Last Stand

The air tastes dead here, and she has been breathing it just long enough that it's starting to get to her.
    Dead and static, but at least now there's the taste of blood to distract her from it. Although she's not sure if that's an improvement.
    She's alone now. There is no way to be certain; she can only hope that at least some of the others made it out. She knows she heard the sound of the Hunter's rifle as she ran. She knows the sound was cut off suddenly. Maybe they got to him. Maybe one of the doors shut behind her. All she knows is that all the noise is gone now, save for that of her own laboured breathing (she's doing her best to quiet it). That, and the slight creaking noise of the ship, so low that it's felt more than heard. It's been getting louder these past few minutes. Or maybe it is just her imagination.
    She hopes it's just her imagination.
    It's too quiet. She hates the cliché, but it's true. Some of them had been chasing her, but she hasn't seen or heard anything for several minutes. It makes her nervous. She brushes a few strands of hair from her eyes; winces as her hand comes away sticky with blood.
    They had been seven, against several hundred.
    She didn't look like a threat, wasn't their first target. But even when her friends had vanished behind the sheer masses of attackers, there had been more than enough left to deal with her.
    Maybe she's shaken them. She has learned to take paths many wouldn't even consider - ventilation shafts, garbage chutes, anything that would get her where she needs to go without drawing attention. It is doubtful, though; she bleeds and has probably left a trail. At least now she seems to have a few moments to tend to the wounds. None of them are particularly serious, but there are far too many of them to be practical. She had been reaching for a small green plastic container strapped to her belt, a typical military medical kit, but she stops herself before she can reach it. It's empty, or at least very nearly so. There has been many wounds to tend to, not only today, and she hasn't been able to restock. Instead, her hand strays towards a nondescript brown leather pouch next to the medkit. She hesitates before opening it, briefly. Who am I kidding? She withdraws the tiny metal flask and unscrews the cap so carefully that it seems almost reverent. It would probably surprise most who think they know her, she reflects. (It distracts her from the thought that most who think they know her may already be dead.)
    The stopper comes off. A curious blue mist rises from the bottle - slowly, almost reluctantly. Just a little. She replaces the cap and tries to draw as much as possible of the glittering cloud into her lungs. She feels her pains and aches fade with the first whiff, followed by a wonderful soothing warmth spreading through her. The mist has no particular scent or taste, but for that one moment the air is no longer dead, filtered and re-filtered, and for that one moment she is not afraid.
    She replaces the bottle. It's precious, priceless, one of the few remaining artefacts of true magic left in Algo, and it's the last she has - the battles so recently behind her have not been easy.
    She had decided she wasn't going to use it. She had decided she wasn't going to need to use it.
    She lets out a small sigh of surrender. Better make it last.
    No more illusions. She can't afford to fool herself anymore. They're not getting out of this alive. But she's not going down without a fight. You crazy bastards can't just waltz in here and take over my planet. No way I'm letting you get away with it!
    And before they catch her, she's going to hurt them.
    She leans against a wall - a cold, smooth, unfamiliar surface; metal or stone, perhaps, but she can only guess - as she goes through her resources and tries to think. No matter how hard she tries, she can't come up with anything that could give her much hope. She has lost most of her weapons. A knife tucked in each boot, that's all that remains. She still has her tools; two ropes, one thin and almost invisible - tripwire - and one thicker, textured, for climbing. A caltrop or two, lockpicks (Like they'll help. Every lock she's seen on the ship has been electronic.) and a tiny canister of Aerosol mist spray to reveal infra-red beams... odds and ends. Nothing immediately strikes her as a useful weapon against an army of aliens. Which means she'll have to improvise.
    Better get going.
    She straightens her back and starts off, just as the first sounds of pursuit reaches her.
    They're muffled, fast, repeated thumping noises, much too fast and light to a product of be human footsteps, and they're closing.

"Ugh, what a mess. Why'd I get myself wrapped up in all this?" She sits and leans back against a wall, looking out across what was a battlefield only moments ago.
    "Because the universe hates you and is secretly plotting your demise when it thinks you aren't looking?" Hugh's cerulean eyes convey a sense of amusement as he kneels beside her. She has the same complaints after every battle. Sometimes, she even means it.
    "Huh." She gives a small laugh. "Makes more sense than anything else I've heard lately."
    "No serious injuries?"
    "Scrapes and bruises. I'll take care of it."
