God and Mind - Volume I - Lost
Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind
The continent of Ignas, in the northern hemisphere of our world. On this, the largest continent, a war has been raging between two countries for hundreds of years. In the north of the continent lies the Kislev Empire, in the south lies the desert kingdom of Aveh. The war has gone on for so long that the people have forgotten the cause, knowing only the pointless circle of hostility and tragedy.
The chronic war obsession was soon to encounter a devastating change. This was due to the ĎEthosí, an institution that preserves our world's culture, repairing tools and weapons excavated from the ruins of an ancient civilization. At once both countries excavated these ruins, and had the ĎEthosí repair the discoveries, in order to increase their military power.
The various weapons excavated from the ruins greatly changed the form of warfare. The outcome of the battles between the two countries was no longer determined by man-to-man combat, but by ĎGearsí - giant humanoid fighting machines - that were obtained from deep within the ruins.
Eventually, after continuous swings in the state of the war, Kislev gained the upper hand. The major factor behind this lay in the enormous difference in the amount of resources buried within their ruins. But suddenly a mysterious military force appeared in the continent of Ignas. Called ĎGeblerí, this force decided to make contact with Aveh.
With the assistance of this Gebler ilitary force, Aveh was able to recover from being hopelessly outnumbered to being back on an even standing with Kislev. Then, taking further advantage of its newly gained momentum, Aveh started to capture one territory after another from Kislev, showing no indication of slowing down in their invasion campaign.
The remote village of Lahan, in the outskirts of Aveh, near the border with Kislev.
This is where it all begins.
The storm raged. Thunder boomed and cracked, and lightning flickered across the sky like some mighty electric sword. The rain pelted down in a solid sheet, salvoes of water peppering the ground with a million droplets as if trying to mirror the millions of shots fired in the long war between Aveh and Kislev.
But the man trudging up the hill cared nothing for the war or the weather. He walked slowly, not because he was tired, but because he didnít want to make the boyís horrific wounds any worse with rough treatment. He moved smoothly, implacably, the water and blood soaking into his heavy blue cloak in equal measures. When he reached the village, he paused. The lights, which blazed out of the house windows, seemed like a welcome refuge. But which house to chooseÖ? At random, the stranger walked up a path and knocked on a door.
The man who answered it was almost the stereotype of an Aveh villager, well tanned and well muscled from hard work. His eyes traveled slowly across the stranger, from the sturdily booted feet, past the blood soaked bundle on the shoulders, and up to the dark eyes that scrutinized him from behind an ornamental blue mask.
ďCome in.Ē The villagerís voice was hoarse with urgency. He helped the stranger in, and aided him to lay his bloody burden down on a sofa. ďDan, go get doc. Alice, hot water and bandages.Ē The villager commanded his children like a drill sergeant marshaling his troops. As the younger boy ran out into the night and a pretty girl in her mid teens ran to boil a kettle, the villager turned to the stranger. He stood impassively in the center of the room, like a tree in a storm. ďThis your son?Ē
The stranger stared hypnotically at the villager, his dark eyes impassive behind the mask.
ďHis name is Fei Fong Wong.Ē The strangerís voice was deep, resonant and timeless, like the voice of a rock, infused with an infinite calm.
The villager picked up a knife from the sideboard and began to cut away Feiís blood soaked shirt with expert hands. The boyís face was pale, and his limbs trembled. He seemed very small and young, like an injured bird, but the villager guessed his age at about 15. Damp hair spread out from his forehead in a curtain of sodden blackness, the ends matted with dried blood. Beneath the shirt, Feiís chest and arms were scored with long jagged slashes, none mortally deep, but all bleeding freely.
ďWas he in the army? Or was he attacked by a wild beast?Ē The villagerís tone was skeptical, for he knew that the Aveh army would never take in one so young, and the wounds did not look like the marks of teeth or claws.
ďHow did this happen?Ē
The stranger seemed to suck the question into the depths of his eyes, shrouding it in darkness.
ďLook after him,Ē he said in his calm rock-like voice, then abruptly he turned and walked out into the night. The villager stared down at the bloody figure on his sofa, and voiced a reply to his own question.
ďI donít want to know.Ē
* * * * *
Fei opened his eyes quickly and then immediately closed them again. He tried to open them once more, more slowly, allowing the light to seep into his sluggish brain in small doses.
ďFei?Ē It was a deep, warm voice that seemed to match the kind, strong face that leaned over him, a face framed in black hair.
ďFather?!Ē Fei muttered, his brain still anaesthetized. The man shook his head.
ďI am Doctor Citan Uzuki. You are in the village of Lahan. A man in a blue cloak brought you here just over a week ago. Since then, you have been in a fever and a state of delirium. But your temperature has returned to normal. Do you remember anything?Ē
Fei took the last words as a challenge; he took the reins and forced his mind to heal. Remember! He thrust his mind back, but came up against an immense blank wall of forgetfulness. He tried again more furiously, but still a huge block covered all his past; thwarting any attempt he made to recall.
ďI canít remember.Ē Feiís voice almost sobbed, it seemed so important that he should remember. Citanís eyes showed comfort.
ďFevers often cause amnesia, your memory should return in a day or two.Ē
But a week passed, and still Fei could remember nothing prior to his awakening. More time passed, slipping away from Fei like grains of sand in some cosmic egg timer. Still Fei remembered nothing. It was about 6 months after his arrival that he stopped trying, throwing his whole self into the daily life of the village with the vigor of a natural born villager. The peaceful routine of work and friendship seemed to satisfy some deep inner need in Fei that he could not remember. But his peace couldnít last long, and it was only three short years after Feiís awakening that it was brutally shattered.
Lahan was an out-of-the-way place. It nestled comfortably on the slopes of Blackmoon Hill, which rose straight up out of the Blackmoon Forest. About 70 miles away was the beginning of the Aveh desert, which ran right to the Kislev border. The village was isolated; there was no question of that. Few villagers had ever really seen a Gear, or even a Land Crab. About the only form of transport in Lahan not provided by Shankís pony was the small combustion-powered car in Chief Leeís garage, and even that was only brought out on special occasions.
Fei dipped his brush one last time into the bucket of metal gloss paint, and covered a few spots on the carís sleek coat.
He turned to see the tall, angular figure of Chief Lee silhouetted in the garage door. Fei smiled at the creased face, which he had come to know well over the three years he had lived in Lahan.
ďDan wants a word with you, Fei.Ē
Fei hesitated, looking critically at the car, it was for his best friendís wedding after all.
ďItís fine. You ought to knock off for a rest anyway, youíve been daubing that thing for hours.Ē Fei nodded, accepting that others may be slightly less critical of his work than himself. He wiped his hands on a rag and took off the overalls, which had protected his clothes from the paint. Beneath the overalls he wore green combat pants, comfortably creased, and a short sleeved white shirt with a blue collar. It was the sort of mismatched combination people expected in Lahan. Fei looked down at himself and wondered, with a little vanity, how he would look in the suit and tie which the village tailor was finishing for him. A best man should look smart, and Fei didnít want to disappoint his friend.
The sunlight streamed down in spring brightness, glancing off Feiís dark hair and tanning his skin. The scene before him was typically tranquil. The village street was lined with small, solid houses and old people sitting in chairs. Beyond the street, Fei could see the road running through the small patch of fields, which surrounded the village, and down into the forest like a dusty gray ribbon.
Suddenly, without warning, Fei was grabbed from behind, hands seizing him around the shoulders in an inexpert but enthusiastic ĎFull Nelsoní. Fei spun quickly, and, with not enough force to hurt, slung his assailant easily off his back. He held the 12-year old at armís length and examined him closely. Danís hair was a tussled mass of brown curls, and his clothes were predictably disheveled.
ďI thought Iíd get you then!Ē He slammed a fist on the wall in mock misery.
ďHands under the shoulders, then behind the neck. Youíll never throw anyone if you donít bend your elbows.Ē Fei never really knew where he got his fighting skills from. In the annual village wrestling tournament he always emerged victorious, even over larger and stronger men. In boxing too, he was quick and fast, making up in speed and agility what he lacked in strength. It worried him a little, for it was part of a past that he couldnít remember and didnít want to remember. But it didnít really matter, Fei consoled himself, as long as he only used his skills in sport.
ďSo you slip an arm under the shoulder,Ē said Dan as he wriggled out of Feiís grip and walked behind him.
ďUnder my shoulder,Ē said Fei, correcting his pupilís fumbling hold.
After Dan had executed quite a powerful Full Nelson on Fei (one which Fei had to use more than usual strength to get out of), they sat down on a wall. As far as he knew, Fei had never had a younger brother, and though Dan could be annoying at times, Fei liked him.
ďYou should marry Alice, Fei. Youíd make a much better big brother than Timothy. Heís a real...Ē Dan broke off suddenly and stared up the road to where Timothy himself was making his way hurriedly towards them.
ďWhat was that, Dan?Ē Timothy said as he came abreast of them. ďDid you want me for something?Ē
ďNo!Ē Dan said quickly. Whatever else he was, Timothy was sharp of hearing.
ďTimothy!Ē Fei stared up at his friend in pleasure.
Timothy leaned indolently on the side of a house and scrutinized Fei minutely.
ďWhy have you got white paint on your cheek?Ē he asked, knowing full well Ďthat it had something to do with his wedding.í Fei sighed and reflected that Timothy would make a good detective.
ďHeís been painting the Chiefís back gate.Ē Dan helped him out. Timothyís blue eyes remained suspicious, but he didnít press the point.
ďSo Fei, got the ring? I hope you donít forget it tomorrow.Ē
Fei raised his eyebrows in an expression of mock horror.
ďOh! No! I clean forgot!Ē
Timothyís eyes sparkled wickedly.
ďYes...well you better remember by tomorrow, or Alice will kill you. Sheís really nuts on little details like rings. She almost scratched my eyes out when I suggested missing out on the confetti.Ē Fei sighed melodramatically.
ďThe evils of marriage. Iím going to stay a permanent bachelor all my life. When Alice gets sick of you and throws you out, donít say I didnít warn you.Ē Timothy gave out a deep, throaty laugh.
ďWould you like to lay money on Alice throwing me out?Ē
ďNo!Ē said Fei firmly. ďIíd hate to bankrupt you.Ē
Timothy laughed again, his eyes twinkling in the way that can only be achieved by a man totally at peace with life.
ďI hope youíre coming to the stag party tonight. I donít want to have to drink all that beer on my own.Ē
Fei hesitated, he wasnít really all that fond of beer, but it was tradition, so he smiled and accepted with an enthusiastic nod.
ďWhy canít I come?Ē Dan whined from his seat on the wall.
ďBecause I donít want my future aunt-in-law getting mad at me if you come home steaming drunk.Ē
ďYou donít seem to care about your future wife getting mad at you when you come home steaming drunk!Ē retorted Dan.
ďMy future wife is very attractive when sheís angry,Ē Timothy slung back easily.
It was usually at this point in a conversation that Dan would slink away with an injured expression on his face. But he stayed, his eyes glinting sadistically.
ďTim? You might want to know that Feiís been painting the Chiefís car for you tomorrow.Ē
Timothy and Fei both made an attempted rugby tackle at Dan, but the boy was over the wall and away before they could even lay hands on him.
ďDamn! Stupid kid!Ē Fei was nettled, his own special surprise for Timothy ruined.
ďNever mind. To tell you the truth, I guessed anyway.Ē Timothy smiled pleasantly. ďBut thanks anyway, Fei.Ē
Fei nodded sadly, and lapsed into silence.
Timothy checked his watch.
ďSorry, got to run, Iím picking up my suit in 5 minutes. I just came to tell you that Alice wants to see you.Ē
ďTimothy, you know youíre not supposed to see the bride before tomorrow,Ē accused Fei.
ďI didnít see her,Ē said Timothy calmly. ďShe called through the window!Ē
ďAnd you were looking through the window?Ē Fei raised an eyebrow.
ďWell --- only a little bit.Ē Timothy smiled placidly.
ďAlright!Ē sighed Fei, ďI believe you. See you tomorrow.Ē
* * * * *
When he reached the sturdy house on the edge of the village, Fei found Alice standing on a chair, swathed in white satin. Her aunt stood beside her with a mouth full of pins. Pieces of white, lacy material littered the carpeted floor, and the coffee table was covered with scissors, needles, bobbins and other sewing paraphernalia.
ďIsnít it a bit late to start the dress?Ē Fei asked in horror, having visions of Alice walking down the aisle with safety pins holding her dress together.
ďThis was Momís wedding dress, Fei.Ē Alice smiled down from her perch, her pretty face framed in a cloud of dark hair. ďAuntieís just fixing it to fit me.Ē
ďYou wanted to see me?Ē asked Fei, imagining Timothy staring through the window as his bride was measured for her dress.
ďYes, Fei. You know Dan was going to take the pictures? Well, our cameraís got a smashed filter or something. I was wondering if youíd go up and ask doc if you can borrow his. I would ask Dan, but heís too busy setting out the tables for the wedding reception afterwards.Ē
Fei thought of Dan messing around in the street, but didnít say anything. He had nothing to do and it was a pleasant walk up to docís house on top of the hill.
ďOf course Iíll go. Shall I drop the camera off tomorrow morning?Ē
ďThatíd be fine,Ē said Alice, wincing as her aunt tightened a thread around her waist. ďThanks, Fei.Ē
It was about a 45-minute walk from the center of Lahan up the hill to where the doctorís house stood proud and lonely on top of the hill. But it was a pleasant walk, through well-tilled fields and past hedges covered with flowers, and villagers could always be assured of a warm welcome. If anyone needed the doctor for a real emergency, they could contact him from Chief Leeís house with a radio transmitter, but this was rarely used. Fei himself often slogged his way up the hill on many an evening. Though Chief Lee had acted as Feiís guardian while he was in Lahan, Doctor Citan Uzuki had been his teacher. Some evenings they would play chess or cards in the doctorís spacious living room, at others, Citan would school Fei in politics, history, military tactics, medicine, psychology, or any subject that took his fancy.
The early spring light was fading by the time Fei reached the isolated red brick house on the crown of the hill. Surrounded by its own small budding garden it looked almost unreal; a picture book house from some idyllic painting. But Fei knew that the climbing roses and sweet honeysuckle, which sprang around Citanís porch, was put there only with a huge amount of hard work by Citanís wife, Yui. Fei could never work out whether Yui should become a gardener, or a chef, for she was equally skilled at both.
Fei walked up the two well-scrubbed steps to the solid mahogany door and rapped on it twice. Almost instantly, it was flung open by the smiling figure of Yui with her daughter Midori wavering uncertainly behind her. Yui was pretty in the precise opposite way to Alice, Fei decided. Where Alice was tall and slender, Yui was of medium height and solidly built. Where Aliceís eyes were a rich blue, Yuiís were a deep wood brown. She also possessed the bronze skin and angular features that marked her as Kislevian, but this made little difference, for mixed blood was common in Aveh.
ďFei,Ē she beamed. ďCome in. Midori, go make Fei some tea. How are the wedding preparations going?Ē Yuiís dark-haired, prettily dressed 12-year old daughter shot the athletic 18-year old an admiring glance and was just scuttling off to the kitchen when Fei stopped her with a raised hand.
ďItís okay Midori, Iíve got to meet Timothy at 9. To tell you the truth, I just came over to ask if Alice could borrow your camera for tomorrow. Hers has a broken filter and...Ē
ďOf course Fei, itís in the garage. Ask Citan to get it for you, heís in there tinkering.Ē
ďGarage?Ē asked Fei, mystified. Why would the Uzukiís, who didnít even own a car, get a garage?
ďOh, sorry.Ē Yui apologized, seeing Feiís questioning eyes. ďHis workshop. Heís insisted on calling it a garage ever since he found that damn machine. Why he wants to get it going, Iíll never know.Ē
ďThanks,Ē said Fei, nodding to Midori and Yui as he walked out of the door and sauntered around the side of the house to the large brick structure Citan had once called his workshop.
Fei smiled to himself, the vanity of calling a workshop a garage just because it happened to have a vehicle in it was just like Citan, slightly pompous but utterly logical. Fei put one hand to the electric buzzer switch that served the ever-locked workshop as a doorbell, and gave it a good hard push. Just like his wife, the doctor opened the door suddenly. He stood there, silhouetted against the electric light, a tall, handsome man in his late twenties with a fencerís build and poise. He was dressed in one of his favorite outfits, white pants of a light denim, an eccentrically formal olive green jacket of a distinctively formal cut, which looked militaristic, though it was not part of either the Kislev or Aveh army uniforms. Adding to the impression of a military officer on his day off was a purely ornamental pink-red sash about his waist. Like his wife, his face was almost Kislevian, but in his case, the skin across the angular bones and around the slanted black eyes was drawn into a network of lines which spelt out a clear message of long ago sorrow to whoever read it. This was a man who had seen murder. But when Fei entered, the lines creased into a smile.
ďAaah, Fei.Ē Citanís voice was deep, warm and precise, like the voice of a doctor ought to be. ďHow do you like that?Ē
Fei looked along the green clad pointing arm to the large metallic spider, which rested against one wall like some disemboweled metal giant. In the center of its body were set two black leather seats and a control panel. Its six legs each had two joints, and the ends were clawed. At the rear above the seats was a short hump with a hole in the top that Fei instinctively knew had held a machine gun. On the side of the machine was painted the three transverse stripes of the Aveh flag, two of them white down the sides, and one deep blue in the center.
ďItís a mini Land Crab, isnít it?Ē
ďScout class,Ē replied Citan proudly, running a black eye over the military machine.
ďWhatís it doing here? It isnít...Ē Fei stopped, thinking of Yuiís dark warnings that Citanís Ďtinkeringí would land him in trouble one day. ďItís not stolen, is it?Ē
ďOf course itís not. I found it in the woods a couple of days ago. It had been abandoned because the engine overheated and melted quite a lot of the internal wiring. I took out the handcart and lugged it up here. It only needed a little work. I thought Timothy and the delectable Alice could get married in it, instead of that clapped out car of the Chiefís.Ē
Fei tried to visualize Timothy in his best suit and Alice in white satin, clanking down Lahanís main street in the monstrous battle machine.
ďI donít think it would really do for a wedding, doc,Ē said Fei carefully, knowing how touchy his teacher could be if one of his projects was criticized.
ďPerhaps not,Ē sighed Citan, accepting the inevitable. ďBut itíll be nice to have some mechanized transport around here, and it will save Midori that long walk to school.Ē
Fei decided to get off the subject of the Land Crab before he burst out laughing.
ďDoc? Aliceís camera broke, I came to ask if I could borrow yours for tomorrow.Ē
ďFine, Iíll just go get it.Ē
Citan was back almost instantly. Under one arm he held a large black metal case with a lens on the front, and under the other he held a squat wooden box with a key protruding from it.
ďI wondered if youíd like to see this, Fei,Ē Citan said, almost gravely. ďI found it while I was getting the camera.Ē Fei touched it gently with his hand, stroking it thoughtfully with his fingers.
ďWhat is it?Ē
ďItís a music boxÖ if you just wind the key.Ē
Obediently, Fei picked up the box and started to wind the curiously carved metal key. He felt the springs tense, and then laid the box down on the workshopís cluttered table. It looked curiously out of place amongst the spanners, welders and engine parts, which littered the tableís surface. From the box came a haunting, chiming melody, lazy yet sad in a peculiar way. Fei felt something stir in the back of his memory, as if something behind the great dark wall of amnesia was fumbling, trying to get out. But the rocks of the wall of night were too thick, and only a distant tap could be heard at the back of Feiís conscious mind, like an itch on the border of his ego.
ďI think Iíve heard that somewhere before.Ē He found his voice a hoarse croak of tension.
Then suddenly, without warning, the box exploded. Fei and Citan were flung backwards by the explosionís force. Engine parts and pieces of metal peppered the floor around them like shots from a gun, but there was no sign of the box, it had completely disintegrated.
ďWhat was that?Ē gasped Fei, choking on the cloud of dust raised by the explosion.
ďCould be an omen,Ē puffed Citan as he struggled across the floor to open a window and release the dust.
As if mirroring the boxís detonation, from outside there came a distant crump whoosh of an exploding shell. Fei staggered to the window and stared out into the deepening night that had suddenly become red. From the direction of Lahan there came a second, louder explosion, and a fist of fire punched its way over the horizon.
Lahan Village, the only home Fei could remember, was burning.
Fei dashed to the door, his instincts racing to protect his home. But Citan grasped his arm in an iron fist, and as Fei turned to stare at his teacher, the flames of panic died inside him, even though the flames of Lahan still burnt on. For in Citanís face, no trace of the slightly nutty doctor who lived on a hill remained. Now he was a healer with a job to do. When he spoke, his voice was calm, strong and confident.
ďThere is no point dashing off unprepared. Wait here. This is too dangerous for Yui and Midori, so Iíll need you to carry some medical supplies.Ē Fei stood in precisely the same place for a full ten minutes, watching his home burn. Citan returned at last, carrying two bulky hikers backpacks (one on his back) and a red leather case, which Fei knew, contained drugs. ďTake these.Ē Fei strapped on the backpack, which was heavy against his spine, and took up the red case. ďWe must hurry.Ē
* * * * *
Fei could usually walk from Lahan to Citanís house in 45 minutes. If he hurried, he could do it in half an hour. But on this dark night, with the fires of Lahan blazing before them, the two men managed it in less than twenty, straining every muscle to get them there quickly.
Fei never forgot what he saw that night. Many of the houses were fully alight, and a few had already burned to the ground. Villagers scattered here and there like frightened chickens; some with grisly burns, that were being inexpertly tended to by their neighbors. But Feiís eyes saw through the flames and smoke, to where the battle was.
Since they had been excavated by the Ethos, Gears had become the main weapons in both countriesí armies. They were immense humanoid figures in steel and glass, giants under human control. When they fought, trees were uprooted and the ground kicked up in mountains of soil. But at this moment, Fei was far from impressed. The titans strode through the square, letting off volleys of shells and blasts of ether weapons that seemed to rarely touch the opposing side, but more often than not, fell amongst the houses of the innocent. They were painted in a variety of colors, and built in different ways. There were white Gears, built like immense cat burglars, with dexterity and swiftness in their movements. There were immense red Gears, slightly taller than the others were, which roared forward in immense kicks and punches that could floor an elephant. But all, usually on the back, bore the three stripes of Aveh, or the rayed sun of Kislev.
Anger flooded through Feiís mind like the fire itself, how dare these great clumsy invaders destroy his home with their needless battle!? He hated them with a burning, sizzling hatred, which scoured him dry of all emotions. He wanted to destroy them. Not caring that he could be stepped on, or hit by a stray shell, he walked to the side of the square and shook his fist impudently at the towering titans. If only he had a weapon, he could kill them all. Fei turned wild in his rage, swirling his eyes around as if expecting to see some huge tank ready and waiting for him.
But there was a weapon, parked in the field, which led off the square. A Gear, as tall as all the others, but silent and pilotless! It knelt in the field in the landing position, its head down, and the ladder, which led to its glass cockpit, inviting. It was a slenderly built Gear, not perhaps as swift as the white Gears, but swift enough, and more enduring. The paint on its sides looked black in the firelight, but it seemed to Fei that it was scored with purple flashes.
With a wild yell, he ran to the Gear, scattering the frightened villagers out of his way like sheep. He felt a quick rubbing of the iron rungs against his hands, and then he was in the cockpit and the roof was closing.
Piloting a Gear is never easy. As the Gearís body can move in as many ways as a human body, it was found best for pilots to slot their feet and hands into reactive controls, so every move the pilot made was amplified by the Gear. It was a difficult discipline, for the Gear was of course far larger and stronger than the pilot was, and it took years to master completely. But once mastered, a pilot could carry out any number of complex routines in a Gear, including of course, the most extreme of the martial arts.
Fei had never even seen a Gear while in Lahan. But his hands slipped into the grips, and his feet found the pedals with ease. By a familiarity of instinct, he found the power switch and pressed it, knowing almost by experience how to wait until the Gear was at full power before moving. He felt the body responding to his touch with the lightning reactions of a trained athlete. The Gear stood up slowly, the restraints falling from its hands and feet with ease. It towered fully 50 feet above the ground. Now he was equal! Fei started to move forward, feeling the gargantuan body move beneath him. He began to run, as an earthshaking iron tread that covered the ground at terrific speed.
It felt so strange and so familiar. He leapt into the air, glorifying in the power and acceleration as his thrusters kicked in. He rocketed forward bringing a leg up in a kick, which sent a white Gear sprawling across the ground spouting flames like red arterial blood. He landed lightly and sighted a huge red Gear as his next target. He felt his hands come forward in punches of immense power, the first clanging into the red Gearís chest and shattering its main power circuit, the second splintering the cockpit glass, sending the pilot flying. A shell clanged off the back of his head, and he spun to meet the new attack, feeling the thrill of battle playing him like a human guitar string. When the attacking Gear was in his sights, he let loose the ether weapon. The incandescent ball of energy struck his enemy in the stomach and threw the giant device backward to crush another house. But then two other Gears rushed in on Fei, cannons blazing. He backed away down the ruined main street.
And there, before him on the ground, was the familiar squat figure of Timothy, arms waving in the air, shouting encouragement to Fei. But even as he saw the tiny figure of his friend, he saw something else, a shell falling. Frantically, he flung his Gear forward, trying to protect his friend, but he was too late. The shell crashed down, crushing Timothyís body into a bloody mess.
Fei could almost feel Timothy die as he looked down to the squashed fly that had once been his best friend. The fury surged in Fei again, and he threw his machine into the attack with fresh vigor. Aveh, Kislev, all these Gears were his enemies and they all deserved death.
The human mind is an iceberg, the small area, which we call the conscious, protrudes above the swinging waves, but most of it is beneath the surface, vast and unseen. It was in the coldest, darkest regions of Feiís mind that the tremor started. But quickly it rushed up through steadily lightening levels of thought, until it burst on his conscious like a bomb. Fei fell back in his harness, his hands sliding from the grips, his Gear standing still as the storm wrenched through his mind, from the deepest pits of blackness to the very pinnacle of his Superego.
He saw a face, his face, younger, and from its eyes tears welled like water bubbling up from volcanic springs. He saw a pendant; a huge silver cross set with a single red ruby, which winked at him with an unknowable brilliance. But then the storm proved too much, and he started to drown, his conscious self sinking into the dark waters of the unconscious. But before he drowned, he saw one last image. He could never afterwards be sure if it were an outpouring of his mind, or the last sight of his eyes, but he saw a man, dark beyond measure, rising up against leaping powers. The man was laughing, and Fei was afraid.
* * * * *
He woke in discomfort, the hard knotty surface of the tree roots biting into his back like the teeth of some hungry animal. He opened his eyes with slow care, but he neednít have worried, the light of the few remaining fires was dim and subdued. He scanned his memory, remembering the tide of waxing fury, his fight in the Gear, the death of Timothy. But then what? Fei was familiar with black walls blocking his attempts to remember, and this one was no more impregnable than the one that hid his first 15 years of life.
ďFei?Ē He looked up and saw Citanís face leaning over him. The lines of anguish were clear and unveiled around the angular eyes.
ďWhat --- What happened?Ē
Citan did not speak, but pointed mutely with one green clad arm.
Fei scanned what was left of his home and wept. When the Gears had attacked Lahan, one or two houses had been crushed. A few others had been set on fire, but the majority of Lahanís buildings had remained intact. But now the village was a wasteland of broken brick and shattered lives. The houses had been mowed down, plowed over by some terrific force, their windows splintering as easily as the bodies of their inhabitants. Corpses littered the streets, some (like Timothy) squashed flies of blood and brains, and others burned or mutilated by flying rubble. Faces he knew stared up at Fei, many of them without bodies.
Aliceís aunt huddled against a heap of rubble, rocking quietly forwards and backwards with grief, gripping in her one good hand the tattered remnant of white satin. Near her lay her niece, with her spine showing through the huge rent in her back, the glass that had driven into her skull glinting in the smoldering firelight.
In the center of the devastation, like some god of destruction, stood the purple and black Gear. It was battered and damaged, but it seemed mostly intact.
ďYou! Fool!Ē A furious little figure hurled himself on Fei, hands clawing with manic animal rage. Danís hands battered at his one time boxing instructor in a blind, mindless fury. Citan dragged the boy off and held him tightly. ďIíll kill him,Ē spat Dan, fighting furiously. ďMurderer!Ē Remorse gripped Fei and shook him like a rat. A huge pendulum of guilt started to swing back and forth as the truth started to dawn.
ďI... did... this?Ē
ďYou know damn well you did, you goddamn evil bastard! You got in that thing and went berserk! You should have never come to Lahan! You should have died! I HATE YOU!Ē
Fei left Citan and the struggling Dan and walked slowly towards the Gear, his feet crunching on broken glass. Some of the survivors spat as he passed, others simply stared in silence. As he passed, Aliceís aunt stood, her face twisted into a mask of pain, her blue eyes blazing. She didnít speak. With a swift, violent movement she hit Fei, once, her hand carrying all of a lost life behind it. Fei rocked on his feet, his eyes blinded with tears of pain.
Slowly he looked up at the Gear, remembering the joy he had felt in piloting it. He seemed to feel all the villagersí eyes, living and dead, boring into him. He was a moth spread out under the hottest light bulb in the world, and he deserved it. Then suddenly, something snapped.
With an inarticulate cry he charged out of the village, blinded with emotion. Down the road he ran, his feet pounding on the concrete, trying to outrun his feelings. Then he turned off the road in a mad dash and charged into the forest, trees snatching at his hair and tearing his clothes. He wished the branches would scratch out his eyes so that he would never have to see such a sight again. He longed for the leaves to muffle his ears to the screams of the wounded and the sounds of the dying. But grief is tiring, and after what seemed like hours of running, he fell down into a patch of dense bushes, curling himself into a fetal ball, and within seconds, he had cried himself into a deep, blissful sleep.
Into the Woods
The wood was dark and silver, a tangled mass of fronds, and bars of shadowsplit the silver moonlight like the crazy jagged bars of some pandemonium prison. But though the wood was still, still as the sleeping youth, it was not silent.
Around the small clump of bushes creatures rustled, and a gentle breeze brushed the trees with loving fingers, accentuating the stillness and the night. As the moon rose like a great argent gunship, its beams shone on the white shirt of the sleeping figure and washed it with an ethereal cleansing.
For the second time that night, Fei awoke with tree roots digging into his back. But this time, he didnít jump to his feet, but lay still on the hard and dirty ground. His mind was muzzy and ill formed; but even so, the grief leapt on him like a predator. Again, he saw the falling shells, the flames blooming in his home like red flowers, grown over the graves of the screaming dead.
He didnít cry; he was passed tears, his tanned face creased in the moonlight like an ancient stone. He didnít move, what was the point? Grief ran through his brain like a tide of black lava, why should he move? Going anywhere wouldnít make the pain any easier to bear.
But the body takes no note of the vagaries of emotion, so after a while he stood, obedient to his aching muscles. Then like a sleepwalker, he began to walk.
With his hands by his sides like a bearís heavy paws, his feet shuffling, his shoes covering themselves with mud and mold, his head down, and the moonlight unable to penetrate the depths of his dark eyes, Fei walked through the wood.
The direction didnít matter; however far he went from Lahan he would always be haunted by his mistake. He visualized Citan, his angular eyes behind their professorial spectacles. Judgmental, he said nothing but just looked. Behind him was the squashed fly that had once been Feiís best friend, and the shape of an aunt, mourning her lost daughter.
Fei walked through the dark.
He thought of suicide, swallowing a berry or root that would stop his heart or devour his brain, maybe leaping to crush his skull, or finding a predator to excise his pain in a single bite. Though he thought of these things, none were serious. Some part deep down in the preconscious knew that Fei wouldnít kill himself.
So when the creatures attacked him, he did not stand and be mauled.
There were two of them, blue reptilian baboon-like shapes, melting out of the moonlight. Though they only came upto Feiís chest, they were broad and heavy set, and their huge monkey arms reached down to the ground. Along the back of each head, and continuing down the back, was a ridge of stegosaurus spikes that proved the mutantís reptilian origin. Their eyes were hungry, and their fangs were greedy.
Fei swayed aside from one creatureís rush, then spun forward and kicked a foot into the creatureís belly. As it flinched from the blow, he struck it with an uppercut under the simian jaw that snapped the monsterís head back and threw it to the ground.
But the other was already moving. It sprang like a cat, long arms and polydactyl hands grasping for a hold. Fei ducked the flailing arms, and slammed up with a chop that brought with it the axe edge of his hand, snapping the creatureís jaw. It fell back whining, and slunk away.
Fei watched the two creatures go silently. For the few seconds of the fight, he had for a moment forgotten his pain. But as the blue creatures left, the grief returned, tempered with the bitter gall that he had muffed the perfect opportunity to kill himself. He couldnít even lose a fight properly!
Like a dog lost and abandoned, he howled into the night: "Come and kill me! Come and kill me!!Ē But the silent forest whispered on, uncaring.
He walked on, his body robotic. Since his eyes were cast down, he didnít see the branches that grasped his shirt and tore it, but what did it matter? These clothes were from Lahan, and Lahan owed him nothing but punishment. He didnít see the root that tripped him to tear his hands, but what did that matter? His hands were so stained with othersí blood that a little extra of his own didnít matter.
Only another attack could have brought Fei out of his death dreaming, or his stumbling delirium drunk on sorrow. But no attack came; only tangled woods, silver poisonous moonlight, and the rustle and scurry of small creatures, frightened by the bloodstained killer.
