[08.31.99] » by Matthew Schuele
"We’re finally here.
"I remember when I dreamed of reaching this rank-- a kind of ultimate goal, a thing that was probably unrealistic to shoot for, but certainly something to work towards."
"And here you are," agreed Miang. "Well, we. Here we are."
"Yeah." Ramsus displayed the confident grin that was his trademark. "Here we are. Commander?"
Ramsus and Miang were standing in a hallway in the Gebler cruiser Gazel, waiting to meet with Vanderkaum, Supreme Commander of Gebler, who had just entered from the adjoining chamber (which was, incidentally, strictly off-limits to almost everyone.) Vanderkaum, dressed in full regalia, was an extremely large man and very imposing, especially with a blue cross tattooed over most of his face. He was bald, but sported a thick black mustache, and had all appearances of being in his mid-fifties.
"Ramsus. It’s good to see you here," said Vanderkaum, a bit grudgingly. "You as well, Miang. Now, the others are waiting on the bridge-- I’ll call them in."
The door to the bridge hissed open. "There is no need to," the man who walked through the doorway said gravely. "We are here."
The man who spoke was tall and thin, with long black hair and an angular face distinctively marked by a pair of spectacles. There was a sword sheathed at his side. The next entrant had tanned skin and long white hair, and his eyes shone an eerily bright blue. The last man had a rough, battle-worn face and graying hair-- he appeared to be the oldest of the three. All of them were in the distinctive uniforms of the Elements, which Miang and Ramsus wore as well.
"There’re two others?" the last of them asked. "There are only supposed to be four Elements."
"Normally, yes," noted Vanderkaum, "but in this case the Ministry elected to include five members. They felt that your skills as a group would work well together.
"And now for the introductions. Kahran Ramsus, a Jugend graduate and an accomplished battlefield leader, skilled in the art of swordfighting and in the art of Gear operation. Miang, a... do you have a last name?" Miang shook her head. "Miang, a... an accomplished Gebler operative." He next indicated the man with dark hair. "Hyuga Ricdeau, a medical doctor and... inquisitor..." Looking at the man’s cold, emotionless face, Ramsus could believe it. The thought of an inquisitor who had a medical degree clearly disturbed Vanderkaum, and Ramsus thought similarly on that matter. "Jessiah Black, a field operative acclaimed for great skill and bravery." Vanderkaum indicated the rough-looking man. "And lastly, Sigurd, another acclaimed operative." Apparently, he had no last name either. Ramsus suspected that Vanderkaum was hiding something-- he’d seen Sigurd’s piercing blue eyes before, but couldn’t place quite where...
"I leave you to converse amongst yourselves for a few moments." Vanderkaum disappeared through the chamber door again. Those few moments passed in silence, with Ricdeau staring analytically at Ramsus and Ramsus staring confidently back. Miang took in the whole scene, leaning casually against the wall, while Sigurd and Black backed up Ricdeau, not apparently entirely sure about whether they could trust the newcomers.
"That speech was forced as hell, huh?" Black’s comment set Ramsus and Miang chuckling, and a slight smile creased Ricdeau’s lips. Sigurd leaned back against the corridor wall, relaxed. Vanderkaum reentered the room and motioned gruffly for the Elements to enter.
Humming and rotating six feet above the ground, the only thing clearly visible in the room due to the beam of light cast upon it, was a metallic globe. Displayed via video screens cast from the globe at odd angles were faces of blue and red, some with missing eyes or furrowed brows, all looking very old and having the distinct appearance of barely clinging to life despite extreme weariness with corporeal existence. Whatever doubt that any of them had-- even those that had read the related documents-- that they were looking upon the Gazel Ministry was quickly dispelled.
"Yeah. Well." He ran a hand through his hair. "I guess."
"Is there some problem with my destination of choice?"
"We were careless last time. Gebler got a look at the Weltall last time and I suspect they want to get their hands on it."
"And how do you think they are going to do that?"
"I dunno. Chances are, however, that the longer we have it in battle, the more data they can collect on it, and the more mystery we can retain, the more power we have."
"This is true. However... do you not want to kill?"
"Then what matters the price?"
Grahf could see bloodlust written plainly on Id’s face. His host’s son’s hatred for everyone and everything was certainly a powerful weapon, but it guaranteed one thing... that Grahf would control him forever.
"You are the Elements.
"And you are crucial to the future of the Holy Empire."
The Elders fell silent, and the Elements took that as sufficient clue to exit.
"I had always thought," said Ramsus as the group walked through the corridors of the cruiser, "that the Ministry was actually somewhere in Solaris. Of course, such notions were dispelled the more and more that I learned about the system."
No one replied, which made him a bit nervous. Ricdeau was silent and cold... Ramsus supposed that it was his nature.
Ramsus was eleven years old.
Well, he was twenty-five, really. He had been for eleven years. On all emotional, physical, and psychological levels, he was twenty-five, and had been since his creation.
"You know you’re special, don’t you?" Krelian had told-- asked-- Kahr on several occasions. "You’re the only one who’s like Cain. You’re the only one who can beat him. You’re the only one better..."
"You aren’t?" he’d once mustered the courage to reply. Krelian had said nothing.
Of course, it was plain that the man was lying to him about several matters. Ramsus had taken a liking to Miang as soon as he’d met her, and she’d returned his affections... and Miang, despite her claims of being "no one special," obviously had friends and connections in high places. She’d managed to procure for him some photographs of Krelian from before he was recorded as having been born-- looking no older than he did now. He’d had blue hair then, but otherwise he looked the same.
Chances are, Miang wasn’t being entirely truthful with him, either. But, at least they loved each other.
He couldn’t tell. As long as they were close friends and went to bed together, it didn’t really make a difference what he elected to call it.
People were lying to him all around, but it made no difference to Ramsus. He was confident that he could deal with that.
Miang was ten thousand and twenty-something (she could usually guess within five years) years old.
She didn’t really miss Earth, come to think of it. Maybe they’d pulled the same sort of stunt the Zeboim had, and destroyed everyone. The People’s Republic Communists had been amassing nuclear weapons when she’d left, and maybe they had used them. Relations with the States had been getting a little rocky. After she’d put the Deus down on this planet, it was possible that war had broken out.
Then again, maybe it hadn’t. There was no way of telling for sure. She’d been using the massive Solaris Ministry of Science telescopes to monitor Sol lately, and it didn’t seem entirely unlike it had at her departure.
Miang smiled slightly at the thought of what the boys out in New Mexico had done when they’d heard she neutralized the weapon that had been their work of several centuries...
...come to think of it, how much had their life-prolonging technology advanced? Nanotechnology, perhaps? The Zeboim had managed that from nearly scratch in just, hmm, a few millenia. They’d probably gotten further than that on Earth.
She liked this incarnation, though. And she liked Ramsus. Of course, she was using him-- she used everyone-- but still, his brash confidence did have a certain appeal for her. It was almost too bad that she’d have to turn on him some day.
Hyuga felt very cold, and empty, and as if he already had one foot in the grave.
As a child he’d been teased for his love of books and his total inability to learn the Lamb language-- and when he did, to speak it without a heavy Solarian accent. He put that behind him, though-- he turned it to the positive, becoming proficient in the ways of medicine, treatment, and healing Ethers. He still trained in hand-to-hand combat at that point. He always had; it had been one of his first interests. That, along with reading and swordplay, in which he was still proficient.
Then it had all gone to hell within a matter of weeks. He made a mistake; a man died; his license was revoked; his fiancee left him; people became afraid of him. People hated him.
And then Hyuga found a way to get back at them. He knew how the human body worked; he knew every inch of every system like the back of his hand. He knew how the brain worked. He knew what caused pain, what pain was like, how it could be the most excruciating, how it could be built up in levels. He became an Inquisitor in Gebler and rose through the ranks rapidly, taking several field assignments and thus demonstrating his skill in fighting and Gear operation, something he’d picked up while in Gebler.
People were still afraid of Hyuga Ricdeau. Now, they had a good reason to be.
Jessiah Black had always wanted to be an Etone. He loved their image-- the simultaneous elements of great power and extreme spirituality that were inflected in the word itself. And one day, he carried out his dream and became one of those modern-day paladins.
Of course, his attitude had grown a bit cynical over the years, seeing how many lies surrounded the profession and the Ethos itself. That wasn’t as important as retaining his mission and his belief, in Jessiah’s eyes. At first, when he heard about the invention of God offhand, he was devastated. Soon after, though, Jessiah realized that perhaps such ‘truths’ were the middle management’s version of the lies fed to Lambs. His suspicions were confirmed when he entered Solaris itself; even Emperor Cain believed that there was something up there. A real God, bigger than the invented one.
And his life was going very well now.
Of course it was.
Not the life he’d left behind him in Aquvy; not his murdered wife, his angry son, or his mute daughter.
Certainly not Stein.
Sigurd didn’t really remember anything.
But he was on Gebler’s side.
The first mission had been relatively simple; they’d put down a nasty incident in the Aveh desert with a few renegade Gear pilots. It was obvious that not everyone would be happy with a few of Bishop Shakhan’s regulations.
