopped me living.  Afterwards... well, it was like waking from a dream.  Except you gradually realise that all that stupid and horrible stuff you saw yourself doing in the dream... Really happened," he sighed.  "So I surrendered."

"Turns out they had a bunch of clones," Lautrec said, padding along as they went down the corridor towards the throne room.  "They revived one, put his implants in it and... Well, I suspect P3T3R may have finally reverted the changes that drove him mad in the first place."

"That's basically it..." Lord Cyra said and then stopped abruptly in his tracks, causing Oram to bump into his purple cloak.

"What the fuck...?"  Lautrec asked, eyes wide, he pointed down the corridor with one paw to the figure marching down towards them, flanked by a large group of armed protogens.  "But... But that's..."

"Oh dear," Lord Cyra said, looking appalled.  "A bad thing has happened.  Lautrec, Oram... Warn Lord Xerian."

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


Oh SNAP! A Loyalist realized that the former Emperor came back sane, and decided to try again.  :mwaha
Conservative Democrat or Liberal Republican: You decide!
The Centrist line has moved a long way to the Right over the years.

I'd argue that's a horribly shallow argument, except it's completely true. ~ooklah


Chapter 27

"Boss!"  Lautrec cried, bursting into the throne room.  "We've got a problem!"

"Impertinence!"  Lieutenant Sorg protested.  "You will address our Emperor with respect, cat!"

"Shush," Xerian said.  "What's the problem, Lautrec?"

"It's the mad Emperor!  He's back!"

"What?!" the Synth looked horrified.

"That little shit betrayed us?!"  Quirk spat.  "I knew I should have incinerated him!"

"No, you don't understand!  Put the corridor B on the screen," Lautrec said.

Xerian stared in astonishment as the main screen of the starship's bridge cleared to show two protogens facing off, as a group of nearby officers watched in confusion.

"But I am the Emperor!" the new protogen screamed.  "Guards!  Destroy this impostor!"

The officers looked at each other, concerned.  "Ummm..." one of them said awkwardly.  "I'm afraid you don't have that authority, sir."

The Emperor looked as if he'd been slapped.  "What is the meaning of this insubordination?!  You shall lose your mind for this!"

"They have a new Emperor now," Lord Cyra said cheerily.  "I ceded power to Xerian."

"You did what?!" the protogen shrieked.

"Trying to rule a bunch of star systems was a stupid idea," the protogen pointed out reasonably.  "And if I'm not executed for the things I've done while I was suffering delusions of grandeur, I'm going to try and make amends for it all."

"You're broken,"  the would-be Emperor said, looking disgusted.  "Listen to yourself!  You're not me!  Get out of my way.  I will deal with that fool Xerian first, and then put you out of your misery!"

"Broken?"  Lord Cyra looked amused.  "I'm not the one who's been digitally lobotomised by a pastel kangaroo.  If anyone's broken here, it's you.  Your mind is addled, your intelligence level has been halved and you cannot think clearly.  I On the other hand, have been repaired.
"Now listen - The power transfer was done in writing, signed as an official decree so it cannot be revoked.  So just calm down and surrender quietly.  I'm sure your successor will be merciful if you give up and forget all this silliness."

"It can be revoked if all the witnesses are dead," the other one retorted.  "So maybe I should start with you after all!"

"You forget," the original said.  "I am Lord Cyra - saviour of worlds!  You are a damaged copy of me, and I will stop you if I can."

"Once you are dead," the mad one retorted, "I shall purge this ship of all who whose loyalty has wavered.  Their corpses shall be rendered to feedstock and new protogens grown from the carbon chains.  Except for Quirk.  He shall be fed into my replicator and made into new gloves!
"I shall raise my army of Synths and converted protogens from the planet, and this time... I shall win!"

*  *  *

"He needs backup," Quirk said, seizing a rifle.  "I'll go!"

"Lock the bulkhead doors when Quirk gets there," Niall advised.  "We don't want the usurper getting reinforcements."

"Technically I am the usurper," Xerian sighed.

"Do not say such things, majesty!" Sorg said crisply.  "You are our Emperor now, and those who have contrived this... situation... are traitors and must be hunted down!"

"How has this happened at all, though?"  Eris asked.  "Where did the new one come from?"

"Those ones at the back," Toast said.  "They've still got the lightning bolt thing on their cheeks.  That's not good."

"You said there were clones of the old Emperor," Xerian said, looking at Sorg, who was watching the screen in horror.  "Ready to be thawed in case of emergency.  That's how you revived Lord Cyra, right...?"

"Indeed," Sorg said.  "And there are regular backups of his implants."

"So this lot, loyalists to the old regime, who preferred Lord Cyra's goals have revived one of the other hot spares, installed new implants and programmed them with an old backup from before he was cured - bringing back the insane tyrant that they know and love," Niall sighed.  "I don't even want to think about the metaphysics behind this."

At that moment, one of the rebels noticed the camera and fired, causing the screen to go blank.

"We had quite enough of that when Quirk was on the loose," Lieutenant Sorg sighed.  "I'll try to find another view, Majesty."

"I was going to ask," Niall said, "Who would win a popularity contest between Mad Lord Cyra and Xerian?  How many share the old Emperor's goals?"

"...I wish I knew," Toast said gloomily.  "Some of them were true believers, convinced we should crush those weaker than ourselves and take their stuff, just because we could."

"But if the ex-Emperor now plans to mulch them down into protogen concentrate..." Niall said.  "That might tip the balance in Xerian's favour."