But when the voice spoke, Fei stopped shambling and looked up, the darts of silver striking his expressive brown eyes and making them glow. But what startled him even more than the voice, or the dim figure that stood in the clearing before him, was the fact that it did not speak in Ignasian; the language spoken universally all over the continent of Ignas. It was a lilting yet strangely guttural language, with an ancient music to the words that lent even the peremptory command in the voice an air of grandeur.
Fei took in the figure slowly, piece by piece. It was small; smaller than he was anyway. It was defiant, obvious from the proud set of the shadowy head and dimly flowing hair. It was hostile, easily evident from the glinting pistol that pointed at Feiís chest, rock steady and deadly in the moon. But there was one other thing Fei noticed, by the dark outline of the figure and the sound of the voice: it was female.
Fei stood perfectly still as the girl switched to Ignasian.
"I have beenordered to kill any land dweller I meet in these woods." She spoke with a soft lilting accent, giving her voice an exotic tinge. But Fei was not interested in her voice - he loved her! She had just made his dreams of this night come true. She would kill him. Warm with gratitude, he stepped forward, waiting for the lead to lance into his psychotic murdererís brain.
The shot rang out, but it was an innocent ash tree that got hit, not Feiís skull. The bullet struck the trunk and ricocheted away with a hard, woody thunk. Fei took another step forward, his hopeful feet scrunching leaf litter.
Though the darkness made them both just dim shapes to each other, Fei thought the girl looked startled. Evidently her training didnít cover suicidal trespassers.
"Iíll only kill you if I have to. Who are you?Ē
"You have to if you believe in justice, Iím evil! Just kill me and be done with it!Ē
He saw a dim hand reach down to the level of her waist, and for a moment his hope soared. Maybe she was reaching for another weapon or more bullets for her gun. But his desire evaporated in the bright beam of a powerful flashlight that shone out in white glory. In its warm, friendly glow, cutting into the dark, Fei could see the girl examining him minutely, as if scanning a target. He in turn was able to examine her.
She was of average height, which made her a few inches shorter than he was, but the pride in her erect stance told him that she was no gentle flower of a girl. Her clothing, too, was not what the old-fashioned matrons of his home - though he didnít want to think about that - would call womanly.
She wore brown pants of some heavy cotton, and like military fatigues spattered here and there like the mud and grass stains adorning her large leather boots. Around her waist was a broad leather belt from which hung several tools of her trade: a hook for her torch and a holster for her gun, ammunition pouches, and at her hips hung two broad-bladed light metal spears that reached down to her calves. Above the pants she wore a white uniform jacket that seemed to glimmer inthe light. It was ornamented here and there with patches of red on the shoulders and arms, and a purple stripe up the chest. On the lapel was emblazoned a red G that Fei felt he ought to recognize from somewhere. But it was her face more than anything else that startled him out of his deadly lassitude. Her skin was pale, almost transparent, and it was stretched over sharp bones in a configuration that while proud, was at the same time somehow heart-stoppingly beautiful, a tiny fairy face painted on a queen. It was framed in a cloud of chestnut hair that seemed to accentuate the whiteness of the skin and make it strangely vulnerable. But there was nothing vulnerable about the almost violet eyes that scanned him with a kind of quizzical pride that seemed part soldier, and part curious.
"Who are you?Ē she asked again more slowly, but suddenly her words were cut short in a scream, and the flashlight went flying to the ground, where its warm glow was extinguished. A blue baboon creature lunged down from the trees, and before she could move, it had sank its long, greedy fangs into the soldier-girlís forearm. With that hold and the grip of two hands, it tried to drag her back towards the bushes.
Fei moved totally on instinct, his body seeming to move before his grief sodden psyche could follow.
"Get your hands off of Elly!Ē he screamed as he dashed forward. He didnít know where the words came from; they simply erupted from his vocal cords like bullets from a machine gun. He chopped with all his strength at the creatureís scaly neck, but the axe edge of his hand was blunt against the stegosaurus spikes. Bending down, he picked up a stout stick and whacked the beast solidly across the head. This time it loosed its hold on its prey and came snarling after Fei with fangs bared.
With all the power of his muscular shoulders, he thrust at the beast with the branch as if it had been a lance, catching the mutant in the throat. It fell back, gasping from its open red mouth, and this gave Fei time to deliver two crushing jump kicks,which shattered the animalís ribs in a crackle of bone.
Another beast advanced from the bushes, but Fei was ready, his body moving like a well-honed machine. He elbow smashed the beast on the point of its blue jaw, and it ran back into the trees yelping, evidently deciding to find a meal that didnít fight back.
For an instant Fei stood still, amazed at his own ferocity. But then a scuffling sound behind him caused him to whirl around with his club raised. He was just in time to see another baboon - a little larger and darker than its fellows, busily slamming a reptilian fist down onto the mystery girlís forehead. She span to the forest floor, and the creature bared its dirty fangs down towards her unprotected jugular.
Rage filled Fei then, not the blazing, blinding fury of Lahan, but a bitter, flat desperation. Though he had hardly known the girl for five minutes, it seemed to Fei that she was the last bastion of humanity, his last chance for salvation. Something deep in the core of his being told Fei that if she died, he would be an outcast, exiled, hated and alone for the rest of his miserable life.
With a wordless battle cry, he charged forward. This was no calculated rush but a desperate dash, to stop the fangs falling just as he had failed to stop the shell in the fire-stained village that had killed his best friend. His club swung wildly, slamming with a meaty thunk into the lizard-like head of the beast. It turned on Fei, hulking its simian body for a spring, but Fei didnít give it a chance to spring. The club whistled through a second and then a third time, smashing the beast twice more in the head. It backed away, but Fei wasnít going to let it live. He leapt and his muddy boot smashed up under the creatureís chin, breaking its neck with an audible snap. Fei didnít even see the body fall, but as soon as his feet touched the leaf litter, he searched for the flashlight. He found it lying in a patch of moonlight, snatched it up and prayed that it wasnít broken; it wasnít.
The girl lay blanketed in the white beam, her white jacket and pale skin sgleaming angelically. She looked thin and small, flung aside like a knitted soldier-doll.
Fei knew a little first aid, taught to him by Citan in those long evenings that seemed a world away. To his relief, her head wasnít crushed. There was only a swelling bruise marring the perfect sheen of her face, formed under her beautiful tangled mane of foxy hair. Her arm, on the other hand, was more serious. Blood had soaked the sleeve of her jacket, changing the color from white to a murderous red and still flowing. Fei looked around frantically, the wave of desperation still strong in him. What could he do? He needed disinfectant, a needle and thread, bandages, anything! He was just about to rip some pieces out of his grubby shirt, when his eye fell on a dim, huddled shape at the base of a tree. Her pack, he guessed. She was a soldier... though her uniform was not that of either the Aveh or Kislev forces. But her race didnít matter.
Pushing aside the slight reluctance he felt at going through a ladyís things, he rummaged through the pack. There were some crushed looking boxes of spare ammunition for her gun, a few things that might have been grenades, a compass with its glass smashed, the shattered remnants of a radio and a white box that Fei saw by the universal red cross on its lid contained medical supplies. One side of the box was smashed in, but that didnít matter so long as the contents were all right. One bottle of pills was shattered into fragments, and several medicine bottles had holes in the sides that shed dark liquid, but at the bottom of the box Fei found an undamaged bottle of iodine, along with a cotton roll and some dry bandages.
Almost tenderly, he rolled down the white sleeve to expose the gashed arm. The fang marks were ugly and bled profusely, but they didnít seem as deep as Fei had originally thought. He swabbed the cuts clean of dried blood with the iodine-soaked cotton roll, and then tied a tight bandage around the arm to stop the blood.
For an eternity, he sat watching the girlís sleeping face, willing her eyes to open. He thought of going to find fuel for a fire, but that would mean leaving her. He wished he had a blanket or a long coat to wrap comfortingly around her as she slept, but he shivered in his short-sleeved shirt in the cold night air. After a while, his thoughts turned to the contents of her pack.
It was clearly a standard military survival kit, but why were the contents so battered? It suddenly came to him that the girlís clothing was too thin and light to be that of a foot soldier. Was she in a flying squad then, or a Gear pilot? He didnít like that line of reasoning. The thought of Gears jerked his mind sullenly back to Lahan.
The fires would be lower now, those with severe wounds would be dead, and the others would crawl around in the wreckage and try to rebuild their lives. But not in his mind, there they still screamed and burned and he still rushed to destroy them.
Once more the girlís sweetly accented voice cut through his despair.
"Where am I? W-w-w-w-what happened?Ē Then she seemed to come awake, the violet eyes clearing like a sun setcoming through the clouds. "You saved my life."
It was not a question but a statement, the acknowledgment of one soldierís bravery by another.
Fei sat silent and awkward, rocking back on his heels, unable to answer. Wincing slightly at the pain from her bandaged forearm, the girl got her body into a sitting position, pulling her knees under her chin.
"You did this?Ē She nodded at her bandage. Fei nodded in return. She nodded at her bandage again. Having nothing better to do, Fei nodded back.
"Are you going to kill me?Ē the young man asked. His voice was almost eager, his tanned face showing an expression of desire. The girl shook her head, making the mass of copper colored hair wave like a heavy banner.
"Have you got some kind of death wish? For one thing, I owe you my life." Her voice was proud and matter-of-fact, but suddenly her eyes sparkled and her tone lightened. With a shock of realization, Fei saw that she was no older than he was, probably a few months younger. "And anyway, youíll have to reload my gun for me, itís a two-handed job." Despite his grief and pain Fei laughed.
"Iím not good with guns,Ē he offered, having rarely seen a firearm in secluded Lahan, let alone reloaded one.
"Youíre good with other things,Ē the girl said feelingly. "Like your fists, and first aid, not to mention guessing other peopleís names." Fei blinked, he had no recollection of his war cry. "You called me Elly,Ē she explained simply. Something about her directness embarrassed Fei.
"Oh... sorry Miss..."
"Van Houten, Lieutenant Elhaym Van Houten of Gebler if you must know, but Iíd prefer you to go on calling me Elly. What is your name?Ē
"Fei Fong Wong,Ē he answered absently. Something in her self-description had toucheda nerve. He had heard of Gebler... on the TV news. "Gebler! Thatís Prime Minister Shakahnís elite force, isnít it?Ē Elly nodded.
"For the moment, we donít want Kislev to have too big an advantage... and theyíve excavated all those Gears,Ē she sighed dramatically. "But Shakahnís a fool. I donít think heíll last much longer."
A sudden bubble of patriotism blazed in Fei. Though he knew little of Avehís capital, Bledavik, and his only politics came from Citan, it seemed somehow sacrilegious to call Avehís prime minister a fool.
"Heís no fool, heís destroying the Kislevian Gears."
"We are destroying the Kislevian Gears,Ē Elly corrected. "I wouldnít be surprised if we were ordered to depose him soon, heís an ambitious pig." Something in her last comment hit Fei.
"Ordered? By who?Ē The change was instantaneous. Elly had become chatty, clearly at ease in talking to Fei, almost the exact opposite of the stern soldier who had challenged him in the dark. Now the soldier returned, her beautiful face becoming almost arrogant, her eyes hard, and all signs of callow youthleaving her.
Fei backed off quickly. He had clearly touched upon a military secret, locked away in the mind of this girl likea jewel in a subterranean treasure house.
Elly relaxed, smiling forgivingly at Feiís blunder. But despite that smile Fei felt guilty, why should he pry into military secrets that were no business of his? He had to redeem himself, to make some gesture to show that he was no enemy to this strange, beautiful soldier that had entered his shattered life. With his voice shaking, he made his peace.
"I donít suppose... that is... err... We both want to get out of this forest, right... and... Do you think we should sort of... travel along together?Ē
She looked at him curiously, with one fox colored eyebrow raised. Her eyes went significantly from the ill-equipped and grubby young man to her loaded pack.
"I think you need more looking after than I do. But I do want to get out of this forest, and I donít think this will make it any easier." She twitched her wounded arm. "Alright, Fei. Weíll help each other."
A double thrill passed through him as she said his name and accepted his offer. Though the grief was still heavy and leaden, he felt that now he had a reason to live. The purpose of protecting this girl, as he had failed to protect his friends at Lahan, would become his goal. If he could help her reach the woodís edge, he could part company from her knowing that the grief would end, and that no sorrow lasts forever.
Watching was a slow business. Fei huddled his body even closer at the base of the tree, curled close for warmth but still alert, Ellyís pistol cradled in his hands. When he had volunteered to watch, she had thrust the gun peremptorily at Fei. He had protested, of course.
"I told you, I donít know how to use a gun!Ē
Ellyís violet eyes had been commanding. "You know how to use a camera, same principle. Point and click."
She had about to say more, but shestopped at the look of pain in the young manís expressive brown eyes. The mention of a camera had reminded Fei of a wedding that would never happen, and a girl in a white dress who had lost her life.
But he hadnít needed the gun. The moon had climbed higher, silver light flowing through the tangled masses of foliage like water, washing around the huddled figures. A cold wind started to blow, chilling Feiís bare arms and making the hairs on his skin extend. He shivered, the wind seemed portentous, a harbinger of imminent disaster. But the portent was late incoming, the disaster had already happened, and Fei, like the shipwrecked mariner, had to make what he could out of his own desert island.
To ease his cramped muscles, he stood and walked across the clearing to where Elly was lying. She had curled herself into a tight ball, her head pillowed on one arm, surrounded by that mass of red hair. He stared down at her. In sleep, all the pretended soldiery was gone from her face; her long lashes veiled those beautiful eyes.
But still, Fei thought, she was beyond him. Her world was not his; even her language was different...
But no, he couldnít hope for friendship or affection from this girl. They would reach the forestís edge tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, and then she would be gone, out ofhis life and out of his mind.
He turned and went back to his tree, sitting with his head erect in the silverlight. It was only a few minutes later that his eyes started to close and his head began to droop. He jerked himself awake, because if he slept the baboons would return and they would both die. Though it didnít matter about him, Elly could not die for his negligence.
"Fei?Ē The voice was quiet, and it was a girlís voice.
"Elly?Ē His voice was equally still, matching the whispering trees all around him.
"You ought to get some sleep, Iíll watch the rest of the night."
Gratefully, Fei lay down, his long dark hair falling over his face as he turned on one side. Of course, this one kind gesture meant nothing, only a flash in lifeís pan, but it didnít matter. Fei was a beggar for friendship, and with relief flooding his mind he slept.
The girl saw Fei slip into sleep, silver light and shadow covering him like an ethereal patchwork quilt. He was a -Lamb-, of course, only a land dweller. He was a -Lamb-, no question of that, but Elly had always been more tolerant of land dwellers than her comrades, and he could fight! She wondered idly if she could get him into training when she got back to Bledavik. Jugend had trained -Lambs- before... or so sheíd heard. She shrugged off the thoughts, for she was at heart a very practical girl. She could worry about Fei when she had sorted out herself. It was egotistical, but that was what she would have to do, for Gebler.
There was a military base some miles south of the forestís edge, she knew, and though it galled her to come like a vagabond to the Aveh army, it was the only way she would get transport back to the capital. Thinking of the Aveh army made her think of the Gear that sheíd been given. She seemed to see it standing in the center of the clearing, like a rusty god in all its dilapidated glory. Why she hadnít been allowed to use her own sophisticated model she didnít know, but Shakahn had ordered her to take a unit of lower ranking Aveh Gears, with a few Gebler soldiers mixed in. The images rushed in on herthen, and for a few minutes, she relived that disastrous mission.
* * * * *
They were about a thousand feet up, the cloudy sky scudding past as she powered her Gearís jets. Her competent hands were steady in the grips, her slim fingers hovering close to the firing stud. Then she had seen one of the enemy streaking out of the clouds ahead, its red body glowing with the heat of the air friction. She fired, seeing the tracer streak out and hit the figure. It banked down, damaged but not destroyed. She stabbed out an ether weapon, curving her own Gear down in a howling dive that brought the plunging enemy into her sights. She watched dispassionately as the blazeof light surrounded the already hot machine. The pilot must have felt nothing as the main engine exploded, fire streaming earthward like divine wrath. She banked back up, looking for another adversary.
Suddenly, she was the recipient of a huge vibration, and she saw the flame and particles of an explosion streak around and past her. It was clear what had happened; a shell, or even another dying Gear, had exploded behind her. Even as she scanned the display for damage she saw red lights flashing.
"Commander?Ē The crackling voice hissed over the radio like the wind howling outside. She was fighting now, pulling frantically on the jet controls, trying to keep the machine level. Panic filled her; sheíd been hit before... but not this badly. One or both ofher jets had been put out of action by flying shrapnel, and she was introuble.
"Commander!Ē This time her radio answered, even as Elly wondered if sheíd be unlucky enough for her fuel tank to explode when she hit the ground. "There was anexplosion, are you alright?Ē
"Shrapnelin the back... jets damaged." Her tone was as steady as her hands, though her violet eyes were filled with death fear.
Elly looked critically at the readout screen. She was leaking jet fluid, she saw. It was falling out of her reeling Gear like vomit from a derelict. And derelict is just what this Gear would be in a few minutes if she didnít do something!
She gave up her struggle with the jet controls and unstrapped herself. As the now uncontrollable wreck plummeted earthwards, she seized the emergency parachute, opened the Gearís hatch, and jumped.
For a moment she fell, legs and arms wide like a diver. Then she felt the canvas open above her, bellying out with the air resistance increasing.
As she floated serenely, trying to stop herself from trembling, her shudders were redoubled as she saw her vacated Gear plummet down to smash into flaming ruin on the ground below. She drifted back the way theyíd come, the wind pushing her away from the battle, until the warring Gears became nothing but bright dots on the horizon. She saw trees drifting up like misshapen monsters, and before she had a chance to react, their branches had grasped at her strings. She fell, unclipping the parachute even as her legs touched a branch. Leaves caught at her face and hair, but luckily, she was able to grab a big limb as it swung past.
Elly had never climbed a tree in her life, but she managed to get down that one with comparative safety. She couldnít see the warring Gears now, they had disappeared into the distance beyond the trees and she knew that the mission was out of her hands. The best thing she could do was try and find civilization. She squared up the Khaki survival pack, which she had slipped on before donning the parachute; though how she had found the time in that devastated burning Gear she never knew.
Squaring her shoulders, she walked forward, fearful but determined.
* * * * *
While Elly sat, watching and remembering, Feiís consciousness was miles away. Though part of the mind is in sunlight, that part which we can see and feel and know, much is in shadow. And in those shadows lurk things primate and feral, faceless impersonal forces with the strength of titans. There too, in the blackness that shrouds the lower regions of being, lie stored memories, dreams, flashes of reason, or childish chaos, all lying in jumbled, glittering heaps like forgotten treasure. Itís never certain, when a sleeping conscious self comes upon one of these splinters of experience, whether it is real, imaginary, a sliver of the external world, or a childís moment of epiphany long since forgotten. But whether long lost memory or fevered imagining, we all know them. They are dreams.
Such a fragment descended on Fei then, a dim, swimming sense at first, gradually solidifying like mud in the sun.
Dim glittering light surrounded him, spears of brightness piercing his childís eyelids. Then suddenly, the veil was lifted and he was sitting on a roughened rock in the middle of a vast desert. The sand stretched away, bright and glittering. The whole place was a waste of arid gold. In the sky the sun blazed, white and bright likethe blast furnace of creation. Feiís tiny feet were planted deep in the hot powdered rock, and his tiny childís hands were folded. He was alone in a waste of light and air.
In the distance he saw them, dim cloud figures at first, then they became huge and black. They were shadows, and like the last end of night at the end of the world they crossed Feiís horizon, moving like ordered black chessmen with swift grace. But they were not coming forward, but retreating. Panic seized the child, he was alone and lost and very small, and those dim figures in the distance were his only hope. He ran towards them, desperate for human contact. But they faded, as his minute and tender feet slipped and skidded through drifts of dust. He fell, striking his face on the ground. Tears stung his eyes, as he raised his head to see the last of the heartless black shapes crossing out of his line of vision, and out of sight was out of mind.
He lay down and started to cry in earnest, but he did not cry like a child. He cried like a man, his hands covering his grimy face.
"Arenít you lonely all by yourself?Ē
He looked up, his face streaked with dust and tears.
The young woman who stood before him seemed to fill his whole world. She wasnít old; she appeared to be scarcely seven years older than he was. But her red hair and pale silken skin seemed comforting. The violet pits of her eyes were warm summer skies, filled with the light of humanity so lacking from the impersonal black chessmen. At her throat the sun glittered and gleamed, the ruby pendant she wore flashing, its silver radiating shards of light. It was a cross-shaped pendant, with a ruby set in its heart, and silver bar sprotruding in four directions.
She stretched out her hand, her pale fingers moving slowly closer and closer to his, a warm human contact in that place of heat and cruel brightness. He stretched his own hand weakly, reaching for her in the most basic of all human reflexes, the babyís outreaching to its mother.
"Fei?Ē The voice seemed harsh in that place of dreams, cutting through his thoughts like a scalpel. "Fei!Ē Then his mind swam up, the dream fragmenting like a broken mirror, a million shades of light, as the old echo fades awayÖ
Then like a cloud of vampire bats, his grief descended with redoubled force, and it startled him awake like a howling siren: "Lahan is gone and itís your fault! Lahan is gone and itís your fault! Lahan is..." Sunlight pervaded the clearing, showing every sheen of spring green in leaf and branch. Over their heads, the sky was a brilliant sapphire dotted with fat sheep clouds.
"If weíre going to reach the end of the forest by nightfall, weíd bettergo." He looked up to see Elly leaning over him. The sunlight made her seem even more proud and beautiful than he had thought the night before. But it also showed the mud on her clothes, and that her jacket was nowhere near as white as her skin. Furthermore, the night lying in the woods had tangled her mass of red hair into one solid mess, and a few twigs had been caught in it. Almost unconsciously, she saw Fei looking, flushed, and patted it down half heartedly.
"Well, yours is just as bad,Ē she said irritably.
Fei sat up sleepily, feeling his clothes sticking to his body. Elly had been right; his dark hair that reached halfway down his back was a mass of tangled knots.
"Iíll slow down a bit, I know you -Lambs- donít have much stamina."
Fei stared at Elly in consternation. Her tone was not insulting, or even jocular. She was stating a fact of life as she saw it. She saw the slightly hurt look in his brown eyes and looked a little uncomfortable.
"...Not that Iíve got anything against -Lambs-... My father doesnít really think theyíre any different from us."
Fei felt an obscure sense of pain as they started; perhaps he may have just been hypersensitive because of his loss. And even though he didnít know in what group the word ĎLambí placed him, for some reason he had decided heíd show her just how much stamina he had.
By noon it didnít matter who had more stamina. Both young people were in peak physical health, but neither of them had eaten or drank for at least 12 hours, and the march through the forest was grueling. Heat seemed to gather around them, and though the leaves kept most of the sun off, occasionally a blazing shaft would wring moisture from their skin. Their legs ached, for the path was choked with underbrush and roots. And although the trees were not set particularly close together, their roots sent out long trailers to snag the unwary traveler.
It seemed to go on and on for miles and miles, and Fei felt his tongue thick in his mouth. His skin sweated and his clothes stuck to his back.
Then with a suddenness that surprised him, the trees opened out. It was a long valley covered with willow, their sad, beautiful leaves hanging down in the strong sun like gibbets of green babies. But between their huge gnarled roots ran a crystal stream. It was swift as a deer, clear as an evening sky, and elusive as a ghost.
Elly bent to the water and splashed her face and hair, and it suddenly struck Fei that she must be twice as hot as he was in her uniform jacket. He considered offering to carry her pack on the next march but rejected the idea; she was probably quite capable.
"Do you think itís alright to drink?Ē Fei asked, following the girlís example and slashing water over his hot skin. Elly shrugged.
"I donít care if itís safe or not, Iím going to drink it anyway."
Feiís eyebrows rose, he thought she knew what she was doing. But the soldier had evidently retired, for Elly laughed teasingly. It was a pretty sound, Fei thought, like the tinkling of silver bells.
"Itís fine, after all, itís flowing."
Suiting actions to words, she bent and scooped up a crystal shimmering droplet in her cupped hands. Once again, Fei followed her example. When they had drank their fill they lay side by side, enjoying the simple pleasure of not having to move.
"Pity we canít follow this stream,Ē Elly observed wistfully. She pulled the cracked compass out of her bag and held it up. "We need to be going south... Well, at least I do. How about you?Ē
"It doesnít matter,Ē Fei replied drowsily. That seemed to end the conversation in a warm, sunny, full stop.
"Mmm?Ē he responded dreamily.
"You really fought well last night, ever thought of joining the army?Ē
Fei came wide-awake with a shock.
"I hate fighting! I hate it!Ē His voice was thick with suppressed emotion, as he remembered shells falling in a blazing village.
"Oh... sorry." To Feiís relief, Elly had the tact to stop there.
They continued only a few minutes later. Elly lead the way with that quick, long stride that is the mark of the light infantry, in Gears or out of them. Fei followed at the hill walkerís steady lope. But as the sun swung downwards, hunger started to turn both styles of locomotion into a single-foot-shuffling hunch.
There seemed to be no end to the trees. They went on endlessly in a tangled maze of branches and brier, clawing at the twoís hair and clothing. After what seemed like another eternity, the sun started to redden the sky like a girlís blush. And then the next attack came.
The Lahan villagers had called them Hob goblins, distant relatives of the goat, with huge curving horns and yellow pelts. Unlike the mutant they were day hunters, and unlike goats, they ate meat.
Fei and Elly were crossing an open place amongst the trees, when two animals, their coats stained bloodily by the sunlight, dashed out of the trees. They charged forward, horns down and teeth gnashing, their small eyes hungry. The two young people had only one chance to leap aside just in time.
"What are they?Ē Elly asked, though why she thought Fei should know was a mystery.
"Hob goblins. Goats, sort of."
Elly nodded, satisfied with Feiís cryptic answer. Then as the snorting beast was turning for another charge, she attacked.
Her hand flickered, and there was a short metal spear in it, its tip broad bladed and sharp. As she turned to deliver a slashing chop to the creatureís neck, Fei was already moving, leaping onto the other creatureís back and slamming its head with both fists. It bucked and fell under him, but he was moving, rolling off the thingís back to land on his hands and spring up to his feet.
There was a brief sound of dead leaves being disturbed, then a whole herd of the creatures charged out of the underbrush. Fei exerted his tired body, avoiding the charge and kicking at a beast that tried to bite at him with its massive, equine teeth. But they had only time to kill three more Hobgoblins; Fei kicking one in the skull, and Elly impaling two more, before the herd turned tail and ran. Evidently, their bovine cowardice had overcome them. Elly sheathed her spears and looked speculatively at one of the creatures.
"How do they taste?Ē
"I havenít eaten them personally, but Iíve heard theyíre poisonous,Ē Fei replied, remembering one of Citanís anecdotes.
"Then weíll have to find something else, we canít go on another day without protein."
"Where are we going to find food?Ē Fei asked, though he thought someone as clearly at home in the woods as Elly ought to know.
"Down a rabbit hole?Ē she replied brightly, unsheathing a long-bladed hunting knife from her belt.
The flames crackled warmly, licking tongues of life consuming the sticks as fast as Fei could pile them on. Elly hunched over the fire, her pale skin flushed red by the heat, turning her from a proud soldier to a simple country girl bending over an open oven.
The sun had set completely while Fei fed the fire Elly had laid. He had continued thrusting small twigs into the glowing heart until the center was a nest of red heat. Elly had returned from her hunting expedition just as the fire was ready, holding a rabbit shot neatly through the back of the head, dangling from one hand.
Then with her long-bladed knife, sheíd skinned and cleaned the animal; not expertly, but well enough to show Fei that she had done it before.
"How about spit roast?Ē she had asked him calmly. Heíd nodded, glad that she was taking the lead. With a practiced thrust, she impaled the rabbit on one of her short rods. Then she removed her jacket and wrapped it around the shaft as a crude handle.
Beneath the jacket she wore a light, high-collared blouse of light blue cotton. It was even thinner than Feiís shirt, and she shivered in spite of the fire. But after a few turns of the spear, the meat began to small delicious.
"Itís not going to be very civilized, thereís only one knife between us." Ellyís tone was a little wistful, as if she missed such comforts as plates and forks.
Then Fei noticed the lump in his backpocket, so familiar that heíd almost forgotten it. He pulled out his short, multiple-bladed pen knife. It started his grief up, of course, dredging up memories of Citan and Lahan. But this time Fei was able to resist the track of his mind, and enthusiastically hacked meat off the rabbit.
It was not the most appetizingof meals. Some parts were burnt; others were so rare they were almost uncooked. But Fei and Elly had been without food for over a day now, and as such, hunger proved the best sauce.
Full and snug by their fire, they felt comfortable and at ease, drunk on creature comforts. But to his own surprise, it was Fei who broke the warm silence. During his vigil over the fire, he had fell into the trap he had avoided by the stream. He had started wondering why a soldier was wandering in Blackmoon Forest. It was a deadly question, he knew, but it had to be asked, for not knowing gave his imagination room to wander, and he didnít like the direction it was wandering in.
"Elly? How did you get here?Ē
"I walked,Ē she said flatly. Fei shied away from the question, it was clearly none of his business. There was no reason at all that her presence had anything to do with his own tragedy.Battles were going on all over the place. But Elly saw the resignation in his eyes, and laughed that silvery tinkling laugh.
"Itís no secret; not now anyway. I was supposed...!Ē Her pretty face grew sarcastic. "...To be in command of an army unit, who were supposed! ...To be capturing some kind of experimental Kislev Gear. But I got shot down yesterday evening. The rest of my unit must have gone on to complete the mission, but where they are now..." She threw up her hands, easy and relaxed.
Feiís mind started to bubble, like a pan left on an overheated stove. Grief whistled up from the depths and burst like molten lava.
"You! ...I know where they ended up!Ē
Elly was startled, and looked up in surprise as she saw the tears in his eyes. He was shouting now. Next to physical violence, it seemed the best way to release his pain; to excrete the hurt and worry in huge bursts of noise that made his throat hurt.
"You! You destroyed my home! My home!...Why did they come!?Ē
The story poured out of him, blown out of his mind like chunks of rock on a volcano. Elly sat silent, listening and judging, but as his narrative... interspersed with guilt and anger, wound down, she got to her feet.
"You canít blame the military, Fei. What happened there just happened! Itís your responsibility, not theirs. You chose to get into that Gear. No one made you!Ē Her violet eyes stared straight into his tear flecked brown ones, an official telling a recruit to chin up. "Youíre a coward! You just want to run away! You canít face up to yourself."
Anger boiled through Fei. How could this arrogant bitch tell him what to do? Why was she suddenly so wise? He had been there, not her. How could she just come along and order his feelings around like a general!? It was not! His! Fault!
Clumsily he swung a fist, trying to rid himself of his tormentor in violence, but his vision was blurred with tears and his reflexes with rage. Elly simply caught the fist in her uninjured hand, but instead of breaking his wrist or throwing him to the ground, she released him.
"Iíll go,Ē she said quietly, and with a look half sympathetic, she turned and marched out of the firelight, her red hair blazing, her body moving with robotic smoothness, leaving Fei alone with himself.
She walked straight into the dark, not looking back. But she didnít go far, only far enough to be out of earshot. She squatted down at the foot of a tree and put her head in her hands. Why had she done that? Fei was guilt ridden, certainly, but the last thing he needed was platitudes. Then she remembered her own burden of all those months ago slamming down on her. Who was she to advise Fei? Her own words rushed up her throat to stab her hard.
"Iím a coward!Ē she thought, each syllable a blade in her brain. "I canít face reality. I just run away from my responsibility." The moon, the engine of loversí emotion and cult sentiments swam into view, throwing light down on the huddled girl. A few meters away was the splash of firelight, where a grief-stricken young man lay beside a crackling fire with the bones of a dead animal scattered about him. Both of them were in misery, and either apposed to the other with bonds of their own conscience.
In the distant dark, Elly heard a thud. She raised her head, her reflexes taking over. So she saw the monster that charged out of the woods, and even had some chance to avoid it.
It was a Rankar dragon, perhaps the most voracious predator that can be found in Avehís forests. It stands about 14 feet tall, but the muscles that ripple under its green reptilian skin give it the strength of a far larger creature. It is four-legged; each foot carrying a slashing blade of hardened claw that can chip even solid rock when it has the creatureís weight behind it. Its muzzle is long and narrow, filled with curving teeth that grip, tear and grind. Above the muzzle are two malignant yellow eyes that stare down with a permanent hunger, seeking out their prey and zeroing in like laser targeting.
Elly stared into those great orbs of greed, seeing her death there. She backed off, but there was a stout stand of oaks behind her, and the bushes at their trunksí feet were tangled and impenetrable. The thing advanced slowly, opening wide its reptilian fangs, and its meaty scented breath washed over Elly in a stinking wave.
A stupid way to die, she thought... for a soldier.
But as the muzzle snapped at her, reflexes took over. She leapt for a low hanging tree branch, caught it and swung herself clear across the Rankarís head. She landed running and dashed away, her long legs pumping. But she hadnít taken the thingís tail into account. Almost absently, the long length of thick, python-like scales came for her. It struck lightning quick, and as hard as a club. She fell, stunned, with the rod she had drawn with her good hand trapped beneath her body. The Rankar turned on the helpless girl, its mouth opening to feed.