    She looks over his shoulder. Rudolph is lying motionless on the floor, covered in blood; most of it his own. Amy's expression as she tends to him says it's nothing she can't handle. It's also nothing out of the ordinary. He's done something stupidly heroic again, firing his gun at point-blank range to keep himself between the others and the... thing they had fought. Sometimes, she figures (and not for the first time), it's almost like Rudo wants the pain.
    Or worse.
    She shakes off the thought and looks around for the rest of the group. They're all still alive, but after all they've been through, that no longer comes as a total surprise. Anna is sitting a bit further down the corridor, tending to her own battered self, paying no attention to the world around her. Rolf is examining the debris, what little of it there is. The horrifying visage of the demon they faced is firmly etched into her mind, but it left nothing behind as proof of its demise when it fell. All that's left is a few handfuls of splinters, the remains of the small container in which it hid, the scorched marks on the walls, and the lingering sensation of corruption, of filth clinging to her mind and body wherever the creature touched her. She doesn't even want to remember the feeling of it burrowing through her thoughts, turning her fears into weapons and filling her entire being with hopeless dread until she felt she would go insane. But the memory is still there, and she bites her lip until it bleeds as she sensation threatens to overwhelm her once more.
    But nobody else is crying or puking their guts out. At least not on the outside. She's not going to be the only one. Her eyes are drawn back to Rolf, to the shining sword he carries. As a weapon it is hopelessly archaic, but its light allowed them to come out of this battle victorious, and the mere sight of it is enough to banish the darkness from her mind. He is leaning on it now; Amy hasn't had time to care for him yet. He probably hasn't even noticed his wounds yet, but what worries her aren't things she'd be able to see. She nearly died when this foe, this 'Dark Force', dove into her mind. She can't even begin to imagine how he could possibly have survived the experience with all that grief and anger that's been building in him. She watches him for a few more moments, wondering. Then a glimpse of red further down the corridor catches her attention.
    "Clear ahead," Kain reports as he emerges. For some reason she notices that his jacket looks remarkably clean after all they've been through. Here, among the blacks and whites and grey metallics of the alien craft, its bright red colour stands out even more than it ever did on Mota.
    Mota. Home. Just the name makes her heart ache. It's been so long. She wants to go back. They all do.
    "Don't let your guard down." Rolf's voice lacks emotion, and he doesn't look up from his task. "It was sealed in that box. It couldn't have got here by itself."
    He doesn't say what they all knew. Running across it here had been no accident. They had been meant to find it.
    Kain nods before going to help Amy.
    He wasn't always like that. "Hugh...?"
    "Take care of him. I'll be fine."
    She doesn't indicate who she means, but he knows. She is left alone.
    Must be almost over now.
    She looks down the dark corridor ahead, the one Dark Force was guarding.
    I hope it's almost over.

She calls them 'hunting dogs' because there's nothing else she can think of. They don't look like dogs. They're about the right size, but that's all. Their streamlined silver-white metallic bodies low to the ground, supported by eight slender legs, they seem rather more arachnid than canine. And they're fast. Instead of the ripping, tearing jaws of a hunting dog, their fangs are venom-filled syringes, promising a quick and perhaps even painless death.
    It's almost tempting. She knows it's probably the fastest she'll get.
    Before she even has a chance to think, she's holding her weapons. Twin slivers of blue-shimmering Laconia, the hardest substance in the known universe, leap into her hands.
    There are more of these things, she can hear them moving, but one has left the pack behind and is coming straight at her.
    It's fast.
    It lunges, slender needle seeking her skin.
    She's faster.
    The robot's 'head' - a simple cylinder with two red eye-like sensors on top - sits on a thin, flexible neck, allowing it to thrust its deadly weapon in any direction at the blink of an eye.
    She bets it's a lot stronger than it looks.
    It doesn't matter.
    The narrow tips of her daggers find a gap between two steel plates. The momentum does the rest. She leaps and the construct passes beneath her, its head already turning for a second attack.
    The impact feels like it's tearing her arms out of their sockets.
    Kinetic energy is a product of mass and velocity. She doesn't have a a lot of mass, but she does have velocity. The robot has both.
    The amount of kinetic energy needed to drive a Laconian blade through solid steel plating is surprisingly small.
    Almost like a parody of blood, a spray of green liquid jets from the tiny stub left of the thing's neck. She manages to avoid most of it as she twists in the air to land on her feet. A few drops splash against the back of her hand, and it's already burning painfully as she straightens up.
    Painless, huh.
    She hears the rest of the pack approaching. She knows she can't outrun them, but she's sure as hell going to try.
    The groaning of the ship is louder now.