"True," Xerian looked happier.  "Could we play his speech over the public address system...?"

"At once, majesty," Oram said, and took the controls of the comms system.

*  *  *

"KiLL," Quirk burbled, shooting a couple of rebels before ducking back behind the door.

"You're enjoying this far too much," Lord Cyra observed, sniping at his evil twin and missing.

"You made me that way", Quirk reminded him.  "Or he did.  Either way, I might not get the chance to kill people much after this so I want to make the most of it!"

So saying, he threw a grenade into the corridor and was rewarded by a loud explosion and several screams.

"You can't win!" the evil one yelled.  "We'll kill you all!"

At that moment, Xerian's voice resonated throughout the corridors of the ship.

"People of the Vengeance," he said, "This is acting Emperor Xerian.  I know not everyone will share my aims.  But you must now choose a side.  The ship is entering a state of civil war.
"You must all of you decide whether to pursue peaceful coexistence with the Outer Rim, and make amends with your own homeworlds under my guidance... Or whether you wish to follow a resurrected Lord Cyra and his self-centred plans of conquest and piracy.

"As you decide, keep in mind that I will show mercy to those who have seen the error of their ways.  Lord Cyra on the other hand..."

"Once you are dead, I shall purge this ship of all who whose loyalty has wavered.  Their corpses shall be rendered to feedstock and new protogens grown from the carbon chains.  Except for Quirk.  He shall be fed into my replicator and made into new gloves!"

"...Anyway, that's his offer," Lautrec's voice chipped in.  "Vote Xerian if you want to live, vote Lord Cyra if you want to get chopped up and turned into sexy gloves.  No pressure," he added.

*  *  *

Shortly after the broadcast, one of the officers made a startled sound and turned towards Xerian.

"Majesty, there is a disturbance," he said, bringing up a screen showing a corridor full of angry protogens, armed with rifles, tools and anything else they could find, and swarming through the ship.

"Can you get a better picture?"  Niall asked.

"You can thank Quirk for that," the officer said.  "We don't have audio here either, but I'll do what I can."

"Where are they heading?"  Xerian asked worriedly.  "This is clearly an armed insurrection, but against who...?"

"I'll go," Niall said, putting on his helmet.  "If they're against us, you'll soon know."

"I'll go too, boss," Lautrec said.  "You've got guards here, and a panic room if things get really ugly."

*  *  *

"Wait!  Wait!"  Niall called, standing in front of the swarming mass like a policeman directing traffic.  "What you doing?!"

"Xerian!  Xerian!" the crowd yelled, coming to a halt in front of him.  "We want Xerian!"

"Why...?"  Niall demanded.  "What's he ever done to you?"

"Freedom!"  The crowd cheered.  "Death to Lord Cyra!  Xerian for Emperor!"

"Ohhh," Lautrec said.  "It's the mooks!  The guys we saved from being lobotomised!"

"Yes!" one of the leaders said.  "He gave us back our minds!  Lord Cyra will take them away again, and for that, he must die!"

"Death!" the crowd yelled.

"Okay," Niall shrugged.  "Just make sure you kill the evil one, okay?  Since one of the Cyras is on our side."

So saying, he gave a big thumbs-up to the security camera and the bulkhead door opened.

Lautrec bounded ahead of the crowd, and was promptly shot by the evil Lord Cyra.

"Die, cat!" he shrieked.  "This is your fault!"

Lautrec picked himself up shakily.  "You do it to yourself, you do," he sang, and crouched.

"You can't," Lord Cyra whimpered, frantically trying to reload his assault rifle.  "You have safeguards!"

"I'm not allowed to fight Synths or organic civilians," Lautrec said.  "But you're neither!"  So saying, he leaped.  Lord Cyra screamed as the claws raked his chest armour, piercing the metal protecting his vitals.  Fangs sank into his gun-arm, and the limb was pulled from its artifical socket, clattering to the ground with the laser rifle still clutched in it.

"You..." the protogen yelped, and then a hail of fire flew over them as the mooks and the Imperial loyalists fought.

"STOP!"  Niall yelled eventually, standing between the two groups like a traffic enforcer in his black armour.  "Enough killing!  Listen up, rebels... You've picked the wrong side.  The rest of the ship doesn't want their old Emperor back, and you can't force them to accept him."

"Then they will die!" Lord Cyra said.  Quirk went rigid and his visor displayed strange symbols.  "No they won't," he said thickly and rapped a grenade over Cyra's visor as though he was cracking an egg.

The flashbang left the ex-Emperor lying dazed on the floor.  He could hear Quirk burbling happily to himself as his missing arm was replaced, bound and he was forced to his knees.  When his vision finally cleared, he looked up to see his other self standing over him with a grim expression.

"Oh dear," the purple protogen sighed.  "It's hard to kill... yourself.  I wonder if this counts as regicide or suicide...?" he pondered unhappily, flicking off the safety and aiming it at Lord Cyra's head.  "Goodbye, your majesty," he added, and fired.

The enemy protogen's head ruptured, killing him instantly as red mess was sprayed over the floor.  The black gloved hands twitched and went limp.

A hush ran through the survivors, and one of the ex-mooks took aim at the purple protogen.  Cyra dropped his gun, raising both hands.

"Hold it, hold it!"  Quirk interrupted.  "Don't shoot!  This one's the good one.  I hope," he added, with a suspicious glance.  The soldier lowered his weapon uncertainly but didn't let go.