Fei sat silent after Elly had left. The night gathered around him like a great cloak of darkness, the sequins of stars and the red broach of the fire interspersing the great velvet blanket of woven trees that stretched around him.
His mind was numb with grief and self-hate. It was almost as if he were two selves, one hating,despising, and scorning, the other sitting like a silent spectator at an execution. But he was wrong, his ego was not split, because both the spectator and the hater were Fei, and this was simply a defense against the flames of guilt that tried to smother him.
In the distance he heard a rumble. Then suddenly, across the starry field above him, he saw a light and a trail of misty vapor. A gunship, swinging into the desert beyond the forest, a deadly dart from one side to the other. Feiís chest heaved, he had no side. He was just a wild beast. A few hours ago he could have claimed to be against the murderers of Lahan, but he couldnít now. It was him vs.them, and he was alone.
He didnít know what made him stand. Perhaps it was a sound in the distance, perhaps some primate reflex, warning him of some danger off in the dark. Even as his dazzled mind tried to assimilate what he was doing, he was moving, pushing aside tree and creeper, first walking, then trotting, and then running like an arrow. But why was he doing this? He couldnít out run himself. But still his body ran, speed an aphrodisiac to his sorrow sodden brain. Then he came out into a forest clearing, and he saw the answer.
The first thing his brown eyes saw was Elly, lying like the night before. Her red hair was a bumbled mass not unlike the trees themselves. The light from the torch that had somehow been held in Feiís hands was easily picking out her face with its beautiful, long lashes. In the second glance since he entered the clearing, Fei saw the Rankar. It humped over Elly, the dim light showing it up as a great dark beast with evil teeth. He knew he had no chance against such a monster. He knew that its teeth and impenetrable skin and tail would soon finish him. He knew that this unsung, heroic death in the dark would do nothing to save the unconscious girl. He knew that he could never take revenge for Lahan, for there was no revenge to take. But still he attacked.
He blurred forward, his foot coming up in a kick that slammed into the Rankarís jaw, slamming its head back. It swung its bulk from side to side, dazed for an instant. Fei used that instant, reaching down beneath Ellyís body and pulling the rod from beneath her. It was a puny weapon against such a monster, but it was a weapon nonetheless.
The creature slashedat Fei with a clawed foot, but Fei saw the motion and danced away, slashing down with his new found spear to sever one massive talon. A puny wound, but this monster wouldnít win that easily.
The Rankar bellowed as steaming blood gushed from the shattered toe. Then it charged at Fei, froth dripping from its snarling teeth as it slashed down like a fox at a rabbit.
Fei was knocked to the ground, but it was the jaw that caught him, not the fangs. He rolled aside, half a second later and he would have been bitten in half. With all his strength, he thrust at the bearded throat. But he wasnít the only one in Blackmoon Forest with quick reflexes. The monster pulled to the side, so that the steel blade only tore a strip of flesh from its shoulder instead of puncturing its jugular. It backed off, and Fei knew that with the next charge it would bite, claw and crush him into a bloody pulp. He raised his spear defiantly, growling low in his throat like a barbarian warrior preparing for battle.
But the monster didnít charge. It sat, with its head cocked to one side as if listening. Fei listened too. He heard it, the sound of crashing trees, snapping twigs, and the thump thump of feet. Another Rankar - possible. Fei stepped back and leaned against a tree, determined not to give in even if there were an army of the monsters bearing down upon him.
But the black shape was more spider than monster. It had many spindly jointed metal legs, huge articulated claws, and the light thrumming of an engine could be heard. But most wonderfully of all, the single light revealed the man sitting in the control seat, leaning forward like a motorcyclist, his long ponytail flowing behind him.
"Fei! Take this." The voice was familiar, lovably familiar, and as the Land Crab turned to deposit something on the ground, Fei recognized the driver. It was Citan.
But what he also recognized was the immense folded shape of purple metal that the Land Crabís rear claws deposited on the earth, like Santa Claus dropping a sack of presents on the rug.
It was not a denial of the Gearís existence, but of his own self.
"Look, Fei! I know you donít like it. But itís the only way, I havenít got any weapons that could take on that thing... and we canít outrun it in this."
Fei couldnít be sure, but his teacherís face seemed sympathetic. As if it had understood the part about Ďno weapons,í the Rankar began to move forward, gnashing its jaws experimentally. There was no way around it, Fei thought, he could either stand and die with Elly and Citan, or he could fight. He shrugged and ran for the Gear.
As he climbed the iron ladder between the two great gas jets, and saw the cockpit roof yawn open to receive him, a single thought flashed across his mind.
"At least there arenít as many people that could get killed here."
With a terrible feeling of deja vu, Fei powered up the Gear and stood. Even though he hated this machine for all it had brought to his life, Fei felt an obscure sense of satisfaction. Now he was equal with this murdering brute.
The Rankar saw the titanic Gear striding towards it, and for the first time, animal fear showed in its great yellow eyes. It backed off uncertain, but when it saw Fei leveling an ether gun, it leapt at him, claws spread, and they made long shrieking scratches on the Gearís dark paint work. Fei seized the monster in his two metal hands, and hurled it to the ground. In a technique he had perfected against the blue forest mutants, he jetted forward and fly kicked the fallen Rankar in the ribs with one massive metal foot. The crack of the beastís ribs was audible. It thrashed for a time, unspeakable blood dripping from its fangs, then it lay still.
Fei walked the Gear back to where Citan knelt in the light of his Land Crabís white headlight. He was looking critically at Elly, gently touching the new bruise on the side of her head.
They looked small down there, small and vulnerable, and from a distance they might have been a couple of children, huddled in the dark beneath the foot of a giant. But Fei didnít want to be a giant, not distant, unreal, or set apart from the rest of humanity. So he bent down, placing the hateful machineís hands on its metal knees, and exited the Gear.
He climbed down to find Elly looking wide-eyed, from Citan, to the Gear, to the dead Rankar dragon.
"What happened... Whoís this??Ē
Elly seemed on edge, her stern self-control ruptured by the sudden shock.
"Doc turned up with this Gear,Ē Fei said inadequately, waving at the machine. "And I killed the Rankar with it."
Citanís dark angular eyes flashed with starry amusement.
"And would you introduce me to your young companion?Ē Fei felt out of place and awkward, put on the spot being the only link between these two people.
"Oh... doc, this is Elly. I met her in the woods last night... She works for Gebler and... got... lost here." Fei stumbled into the trap of self-guilt without even realizing it, but like a Gebler soldier he didnít give up. "And Elly, this is Doctor Citan Uzuki."
The soldier and the medic stared at each other with a kind of recognition, and something in Citanís gaze made Elly flush and lower her own violet eyes to the ground.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, miss..."
"Elhaym Van Houten,Ē Elly said, smartly raising her head like a military salute.
"What happened to the people at Lahan?Ē Feiís mouth asked, but his expressive brown eyes asked a different question: ĎDo they hate me?í Citan shook his head slightly.
"I did what I could for them, and Yuiís leading them away to somewhere safe." Fei nodded, assimilating the information and the apology, though not accepting either. "We better se tup camp here. Have either of you eaten?Ē
"We caught a rabbit,Ē Elly replied in her soft accented voice. Citan frowned.
"Hardly an appetizing meal. I picked a few things up before I left. Iíll prepare something."
The rangy doctor moved to the rear of the spidery Land Crab and opened a storage compartment that Fei hadnít seen before. With surprising swiftness, he built a fire and set a few tins around it. Then he sat on a folding chair, staring into the flames with those abstracted black eyes of his.
Neither of the young people spoke while the tins cooked, nor in the meal afterwards. They ate silently, each shrouded in dark thought. Citan too, seemed uncharacteristically withdrawn and silent, but Fei didnít waste time trying to break his reserve. After all, Citan had every reason to hate him.
"If weíre going to stay the night, it may be advisable to gather some extra fuel for the fire...Please be patient, I wonít be long." Once more, Fei noticed his teacherís tact. Citan had seen that his presence made Elly uncomfortable, so he was removing himself. Fei didnít deserve such good friends.
"Fei..." The girlís voice was uncharacteristically timid.
"That Gear...Iíve never seen anything like it. I can see why Gebler wanted it so much."
"Well, they can have it, I hate it!Ē
Fei expected Elly to rush to the Gearís cockpit and fly it away to the wars at that point. After all, it would be fulfilling her mission. But to his surprise, she simply gave him a sad stare, her violet eyes deep and liquid.
"I donít think I should. Something that powerful could do real damage. I canít imagine what it could do in the wrong hands... And anyway, it belongs with you."
"Well, you got one thing right. It can do real damage. But I donít want it; itís not my responsibility. I hate Gears. I just want..." Fei stopped,what he wanted was Lahan back, this purple monster with its jets and cannons back under the ground where it came from, and himself living the same, blissfully ignorant life he had lead before.
"Look, Fei, you made a mistake in Lahan and people got hurt. Thatís not unusual. I... I... Well, anyway, if Aveh or Kislev ever gets hold of this thing itíll wipe out whole armies. Just because Iím a soldier doesnít mean I like killing. This thing could destroy cities. Imagine what it could do in the hands of a brigand!Ē
Feiís imagination... always an overactive part of his mind, started conjuring up images. He visualized the purple Gear emblazoned with the Aveh or Kislev insignia, doing to Bledavik or Dazil what it had done to Lahan. Or with bands of pirates, waylaying sand ships, stealing their cargo and leaving their passengers to die. As if by some telepathic sense of what he was thinking, Elly pressed on. She wasnít angry, just determined, and as she talked Fei began to understand how a soldier could love life.
"Alright...I suppose Iíll take it... until I can find somewhere safe to put it." Elly looked straight into his eyes with warmth and blazing respect.
"Good!Ē Abruptly her manner changed, the stern commander disappeared and the girl was left, the mission fulfilled and leave taken. "Whatís its name?Ē
"Weltall!Ē came Citanís voice from the bushes. He hiked into sight, long grass around his white trousers,with a few long saplings slung over one athletic shoulder.
"Gears have names!?Ē Fei asked wide-eyed.
Elly nodded. "It helps the pilot build up a bond and fight more effectively."
Fei walked across the grass and cast his gaze slowly over the dark mass of the war machine. Weltall was not a particularly large Gear, but it was not small. At the back were the huge cylinders of the jets, with the entry ladder running between them. Standing directly in front of the Gear, Fei could see the small slit on the dark chest that was the cockpit window. There was a cannon mounted on the chest, used for firing the huge ether bolt he had used before, and two smaller projectile weapons on the hands. But as with most Gears, it was size, bulk, fighting skill, and speed alone that won fights.
"Weltall,Ē Fei murmured, hating the name as the name of an enemy, but at the same time, half-curious. "Where do we go now, doc?Ē Fei asked. With that question, his world seemed to turn. He really had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Where would he take this colossus, and where would he rebuild his shattered life?
"Weltall was damaged. I canít quite work out whatís wrong, but itís not moving up to speed. Weíll go to a small desert town called Dazil... They know all there is to know about Gears."
Elly was gazing at the purple Gear in awe. "Not up to speed..."
"You can still have it,Ē Fei muttered hopelessly, in one last effort to dodge responsibility.
"Weltallís yours, Fei,Ē Elly said firmly, her red hair sparkling disordered and lovely in the silver moon.
"Well, I think thatís enough for one night, we have a protracted journey tomorrow."
Obediently, Fei took the rolled sleeping bag doc produced and spread it on the ground. Kicking off his shoes, he fell into its warm folds and was asleep before his head touched the grass. All the pain drained from his face in the dim firelight and he looked sweet, young, and strong, a night errant worn from travel.
Elly sat with her knees drawn up to her chin, watching the flickering flames and pondering this strange, bereaved boy that had come into her life. Citan sat in his folding chair; the firelight bouncing off of the spectacles that he had suddenly donned on a whim. His long tanned hands were folded in his lap, his fingers twirling around that red-pink sash he wore. He let the silence stretch out and form a still, dark pool in the woodland night, and then he seemed to rouse himself. He leaned forward, his strong face intent, his angular eyes narrowing to slits of concentration.
Then he spoke, but the language he used was not Ignasian. It was a strange, sibilant, and almost guttural tongue, which had peculiar cadences and musical overtones, flickering about the trees like the firelight itself. Unknown to him, it was the same language that the Gebler soldier had used at her first meeting with Fei.
Ellyís eyes widened in sudden shock. She jumped to her feet, her chestnut hair flying. "You know Solarian! ...How??Ē she asked the doctor in the same sibilant language. Citan answered in the same tongue.
"Quite obviously, I am from Solaris." He laughed slightly, and the plain lines on his face relaxed into a smile. But it evaporated almost instantly, and Fei would have recognized that guise of quick command that overcame his old friend. "Now, Lieutenant, how did you really get here?Ē
Elly lowered her eyes as if before a commanding officer. She had no idea of who this man was, but he spoke Solarian, and there was about him the aura of one in authority. "I got shot down over Lahan."
Citan nodded and relaxed a fraction. "I thought so. I didnít tell Fei, but there were several Gebler personnel in the units that attacked the village."
"He knows already... about my mission, and that Iím from Gebler, I mean."
"You said nothing about Solaris?Ē The question came quick and sharp from the doctor, startling Elly with its harsh ground overtone.
"No! Of course not." Once more Citan seemed to relax, his shoulders beneath their green covering loosing their taut posture.
"What happens now?Ē Elly asked.
Citan shrugged and looked genuinely sorry. "You must leave. Fei is extremely delicate as of yet, and I do not want him to experience too many startling revelations all at once."
Elly nodded, she had half expected it. Citan would be Feiís protector now... she was not necessary. She shook herself. Feiís protector? What was she thinking?
"Here... use it when youíre sure Fei and I are out of detection range."
Citan reached into the Land Crab and pulled out a small portable radio. Elly took it gratefully; it would be her salvation, as Citan seemed to be Feiís.
She started to walk away, not wanting to overstay her welcome, but to her surprise, Citan called her back.
"Tell me. Why did you join forces with Fei? It is most unusual to find Solarians willing to acknowledge that -Lambs- are the same species as themselves."
"My father always believed that they were... And Fei seemed, well..." Elly flapped her hands uselessly towards Feiís comatose form.
"As good a fighter as yourself?Ē Citan smiled and stood up, crushing last autumnís leaves under his boots. "Solarians often find that -Lambs- have reserves beyond even their own expectations." Citan glanced significantly into the trees, and Elly understood. But Elly lingered, longing to ask the myriad of questions that clattered in her mind. Who was Fei? Who was this Citan Uzuki? What were they doing here? But she settled on just one.
"What are you doing here... I mean youíre Solarian, and youíre not in Gebler or..."
Citan cut her fumbling deductions short with a quick gesture. "Iím looking after Fei, thatís all. Nowgo."
Obediently, the bemused soldier turned and strode into the night forest. She was used to obeying without question, but even as the firelight faded behind her, a pang caught at her throat. She hadnít had the chance to even thank Fei for saving her life...or to say goodbye.
Clong-dong, clong. The steel feet of the Land Crab hammered out a hollow, irregular rhythm on the concrete of the road. Above the beat of the legs was the high-pitched electronic whine of the motor, buzzing like some great insect in the hot morning air. Fei sat silent in the seat next to Citan, with the black leather of the upholstery creaking under his weight. He looked listlessly across the road to where the dim-shaped trees of the forest marched past like dark green mountains. The sun rose slowly in the sky, and the trees decreased, giving way to scrubby wild lands, heaths, and swamps, steaming in the rising air.
They had started before the sun, with a dim, misty haze creeping through the trees.
"Whereís Elly?" had been Feiís first question when he saw that her sleeping bag was empty and her pack gone.
"She decided to leave last night. She thought it best. I gave her my spare radio. Donít worry about her, sheís probably safely on her way to Bledavik right now." Fei had shaken his head in regret and worry.
"But sheíll die out there in the forest!"
Citan leaned back with an infuriating expression of calm in his angular face.
"Sheís got a radio. A patrol will receive her signal and pick her up extremely quickly. The military is very efficient, particularly where members of Gebler are concerned."
Despite his worries, Fei had allowed Citan to convince him. But still there was a minor hollowness in him, wondering why it was that she hadnít said goodbye.
A hot wind stung Feiís cheeks with a blizzard of tiny particles. He opened his eyes and realized that he had dozed off. The sun was high in the sky now, past noon and burning with an intense brightness. Looking around, Fei saw that the road was winding in lazy river-like coils down the side of a rocky ridge. Behind the Land Crab he saw the last few bastions of green growth disappearing fast, as Citanís machine sped away from them. Ahead and to either side, a limitless waste of sand lay powdery and flat, heaping into great dunes and drifts. Out of the sand, as if out of the sea, great rock pillars loomed; their black shadows falling far across the sandy waste with stark hardness. Fei shuddered, it all seemed so bleak and barren; like his own life.
"We better rest for a bit. Thereís still a fair distance to go before we reach Dazil."
With a quick turn of the direction wheel, Citan brought their vehicle to rest at the side of the road. The immense Gear, which Citan had held in the back claws of the Land Crab, was proceeded to be set down behind them. Fei looked at the immense purple and black shape, which had loomed over him through all that dayís travel. It seemed right at home here, in this place of harsh sand, bleak rocks and blinding sun. The sun did not make the metal gleam, but simply highlighted it with golden incandescence.
"Why do we need parts for it? It seemed to work alright."
Citan gazed at Fei with his black angular eyes.
"You only think Weltall worked alright because you havenít driven a Gear before. I noticed when you killed that Rankar that it was moving too slowly. Itís possible that the electromagnetic coils that operate the joints are a little worn, and that some power is being lost. I noticed when you got out of it that it was hot. If the joints heat up due to a displacement of current, then itís possible that the wires will melt and then you wonít be able to move it at all."
"I wish I could get rid of it." Feiís voice was wistful as his eyes ran up the towering war machine.
"Donít. A Gearís not just a tool. Gears bond to the pilotís feelings and emotions."
"Then why did it destroy Lahan?"
Citan shrugged, his face grim.
"I donít know. Itís possible that one or another of the Gears fighting there hit you with some kind of Ether weapon, which made you go berserk. But what advantage any military unit could gain from such a weapon, I do not know."
"So it wasnít my fault?" Feiís voice was eager as he tried to undo the responsibility Elly had laid on him the day before.
"Itís difficult to apportion blame that way, Fei. True, it was your decision to get into the Gear and fight, but if you hadnít, itís possible that the military would have destroyed Lahan anyway. Itís equally possible that they would have just left us in peace. You can never see all the consequences of one action before the action takes place, or after. You can only act in the way that seems best to you at the time allotted to you. Itís impossible to monitor every possibility. You can only act, and hope that your action brings good consequences. What of the man who buys his wife beautiful flowers, only to find that she is allergic to their scent? Is he to blame for her illness? No! His actions were in good faith, and only a quirk of fate made their consequences bad."
It was typical of Citan, Fei thought, to answer grief with philosophy, but he was grateful all the same.
From the storage compartment of his Land Crab, the doctor took two folding chairs, a flask of cool drinks and some packages of sandwiches. Fei recognized Yuiís home-baked bread and smiled. They sat in the shade of the Gear and ate. Then after only a short break, Citan got to his feet and dusted the windblown sand from his smart jacket.
"Time to get moving again, Fei. Weíve got to be in Dazil before nightfall."
"Hold on a minute, doc." The sandwiches had reminded Fei of something. "Where are Yui and Midori?"
"Iíve sent them somewhere safe, along with Dan and some other survivors from Lahan."
"But how will they get through the forest? ...Those mutant things."
Citan smiled at Feiís inarticulate concern.
"Theyíll be fine. Theyíre going by road and not through the forest, and mutants donít generally attack large crowds of people on the road."
Fei fell silent and climbed aboard the Land Crab. Citan got in the driving seat and raised the back claws to pick up the Gear. They started off again then, moving in a jolting rhythm across the road. The sun was dipping down behind the distant mountains by the time Feiís eyes spotted the green dot on the yellow horizon.
"Thatís Dazil. Itís built on the spring of a river, and so thereís a bit of an oasis around it. If you look over to the right..." Fei smiled; Citan was turning into a true guide. "...Youíll see an Ethos excavation in progress."
Fei looked with interest; he had always wondered about the Churchís excavations, in which priests of the Ethos would dig Gears up from out of the desert sands where they had laid buried for centuries - the products of a long dead civilization.
The black blot on the horizon beside the green splodge that was Dazil grew steadily larger. Soon Fei could make out great cranes and digging machinery, sticking out like the skeletons of prehistoric monsters. In the center of the bony cranes was a great dark pit. It looked immeasurably deep to Fei, a black mouth ready to suck him down into its murky depths. As he watched, a great blue machine was lifted from the hole; sand and mud clinging to it like the shell of a beetle. The second the blue machine was set on the desert sands, hoards of men in dark overalls started to clean it. Damp cloths and preserving agents were slapped onto the gleaming blue sides of the monster-sized machine. Standing beside the pit, Fei saw a figure in the black and red robes of a full deacon of the Ethos, his deeply colored hood thrown back and his sandy-colored hair blowing in the wind.
"Why does the Ethos excavate Gears?" Fei asked. The question had never occurred to him before, but seeing the great workings, with the hundreds of dark-clad workers made him curious. What was the reason behind all their efforts?
Citan hunched over the controls, his green jacketed shoulders tensing as he tried to navigate the Land Crab and the Gear it carried through the crowd of men and machines that spilled onto the road next to the Ethos excavation.
"I think itís something to do with the advancement of science... Does that man want to kill himself?" The man he indicated was a brawny worker, who seemed intent on being crushed under the Land Crabís metal legs. For a second Fei thought that the great metal foot would squash the man flat, but he dodged quickly out of the way and made an insulting gesture at them as they passed. "I wish the Church could employ people with brains!" Citan grumbled, as he was forced to wait while a squad of workers crossed the road in front of him.
After they had left the huge pit behind them, Fei saw that the desert land was abruptly replaced by scrubby trees and grass, which after a while gave way to a few acres of dusty farmland.
"Only the poorest people try farming in Dazil," Citan explained. He waved a green-jacketed arm at a tiny stone house set in unprosperous looking fields. "The main interest in Dazil is Gears. There are miles of caves under this desert, full of relics and Gears. When the Ethos started hiring men to work them, Dazil became a fairly major town. What they donít know about Gears in Dazil isnít worth knowing. But thereís only one place Iíd trust with a Gear like Weltall. The Ethos base. They bring in all the newly excavated Gears and Gear parts, and they donít have any nationalistic tendencies, so they arenít likely to report us to Bledavik."
Fei looked with interest on the town that they were approaching. In the three years of his memory, he had never seen or imagined such a place could exist. The streets were paved with flat gray stone, and lowering over them were many storied blocks of flats and apartments, some over 30 stories high. On the ground were shops, their windows bright with wares of all kinds. Signs in bright neon promised delights of all kinds to those who entered through the huge revolving glass doors.
The streets were full of a cross section of people. Some, like Citan, looked almost Kislevian; with bronzed skin and angular eyes. Others were more like the people of Lahan: tall, stocky and dark-haired, but with pale skin. Others had the coppery sheen of northerners.
Traffic of all kinds jostled in the roads. Cars, combustion-powered and electric. Land Crabs, some as small as Citanís, others far larger: painted in bright colors rather than the somber black of the vehicle Citan was piloting. Occasionally, Fei saw Gears, standing like sentinels outside huge metal doors. Some bore the three stripes of Avehís military, but others bore different symbols.
"Some of those Gears are military, but what are the rest, doc?"
"Rich men, merchants, battlers. Gears arenít as exclusively military as they used to be."
As if in contrast to the Gears and Land Crabs, carts pulled by donkeys jostled with the cars, surrounded by crowds of brown-clad, dark-skinned men that Citan explained lived out in the deep desert.
The Church of Dazil was impressive. In Lahan, the only contact with the Ethos was through the tiny, whitewashed village chapel, with the one old priest who had also served as the village schoolmaster. But this huge building, with its immense metal doors large enough to admit Gears, its towering steeple, and its curlicued reddish stone, was in another league. Many windows began to stab lights out into the gathering night; some were lit up to show comfortably appointed living quarters, but were quickly veiled in red velvet drapes. Other windows showed machine shops, littered with twisted pieces of Gears in the process of reassembly. Through the artistic panes of stained glass windows, Fei caught a glimpse of the sanctuary: a long, narrow room ornately worked in stone, with the high altar behind its rail. Emblazoned on the doors, and worked in stone behind the altar, was the symbol of the Ethos: the tree of knowledge, with the fruit of wisdom hanging in stylized abundance from its branches, and the flame of god resting on its branches.
As Citan moved the Land Crab up to the metal doors, still carrying in the rear claws the huge purple and black Gear, a port opened in the wall beside the doors. A man looked sourly out of the port, with oil smudged on his face and overalls.
"State your business." His voice grated like a badly tuned car engine.
"This Gear needs repairing. I think thereís a problem with the electromagnetic coils in the joints. If youíve got some replacement coils..." Even Citanís love of all things technical evaporated in the mechanicís sullen stare.
"So you want to come in and buy some new coils?"
"Yes," Citan replied, ignoring the sullen tone in the manís voice.
The mechanicís dead blue eyes ran over them like those of a Rankar inspecting two extremely fat and unwary forest travelers.
"And I suppose you expect me to put the new coils in for you?"
Citan gave the brilliant smile that Fei recognized as the ĎIím going to do some tinkeringí look.
"Oh no, just give us the coils, and lend us some tools and a bit of space and weíll be fine."
The mechanicís overworked face broke into a broad grin.
"Thatís fine. Just donít ask me to help. Weíve just excavated three new Gears, which need cleaning up, and thereís five more in for maintenance. The Deacons can harp on all they like about the Ethos doing godís work, but in the end, itís poor buggers like me that do the real work."
The two great doors pulled apart with a hiss of hydraulics, and Fei saw that behind them was the machine shop. Nine Gears stood around the walls, surrounded by scaffolding. Three of them were half-covered in sand and mud, and they were being probed and looked over by a number of men in overalls. The other six stood with their chest cavities open like the living dead, and Fei was able to see the silver gleam of metal inside them.
The unsavory-looking mechanic who had greeted them stood just inside the door, waving them in. He pointed to an unoccupied place up on the far side of the vast room where the scaffolding was already in place. Nodding, Citan drove the Land Crab across the floor until he was able to place the purple and black Gear behind the scaffolding. With a silent nod, the mechanic turned and strolled away to look at one of the newly excavated Gears.
Fei looked up just in time to see the huge doors close. Now the only source of illumination was the electric bulbs, which hung from the high roof of the room and gave it the look of an outdoor amphitheater under a starry sky. Between the huge sets of scaffolding were roughly-made wooden workbenches, heaped with tools and spare parts. In the center of the room was a huge smelting furnace for the reforming of Gear parts.
"Fei, I need you to move Weltall for me."
Fei nodded, he supposed that the Gear needed to be put in the right position before it could be mended. Even though he knew that he would be fighting nobody, Fei hesitated before climbing the ladder set between the two great black jets that lead to the cockpit. He looked around the cockpit when he got there; the padded hand and foot controls for the Gear, the array of switches and buttons, and the reinforced steel of the walls. All were things of war, which he hated. Citanís voice came faintly to him through the Perspex glass of the window. Fei could just about make him out, a green and white figure gesticulating on the ground far below.
"Stand! Up! Put! The! Arms! On top! Of! The! Rest!"
Obediently, Fei activated the Gear and stood, slowly and carefully. He raised both arms and brought them down gently on top of the metal rests. Then he deactivated the Gear and opened the cockpit. He got out, and was able to climb across the scaffolding and join Citan, who had climbed up while Fei was moving the Gear. He was standing on a wide metal platform, littered with tools and pieces of metal as if mimicking the great machine shop in which it stood. The purple and black head and shoulders of the Gear protruded over the edge, looking large and ungainly. The light was brighter here, closer to the roof, and in the glow of the thousands of bulbs, the Gearís Perspex window of a face looked somehow unnatural and out of place.
"Letís see if I was right about the coils," muttered Citan, picking up a tool like a cross between a wrench and a screwdriver. He walked purposefully over to where one gigantic purple and black arm was resting on the platform. With neat deftness, he started to lever off the plates of purple and black armor from the massive elbow joint.
Fei strolled over to look. Though the maze of rods and wires was all a mystery to him, he did notice one thing; whereas the open circuits of all the other Gears had been a steely gray silver, those inside this Gear were a plain, solid black. With the minuteness of a general inspecting the enemy army, Citan slowly examined the maze of black metal.
"I thought so, the coilís badly damaged and the insulationís melting. Pass me those wire cutters, will you Fei?" This was the way it had always been, thought Fei, the doctor peering into some machine, and Fei passing him things. But he didnít mind, for Citan was one of those unusual men who could talk even while his hands were busy. With two flashes of the wire cutters, Fei saw a small black piece of machinery fall onto the platform. He picked it up. It was a small iron rod encased in coiled wire. As Citan had said, one of the ends of the wire was twisted as if melted. "Weíll have to go and see if the Ethos have any replacements for that." Citanís voice was intense, as it always was when he talked of machines. It was a long, precipitous climb down the ladder-like stairs that lead down from the platform, and even the muscular doctor was puffing by the end. They stood and looked for the mechanic. But then they heard his gravelly voice resounding from beside one of the semi-repaired Gears.
"You idiot! Call yourself a mechanic. Because of you, we... we gotta replace the whole damn engine!" They crossed to the corner to find the mechanic haranguing a scared-looking youth with a cloud of almost girlishly curly hair. With the relieved smile of a man who was looking for intelligent conversation, he turned to Citan. "Find the trouble with your Gear?" Citan nodded and held out the coil for the mechanicís inspection. "Yes, overheated alright, surprised it didnít burn out completely." Abruptly he turned to the youth, who remained gawking at Citan and Fei. "Get lost! Not a cent for you until the engineís fixed!" As the youth scurried off, he turned back to Citan with an apologetic smile. "New lad. Put too much power through a main motor and blew it."
"Have you got any replacement coils like this?" Citan asked. "I can install them myself if youíve got some." The mechanic looked more closely at the coil in Citanís hand, then shook his head.
"Sorry mister, but we ainít got no black ones like that. Looks like it may be a new model."
Citanís face fell.
"Any idea where I could get one?"
Fei looked towards the huge smelting furnace in the center of the great machine shop.
"Couldnít we just make new ones, doc?" Citan and the mechanic both turned to Fei; Citanís angular eyes understanding, the mechanicís blue ones indifferent.
"Unfortunately no, this coil must have two opposing magnets exactly aligned to create the correct field. Polarizing new magnets would be extremely expensive, and time consuming."
"And anyway," put in the mechanic, anxious not to be outdone on technical knowledge, "this black oneís a different alloy to most others. The only place youíll find a replacement for this is the military. We only fix civvy Gears here, and we donít get all the new parts that the military makes."
"Are there any bribable military personnel in Dazil? Not that youíd know, of course!" Citan stitched the sly, secret grin of a smuggler on his face, and Fei saw that it was mirrored on the mechanicís granite-like features. But then the great blue eyes showed disappointment.
"Used to be, but not anymore. Damn fool got too close to a Kislev Ether blast. New manís a stuck up bastard who wouldnít give water to a dying man if it were against orders. But Iíll tell you one thing..." The mechanicís gruff voice dropped to a whisper. "There are plenty of almost intact military Gears lying around the Kislev border. Since Shakhan declared an out and out assault, itís easy to pick up old Gear parts out there."
Citanís face creased into a thoughtful smile. He pulled a leather wallet from one pocket and handed the man some notes.
"If you could refuel the Gear and the Land Crab by tomorrow..."
The mechanic grinned.
"Iíll get on it. Just donít ask me to fix them."
Citanís face showed the kind of shock that it might have shown if the mechanic had asked him to jump off a cliff.
"Of course not, youíre obviously so taken up with all these." He waved a hand at the half-repaired war machines. "Thank you very much, and have a good evening."
Citan turned and strode away, looking like a sergeant whoíd just received a dangerous mission. Fei trotted behind him, the mass of light bulbs winking in his dark hair. When they got outside, Citan turned to Fei.
"Nice man, that mechanic. It shouldnít be too difficult to pick up some coils from a damaged Gear, but Iím worried about appearances. That Land Crab is a military model, but as well as that, weíll need uniforms."
"Where do we get uniforms, doc?" Fei asked, as Citan started to walk briskly down the darkening street. Fei walked beside him, feeling out of his depth.
"There are a lot of black-marketers in Dazil if you know where to look, itís the crime capital of Aveh."
Fei felt a little dubious about stepping outside the law, but then again, hadnít he already broken the law? For destroying your home is surely a crime. Having nowhere else to go, he followed Citan.
Dazil was a large town, with rich people and poor people. The Church stood in the best quarter of the city, surrounded by the apartments and neon-filtering shops of the very rich, or the very crooked. But as they walked, the buildings became smaller, less opulent and more run down. A few miles from the Church, garbage started to litter the streets, windows were often broken, and here and there Fei saw groups of ragged men and women huddled around trash fires. The shops here were small, ill-lit venues, with the pungent aroma of spices or roasting meat coming from within. Several of them had pretty girls sitting in the window, and a scent of perfume wafting from them. Fei did not want to think of what was sold there, and hoped that Citan, in his search for criminals, was not going to go into one of them.
But then Citan stopped; it was outside a pleasant-looking, if rustic shop, with an ornate curtain of beads hanging down over the door. The dayís heat had dissipated and a gentle night breeze swam up the street and rustled the beads. Pushing through them, Fei saw a cluttered room, lit with a single electric lamp. Rolls of south Aveh silk and half-made clothes cluttered shelves and hooks on the wall. The floor was covered with a number of colorful rugs, highly woven and beautifully made.