At last the final destination looms ahead of them; the avatar of the self-aware interplanetary caretaker system 'Mother Brain' gazes down upon them in all its glory, like an empress from her golden throne. It appears to them like a goddess, its body like a piece of living space; utter blackness defined by glowing stars in the distance and, most breathtaking of all, the three planets of Algo spinning slowly in their orbits around the fixed star after which the system is named. Its face is delicately sculpted with eyes like stars; its expression kind and regal.
    This is the loving steward who has guided them throughout their entire lives.
    This is the nurturing mother who has led them to prosperity.
    And at the same time, this is the raving demon that has set them on a course that will lead to nothing but death and destruction.
    How can one harm such a being?
    How can one even try?
    "You cannot harm me," it echoes, as though it reads their thoughts.
    But then its benevolent visage changes. Automated defences emerge from the walls; the light dims to a hellish red glow.
    "If you damage me, the world will be thrown into a panic. Without me, the people of Algo are helpless. They have become too soft and used to comfort. If I were to malfunction, the people would die cursing their fate. I am like a mother protecting her child."
    And they falter. They know only too well the truth of its words.
    "And now I will take my child, Algo, by the hand and lead it down the path of destruction."
    But Rolf raises the sword, and its radiant aura lifts their spirits.
    "You shall not." They hear the certainty in his words, and know why he leads and they follow.
    In the end, Kain stands over the fallen avatar with a handful of alien circuits - at least, they believe it's circuits - in his hands.
    The seven weary outlaws exchange glances. The battle is over. Algo has been released from the Mother Brain's control. The Biosystems and weather control systems have become useless, and the people of Algo await the start of a hard and difficult life. But though they have lost much, they can once more feel something they had long thought forgotten - hope.
    "Let's get back to Mota." Ever since the death of his adopted 'sister', Rolf's voice has been cold and unemotional. But now his tone is warm. "This is only the beginning!"
    They are only too happy to oblige. As one, they move toward him and he prepares to call upon his sword one last time, to release the spell that will take them back.
    Once more the sword shines, then flickers; then fades.
    Lutz's telepathic voice strikes them like a physical blow, sending them reeling. There's still people on the ship!
    "What?" Rolf asks as he lowers his blade. But there is no answer from Lutz. Instead there is a rumbling, a brief vibration throughout the vessel. As they watch, a section of the wall ahead swings aside. Before they can take action, a new, unfamiliar voice booms out.
    "Come, warriors of Algo." Four words, no more; then silence once more.
    "I don't think we're leaving before we find out what's inside this tin can." Kain has been turning the piece of alien circuitry over in his hands since the battle. Now he tucks it in one of his many pockets and steps up. "Might as well take a look, eh? Might get a chance to bust up this hunk o' junk some more, make sure no one else tries anything."
    They all have their doubts, but they can't see any other options. It will not be over until they have made sure the threat to Algo is no more - and they must do so at any cost.

The ship lurches under her feet. She stumbles, but does not fall. It makes her pause for a moment, but only a moment, as she wonders what just happened. Are we changing course? But she has more important concerns. The 'hunting dogs' behind her are just one of them. What other defences does this ship have? She is afraid it's only dumb luck that she hasn't run into anything else already. And now she can actually see, when she dares turn her head before rounding a corner, the sleek metal bodies of her pursuers.
    She's tired, and they are closing faster. But the movement of the ship seemed to trouble them. She's gained a few more seconds. Maybe. If she's lucky.
    Another turn, and another. The corridors are long, and many. Some are lined with what looks like doors, but she can't find a way to open them. Not that hiding would do any good. Any good attack droid would be able to tell where she is by the sound of her breathing, the frantic beating of her heart... her body heat. She knows it well enough; it's not the first time she's hunted. Not that any of the other times were ever this bad.
    Another turn, and another. She can't hear anything over the blood rushing in her ears, and the noise of her footsteps seems to come from a long way off. Her lungs burn, her vision blurs.
    ...can't go on like this...
    The ship lurches again, this time much more violently, and now she does fall; reflexively curls up and rolls with the momentum. It ends against a wall, hard. She coughs and exhales noisily as her back impacts against the steel/stone/whatever and lies there stunned.
    It takes several seconds before she realises that the shaking and flashes of red aren't products of her own failing body. Slowly a new sound filters in - not the noise of pursuit as she expected, but a dry, mechanic voice droning over unseen speakers. She listens, and to her surprise, understands.