Niall turned to the rebels angrily.  "And as for you...  What did you do this for?" he demanded, aiming a kick at the dead Emperor.  "Why side with that maniac?"

"Because he was our Emperor!"  the protogen snarled bitterly.  "We stood to be rewarded well for our service!  We would have been made kings and queens!  Ruled whole worlds on behalf of our overlord!  And then..."  he pointed furiously at Cyra.  "Then, he threw it all away!"

"So you figured you'd bring him back," Niall said sighing.  "Nice try, but it's not happening again.
"Soldiers...!" he barked, glancing at the ex-mooks, and pointing at the rebel leaders.  "In the name of His Majesty, Lord Xerian, I command you to arrest them!"

"No!" the ringleader yelped, and raised his weapon, only for it to be plucked from his grip by Lautrec's metal jaws.

Trembling with rage and the perceived injustice of it all, the ringleader pulled a handgun from his belt and promptly shot himself, joining his Emperor in death.

The other rebels were split.  Some tried to fight and were cut down, others took their own lives and the rest threw down their arms in surrender.

When it was over, Niall turned to face the assembled crowd of ex-mooks.  "Thanks, guys!" he said.  "Hopefully we won't have to do this again."

The crowd marched back towards the throne room, amid triumphant chants of "Xerian!  Xerian!" from the soldiers, and from Lord Cyra himself.

Behind them, the robots began to remove the dead.

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


Chapter 28

Xerian awoke in a comfortable bed.  It was a little too short for his lean frame.  Blinking for a moment, he suddenly remembered that he was now supreme commander of a warship, and this was the Imperial bedroom suite.

He got up and showered, then left the suite, where his predecessor was waiting for him like a butler.

"You were right," Xerian said to Cyra as they arrived at the bridge.

"Majesty?" the protogen tilted his head like a dog.

"Being Emperor is a pain in the tail," Xerian sighed.  "It's been less than a day and already there's been an insurrection."

"Don't look at me," the purple protogen shrugged.  "I'm done with being overlord.  And I'm not sure Quirk would be a good pick either."

"Good morning, your Majesty," Lieutenant Sorg said.  "I believe we have found your missing companion."

"'Zuki...?"  Xerian asked, looking excited.  "Where is he...?"

"In the infirmary, I am afraid," Sorg said nervously.  "We were right.  He has been processed."

*  *  *

The glossy black Synth sat in a large chair, waiting patiently.  He had plantigrade legs and the same joint design as Zuki, but his eyes and status lights were a threatening red and his expression was somehow vacant.

"'Zuki...?"  Xerian asked cautiously.

"Slugs...?" the Synth asked, and then bowed.  "Praise the Emperor!"

Xerian began to weep.

"Now you've made the Emperor cry," Lautrec scolded.  Niall trod on his foot.

"Xerian..." the Synth suddenly said.  "Love... Help me..."

"We're trying," Xerian told him desperately.  "Believe me, we're trying."

"Slugs," the black Synth said and went back to staring at the ceiling again.

"We are trying our best,"  Sorg said, cringing slightly.  "But the Synth processing techniques were mostly designed by Lobil.  They were a favourite of the old Emperor..."

"So where is this person now?"  Niall asked.  "Could they help us?"

Sorg shook his head sadly.  "They refused.  Lobil was devoted the the Emperor... They became one of the ring-leaders of the rebellion.  You may recall, Lord Niall, that certain of these traitors chose to kill themselves rather than surrender..."

"Well, shit."

"None of the casualties appear to have suffered implant damage," Sorg added quickly.  "But the sheer volume of casualties has made revival harder. And in any case, if they don't want to cooperate, it will be difficult to force them without resorting to the heavy-handed methods of the old regime."

"Uh, boss," Lautrec said awkwardly. "If those rebels are being patched up...  What does that mean for the ex-Emperor?"

"Oh no," Xerian said, and the four of them quickly ran back to the bridge.

*  *  *

"Okay," Xerian said in an authorative tone as he slowly got the hang of being in charge, "The old Emperor and the rebels.  They're being revived by the robots and the healing suites, correct?"

"Many of them already have been revived during the sleep cycle," one of the officers said with a crisp salute.  "Do you wish to interrogate them, your Majesty?"

"No," Xerian said.  "But I do want to know where they are now.  I will have questions for some of them."

"We did not feel the matter was worth awakening you for," the lackey said, "So they were kept in the detention chambers to await the pleasure of your judgement, Majesty."

"I told you this lot were toadies," Quirk muttered.

Xerian glanced at them.  "Chill," he said.  "You're overdoing the whole servility thing.  You should have a life of your own outside of serving me, you know."

Horrified, the officer fell to their knees and closed their eyes as if awaiting decapitation from the variable sword.

"Oh, stop that!" Xerian said irritably.  "Get up, do your job, and get some rest when you go off-shift."

"And try to be a bit less greasy," Lautrec suggested.  "More like Sorg."

"Rude," Xerian sighed.  "If accurate.  Now!  You said they were in a detention centre...?"

"Yes... Sir.  I can bring that up on the main screen if you desire..."

He punched in a couple of numbers.  The main viewscreen suddenly went blank.

"Oh," the protogen said.  He switched cameras.  The screen flickered and then stayed blank.

"Quirk...?"  Xerian glanced at the assassin irritably.

"Not guilty," the black protogen said, scowling as he grabbing his favourite rifle from a nearby locker.  "I bet ten-to-one that slippery little bastard's escaped!"