In one corner behind a wooden counter, sat a dark-skinned woman in her early thirties. She was dressed in a pretty but serviceable dress of soft gray, and on her lap rested a guitar-like instrument with three sets of strings. The woman drew her hands across it and produced a twanging, harsh music in a peculiar key that made Fei think of miles of burning sand, and caravans of laden camels.
As soon as they entered, the woman put down her instrument and stood facing them with the crafty, probing look of a boxer looking for an opening.
"Can I help you? Would you two gentlemen be interested in one of my carpets?" She nudged one of the bright floor rugs with her foot and glanced over to a huge stack of rugs against one wall. "They are all hand-woven of the finest materials in the traditional style of Dazil."
Seeing that her words made no impression she tried another tactic, staring straight at Fei.
"Or would you be interested in something for a special young lady?" With her eyes still boring into Fei, she opened a cupboard and produced an ornate gown of blue satin; all lacy frills and flounced sleeves. Fei stared at the dress with pain in his eyes; for apart from the color, it almost exactly resembled Aliceís wedding dress, which he had last seen draped around a smiling girl in a comfortable village room. Seeing that she had found a weak spot, the saleswoman stared more intently at Fei, her face showing motherly concern for a young man in love. "Now what color hair does she have? And how tall is she?" Fei felt confused, drowned in grief by the sight of the dress.
"Your young lady, of course!"
Feiís confusion deepened, what was this woman talking about? Then, before his eyes, span the image of a beautiful soldier-girl in the depths of the woods.
"Reddish brown hair and about this tall..." He displayed one hand at his shoulder height. The woman smiled.
"Then how about this?" The dress she showed him was of green velvet, light and soft. It was simple, having none of the lace or pleats of the blue dress. With it, the woman took a small chain of plain silver. "Wouldnít she look lovely in this?" Fei was just about to agree when Citan cut him short with a loud throat clearing.
"Unfortunately, we are not here to discuss Feiís womanizing. We are here to acquire Aveh army uniforms."
Fei felt a flood of shame sweep through him. His special lady, Elly? It was unthinkable; however had he let this smooth-talking saleswoman talk him into it? How could he possibly even dream of falling in love with a girl he had met once, and once only? Firmly, Fei banished Elly to the very back of his mind; next to images of a burning village, and a half-remembered half sight of a man in black. "Uniforms? Are you scavengers?"
"Scavengers?" asked Fei, now in control of himself. The look on the womanís face was anything but motherly.
"People who go out into the desert and rip things off damaged Gears."
"Perhaps. But only just a little," muttered Citan; a little annoyed, Fei guessed, that he had been reduced to little more than a pirate.
"Iím afraid I only have one. I used to sell a fair few, but theyíre very difficult to get hold of, now that Shakhanís having a crackdown on military supplies." From beneath the counter, the woman brought out boots of sturdy black leather, and a belt of the same substances, hung with pistols and ammunition. She brought out a jacket and trousers of dark green cotton, emblazoned with flashes of red at the shoulders and chest, with badges sewn into the jacket. A bandoleer holding a large heavy rifle, and a helmet of dark green metal completed the outfit.
"Canít you get hold of another one? Or make one?" Citan asked. The woman shook her head.
"You canít get another uniform anywhere else that I know of, and as for making one... Well, I suppose I could make a jacket and pants, but I couldnít make the badges, or the belts, boots and helmet. Without those, youíd be recognized for certain. All Aveh troops fight in full battle dress."
Citanís face showed that he hadnít been expecting this, but his hesitation was only momentary.
"Well, give me that uniform anyway." The woman started to wrap the outfit in coarse brown cloth.
"Make sure they donít catch you with it." Her tone was an urgent warning. "The penalty for unauthorized appropriation of military goods is three months inside; my husbandís in there now."
"Iím sorry," muttered Fei, trying to show as much sympathy as was due to a woman with an incarcerated husband.
"Oh, donít worry; itís not his first time and heíll be out next week." She flashed Fei a dazzling smile, a real smile on a face that had smiled so many fake ones. "Thatíll be 100 Galrays." Without showing the slightest change of expression at the high price, Citan produced a black leather wallet and took out five green 25 G-notes. "Thank you, sir." The womanís face fairly glowed with surprise, as Citan picked up the bundle and turned to leave.
"Doc?" asked Fei, as they made their way up a darkened street, lit only by the fitful glow of electric or sometimes gas lamps in the windows of the main houses. "Why did you give that woman all that money?"
Citan stopped in his tracks and turned to Fei.
"Three reasons, mainly. First, sheís poor, and she needs it. Those 25 Gís will pay her food and rent for the next week. Secondly, thereís a lot of extortion that goes on in these places, and that womanís a prime target. Third..." He leaned forward, a look of sadness on his lined face. "She never told you what happens to those who deal in stolen goods, did she?" His angular eyes took on a distant look, as if viewing a bloody battle through a telescope. "Shakhan has them executed. That womanís putting her life on the line to sell things like this." He hefted the brown bundle in his arms.
Fei nodded silently; when Citan put it like that, the money did seem better off with her. He felt greedy and selfish; a cruel miser and a coward. A wave of self-hatred swam over him, so it was with numb and heavy steps that he followed Citan back towards the Ethos base.
All was quiet when they got there, for it was growing extremely dark and late. A sleepy-eyed night watchman let them in, and they crossed over to where the Land Crab and Gear had been left. The work platform had been taken down from around Weltall, and it stood next to the semi-repaired Gears like one healthy man in a hospital full of sick men, squatting down in the landing position.
"Figured youíd be back!" The gruff voice of the mechanic boomed out of the darkness, and he came into view, with a security guardís torch held rigid in his hand.
"Whatíre you doing here?" Feiís voice came out almost as a squeak; the last thing heíd expected was to find the mechanic still lurking around the machine shop.
"Always make a last check of the place. Lucky you came now and no later, could have been locked out." The blue eyes strayed to the brown bundle in Citanís arms. "Got the uniform, then. Good."
"Is there anywhere I can change into it?" Citanís voice was calm and controlled as always. The mechanic nodded.
"You can use my office, but wouldnít you rather wait until morning?" Citan shook his head abruptly; the light of the mechanicís torch showing up the pinkish red sash like a stain of blood.
"No. Iíd rather start now."
The mechanic led the way to a door set in one wall of the cavernous machine shop. With a bow of thanks, Citan entered. He was out again less than half a minute later. He looked strange and noble in the flat green helmet and the green combat gear, with the rifle slung at his back and a belt stocked full of ammunition. He walked over to Fei and the mechanic, and there was something different in his step; it was almost as if he marched towards them in his large black boots, his clothes slung over one arm.
"What about your friend?" The mechanicís voice held a hint of trepidation, as if he were objecting to Citan going alone.
"They only had one uniform, Iíll have to go alone. Fei, take this." From the back pocket of his uniform, Citan took out the black wallet and tossed it to Fei, who caught it nimbly. "Iíll meet you beside that Ethos excavation site at noon tomorrow. Iím sure youíll find a place to stay tonight. Till tomorrow, Fei."
Citan leapt into the Land Crab, and the mechanic rushed to open the doors. Seizing Weltall in his claws, Citan moved the Land Crab to the doors, which the mechanic quickly opened. And then he was gone, away into the night with a hiss of power and a clank of metal limbs.
Elhaym Van Houten, Second Element of Gebler, Jugend graduate, and a competent soldier of the Solaris military, had never thought she could be in so much trouble. Gritting her teeth, she tightened the makeshift tourniquet around her leg, and hoped that the damp leather of the belt would not give her an infection. How right Fei had been when he had offered his services as a traveling companion.
When she had strutted away from the fire only a few hours before, she had been confident that she could survive long enough, even with a wounded arm, for somebody to receive her radio call and send help. But she had only been walking for perhaps an hour when the trouble started.
More of those blue mutant things had sprang out of the night, their teeth bared as if sensing that their victim was already wounded. She had killed two almost instantaneously with quick slashes of one of her rods, but the blade had become lodged in the ribs of her second victim. That had allowed enough time for the third to slash down with its teeth, tearing a long strip of flesh from her left thigh. She had been forced to kill the creature with the rod in her wounded arm, which had reopened the cuts and soaked Feiís bandage in blood. Then had followed a painful couple of hours of self-treatment with the small amount of stores in her medical kit. She had cut a strip of cloth from her jacket, and with this, her broad leather belt and a stick, had made the tourniquet. Then she had removed the bandage Fei had put on her arm the previous night, and replaced it with a fresh, but more inexpertly tied one.
She shivered and huddled closer to the tree, wishing she had asked the doctor for the loan of one of his sleeping bags. She thought about the man with almost Kislevian features. He had spoken Solarian, which would indicate he was from Solaris, but who was he? She racked her brains, recalling all the listings of Solarian secret agents and their postings, and could find none to match his description. And if he was a Solarian agent, who was Fei? But that was just a nagging question she had, one that was decidedly unimportant at the moment. She had to be rescued or she knew she would die in this forest; maybe not tonight or even the next night, but the night after that... She picked up the radio and turned to the usual frequency; her voice was not at all desperate, but crisp and clear as she spoke into the small microphone.
"S... O... S. This is Elhaym Van Houten, 4873261. I am wounded and in need of help. S... O... S!"
But it was no good; there was no friendly voice crackling in response. After a minute, she put down the radio. The forest gathered around her, rustlings and whistling floating to her in the dark. The moon had fallen into a blanket of clouds, and only a few stars shone their light down in a message of hope to the wounded girl. At her back she could feel the tree, solid and comforting in this world of night shadows, and beneath her was a soft carpet of dead leaves that at least made sitting still comfortable. She briefly considered turning around and trying to find the encampment, but the Solarian had ordered her to return to Gebler; and anyway, she could never make it back there with her leg in this state.
If she did return, what would Fei do? Would he be shocked at her injuries? Probably not. After all, she had been cruel about his village. She winced, not from the pain of her wound, but from thinking about how she had been so heartless. Thatís what he needs, a nastier part of her mind told her, a good shaking up to stop his self-pity. But Elly remembered her own Ďaccidentí, and her feelings afterwards; how many times worse would she have felt if it had been her home that was destroyed? That set her mind racing, remembering the pleasant marble house in Solarisí first class district, with her father, stern and smart, leaving for work in the dim light of morning, and her mother, elegant and dark-haired, indulging her appearance. That had been a day she remembered: the day she had first decided to join the military.
The sun had sparkled in diamond brightness in the waters of the fountains; its light soft and golden through the crystal dome of Solaris. A troop of Special Forces soldiers were doing a display in the plaza, and her land dweller nanny had taken her to see them. She had stood, holding tight to her nannyís hand, marveling as the young men and women in their dazzling white uniforms had fired their pistols in the air, with the sunlight glinting from their badges and gold braid. Two of them had even performed a mock fight, clashing their blunted swords together to produce an exciting ring of steel. She had gazed at them with her violet eyes glistening in pride, as an announcerís voice had bombed compliments on the bravery of the cityís veterans, subduing the barbarism of the -Lambs-. Little had she known then, before the long hard years of training, honing her body and mind to an almost superhuman pitch, that it would all end here; bleeding in the dirt in the center of a mighty forest.
She thought of Fei again; his serious tanned face, his awkward apologetic manner. She had not even said goodbye or thank you to him.
Warily, she stretched out her good arm and twiddled the radioís knob. As she spoke her bored message, she saw a graying in the darkness; dawn was coming. She had not expected any answer, but almost as soon as she had taken her finger from the transmission button, a voice crackled back. It was a crisp army voice, breaking off its words like biscuits.
"Transmission received, rescue vessel is being diverted. Please continue transmission to identify position."
Almost crying, Elly babbled into the microphone: timetables, scraps of history, anything to keep talking; a constant flurry of words to guide her rescuers to her.
She wasnít kept waiting long. Only a few minutes later, a Land Crab clanked out of the forest; a huge 10-person carrier, its cab a covered dome on top of the stumpy legs. A door hissed open, and a huge man climbed out. He was dressed in simple black overalls, through which his muscles bulged. His skin was the color of boiled lobsters; and from his head a mane of blood-colored hair sprouted, curving down around his harsh face and forming a great bush of a beard.
"Yep, itís me. What the hell are you doing here?" His voice made the grind of concrete blocks sound like flutes and harps, but right then Elly could have kissed him.
"I was shot down by Kislev."
The red face registered surprise.
"Shot down? You!?"
Elly nodded. The Aveh Gear Shakhan had forced her to borrow had not nearly had the speed or strength of her own Solarian model, and that fact still rankled her.
"That how you got yourself beat up?"
"No, I escaped the crash fine. Mutants did this."
With surprising gentleness, the big soldier lifted Elly as though she had been a child, and hoisted her through the Land Crabís hatch. He laid her gently across two of the seats, and then sat down in the seat next to the driver. Besides Elly and Renk, there were five others in the Land Crab. The driver was a small, slight man, with pale skin and hair of an odd light blue color. Beside the driver sat a grossly fat, pot-bellied dwarf of a man, with a broad chubby face. Behind them were three more normal-looking figures, all well built and muscular, but no older than Elly herself.
"You look a mess." It was one of the three soldiers who had spoken.
"I know Vance, but itís only flesh wounds."
Renk looked down on her with a fond smile.
"Sheíll be fine. How far to this village place, Helmholz?"
The blue-haired driver looked around from his controls, the light from the window in front of him catching his oddly shaded locks.
"Not far, another half hour Iíd guess."
"What village?" Elly asked nervously. Another of the soldiers leaned over the seat to answer her question.
"Seems there was this Gear fight in this village. With that unit you were commanding, in fact. First we thought Kislev had killed them and then destroyed the village, but that wasnít it. You see, not only our guys, but the Kislev troops died as well; and that experimental Gear was gone. Weíre supposed to go check the site for debris, talk to survivors... that kind of thing."
Elly shuddered, as a realization as sharp as the mutantís teeth stabbed through her; they were on their way to Feiís village.
"Nothing. Just a little cold."
The soldier pulled a khaki blanket from the back of his seat and draped it over Elly.
"Donít mention it."
Elly stayed in the Land Crab while her unit combed the wreckage, but from its windows she saw enough. The buildings were not just destroyed, they were broken, crushed and twisted; broken glass and powdered bricks lining the floors like gray snow. If there had been survivors, they were gone now. The debris seemed to crawl in the sunlight; a deceased light like a shower of golden blood, only making the desolation sharper. There were no bodies, only smears of red on the bricks; but at the outskirts of the broken town were a few hills of newly turned earth where they were buried. Only now did Elly realize how distraught Fei must have been and how heartless her words were; this was far more destructive than her own accident.
Like a hound coming to the scent of meat, the memory rose to her consciousness, bitter and sharp. It had been her first major battle and she had wanted to do so well. She remembered the needles; six of them, each loaded with combat-enhancing drugs that she had plunged into her naked arm. Then there had been the fight, Ether power spilling from her white Gear in all directions; friend and foe alike burning and dying in the rain of destruction from her Gear. She turned her face away from the battered homes, and tears filled her eyes.
* * * * *
Elly stared around the small whitewashed cubicle that she had been assigned to in the Bledavik barracks. She lay on the white sheets listlessly, irritated at the delay. A fussy Aveh medic had examined her cuts and had told her huffily that she should attempt nothing strenuous for at least four weeks. She hated idleness; and her hate was not at its least when there was a war to fight.
Suddenly the door opened and two figures strode through, dressed in the dazzling white uniforms of Solaris command. One was a man, tall and strongly built, with rakishly handsome features and a pile of loose blond hair. His eyes were a gleaming forest green, like tree shadow. The other was a slight woman with a commanding aristocratic face. The hair that spilled to her shoulders was a cascade of sapphire, and the calm, timeless eyes were of the same unearthly blue. The man strode forward and glanced over her. His movements were abrupt and cool, militaristic and efficient.
"Commander Ramsus." Elly was surprised, why should the highest-ranking officer outside Solaris trouble with one injured soldier? But she was soon to find out.
Ramsus impatiently ushered his companion forward. The woman bent over Elly, one white hand probing at her cut arm, another at her damaged leg. Then suddenly, she laid one hand across each wound with a soft motherly care. Elly felt power flowing from those hands, and she raised her eyes to look into those of the woman. Something flickered in the sapphire depths, and Elly felt warmth spread over her like a child that is held in its motherís warm embrace.
"Well, Miang?" Ramsusí voice was abrupt, breaking the spell with officious brutality.
"She will be fully healed in five days."
Elly hid her surprise; she was Solarian and had been told of the marvels that could be performed using Ether power. But Ramsus seemed dissatisfied, his rugged features darkening to a scowl.
"Five days! I need her in two. That idiot of a dictator is sending her unit after some bandits and she needs to be there."
"I have told you before, Kahr, that healing of this nature takes time. All I have done is speed up the process, but that will require a great deal of energy. In two days, if she fights, she will die." Miangís sapphire eyes tilted in what may have been a coquettish smile. "Anyway, I can not imagine Gebler being bested by bandits, even without Elhaym."
Ramsus was mollified, but barely.
"Well, I suppose it canít be helped. As you say, theyíre only bandits." With sudden violence he slammed a fist into the wooden door. "What does Shakhan think heís doing, sending Gebler after pirates!?"
Miang looked straight at him silently, and he was calm. With a formal gesture to Elly, and a last sigh at the stupidity of Avehís leader, he left.
Elly had hardly relaxed to let Miangís healing work when the huge figure of Renk shouldered its way through the door. Like a shaggy dog he plopped himself down on the floor beside her bed, faithful and trustworthy.
"I read your report on what happened."
"Mmmmm," Elly replied drowsily, for as Miang had said, her energy levels were dropping. Renk looked straight at her, his big lionís face worried.
"I think you left something out."
She sat up quickly, and then gasped at the sudden pain.
"Donít panic. If you want to keep it a secret, thatís fine with me... but I would like to know what happened."
"Does anyone else know I left something out?" Ellyís voice was a frightened whisper.
Renk shook his shaggy head.
"No, just me."
Elly took a deep breath. She knew that she could trust Renk, and the matter of her harsh words to Fei still weighed upon her mind. So she told him, simply holding nothing back. After a few short sentences she fell silent and looked slowly at Renk.
"Iím glad you gave this Fei such good advice."
"But I didnít... I..." Suddenly she was almost crying. "I called him a coward."
"And if he canít take the rap for what he did, then he is. Just like I told you after that Gear accident." Elly dried her eyes on a corner of the sheet and looked soulfully at Renk. He had always been a good friend, helping his young commanding officer along in the days of her inexperience.
"What do you think I should do?" It was a request for Renkís judgment, and they both knew it.
"I think," he growled, leaning forward, "that you and me should go and find this Fei as soon as we get the chance."
"Because," his voice became slow, "you have a crush on him."
Ellyís pale face went as scarlet as Renkís.
"I! Have! Not!"
"Oh yes, you have!"
As he left the room, chuckling at what Elly hoped was a joke, she leaned back on the pillow; thinking of the strange, tragic boy that had entered her life, and wondering if Renk was right.
Fei tossed and turned on his rented hotel bed. Shadows seemed to flicker around him from the cheap wooden furniture, flashing into his brain in rays of dark fear. He had said goodnight to the mechanic in the lobby of the cheap hotel he had been led to beneath the plastic palms and yellow wicker lampshades. The mechanic, to Feiís relief, had not asked Fei to dinner or to drink with him. Fei didnít feel the least bit social this evening and he was glad to slip upstairs to his shabby hotel room.
But he couldnít sleep, even though he was bone tired and heavy-eyed. The mechanicís parting words had drifted across Feiís brain like dark birds in a threatening sky. His blue eyes had flickered with respect as he spoke; standing beside the potted palm and marble pillar, he almost resembled some long dead desert hero with his tanned skin and muscular arms.
"That doctor of yours, heís a brave man. You aní íim must want those parts pretty bad for íim to go chasing out into a war zone for íem."
A vision swam across Feiís consciousness, that of Citanís Land Crab being fired upon by immense dark Gears. The metal legs crumpled in the heat of their Ether weapons, and the armor-plated sides wept molten metal like tears for the murdered driver.
Fei knew if Citan died, heíd be alone, in a strange and bewildering city of riches and poverty; with no way of escaping the grief that stalked his preconscious like a hungry wolf. With sudden resolution he stood up. Turning on the light, he packed his few belongings and exited the hotel room. The door swung closed behind him with a soft click, locking him out alone. He walked purposefully down the long corridor and down the stairs. Then he stalked out into the night, ignoring the curious glances of the hotel staff.
The hotelís lights receded behind him, and soon he was in darkness, with only the fleeting white headlights of the occasional car to pierce the gloom. How could he find Citan in all this darkness? He needed a vehicle, and then he needed an idea of which way the border was. As if sent by the gods, a neon sign in flickering red caught his eye: ĎSand bikes for hire!í
Like an armed and launched missile he homed in on his target, and shouldered his way through the glass door into the well-lit interior. It was a long, narrow room, with one or two small brown sand bikes lined up against the wall like horses at a fair. Feiís booted feet clanged on the hard floor as he walked slowly through the ranks of machines towards a counter. But there was no one in sight, only a dim door behind the counter that mustíve led to a back room.
"Is anyone here?" Feiís shout was immediately answered by a voice that made the gritty tones of the mechanic sound like a choirboy.
"Hang on a minute." There was a deluge of clattering and banging from inside the back room, and then a figure strode out, wiping oily hands on a cloth.
Fei couldnít help staring. The manís clothes were normal enough, a threadbare brown trench coat falling to the floor; but the man himself certainly was not. The skin of his hands and face was a glutinous pink, hairless and as smooth as metal. Each hand was far larger than normal, with four squat projections that might have been fingers if they had nails. The mouth and nose protruded into a large porcine snout, with two tiny eyes glued in each side. Above the eyes, the head was hairless, rising to a glistening pink dome.
"Whatíre you stariní at? Ainít you seen a D.H. before?"
"D.H?" asked Fei innocently.
The already sullen eyes flared with anger.
"Demi-human. You norms are all the same, donít care about anyone who looks different."
Fei was speechless; he had never heard of demi-humans, but now it seemed he had made an enemy. If it hadnít been for Citanís plight, he might have turned and ran for it then and there, but he had to get a sand bike.
"Well, what do you want?"
Fei realized he had let the silence lag on too long, and without thinking he spoke.
"A bike thatíll get me to the Kislev border."
The porcine eyes flared with even more anger.
"Well, you wonít get one. If youíre defecting, you can walk!"
"Oh..." Fei tried to put as much boyish innocence into his voice and face as possible. "Iím not going over to Kislev. Iím just meeting a friend there." An earth-shaking scowl from the creature before him showed Fei he had said the wrong thing.
"Then youíre a spy! Get out before I report you!"
"I..." Fei began, but he was cut off by a low animal growl.
Fei tried again one last time.
"I just want..."
"Get! Out!!" The creature ducked behind the counter, and a heavy metal engine part whistled past Feiís head to land with a clang on the floor.
Accepting defeat, Fei turned and walked dejectedly from the shop. When he was out of sight from the glass doors, he stopped to consider his problem. What he needed was a bike, but where could he get one? Distractedly, he ran his eyes over the three or four sand bikes lined up outside the shop; each of them secured with an iron chain and padlock. He shuddered with the thought of trying to steal one. But what else could he do? It was a matter of life and death; he could leave some money and return it later. With that thought, he stood up and weaseled his way through the shadows to the bike furthest from the doors.
Fei was not a total novice at unlocking cycle chains. On three separate occasions, Chief Lee, Timothy and Dan had lost the keys to their bike chains, and Fei had been called in to unlock them. But what could he unlock the chains with? He screwed his mind into a short knot, then he recalled the feeling of cold steel in his back pocket; a feeling that was so familiar he forgot it except at times of great need. Trying to think about the task, and not about Lahan, Fei reached into his back pocket and produced the multiple-bladed army knife that Citan had given him two years ago. It was a useful gadget, with several blades, a tin opener, a bottle opener and a screwdriver, in addition to several strange pieces of metal that Fei had never found a use for.
He remembered unwrapping the box in Yuiís warm kitchen, with a beaming Citan standing by. Then he had gone back to Chief Leeís house for his boisterous party and Aliceís birthday kiss.
He tore his mind back to the present, ignoring the iron tongs of grief that bit at him. With slow, stealthy movements, he slipped the screwdriver into the lock and started to twist it. After five minutes or so of quiet whittling, the lock gave a satisfying click, and Fei was able to ease the chain from around the front wheel and lower it gently to the ground. Then, hardly daring to breathe, he slipped one foot over the saddle and kicked the starter. If the engine had stuttered, or failed to start, Fei knew that the huge pink creature would be out, pummeling him to pulp with its misshapen hands. But he was lucky: the motor started with a roar, and then he was away; maneuvering through the parked bikes, across the road and into the powdery sand of the desert. From behind him came a strangled scream.
"Niiiaaaaaghh!!!" But nothing else came; the scream fell away like the red neon sign of the shop, speedily diminishing behind him.
There was no moon, but the night was clear and the stars beamed down with winks and glimmers of hope. Fei rode on for a few minutes, but there was no pursuit following him; all the desert was still and silent in its sandy sleep.
Beside a twisted pillar of rock, he stopped and got off the bike. The first part of his problem was over; he had a bike; but where was the Kislev border? He leaned heavily on his metal steed, trying to remember the great map of Aveh, which had hung in Chief Leeís dining room. But it was useless; maps were one thing, but it was different out here under the stars, with powdery sand running beneath his boots. He fell into despair, visualizing himself riding out into the desert until the bike ran out of gas, and then he would die in the dreadful heat of the sun.
But suddenly he realized the metal under his hand was not smooth. He ran his fingers along the bikeís flank more carefully and found a small metal switch, lurking at the rear like a tiny insect. He pressed it, and with a hiss of compressed air, a compartment at the rear of the bike opened. Fei reached inside and found a wealth of boxes and bundles, which, he supposed, was the survival kit provided with the bike. More to the point, he found a roll of paper, a metallic torch and a square case that felt like a compass. With trembling fingers he spread the map on the sand and examined it in the beam of his flashlight.
He remembered Elly, and wondered where she was. In Bledavik, he supposed, or still wandering lost and alone in the darkness of the forest. Was her flashlight still working? He shook his head to get rid of the memory and bent over the map.
The border, he saw, was marked with a thick black pencil line, about 50 miles north of Dazil; but about 20 miles to the west was a line in red, scored with the ominous message: ĎWar zone.í That was where Citan would be. He pulled out the compass and checked his direction, feeling as professional as he imagined Elly to be. Then he climbed back onto his bike and rode away.
Sand bikes are not the most complicated of vehicles, having only an accelerator, brake, starter and ignition switch. They are usually painted a brownish gold to match the sand, and their tires are wide and black, made of a soft rubber that glides across the loosest sand. Where a man toils heavily through deeply drifted sand, the bikes sail across the top. But their top speed, as Fei discovered, is not high; hardly above 16 M.P.H. But still he refused to give up, leaning well into the handlebars. He roared up the side of a dune like a petrified wave, then down the other in a burst of speed. Sand stung his exposed skin but he didnít care, he had to get to Citan.
He swung around a rock pillar, skidded past a heap of stones, and then whizzed up the side of another high crested dune. He halted the bike at the top, hoping to see some sign of Citan from the increased height, but the starlit desert stretched out dim and empty, cracked and pitied with pockmarks of stone like some old manís skin. He took out the compass and checked his direction again; he was still headed due west.
With a huff, Fei began to climb onto his machine again, but as he looked up in despair at the night sky he saw something; a light, far off in the south, growing like a second dawn. It rose above the horizon, a glowing disk of orange, surrounded by a strange dark line. Fei stared; the disk flew straight across the desert at terrific speed, glowing and pulsating with a strange fiery glow of its own. Fei stared in wonder as this apparition whizzed across the clear stars towards him. Then it was overhead, the glow of its passage outlining the stones and sand of the duneís top in harsh luminescence. Fei stared up squinting, trying to make out what sort of thing this disk was, but his eyes could not focus on it. He tried again, but his sight was fuzzy; as if the disk was not wholly in this world. The stars around it seemed to blur as well, as if in some invisible field of flame. Then it had passed him and was moving north. Fei turned and watched it until it was only a small reddish star on the distant horizon, and then it set. Though Fei had no idea what this thing was, or what it meant, the sight of it heartened him; if such powers could exist, he thought logically, maybe he could find Citan in this empty sandy waste. Climbing onto the bike, he roared off with new hope, the wind rushing in his ears like a challenge from the sky.
As he crested another ridge some miles on, he saw a dim, flickering light away down on his right, winking in and out with uncertain flashes of soft brilliance. Instinctively he knew this was his old friend and teacher, and he tore down the side of the dune like a skier.
In only a few minutes, he was rushing towards a cluster of ruined walls, towering in sand blasted desolation 30 feet above him into the hard stars. Slowing his bike, Fei rolled cautiously towards the entrance. It was a courtyard, he saw, floored with gray-pitted flagstones set hundreds of years before. The walls, raised high about, must have been imposing in days gone by; but now, though they were still high and strong, their edges were ragged with the mouse bites of time. In the center of the courtyard stood a huge black shape, towering higher than the surrounding walls; in one corner was a cluster of rods and spiky darkness that may have been the Land Crab. Fei stopped his machine and looked around to see Citan, just emerging from behind a heap of rubble; the halogen lamp in his hand throwing stark shadows against the walls, and showing that the great black object was indeed the Gear he had called Weltall.
"Aah, Fei." Citan showed not the slightest surprise to see his pupil. "How do you like this?" Citan swept one arm around expansively, indicating the dusty ruins like a proud, stately home owner.
"Very nice," said Fei, bemused. Citan was almost prancing on his booted feet; though he was obviously tired, he seemed elated by this treasure house he had found.
"Itís an old Gear depot. The Ethos excavated it about five years ago."
"Wouldnít they have taken all the Gears?" Fei asked, interrupting his teacher in mid flow. "The complete Gears and weapons, yes. But thereís always a stash of spare parts and tools in these places, and the Ethos never usually bothers to move them."
"Were you able to repair the Gear?" Fei ran his eye across the pile of metal shards and oil stains that rested at the feet of the dark Gear like offerings at the feet of an idol.
"Yes, and no." Citan shook his head sadly. "Luckily for us, the civilization that constructed this depot was similar to the one which constructed Weltall. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate a complete coil. I was forced to solder two incomplete coils together. It is not perfect, but it will hold for a while."
"Thanks, doc." Fei almost meant it; though he still looked on the Gear with suspicion, he appreciated the time and trouble Citan had put into rebuilding it.
"Can I offer you a coffee, Fei?"
Fei nodded enthusiastically, for the long drive through the desert had left him feeling chilled and drained. Citan crossed to the Land Crab and started to rummage around in the storage compartment.
"How did you get here so speedily?" Citan asked over his shoulder.
"I...err..." Fei hesitated, not wanting to admit that he stole a sand bike. "...Acquired a sand bike."
"Aha!" Citan dug out his capacious thermos flask and two plastic cups. "You rented it, I presume?" he asked, sloshing steaming brown liquid into the two cups and handing one to Fei.
"Well... not exactly, you see... I..."
Feiís halting confession was interrupted by a sound of rumbling and falling stone. A blast of cold air rushed into the little courtyard; a breath of winter showered with sand. One wall fell in and dust rose like a cloud, thick as summer fog. After the noise the silence was awful, falling across Fei and Citan like a cloak of black.
Slowly, as if knowing what he would see, Fei turned towards the sound and his world fell upside down. In the opening that had suddenly appeared in the wall a man was standing. A dim black figure, swathed and cloaked in darkness, sucking in the light of star and halogen lamp like a black hole, greedy for life. The man was perfectly still, the shadow of his long dark cloak and hood swirling around him in the night breeze. The stars behind him seemed to glimmer about his head, and then go out; the only thing that would escape his deadly gravity was fear. He walked forward slowly, seeming to glide through the dimness towards them. Fei sat still and silent, Citanís coffee cup clutched forgotten in his nerveless hand. Then the man stood before him, and Fei saw that beneath the hood, the face was covered by a blank mask of black steel, gleaming dully in the gloom. The only thing of him that could be seen were the eyes; like windows of infinity, black pools which didnít so much suck in light as throw out darkness. Fei looked into those eyes steadily, his own dark eyes showing no fear.
"Who are you?" His voice was stronger than he would have thought possible under such a cold weight of fear. But then Feiís mind was seized and shaken. A silver and red pendant streamed across his vision; his consciousness was sucked down into a dark pit and torn apart, and the wall of blackest night that was drawn up like a patrolled border across his preconscious tore and ripped away.
He saw a mask, midnight black steel falling over his face and felt its cold touch on his cheeks. A voice, cold and hard as a hook-pointed knife screamed with manic fury through the blue planes of his ego.
"You killed her!" He could do nothing but deny.
"No, I didnít... I... I..."
Guilt swept through the upper volts of his mind like a black wave, and he felt himself drowning. He saw an image of himself; but not a man clad in combat pants and a white shirt like the ones he wore. It was a man with black hair, tanned skin and dark eyes... but this man was not him, for this image was only a picture in a fevered dream. Then he saw himself, with blood striped across his face; the fires of Lahan burning high and bright behind him. Then another image; a child, lost and alone in a vast glittering desert, but this too seemed not to be himself. At each portrait, guilt swelled to crescendos; booms and crashes of emotion that rocked his very being.