Next, they’d been assigned to deal with a Lamb rebellion in a 3rd-class block. The day it was intended to happen, Ramsus was hit by a hovercar and was incapacitated for a full week. The mission was carried out with minimal loss of life on the part of the Lambs, and none on the part of the Elements. It was odd... the hovercar hadn’t been moving very fast at all. Ramsus simply stepped into the way, not looking. An Element had to do a better job of keeping his wits about him than that to survive for long.
The third mission involved the Soylent System, which Ramsus and Hyuga would just as soon not be involved with. Lambs went in, Wels and food went out. How exactly it happened was unclear, but those were the undeniable facts. If truth be told, Hyuga would have just as soon let it be damaged.
The five of them sat in streamlined, cushioned chairs in a blue-tinted metallic room with a viewport inside the System. By Hyuga’s calculations, they were on the upper half of the spherical portion of the bowl, probably near the top. At the moment, they were simply waiting to be dispatched. At the moment, they were silent.
Finally, the silence was broken. "Why have we sided with Aveh?" asked Hyuga. "They were losing at that point."
"Only Cain, Vanderkaum, and the Ministry know for sure," replied Ramsus. "Well, and Krelian."
"Of course," added Miang, "there are theories. For example, on the whole Aveh has excellent technological potential. And..."
"What were you about to say?" asked Sigurd.
"Oh, er, that they’ve also got close ties to Nisan--"
"Which are now severed." Hyuga watched her silently, the general air about him being that of a teacher testing a pupil. Miang didn’t appreciate that attitude very much.
"And, there are more Gears and artifacts to excavate in the deserts and sand beds than there are anywhere else. Which I’d think should be obvious, considering the way erosion would affect battle wreckage." She smiled back, confidently.
"Have you considered that there may not have necessarily been more Zeboim battles fought in present-day Aveh?"
"I’m not going to tolerate being patronized," she said angrily, rising to her feet.
Hyuga, cool as always, retorted: "What makes you think that you are being patronized?"
"Dammit!" Her hand was headed in a speedy downward arc when Ramsus grabbed her from behind and pulled her back. Jessiah and Sigurd moved between Miang and Hyuga.
The Element infighting was broken up by the appearance of Krelian’s face on the room’s viewscreen. Officially he was merely in charge of the Soylent System, and an advisor to the Emperor and the Ministry, but in practice he held much of the real power behind Solaris.
"They’ve arrived," he said, looking slightly anxious. "Get to the Gear hangars immediately."
"Lay off for a few minutes, all right?" pleaded Jessiah to the other Elements. "We can finish this later."
Above decks, things were indeed not going entirely as well as they should be.
There were three black blurs in the clear blue sky, approaching slowly, getting closer and closer. Atop the flat dish that topped the Soylent System were the Elements’ (now occupied) Gears: Ramsus’ Wyvern (a golden Gear with black wings and a sword,) Jessiah’s Renmazuo (a gun-equipped Gear with an impressive set of hovering jets,) Sigurd’s Sechtzehn (one of Nikolai Balthasar’s inventions, nicknamed "Calamity" for reasons unknown,) Hyuga’s Schpariel (unfavorably compared by Miang to a ration can with arms and legs,) and Miang’s unnamed Nanotechnological Gear.
"Elements," leader Ramsus began over the inter-Gear intercom/radio, "I’m going to warn our visitors. Do NOT open fire until my signal. Understood?" Affirmatives came in from all positions, including Hyuga’s hissed "What difference does it make?" He’s irritating me, noted Ramsus, and there’s a certain point at which I become violently intolerant of that. But then again, we can use all the help we can get. If he stops being a prick just for the sake of being a prick, we can work together much more , ah, ‘effectively.’
Ramsus established a communications link with the incoming objects; rather, he attempted to. There was no result; there was no equipment for the link to attach to.
"What kind of machines are they flying?" he wondered aloud.
"What do you mean?" asked Sigurd.
"I mean, they must be using some ancient hardware if they don’t have comm link equipment--"
"Not necessarily!" Hyuga blurted.
They weren’t Gears.
"Those are, hands down, the biggest Wels I have ever seen," said Jessiah, speaking for all of them.
The Renmazuo’s heavy cannon nearly decapitated one as it came in, leaving mottled patches of wounds on the creature’s neck and chest. Sigurd desperately tried to manage a lock-on with the Calamity’s CMC (Cruise Missile Column) on the largest of the Wels, a winged, flying dragonlike beast, but failed and got the Calamity’s supplementary armor raked by the beast’s claws. The Schpariel’s tentacular arms cleanly missed the third Wels, a humanoid similar to the first, but with a great deal of muscle and sinew.
"Miang," said Hyuga, "I will concede that you were right about the Schpariel."
"That it’s a dog without heavy Boosting and even then still isn’t great? That if Vanderkaum pitched it, there’s probably a reason?"
"Yes. Those things. I intend to reacquaint myself with the Heimdal as soon as we return to Solaris."
Meanwhile, Jessiah and Sigurd were yelling at each other over the comm.
"Use the CMC!!"
"I can’t get a lock, and you know it can’t hit anything past five feet for crap without a lock!"
"What’s stopping you?"
"The beam jammer’s got interference reducing the lock speed--"
"Pitch the beam jammer! It won’t do you any good against Wels anyway!"
Sigurd took the advice and returned to attempting to lock on to the dragon. The humanoid Wels had both landed somewhere across the Soylent System’s landing pad from where they approached, and Renmazuo, Schpariel, and Wyvern went to search for them.
Renmazuo bent over the cusp, weapons at the ready.
"I don’t see it," began Jessiah, followed by "What the --?!" as a claw closed over Renmazuo’s cockpit and began to pull. The Wels had somehow attached itself to the underside of the landing pad--
Jessiah, however, was happy to let it pull. And pull it did-- right to the point where the Renmazuo’s heavy gun was squared with its head.
The blast left an appropriate splash of monster goo on the side of the System, and the rest of the Wels dropped into the ocean below. Jessiah could almost see Krelian wincing-- if his aim hadn’t been quite so accurate, there was a chance that the blast could have damaged some of the Soylent System itself.
The other Wels, perched near where its companion had been, vaulted onto the landing pad and onto the Schpariel, and began doing its best to take some substantial chunks out of it. Its fist smashed through the viewport, leaving Hyuga to shield his face from the spray of broken glass, and to wonder for a moment if this was to be the end, and then its assault was ended by the Wyvern’s foot... and leg. The Wels was knocked sprawling, and the Wyvern moved forward, sword drawn.
Inside the Gear’s cockpit, Ramsus’ right arm, holding a long rod dotted with sensors, was creating the movements of the Wyvern’s sword arm as the Elements advanced...
It put its sword to the Wels’ throat, and Ramsus’ voice boomed over the loudspeaker:
"Retreat or you will die." He could sound remarkably officious and menacing, when the situation called for it.
The Wels opted to do neither and demonstrated to Ramsus its superior strength by rising and attacking the Wyvern in the same manner in which it had assailed the Schpariel. This time, it was the Schpariel that finally got everything pointed in the right direction and used its heavy spark gun to send the Wels over the edge of the System. Another series of thuds and splashes was complemented by fireworks, which resulted from two things:
Miang’s use of nanomachines to repair the damage to the Calamity’s frame, and Sigurd’s attaining of a CMC lock on the dragonlike Wels, and the series of explosions that followed.
A successful mission. Inside the Wyvern’s cockpit, Ramsus cracked his knuckles contentedly.
Again, they sat it silence, staring at each other on the ride home.
"This is pathetic."
"Excuse me?" Miang furrowed her brow, expecting another confrontation.
"This," Hyuga repeated, "is pathetic. We are allies in name only. Clearly, in reality we are divided into two directly opposed factions. This cannot go on: at least one of us would have lost their life today had we not decided, at least for a while, to cooperate.
"We must now put our differences aside. If we do not, at some point, one or more of us will be killed. At the moment, we are receiving fairly simple assignments. This will not go on." He turned in a full circle, as if to take in the attention of everyone.
"I will not have us labor under any pretense of being friends, if we never truly are. But at the least, for our own survivial, we must be partners. Agreed?"
Everyone shook hands in agreement. From there on, the atmosphere was considerably more relaxed. And none of them had ever heard Hyuga talk so much at a stretch.
Back in Solaris, Hyuga, Ramsus, and Sigurd sat at a table in the Gebler commons, a series of polished hallways and large, open side rooms. Sigurd was busy with a drink of some sort... Hyuga didn’t drink, and Ramsus felt no particular need to. Being late afternoon, the area was fairly crowded-- which was not to say that there was any point in the day during which it was vacant, or even close to that.
"So why did you call us here?" Hyuga asked, looking more interested than irritated.
Ramsus leaned close to them, so as not to make his words audible to anyone else. "Has the Solaris class system ever struck you as... unfair?"
"Not particularly," said Hyuga. "You can advance in class with work, can you not? Work makes you free. But I see now... the hovercar... and your unwillingness to attack the Wels."