    "-evacuate to aft checkpoint. Warning. Hull breach in section four. Sealing all connecting passages. All section four personnel, please evacuate to aft checkpoint. Warning. Hull breach in section four. Sealing all connecting passages. All section four personnel, please evacuate to aft checkpoint. Warning-"
    They use our language. But if it's a trap, it's a very good one. The rumbling noise is louder now, and the ship still shakes-
    "-breach in section four-"
    -and she doubts very much that something like this would happen by accident, at this time.
    Got to be Rolf. She doesn't know anything else that could punch through the walls of this strange craft. Even after their worst battles, the structure never showed more than superficial damage.
    But anything he could have done to blow through these walls must have taken immense power. It seemed unlikely that even Rolf would be able to survive such a thing. Even if he been able to avoid being caught in the explosion, getting sucked into space together with the air and everything else that wasn't bolted down was hardly a pleasant fate either.
    "-evacuate to aft checkpoint-"
    Why aren't they coming? The attack droids should have caught up by now.
    "-sealing all connecting passages-"
    Sealing, huh. Maybe they got caught. Serves them right. Bastards.
    She rolls over and stares up at the ceiling.
    The red lights are still flashing, but now she notices something else. There's a long line of lenses set into the ceiling that she hasn't really noticed before. They were almost invisible before, but it's quite hard to ignore them now that they steadily pulse with red. But the lights aren't just flashing. When one goes off, the next one turns on, causing the illusion that the light is wandering down the corridor to her right. Perhaps, she guesses, they are showing the way to the aft checkpoint.
    She has no idea what she'll find there, but she doesn't really have any other ideas. And at least it gives her a goal to run towards.

The room is enormous. A large, transparent dome arches overhead. Through it, they can see the green world Motavia rise over the icy blue Dezoris against a field of velvety black and glimmering stars. Algo's unbearable brightness is contained behind the planets for now, but a sliver of light over Mota's western hemisphere indicates that the sun will soon rise on the alien craft.
    The sight is breathtaking, but it cannot hold her attention.
    "Who... are these people?"
    Too busy staring, she barely notices how small her voice sounds in this great space.
    An army is amassed here, in uniforms of black and silver. Hundreds of people, men and women alike, in rows upon rows of stiff postures, they stare at the intruders with a cold silence. Not one of them makes a sound. There are no weapons in sight, but she knows well enough that they wouldn't need them. Not with numbers like these.
    "What do we do?" She doesn't like it. She can't shake the feeling that these people hate her - hate all of them. Most of all, she wants to run.
    There is no answer. The two groups observe in silence. Then, from the back of the crowd, a voice rings out.
    "Warriors of Algo. Step this way."
    It is a man's voice, strong and used to obedience. As he speaks, the crowd divides, leaving a path wide enough for the seven of them to walk side by side. On the other side, against the back wall of the room, a lone figure beckons for them to come closer. Though the distance blurs most details, they can see gold insignia gleaming on the figure's breast.
    They hesitate. Then Rolf nods, and goes. And the others follow, as before.
    The people they pass look a lot like them, but they are not people of Algo. Their silence is even more unnerving at such close distance.
    When one does speak, his flat, dead voice does nothing to ease their discomfort.
    "Welcome," he says, "to the spaceship Noah." The glittering gold they saw across the room is a winged circle with unfamiliar shapes inside - it looks like a rendition of a planet, though it is neither Palma or Motavia, nor Dezoris. The man himself looks stern and alert, and strong despite his black hair having faded towards grey around the temples. He is a voice of authority, of that there can be no doubt. But as for his rank or title, they can only guess.
    "Who are you?" Rolf's voice mirrors the flatness of the other man's, but there is an undercurrent of pure hostility in his question. Hostility and power. At the back of the group, constantly looking over her shoulder at the crowd behind them, she can't help but feel that even outnumbered as they are, Rolf's confidence is perhaps not unfounded.
    The stranger smiles thinly. "I don't like your tone of voice. Are you here because you think we are enemies?"
    Rolf's narrowed eyes and clenched jaw speak clearly enough.
    The man's smile widens slightly, and his voice still carries no sense of malice or anger as he speaks. "Of course the destruction of the Mother Brain is inconvenient. Your actions do not endear you to us."
    "So you are the creators of Mother Brain." Rolf turns his head to observe the silent ranks on either side before continuing. "You are hardly what we expected."
    "Despite our similarities, we are not people of Algo. We are from a place called Earth."
    "Earth." To his comrades, it is obvious that the word means nothing to Rolf.