"You coward!" It was the voice again, scornful as a stab in the belly, cruel as a reaping hook, detached as a broken string. Then suddenly, abruptly, the vision ended. The tides of darkness rushed back across Feiís mind, and he was standing again, a plastic coffee cup in his hand, staring into a pair of infinitely dark eyes.
"I know you." Fei said the words slowly, like a man tiptoeing into a snakeís den.
"Indeed doth thou know me, for I am as like unto thee as the blade of a cutting sword is like unto the hilt." The voice was deep and melodious, with a velvet strength that stroked every word like the paw of a hunting panther; but all who heard that voice, as all that saw the panther would know, that it had claws of steel. "I am Grahf, seeker of power." The ancient stone courtyard seemed to echo at the name, as if a great gong had been struck far underground.
"What do you want with me?" Fei almost had to physically restrain himself from adding ĎMy lord.í The dark man that was Grahf laughed softly, a velvet laugh, low and deadly.
"Thy help. For thou art even as I am; an artist."
Fei felt confused, what could this being be talking about? It was true that he had once attempted a few paintings; landscapes and portraits mostly, but this Grahf surely couldnít mean them.
"I speak not of a maker of music, or of one who copies the worldís bright colors in myriad paint strokes. I speak of the true art; that music for which thou and I are destined! The art of destruction!" Grahfís black eyes seemed to shine red, and he seemed to stand tall, straight and hard as a pillar of rock. "To feel thine enemyís bones crack under thy hands, and thy fist strike home and thy foeís blood spurting as a red fountain; for this thou and I were made. Do you not see it, the music of their screams rising to the starry volt of heaven? That is thy heartís desire."
Fei felt shocked and drained, like a hangman who has just been told that his last client was innocent. Dan had been right, he was evil. Half denying himself he almost sobbed:
"Iím not a sadist."
Grahf seemed to lean closer, his dark eyes glittering behind his mask.
"Thou art. Torture is they true calling, to play upon the bodies of others as a harpist upon the strings, and crush and destroy them with thy fists and mind... this is what thou wert born for."
"No! I didnít destroy Lahan!" Grahfís image misted behind Feiís flowing tears, all the remorse for his homeís destruction welling up in him in a newer, and bitterer tide.
"Indeed. It was well that I struck thy mind as a catalyst for thy true power."
Feiís eyes ran hot, and the tide of empty sorrow that filled him changed into red-hot fury. Grahf seemed pleased, his eyes glinting with approval.
"Good, channel thine anger. Thy hatred for the world makes thee great."
With an effort, Fei restrained his fists from striking down this hated enemy, the destroyer of all he had loved.
"Iíll never help you!" Feiís voice croaked through gritted teeth. His face was set as hard as wood in the steady white glow of Citanís lamp.
"But thou wilt, it is thy destiny. Thou and thy aptitude for devastation will aid me in my great task. For it is thou and I, who are chosen to destroy mother god!" The night seemed to press closer, radiating around Grahf like the negative halo of a corrupted angel. Fei felt tides of blackness sweep through him, and the image of the ruined walls grew dim and distant like a face in a dream.
"No! If you want to d... destroy god thatís your business. Get out of my life!" Even though his face was encased in indomitable steel, Fei knew somehow that Grahf was smiling.
"I cannot. Thy life and mine have been bound together from the beginning. As two threads twisted into a single strand, doubling the strength of each are our paths wrought. Thou wilt be mine, son, for thy scream of anguish was as deliciously disharmonic as the death pain of thy father!"
An electric wave swept over Fei, every hair of his body tingling at that single word. His father, a piece of his life before Lahan; dead.
"My father... you mean my dad... you mean my father!"
"Thy father. He died most deliciously, his agonized shriek climbing to heights of ecstasy; I enjoyed him!"
Somehow, Fei knew, that with that single string Grahf had bound him, tying him firmly with the rope of curiosity. Fei would follow Grahf now, if only to find out what had happened to his father. The iron-hard trap of his own longing for a past had closed around him, and there was nothing to do but try and catch the bait that the dark man dangled just out of reach.
"What happened to my father?"
Grahf laughed; it was a cold, silken sound, the stones catching the echoes and splitting them into a myriad cloud of phonic fragments, each resounding in Feiís ears like the firing of a bullet.
"It will be of no use for thou to know the truth now. Thy father was of as little consequence as the insects thou swatted in Lahan."
"Insects!! They were my friends... my family, those who loved me."
Grahf raised one black-gloved hand and snapped his fingers into a tight wedge, as if he were murdering a fly.
"Love!" The word carried an eternity of scorn, tinged with hatred. "What is love, a thing of no consequence. Creatures such as those thou obliterated deserve nothing but death; they are but a stain on the cloth of existence that must be wiped away. Love! Thou needest it not!" Grahf straightened and squared his powerful shoulders, as if tiring of the conversation. "Thou wilt learn. And hear is thy first challenge. If thou diest, thou wert not worthy to live."
And suddenly he was gone, in a swirl of anti-light that may have been called a flash if it wasnít black. And Fei was left staring at the starry expanse of desert through the broken wall, with a plastic coffee cup clutched in one nerveless hand.
Fei had forgotten Citan, but he turned to find the doctor standing behind him, pointing out into the dimness of the dunes like a weather vein. Fei looked along the arm and finger and saw a tempest of sand rising in the night; and what appeared to be a pillar of brown gray rock sliding across the sand towards them.
"What is it, doc?" Feiís voice was frightened, like a small child caught in the hungry heart of a nightmare.
"Sandworm. Get in your Gear! I sincerely hope those connections will last, I didnít intend them for a battle..."
Fei wasnít listening; after the first 5 words of the doctorís worried speech he was racing across the courtyard to the dark shape of the hated Gear. Here he was again, running to the weapon for protection, but he couldnít let this monster hurt Citan.
He slid hands and feet into the grips, and felt the roof close above him. As he stood the Gear to its full height he could see the desert creature that was approaching; called, he guessed, by the dark figure that had entered his life with such horror.
The sandworm stretched out across the desert, itís lower half wriggling through the sea of dunes like an eel. Though he couldnít see its tail, Fei guessed it to be at least 80 feet long, swelling at one end to an immense head that seemed to be all mouth. It wriggled towards him at terrific speed, lowering its massive front section, and bringing its tail up, so that it almost floated half submerged in the gritty desert matter like a log rolling down a summer stream.
Fei aimed one of the small Ether guns and fired, the incandescent beam stabbing out into the night. The sandworm swerved, so that the beam struck its side, blazing for an instant against the tank armor of its skin, then going out. The worm sped on, undamaged.
With desperate fingers, Fei reached down for the stud of his main armament, but before he could reach it, a length of tail that would have crushed several cars was lashing at his Gearís legs. His balance was jolted and he felt the Gear falling, striking the sand with a jolt that made Feiís breath whistle from his lungs. The worm reared its ugly head over him, its great black cave of a mouth agape, ready to strike down on the vulnerable cockpit and snatch the pilot down its colossal throat.
With a supreme effort, Fei raised one of the Gearís hands, then with immense control he got the metal fingers lodged in the armor of the creatureís neck. He wrenched backwards with all the titanic metal muscles of the Gear, and the wormís head was forced beyond the cockpit, the rest of its thick length falling across the grounded Gear. One length struck the cockpit and the transparent window splintered, flakes of glass falling around Fei. Ignoring the damage, he raised the Gear to its knees, and using the grip on the creatureís neck, brought its massive head up close to the cannon on its chest. The Gearís movements were slow, as if it was tired or damaged, and Fei guessed that docís repairs had been shaken loose by his fall, but the strength was enough.
He pressed the main firing switch, and watched the wormís head explode in Ether flame and gobbets of blood.
With weary, creaking slowness, Fei walked the Gear back to the courtyard and lowered it to the landing position. As the massive knees bent, he heard a crack, like a titanic fuse blowing and he knew that Citanís makeshift couplings had snapped completely. As wearily as his Gear, Fei opened the cockpit roof and climbed down to the sand. Citan was leaning against one of the blocks of stone, his face troubled in the steady glow of the halogen lamp that still burned uncaringly behind him.
"You had me worried, Fei. I thought, for a moment, that that worm would swallow you whole."
Fei grunted, now that the worm was dead he could worry about Grahf and his past.
"Doc, my father... Grahf... I have to know what happened." All his tears were spent now as he stared imploringly at his teacher.
"I know, Fei. But Grahf shouldnít have said that."
"Why? Doc, do you know what happened?"
Citan shook his head slowly, his long hair wagging behind him like the pendulum of some dark clock.
Fei stood silently for a few moments, his eyes staring into the depths of night, his mind elsewhere. But suddenly those depths were not as empty as Fei first thought. A dim light, like a cloud of moon shadow, seemed to drift over the sand, coming closer like a second dawning, growing in size and brilliance. But as it came closer Fei could make out shapes: one long cylindrical shape, surrounded by a cluster of shapes that were all too familiar. He had seen shapes like them in the burning ruins of his home, for these were Gears, moving swiftly to intercept them. He turned to Citan, turning to his teacher for advice in a difficult place. Citan was staring short-sightedly at the shape before him and fumbling in numerous jacket pockets for the spectacles that were as much a part of Citan as the slim penknife in his back pocket was part of Fei. It wasnít that Citanís vision was particularly bad, but distant objects blurred into a fog unless he wore the corrective lenses over his black eyes. But in typical Citan manner, he usually forgot to wear them, remembering only when, as now, he needed to see something far off. Eventually he found them, nestled in an inside pocket at his breast. He pulled them out and slipped them on, giving his tanned strong face the venerable look of a learned professor.
"Aveh army unit," the doctor muttered, half to himself. "What do they want?"
Fei couldnít care. The void where Grahf had stood, and the dark enigma in his mind were too fresh in memory to allow space for anything else. The cruiser and its accompanying Gears drew closer, growing from distant shapes to their towering reality, the transverse stripes all too evident on the sides of the Gears and the great muzzle of the cruiser. The dark whale swam through the sandy night towards them; its squad of fish patrolling ahead of it in rank formation, skimming across the sand like giant water boatmen.
They came to a stop just outside the walls, pushing the carcass of the worm aside in a great wave of sand that swept over the lip of the stony courtyard. The sand cruiser towered over them, like a great grounded plane, dwarfing even the Gears with its massive size. One of the Gears strode right up to Grahfís broken wall, and as it drew closer, illuminated from the massive headlights of the cruiser and the puny glare of Citanís halogen lamp, they could see that the tough soldier in the cockpit was dressed in the plain uniform of an Aveh soldier, similar to the one Citan was still wearing.
"Halt!" The magnified voice boomed into the desert stillness with its unnecessary command. "You are under arrest. Offer no resistance and you will not be hurt." As if at a signal, the great doors of the sand cruiser yawned open, like a mouth ready to swallow them whole. Out flowed a phalanx of green-clad guards; each with a machine gun held stiffly in one hard hand and swords slung at their belts.
"Come on." The commanderís voice was rough with urgency as he looked at the two captives before him. Citan stood with dignity, as he was surrounded. Feiís eyes remained brooding; his mind still overloaded with the question of his forgotten past.
"I will not offer you any trouble. But if you will allow me to collect..."
The soldier cut the doctor short with a single raised hand.
"No! You come now."
Citan faced the man, every inch of his six foot two figure awash with scornful pride.
"I am not a soldier of Aveh, and I do not understand why I must be arrayed as one. If you will permit me to gather my civilian clothing and some of our belongings, we will come quietly. If not..." Citan flexed his fingers pointedly. He knew that he and Fei alone could never prevail against so many. But if they were to be taken alive, then he could certainly cause a few casualties. The soldier however, remained unimpressed, his darkly tanned face twisting into a scowl.
"So, you expect me to let you go and collect some weapons, then stroll back and attack us? I wasnít born yesterday."
Citan inclined his head in a noble fashion as if conceding a telling point. The men surrounding them remained wooden-faced, waiting for an order.
"It is standard military procedure, is it not, to search prisoners and their belongings? You will search us both and find nothing amiss." Citan flashed the guard a ĎYou can trust meí look so powerful that the man must have thought he was staring at a general. He stood back, and the ranks opened to allow Citan through. Within seconds he returned, a bundle of clothes under one arm and his black doctorís bag slung on his shoulder. The green tide closed about them again, and they were gently but firmly frog-marched across the sand and into the gaping maw of the cruiser.
The doors closed behind them with a clang, leaving them in electrically lit darkness. They didnít see two of the military Gears lift the injured Weltall and with a hiss of jets raise it to the top of the sand cruiser, where they secured it with huge metallic clamps, binding the titan to a metal rack. Citan and Fei were marched down a long drab corridor, painted in the perennial military gray. Suddenly, they found a double-locked door looming up before them. The sergeant opened it, and preceded them inside, followed by several of his men. They then searched the two captives, delicately but thoroughly; removing Feiís penknife and all the artistic weaponry of Citanís stolen uniform. One guard went through Citanís clothes, removing the spare radio, small and complex army knife and palm-top computer that always lurked somewhere in Citanís pockets. Another ran his fingers through the contents of Citanís black bag, removing all of his surgical instruments, and any drugs that looked potentially dangerous. Then with a last suspicious glance, they left, clanking a host of locks shut behind them.
Fei and his teacher, found themselves in a tiny metal-walled cell, windowless and bleak; its only furnishings were two bunks riveted to the wall, a naked electric bulb in the ceiling and a six-inch square ventilation grill above the tightly locked door. In one cramped corner lurked a chemical toilet and sink, with a coarse bar of soap laid across its back.
Fei crossed to the sink and splashed his face with water, hoping to relieve the tired confusion of his mind, but it did no good. Citan busied himself, discretely changing out of the Aveh uniform behind the screen of a blanket.
"Well, Fei?" he began, once more wearing his green jacket, white pants and sash. "Can you think of any reason you have offended the state of Aveh?"
"Well," Fei started shakily, his mind startled into sudden thought by Citanís question. "You were scavenging Gear parts?"
Citan shook his head.
"Scavengers arenít arrested, they are usually shot."
"I stole a sand bike?" Feiís tone was slightly guilty, though it was a small crime; it was a crime nonetheless. Citan sat down wearily on one of the iron bunks.
"I donít think that is sufficient reason to send a sand cruiser after us. But we will not achieve anything by scrabbling in the dark. We better try to sleep."
Obediently, Fei kicked off his shoes and climbed up to the top bunk. As he lay back, he felt a throbbing rumble and swaying motion surface from under the room.
"Started up. Good night, Fei."
"Doc..." As Citan moved to click out the light, Fei suddenly felt an urge to speak. Back in the courtyard, when the dark and sinister form of Grahf had entered his life, Citan had said something about Grahf; maybe he knew Feiís past. "What do you know about Grahf... and my father, and everything?"
"Nothing. But I know as a psychologist that for an amnesiac such as yourself, to be reminded so violently of your past is extremely mentally damaging. But Grahf is your only link with your first 15 years of life, and through this link he is attempting to get a hold over you."
Fei nodded, his dark eyes looking straight at Citan where he stood by the light switch. He had felt that from Grahf, attempting to use the drug of Feiís past to bind him in service.
"But there is nothing that can be done at present, Iím afraid. The best advice I can give you is try to live with it, and with Grahf, if such a thing is possible. And now Fei, I proscribe sleep." He rummaged in the bag for a sleeping tonic, but found that the soldiers had stolen it. Muttering something about untutored sergeants who didnít know a poison from an anaesthetic, he turned out the light and crossed to the bunk. But the long day and night had taken its toll even on Feiís athletic body, and within minutes he found his eyelids drooping shut, and his mind sinking into oblivion.
But Feiís sleep was uneasy, with images and faces flashing across his memory; forgotten things of long ago, the pendant with its silver wings and single ruby, the burning ruins of Lahan, Citanís kind bespectacled features. Then suddenly, the abstractions ceased, and he was caught in the net of a real dream; or was it memory?
He stood on top of a hill, rain pelting around him, and lightning flickering across the sky like a dissecting scalpel in the hand of God. In the dim distance he saw three figures, standing perfectly still, yet dim and misty. One was a tiny sprig of shadows, with no distinguishing features, apart from an overwhelming sense of hatred flowing from it like a diseased aura of confidence. Behind this figure, yet seeming both more powerful and less real, were two forms, each surrounded by a rippling nimbus of light. One stood tall and straight, and its nimbus was the gentlest sapphire blue, as if the summer sky had wrapped loving fingers around it. The other was cloaked in sullen, sooty red, as if taken from the burning depths of hell.
His viewpoint, like a camera of the mind, swam closer, and he saw the three figures truly and distinctly. One was young, its fire-colored hair falling across its forehead in wet curls, its red jacketed arms lying by its sides, trembling with hatred. The other was a tall, strongly built man, the traditional pale dress of a martial artist falling around his body in climbing folds. The third was a dim sculpture of night, black-cloaked, and steel-masked.
"I never thought to see you again like this. It must be fate." The tall manís mustached face was compassionate, his deep brown eyes solemn and sad. Then as if summoned by his words, Fei was himself, the wet rain lashing his naked arms with oily whips; his green trousers black with liquid, his white shirt lying cold on his skin like a stain of mud. Grahf loomed over him, lightning flashes doing nothing to quell his darkness.
"Let us join together!" The catís paw of his voice stroked the words, with a silky, steely triumph, but whether he was talking to the mustached man, or to Fei, or to the silent other, or even to the dark distances of his own soul, Fei did not know.
"How ironic." It was the strong, sad voice of the martial artist, and with a sudden shock, Fei realized that this man with the sad brown eyes was his father. The manís voice rang out, blazing into sudden protective fury. "I will never let you have him!"
Grahf laughed then, a dark and deadly sound amid the violent rain.
"Thou canst do nothing Kahn, his power is mine to command. Thou speakest of fate, but know that by denying him to me thou art denying his destiny."
"Even so, you will not have him!" Kahnís eyes blazed, and Fei knew that his father had died to protect him.
Citan Uzuki lay in the dark, listening to the breathing of his pupil in the top bunk. When he was satisfied that he would not wake up, the doctor counted another ten minutes, just to make sure. Then he moved by touch across the dark confines of the cell, his hands sensing walls, floor and door.
Then suddenly he had found what he wanted, his black bag; though all was black in the blind night of the windowless room. Citan reached long, strong fingers into the bag, and moved aside a flap of lining. The edge of his nail found the catch that hadnít moved for three years: a small groove of a lock, far beyond the skill of such incompetent searchers as the soldiers to find. The bag opened up, and from the interior Citan pulled a dusty device of hard metal. It was about the size and shape of a henís egg, but inserted into one pointed end was an indented button that Citan knew would only respond to the D.N.A. pattern of the selected user. He placed one warm fingertip against the button and waited.
After a little time, he felt his mind detaching, his conscious momentarily ousted from the house of his brain in a stream of invisible light. Like a spectral ghost of himself, he sped through the side of the cell and across empty miles of air and rock and time. Distance means nothing to a free-floating mind, and so within only a few seconds, he stood before a distant throne.
It seemed to float in darkness; a great ancient chair of polished metal, though Citan knew that this was no phantom but a real and corporal throne, in a real place, just like its occupant. About it in the night span a host of mirrors, glittering in some unseen light. In the throne sat the one whom Citan had come to see, swathed in a great brown cloak which lay heavily on the seat and arms of the great throne, totally hiding the body of its occupant. The head lay languidly against the throneís enamel back, its skin a dead leprous white, its hollow skull-like face showing plainly that it had seen too much.
"Emperor," said Citan, and if it is possible for an unphysical essence to genuflect he did so.
"Indeed," said the emperor, his voice as dry and hollow and ancient as his face. "So then, it is beginning, the time long prepared for, the -Time- of the -Gospel-."
"Yes, my Emperor." Citanís thought beamed. "The Contact was awakened."
The emperor leaned back in his great throne, his cavernous dark eyes showing a kind of aged satisfaction.
"The -Time- of the -Gospel-, when humanity will return to paradise; it has been so long. Return now, and be of good hope, for soon god will awaken, and we, the Gazel, may sleep."
"We, the Gazel, may sleep," repeated Citan, and then the call of his absent body grew heavy, and he was pulled down into darkness, where Feiís breathing filled the tiny cell with the sound of life.
Around that cell was the immense metal shell of the sand cruiser, skimming its way across the desert in the last hours of the night; its headlights burning unceasingly and its Gears grouped around it. In the far distant roof of the sky, the stars winked down with pitiless beauty, as they had winked through the smoke two nights before over the burning village of Lahan. They had cared nothing for the loss of life then, and they cared nothing now. But a less detached observer might have cared, looking down on the sand cruiser from some high rocky hill and seeing its escort like flies around a corpse. They might have cared, if they knew that in 12 hours time, the sand cruiser would be nothing but a smoking ruin.
The young pirate captain leaned over the view screen, his long golden hair falling loosely down one side of his lean, tanned face. He stood to his full height, with his sky blue eye gleaming in his sand blasted face like a sapphire in the rock. His other eye was hidden behind a dark patch.
"Well, well, well!" His young, enthusiastic voice held a distinct note of glee. "A little lost sand cruiser, all alone after dark."
The white-haired man at his side stared at the image on the screen with an eye as blue as his younger companionís, the other socket similarly hidden behind a dark patch.
"Well, actually sunrise is in..."
The youthful pirate captain cut his subordinate off with a curt hand gesture.
"You wouldnít know a figure of speech if it hit you in the face, would you Sigurd?"
Sigurd ignored his leaderís snub, for he knew that for all his ebullient confidence, the young pirate was only 18, and still had a need for his second-in-commandís solid experience.
"Check that Gear!" The leader had zeroed the view screen in on the purple and black shape of Weltall, riding high on the top of the Aveh sand cruiser like a god on a chariot. "Looks tough, donít you think, Sigurd? We could use a Gear like that!"
Sigurd shook his white head.
"We canít risk revealing ourselves."
"Yes, we can. Weíll reveal ourselves anyway when we attack Bledavik, and weíll need all the firepower we can get. Besides..." The boyís face became a tanned mask of smugness. "The Yggdrasil can outrun any Aveh cruiser, and apart from my Brigandier and that Heimdal thing, weíve only got those rust bucket Aveh Gears."
Sigurd stared around the hidden sand shipís bridge, noting the speed and maneuverability of the helm, and the array of weapons on board. It was true that their vessel was superior to the Aveh cruiser, and with the element of surprise they would have, they couldnít fail.
Almost as the older man spoke, the leader was crossing the bridge in long gangling strides, his eye blazing with the prospect of battle.
"Okay, Mr. Sigurd..." (he always added titles when giving orders) "I want you to pilot the Yggdrasil. When that cruiserís past, put a torpedo up its ass. Iíll take our boys and attack from the front in the Gears. When all the enemy Gears are destroyed, I want you to pick up the survivors from the sand cruiser."
Sigurd nodded, understanding the strategy and approving his leaderís actions.
"Mr. Jerico!" The pirate barked into an intercom, pulling on a set of overalls to protect his almost foppishly fine clothes. The overalls always hung by the bridgeís main door waiting for just such an occasion, when their owner would rush off into the blue, leading his small but efficient strike-force on lightning raids; a constant thorn in Shakahnís side.
"Sir!" Jericoís voice came crisply over the intercom.
"Howíre the torpedoes?"
"Armed and dangerous, sir!"
"Great!" For a second the leaderís eye flashed in boyish pride, but then it went hard again as he ordered his weapons expert. "Can you get a squad together and meet me down in the Gear docks?"
"Of course sir, be down in 10 minutes. Whatís the target?"
"Sand cruiser. Thereís a few Gears guarding it, but nothing we canít handle, and thereís one helluva Gear clamped to the roof. Looks almost as good as my Brigandier!"
"Excellent!" As the intercom clicked off, the pirate leader skipped from the room, his strategical mind full of visions of monster Gears falling into his hands. Gears that would help him in his final conquest of the evil that gripped his nation.
Fei awoke grittily, the sluggish gray light of the cell entering his eyes as if it were crawling through a pinhole. Looking over the side of the bunk he saw Citan already stirring, packing his belongings into his medical black bag. Outside, the wind had risen to a scream as the Aveh sand cruiser picked up speed. The cruiser continued speeding across the desertís dune surface under a gray sky, for soon after sunrise a vale of clouds had arisen, and the normally glittering wastes were reduced to heaps of rock and stretches of wilderness sand.
"Whatís the time, doc?" Feiís mouth felt thick, and there was an aching hunger in his belly.
"About nine. Howíre you feeling?"
"Like hell," Fei responded with resigned forcefulness.
"It is to be expected. By no stretch of the imagination can your encounter with Grahf be called restful."
Fei grunted his agreement. He didnít really want to think about that dark enigma until he had time and space to deal with it.
"Where do you think theyíre taking us, doc?"
"I would guess Bledavik, we are moving in the general direction of the capital as far as I can tell. What I do not understand is the reason behind our incarceration."
"Could it be something to do with Welltall?"
Citan shook his head, the dark string of his long hair waving from side to side. He had forgotten to put on his spectacles that morning, and without their protective glass his eyes seemed somehow youthful.
"Such speculations will only exacerbate our nervous exhaustion, we must be ready for any opportunity to..."
Whatever Citan was about to say was drowned in a sudden, grinding rending boom. The cell seemed to shake as if a giant were slamming it repeatedly with angry childish fists. The bunks toppled and fell, striking hard against Citanís elbow. The doctor rubbed his femur and looked worriedly at the walls. The engine was eerily silent, but even as he opened his mouth to speak, a second and more terrible sound permeated the small cell: the sound of particles upon particles of sand shifting beneath the massive cruiser. Citan got to his feet slowly on the suddenly bucking floor.
"Fei! That was a torpedo!!!" Citanís face was transfigured by a sudden fear that set Feiís heart racing. "It hit the primary rudder, the sand cruiser is sinking! We have to get out of here!"
Fei stared at his old teacher with wide frightened eyes, but Citan didnít have time to stand around speculating. With a sudden heave of his muscular shoulders he broke a supporting bar off the fallen bunks and started to hammer out a desperate tattoo on the locked door.
"Hey! Get us out of here!"
Fei too picked up the doctorís urgency and following his teacherís example also broke a wooden slat from the bunk.
"Help! Somebody!" From the other side of the door came the sound of frantically running feet and frightened voices. "Help! You canít leave us in here to die!" Then there was a rattle on the other side of the door and it swung open to reveal the sergeant Citan had made such good friends with the previous night.
"Sand pirates, torpedoed the cruiser, sinking!" With this brief explanation he was off, discarding his helmet pack and machine gun as he went.
Fei and Citan were not slow to follow his example; they dashed along the steel corridor, fighting their way through a crowd of green-clad Aveh soldiers, all frantically clawing their way out of the sinking ship. As they fought and jostled with the rest, breath to breath and cheek by joule, a fine dusting of sand started to seep into the corridors. In a few minutes it was up to their ankles and walking became difficult. They lost all sense of direction; all was a nightmare of frantic pushing humanity, each trying only to save himself.
Then suddenly, a crowd of soldiers pushed Fei up one wall and he was able to see over the heads of the crowd. He spotted a familiar large hatchway, though it was blocked with sand.
"The main Gear bay!" Fei and Citan pushed their way towards it, swimming through a sea of bodies and sand. Then suddenly the titanic portal loomed in front of them. It was open and filled with purring sand, but Fei and Citan scrambled out, and were instantly lost in gritty darkness.
Never in his life had Fei known such suffocation, sand filling his nostrils, eyes and ears like water. He fought and struggled, each limb refusing to give up the fight against the thousands of particles of gritty desert that forced him down. Then suddenly, a rolling gritty wave seized both of them and spun them up through layers of desert to a dim gray sky. They crawled across a heaving quagmire of sand towards a pillar of rock and clung to it as they saw the last tail of the sand cruiser burrow into the ground like the rump of some huge animal.
Citan spat, and he spat sand. They were covered with it, giving their skin a brown gritty sheen like the skin of the oldest men in the world.
"We... made... it." Feiís voice emerged as a dry whisper, as he tried to rub some of the sand from his face.
Citan didnít bother to reply, but simply pointed with one gritty arm. Fei squinted through a set of sandy tears and could make out the shapes of Gears: some the gray green of Aveh, some a strange metallic shade with red markings. The metallic Gears seemed to be having the upper hand, crushing and smashing their opponents in an orgy of mammoth destruction. On their backs was a symbol Fei hadnít seen before: a yellow circle split into thirds by a yellow letter Y.
Their leader was a Gear all in red, a blood colored edifice the size of a church spire. It was a slim, elegant machine, maneuverable and quick, with an arrogant white plume blazing from the top like a banner of defiance. In the metal hands, the Gear clutched a long whip, which seemed to slice through the armor of his opponents like a knife through grass. Fei saw the red Gear slash an opponentís chest cavity to smoking shreds, then finish him with an elegant flying kick.
Over to one side stood Weltall. The clamps that had bound the Gear to the cruiserís roof had been shaken loose by the torpedoís impact, and Weltall had fallen in a shattering crash to the sand. Unbeknown to Fei, two mechanics had replaced the smoking remains of Citanís coil the night before, so now the Gear was ready for action. Sand stung Feiís cheeks, and the chill wind that was steadily rising flicked at the desert dust on his long hair. He felt a peculiar feeling of nostalgia as he saw the immense Gears fighting, with Weltall squatting patiently to one side. He knew he must pilot, to protect Citan, and to stop the purple Gear from falling into the hands of these pirates. With weary silence he crossed slowly to the Gear and climbed in, shaking the sand to a little pool on the floor of the cockpit. Citan stood by the pillar of rock, silent in his gritty green and soiled white. Fei raised the Gear to its full height, and walked purposefully towards the arrogant red leader with his flashing, cutting whip and bravado in his white plume.
The pirate leader saw the tiny sandy figure cross to the purple Gear, and he saw the Gear rise to its feet and begin a slow advance towards him. So, one of Shakhanís scummy soldiers had guts after all! He would deal with this fool himself; it was a pity to damage the Gear, and it would be a pity to kill the pilot who showed grace and style as he propelled his Gear in perfect harmony with the movements of the human body. He would try reasoning with the enemy first. He didnít like killing people.
For a second Fei thought it was a woman who opposed him, seeing in the red Gearís cockpit only a dim impression of long blond hair tied back in a flowing ponytail. But his impression vanished in a flurry of sound as the hard masculine voice crackled through the desert, amplified by the Gearís loud halor into a static screen.
"Hand over that Gear, and we wonít hurt you... much!"
Fei was stung by the arrogance, the sheer brash assurance of superiority that permeated that chilling voice. In a brief flash he remembered Blackmoon Forest, and how a beautiful soldier had charged him not to let Weltall fall into the hands of anyone so irresponsible. What evils would this brigand commit if he gained the immense power that Fei knew lived within the purple Gear? He could not surrender, much as he hated the alternative.
"Never! If you want this Gear, youíre going to have to fight for it!" Fei screamed the challenge, not realizing that the blur of static across the loud halor made his words almost incomprehensible.
But the pirate understood. He leaned back in his harness, stretching his long, athletic body, and thinking regretfully of the fine warrior this young man might have made. The whip whistled out and slashed a fleck of armor from the dark Gearís shoulder. The intention was clear: to bring the wiry lash around and sever the central fuel feed pipe which stretched like a protruding artery from the cockpit down the throat of every Gear.
But Fei wasnít going to give this fight away. Even as the lash descended he was moving, leaping forward in a flurry of jets, bringing one foot up to connect at his opponentís metallic groin. Even as he attacked, Fei noticed with the clarity that descends on totally committed combatants, that there were two eyes painted above the cockpit window of the red Gear, one covered by an immense patch. The pirate staggered, a section of the lower abdominal armor falling to the sand with a dead, gritty ring. Fei charged in, and while his opponent was unbalanced, delivered a stunning uppercut to the armored jaw just below the cockpit. The pirateís hands flew from the controls as the red Gear arched backwards to land like a stain of blood across the sand.
But it wasnít over. From one of the red Gearís hands a bolt of bluish white ether energy struck at Weltall like a snake. Fei saw a red warning light blink on the panel and he knew that he had to activate a fuel intake or be forced to remain still. He pressed the three switches and started counting before pulling out the choke and then replacing it.
But even as the intake was over, a fist of wind descended on him, and like the blow of some invisible Gear, it knocked him face downwards on the ground. More wind whirled around them, building to a piercing howl. Both Fei and the pirate lay under its onslaught. The pirateís small force had retreated with the survivors behind a great wall of rock, for they could do nothing to help their leader until the sandstorm subsided. But it did not subside; a great funnel of wind started to turn, directly above the two Gears, carving into the skin of the desert like some ethereal power drill. Particles of sand started to slide into the hole, rushing and swirling in a mist of diamond fragments. The two Gears were whirled round and round and down and down, sand piling around them, trapping every arm and leg, and forcing them down and down.
Fei couldnít see. His body felt the sand impact on Weltallís shell as if it were his own skin. Then a hand, a red metallic Gear hand extended through the swirling powdered rock, and Fei, recognizing it as a gesture of friendship, moved to take it. Then there was a rending crash below them, and they fell suddenly into free space, coming to rest on a floor of jagged rock, 80 meters below.
Citan saw the tornado gather itself, swirl his young companion and the pirate leader into the sand, and then rush off southwards, gathering up sand to form a great twisting funnel of yellow smoke miles high. He felt shattered and drained, spitting sand out of his mouth and wiping his face. He looked ruefully at his soiled jacket; spoiled permanently, he supposed. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning he saw a single blue eye staring from beneath a bushy white eyebrow, in a surprisingly young face.