"Oh," Sorg looked miserable.  "I had hoped that being rebuilt would cure him of his megalomaniac tendencies," he said.

There was a clang from one of the air vents above them.

"That would not have worked," P3T3R said, poking his head down into the room.

"You!"  Sorg snarled angrily.

"Emperor Xerian did not want people's brains to be tampered with," the kangaroo said.  "Nor did Lord Lautrec."

"Ooh!" the panther looked extremely pleased.  "I've never been a lord before!  I like the sound of that!"

"Shush," Niall said.  "Please carry on, P3T3R."

"After Lord Cyra here was restored to sanity, I disabled all personality modifications made by the surgery units.
"I did not anticipate that someone might restore him from a backup," he added unhappily.  "I have failed."

"So the rebels are still rebellious," Xerian sighed.

"If that is their nature," the kangaroo confirmed.  "Any who were brainwashed into loyalty, they will revert to their default personalities.  But those who were honestly rooting for Lord Cyra will continue to do so."

"How do you know so much about this?" Quirk demanded.  "You seem to know everything that is going on!"

"I will tell you afterwards," P3T3R said.  "First, you must stop the former Emperor."

"Again," Lautrec sighed.

"I would check camera 41F," the ProtoRoo suggested.

The screen showed a corridor with a crowd of protogens making their way to the stern of the ship.  They were talking incomprehensibly amongst themselves.

"Not good," Niall said.  "That's their native language, right...?  If they're no longer making allowances for us, that's a bad sign."

"I can't quite make out what they're saying," Cyra said, cocking his head slightly.  "...Oh."

"What...?"  Xerian asked tensely.

"So, when I was overthrown," the protogen said slowly, "Not yesterday, way back when I was forced out of my palace by a mob with flaming torches, I and my supporters stole this ship and fled into the great unknown, swearing to return with an army to wreak vengance."

"Yes, yes, that's why 'Zuki is babbling about slugs," Xerian said tersely.

"I'm really sorry about that," Cyra said awkwardly, looking at the floor.  "Point is, they're doing it again.  They're talking about leaving the ship."

"The escape pods...?"  Niall looked alarmed.  "Tooled up like that, they could cause all kinds of mayhem on the planet!  We've got to stop them!"

*  *  *

Lautrec, Niall and Quirk ran down the corridor towards the stern with a cohort of officers in tow, calling out the Protogen equivalent of "Stop!  Police!"

Xerian and Lord Cyra were following them, forced to duck suddenly as the enemy protogens opened fire, resulting in a brief skirmish.

"They're not really putting their hearts into it," Cyra said suspiciously.  "That looks like a holding manoeuver to slow us down while they work their mischief.  See...?  They're putting up token resistance and scarpering."

"That's good in a way, right?"  Xerian said.  "I don't want anyone k-killed!"

"That's not the way to the escape pods," Cyra said suddenly.  "What the hell are they doing...?"

Suddenly a loud clang reverberated across that part of the ship.  Warning sirens blared, and the group hurried along.

"What have they done?!"  Xerian demanded.  "Is that the self-destruct...?"

"No," Cyra looked mortified.  "It's the hangar bay doors.  They're stealing my ship!"

"What...?" Xerian gestured at the metal corridors of the Vengance in confusion.

"Your ship," Lord Cyra corrected himself.  "The royal yacht.  It has a healing suite, ultradrive and years worth of supplies.
"I liked that ship," he added mournfully.  Xerian patted him on the shoulder.

"Maybe we can build you another," he said.

*  *  *

Back on the bridge, Xerian settled into the throne and tapped his fingers thoughtfully.  "At some point we should probably replace this with something less ostentatious," he suggested.  "And ideally, more comfortable."

"We may have the original chair in storage," Lord Cyra said.  "Though it was not designed for a lizard tail."

"Well, that could have gone better," Niall sighed, wandering over to Xerian.  "The bad guy escaping, I mean."

"Yeah," Lautrec agreed.  "If we'd had a dead Emperor corpse we could have pinned all the atrocities on him!  No-one needs to know Lord Cyra kind of did them too."

"Lautrec!"  Xerian scolded.  "What's a grisly thing to suggest!"

"It still works," Niall said.  "The evil Emperor has escaped.  If he does show up, he'll absolutely take credit for all this.  This guy here, on the other hand... He'd rather forget all that stuff, right...?"

"Forget the time I was turned into a stupid, insane murderer?" the protogen said, making a disgusted face.  "Naturally."

"That solves the problem then," Xerian said.  "But just in case anyone asks... Lord Cyra, I hereby pardon you for your misdeeds."

"After all he did?!"  Quirk sounded horrified.  "He's committed genocide!  Mass executions!  Lobotomies!  He turned your lover into a vegetable!  You can't do that!"

"He just did," Sorg pointed out.

"Yes," Xerian said sharply.  "Because he was driven mad by a hacker.  He was criminally insane, and not in his right mind, much like 'Zuki is at present.  Would you have me punish him too, for trying to shoot us?
"Lord Cyra has been cured and can retake his place in society.  That said, I would like him to be monitored for a while, just in case there is any kind of relapse."

"The Emperor has spoken!"  Sorg pronounced loudly.

Lord Cyra bowed, displaying tears on his visor.

"I cannot thank you enough, your majesty," he wept.  "I will do my best to uphold your wishes."

"Meanwhile, we must inform the Outer Rim that the evil Emperor has fled," Eris said.  "While he is still out there, the Outer Rim won't be safe.  We'll have to build some kind of defensive fleet, much as it pains me to admit it."