Sigurd spoke up. "Yeah? Well, considering that you were born a second-class citizen, you wouldn’t really know, would you? There are executions almost weekly down in that pit. They have no qualms about killing people, and an entire block’s progress can be reset by one man. There are Lamb slaves down there. Not that that matters to you--"
"I believe that you are mistaken," Hyuga told him. "I do not believe that bringing Lambs up here to do our hard labor is in any way morally defensible."
"But doing the same thing to our own people is?"
Hyuga was silent.
"All right," he finally conceded. "The system is certainly not without its flaws. And I have used every ounce of political influence that it is in my power to exert to oppose the Soylent System. That is inhumane, brutal, and disgusting."
"Right," intoned Ramsus, who had been watching their little argument with a trace of amusement on his face. "Well... now we’re Elements. We have the power to change things, right?"
Hyuga thought for a moment. "Yes, I suppose we--"
The sound of rapid footsteps pounded in the hallway outside, and it quickly vacated all except for--
"That’s Van Houten’s daughter!" Sigurd was taken aback. "What in the--"
"She is a member of Gebler," Hyuga reminded him.
Following Van Houten-- a pale, slender, red-haired young woman dressed in a Gebler pilot’s uniform-- were three other pilots, all of them male. One had short auburn hair, the second a black crew-cut, and the third long green hair.
"Elly! Come on!" the auburn-haired man implored her. "This stuff’s mandatory!"
Elly stopped, turned, and shook her head. "I don’t need any stimulants to pilot Gears, Vance."
"Yeah, but you run the risk of dying without ‘em, don’t you?" asked Vance.
"That’s Drive," said Ramsus in an almost-whisper, seeing the syringe that Vance was holding. "A hyperstimulant for combat pilots."
"I have heard of it," replied Hyuga.
"Are we going to do anything?" asked Sigurd urgently.
"Well, I suppose we could..."
"Darn it, Elly! Come on!" Vance grabbed Elly’s left arm with one hand and plunged the syringe into it with the other.
"Ah... you really needed not to do that..." Ramsus began, even before the first gunshot was fired.
Vance fell to the floor, clutching his abdomen. Blood oozed between his fingers. Elly leveled off another shot at the green-haired man, hitting his body armor and sending him stumbling backward. The third man reached for his gun and fumbled just long enough for Elly to put a round into his forehead from about ten yards.
"What did you think was going to happen?!" yelled Ramsus, charging out after her. "Her brain had identified you as the enemy-- what did you THINK the Drive would do?!!"
Hyuga began administering his healing Ether abilities to Vance, who healed noticeably. He could tell on sight that there was nothing to be done for the man that would still have a black crew-cut if he still had so much as a head from the bridge of his nose on up. Ramsus and Sigurd chased Elly down the hall for a few meters, but then she crumpled to her knees, murmured "It wasn’t my fault," looked at her own bloodied gloves for a moment, and then collapsed, unconscious.
Some weeks later, after the messy incident had been cleaned up and was out of the public consciousness, each of the Elements in turn received a file folder. Miang learned nothing new, but still displayed to the world her unfailing confident smile. Ramsus had only heard of the level of security at which it was marked, but had never seen it. Hyuga was frightened. Jessie thought it was a joke-- what was "Classified X"? Sigurd wasn’t given one. He didn’t need to know.
The message of the file folders was clear. They contained very few things. Among these things:
A photo of Krelian taken one hundred and fifty years before he was born.
The history of the Diabolos war, in great detail.
Several photographs of humans-- Lambs-- on conveyer belts leading to huge grinding machines. At least one of these humans-- a young woman-- was still alive.
A photograph of a man in the transition between human and Wels.
Something floating in red ooze in a tank somewhere. It looked vaguely humanoid.
The history of the Emperor Cain and the Ministry, dating back to the beginning of time: a spaceship crash onto the planet. Including lists of all currently known reincarnations and persons older than two hundred years. Miang was not on this list. The sheer number of such people was incredible. Among these were Wong Fei Fong and Elhaym van Houten. Neither was listed on the list given to Hyuga or Jessie.
An elaborate schematic for the biological weapon Deus, and a description of the Ethos’ use of it as a false god.
A schematic for something called the ‘Zohar Engine,’ and a description of what it did.
None of their lives was ever the same.
Vanderkaum paced pack and forth in the battle cruiser, never talking directly to the man and woman lined up in front of him.
"This will, perhaps, be the mission of most import that you will ever undertake. The Gazel Ministry will brief you on the details. Give them your undivided attention."
"Commander," began Ramsus, displaying a confident grin, "I’m sure that the Ministry has better things to do than to brief a few government agents on a mission that, in the grand scheme of things, will most likely be remembered as fairly insignificant. Perhaps you could inform us yourself?"
The other Elements chuckled as Vanderkaum became flustered, knowing very well that if they were going to the Ministry, Vanderkaum had not exactly been allowed to know the details of their mission. "You have been specifically ordered to go to the Ministry. Now go."
The door hissed open, and the Elements walked into the darkness. Several globes appeared, as if circling around a central object-- which, in fact, they were. Light dawned over the edge of the SOL-9000, the Ministry’s globe-shaped life support computer, as it might dawn over the edge of a planet. Eventually it illuminated the entire globe.
"Elements," said one Elder.
"Do you recognize this man?" That was from another. A blank screen flared to life, showing the thin, angular, pale face of a red-haired young man. The Elements shook their heads, though obviously Miang was not being completely truthful.
"His name is Wong Fei Fong."
"He currently works under the pseudonym Id."
"He is an assassin and a serial killer."
"He is believed to be working in concert with Grahf, another serial killer."
"We have labeled Grahf as such for his deeds."
"But perhaps this is not entirely true."
"He calls himself the Seeker of Power. He does possess a great deal of Ether power."
"As does Id."
"Their fighting and Gear operation expertise is unparalleled."
Another blank screen now displayed the image of a gleaming red helmet in a shape that looked vaguely like leftovers from the Soylent System.
Three more screens showed them three Gears: all humanoid, one black and inset with glowing jewels, one red with wings, and one black with... incidentally, it was the same Gear as the second, only without wings and colored black.
"The first Gear remains unidentified. It is piloted by Grahf. The second Gear, owned by Id, is registered as the Weltall. It is at least as old as the Zeboim era. Its black form has been seen in the possession of this man:"
Wong Fei Fong / Id appeared again, with tanned skin and brown hair pulled into a ponytail, looking utterly normal.
"Wong Fei is afflicted with a severe case of Multiple Disassociative Identity Disorder. He is a pacifist-- an artist, in fact-- under normal circumstances. Heavy concentrations of emotions seem to trigger an underlying personality, calling himself Id."
"Id consistently appears in the same fashion under all circumstances. This leads us to believe that Id is using Wong Fei’s Ether potential to alter his appearance, making him unrecognizable except upon close inspection. Though his physical structure does not change--"
Another Elder took up that sentence as the first rotated out of view. "Though his physical structure does not change, the pigmentation of his hair and skin, and his clothing are altered upon every transformation. His Ether abilities are also pushed to the maximum, and he is afflicted with an ‘adrenalin high’--"
"Which has, in the past, motivated him toward extreme bloodlust and violence."
"He and Grahf are, according to the reports of an informant, considering attacking Elru at large-- as a whole. The results could be catastrophic."
"Mr. Ricdeau and Sigurd will go to Shevat, reportedly Wong Fei’s birthplace and Grahf’s place of residence for a long time. Mr. Black, Mr. Ramsus, and Miang will go to Elru to assist its national guard."
"Sirs, may I be permitted to ask a question?" inquired Ramsus.
"What concern do we have for the welfare of Elru?"
"Little enough at that, though they do represent a potentially viable military partner. Bishop Shakhan’s work aside, Aveh alone may be insufficient to carry out our plans. Our concern is for Grahf, and for Id. Their Ether potential is the highest on record throughout all of the time Solaris has maintained records and all of the Zeboim era. Their Gears are built with technology otherwise unseen anywhere on the world: an incredible amount of power and energy, seemingly unhindered by fuel restraints. So it is them for which we have concern." The Elder speaking had rotated out of view, back into view, and now rotated out of view again.
"You are dismissed immediately."
"Shevat Port Station 5, this is Solaris shuttle X1-58 requesting docking area. Our intentions are not hostile."
"Solaris shuttle, what are your intentions?"
"I’ll dig them out," said Sigurd, and he began rummaging through the file folders in the cramped shuttle.
"Do not worry about it," replied Hyuga, and then spoke to the port comm station: "Shevat Port, we intend to find information and background to aid us in the capture of two dangerous criminals. As acting emissaries from the Gazel Ministry and from Solaris, we have already arranged a meeting with your queen and an associate of hers who has been following the trail of this criminal."
"Solaris shuttle, you are clear to dock. Please allow our docking beacon to guide you. Any hostile actions will be met with fire from our weapon systems."