"Well by all thatís coincidental, Hyu is that you?"
"Ger... yes, itís me. But I havenít heard the name Hyuga for a long time."
"Well, youíre hearing it now." Sigurdís meaty hand gripped the doctorís arm. "You look bad, weíll see if we can fix you up. Itís the young masterís policy to save as many survivors as possible after a battle."
"Very generous of him, Iím sure," Citan croaked. Then with a shrug, he allowed Sigurd to guide him to where the other survivors were already receiving medical treatment.
A number of pirates, dressed in their dark blue uniforms moved amongst them, explaining and calming any fears they might have had. In the center of the area an officious nurse in a blue uniform that did nothing for her figure was loudly demanding if there were any broken bones, abdominal injuries or deaths. The scene was like the aftermath of every battle, with winners and losers, though Citan would be the first to admit that these pirates seemed to be extremely good winners.
The gray sky was broken by shafts of the harsh desert sun, and it glinted off weapons and the metallic shells of the Gears like gold in the eyes. Citan felt his heart lift.
"I am pleased to see you, Sigurd. Tell me, was that your young master that Fei was fighting?"
Sigurd nodded, his white hair winking in the new sunlight.
"Iím sure theyíll be alright, I trust the young master to come back soon."
"That is highly likely, the desert beneath us is riddled with caves. If they fall into one, they could easily find their way out again." A slight smile touched across Citanís dirt encrusted face. "If they donít kill each other first. The one in the purple Gear was my own protťgť Fei Fong Wong. A bright lad, but a trifle impulsive at times."
"That about sums up the young master as well: no patience. Anyway, letís get you aboard the Yggdrasil and into some clean clothes, then weíll talk over some old times. How about it, Hyuga?"
"You trust your young master greatly, donít you?" Citanís voice was grave as his slanted black eyes stared intently into Sigurdís single blue one, with the desert heat mounting around them.
"I trust him to come back safely, as you trust Fei. Now come on Hyuga, letís get aboard."
The lights on Weltallís control panel were the only illumination in the entire world. There was no reference apart from those lights; no sky, no land, nothing but the blackness of solid, unquenchable rock and the small pinpricks of the Gearís controls.
With a shaking hand, Fei reached out and activated the Gearís main searchlights. He saw that he lay on his back at the bottom of a great pit. The roof was far higher than the light could penetrate, but he could see the walls, littered with dust and the dark of centuries. Around him were piles of immense rocks, and ores glinting in the pale beam of his light. Then another brilliant shaft pierced the gloom and Fei realized that his opponent had activated his light. The red Gear lay across Weltallís knees. Slowly, its pilot stood it to its full height, and Fei tensed, readying himself to continue the fight. But the red Gear simply crouched down in the landing position. Slowly, as if walking into the den of a wild beast, Fei got the Gear to its feet, and never taking his eyes from the red Gear, he began to squat, bending Weltallís knees and waist and placing the gigantic metal hands upon them. Then together, as if by some prearranged routine, the two combatants opened their cockpits and got out.
The man who stepped out into the light, when he had shrugged off the dark blue overalls that covered him, was a stereotypical pirate. He was young; perhaps only a few months older than Fei himself, but his manner seemed far older. A strange mixture of high-class manners, slovenly arrogance and a kind of lofty insecurity shone out of his candid blue eye. Physically, he was the perfect pirate, the dark eye patch giving his face a villainous air. He was tall, lean and athletic, with long elegant limbs and a body that was hard with muscle. His long, willowy legs were clad in white pants similar to those Citan wore, but of a far richer cloth. Above them, his sapling-like upper body was draped by an ornate red jacket, which Fei recognized as the kind of army uniform worn in Aveh several hundred years before. There were the lacy ruffles at the shoulders and cuffs, the embroidered epaulettes, and the set of brass buttons that shone in the gloom. Peeking out from beneath his collar was the sky blue tinge of satin, which seemed to be part of the uniform. The image of an arrogant upper-class fop was extenuated by a shock of corn colored hair that rolled off the manís skull and rippled down one shoulder in a wave no girl would be ashamed of. There it was gathered into a ponytail, tight with a strip of scarlet ribbon. But despite the hair, the well-tanned and chiseled face put pay to any impression of femininity. It was a hard-bitten, enthusiastic face that would drive women crazy.
"So, youíre not an Aveh soldier," the pirate exclaimed as his sapphire eye and dark patch ran up and down the rough-looking sandy scarecrow that stood before him. Fei felt a little hurt, not in the least because this fop stood a few inches taller than he did.
"Of course Iím not. My friend and I were prisoners on that sand cruiser which you blew up, almost burying us alive in the process."
The man cocked a golden eyebrow.
"Sorrreee! But if youíre that anxious to get yourself locked up, just commit a crime, will you?" The rather heavy-handed sarcasm seemed so incongruous in the aftermath of a desperate battle that Fei was forced to laugh. The waves of mirth poured out of him, and set his companion chuckling in sympathy, though the joke had been quite feeble.
"Iím Fei, Fei Fong Wong."
"Pleased to meet you, call me Bart."
Fei held out one unsuspecting hand and was treated to one of the most bone crushing handshakes he ever received. He rubbed his fingers feelingly.
"I thought weíd done fighting."
"Sorry. Beiní a rebel leader doesnít really do much for your social graces."
Fei stared at Bart, perplexed.
"I thought you were a pirate."
It was Bartís turn to laugh; a short barking sound, harsh as the sand that pooled on the cavernís floor.
"Well, that depends on oneís point of view. If one is bosom buddies with Shakhan..." He leaned back and sighed. "Then I suppose Iím a pirate. If one hates that bastardís stinking guts..." The expletive was made even more chilling for the casual way he tossed it in the air. "Then Iím a rebel."
"What if one doesnít give a damn either way?" said Fei daringly. He couldnít let this pirate; or was it rebel, have monopoly on sarcasm.
"Then one better make up oneís mind double quick. Cause I donít like being called a pirate."
"Okay. But donít you think we better get out of here before we start on politics?"
"Hmmm. Alright feller, weíll bury the hatchet until we see the sky again. But unless we try digging our way out, that could be a long time." After a cursory glance around the cavernís walls, Bartís sky-colored orb of an eye was fixed on the rock ceiling through which they had fallen.
"I donít see how we could; the more sand we shifted, the more would fall down on us. Weíll have to find a way out of this cave," Fei said, analyzing the situation.
"How do you plan to do that?"
"Well..." Feiís dark eyes looked inward for a moment, as his quick brain, well trained in logic by Citan, scanned the possibilities. "Weíll use my sonar."
"Sonar? On that Gear? Great idea. My Brigandier hasnít got anything like that!"
Fei returned to Weltallís cockpit and activated the sonar scanner. The echoes of sound bounced around the dim cavern, bouncing off walls and deep into cracks. Fei saw only one entrance, and that one would be a squeeze for Gears.
"Alright. Iíve found it, youíll have to follow me."
"Okay, but if I fall in a hole and kill myself, my ghostíll come back and haunt ya!!!"
Fei smiled. Whatever else Bart was, he was extremely likable.
As it turned out, Brigandier did almost fall down a hole and it was only the presence of Weltall that stopped the pirateís soul from parting company with his body. They were moving slowly down a long slope, with an underground river bubbling in a deep black gorge on their left, when they were attacked. The first thing they heard of the attack was a shriek of pure hatred from the darkness ahead: a malevolent, wrenching cry that was part animal, part cold machine. The lights of the two great Gears seemed meager in the dark, winking eyes that tried with little success to keep the clawing blind night away. After the sudden cold scream, the light flickered on the creatures that plunged out of the darkness. They could make out few details, only vague, black Gear-like shapes, which caught the light with a robotic glint of metal. They seemed to have no weapons except for their own bodies, and these they hurled at the intruders in a blistering wave of fury. Fei took out three with his ether weapons, the small beams slashing across two robotic heads, and the single blast all but incinerating a third. Bart also activated a volley of incandescent bolts similar to Feiís, which took out another four. But that still left six or seven menacing Gear robots charging into the fight.
It was a blind, ugly fight, and Fei remembered little of it, only the chaos of arms and legs and Bartís wire whip. Several of the robots were flung to crash in flaming ruin over the lip of the gorge; another was reduced to scrap by two powerful flying kicks from Brigandierís long legs. Another was severed almost in half by a deadly slash of Bartís whip, but that still left two.
Fei had been on the lip of the gorge, tossing one assailant casually down to the stream, when he saw Brigandier suddenly halt. Later, Bart explained that he had had to pause to intake fuel. But as Fei knew, more from instinct than knowledge, a Gear that was activating the tap from the great tank in the lower abdomen to the main metabolic engine in the neck was incapable of action for a few seconds. These few seconds of refueling had been fatal to some Gears who, in the throws of a desperate fight, had to intake pause; for that instant gave their enemies the space they needed, and it almost proved that way then.
The two robots dashed in and seized each of Brigandierís arms in a mighty grip. A second later, the massive red Gear began to struggle but it did no good. The creatures started to drag Bart forward to the fearful chasm down which Fei had so recently flung a number of their companions.
Fei was moving even before he knew about it. The ground operating speed of a Gear is somewhere in the region of 200 M.P.H. In the air, a Gear can reach speeds five times that number, but there is no calculating the speed at which Weltall, with both jets flaring, raced across the dim underground cavern. Even as they reached the lip of the chasm, Fei burst upon them like a streak of lightning. One robot thing died almost instantly, as Fei crunched one metallic fist into its scrappy brain. The other died a second later, with a concentrated blast of Weltallís main ether weapon. Reaching the grips forward, Fei seized Brigandier around the waist and dragged Bart to safety, as the echoes of the fight reverberated around the dim cavern.
"Guess I owe you one. Aní I suppose I canít keep trying to kill you anymore," Bartís mystified voice crackled out of Brigandierís loud halor.
"Letís get out of here first and worry about whoís killing who later."
They went on into the dark, on and on. The night under the earth kept gathering around them. They jumped great gaps and crevasses, they squeezed their Gears down to get through tiny cracks, they spider climbed across ledges, hundreds of feet above rocky floors. Every so often Weltall or Brigandier would stop for a few seconds, to suck the lifeblood of fuel into the primary intake. But what would happen when that fuel ran out? The lights would dim to a pale yellow, and then to a fearful black. They would either sit in their dark cockpits, the dread mysteries of the caves spreading around them, or, not 100 meters apart, they would starve to death. Unable to even so much as open the Gearís cockpit without the life giving fuel. Or maybe they would get out, and sit together on the rocky floor under the lifeless Gears, and share their sorrows until the dark, or the lack of food, or the dangerous denizens of these deep places killed them.
They were staggering up an incline, almost as tired as if it had been their own weak human feet rather than the tireless tread of their Gears that was carrying them into the stony darkness ahead. When suddenly, Bartís voice crackled out of his loud halor.
It was the harsh call, usually associated with sailors after a long voyage sighting their first piece of green land. Fei peered into the darkness and saw that Bart was right; a tiny pinprick, staining the blackness ahead like a minute bead of mercury, or a tiny star. Suddenly hope injected itself into their starving brains, and they charged forward, up the long slope until they reached a blank wall of unyielding rock.
"Where is it?" Bartís voice was almost accusing, as if he had been cheated of his escape.
"Down there." Fei pointed one of Weltallís vast arms, now streaked with mud and grime, down to an opening in the rock.
"We better go in on foot, donít wanta scare anybody."
Fei could see the wisdom in that advice, the last thing anyone would expect would be a pair of heavily armored battle Gears trampling into their midst. He certainly hadnít expected it... at Lahan. That brought a brief flash of pain, a pale memory of that raging grief that had sent him hurtling into the dark. But he shrugged, powered down his Gear and exited. He could worry about his emotional life later; when he was certain he was going to have any kind of life at all.
"Okay!" came a satisfied grunt from Bart as he dismounted from Brigandier. "We better go in with our hands up, show weíre peaceful!"
"Any idea of who they might be?"
Bart shook his head, which was just visible as a patch of darker blackness in the light of the small hollow in the wall ahead of them. Luckily, the slope was steep enough so that they could not be seen until they came close to the door.
"Could be desert nomads who got trapped down here, could be anyone reallyÖ"
With almost inappropriate levity, Bart struck a pose, shuffling forward with his head bent forward and his arms beating on his chest like a gorilla.
"Big chief caveman, me friend, ug! Ug!"
Fei laughed. Despite the fact that this young man was clearly a ruthless pirate, he had a kind of honest, sunny aura about him that reminded Fei strongly of Timothy. It would be easy to make a friend of someone like Bart, but what if he died?
Feiís gloomy reflections passed across his mind in a flash of sullen grayness, and then they vanished. Never mind friendship, he had to survive.
Bart stopped posturing and started walking up the slope, his long, gangling body surprisingly casual. Fei followed more stealthily, remembering the forest mutants that had sprung on him out of the dark. He didnít have his Gear to protect him anymore. In front of Fei, Bart became slowly more visible, the red of his foppish jacket, his gleaming buttons and hair, the fine cut of his white pants. Fei knew that compared to Bart he was a scarecrow, with sand still clinging to his torn clothes and hair.
It seemed a long, grueling climb up into the glowing light, which as they approached grew from an indefinite glimmer to an opening filled with the glimmer of candles and fire. Neither of them had an idea of what sort of thing to expect; it wouldnít be correct that they were ready for anything, more appropriately, they were ready for nothing. The light was safety and that was all that mattered.
They stumbled into the room, and blinked around in surprise. It was a small, circular cave, about four meters across. The walls were hung with hooks driven into the rocks, on which hung a variety of cooking utensils. In one corner was an old sleeping bag, laid comfortably on a pile of moss. A fire burned close to a hole in the wall, and candles were set on shelves in the rock, like glowing jewel eyes in the dark. Most of the rest of the shelves were covered with books, huge dusty tomes bound in leather and groaning under the weight of equally dusty titles. They were crammed in a disorderly pattern, and each leather spine bore several long worn finger-marks, as if they were extremely well used.
In the center of the room, like a polished stalagmite, was a roughly hewn table, hacked, it seemed, out of a single tree stump; and seated at the table on an equally rustic chair, perusing over an academic volume was the oldest man Fei had ever seen.
His skin was wrinkled and creased like an old robinís egg, its shell dry with age. His head bobbed on a long scrawny neck like a chickenís, cords standing out through the wrinkled flesh. His head was totally covered with disorganized, frost-colored hair, which gave his sunken face the look of wisdom. In his hollow sockets, a pair of extraordinarily bright eyes burned like red-hot coals. Though his body was withered, his brain was plainly green.
"So? Who have we here?" His voice creaked slightly, but under the strain was a note of almost irritable abstraction that reminded Fei of Citan.
"If youíd pardon us, sir." Bart swept a gracefully arrogant bow that seemed incongruous in that dim cavern with its rustic furniture.
"Pardon you? What have you done that would require pardons from me?"
Bart gave a forced laugh at what he evidently thought was a joke.
"We fell into these caves," put in Fei, taking the initiative.
"Fell...? But Iím surprised you didnít break your necks. Itís a long drop, I should imagine."
"Oh... we were in Gears," Bart explained, regaining his control of the situation. The old man didnít seem to have noticed Bartís discomfort. He leaned back in his chair, chuckling secretly to himself.
"Gears, eh? Thatís a turn up for the books. Havenít seen Gears since I came down here!"
"How long have you been down here?" Fei asked curiously.
"Five years or so. Iím an archaeologist, so it doesnít really bother me much. I got stuck down here when the Ethos built their sand barrier across the entrance to these caves. Finished excavating, you see."
"Sand barrier?" asked Bart, his eye suddenly lighting up like the sun in an azure sky. "You can turn those things off, canít you?"
"Why, yes. The switches for the sand sensors are in the caves just beyond this one. But Iíve had my work to do, and being underground isnít really a trial for an archaeologist." The old man chuckled again. There was a curious air of peace around him, as like that of a man who had everything he could want.
"So we just need to turn the sensors off, and the sand barrier will deactivate, right?" asked Bart eagerly. The old man nodded. Fei wasnít sure what a sand barrier was, or what sensors Bart was talking about, but he realized that the old man was giving them a way out of some kind, even if they did have to find it themselves.
"What is your name, sir?" Fei asked, his voice quiet from the aura of peace that seemed to infiltrate the room. The old archaeologist stared at the disheveled young man with perky, bird-like eyes.
"Some people used to call me Old Man Bal."
"What have you been doing down here?" Bartís voice was idle; now that the escape was at least partially sorted, he had time to chat.
"Research. Iím trying to find out where humans came from."
"But, we evolved didnít we, from apes?" The lesson came unbidden to Feiís lips like an evolved reflex. Bal shook his wise head.
"Thatís what the Ethos says, but I havenít found any human remains more than 10,000 years old. I prefer to believe in the legends."
Fei was intrigued. Here was someone openly denying truths which he had taken as granted for as long as he could remember; a short time though that was. Balís black eyes had become introspective, winking with the fire of an artist talking of his work.
"The old legends say we came here from some other place, possibly paradise."
"What are these legends, anyway? Iíve never heard of them."
Balís face tinged a little with pride: the powerful, insidious gleam of one who knows something that others donít.
"I found them, buried here by the Ethos. Shall I read you one?"
Bemusedly, they both nodded. The old man seemed in no hurry for them to leave, and neither of them wanted to face the darkness of the caves just yet.
Old Man Bal reached one gnarled claw of a hand into a stack of volumes, and collected one mighty tome. He laid it on the table in a puff of dust, and with a slow reverent shaking in his aged hands, opened the crackling pages.
They were brown and crackled, old and dusty. Across the pages was a spidery black profusion of marks that neither Fei nor Bart recognized as any form of writing. But at risk of burning his ear off, Bal held a candle over the book and began to scan it with the bright marbles of his eyes. Then he started to read in a cracked old voice that seemed the verbal equivalent of the book that lay before them in all its dusty glory.
"...And it came to pass, that god created man, and man didst abide with him in the volts of paradise. But man in his disobedience, ate of the fruit of that tree which is forbidden, that tree which is called knowledge, and so man was accursed. Then didst man become great, and grew like unto god, and god was wroth with him. Then didst man make giants for the overthrowing of god, and didst man put into them all his wickedness so that they would be strong and terrible as god himself. Then was there great strife across heaven, and the mountains were cast down and fires consumed continents. And it was at that time that god was worsted, and so shrank away to sleep for a thousand decades in the deeps of the sea. Upon the world did god set men of goodness and faithful hearts, there to awaken and prepare his dwelling place."
As the arcane cadences echoed around the cave, Fei stared into the fire, imagining giants and gods, and the fruit of knowledge. His dark eyes looked inwards as he tried to imagine the unimaginable. But Bart had been less seriously affected; he had perched on the edge of the table, his long muscular legs swinging idly.
"Those giants, theyíd be Gears, right? Boy, Iíd love to get my hands on Gears like those."
Bal shook his venerable head gravely.
"Such powers are not for the hand of man. Let us leave the god Gear wherever it lies."
"Do you know where it is?"
Bal shook his head again.
"I do not. Such a weapon would be able to destroy whole cities with a sweep of its arm. Its battle cries would thunder across the heavens!" The old man leaned back, running wooden hands down the deep purple tattered cloak he wore. "Speaking of Gears, I imagine yours will want refueling if youíre going to find those sand sensors. Iíll go see to it."
He left, taking up a box of tools on his way.
Fei looked at Bart and wondered at the flashing desire that had filled his face when he spoke of the god Gear.
"So, youíve heard of these god Gears, Bart?" Fei asked carefully.
"Yep. Some call emí god Gears, most call emí omnigears. But whatever they are, theyíve been around recently; well, in the last 500 years anyway. There was a war back then, and there were some pretty powerful Gears used in that war. Recently, a lot of Gears have been found with bullet marks on emí, and I wondered if someone might have found an omnigear."
Suddenly, into Feiís mind jumped an image that he had previously ignored: a small number of infinite camal holes, bored into the steel of Weltallís right leg. Could Weltall have been one of those war Gears, he asked himself. Fei was just about to ask Bart why he should want such a powerful weapon anyway, when Balís voice floated through the dark doorway.
"This is the host for the spirit of the slayer of god!"
Fei was startled; the comfortable walls of the old manís cavern seemed to press in on him. What was it the old man had said? But then Bal himself came shuffling into the light, and Fei shook off the mysterious mood.
"What were you saying about the slayer of god?"
"I didnít say anything." Balís eyes were black and unfriendly as stones, and his voice was final.
"But you said Ďthis is the host for the spirit of the slayer of god...í thatís what you said, isnít it old man? Do you mean that one of our Gears is..."
"No!" The word cracked off the old archaeologistís withered lips like a chip of granite. "Your Gears are refueled. You must go. You will find the sand sensors marked on this map." He rummaged a spidery diagram of the cave system off one shelf.
"Arenít you coming?" Bart asked. Bal shook his head, his sudden chill evaporating a little.
"No. Iím an archaeologist. Iím happy here, and I still have work to do. Be careful, those caves are full of rogue machines."
They thanked the old man for his help, but his deep black eyes were distant and brooding, and he almost seemed to push them out into the darkness of the cave.
"Well, thereís a strange old guy! Do you think we can trust his map?"
Fei nodded, though Old Man Bal had been far from amiable, he wasnít evil.
Bart climbed into Brigandierís cockpit and turned his light on the wall.
"I thought so. This wallís a sand barrier. Whereís that map say the switches are?"
Fei climbed into Weltallís cockpit and peered at the map in the light of the glowing controls.
"Thereís one straight ahead, and thereís another close by. But the last oneís miles away."
"Okay. Weíll take out the easy two first, then start the long haul. Iíll follow you again."
Caverns stretched out around them, sprawling away in a profusion of blackness. The lights of the two Gears winked off precious ores and rusting hulks of machinery, left to rot in the tunnels. They found the first switch easily, a reddish box standing a few feet up on the wall, with a control panel set underneath it. Fei came to a halt and climbed down, and in a moment Bart was beside him.
"Whoa! Thatís a real relic. They havenít used sensors like that in ten years." Bart stared at the machine with an almost Citan-like fascination with the mechanical. Then he shrugged and pulled a lever. The red box slowly faded to black and there was a perceptible descending whine as the old machine ground to a halt.
The second switch, only a few caverns further on, was far harder to pull. The old cavern in which it was situated had cracked in some rock fall, and a wide black fissure ran across the center.
"Booster time." Bart sounded almost pleased as his voice crackled from Brigandierís loud halor.
Fei shook his head, then remembering that Bart couldnít see him, spoke into his own microphone.
"Roofís too low."
"Damn! Oh well. Guess we gotta do it the old fashioned way."
Bart activated an ether weapon, the thin beam of lethal energy slamming into the red box above the control panel, the plastic melting under its intensity. Then with a little firework-like spout of flame the box exploded, blasting a sizable hole in the wall behind it.
"What did you do that for?" Feiís tone was indignant; suppose Bartís gung-ho attitude had locked the system down, and trapped them down here forever?
"I turned it off," Bart said happily, the crackle of his amplified voice not hiding a little smugness. "Who said guns donít solve everything?"
Fei resisted the urge to smile.
"You could have brought tons of rock down on our heads!"
"Nope, this rockís as solid as a rock."
Fei gave up.
It was a long, dark and silent journey to the third switch; a maze of stony clefts and towering cliffs that they never could have navigated with out Old Man Balís map. The third sand sensor was up against the great brownish wall of sand Bart had pointed at outside Balís cave. It was set in one long gallery, the sand wall running up one side, a little stream trickling down the center. They stayed on their guard; though they had seen no sign of the gray robots at the first two caves, they couldnít be too careful.
"Here we are," said Bart, sighing through his amplifier. But even as he spoke, something clanked its way out of the shadows into the light: an ancient destroyer that looked like it had waited for centuries for some opponent to stumble into its stony arena.
It looked like a Gear, except that it had no cockpit. Its sides were a stately metallic gray, scratched and scarred and muddied with a thousand battles. But even as his body and the Gear that encased it froze with shock, Feiís mind was already assessing. The thing was larger in height and girth than either Weltall or Brigandier. It was probably slower as well. If it had no distance weapons they might have a chance.
"Bart, can you keep it busy and keep out of its way?"
"Way ahead of you. Come on, Brigandier!"
From Brigandierís cannon an ether blast spat fiery defiance at the monster, but this did little more than score another scratch in its paintwork. Fei fired as well, both the small hand beams and large gun, but all of it was reflected from the thingís gray armor.
"Itís tough," Bart yelled, jetting forward swinging his whip. The creature came to meet him, swinging inside the blow and seizing the red Gear with two enormous arms. It hurled Brigandier spinning against the wall, then turned to Fei, the red splotches of rust on its metal glowing in the light.
"Are you okay, Bart!?"
"Fine... keep it busy."
Fei ran backwards, but even as he ran the creature spat its own ether. The beam slashed forward like a wave, and only a quick burn of Weltallís jets and a bone shaking impact with the ceiling stopped Weltall from being reduced to a smoking ruin. But as the robot lumbered forward, Brigandier was swinging at its neck with that metal cutting whip. The end scored a long furrow in the neck armor through which old circuits peeped.
From his place on the ceiling, Fei saw an opening. His hands raised across the controls. He brought one foot up, and cut Weltallís jets. The dropkick caught the creature on the shoulder, and the force of it knocked the thing to the ground. Then as Weltall jumped backwards with another jet burn, Brigandier fired into the creatureís neck, circuits fizzing and popping in flurries of sparks in the stream of ether.
Fei slumped against Weltallís padded cockpit, slowing his agitated breathing, ignoring Bartís wild, amplified yell.
"We! Did! It! How! Howíd you like to be in my navy, Fei?"
"No thanks, I donít fancy piracy," replied Fei tiredly.
But even as Bart started to reply, the creature started to get slowly and laboriously to its feet, the light gleaming in the terrible rent in its neck. Fei felt something move inside him; something behind those walls of night that blocked off his mind. Everything seemed for a second to go black, and a roaring filled his ears.
"Get out of the way, Bart!!"
He screamed at Bart, not knowing exactly what was going to happen, but knowing it was going to be destructive. Then the ether came, not a single blast, or a beam, but a huge roaring tide. The bluish white wave struck the creature and engulfed it in leaping, hissing mental energy. The effect couldnít have been more devastating had it been struck by lightning. Its gray body was outlined in incandescent fire. For a few seconds it seemed to swell, then with a tremendous clattering bang, it shattered into fragments.
"How the hell did you do that?" Bartís voice was awed. But Fei only felt shattered and drained as he looked on the broken fragments of his robotic enemy.
"I donít know."
Whether the wave of destruction had come from his mind, or from Weltall he didnít know, but either way he was tired of fighting. Wordlessly, Bart crossed to the switch and pressed it.
There was a slow shifting, a sound like distant avalanches trickling, falling, and then rising to a stony crescendo. The brown sand wall that had been built up and locked in place ripped and tore away in a shower of dust. And light, pure unadulterated daylight, poured into that place of eternal shadows, washing over the three Gears with a force as sharp and elemental as the ether that had lit up the cave a short time ago. But the day was a force of life, and the ether had only been a force of death, a power that Fei could do without.
The excavation site was a desolate place, and the broken wall of the sand barrier staring out like a mouth of night didnít lend it any charm. Rusting hunks of machinery were scattered around the sandy basin, with the harsh desert light doing little in the way of lending them any attractive quality. The light only made them harsher and harder; more real, more desolate and lonely. About the only whole machines in the place were Weltall and Brigandier, with their huge shadows stretching out across the sand in languid glory. Bart and Fei were stretched out beneath them: Feiís filthy clothes sticking to his body, and Bartís immaculate garments becoming soiled with sand.
They had been lying there for a good half-hour, waiting for their eyes to accustom themselves to the bright desert sky, and for their minds to forget the dark. They waited in silence; each wrapped in his own thoughts.
"Well, suppose Iíd better get moving. Theyíve probably finished at the crash site by now. I just hope it doesnít take them too long to get here."
"Finished at the crash site?" asked Fei, hoping to turn the conversation away from his sudden destruction of the monster in the cave.
"Pickiní up stuff: Gear parts, weapons ammo, survivors..."
"Survivors!" Fei cut in.
Bartís handsome face scowled with the irritation of being interrupted.
"Are you turning into a parrot, Fei?" he growled in mock anger.
"Are you turning into..." Fei began, matching Bartís inclination exactly.
Bart laughed abruptly, and then sobered, his blue eye going distant again. It was amazing, Fei thought, that the eye patch didnít lend his expressions any kind of lopsided or injured quality, but it seemed part of him; like his bronze hair, or his foppish old-fashioned jacket: the mark of a pirate. They had only known each other for a little less than a day and they were turning into friends, Fei thought. That sort of word play and camaraderie had been a common pastime for him and Timothy back in Lahan.
"Yeah, we always pick up survivors. Canít just leave íem out here to die, can I?"
"I suppose not."
Bart got to his feet, and Fei was struck at how tall he was: tall, strong and handsome, everything a boy could wish.
"I better call the Yggdrasil."
"Yggdrasil?" Fei parroted again, but Bart didnít seem to notice.
"My sand ship. Sigurdís probably worried."
Fei was just about to say "Sigurd?" when he realized that it would make him sound like a complete idiot, and Bart would then probably take up some more mockery, so he shut up.
Bart crossed to the towering Brigandier with long, gangling strides, with the desert afternoon light winking on both metal and hair. With deft, practiced movements, he scrambled up the ladder and into the cockpit. In half a second he emerged, with a radio under one arm. He climbed halfway down the metal ladder then jumped to the ground, little puffs of dust rising from beneath his boots. Almost as he touched down, he was speaking into the microphone; the only tuning a lightning twist of a dial with slim, tanned fingers.
"Hi guys, itís me."
"Boss?" came the tiny voice from the speaker.
"Yeah. Look, can you bring the wagon round here, pronto?"
"Weíll be there, but what happened, though? You really fell in deep shit there, boss."
"I did, fell in a real deep hole and had to get this other guy to help me out. Youíll have to meet him, heís a real great guy, see you soon!"
He clicked off the radio and set it on the gravely ground at his feet. Fei was just about to comment on the almost incomprehensible message, when he realized its purpose. Bart had told his pirate friends that he was all right, needed picking up, and had met an ally. He had not given away his location or his name, and any enemy listening in would probably not even suspect that it was a band of bandits he was listening to.
"Okay, all we gotta do now is wait!" They did that, sitting in thoughtful silence while the burning orb of the sun slowly sank into the distance, and the sad shadows of the overturned machines grew longer, darker and more evil. Fei thought of the unexpected turn his life had taken: of how Grahf had changed him from the young village boy to a fugitive, purposeless as an ill-thrown ball.
The first sight Fei had of the Yggdrasil was a cloud of dust on the horizon. With surprising speed the cloud of dust grew closer, and he began to see flashes and winks of metal. It was roughly the size of the sand cruiser, but far more graceful: a streamlined gray craft with a pointed nose and maneuverable looking jets. On the side was the same symbol Fei remembered on the backs of the pirate Gears, a circle in bright yellow with a Y in the center.
"Bring..." Bart flapped one hand at the dark figure of Weltall, squatting companionably next to Brigandier. "Whatís his name?"
"Weltall," affirmed Fei, climbing up the ladder between the swelling jets, into the widening cockpit.
A huge Gear-sized door opened in the side of the ship, and almost solemnly, they stood their Gears and walked through.
At first it seemed dark in the Gear bay when the gigantic doors slammed shut with a hiss of hydraulics. There was a shuddering vibration as the Yggdrasil got under way again. Fei crossed to a wall and lowered Weltall to a landing position. He felt a strange reluctance to leave the Gear; though the small metal box of the cockpit had been the scene of such fervent hatred and anger, it was all he had. Citan was lost, and possibly killed. All the people of Lahan, the only family he had ever known were also dead; or they were living in hatred of him. Weltall seemed familiar: the slightly sticky leather of the grips, the glowing eyes of the controls, the scratched Perspex of the window. But in spite of his fears, he opened the cockpit roof and climbed down.
"Come on Fei, you can clean up and then weíll drop you off wherever you want to go."
"I donít want to go anywhere. Just leave me near some city and Iíll be fine. You can keep Weltall if you like."
Bart stared at him, speechless, but before he could think of anything to say, the cluttered expanse of the Gear bay was filled with blinding light, and standing in a body near one of the inside doors was a group of three men that Bart plainly recognized.
One was dressed in a white and purple jumpsuit, with the same Yggdrasil Y circle on the jacket and small purple epaulets at the shoulders. His skin was a deep amber, and his long hair was a snowy fresh cascade of alabaster. But he was clearly no older than 28 or so. He moved with a kind of assurance that told Fei that this man knew what he was doing. His single eye, the same sky blue color as Bartís, took in the two young people with a mixture of mild amusement and relief. Like Bartís, his other eye was hidden behind a black patch, but like Bart it took nothing from the effect of his face.
The man on his right, though his hair was gray, was clearly far older than his white-haired companion. Across his aged cheeks and the bright sockets of his eyes, he wore a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles that glinted in the light. His aged body was wrapped in a purple formal suit and black tie, with a white shirt peeking discretely. A red comber band was ringing his waist in precise formal patterns. He took in Feiís disheveled appearance with a look of kind distaste.
The third man stood behind the others, the light from the door making him only a black silhouette with the vague outline of a pair of glasses and a ponytail. Then suddenly, a familiarly abstracted voice spoke from the door, and even before he moved into the light Fei recognized the man as his old friend and teacher.