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


Chapter 29

Councillor Sevrin was having a very bad day.  In fact, he was secretly hoping it was just a nightmare.  The giant ship had suddenly appeared in orbit around Prime, without having obviously arrived.  It was not of any known design, and the fact of its sudden appearance either meant that it had some hitherto unknown drive system, or that it had been cloaked so well that it didn't even show up as a gravitational anomaly.

Initial scans had shown that it appeared to be armed.

"Sir!"  One of the aides said, "We have received a transmission from the ship!  They are hailing us!"

"Put it on," he asked.  Then his eyes widened and he clutched his chair with a death-grip.

The screen cleared to show a red Synth wearing shiny black clothing, lounging upon a golden throne.  On his lap a robotic cat had rested their head and was being gently stroked by his black gloved hand.  Several other figures were standing close by, including two armed alien guards.

"You!" Sevrin choked.

"Do I know you...?"  Xerian asked quizzically, absently scratching Lautrec behind the ears.

"You are Xerian, the alien-synth hybrid!"  The councillor said.  "Suspected of involvement in the disappearances of citizens of the Outer Rim!  And your alien cat robot!  Is this ship your doing?!"

Lautrec lifted up his head with an irritated expression.  "'Is this ship your doing, your imperial majesty'," he corrected firmly.

"Shush," Xerian told him.

The councillor looked appalled and had difficulty speaking for a few moments.  "You...?" he choked eventually.  "One of our own Synths...?  You've acquired a warship and proclaimed yourself some kind of overlord?  How could you do such a thing?"

Xerian fidgeted awkwardly and looked away.  "It wasn't easy," he said.

"...What are your demands?" the councillor added, trying not to look as scared as he felt.

"Look, this wasn't my idea.  I never asked to be made emperor," Xerian said, examining his gloved hand.  "In fact, I tried to refuse.  Unfortunately, this was necessary.
"As you have surely noticed there is an alien vessel in orbit around Prime.  The Vengeance has been cloaked for some time now, gathering intelligence.  Its mission here was to kidnap Synths and organics as an army for an invasion."

"Do you like it...?" Lautrec asked eagerly.  "I think it could do with a new paint job..."  Xerian pushed him off his lap irritably.

The councillor's mouth opened and closed a few times.

"I give up," Xerian sighed.  "Eris, you're better at this."

"If you're sure," the protogen said.

"Councillor Sevrin, this is Detective Inspector Eris of Newport precinct," she started, saluting for a moment before remembering herself.

"...What happened to you...?" the Councillor asked, looking horrified.

"Death happened," Eris said bluntly.  "As you can see, some heavy reconstructive surgery was required to save my life, and there were... complications.
"Councillor, this ship was built and run by cyborgs known as protogens.  One of their key aims was to abduct organics from our world and convert them into such cyborgs to act as mindless footsoldiers for their Emperor.
"The medical facilities aboard ship are extremely advanced, but designed specifically for treating protogens, so... Unfortunately I was converted as part of the revival process."

"Does that make you..." the councillor asked, horrified.

"A mindless drone for Emperor Xerian...?"  Eris finished, an annoyed expression showing on her visor.  "No, it does not.  I was worried about the brain implants too, but I have been like this long enough to realise I am definitely still in control, even if the augmentations can be distracting."

"We probably could take her over," Lautrec said.  "But that would be mean, even if she did accuse me of witchcraft and disabled my limbs just when we were fighting the bad guys."

"Shush, Lautrec, you're not helping!" Xerian complained.

"First contact isn't something we can really rehearse," the cat pointed out.  "Besides, they arrested us on false pretences!"

"Sir, let's get to the point of this call," Eris said.  "This warship arrived in Prime orbit to facilitate the Emperor's conquest.  As part of that plan, they kidnapped a number of citizens, Xerian, Lautrec and myself included.  Fortunately, that threat has been lifted.  Together, we have overthrown the old emperor and Xerian has taken his place, at least as an interim measure."

"Yes," Lord Cyra said, entering the viewfield briefly.  He was wearing Toast's maid outfit.  "Look, I'm really sorry about all that.  I was driven crazy by a virus and did some pretty bad things until they blew me up and reverted my programming.  I feel much better now."

"My number one priority," Xerian said, "Is to arrange the safe return of the many Synths and organics who are currently in suspended animation aboard this ship, and the rehabilitation of any of them who were enslaved by the mad Emperor.
"We also need to determine what should happen to the Vengeance afterwards.  With this technology we could heal many injuries which are currently beyond our own medical science.  The teleportation system alone would revolutionise things, and I feel that any protogens who wish to leave the ship should also be given the opportunity to settle on our worlds if they wish to join the Outer Rim.

"Finally, there is one more thing - Rexx, one of my neighbours, sustained critical injuries during a f-fight with the old Emperor and will need immediate medical care the moment he is released from stasis.  Unfortunately, the surgery devices here do not include the field of Synthetic Medicine.  Those are my demands, if you wish to call them that."

"This is a lot to digest, er, your highness," the councillor said.

"I hope you've recorded it," Lautrec said, resting his head on one paw.  "If not, we'll have to go through all this again."

"We must also warn you," Eris put in, "That the danger has not yet passed.  Using to their advanced biotechnology, a group of rebels managed to create a clone of the Emperor still in his evil state.  Furthermore, this evil twin has escaped into hyperspace via the Imperial Yacht.
"While he can't do much immediately, there is a strong risk that he may be able to regroup, steal another ship and return to cause more trouble at some point in the future.  While I'm sure Xerian would happy to place the Vengeance at your disposal, the Outer Rim needs to bolster its defences just in case."