The cease-fire was not, all things considered, among the longest-lasting pacts in effect. There was still paranoia from both sides even now. The procedures only served to tire out Hyuga even further: one would think that for the Elements, customs clearance would be less ponderous, shield gap requests for exiting the shield sphere would take less time to process, and an aircraft would be provided for them that traveled a bit faster. All that aside, they had arrived, and neither Hyuga nor Sigurd had any intention of hitting the research facilities until the next day, which would hopefully bring with it the completion of their adjustment to the inverse gravity.
The maw of the port opened wide in their view screen, just above them (the screen was curved and allowed them visibility over their heads as well.) The docking beacon lifted up into the port as if the huge metal cylinder generated some sort of vacuum. As the shuttle moved into position, they began to rise via tractor beam into it. The light gradually disappeared in the black interior of the cylinder, save for the red guide lights ringing the walls at every twenty or so meters. At the top were fluorescent red and green lights, and a metallic deck with a railing and computer systems galore. The shuttle came to a stop with a hiss of hydraulics as it settled into its bay, and Hyuga and Sigurd walked out, each carrying a briefcase, a communicator, and a small portable computer.
"Welcome to Shevat," a young... mechanic, perhaps? No, he was in uniform-- some kind of official... greeted them. "You’re the ones from Solaris?"
Hyuga nodded curtly.
"All right, follow me."
They did indeed follow him, down a blue-lit hallway lined with machinery and into the eye-hurting light of the port’s central plaza. The architecture here used white metal as its main motif, with strips of elegant scrollwork near the tops and bottoms of the walls, and lining the walkways. A lift-- a metal disc resting on a slightly larger, also circular patch of green glow-- raised the three of them up to--
Suddenly they were outside. The Shevat energy gate mechanisms surrounded the floating nation’s main body, a metallic ovaloid dotted with walkways and windows. There were few protrusions from this main ovalloid: what looked like a city, and a the huge figure of an angel that housed the capital. The clouds were above them, Hyuga noted... so the place floated much lower than Solaris.
Their guide led them to the palace, reciting a marginally helpful and wholly robotic monologue concerning the general area.
"Question," said Sigurd. "Does anyone ever fall off?"
"No," came the reply.
"That’s certainly an improvement over home."
The young attendant stared at him for a moment with an absolutely white face until Sigurd grinned and began to laugh. He chuckled all the way to the capital, an action which Hyuga had no doubt flustered the attendant.
In the cool, inviting, and generally pleasant capital, the same architect had been at work, apparently, though the walls looked even whiter and more polished. The Queen’s quarters topped the structure, and two guards showed Hyuga and Sigurd in. It occurred to both of them first that the people, who dressed mostly in loose-fitting light-colored clothing, were staring at them, and then that the two were in full dress uniform. That explained that, then.
A short hallway and the opening of two gates led them to the Queen’s chamber, shaped like an inverted triangular prism with a paneled glass bottom. A walkway led them to several hoverdiscs, one of which was occupied by a blue-robed figure with its back turned. Stepping onto the discs, Hyuga and Sigurd faced a semitransparent glass screen, which rotated around the back of the large dais in was mounted on to reveal the Queen, seated on her throne.
"So. You have arrived."
"Yes, Your Majesty," replied Hyuga. Sigurd gave her a sideways look in response to the rhetorical question but said nothing.
Queen Zephyr, though she was on the list of individuals living for in excess of two hundred years, did not look particularly old. (Then again, noted Hyuga, none of them did. He supposed that if he was to be given a life span in excess of two hundred years, he’d want the aging process to stop while he was in his twenties or thirties, as well.) She looked like she could be about Hyuga’s own age, and was fairly short. She had long brown hair and dressed in her robes of state. Her voice had a particularly regal quality to it, though the language was Lamb.
"You will excuse me for my lack of proficiency in Solarian. It seems, however, that you can speak well enough in Lamb."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Now, to business. The man that stands beside you, the informant that gave us information about Grahf, is called Wiseman."
They’d almost forgotten he was there. Wiseman turned, revealing that under the hood of his navy blue robe was the fishlike face of a demi-human.
After a moment of thought and rubbing his chin, Sigurd said: "That’s a mask, isn’t it?"
"Very perceptive." Of all the possible accents, the last one that either of the Solarians would have expected him to speak in was Ignasian Lamb. Sigurd nearly laughed out loud. "How did you know?"
"The quality of the mask," interjected Hyuga, "is too perfect. It is also symmetrical, a trait almost never seen in demihumans."
"I enjoy the verbal sparring, gentlemen, but at the moment our position requires us to forgo the formalities and get to the heart of the matter."
He sounded as if he was forcing the eloquent speech-- his manner didn’t lend itself to it.
"As of tomorrow morning, the two of you have unlimited access to our research facilities and libraries to dig up whatever information you can get on Wong Fei and Grahf. Anything that you can possibly find for us is good, and we appreciate your cooperation.
"You’ll be staying in suites with views in the City. It’s a bit of a hike, but you’ll appreciate the comfort. Meals will be delivered three times a day.
"Oh, and lastly: the research facilities are open from nine to nine. We’ll be working with you."
"You are dismissed," the Queen told them.
Of course, Wiseman knew, they were working for Solaris’ own agenda, which involved most likely nothing but amassing political power, but still...
They needed to find his son. They needed to...
If he could...
And then he felt it.
Wiseman made a mad dash up the stairs to his room, a mixture of black and red trickling down his vision. Things blurred, images twisted, the felt dizzy and as if he was suffering the aftereffects of hallucinogen use. He flung open the door and tripped over his own feet, dragged himself to the cabinet, part crawling and part running, knocking over a table and shattering a lamp.
He flung open the drawer and grabbed for the needle, but it slipped from his fingers and then it was too late.
Grahf, who rarely ever missed taking the knockout shots so that Wong Khan couldn’t remember what he had done, stood up, dusted off his cape, and lifted the lamp back onto the table, sealing it back together with a small expenditure of power the while.
"You should not have told them about me, Khan. You will suffer for having done so."
He took the needle for himself, closed the suite door, and teleported out in a black flash.
The digital clock shone in the darkness.
And Sigurd was already pissed at him about the last time he’d woken him up, which could very clearly be accomplished by so much as stepping within five feet of the door to his room, so...
Hyuga dialed the frequency.
"You are there?" he asked.
Ramsus’ voice and image came back through to him, both a bit grainy. "Yeah. We made it all right... with a minimum of difficulty, actually. The accomodations are awful, though."
"Personally, I have had the exact opposite of that experience. Though I..."
"I cannot get him out of my mind. He is dangerous, and powerful, and I am concerned."
"Very succinct. Well, you’re not sitting on his next target."
"I have a certain suspicion we may be proven wrong about that."
"Hmm. Just a second." Ramsus fiddled with something, turning the his comm toward the ceiling, a pale stucco blue. When the screen displayed his face again, Ramsus looked extremely grave and serious.
"All taps are jammed on the comm-- we’re going to be speaking privately now. When we get back, there’ll be a demonstration."
"A demonstration of the authority of Solaris. Troops are going to kill a randomly-selected half of one block that has been complaining lately. We’ll have a little demonstration of our own. Specifically, we’re going to stop them. By any means necessary."
"Might there be a better way of dealing with it?"
"In what way are the troops less deserving of life than us?"
"Consider them anything but faceless agents of evil, Hyuga, and you’re in for a hell of a time in the military."
And with that he switched off the comm.
It might be worth taking a walk, actually.
The city was a patchwork of metallic white interiors and rough-hewn stone exteriors, suspended together with walkways in a large hole in the main disc of Shevat. When one wasn’t inside a building, the only evidence of advanced technology was the hoverdiscs.
Why didn’t people fall off the walkways? Some of them must...
Hyuga stepped to the edge, looking out over the world below. In the dead of the night, walking in the red glow of the moon, with the land so far below him, Hyuga wondered what, exactly, was the point of going on.
He wasn’t in love. Nobody loved him.
His profession had, for a number of years, been torturing people to extract information.
His professional reputation outside of Gebler was ruined. If they pulled the rug out from under him, he’d never work again.
Whatever conviction he had ever had that there was any one true and right course of action in any given situation was wavering more than ever.
Thinking a moment, he decided against it. Romantic nonsense, really; he had a pistol. If his impulse had been anything other than a brief fancy caused by the tragedy of the moment, he would have put it to his temple and pulled the trigger long ago.
Hyuga would have liked to believe that he was past such self-indulgent fantasies.
Chaos theory is an interesting thing. There is no plan; the branch could appear anywhere, literally anywhere on the preceding branch. Hyuga was one for controlled chaos (and methodical madness, and other contradicting and often irritatingly alliterative phrases); the branch didn’t grow in mid-air, or on another tree, or out of the ground, after all. An example; Hyuga’s next five steps could theoretically have carried him anywhere. They didn’t carry him to the ocean floor, the secret vaults-within-vaults-within-vaults of the unnamed Solaris center of government which he had been in only once and didn’t leave with fond memories of, Bledavik, or any place not within fifteen feet of where he stood. But those five paces could have been in any directions. As it was, they took him to a hover disc.