"Glad to see you alive Fei, for a minute back there I thought youíd gone to a sandy grave, but I estimate that it takes more than sedimented rock to stop Weltall!"
"Doc! How did you get here?" Feiís voice was exultant, his brown eyes flashing with love for his friend.
"Oh, Bartholomew was kind enough to pick me up along with the survivors from that Aveh cruiser."
Fei noticed that all traces of the encrusting sand, which still clung to his own body, were totally absent in Citanís. Furthermore, his friend was dressed in a dark green jumpsuit: a little tight across the shoulders, but snug fitting and well made.
"You know this guy, Hyuga?" the white-haired man asked, and for a moment Fei wondered who he was talking to, when suddenly Citan answered.
"Yes. This is the boy I was telling you about, Sigurd. His nameís Fei Fong Wong. Fei, this is my old partner in crime, Sigurd Harcout."
Fei stuck out his hand a little awkwardly, and Sigurd pumped it.
Bart, who had been standing in the background, stepped forward to lead the way.
"This a friend of yours, Sig?" asked Bart breezily, stalking down the long, brightly lit corridor. Its walls were steel but its floor was tastefully carpeted. Sigurd gave a nod, his shock of prematurely snowy hair winking in the light.
"Hyuga and me go way back."
"Well, any friend of Sigís is a friend of mine. Pleased to meet you, Hugo."
"Itís Hyuga, actually," muttered Citan, falling into step next to the cocky pirate leader. "But these days Iím generally known as Citan Uzuki."
Bart shrugged as if the barrage of new names was too much for him.
There were a number of heavy-duty doors opening off the corridor, but Bart passed them without a glance. A few steps on, the corridor opened out onto what was plainly the bridge: huge porthole windows in front, and several view-screens and monitors crowding the walls. A number of crew members in blue uniforms bearing the token of the Y gave salutes as they came in. Bart acknowledged their greetings with a negligent wave.
"Take a powder guys, weíll be home soon."
Fei didnít trouble to remind Bart of his promise to drop him off somewhere, but sat down on a jump seat between Citan and the old spectacled retainer, who had remained silent during the brief walk.
"The young master didnít get around to introducing me, Sirs. My name is Maison, and I am proud to be the young masterís valet and butler."
Fei laughed, he had never heard such flowery sentences outside television.
"Pleased to meet you. Whereíre we going?"
"I believe the young master is navigating us back to our secret..." Maisonís wrinkled brow creased as if trying to find a civilized word, but after a moment he gave up. "Hideout."
Fei turned to Citan.
"Are these people safe? Canít we just go to the nearest city and..." Fei dried up as he realized that he really did have nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Citan shook his head and his ponytail swung from side to side.
"For one thing, Shakhanís out looking for us, and he controls a fairly capable spy network. It would be hard to remain undetected for long. Anyway, Iíd trust Sigurd with my life."
"So you should, Hyuga," the white-haired man said, clapping Citan on the shoulder with one well-muscled hand. "After all, you saved mine."
For the first time since he had known him, Fei saw a touch of embarrassment touch Citanís slanted black eyes.
He was saved by a hail from Bart.
"Honey, weíre home!"
Fei stood and crossed the bridge to a porthole. He suddenly realized that the engine throb, which had punctuated their conversation like some background music, had ceased. Either the Yggdrasil was far faster than it looked, or Bartís base was ridiculously close to the excavation site. Staring out of the circular glass window, he was disappointed to see only darkness, punctuated by a few lights shining on metal.
"Intriguing, a natural cavern totally lined with sheet metal. Such a structure would have extreme advantages as a base," said Citan, looking over Feiís shoulder.
"And that metalís almost totally scanner proof," put in Sigurd, still perched on the jump seat.
"Are you just going to stand there discussing the base, or are you coming?" broke in Bart impatiently, striding purposefully towards the door. Fei, Citan, Sigurd, Maison and a conclave of blue uniformed personnel fell into step behind him in an almost military formation.
The cavern was huge. Its ceiling was lost in darkness, and massive ark-lights swung from the steel clad walls at intervals, illuminating the floor of the cavern in an unearthly orange. The wall of the cavern was pockmarked with the mouths of a series of doors, ranging from some that would take the Yggdrasil, down through various sizes of Gears and Land Crabs, to a large number of ordinary, human-sized apertures.
There seemed to be people everywhere: several of them working on damaged Gears and machines, a number of them testing other machines over to one side. The air was full of the shouts of the workers, the roar of machinery and the laughter of children. A number of them came skidding up to Bart, their faces smudged with the kind of dirt that often congregates on children engaged in healthy physical exercise.
"Kids! Got you a present!" Reaching into an inside pocket of his jacket, Bart produced a small amber figurine carved expertly in the likeness of a ravening Gear; its hands raised as if to deliver some devastating ether attack.
"Erm, Bart," began Fei, suddenly remembering where he had seen that statue before as the children ran off laughing. "Wasnít that on a shelf in Balís cave?"
"Yes. I thought it could do with a little air, and Bal wonít miss it!" Bartís handsome face was entirely deadpan.
The blue-clad staff dispersed in all directions; off duty, Fei supposed. Bart began to lead the way across the pools of light, towards one of the human-sized openings in the wall.
"Iíll give you the grand tour."
But he had hardly gone ten steps, when a man in blue coveralls appeared as if by magic.
"Bart, weíve finished making those modifications on the new Aveh Gears youíve brought in, and I think weíve found the problem with Heimdal."
Bart let fly a colorful monosyllabic description of the activity favored by couples in love, and turned to Fei and Citan with an apologetic look on his face.
"Sorry, but Iíve got to go. Sigurd, Iíll need you too. Maison, could you take our guests to the dining room and give them some tea? Iíll be along as soon as I can." Without waiting for an answer, Bart hurried off, followed by the lanky Sigurd. The white of Bartís trousers, and of Sigurdís hair and suit, were stained a deceased looking shade of okra by the ark lights as they hurried away.
"If you will follow me." The old butler led the way towards another of the openings in the wall. Fei couldnít be sure, but he thought he heard Maisonís knee joints crack as he walked, his immaculate purple livery looking black in the sodium glare of the lights. They followed him through the portal into a long corridor, lined with the same metal as the cavern, and hung with more normally colored electric bulbs. After a few meters he turned right into a carpeted passage, then walked along it to the end where he motioned them all to step into an elevator that was attractively walled with mirrors to avoid seeming claustrophobic. Fei was not sure whether they went down or up, or even how many floors they passed, but when the doors slid open, he saw a longer, broader passageway. This time it was floored with marble, and lit with attractive wall lamps, hung at intervals between the doors. "The dining room," Maison announced proudly, swinging open a heavily carved door with a flourish. He stood politely behind it as Fei and the doctor stepped inside, then he closed it behind them.
The room was one of the most finely decorated Fei had ever seen. The walls were covered in a paper with an extremely ornamental design of flowers and leaves, which exactly matched the pattern on the brown carpet. Though the room was windowless, it was more than adequately lit by the great crystal chandelier that hung in the center of the ceiling; it was lending the room the luster of mid-day, burning like some great crystalline octopus.
On one wall hung a fine scale model of the Yggdrasil, sailing proudly over waves of flowered wallpaper, each jet and curve of its elegant body flawlessly produced, the yellow symbol on its side blazing like a miniature sun. Beneath this model was set a fine oak sideboard loaded with a collection of tea things. There were fine porcelain cups and saucers, emblazoned with a curving, almost snakelike pattern. A silver teapot covered with an embroidered cozy, and a plate carrying a collection of homemade shortbread that cried eat me. In the center of the room under the chandelier was a long oval table covered with lace cloths and unlit candlesticks. About it were clustered a number of padded upright chairs, like Gears around a sand cruiser. But Maison motioned them to two plush armchairs, set next to the sideboard.
"The crest of the Fatima dynasty," muttered Citan, staring at the design on the china.
Maisonís old face smiled in pleasure.
"Indeed, Mr. Uzuki, I see you are a well educated man."
"Doc knows most things about everything," put in Fei, purloining a piece of shortbread which was almost, but not quite as good as Yuiís.
"Oh! I do beg your pardon, Doctor, I had no idea you were qualified."
"For my sins, I am a doctor, yes. But I was wondering, Mr. Maison..."
The old man cut him short politely.
"Just Maison, if you donít mind. I am only a humble butler."
"Yes." Citanís voice was abstracted, as his dark eyes narrowed into a frown. "What I was wondering was, where did you come by this china? Such things as this are generally reserved for the rulers of the country."
"Ah, well, we have many such relics of the Fatima dynasty here. You may certainly see them if such things interest you."
"The Fatima dynasty? Werenít they the royal family who ruled Aveh before Shakahn took over? The last prince and his relatives died of some sort of disease about 12 years ago, didnít they?"
"Well... erm, not precisely. Shakahn spread that about as a rumor so that he could seize power. You see..." Maison paused, folding his cracked hands and looking puzzled, as if searching for a way to make an announcement. "Master Bartholomew is the Fatima prince." Maison paused again as if expecting some surprise, but both Citan and Fei remained unmoved. Citan reached for the sugar bowl and emptied about 5000 calories worth into his tea, while Feiís deep brown eyes went distant. He had half expected it; why else would Bart call himself a rebel, and why else would he accuse Fei of being ĎShakahn scum.í
"What about his relatives, are any of them still alive as well?" Citan asked, slurping the syrupy mass in his teacup.
"Only her Ladyship, the Princess Marguerite. She is the young masterís cousin and they are... betrothed." Maison sighed gustily as if ruminating on old troubles. Fei sipped his tea and leaned back in his chair, briefly worrying about what the dirt on his clothes would do to the expensive upholstery. "But she is in Shakahnís captivity."
"I do not understand," began Citan, reaching for his first shortbread before Fei finished the plateful. "What advantage would Shakahn gain from holding the Princess captive? He has already gained power successfully in Aveh, and he will not require a hostage to force the prince to cease his terrorist operations. I would surmise that with all due respect, his standing army is sufficient to defeat the prince."
Maison nodded sadly, his old eyes hidden behind the dazzling reflections of his spectacled lenses.
"That is true, Doctor, but the reason Miss Marguerite has been kidnapped is far more sinister. She possesses one half of the Fatima Jasper, which leads the way to the Fatima treasure. If Shakahn can by some method persuade her to part with the Jasper, he perhaps believes he may be able to find the treasure. The young master of course, has the other half of the Fatima Jasper, so it is highly likely that Shakahn is looking to capture him as well so that he can find the treasure. Thus we are all certain that Marguerite is still alive."
"What precisely is this Jasper?" asked Citan, placing one hand on his green-clad knees and leaning forward like a dog on a scent.
"I am not privy to that information, sir. Shakahn believes that it is some kind of medallion."
Fei finished his tea and poured himself another; his hands automatic, his mind lost in a world of Fatima Jaspers, royal families and hidden treasure.
"What is this treasure?" Citan asked, polishing off the last piece of shortbread.
"No oneís really sure."
Bart strode into the room, his long ponytail bobbing. Sigurd was by his side, with his hair white and gleaming in the light.
"Ancient records say itís some sort of weapon; perhaps a mega-powerful Gear, like what that old man was going on about, and thatís something both me and Shakahn want to get our hands on."
"I wouldnít mind seeing some of these records. Iíve read a fair bit on archaeology, but Iíve never heard of giant buried Gears in connection with the Fatima dynasty." Citanís dark eyes were sparkling, but this time Fei recognized the expression as the ĎIím going to stick my nose iní look.
"Iíll show you," offered Bart.
Hurriedly, Fei drained his tea and tagged onto the end of the line that disappeared out of the dining room door and through the corridor. Fei expected Bart to walk to the lift, but he was mistaken. The pirate only walked a few steps down the corridor and pushed open another of the heavily carved oaken doors that lined it.
The room behind this one was far less posh than the dining room. Its walls were a functional mat gray, and its floor was steel. But placed around the walls and stacked on shelves, was the most advanced array of viewing equipment that Fei had ever seen or heard of. Videos, scan discs, a computer with keypad and monitor, and at the end an immense viewing screen that was a full four feet across. Bart fiddled with some knobs and punched in a serial number on the keypad.
The wide face of the screen was suddenly filled with the image of an old and browned parchment; the once bright inks that stained its surface made dull with age. Fei saw the immense figure of what looked like a Gear, picked out with flames and blurring bursts of power around it. Beneath it in a circle, were a group of human figures with one in the center picked out in scarlet with a crown about his head.
"The legend says that the first king of Aveh got giants to help him found the kingdom, but when he was established as king, he set the giants to sleep until they were needed."
Citanís brows creased together as he peered intently at the parchment, as if he could conjure up the past by sheer force of gaze and will.
"In the old legends, Gears were often referred to as giants. But Iíve never heard of this one before, and I havenít seen this parchment before, either. Where did you get it?"
"Castle records. Thatís one store of knowledge the church wonít get its claws on." He punched a few more buttons and a second parchmentís image appeared on the screen. This one showed a flaming giant, rearing up in glory before a stylized castle, with a tiny blurred figure standing in terror on the castleís battlements. "This is another of those records from 500 years ago. I reckon the treasure has to be a Gear, and a damn powerful one. We really need power."
The last four words seemed to be aimed at Fei, and Fei was suddenly conscious of how blue Bartís eye was: blue and hard and cold.
"Whatís that supposed to mean?" he asked uncomfortably, feeling the beginnings of anger.
"I suppose Maison told you all about Margie and everything?"
Fei nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Grahfís words rocketed in his brain, was he really born to be a destroyer?
"So you see, we need power." Bartís voice was impatient, his tanned face eager. "Look Fei, youíre a helluva fighter. The way you blasted that thing back in the stalactite cave..." The pirate shook his head in appreciation of Feiís skill. "We could do with someone like you."
"You can have Weltall." Feiís voice was flat and dead as a fallen tree, and even as he said it he remembered Elly in Blackmoon Forest, exhorting him not to leave the powerful machine in anyoneís hands but his own.
"Itís not about Weltall. Iíve seen men in Gears that could destroy a battalion, and you could knock them down like a feather. Youíre a born fighter, Fei, and I need men like you. Join me, youíve seen the state Avehís in. We could use you, and your friend."
All through Bartís speech, Feiís rage had been mounting; a born fighter, him! If so then it was the innocent he fought, those who couldnít fight back; like the defenseless citizens of Lahan who lay dead with his ether burns on them. The flaming tide swelled up in bitter waves tinged with shame and Fei could only huddle into a mental corner and wait. Then suddenly the tide burst.
"Why! Why is everyone trying to make me into something Iím not? I hate fighting, because every time I fight, somebody ends up dying. I donít want that kind of power! Not if it makes me a monster!" Feiís words choked, and his eyes filled with the now familiar prick of tears: like gouging needles, a just punishment for his many crimes. Blazing with fury and remorse, he rushed from the room, sobbing, tears rolling down his face in scolding streams.
"Whatís eating him?" Bart turned to Citan, his rugged face more seriously upset than his casual tone. The doctor inclined his head gravely, his almost Kislevian features solemn as a mourner.
"He is undergoing a severe emotional crisis right now."
"Youíre telling me!" Bartís voice was stunned.
"You were a little overzealous, young master," Sigurd commented, his amber face showing a tide of embarrassment at his leaderís blunder.
"Yeah, well, you should have seen that guy, blew a huge rogue Gear into scrap metal in one blast. We need him, not just his Gear, him!"
"I am afraid it is unlikely that in his present state Fei could have the emotional stability to pilot a Gear in any cause save self-defense, and that only in the direst danger." Citanís voice was flat and unhappy, his eyes cast down. Fei had been almost a son to him ever since he came to Lahan, and Citanís mood was reciprocal to Feiís.
"How did he get like that, what? What happened?" All sparkle had gone out of Bart, he was no longer the brave and dashing pirate leader, only a tired young man with a load of responsibility and the guilt of unwittingly hurting another human being.
"Iíll tell you."
When his initial momentum had carried him out of the room, Fei felt the blazing fury die to an agonizing ache. He walked robotically, just like he had in the forest darkness, brown eyes cast down at the carpet. He let his feet guide him, turning a corner in the corridor and seeing a wooden door loom up like an inescapable destiny. Had his mind not been burning in the fires of Lahan, Fei would have noticed the white printed notice on the doorís panels: ĎBartís room. Enter and die.í
He pushed the door open and walked in, ignoring the threat of impending death that hung above the door. Like a disconnected, impersonal thing, Feiís hand felt for the light switch. His fingers found it and clicked it on, even as his mind saw ether waves spurting from his Gear and more innocence dying in screaming agony.
The room was small and expensive and impersonal as a suite in a hotel. The walls were an attractive shade of cream, which exactly matched the table lamp, the carpet, the bed covers and the plush cushion on the stool in the corner. A number of costly masculine cosmetics clustered about the top of the dressing table, and a straight razor in a leather case lurked on a shelf like a small and deadly guard dog. The only sign that this room belonged to a ruthless pirate leader was the long whip hung on one wall. It was a murderous weapon: a leather handle attached to a two meter stretch of light strong chain, coiled and black like a python. At one end hung a fist-sized ball of black metal that would crack a skull as easily as Fei could crack a twig.
He was just admiring the deadly weapon, and wondering how many people a destroyer like himself could kill with it, when he heard footsteps outside the door. Frantically, he looked for a hiding place, and like a hunted animal he jumped behind the solid padded stool. From his miserable vantage point, he saw Bart walk in, the light gleaming on his jacketís brass buttons.
"Try to be a friend to a guy and he blows up on you," Bart muttered, his strong face surprisingly delicate in the subdued lighting. He plucked a photograph from a shelf and stared at it intently. From his hiding place, Fei could see the dim outline of a laughing girlís face, with a cloud of brown hair. The part of Feiís mind that wasnít seeing images of death wondered if this was the princess Marguerite. After a few moments, the young prince turned, his single eye lonely and inapproachable. Then he turned and left.
Fei sat for a moment, then he felt unable to stay in Bartís room any longer. The fury waxed strong once more, and he rushed from the room, blindly seeking for a sanctuary from his feelings.
Fei sat stiffly on the crate; he didnít see the long cavern stretching out in front of him, the Yggdrasil with its sleek promise of speed and power, not the massive Gears, some repaired and some modified, and even the purple black shape that loomed over to one side avoided his notice. All he saw were blasted buildings, dead bodies, and familiar and friendly faces filled with the blackest hate. He remembered nothing, thought nothing, simply replayed reels of images on the screen of his mind like an endlessly revolving loop of videotape: ruins, death, hatred, ruins, death, hatred, ruins, death... Like the soundtrack to a devilís movie, words throbbed again and again: I donít want that power, I donít want that power, I donít want...
His reverie was interrupted by a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Bart, blond hair gleaming in the light, princely red foppish jacket hanging off his shoulders in a sheet of scarlet.
"Look. Citan told me what happened, and I can see why the fighting gets your wind up. But what happened back then, that was madness, that wasnít fighting. Shakahnís ruining Aveh and making thousands of peopleís lives a misery. Iím not asking you to fight for me, thatís no reason, and thereís always gotta be a reason."
"No." Feiís voice was flat and colorless as the steel floor his boots rested on. "There is no reason for death, and thatís all fighting brings."
"Youíre wrong." Bartís voice was harsh and full of conviction. "When you fight for the right reason then fighting can be..."
"Justified?" Fei cut in as Bart paused to think of a word.
Feiís face was bitter as bile, but he turned it away from Bart, not wishing to show the fresh tears in the eyes or tear tracks on the cheeks.
"You can justify anything when you enjoy it. Iím sure sadists have lots of good reasons for what they do." The words flowed out of Feiís mouth in a stream like biting flames. But Bart remained unmoved; he stood up straight and tall, not a prince, but a young man with a point.
"You donít think I enjoy fighting, do ya?" His voice was like the growl of an angry bear. "Cause if you do youíre more stupid than I thought. I hate killing things as much as you do. Why do you think I pick up the survivors after every battle? Itís just... just that I think there are some ends itís worth fighting for, and that itís better for a few soldiers to die than thousands of civilians to live in misery under Shakahnís regime."
The winter on Feiís face softened a little, and the intense icy fury that had taken over from the flames also warmed a little. Now his voice was resigned and tired, and he leaned his aching forehead against the cold steel of the wall.
"Iíve got to think."
"Fine, think all you want." Bart stood and walked briskly away from Fei, his back ramrod straight.
Fei sat there for what seemed like hours, numb and emotionally drained. But time is always slowed down when a mind is in utter misery, so it was actually only a few minutes later when Fei felt another hand on his shoulder, a strong muscular hand, warm and human.
"Fei." The voice wasnít Bartís, but a voice full of understanding and pity. Fei looked up, and his tear-streaked brown eyes met a calm blue one and a dark eye patch in an amber face; a shock of hair as white as the jump suit spilled across a purple shoulder pad. "Bart asked me to apologize for him."
Fei was startled; the last thing he had expected was for Bart to apologize. Sigurd saw the change in Feiís eyes.
"You must understand, master Fei, that Bart is a novice when dealing with the feelings of others." Fei looked up and saw the neat blue figure of Maison standing behind Bartís second-in-command.
"Heís never really had any friends... ícept Margie, certainly none who could understand him the way you can, Fei." Fei stared up into the sky-sized vault of Sigurdís eye, his white eyebrows like clouds on a fine day.
"I didnít realize he was so lonely," he said slowly. From behind Sigurd, Maison nodded, his steel spectacles flaming in the orange light.
"The young master is lonely. We who are his guardians can not become his friends. Maybe that was why he was so eager that you join us, so that you could be his friend." Fei remembered Bart, his blue eye blazing in the darkness of the stalactite cave, and he realized that all the attempts to seem likable had been a mere front to entrap a friend.
"Follow me." Sigurdís voice was quiet, and Fei knew that he could just as well sit on his lonely crate as follow Bartís guardians, but he followed them.
They led the way up a clanging flight of iron steps, to a gantry that stretched out from the steel wall and looked across the cavern. Sigurd pointed to a similar gantry only a few meters away, looking over the Yggdrasil. Bart stood at the end of it, his strong chiseled face distant as the heights of heaven. Fei walked to the edge, and could just make out what Bart was saying.
"Father. Are you there, father? Iíve tried to do the thing you would want but... every time I look into Feiís eyes, I see... heís just like me. For the first time in my life, Iíve... met someone who might be like me. But after what he went through he... probably hates Gears and probably hates me as well. But father, I feel heís destined to help me!"
The prince lapsed into silence and simply stared out across the Yggdrasil, and across the titanic expanse of the caverns, with his machines scattered around them.
Fei wiped his tear-stained face and turned to Sigurd, feeling the headache that comes from too much emotion.
"I... need some time, some space to think."
Sigurd nodded, as if expecting this.
"Weíve already prepared a room for you."
Numbly, Fei followed the soldier and the butler along a short corridor that lead off the cavern, and into a small but comfortable room. Clean clothes in Yggdrasil blue were laid on a chair, and the bed looked warm and comforting as a motherís embrace.
"Sleep on it, master Fei," advised Maison, and then they left in a flurry of goodnights.
Hardly caring about his movements, Fei slipped off his filthy clothes and dropped them onto the floor, and then he stepped into the shower and let the scalding hot water sluice his troubles away. Then he dried himself and slipped naked between the sheets, sleeping almost before his head touched the pillow, the oblivion of true exhaustion swamping him in a black wave.
* * * * *
Outside the hideout, the stars beat down in the desert night, blazing brilliant and clear as crystal. They had shone like that the night before, when Fei had met Grahf and his world had ended. The mountain, which contained the hideout, reared black against the sky; rock solid and powerful, like the worldís most massive Gear. Around it in a small cluster, normal sized Gears lurked in the gloom. They stood there like lightning conductors waiting for electricity to strike them into the purpose for which they were designed; but in their case it was not saving life, but ending it.
Mirroring the scattering of gray, uninteresting Gears, the Gebler personnel clustered around the huge shape of the drilling machine whose business end was already buried in the rock.
"We donít know what theyíve got, but theyíve probably got some good Gears in there," muttered Renk, his shape hulking in the darkness.
"And some good pilots," put in Broyer, his blubbery body sagging as he stood.
Helmholz was nothing but a dark blur, his purple costume cut off by the night; but all eyes were on him as he reached into the satchel he carried and produced a handful of long thin things that may have been knives, or tubes of toothpaste; their identity obscured by the blackness. But they were syringes: their heads razor sharp, and their bulbs loaded with fire. On the side of each, the cryptic word ĎDriveí was inscribed in inch high capitals.
They had all taken Drive before; it was common practice before a battle, but taking it in the dark before a surprise attack? Even the stolid Renk had a few qualms.
"Okay, Helmholz," he muttered, holding out one brawny arm. "Give me two!"
Obediently, Helmholz poked the needles into two veins and pressed firmly on the air cylinder. Renk stood up a little straighter, and if they could have seen his face, the others would have noted a marked change in his hard eyes: a savage animal glint that would have given a person nightmares to look at; but Drive was a combat enhancing drug, and they needed it. So Helmholz cheerfully injected two needles into every member of the group including himself. There was the warm, sweet rush, sweeping away all morals and inhibitions; like an alcohol, but far stronger and more potent. Command had often warned of overusing Drive and becoming addicted, and damn it, they were right: Drive was heady nectar, and all soldiers enjoyed combat, for that was when they could sip it.
"Everyone clear?" growled Broyer, his thick voice a little slurred from the drive, the way an angry manís voice is slurred before he explodes with rage. They all knew what to do: destroy everything, kill everyone, use their great strength to do some serious crushing. They walked back to their Gears, and lined up behind the drilling Gear. Like the rage that filled them with molten lava and totally obliterated any sense of decency they might once have had, the mighty machine started with a roar, a fitting prelude to destruction.
The sirens woke Fei, a wailing klaxon screaming up in a banshee howl. He sat up sweating, the bed covers falling from his naked shoulders. A red light was blinking on and off, lending the comfortable bedroom a demonic cast.
Fei slipped out of bed, and even as his mind began to piece together the emotional turmoil that had ended the previous day, his hands and body were pulling on the blue jumpsuit uniform that was laid out for him.
Ignoring the slightly loose fit of the pants, he dashed down the corridor to the cavern; curiosity driving him like a throbbing engine, the video tape of hatred, death and ruins starting up in his head again. But that didnít stop his feet from pounding their way down the steel corridor to the Gear docks.
The orange ark lights were still burning; but here and there red warning lights flashed on and off, and with the constant diabolical wail of the klaxon, the cavern was given an overtone of hell. People were running in all directions, some in Yggdrasil blue or dark green, some sleepy civilians in nightshirts.
With an eerie sense of foreboding, Fei heard the crackle of fire and the crash of fighting Gears. In the center of the floor, a small contingent of red marked pirate Gears were battling furiously with a group of invaders in gray functional machines.
Fei did not have much experience in battles, but even he could tell that the invaders were having the upper hand. Their Gears moved with a terrible speed, and they cut down their poorly armed opponents with mind-numbing skill. Fei could see that these were no ordinary Aveh army grunts, but a highly trained and devastating strike unit. He understood fully when he saw the red G emblazoned on their backs: the same G that had adorned Ellyís uniform jacket. The symbol of Gebler.
Fei turned to see Citan, Sigurd and Maison standing against one wall. Citan was still clad in the dark green clothing he had been wearing when Fei had first seen him, and under one arm he held his black medical bag.
"Fei! Get in your Gear, Bart and his friends need all the help they can get."
Fei cast his brown eyes down to the floor, the dark traces of his disorganized hair falling in tangles down his back.
"I... canít. I canít pilot it anymore!" he muttered quietly, feeling all the pain and fury swelling like a red-hot coal in his chest.
With uncharacteristic disregard for his feelings, Citan turned away, his dark eyes intent.
"Anyone using that Gear?"
Citan pointed to a green-gray machine sitting against one wall. Its chest was heavily armored in military green, and it looked squat and powerful. Across its broad back was a shell-like jetpack that looked powerful. It was a close range Gear, not meant for artillery use, but a hard and fast machine requiring great skill from the pilot.
"Heimdal! Itís dangerous!" exclaimed a Yggdrasil crewman charging past them into the tunnel. But his words fell on deaf ears.
"I havenít piloted a Gear in five years, but I think I can manage." With that, Citan was off and running, a swift athletic motion that ate the distance between himself and Heimdal in a matter of seconds.
"Will the good doctor be all right?" Maison asked, obviously thinking of the crewmanís words.
A strange smile touched Sigurdís tough amber face.
"Heíll handle it."
By some quirk of fate, Citanís attack from one side of the cavern happened at the precise same time as Brigandier rushed in from the other side, white plume blazing and weapons ready. Two of the enemy Gears were hit by the pirateís first ether shots, but these were only glancing hits and their steely armor held firm.
The attackers were caught in a deadly cross as Citan charged Heimdal towards the enemy, jetting forward in a charging uppercut that had all his bodily force behind it. An enemy Gear (with the obese Broyer at the controls, unbeknown to Citan), rocketed backwards, slamming into one wall; its pilot barely conscious from the shock.
Bartís whip flicked at Stratskiís Gear, cutting through the main circuit and leaving the Gebler soldierís Gear a sparkling wreck. But then Renk and Helmholz closed in on Bart, seizing his whip arm and hurling Brigandier to crush several Land Crabs in its fall. Two other soldiers fired their weapons at Heimdal, aiming at Citanís cockpit but only scorching across the Gearís shoulders. Heimdal rose to its feet in a whirl of jets and kicked Renk full in the chest, slamming the Gear back into the wall. The whip cut down another Gebler soldierís Gear, slashing out the fuel tank and sending Gear fuel bubbling in a flaming torrent across the floor like molten lava.
Citan spread out Heimdalís arms and neck chopped another enemy down with smooth motion. No one noticed Vance, his eyes blazing with the light of Drive, edge his Gear out of the melee and strut across the chamber, crushing Land Crabs and cars under its gigantic feet. Like a fairy-tale ogre wrecking a city, Vance chased harmless civilians, crushing several into the squashed fly shapes Fei remembered from Lahan.
Something about this wanton destruction galvanized Fei into action. His brown eyes blazed into fury, and he felt rage seize him; but this time he would channel it.
He ran towards Weltall, his tool of vengeance; ignoring the klaxons that still wailed forlornly, ignoring the screaming and terrified people, ignoring the small fires that had randomly started all over the Gear dock. He leapt to Weltallís iron ladder, with bright, incandescent rage driving him. Then he was in the familiar metal box of the cockpit, watching through the scratched Perspex, watching for his enemy. He stood the Gear and then charged, half walking, half flying on his jets: an unstoppable avenging angel, powerful and terrible as the morning and the night.
"What if this was your home!?" He screamed the words, distorting them through his loud halor into an inhuman scream of battle. Then he reached Vance, Weltallís powerful metal fists tearing into the enemy, not to kill, but to stop an evil. Vance slumped in his controls, the Gear falling to the floor; he had never been attacked so furiously before.
Then Fei was gone, cutting down two soldiers with ether blasts as he seethed across the cavern to where Citan was grappling with Stratski. Fei took out the enemy with an elegant flying kick to the midriff that buckled the Gebler Gearís fuel lead and left Stratski hardly able to move.
"Reeeeeeeethreeeeeet!" Renkís disappointed bellow rang out across the cavernous space, for Bart had just cut his primary ether generator and he was working on auxiliary power. The Gebler soldiers disengaged, and ran or limped in their Gears around the back of the Yggdrasil. Those whose Gears had been destroyed exited their Gears and limped after their companions.
"We! Did! It!" The pirate leaderís voice was exultant, glowing like sun on a sword blade. But inside Heimdalís cockpit, Citanís face was grave.
"Not yet. I would guess they have a powerful robotic drilling Gear with which they carved themselves an entrance. If their commander is not a fool, he will release this Gear on us now, and make good his escape."
No sooner had Citanís amplified voice finished echoing around the battle ground, then a shout went up from behind the Yggdrasil, where the Gebler soldiers had drilled through the wall.
"Get íem! Schpariel!"
The huge robotic Gear whizzed around the corner. It was fully twice the height of their Gears and thick as a forest tree. It had long, powerful-looking arms tipped with huge club heads. On its massive robotic skull rested a radar dish like the lid of some gigantic dustbin. Its legs were tipped with sharp-spiked power drills. The light shone on its pinkish titanium armor plating. It was a formidable opponent.
As they watched it, Schpariel proceeded to seize two of the red painted pirate Gears in its huge arms and smash them to fragments against the wall; their pilots dying instantly as their fuel tanks exploded in balls of fire.
A storm of ether weapons, punctuated by the occasional crack of a conventional weapon was trained on the massive robot, but it glanced off the titanium armor like so much smoke. Fei felt a clutch of despair, could this robot be too strong for them?
As they watched, the robot started to whirl, spinning itself round and round until it was nothing but a blur of red. Then as he watched, it drilled into the floor, its feet locked into a drilling point. It left a gaping hole like the crater of a volcano.
For a few seconds there was silence, except for the wailing of the sirens, the screaming of frightened or wounded people and the crackle and hiss of the fires. Then Fei felt the ground shudder under Weltallís feet.
Suddenly an irresistible force smashed upwards, and the purple Gear was flung away as like a phoenix from the ashes. The robot spun its way up from the floor, earth and rock flying in all directions. Weltall was smashed against a steel covered wall, Fei heard the air hiss out of his lungs, and he slumped in the straps, half-stunned.
Bart charged in blindly, whirling his wire whip. With a mighty slash, he severed one of the club-like arms, which fell to the floor like a thick serpent: writhing and twitching, electricity sparking from the broken wires. But Bart paid for his triumph. The robotís other arm slashed round and caught Brigandier a blow on the chest that sent it reeling.