"I will have to confer," the councillor said.

"No rush," Xerian said.  "I will instruct the crew to liase with Space Traffic Control now we're trying to be good citizens instead of sneaking around.  We can check back in a day if that suits you, otherwise...  I'll make sure we're listening out for a message from you."

"Thank you, er... your majesty," Sevrin said and signed off.

"It's funny," Xerian said.  "When I was a kid, I always dreamed of being a starship captain.  To take an incredibly advanced ship and explore the galaxy.  And now I have that chance... I don't know what to do with it!"

"That's still an option if they get pissy and try to arrest us again," Lautrec pointed out.  "Or charge us with resisting arrest when we got abducted."

"Hopefully it won't come to that," Niall said.

*  *  *

The throne room doors opened, and P3T3R hopped into the room.  He bowed before Xerian and then looked straight at him.

"Your majesty," P3T3R said, "Now we have time, I feel we must discuss my part in this matter."

"Meaning your reward?" Lautrec asked.

"In a sense," the ProtoRoo said.

"Before that," Quirk said, "I've known you longest, and you always seem to appear or give cryptic advice at the right time, like you know everything.  How is that?"

"I wired myself into the ship's computer systems," P3T3R said.  "I was originally designed to be a controlling intelligence for a starship.  My creators determined that a useful intelligence should have an understanding of the physical world, so I was installed in this body during my training.  It would have become one of my remote units had things gone to that plan.  Instead, the project was cancelled.  Not wishing to repeat the mistakes of the Progenitors, my creators opted to free me."

"So, that made you a natural at tapping into the ship's systems," Lord Cyra said.  "And by hijacking the security systems, you were able to listen in on me while I was plotting my weird, half-assed atrocities.  Much is explained."

"Earlier you said that you created the Emperor," Niall said.  "Can you tell us about that, now?"

"It may be best for Lord Cyra to leave first," the ProtoRoo suggested.  The protogen nodded.  "I am not sure I want to hear that part," he agreed, and left the room with a bow.

"Very well," P3T3R said sadly. "As he has probably told you, Lord Cyra used to be a mighty hero.  Saviour of many worlds.  He had a rival..."

"You?!" Quirk said.

"I was just the hired help," the ProtoRoo said.  "I used my talents as a mercenary, a hacker-for-hire.  The rival commissioned me to hack into his implants, degrade his abilities a little and even the playing field for my employer.
"This was distasteful, but the money was good.  But I made a mistake in altering his systems, and it made him paranoid.  I suspect I also damaged his ethical constraints.
"Rather than hobbling him slightly it drove him insane.  I had created a monster.  And ever since then, I have been trying to fix my mistake."

"That's why he seemed all confused after his revival...?" Xerian said, looking saddened.

"Yes.  Thanks to your actions I was finally able to revert the changes.  Lord Cyra was criminally insane, but I have cured him.  Quirk feels that he deserves more punishment, but keep in mind that the memories of the dark deeds he did while under my influence will haunt him for years to come... that will be punishment enough.  He may need counselling.

"What about his rival?" Niall asked.  "Ultimately, this is his fault."

"The Emperor killed him," P3T3R said sadly.  "After I had been paid."

"That solves one problem," Quirk remarked.  Xerian glowered at the flippancy.

P3T3R looked up at the black-furred protogen and gave a sad smile.  "I created you too, Quirk," he said.

"So does that mean you consider me to be a mistake too?"

"No.  I made you into a weapon against the old Emperor.  If that sounds impersonal, remember that I also gave you freedom - without me you would never have had free will at all, nor developed a personality.  You are my child, in a sense, and I have done my best to keep you safe.  But secretly, as I did not want you to rely on me too much."

"And now," he said, bowing his head, "You must decide my fate.  I have caused untold death and suffering, and I must pay the price."

"What price...?" Xerian looked horrified.

"That is for you to determine," P3T3R said.  "It would be just to terminate me.  In many cultures, if an artificial intelligence goes rogue it will be scrapped, the brain circuitry removed and destroyed so the chassis can be repurposed.  This would be a fitting end for me, and I will not resist if you order my termination."

"No!" Lautrec yelped.

"He has a point," Toast said.  "He has caused those same genocides that Quirk blamed Lord Cyra for.  If he won't pay the price, who should?"

"No," Niall said firmly.

"Be more specific," Quirk said.

"Look..  We can't kill Lord Cyra because, like those Synths who were wandering around talking to the slugs, he was not in his right mind," Niall continued.  "The insanity defence.  P3T3R was in his right mind, and he did act improperly.  However, he has not gone rogue.  He did not set out to turn Lord Cyra into an insane despot, and could not possibly have foreseen the consequences of his actions."

"Even so, those things have happened," P3T3R said.  "And I am to blame.  I am too dangerous to be allowed to continue existing.  Destroying my brain would at least silence the guilt."

"What jurisdicion does this even come under?" Eris asked.

"Technically its own," Toast put in.  "The ship is under Imperial law, is it not?  Even if the Empire consists of just this ship.  It is for the Emperor to decide his fate."

"Great," Xerian sighed.