Hyuga lowered onto one of the side platforms of a room designed in the usual Shevat style with water softly bubbling from a fountain in the center. Around the fountain was a large public pool, about three to five feet deep all around. He spied some movement behind the carefully crafted fountain’s silhouette, and drew his sword and flashlight simultaneously. There was a high-pitched shriek, and a shadowy form darted behind the fountain.
"Please turn that off for a few seconds," a female voice said from behind the fountain. Hyuga did indeed. "And hand me what’s next to you on the platform."
"What would that be?" he asked suspiciously.
"Just please hand it to me."
"I..." He clicked on the flashlight and noticed that, incidentally, they were robes. Hyuga gathered them up and returned them to their silhouetted owner a bit sheepishly. He turned his back while she pulled the robes on.
"Thank you," she murmured, also a bit sheepishly. Hyuga turned the flashlight on her now; she was in her mid-twenties, with a pale, angular face, long light blonde hair, and her body totally obscured by the Shevat robes.
"You know," said Hyuga, "you should not have been swimming here alone, especially at night. It is dark, and if you had been injured there would have been no one to assist you."
"Really," she replied. "Why, thank you."
"There is no need to be sarcastic." That was accompanied by a faint smile. "I suppose you should go home."
"I suppose so. You can come with me, if you like. I’m at a loss for anyone to talk to lately." They boarded the disc, ascended to the walkways, and Hyuga let her lead the way to her home.
"Your accent... you’re one of the men from Solaris." She suddenly looked frightened.
"Yes. We are here only to find background information on two serial killers who lived here for some time. There is no hostile intent on our part."
"Yes, but you should hear the way that people are talking about you."
"That they will not say it directly to me is, I believe, sufficient clue that perhaps I should not hear it."
"Ha. You’re probably right." A few steps later: "So... what’s your name?"
"Hyuga. All right. I’m Yui. I’m from the capital, but I’m studying art and sculpture here."
"Ah. I see."
"This is really a very boring city, you know."
"I find it relaxing."
"Coming from Solaris, I can imagine that!"
"Does anyone ever fall off the walkways in this city?"
"Not that I can remember---!" Yui shrieked the last syllable as she tripped and plummeted off the sidewalk. Suddenly, she stopped falling, began to rise, and landed on the walkway, smiling sweetly. Hyuga’s face had turned a very pale shade of white.
They reached the door of what she indicated was her home. Yui went stepped inside, thanked Hyuga, and began to close the door. He held it open.
"May I ask you one question?"
"Is there any way I could possibly stop you from doing so?"
He didn’t answer. "Why, exactly, was it that you were skinny-dipping in a pool in the middle of the night?"
"Believe me, the staff is a lot less tolerant of that any other time." And without giving him a real answer, she shut the door. Hyuga didn’t attempt to talk to her again.
"It’s not bloody pornography!"
"That aside-- I AM NOT INTERESTED. Go away.
"Some city they’ve dragged us to," Ramsus sighed. "Would this be our fifth street heckler today?"
"Fourth. I’m unbearably anal-retentive on hot days," said Jessie, wiping the sweat from his brow.
"Multisyllabic words," growled Ramsus. "You’ve improved."
Miang sighed too, though hers had more the tone of an exasperated mother’s. "Come on, boys. We’re supposed to be having fun in our free time."
The hot, crowded streets of the Elru market weren’t entirely unlike the hot, crowded streets of the Bledavik market. The only immediately apparent difference was that the architecture was much less interesting, consisting largely of squat, aging brick buildings situated in a rough hexagon around the gleaming Palace.
"This is military life, all right," said Ramsus, turning down the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity offered him by an unshaven, heavyset man holding a fistful of figs, dates, and slightly crushed pomegranates. "Days of boredom followed by hours of absolute insanity. We’ll be getting to the second part soon enough."
"Right." Miang looked about nervously. "I suppose the troops are in position... I mean, we haven’t heard anything, but I’d think that given enough time..."
"Sure. They-- we-- are professionals, dear." Ramsus gave Jessiah a look for that, but the latter didn’t notice it.
"Multiple Disassociative Identity Disorder..." Sigurd watched the display intently.
He and Hyuga were seated in the records section of the Shevat Library, browsing through the files on Wong Fei Fong and Grahf. The story they’d gotten so far went like this.
Grahf had been around for fully a hundred years now, without any sign of aging. He had a tendency toward killing people with his bare hands and had some past with Wong Fei, though the details thereof were unknown.
"Yes. As disorders go, I have known it to be fairly rare."
"What’s got you in such a good mood?"
Hyuga turned his head and stared at Sigurd, next to him at the circular desk which was, in keeping with what else they’d seen of Shevat architecture, made of gleaming white metal. "What is it that suggests to you that I am in a good mood?"
"You don’t sound like you’re trying to imitate a poor translation program." Hyuga scowled. "You’re smiling. Were smiling, that is. Sorry about the translation program... thing."
"Still ice-cold, though," muttered Sigurd. He assumed Hyuga didn’t hear, though it was mostly that he didn’t reply.
"How goes the setup?"
The desk table in the hotel suite shared by the Elements in Elru was covered with expensive computer equipment, unmarked by any brand name or logo.
"One more thing," Ramsus told Hyuga over the comm.
"Can we operate without it? I am a bit pressed for time. Every second wasted gives them another chance to attack."
"Technically, we can, if you don’t mind causing an international incident."
Said Jessie from across the room, "Like the one we almost caused carting the thing in?"
"The ‘Watchblocker,’ then," said Hyuga.
"Indeed. Just keep your system on, we’ll establish a link."
Ramsus clicked the comm off.
"What in hell does a Watchblocker do, anyway?" asked Jessiah.
"Prevents monitoring. It breaks down the coding of all modules within a certain area that prevent a device from normal detection. Then it targets each device specifically, shutting it down. Thing is, it has no coding module itself, which means we of course have to use the same devices to hide it in customs, ‘cause it’s unbelievably illegal."
"And so, you managed the technological equivalent of trying to protect your car from burglary by locking the doors-- even though the windows are rolled down."
"Hey," said Ramsus, though not with real anger, "I still maintain that it was turned on because YOU were jostling it around in that case."
"Wait a minute..." Miang interrupted. "Are you saying that... that that fiasco at customs was it detecting itSELF?"
Miang was normally unflappable, though she became bent over with laughter fairly quickly this time.
Within a few minutes, everything was set up, the program run, and the link established.
One computer monitor now displayed a three-dimensional world map, with hundreds of tiny dots where Gears were located. The second monitor was now blank, but if an individual dot was clicked on (and sections of the map could be zoomed towards or away from, of course) the registered name, serial number, and schematics of the gear would be displayed. Hyuga and Sigurd were also seeing these images on monitors in Shevat, via a modem link. Now they could monitor all existing Gears 24 hours a day.
A quick database search revealed no signs of Id or Grahf’s gears, and no sign of any unregistered Gears with the appropriate schematics. Not yet, at least. If they were far enough underground or underwater, they wouldn’t be detectable yet.
But chances were, if they were far enough underground or underwater not to be detected, they’d be either molten metal or crushed chunks of steel and plastic resting on the ocean floor.
Jessie slept fairly uncomfortably.
When a visual check of the rooms, the day they had arrived, had revealed a total of one bed in each room and no other sleeping accountrements, Jessie had figured that either he was about to get very friendly with Miang or that she was sleeping with Ramsus.
The latter had, predictably, turned out to be correct. Jessiah missed his wife that night...
Damn it, Stein. He’d kill Stein on sight. He would. Next time the bishop reported to the Ministry, he’d find him and kill him. If the Elements went to Aquvy on a mission, he’d find him and kill him. If he was free for a weekend, he’d find Stein and kill him. Stein had done everything possible to earn it.
Ramsus and Miang continued to go at it. In terms audial, they managed to make quite a spectacle of it.
At eight o’ clock, Hyuga stood in the pool basin balcony, looking over the world with its cool, blue rolling oceans, its rust-colored crags, its deep green fertile plains and forests arranged below.
One past eight turned into two, and from there into three.
He’d been a fool to assume that her interest in him had been anything more than passing. A complete fool, Hyuga told himself.
Into five, into six, and then Hyuga could not feel anything but the soles of his feet and his upper right arm.
"Hi," said Yui, releasing her light grip on said arm. Feeling returned to Hyuga’s body.
He turned. "Hello, Yui."
The city didn’t sleep on Fire’s Day night. The crumbling old town was lit by lamps, the positioning of which was usually not apparent. As they’d watched the passerby from a bench on the roadside, Hyuga had noted that in truth, it wasn’t much less busy than Solaris. Less noisy, less gaudy, less fake, and certainly not corrupting as much from the core as was Solaris. Here, the people didn’t labor under a totalitarian government, or a glass ceiling set above them by a harsh caste system. People in Shevat seemed to be able to be happy at the moment, not happy because there was something impending. Happy not because things were going well, but because they weren’t going badly. In Solaris, if things weren’t going well, they generally were going badly.