Citan hung back, flogging his clever brain, trying to find any scrap of information on drilling Gear robots that might help. Then a robot diagram swam before his eyes: true, it had been for a different model, but there was no harm in trying. With expert hands, the doctor brought his Gear close into the monster. Its arm flailed and Citan bent Heimdal forward, under the blow. Then the robot loomed above him like a mountain peak. Citan activated his Gearís powerful jet, and felt the kick in his boots as he sawed upwards. With one swift punch he slammed Heimdalís green armored fist through the one sensitive spot in the titanís armor: straight into its robotic brain. Electricity sparkled from around Heimdalís fist, and Citan was forced to fly backwards quickly to avoid being crushed, as the great machine toppled into its own hole. There was a roar from the depths, and a gout of electrical flame, then nothing.
Bart brought Brigandier to its feet beside Citan, and together the two Gears lifted Weltall to its feet. Fei recovered enough to get into the landing position as they placed Weltall by one wall. Slowly, his comrades-in-arms lowered their own machines to sit beside Feiís. Then they all got out, Fei a little groggily.
"Well done, young master!" came a familiar voice, and Sigurd and Maison, smudged with grime, made their way across the cavern to where the three fighters stood under their titanic Gears.
"Never mind compliments, how badís the damage?"
The perfect general, Fei thought, always putting his men first. Sigurdís grim face brightened.
"Not as bad as it looks. Thereís only been five actual fatalities amongst the pilots, and only three pilots have serious injuries. As for hardware. 4 Gears are complete write-offs; there are six that might be repaired over a few months, and three that have only superficial damage. That leaves two undamaged ones, and the ten spares; in addition to these, of course."
Bart nodded soberly, his face somber.
"What about Crabs and cars?"
Sigurdís expression fell, and as if trying to fill space, he fiddled with his eye patch.
"Five cars and Crabs. But itís the civilians. Seven dead, fourteen injured."
Bart swore and his face went bitter.
"Itís like they just wanted to cause as much damage as possible, the psychotic bastards!... Howís the Yggdrasil?"
"Fine," Sigurd replied abruptly.
Fei looked at Bart then, making a revised opinion. What had pained him most in all Sigurdís catalogue of destruction was the deaths of the civilians.
Suddenly, a wave of feeling for Bart spread through Fei. He had been wrong. Bart was no sadist; the only sadists had been the Gebler soldiers who chased down innocent children in their mighty war machines.
"Bart," Fei said quietly, his brown eyes solemn.
"Iíll fight, if you want me to."
Bart turned to Fei, and even amid his care and worry, his face was smiling.
"Welcome aboard!" He grasped Feiís hand and pumped it energetically. "How about you, Hugo?"
Citan didnít bother to correct Bart about his name.
"Include me too, Bartholomew!"
Bartís face lit up, and Fei thought at that moment that he would follow this man to the ends of the earth.
"Alright then! Letís go get that son of a bitch that calls himself Shakahn!"
Fei woke slowly and languorously, his consciousness held in a warm cocoon as his body, brain and mind repositioned themselves. As his eyes opened, he looked for the familiar lines of the attic in which he had lived in such unknowing happiness. Then an electric light in the center of the empty ceiling tacked into brightness and he knew where he was. He lay back, his grief at his loss receding, and his tentative joy at finding a place in the world again unfolding like a baby birdís damp wings.
"Master Fei." The polite, quavering voice slid its way across the room, and Fei raised his head to see the immaculately dressed butler, standing against a light switch like a broken robot. "Good morning, Master Fei."
"Morning, Maison." Feiís voice was still fogged with sleep. His long dark hair spilled over the pillow in disorderly tangles, gleaming in the sudden electric radiance.
"The young master was wondering if you and the good doctor would be kind enough to breakfast with him this morning?"
"...yeah, er yeah." It was probably not the most elegant reply to an invitation to breakfast, Fei thought. But Fei was not a morning person in any circumstances, and the previous 24 hours had been extremely hectic.
Fei could hardly remember stumbling out of the Gear docks into his room, or then dropping his battle-worn body between the sheets. But he remembered the important thing; he and Citan had pledged themselves to fight for this mysterious pirate-prince. That brought a warm glow. It was too soon to say that he and Bart were friends. There would be times, Fei knew, that they would drive each other crazy. But somehow, Fei knew that he and the elegant, bluff, and erasable yet sensitive prince of Aveh would figure largely in each otherís lives.
"Shall I return in half an hour to escort you to the dining room?"
Suddenly, Fei noticed that his sandy clothes had been removed from the floor, and that the blue jumpsuit he had worn the previous night was neatly folded on a chair. This brought to mind that he had absolutely nothing with which to make himself presentable.
"Could I borrow a razor?... And a hairbrush?" The old retainer smiled, the lower rims of his steel spectacles touching his cheeks as his old face lit up like a light bulb.
"I think you will find everything in order, Master Fei."
Maison nodded at the gratitude, then stood away from the wall, looking at Fei. Fei lay still, waiting for the man to leave so he could get his naked body out of the bed and into some clean clothes. But Maison just stood there, staring fixatedly at Fei. Finally he cleared his throat.
"May I go, Master Fei?"
Being brought up (as much as he could remember), in a backwater village like Lahan, Fei was not used to the vagaries of servants.
"Oh... er, yes, of course."
When he returned half an hour later, Maison found a neatly dressed and well-groomed Fei sitting patiently on his bed. His slim feet and muscular body were clad in the jumpsuit of Yggdrasil blue and the borrowed boots he had worn the night before.
"If you would be so good as to follow me."
Fei walked obediently behind the gray-haired butler. Maison led Fei through the huge orange-lit space, which had been filled with death the night before. It was a hive of activity. Mechanics in green and blue were hammering and drilling away at machinery of all descriptions. Others dressed in more civilian-like clothes were busy scurrying here and there with boxes and bundles. Harsh desert daylight streamed through the gaping hole in the wall, and it made Fei wince to think of this covert base so exposed. Maison threaded his way through the machinery and people to the lift they had used the previous day. Fei was in a far less agitated frame of mind than he had been on the previous journey, so he was able to take note that the lift was moving upwards at a high speed, and through solid rock. The doors opened on the carpeted corridor that Fei remembered, and then they reached the magnificent dining room.
Bart was slouching at one end of the huge table, aggressively buttering toast. Sigurd sat beside him, his hair white and gleaming under the chandelier. He was carving up sausages with the precision of a torturer.
"Fei! Sit down and dig in. If you donít, Iíll eat everything!"
Fei could only stand and stare. The lace cloth was covered with dishes and plates holding everything from yogurt, fruits and nuts, through various things fried or grilled, to slices of cheese and ham.
"This is breakfast!?" asked Fei, sitting down opposite Bart.
"Mmmm hmmmm," answered Bart through a mouthful of toast.
"Here we believe in starting the day with a good breakfast; keeps a man on his feet," put in Sigurd. Fei nodded and pulled a bowl of porridge towards him. He spooned sugar into it, and followed Bartís advice.
"All we need now is for Hugo to arrive and then we can get down to business."
From behind him, Fei heard Maisonís polite little throat clearing. Like all good servants, Maison had the talent to remain unnoticed until needed, and then slide right in to a situation delicately.
"What is it, Maison? I know that cough. Thatís your ĎBart, youíre making a fool of yourselfí cough, isnít it?"
"Not the way I would put it, but you are in error. The good doctorís name is Citan Uzuki."
Bart looked mildly thunderous; his tanned face over his elaborate jacket was showing displeasure like black clouds across the sun.
"Why didnít you tell me!?" Bartís voice was more resigned than angry. But before any of them could answer, he turned to his white-haired lieutenant, his voice rising a little. "Why do you call him Hugo anyway?"
"Hyu-ga!" said Sigurd slowly, stressing the last syllable. "Hyuga Ricdeau, thatís what he called himself when I knew him." Bart nodded and the mood of anger passed.
"Well, Iíll call him Citan whatever it was then."
"I just call him doc," confided Fei, pouring a glass of fruit juice.
"Fine. Thatís easy to remember."
They ate in silence for a few minutes, Fei moving on from porridge to fried eggs, bacon and sausages. For a while, he lost himself in the simple animal pleasure of the food.
After a while he turned his gaze on Sigurd. The white-haired man leaned back, his single sapphire eye half closed in pleasure as he sipped at a cup of strong-looking coffee.
"If you donít mind my asking, why did doc change his name?"
Sigurd cocked a white brow and his sky-colored eye clouded a little. Bart pounced upon Feiís question, clearly opening a long debated issue.
"Yeah, Sigurd. What happened? You were captured by Shakahnís goons about eight years ago, and after that I didnít see you for another four years. Where the hell were you? And whoís this Citan guy?" Sigurdís eye darkened as if with a memory of ancient pain.
"As a matter of fact, I do mind your asking. It suffices to say that I know Hyuga; or Citan, and that we can trust him. Itíll do us no good at all dredging up ancient history. What Iím more concerned about is how weíre going to infiltrate Bledavik and get Margie out of the castle."
As if on cue, Citan plodded into the room, his spectacles gleaming in the light. Like Fei, he wore the green jumpsuit he wore the night before, with his hair caught in a pony tail and tied with a strip of black velvet.
"I see you are taking up gluttony, Sigurd. How are you, Fei? Your highness?" As he delivered his morning greetings, Citan swiveled towards each person with his pony tail bobbing behind him. At the last, he bowed a little to Bart, who for the first time Fei had known him looked a little embarrassed. Unconsciously, it seemed, he ran a tanned hand through his corn blond locks.
"Good morning, doc. Just call me Bart, okay? I have enough of titles from these two." He gestured towards Sigurd and the unobtrusive Maison. Unbidden words floated up to Feiís consciousness.
"I have enough of Ms. Van Houten at headquarters." Fei shook the mood off, this was no time for going freaky.
"We were just wondering about infiltrating the capital. Any thoughts, Hyuga?"
"Unfortunately no, the brain is made up of cells that require the metabolism of proteins, fats and glucose to function, and if these chemicals are not assimilated, the brain, indeed, the whole body, is dysfunctional." Citan sat down while Bart looked blankly at Fei and Sigurd smiled knowingly.
"What did that guy say!?"
Fei laughed, he was used to Citanís ĎCircumlocutionsí (a word taught to Fei by Citan in the first place), but Bart clearly wasnít.
"He said he canít think on an empty stomach," Fei translated. Bart looked speculatively at his second-in-command.
"Does he always talk like that?"
"Yes, Iím afraid so."
"Oh, God!!" The expression of dejection on Bartís face was so comical that they all laughed a little. Bart joined in. Then he chimed up. "Okay. Whoís for a beer?"
"At breakfast!?" Fei objected.
"No time like the present!" Bart crossed to a sideboard and started to rummage through bottles and cans.
"Fei?" Fei shook his head at the proffered can, but to his surprise, Citanís face lit up.
"You wouldnít have any rum, would you?"
"Doc! I never knew you drank!!!"
Citan shrugged and accepted the slim bottle Bart held out, pouring a generous measure into his coffee cup.
"You didnít know I could pilot a Gear either, did you, Fei? Yui has fairly serious opinions on both."
They ate silently; occasionally Maison would appear and change a dish or bring more coffee or tea. When they had all consumed about a weekís worth of food, Bart stood up.
"Okay, time for business."
As if by magic or long practice, Maison appeared resplendent in his blue suit, pushing a trolley before him. Following Bartís signal they all loaded the dishes and plates onto the trolley and Maison wheeled it away.
Bart crossed to a cupboard and returned with a load of papers, note pads and pencils. "Right. What weíve got to do is get into the castle, and get Margie away from Shakhan. Any suggestions?"
Citan and Sigurdís faces went into almost identical frowns of concentration. Fei looked straight at Bart, remembering the fight in the cave before.
"Couldnít you just attack the castle? The armyís at the border fighting Kislev, isnít it?"
"I like the way this guy thinks. Letís go in there and whoop Shakahnís ass for íem!"
With a sudden jolt Fei realized that he had suggested the cause of violence; a blush of shame shook his dark eyes as he remembered Lahan. Did he want that to happen to the capital? If they had followed the suggestion, Fei would probably have gone into another period of depression, and if that had happened, Grahfís purpose would certainly have been achieved.
But to Feiís relief, Citan shook his head, his bright eyes burning darkly behind their spectacles.
"I donít think that would be a good move. Shakhan could call on reinforcements and Geblerís on his side."
Sigurd leaned forward, his face thoughtful.
"And knowing the old slimebag the way I do, I think heíd rather kill the princess than allow her to be rescued."
Bart slammed a fist down on the table a little childishly, producing a down draught that sent quite a few papers spilling off the table.
"Well, what do we do then!?"
Citanís and Sigurdís tanned faces sank into almost identical expressions of concentration that were almost comical. Then suddenly Citan sat up, and Fei knew that heíd had a flash of inspiration.
"Where would the princess be kept in the castle?"
Bart frowned and swigged at his beer.
"Well, they could put her in the dungeons?" The pirateís voice was doubtful, a doubt that Sigurd confirmed with a shake of his white locks.
"I doubt that, the castle dungeons also serve as Bledavikís principal jail. I would imagine Shakahn would keep her somewhere out of the way."
Maison, still lurking in the shadows behind Bartís chair, coughed discretely. This seemed to enrage Bart.
"Goddamn it Maison, this isnít a garden party, sit down and join in! Youíre one of us. Besides, you know the castle better than anybody."
Obedient as ever, the immaculate butler sat down, adjusting his tie.
"Well, if you want my opinion, young master..."
"Stop groveling and get to the point."
"Well, I would surmise that Miss Marguerite is in the east tower. It is easily accessible from the castleís main hall, and there is one secure guest room at the top of a long flight of steps." Maison pointed to the plan of the castle that Sigurd had spread on the table.
"Princess in the tower." Bart muttered, his eye introspective as he considered the romantic potential of the sentence.
"So this tower can be fairly easily accessed from the castleís main hall?"
Maison nodded sagely.
"Yes indeed, Dr. Uzuki. But though Iím no military man, I would surmise that this room would be heavily guarded." Citan poured over the map.
"How many men do you think it would take to guard the princess?" Sigurdís single sapphire of an eye was blazing under his white brows. As if it was too hot for his thoughts, he removed his white suit top and laid it on the back of his chair, revealing a red satin shirt beneath.
"Inside the castle, not many. Two or three guards outside her room - four at the most. If we could just get into the castle..."
Bart stood up, the light from the chandelier gleaming on his golden hair as if on a crown.
"So, what we need to do is get into the castle, then get Margie out of there and away, fast?"
"In essence," Citan replied shortly. "Well, the last partís easy. Sig can pick up the rescue party in the Yggdrasil and be away before Shakhan knows sheís gone!"
"But where could you fly to, doesnít Gebler know where this place is?" Fei chipped in, remembering the gaping hole in the cavern wall, and the way the sunlight had streamed through, revealing and deadly.
"Thatís not a problem, this placeís being evacuated right now. If Gebler comes back here, they wonít find a thing!" Bartís face showed a smile which encompassed Fei as well as Citan and his two guardians.
"Shakhan wonít know where weíve gone... Where are we going to go?"
"I think the problem is, how do we get Margie out of the castle?" Sigurdís tone was somber, and it seemed to set a tone. They all sat and thought in silence.
"How is the castle supplied with food and so on?" Citan asked, his angular eyes intent behind their spectacles.
"Shakhan extorts it off the citizens of Bledavik. Thereís a trader going in there every day with something or other."
"Thieving bastard." Bart punctuated Sigurdís answer with his own personal full stop, but Citan seemed not to hear the expletive.
"Well, it might be possible to deceive the guards into believing that we are merchants, get into the castle..."
"Clobber the guards aní dash," Bart finished for him.
"Isnít that a bit predictable?" Fei asked, remembering all the books and films he had seen which had used the very same ploy for the same reason. Sigurd shook his head.
"It would be, except that Shakhan thinks heís got the commercial class completely under his power. About 11 years ago, a couple of merchants tried to suggest that Shakhan should pay an honest price for what they gave him." He paused and wrinkled his nose. "They both wound up executed. The last thing Shakhanís expecting is for merchants to turn against him. Whatís more, we can smuggle the princess out of the castle in a vegetable sack or something."
"She wonít take kindly to that," Bart muttered, and Fei glanced round just in time to see a fond and nostalgic smile playing across the pirateís craggy face.
"Sheíll survive," replied Sigurd grimly. "Weíll still have to be careful, though. I suggest that we go to Bledavik and observe what time and which merchants go into the castle, and then we can make our disguise seem more authentic."
"And we can find a place to park the Yggdrasil," Bart added brightly.
"Now, where are we going to take her?" Sigurd asked, leaning back in his chair and pulling his top back on, as if he had cooled down.
"Nisan," replied Bart instantly. Fei blinked, studying the full-scale map of central Aveh and Kislev that hung on one wall. After a moment he found a small green island-sized bobble in the desert marked Nisan.
"Can you be certain of support there, your highness?" Citan asked, the question sounding oddly formal with the addition of Bartís title. The prince seemed not to notice.
"Sure! Margie aní me grew up in Nisan. Margieís even enrolled in the nunnery attached to the cathedral there."
"More importantly, it is a center of royalist power. Though Shakhan is tolerated there, I doubt very much that anyone would love him so much as to give away our location to the guards. Once there, we can take the next step. Okay. I name this operation..." Bartís tone was surprisingly formal as he continued, "...Operation Aveh!"
After a few more minutes of discussion, they left the table to prepare for their trip to Bledavik, and the first stage of a desperate rescue.
* * * * *
The gunshipís engines rumbled and roared, grinding the mighty motors onward through the heated air. Looking out of one window, Commander Kahran Ramsus, primary Element of Gebler, turned his face into a mask of scowling stone. He was in his dress uniform, as befitted an official meeting between allies. He wore a white jacket and trousers, flashed with red and purple and spangled with gold braid that glittered like his hair and eyes. Beside him sat Miang, demure and distant in her blue uniform. As a sub-commander and second Element, custom stated that her uniform should be of similar style to Ramsusí, but for some reason custom didnít apply to her. There was about her a hidden power, in her icy blue eyes, fine-boned unearthly beauty and indigo hair that spoke of hidden strength and authority.
"The Prime Minister and his general want to see you immediately on landing, Commander." Ramsusís scowl deepened as he took in the functionaryís message.
"What does that idiot want?" he asked with rhetorical sullenness.
"Donít be so disrespectful, Kahr. He is our temporary ally, after all." Ramsus accepted the rebuke and subsided with a growl and a scowl. The gunship floated across Blackmoon Forest, over the deserted ruins of Lahan, and then its trajectory flattened as it came in on a long dive towards Bledavik.
Shakhan, the Prime Minister of Aveh, was an unimpressive looking man. The red state robes were not so much worn by him as flung on top of him. He was already (Ramsus observed sourly), well padded enough without them. He looked at Ramsus with respect in his small piggy eyes.
"We are honored by your return, Commander," he said thickly, stroking the front of his gown with a fat hand that was adorned with a gold ring.
"Thank you," Ramsus muttered. He was a soldier, and as such hated all this pomp and ceremony. He hated the castle too; a tall tower with a wall any decent artillery battery would have down in seconds, and a moat that was no more than an ornamental lake.
Even the inside annoyed Ramsus, with its plush red furnishings, wooden panels and wide, sunny windows. He sat dumbly on a fat red sofa while Miang... who was much better at receiving pompous bastards like Shakhan, exchanged tinkling pleasantries with Avehís dictator. She spoke Ignasian like a native, Ramsus thought. Most Solarians had some kind of accent, but Miangís speech was perfect.
After a few minutes of inquiries about each otherís health, the weather, and how good it was that the Ďmighty legions of Solarisí were allied with Aveh, Ramsus had had enough.
"If you donít mind, Prime Minister, Iíd like to talk to the princess."
"I fear it will be a useless exercise, she refuses to speak to anyone of the location of the other half of the Jasper."
"Have her rooms and person been searched?" Ramsus asked. Shakhan wobbled his bald pate in a curt nod.
"Indeed, but we have found nothing."
"Well, Iíd still like to talk with her," requested Ramsus. Shakhan nodded.
"She is in the east tower. I will send somebody to show you the way."
Marguerite was a pretty teenager with long dark brown hair and a sullen expression. The first thing Ramsus noted was a steely determination in her sky blue eyes not to say anything. Ramsus sighed; this was not going to be easy.
The room in which the princess was imprisoned was by no means uncomfortable, and Ramsus noted once more the silliness of Aveh aristocracy. If the girl wanted to, she could throw herself from the long picture window, or hang herself with a belt, or stab herself or her guard with one of the many glass bottles of feminine cosmetics that thronged the shelves. She appeared not to be particularly bothered by her imprisonment and certainly not on the verge of suicide. Her red dress was spotlessly clean, and the shawl draped around her shoulders was fashionably unfrilled.
"Princess," Ramsus started assertively. "I am Kahran Ramsus, commanding officer and primary Element of Gebler." She nodded absently, her pretty face showing that she was hardly impressed. "You are not making this any easier for yourself, you know. We already have one half of the Jasper, and we will keep searching. Where is the other half of the medallion?" She said nothing. Ramsus groaned and tried another tactic. "You think Prince Bartholomew will rescue you? Iím afraid that is impossible. The citadel is ringed with guards and totally impregnable." The princess stared at him pityingly, sharing a contemptuous look with a pink stuffed toy which sat on the couch, almost as if it were listening.
"Iíve watched the guards drilling through my window, they donít seem that impregnable to me."
"But, Gebler is here now and..."
"My cousinís not stupid. If he does come to rescue me, it wonít be in any way you expect."
Ramsus stared into the girlís hard pits of eyes and knew that she spoke the truth. He already knew that the prince and his pirates had defeated one of his most experienced units, and that if the prince came to the castle he did have a chance of winning.
"Look, I tell you what, princess, you tell me where the Jasper is, and weíll drop all charges against you and your cousin and let you both go free." The lie was smooth and cold. Ramsus knew that whatever bargains he made, Shakhan would settle for nothing but the extermination of the Fatima dynasty... it was only her knowledge of the Jasper and her hostage potential that had kept Marguerite alive up to now. The girl knew it, too. She turned away from Ramsus, soft brown hair falling in a wave over her crimson shawl.
"I donít know where the other half of the Jasper is, and you will never find it, wherever it is. Please go away."
Ramsus knew that he had been defeated. He started to leave, but turned back at the door.
"Is there anything you want, princess?"
"Some Nisan cake would be nice, thank you, Commander." And as she looked at him, something in her altered and she became a 16-year-old girl, hanging on for grim death. Ramsus smiled.
"Iíll see what I can do," he promised and left.
As he walked down the long spiraling stone steps, his footsteps echoing in the long dark shaft of the tower like gunshot reports, Ramsus wondered how to turn this weakness for Nisan cake to his advantage.
Shakhan was waiting at the bottom of the steps, with Miang standing silent and aloof by his side.
"She refused to speak of the Jasper," Ramsus conceded. Shakhan nodded.
"Did she talk to you? Thatís better than I got. I was wondering if with your skills in the excruciation arts you could... persuade her."
Ramsusí golden eyes blazed. His bronze colored hair seemed to catch the sunlight in the small hall and reflect it back in golden gleams.
"I am a soldier, not a torturer, Shakhan. And anyway, I donít think she could stand much."
"Youíre wrong, there is an inner strength in her." Miangís voice was calm and icy as always, her eyes distant. "But I agree, she must remain alive as a hostage, at least."
"What about a truth drug?" Shakhan asked, his small, piggy and greedy eyes intent in his fat face.
"Possibly. She wants some Nisan cake or something, weíll put it in that, or use an injection," Ramsus answered.
"Good, then we get the other half of the Jasper and find the treasure." Shakhan stood up, like a looming tower, blocking out all the windowís light with his bulky body. "We need that treasure, Commander." To Ramsusí utter horror, Shakahn clapped him on his white-clad shoulder with one meaty hand. Ramsusí habitual scowl deepened, but as he was about to protest, an icy dart from Miangís sapphire eyes kept him silent.
"We will use a drug." In Miangís calm tone, it sounded almost like an order. "But, the Commander and I have had a long journey..." Shakhan bowed graciously, making the gesture seem perfectly smooth despite his corpulent physique.
"Of course, my lady. If you would be pleased to follow my servant. We will talk tomorrow."
Obediently, Ramsus allowed Miang to steer him out of the door in the wake of the liveried footman that suddenly appeared as if by magic.
"This way, my lord Prince," the scraping footman invited Ramsus, and then set off down the ancient corridor, hung with portraits of the ancient Fatima kings. Though the citadel was a vast structure of stone, it was a short journey to the ornate door of the guest quarters. The footman bowed and scraped his way away, assuring his Excellency the prince that he only had to ring for service. His Excellency scowled and growled a noncommittal dismissal. Then the two of them were behind the door and alone.
"Prince!" Ramsus exploded, throwing his muscular body at a plush sofa with enough force to almost topple it to the floor.
"An affectation, but a necessary one. Aveh society is essentially feudal, the common folk must see us as aristocracy..." Ramsus growled something else that cut through Miangís cold rebuke.
He looked her over slowly. Her strange blue uniform, though she was subordinate to him, seemed to give her a kind of distant authority. She stood cold and aloof, her face beautiful, but only the way a mountain in winter is beautiful. Her eyes were cold skies, their centers sharp and logical. Her sapphire hair, cut short for the military, seemed only to accentuate her distance, even more than the snowy locks it had replaced.
"Why must we team up with these land dweller fools?" muttered Ramsus, his voice heavy with a dispirited rather than furious hatred. Miang moved fluidly across the pointlessly opulent room and settled on the other end of the sofa.
"It is necessary," Miang answered calmly. Ramsus sighed, and stretched out his feet, his bronze-gold hair falling over the back of the sofa.
"Everythingís necessary, isnít it, Miang? There isnít anything that isnít part of some huge purpose." His rich military voice held a kind of tired, almost tender, sarcasm. Miang moved closer, sliding along the sofa towards him, but her adamant aura didnít change.
"You are not necessary, Kahran Ramsus." Ramsus snorted, but didnít pull away when she laid a cool hand over his.
"I donít know whether or not to take that as a compliment. Youíre so damn cold, Bathshiba," Ramsus said absently. Miang gasped as if suddenly burnt, and her cold blue eyes suddenly seemed vulnerable.
"Kahran." Her voice was a whisper. "Iíve told you, Bathshiba died the night I became Miang. This is her tombstone." She twined two white fingers around her sapphire hair. Ramsus reached towards her and she leaned her slight body against his. He buried one strong hand in the blue shades of her hair, stroking its silky sheen.
"Is she... and what about this?" He reached down and kissed her; a long slow kiss, languorous and golden. Why she loved him, he did not know. Bathshiba had loved him but what of Miang? Was he just her pawn in the game she played? It didnít matter, nothing mattered... And then reality ended, there was no Kahran Ramsus, no Miang, no Bathshiba; if she ever existed at all. Only a man and a woman and their two bodies.
The mass of flaming ether energy blazed through the night: an unstoppable mass of destruction, deadly and inevitable. As sure as the clear stars that ringed it, any body caught in its path would be destroyed, burnt and flung aside with the contempt of all explosions.
The creature stood flaming in the fireballís path; its golden eyes reflecting the blazing death that was coming towards it, its twisted face inhuman with glee. Pain was coming, pain and death. It loved pain; it had been weaned on agony. It didnít really matter whether the agony was in its own body or the bodies of others; all pain was sweet and glorious to it.
But the fireball never reached the creature, whom moments before had hurled it into a curving path that would bring the blazing mass round to its creatorís destruction. For a woman, her brown hair flowing, threw herself into the path of destruction. It expended its force on her like a rock: her pretty face was fried and scarred in a blaze of pain, her graceful body broken and flung away in a screaming heap; but she had succeeded. The fireballís force was stemmed and its creator was saved.
The creature took in the bloody whimpering thing and laughed; first softly, then loud and long, twisted merriment filling its golden eyes with hatred.
"How superb!" it screamed in its insane voice, a voice that brought goose bumps to the skin and terror to the brain. "How exquisite. Itís so right that you should die, hahahahaha... In! Pain! Hahahaha..." It reeled with its chainsaw mirth, ignoring the gentle tears that flowed from the dying womanís eyes across her bloody face. All it said was true, the woman did deserve this death, and there was a kind of macabre justice in her end. The moment stretched forth under the stars, full of black joy and glee like cyanide. But the creature wasnít given time to gloat for long.
"Very impressive...!" The voice that drifted out of the shadows like black wind was as unstoppable as the fireball. But there was nothing bright or blazing about it. It was a truly dark sound, deep and resentful, filled with an infinity of evil like an instrument of torture. "Thy power is indeed great. But a word to the wise. Destroy not thyself until all other things are obliterated, that is thy first lesson."
The creature spun around, the golden pits of its eyes leveled at the blackness. As if embodying the night itself, a figure emerged: cloaked in absolute darkness, the black gauntlets of its hands seeming to pulse with dark light. The starlight picked out its steel mask, and then died as it encountered the swallowing black holes of the eyes.
"...Who are you?" the creature asked in its razor voice, a trace of uncertainty crossing its twisted face.
"I am Grahf, seeker of power. Dost thou know me?"
For the first time in its existence, the creature felt off balance, its sharp hatred meeting a force more powerful.
"Know you? How can I know you, Iíve never seen you before."
The steel mask seemed to swim closer; the empty, dark eyes becoming intent. The voice that emerged was like a black snake; quiet and slow and deadly, probing into the depths of the darkest soul.
"Thou knowest me, because I am even as thou art. The lust that burns in my immortal soul burns in thine also. Thou and I are brothers in destiny!" The voice rose to a roar of fury, like the trumpets at the gates of hell. "We shall become one!"
The creature stepped back, lids falling over those deadly golden suns of its eyes.
"I donít need a brother, I kill things!"
A chuckle floated out of the night, sinister and low.
"Thou art pert, but thou wilt learn. Join me, and I shall give thee cities to destroy! Thy strength shall bear down the rocky peaks of mountains, and thou wilt trample civilizations into the dust!"
"Really!" The creatureís insidious voice was heavy with sarcasm. "And when do I get to kill you, Mr. Grahf? How about now!"
The creature launched itself at Grahf, teeth spreading back in a feral snarl, pale deadly hands curving into claws. Death shone out of its golden eyes. But quick as it was, Grahf was quicker. He hardly seemed to move, but a shadowy gauntlet slammed into the creatureís contorted face, hurling it backward to sprawl on the blood stained ground.
"Do not try to kill me!" The dark voice was somehow more evil in its triumph. "Thou hast not the power. I could destroy thee with a thought as a man crushes an irritating fly. But join me!" The voice grew fervent, and the black holes of the eyes blazed into crimson fire. "Join me, and together we shall unmake creations. Cities falling into dust, humanity dying into the screaming void!"
The golden eyes of the bloody creature blazed with an unholy desire.
"Yes!" It hissed. "Yes! Yessss! Yesssssssssss!!!"
And as Grahf and his apostate faded into the night, the laughter of true evil echoed in the darkness.
The woman, lying bloodily and dying in the enclosing night, heard little of her killerís conversation. Only unearthly laughter and then silence. Tears squeezed their way out of her dimming eyes, falling in tracks of sorrow down her burned face. All was her fault, if only she hadnít...
The compulsion stirred in her; she felt its antiquity unfold, the myriad ancientness of its ten-thousand-year-old memory spreading and ready for flight from this dying host.
Rage against it blazed through her; rage against the mindless, impersonal thing that had taken her life, and given her a new direction: a mastering desire more important than family, friends or the pain of others.
But she couldnít blame it. All her actions were hers and hers alone. She didnít have to obey it, that was not the way it worked. Every woman it took, it left whole and solid, giving only its memory, and the knowledge of the task they must complete. It was not a person, this Miang thing, only a soul and a desire. The person was somewhere else, awaiting birth.
A human shape blotted out the stars. The dying woman looked up, her eyes moving slowly. A light was coming from somewhere, driving away the boundaries of the dark night. And so, she could dimly make out the fine-boned face that stared down at her, beneath its mop of white hair: it was a womanís face, hard and cold.
"I have come to take it from you: the Miang!" Her voice was strident and uncaring, hard as rock and cold as arctic ice.
"Take... it... It has brought me nothing... but... pain." The dying womanís voice was a slow, agonized whisper.
The adamantine face above her seemed to smile.
"You were imperfect. Petty emotionalism dogged you at every step. Even as you carried out its wishes you regretted them. Even your chromosome type was flawed. Your physical characteristics didnít even change, let alone your mind. I shall be the ultimate incarnation. No rush of blood will cause me to destroy myself. I shall be Miang!" Though the womanís tone didnít change, and her hard gray eyes stayed monotone, there was an air about her that gave the expression of gloating.
A gleaming object appeared next to the womanís pale face: a sharp-bladed dagger, with a slim needling point. Without a change of expression, the white-haired woman plunged it into her victimís jugular, spattering her white uniform jacket with fresh blood. She withdrew the blade and wiped it carelessly on an un-bloodied scrap of her victimís clothing.
Under the stars, the murderess lifted her head to the sky and laughed: a tinkling sound, like the fall of icy mountain streams. If anyone had been there to watch, they would have noticed that the instant the brown-haired womanís life expired, her murderessís hair and eyes had changed to a cascade of pure sapphire and two hard blue pools, blazing with their ancient purpose.