"If I may make a suggestion, your highness," Niall said, "P3T3R deserves to be punished for his crime, but not for Lord Cyra's crimes.  After all, by restoring Lord Cyra to his senses, he has saved the Outer Rim and countless other worlds.  I would say that that act repays most of his debt to society.
"Even if you feel his crimes cannot be absolved, I would recommend that exile may be the best option.  If Bob is willing, He can take P3T3R back with me.  He'll be out of your hair.  It'll give Strauss a fit but it'll solve a lot of awkward problems," he added to himself.

"And if it k-kills him?"  Xerian asked.

"That is what he wanted," Niall said simply.  "But rest assured, we can do to him what we did to you.  And 'Cubi are very good psychiatrists."

"Very well," Xerian said finally.  "He must live with his guilt.  That is his punishment.  If he wishes exile to Furrae, that can be arranged.  Otherwise, he shall be subject to the same monitoring as Lord Cyra."

"So be it!"  Sorg intoned.  "The Emperor has pronounced judgement!"

"As you command," P3T3R said, and this time he did not hop away.

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


Chapter 30

Xerian sat brooding upon his throne.  The last few days had been hectic, even after becoming Emperor, but at last things were starting to calm down.

The Synth looked up as the bridge door opened.  A red Synth walked unsteadily into the bridge, escorted by Oram and one of the medics from the planet.

"Rexx!"  Xerian cried.  "You should be resting!"

"I needed some parts replaced," Rexx said.  "Walking around is the best way to adjust to them.  But you are right... Captain?  The healing process will be long."

Sorg looked at the newcomer questioningly, his ears pinned back as if offended by something.

"I'm their Emperor," Xerian explained awkwardly.  "Some of them get a bit twitchy if I'm not treated with the proper respect."

"Rexx doesn't have a great track record for respect," Lautrec said pointedly.

"There is a reason for that," he admitted, kneeling before Xerian. "Er, your highness."

Sorg looked satisfied.

"Honestly, 'Captain' is fine by me," Xerian said.  "Though if you can avoid offending my crew too much, that would be a good start."

"KiLL," Quirk said.

"...Just kidding," he added hastily.

"So, Rexx..." Xerian said.  "I guessed you were jealous about something.  The money and fame I got from having been abducted and k-killed by aliens?  That's technically happened to you as well now, right...?  Does that help narrow our differences?"

"Your sudden fame did make things worse," Rexx admitted sadly.  "But what started it was..." he sighed.  "Well, it's 'Zuki.  I... I've had a crush on him for many years, but I was always too shy to ask him out..."

"Ohhh," Lautrec said.  "And Xerian beat you to the punch...?  Oh, that explains a lot!"

"I'm sorry," Rexx said.  "Sorry for being a dick to you... Both of you."

Lord Cyra's face was displaying a look of acute embarrassment.  "I've... just remembered something I should be doing, Majesty," he muttered and hastened out of the bridge.

Rexx looked puzzled.  "What was that about...?"

"'Zuki is not well," Xerian said quietly.  "The old Emperor made a project of turning his enemies into mindless drones to act as soldiers for his plan to conquer... Well, everywhere he could, I think.  Poor 'Zuki was turned into a drone too.  We're trying to undo that, but he's not responding so far.  Only has flashes of lucidity every now and again."

"That's... That's horrible," the Synth said, looking stricken.  "But what's that got to do with your maid?"

Xerian shrugged awkwardly, causing his cloak to make irritating squeaky noises.  "He is the ex-Emperor."

Rexx gave a low moan of horror and instinctively felt the back of his neck as he realised that the 'maid' was the same protogen who had decapitated him.  Oram put a steadying hand on the red Synth's shoulder.

"Yeah, sorry," Xerian said.  "Lord Cyra has an odd fashion sense and he might be a few Carbon Crunches short of a picnic, but at least he's not trying to take over the galaxy or removing people's h-heads anymore.  As long as things stay that way, he can wear what he likes."

"Thing is, he put 'Zuki in that state," Lautrec said.  "Or at least, he ordered it.  It's a bit of a sore spot with him now his conscience has been rebooted."

"May I see him, your majesty?"  Rexx asked.  "'Zuki, I mean... I came back to the ship to apologise.  To you, to your ca... Lautrec, and to 'Zuki.  I have been selfish about it all."

Xerian rose from the chair.  "We'll go together," he decided.  "Quirk, P3T3R, you have the helm.  Let me know if there's any messages from Prime."

"Aye, Cap'n," the ProtoRoo said, with a salute.

*  *  *

As they entered the infirmary, 'Zuki turned to face them.  His eyes had lost some of their red, and he seemed unusually alert.

"Rexx...?" he asked.  "Xerian!"

"...'Zuki?"  Xerian asked, looking concerned.  "Can you hear us?"

Zuki closed his eyes and shook his head for a few moments.  "Yes," he said eventually.  "Yes, I'm here."

"It's a miracle!"  Lautrec said, and did a little dance.

"You're doing much better!  I didn't expect you to be so... lucid," Xerian said cautiously.  "I hadn't heard any news since we last spoke!"

"I've only just woken up an hour ago," 'Zuki said.  "I'm still so confused.  So many dark dreams...  The slugs inside my head..."

Rexx looked at Xerian worriedly.

"We weren't sure if this would work," the medical Synth said.  "I did not want to bring you false hope.  But perhaps seeing his loved ones has helped."

"Xerian's the loved one, Rexx is the love rival," Lautrec said helpfully.  Xerian kicked him.