That sense, half from Yui and half from everyone else in Shevat, reached Hyuga for the first time since he could-- or would for any reason-- count his age on both hands. He realized that he had been grown up before he was an adult... his world had been the same since he was a teenager. Cold, bleak, and unfeeling. The few times since it had been any other way-- getting his medical degree, getting a job, his brief engagement-- were distant memories, and while Hyuga knew that they’d occurred, he had no idea what they must have been like.
"Did you enjoy yourself?" he asked Yui as they reached her front door.
"Yes." She smiled a wide, thin-lipped smile. "I had a wonderful time. Thanks." She kissed Hyuga on one cheek, and then disappeared into her house once again.
"Goodbye," Hyuga said, though he knew she couldn’t hear him. He touched two fingers, lightly, to the place where her lips had touched, as much in shock and wonder as in happiness.
A month passed without so much as even a minor national incident in Elru. This did not, understandably, sit well with those who held power in Solaris.
Krelian and Cain stood on floating discs orbiting the Gazel Ministry.
"They’re a pair of small-time serial killers," a red Elder said. "If they are not going to present themselves soon, they are not worth tying up the Elements for."
"May I remind you of their great Ether potential?" ‘asked’ Cain rhetorically. "Or that Wong Fei is a reincarnation of Grahf? That he’s the Contact?"
"We have no proof that he is the Contact," said Krelian. In fact, Krelian did have proof and was sure of it. He intended to tell the others soon, but not immediately. "And keep in mind also that Wong Fei has never come even close to his full Ether potential, at any point. Ever. Even his nice little metamorphosis trick with the Weltall hasn’t raised its power to anywhere near Xenogears’."
"So we have confirmed," said a blue Elder, "that it’s the Xenogears."
"But to the matter at hand," intoned Cain. "Do we pull the Elements out?"
Krelian thought for several moments, and then said:
"No. We will not. Whether or not Grahf and Id know their own potential is of no consequence to us-- we can unlock that potential. We can use them."
"Is this an attempt to erase your own mistake, Krelian?" asked a red Elder with a missing eye. "You were the one that created Id, after all."
"What would be the problem if it was? And besides," he added, smiling evilly, "Miang created Id. Or had you forgotten?"
"Computer," said Ramsus in the dark. "Current Gear count."
The voice recognition chip they’d installed had been a godsend. So had the alarm that would go off if Grahf or Id was detected. The alarm hadn’t gone off yet, but Ramsus was a little paranoid and checked regularly anyway, which Miang pointed out to him as the computer’s voice chip told him that the Gear count hadn’t changed.
"Yeah, well. You know how unreliable computer equipment is."
"Take it easy," said Miang, pulling Ramsus closer to her under the sheets. "A month is a rather long time to be wound up about this. Have you enjoyed so much as one day of our stay here yet?"
Ramsus displayed the brash, confident grin he was known for. "Not particularly. Nights, however, have generally been a different story." As he’d expected, that got a reaction out of her and turned out to have been a good thing to say. Meanwhile, directly above them to the thousandth of a latitude line two other individuals of note were doing the same thing.
The sound of a muffled comm alert came from a pocket on Hyuga’s tunic. Hyuga didn’t hear the sound at first, as his tunic was on a different floor.
"What was that?" asked Yui.
"I did not hear anything."
"I think that-- there it was again."
"I still do not hear it. Can you tell me what it sounded like?"
"I... think it’s a comm."
Hyuga’s face took on a panicked look and he practically leapt out of bed. Following that, he followed the trail of clothing down to Yui’s couch (as he’d learned in their conversation there, she and two other students who were on vacation were jointly renting the place,) putting on the articles that were his, and checking all pockets for the comm. Eventually, in the last article, his tunic, he found it.
"What’s going on?!" asked Yui, who stood at the top of the stairs holding a sheet up to cover herself.
"My work has just interrupted our relationship for the first time," Hyuga told her, grabbing his weapon of choice-- a katana-- and activating the comm at the same time. "I will see you again soon, hopefully. Goodbye. I love you." And without waiting for a response, he walked out.
Yui assimilated all of this fairly quickly, but didn’t move for some time. When she did, it was to close the door behind Hyuga, and following that, mouth in wonder and fear:
"I knew it!" crowed Ramsus. "I knew it! They could have an hour’s head start-- two hours, even! Who knows?!"
The alarm had, indeed, failed to go off. After Ramsus and Miang had finished and she was asleep, Ramsus had, out of habit, asked for the Gear count. Five minutes later, all of Elru was thrown into a panic.
Currently, the Elements were speeding in a hovercar towards the Elru military hangar, where the Wyvern, Renmazuo, and Healer waited for them.
"Uh, Hyuga... uh..."
"What is it?" Hyuga had some marginally more important things to worry about at that time, for example whether or not their tiny ship would run out of fuel and crash before they reached Elru, much less made a safe landing or got to the Gear hangar.
"Positive ID. Visual. "
Hyuga turned and stared out of the back viewport. Grahf’s Gear and the Weltall were traveling at about the same speed they were, within roughly five hundred yards.
Sigurd spent the next half a minute cursing, which gave Hyuga some trouble in concentrating.
"They have not targeted us yet, and they are not gaining on us," Hyuga told him, "which indicates that they do not intend to fire. Why worry?"
"Well, it occurs to me that when Elru sees them, they’ll start firing... and then Grahf and Id will start firing back... putting us directly in the middle of the conflict."
"Eh. That is true. I will attempt to guide us in lower." Their angle of descent, currently about half a degree, sloped abruptly and then levelled out again. It turned out to be a good thing that Hyuga had chosen that moment to descend, as the cylinder of blazing fire crackling with lightning that roared over the glass exterior of the cockpit of their ship would probably have destroyed the small vehicle otherwise. Incapacitated it, at the very least.
The blue sea was rushing by at a dizzying pace below them now, and Elru was growing ever closer. Along the buildings ringing the city, white lights suddenly flared and a volley of missiles and lasers exploded toward them. Hyuga steered the ship smoothly from side to side, thankful at least for its excellent horizontal handling. The missiles all passed, but a few laser blasts left bubbled, distorted areas on the glass and metal frame of the ship.
"I’ve sent our hail, but I doubt it’ll help much." Sigurd was punching keys on the computer system, apparently under the mistaken impression that there was something he could do to stop Elru’s national guard from firing.
Just as they exited the area of danger (though that same word now appeared on the panel above the fuel gauge in bright red letters, so Hyuga and Sigurd were still somewhat distressed,) there was a particularly malicious-sounding rising whirr and crackle of energy, and a volley of massive laser blasts hit Elru. The targets were strategically picked-- two defense buildings, a hangar (fortunately not the one they were headed towards,) the capitol building, and the trade center. The two defense buildings were incapacitated, the hangar’s roof caved in and caught on fire, prompting a fuel explosion several seconds later, the trade center’s roof and top floor was peeled open like a Soylent System ration can, and a circle forty or fifty feet in diameter on the capitol building became charred black and concave, though it didn’t give way.
Just then, another three blasts slammed into several buildings in the city’s downtown area, reducing each of their sizes by half. Hyuga decided that they had very little chance trying to fight against both Grahf and the Weltall.
"Sigurd, prepare the emergency ejection system. We will be landing by parachute."
"You. Must. Evacuate. Elru." Miang spaced the words out just like that.
"I will not be patronized," Vanderkaum growled. "And we will not evacuate. We will stand and fight."
"And die." That came from Ramsus. The three Elements were in their Gears, preparing for the launch. Their comm systems were set up on a four-way link with Vanderkaum’s.
"We will not evacuate! I cannot make this any plainer!"
"You’ll have to. Otherwise you have no chance."
"If not evacuating will cause them to die, Ramsus," Vanderkaum told him, "then you Elements are performing your jobs inadequately!" He broke off the link.
There was a long silence as the final takeoff countdown was initiated.
Jessiah was the one to interrupt it:
"I, uh, got all of that on the recording system. I though it might be useful later if--"
The Gears’ engines roared to life and they sprung up into the air, as the hangar doors above them stretched open into the dark night sky.
Hyuga had just pulled the sharpest and most stomach-churning turn that Sigurd had ever been through.
"Prepare the system."
"Ready. Just give the word."
As they sped toward the airspace over the hangar and airfield, this time from the opposite direction they’d come from, Hyuga made a few last adjustments to their angle. Then he locked the throttle in the full forward position.
The canopy opened, and hydraulic systems propelled Hyuga and Sigurd out of their vehicle, fully a hundred yards above the airfield’s asphalt. As their ascent slowed and stopped, both engaged their parachutes and floated to the ground.
A small carrier ship came within inches of the Wyvern’s sword as the Gears flew forward. The Weltall and Grahf’s Gear were hanging in midair some distance beyond the island, firing on them.
Id manipulated the Weltall’s systems to effortlessly pick off incoming missiles. Lock, shoot, destroy. It was simple and effective. Grahf, meanwhile, was annihilating Elru below them. Fires burned in buildings, crossing the horizon line where the city met the sky. It was as if Elru was tethered to the sky-- to life-- by the jutting peaks of the buildings, and as these monoliths were destroyed and replaced with columns of fire, the connection was tearing apart.
Id squinted; there was something coming at him that looked like a very large missile. He got a lock, or rather he tried; there was nothing to lock onto. Figuring an equipment failure, he tried a second and third time. Nothing. He tested the system by trying another manual lock-on. It worked. He tried the approaching object again.
By now it was becoming clear that this object was getting very close, and he needed to take evasive action. It really was huge, bigger than any missile he’d seen before. Id attempted a very simple evasive maneuver that would get the Weltall out of the way. There was a tremendous grinding and pounding, and the Weltall totally failed to move.
Two things happened simultaneously. Id realized that he’d left the air brake on, and Hyuga and Sigurd’s currently unmanned craft hit the Weltall square in the chest, causing the tiny ship’s pressurized fuel to explode.
The Heimdal and Calamity backed up the other three, but as it turned out there wasn’t much to be done.
The Weltall, the middle of its chest having caved in, descended on a failing air brake towards what had been the city park, and now looked like a stretch of wasteland picked up from some inhospitable desert and placed here. The Wyvern, Healer, and Renmazuo followed in downward, surrounding the red Gear. Id wouldn’t escape.
That left to Hyuga and Sigurd the real challenge. The Elru forces were mostly occupied with Id, at present, and only a few of the gray police Gears backed up the Heimdal and Calamity as they rose through the air toward Grahf, whose gear floated high above Elru, flinging down fireballs to destroy the city. A few refugees were piloting their own boats or ships off of the island, or even trying to swim to safety-- and the police were turning whoever they could find back. Vanderkaum had given the order not to evacuate, purely to win accolades as having been able to win the battle without evacuating the city-- or if the situation took a different tone before the Ministry, to avoid having to deal with the consequences of having caused the sort of national inconvenience that evacuating would create.
Grahf’s Gear loomed before them, and slowly, it turned around to face the Heimdal...
Jessiah began cursing over the radio, and suddenly everyone knew they had a serious situation on their hands.
"Do you see him?!"
"No! No! He just disappeared when the hatch opened--"
"He’s somewhere! Search the city! Find him!" That was from Vanderkaum, who was standing on foot among a cloud of armed police officers and soldiers. The police Gears began to fan out over the city, as the Elements held down the fort in the ex-park.
Shortly following that, the vanished Id slithered over the Wyvern’s shoulder and punched through the cockpit glass.
Ramsus stared, stunned, into Id’s face. It was a bone-white color, chiseled and angular. The assassin’s mouth was turned up slightly at the corners, and his eyes were narrowed. His mane of red hair flowed about his head.
And suddenly, at the same time, they reacted. Ramsus, his right arm tied up in the metal harness of the equipment used to manipulate the Wyvern’s sword arm, reached for his blade with his free left hand. Id grabbed Ramsus by the collar and flung him out of the cockpit, tearing the wires of the sword apparatus out in a shower of sparks. Ramsus hit off the Wyvern’s extended right arm with a clang, absorbing the blow with his left shoulder. He then slid off downward toward the right thigh, also extended as the Wyvern had been crouching. He hit that, cushioning the blow in the same way as he had the first, and slid off to the ground, clutching his shoulder. Moving his arm any more than a little caused him great pain, but his right arm was still attached to the apparatus.
"Miang..." he began.
Before he’d finished, a blue glow had surrounded Miang’s Gear and the apparatus, and the machine had slid off of his arm. Ramsus grabbed his sword with that arm and looked upwards to see the Renmazuo’s gun pointed at the Wyvern’s cockpit, which now appeared empty.
Ramsus’ comm remained on his person, though he wasn’t sure the device, which was not a stellar piece of workmanship by any means, would have survived the fall. It had:
Ramsus punched the Send button, on general frequency.
"We’ve sighted him! All units converge on the park!"
"He’s, uh, he disappeared. I’m not getting a reading on him from anywhere." That was from Jessiah, shortly before the Renmazuo’s knee came out from under it and Jessiah rolled out of the cockpit as it hit the dirt. Id disappeared into the darkness around them again, just before there was a brief flash of silhouette that took the lower limbs of Miang’s Gear with it. All three Elements were on foot now.
The distant quake of another massive fireball hitting in the distance shook the ground.
The Elements stood back to back to back, staring at the flames illuminating the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of Id. The hum of approaching Gears was all around him.
Suddenly, an entirely new idea occurred to Ramsus. He donned a special piece of gear he’d been issued for the mission-- an infrared scope. Sure enough, there was Id, kneeling in the dirt about twenty meters away, smiling satisfiedly, stained with dark blood and Gear fluid.
"Break," said Ramsus. As the other two protested, he wandered around, occasionally making shows of jumping at a nearby noise or flicker of movement. The police Gears had sealed off the area, and surrounded them.
Ramsus had never fought a battle he couldn’t win.
A little closer. Couple of meters...
He wandered a little closer to Id, slowly converging on him in a spiral as he had been all this time. A little closer....
Ramsus was half a meter to Id’s right. He faced straight ahead. Id faced him.
Wait for it....
Id lunged, and Ramsus stabbed directly to his left with his saber.
Suddenly Id was visible again to all of the others, and screaming and running and bleeding through the park. Gear after Gear closed in on him, but he dispatched each one with an Ether bolt to a vital system. The Elements and police Gears ran and flew, respectively, along the trail of incapacitated mechs that Id was trailing.
Hyuga thought he’d lose altitude very abruptly and permanently, but he was wrong. The Heimdal clawed its way back up to its previous position, albeit with the paint on its front turned a uniform black. The repair systems were dealing with the damage now, but he didn’t have the fuel to keep those up for long and switched them off once he was sure the Heimdal wouldn’t die on him.
That had been one of Grahf’s smaller fireballs. The larger ones were knocking down buildings and caving in bunkers below them. Calamity had been getting knocked around fairly badly, and Sigurd had been concerned that the missile column was going to catch fire, in which case the Gear would be mostly good for scrap metal thereafter, and he’d landed it on the ruins of a destroyed building to prevent it from taking further damage.
Hyuga checked the Heimdal’s stats briefly. At the moment, Grahf’s attention was occupied with the military police, which was fortunate... though less fortunately, he was swatting them out of the air like flies. The repair system itself hadn’t taken any damage, but the beam jammer had turned into ballast on him and the Heimdal’s extra armor was down to about 25%. He’d probably survive another hit, but a third would crash the Gear for good, if it didn’t cause it to explode totally. As such, he’d have to be particularly careful...
The Heimdal floated up at a steep angle toward Grahf’s Gear, which immediately caught it on radar and spun-- just as an MP-fired missile came from the opposite direction. Automatically, the Gear swung back toward it-- and Hyuga charged in, using the Heimdal’s sword to thrust through the area where he guessed most of the important equipment would be.
Grahf’s Gear froze, convulsed, and began to drift slowly downward. The Heimdal went with it, and they spiraled slowly toward the wreckage below, alive in flame against the night sky.
Abruptly, the sword snapped in two and Grahf’s Gear dropped like a stone onto the park.
Ramsus was screaming inside his own head at himself, and screaming on the outside at no one in particular.
He had failed. Id had gotten away. Id had bested him.
That’s what he had thought, at least, until something plummeted from the sky like a meteor in front of them and they were assailed by a wave of stone and dirt. The Elements and the at least fifty military police following them shielded their faces.
When the dust had cleared, Id lay, clutching his shoulder with one bloodied hand, against the body of Grahf’s Gear, his face wrenched with pain. There was nowhere for him to run.
He took a look at Ramsus as the coated man approached him, smiled, and said:
"Ask Krelian who I am."
Id fell face-down, and his body changed into Wong Fei Fong’s.
"Apprehend him," said Ramsus, coldly. As military police swarmed around him, Ramsus could hear the sound of a Gear landing nearby. The Heimdal, presumably. He began to walk toward the cockpit of Grahf’s Gear, when Miang waved him off.
"I’m a healer, and he’s injured. Let me handle this."
"Will you be safe?"
"He’d have to be unconscious after that fall. There’s no danger." Miang climbed onto the body of the Gear, and into the cockpit.
There sat Grahf, his helmet lying nearby, and his face bruised.
"It is you!" exclaimed Miang. "How did you get into this mess? I haven’t seen you in, hmm, fifty years!"
"I found a new purpose," Grahf said plainly, his eyes beginning to close.
"No! Stay awake!" Miang shook him. "Now you know we need your help."
"Working at cross purposes with us won’t get you anywhere. I mean, I can destroy you. Just like I made you in the first place."
"I know. Perhaps that’s what. Hhh. Perhaps that’s what I want. I’ve been searching for..."
"Oblivion. Is all... I don’t want to exist any more..."
"There’s lots more to be done, Lacan... we think we have the other girl."
"Really. What’s she called this time?"
"I know that."
"I had thought so. Besides that... what’s the clone-boy doing with you?"
"Good question, actually. He’ll need to join the group officially soon."
"No. Just kill him."
"I don’t want to. I rather like him, actually."
"... yes. We’ll discuss this further later. I must leave now... there are other matters... that I have to deal with..."