"Lobil erased their notes out of spite," Lord Cyra said quietly, leading them aside from 'Zuki.  "But P3T3R was able to recover some fragments, using his abilities to directly access the ship's data networks.
"We know that their first attempts involved modifying the brain modules of helper bots, but the damage this caused destroyed them and that approach was shelved before they could kill any Synths, fortunately.
"Lobil's next attempt involved the creation of a device that could be implanted near the brain module and interface with it wirelessly, changing the internal state and I/O links.
"That is all we know - partly because Lobil rejected my abdication, but it may also have been a ploy to keep himself valuable to me while I was in my criminally insane state."

"With the aid of medical staff from the planet, they were able to scan me and locate the implanted device," Zuki said.  "Device, device..."

Xerian looked at him anxiously.

"The slugs are quiet..." 'Zuki said thickly, and slapped himself on the head, much as Quirk had done when his combat implants were troubling him.

"Urgh!  As you can see, I am not fully cured," the Synth said sadly.  "But this problem should fade in time."

"Why are you still black, though...?"  Xerian asked plaintively.  "Do you remember your original colours...?"

"Certainly," 'Zuki said.  "My eyes are no longer red, right...?  The truth is, I kind of like it.  It looks good on Lautrec, so I'm going to keep it for a while longer."

"So, it turns out there was this love triangle between you, Xerian and Rexx," Lautrec said cheerily.  "I mean, I'm just an alien cat robot created by a bunch of sex demons, so I don't know how you usually resolve such things here.  I'm hoping it's not pistols at dawn or something.
"But I figured I'd throw that out there to save you all the embarrassment of dancing around the situation."

"Thank you," Xerian said irritably.

"Do you have polycules here?"  Lautrec asked helpfully.  "Or you could do a time-share!  Worst case, there's plenty of sea in the fish..."

"Lautrec, please return to the bridge," Xerian said.

"I think this is a good sign," Lautrec added, trotting towards the exit.  "Before, he was all slugs and obedience with flashes of lucidity.  Now he just has flashes of the slug episodes.  If he's well enough to fight over, I'll take that as a win."

Now, let's see if I can ship Lord Cyra and Quirk, he thought to himself with a wicked grin.

*  *  *

Lautrec's jaw fell open as he took in the scene in the bridge.  The ghostly pine-marten form of Bob was sat in the captain's chair.  Eris and Quirk looked cowed, Lord Cyra looked perplexed and Sorg had a murderous expression.  P3T3R was standing to one side, face unreadable.

"They are upset because you're sitting on the throne," Niall explained in Furrae Common.  "Sorg in particular takes this as a slight against Emperor Xerian."

"Oh, so that's why they tried to grab me?"  Bob replied.  He raised his hands apologetically and sat on the floor next to the throne.

"Hi, your divinity," Lautrec said, recovering himself and trotting up to the etherial pine marten.  "Are you looking for Xerian?  He's in the medical wing, trying to resolve a love triangle between himself, 'Zuki and Rexx."

Bob closed his eyes for a moment.  "I think they have already resolved it," he said.  "Xerian is now in the captain's bedroom with 'Zuki, and they are demonstrating their love for each other.  'Cubi-style."

"Do you often use your divine powers for voyeurism...?  Niall asked.

"Sometimes," Bob answered.

"What does it want...?"  Lord Cyra asked nervously.

"I finally got that armour I promised Xerian," Bob said, pointing at a heap of black combat armour made to fit a plantigrade Synth.  "Yes, I know it's arrived after he needed it most, but eh... It'll look good as ceremonial platemail or something.  And who knows?  He might need it one day, though I do hope not.
"I also want to congratulate him on having stabilised things, and take Niall back to Furrae.  Anyone else who wants to go is welcome too."

Lautrec translated this for the benefit of the protogens and Eris.

"If it's possible, I'd like to stay for one more day," Niall requested.  "Things to wrap up and all."

"Yeah," Bob said.  "Probably best if I come back tomorrow evening, right?  Looks like Xerian is going to be busy for quite a while," he added rubbing his gloved hands with a mischievous expression.

Rexx hovered uncertainly in the doorway, listening nervously as Lautrec translated the proceedings.

Niall beckoned the red Synth inside.  "Sorry about your troubles, Rexx," he said in Outer Rim.  "But don't worry, I'm sure you'll get your chance."

"Hey... want to go to Furrae?"  Lautrec asked brightly.  "You'd probably need a new brain when you get there, but it's the tourist opportunity of a lifetime!  Then you will have been abducted by aliens twice, just like Xerian!"

"Xerian was not happy about the casual brutality of Furrae," Niall pointed out.  "It disgusted him.  The Being-Creature Commission will also be less than thrilled if they suddenly start getting alien visitors regularly.  However, if Rexx feels that it would help him..."

"I'll think about it," Rexx said.  "I have until tomorrow to decide, correct?"

*  *  *

Xerian and 'Zuki lay together in the Imperial bed, arms wrapped around each other beneath the luxurious covers.  'Zuki's status lights had dimmed as his mind drifted off into a happy sleep.

It's funny, Xerian thought, gazing contentedly at his lover.  I've been made captain of a warship and ended the Emperor's threat, at least for now.  The Outer Rim is my oyster, and yet... All I really wanted was to have you back.

He patted the sleeping Synth affectionately and closed his eyes.  Whatever happened next, with 'Zuki back beside him, tomorrow would be a good day.

The End

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



Quote from: Merlin on November 25, 2023, 05:55:28 PMYESSSS I LOVE THEM

Thanks for reading!  Hopefully we'll be able to do a comic of this eventually!

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