"I’ll talk to you again tomorrow," said Miang as Grahf vanished in a black flash.
"Hmm." She suspected they were beginning to get suspicious out there. Miang cut her lip slightly with her combat knife, and clubbed herself in one temple with the butt of her gun, using her nanomachine abilities to dull the pain and make the damage more obvious. After few cuts to her jumpsuit’s sleeve and a few more to her leggings, she unzipped the suit’s front zipper and made a shallow but long slash high on her chest.
Following that, she screamed in pain and backflipped, with aid from her Ether powers, through the hole in the cockpit glass onto the Gear’s main body, landed with a thud, and slid off onto the dirt nearby.
"Are you all right?!" yelled Ramsus, which he didn’t need to do, seeing as Miang was in his arms and at close range as it was.
"He... got away..." she gasped.
Ramsus cursed and looked out at the city before them. He couldn’t see any structures that were undamaged-- everything had been annihilated. All of Elru was in ruins.
"What’s the death toll?" he asked Hyuga, who had indeed landed nearby not long before. In response, Hyuga read off a long figure.
"That’s as many people as some cities have," said Sigurd, who had arrived with Hyuga.
"It is as many as this one had."
Horror crept across the faces of the other Elements, and of the military police... except Miang, who had gone into a trance meant to be mistaken for unconsciousness. The normally emotionless Hyuga had tears running down his cheeks as he gazed sadly at the sky.
"Vanderkaum..." Jessiah had probably been ready to curse the general’s name, but couldn’t find the words to say it.
All heads turned to a gap in the trees where a blonde teenage girl wearing the remains of a pair of shorts and a T-shirt had emerged. Her face was streaked with tears, and she breathed in short rasps.
"Everyone?" she asked, unbelieving. Hyuga nodded sadly.
"I will not do it," Hyuga told Ramsus a week later. "I do not feel that our military’s actions are right, but to kill them is not right either. We must issue an appeal."
Ramsus leaned across the table at Hyuga and Sigurd.
"You need to understand, Hyuga. An appeal won’t do a thing but give Krelian one more reason to tap the delete key. We have to act before these people get killed."
"I cannot morally defend doing this. As such, I will not. I have asked to be transferred to a field assignment-- they are placing the young man we apprehended in a small town, under conditions where his power will not be unlocked, to observe him, as there is some indication he is what they call a ‘Contact.’"
"You’re bailing out on us?"
"So am I," Sigurd told him. "After our demonstration... well, when my Gear got knocked around... something in my head activated, or deactivated. I can remember things now. And I need to leave."
"I see," agreed Ramsus. "At least you’re not quitting beforehand. Miang’s going to be elsewhere, and Jessiah just left. He didn’t even try to explain."
"Just us, then?" asked Sigurd.
That evening, Ramsus, Sigurd, a group of Gebler officers, and ten soldiers entered a third-class block where a group of scruffy-looking, working-class men were held captive by ten or so more officers and soldiers. All the denizens of the block, filthy and destitute and despairing, had been dragged out of their homes to watch the demonstration.
Ramsus stood solemnly in front of the crowd and delivered the pre-prepared speech given him by the Ministry. The last three words of the speech were: "to do justice."
Ramsus spun on his heel and cut the head cleanly off the captain of the firing squad.
Two hovering platforms rotated around the SOL-9000. On one stood Krelian, tall and regal in appearance, with a smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. Miang sat on the other, her arms wrapped around her raised knees. Behind them, a flat viewscreen floating a few feet off the floor displayed the Emperor’s golden skull helmet.
"I assume," said Krelian, "that we at least agree Vanderkaum has to be removed. Any dissent?"
None was voiced.
"That narrows it down to three candidates, then. Black, Stein, and Ramsus seem to be the only real remaining choices." Cain restated what they had spent the last hour going over.
"Stein would be preferable," a red elder said. "Removing either of the others would break up the Elements."
"They’re already broken up," Miang told him. All eyes turned to her. "Sigurd’s starting to get his memory back-- he got jolted around while fighting Grahf, and it seems that some electrical impulses in his brain were triggered and he’s gradually recovering memories. I got a discharge form printed up for him recently. All I need is your signatures.
"Ricdeau’s got his own things to deal with. He has proposed to his girlfriend, she’s agreed, and he’s considering resignation. Whatever he does, he’s not an Element any more. I’m not going to stick around for anything. That girl we picked up in Elru, however... I would keep an eye on her."
Sigurd piloted the Calamity over the sands of the Aveh desert at night, the grains seeming as blue as the sky above beneath him. With the moon behind him and no vegetation in sight, everything outside his cockpit swirled into a blue fog. He was using only his instruments to navigate.
If, he reflected, he wasn’t towing the Heimdal, this wouldn’t be taking so long. Stealing it hadn’t been a great idea-- he’d almost gotten shot in the process-- but he had thought ahead and shut down the Heimdal completely, so it couldn’t be registered by their radar. Without even auxiliary jets firing, it was nothing but dead weight on his Gear. Bartholomew would need it, though. He would be using everything he could get his hands on.
He knew Bart too well not to believe that, if he’d survived (and at present, no one had heard anything to the contrary) he would be mounting some sort of rebellion. As he was thinking this, a long black shape horribly like a sleeping Rankar Dragon was surfacing on the horizon...
And suddenly, Sigurd saw that it wasn’t a dragon at all. Emblazoned onto the ship in bright yellow paint was the royal crest of the Fatima dynasty.
Preparing to switch over to the Heimdal and dunk Calamity into the desert sands, Sigurd grinned. It was time for a revolution.
Jessiah leveled his view along the gun barrel. No, it wouldn’t be silenced... but it wouldn’t need to be, if he could aim properly. Stein hadn’t even heard his footsteps, apparently. He hadn’t reacted at all.
There was suddenly a long, slender hand clutching Jessiah’s shoulder with more force than he’d previously imagined possible, and Krelian pulled him in a sharp about-face, yelling and cursing at him.
Three weeks later, Jessiah had left Renmazuo to his son Billy and had disappeared completely. No one knew to where he might have gone.
Late at night, lit by only a single overhead lamp, Ramsus searched through Krelian’s computer records. After destroying any implication between him and the riot, and discovering a file indicating he would be named the new commander of Gebler due to a vendetta between the other two candidates that would be considered unhealthy for a military leader, he was searching for something new. Eventually, he found what he was sure he was looking for: "Ramses Project." It was time to find out what Id had been speaking of.
Bathed in the dim green glow of the computer screen, Ramsus scrolled down the file. As he read it, his confident grin transformed, the edges of his moth sinking downward. At the end, his mouth was just barely open, and he was staring in shock at the screen. The grin would never return for very long at a time.
He would acknowledge that the revolution had been a failure. A handful of dead officers and soldiers, ten other men's lives saved. Nothing more than that. A pathetically violent statement against violence. In the end, there was no way for him to change what centuries of castes and hatred and discrimination had wrought, short of destroying all of Solaris. Ramsus the revolutionary had been defeated.
Now Ramsus the man had been defeated too-- by the facts of his own life and creation.
The sky was jet-black over Lahan village. Rain poured down and thunder exploded in the sky. Hyuga and Yui Ricdeau stood at the path that went into the village, which had turned to mud in the downpour. Both were wrapped in long coats, but were freezing anyway, their faces stung and hair soaked and plastered to their backs and foreheads by the rain. Wiseman, holding the boy that no one but him knew was his son, broken and bloodied, spirited him to the home of the village elder.
The elder, a graying, middle-aged man, took the boy in his arms and had a short conversation with the robed Wiseman. The warm light from inside the house vanished as the door shut, and Wiseman walked across the wet grass and onto the mud path, right past the Ricdeaus. Or the Uzukis, as they would now be called. Hyuga’s, or Citan’s, request for a continuous assignment keeping watch over Wong Fei Fong had been granted, but his name had been changed to prevent identification.
Wiseman didn’t say a word. Before he disappeared into the night, Hyuga awkwardly called out "Thank you."
Wiseman turned back to face them, and even though he was masked, the sadness and loneliness that filled him was plain to see. He had found his son again, his son, not Id the killer, and just as quickly had needed to give him away because of Grahf’s presence in his body. Still he said nothing, and shortly thereafter walked further away and disappeared for years.
Citan and Yui gazed up into the night sky at the home Solaris had built for them, atop the mountain. They’d be away from war and hardship forever here, would live peacefully as an Ether doctor and his wife in a small town, all the while making sure that Wong Fei didn’t turn into Id. It was an easy enough assignment.
Citan walked behind Yui, smiling for the first time in a long time despite the cold and rain and separation from the life he’d led before. He crossed his arms over her shoulders and clasped her hands in front of her there. Neither said anything.
In some ways, Citan was leaving everything behind. He was going to leave Solaris and Gebler and his friends forever, and Yui had experienced similar losses in agreeing to go with him.
But which was closer to human nature-- this town, at peace despite the fury of the storm outside, or Solaris, source of the war that had ravaged all of Ignas? Perhaps they weren’t leaving everything behind, but instead, for the first time in years, truly going home.