    "It was a green and lovely planet and we had a highly advanced civilisation." The stranger speaks in past tense and his voice hints that doing so pains him. "Now we -" He spreads his arms to indicate the silent masses gathered around them. "- are the last of our race."
    "The last?" Even Rolf takes surprise at this. She can tell, though he barely shows it.
    "What happened?" Amy asks.
    The stranger smiles, but the smile doesn't reach his eyes.

She doesn't hear anything other than the droning message in he speakers. The ship has stopped shaking. Her pursuers are definitely gone - cut off when the connecting passages were sealed, or so she imagines. There doesn't seem to be any other explanation.
    Her knuckles whiten as she grips her tiny weapons tight. She wasn't really expecting to meet anyone, and so far she hasn't, but the emptiness of the place is starting to trouble her and she can't help but feel that something is about to jump out at her at any moment.
    She has made her way to the end of this corridor. Ahead is a wall quite different from anything else she has seen on-board the ship. There's a sliding door set into it, with flashing red lights on either side. It slides up with a slight rattle as she approaches, and her stomach knots itself. But there is no one to greet her on the other side, neither robotic nor organic. A narrow bridge with insufficient-looking railings spans an unexpected chasm. The red lights make the scene look like something out of a nightmare. As she sets foot on the bridge, she half expects it to give out and send her tumbling into the black abyss below. But it holds. Mentally scolding herself for being such a coward, she leans over the railing (it really does seem quite sturdy now that she looks closer at it) and looks down. This must be where two sections of the ship meet, though she doubts this is the way people would normally go about getting from one section to the other - the place reeks of emergency exit. The hole beneath her feet isn't completely dark; there are tiny dots of blue and green running down on all sides. It seems to be pretty deep. On a whim, she takes her one remaining flare and tosses it over the railing; breathlessly counts the seconds as the light fades. It does stop, eventually, and she waits until it burns out. It's at least fifty meters to where it landed, and she couldn't get any idea of what's at the bottom - not even if it did indeed land at the bottom of this space, or on another bridge like the one she's standing on.
    The darkness is welcoming, and the walls don't seem entirely unclimbable. There are cables hanging in places, and she thinks she can spot a ladder a bit further down. She would be out of sight down there, and she might be able to find other paths like this one. Even sensitive areas tend to have emergency evacuation routes. And being an emergency, maybe, just maybe these routes are now accessible - waiting for evacuations, but open for infiltration.
    If she could only get to a control room, or the engine room...
    It's too much to hope for that she'd be able to actually steer the ship, but she could at least bust things up enough to keep others from doing so. She doesn't have Kain's affinity for machinery, but she figures it doesn't matter if she causes a big enough mess. And alone, it's probably the only way she'll be able to make a difference.
    That is, if she can find what she's looking for.
    She has delayed too long. The decision is made and she reaches for the nearest cable and tugs hard at it. It doesn't yield. She takes a deep breath and swings her legs over the railing.
    The moment before her feet leave the floor, she hears the door on the other side of the bridge sliding open.
    The noise makes her lose her grip with one hand, and she swings from side to side for several years (or maybe seconds) while she fumbles to re-establish her hold on the suddenly insignificant-seeming and slippery wire.
    Dammit dammit dammit dammit-
    And as she finally finds purchase, she hears heavy footsteps on the bridge above. It's a noise like metal on metal, and she hopes it's just a person with heavy combat boots.
    Don't look down. Don't see me.
    Another wire, so thin it feels like it's cutting her palms when she hangs from it. And another, this one thicker and rougher. Just a few more meters and she'll be able to reach the ladder.
    The steps echo across the chasm. And then they stop.
    Don't look down. Don't-
    She hears a whirring noise.
    I'm not here! She flattens herself against the wall, holds her breath. Hiding doesn't do much good anymore. It worked nicely when all they had to detect people with was regular eyesight, directed by the admittedly imperfect brain of a mortal. Then came superior silicon brains and camera lenses that could pick up the freckles on her nose from halfway across a planet. (Except she doesn't have freckles. She doesn't know why she's suddenly thinking about freckles.) In the infra-red spectrum, she knows she stands out like... like something that stands out a lot. She might as well be wearing a huge sign with shoot me painted on it. In hot neon pink.
    "Unauthorised personnel is prohibited from entering maintenance areas. Please present valid identification."
    It's a synthesized voice. Quite pleasant and without the slightly tinny sound she's used to from Algolian androids, almost impossible to distinguish from the real thing, but she can tell it's not a living being up there. Living beings don't talk like that.
    Screw your authorisation. She reaches for the ladder.
    "Unauthorised personnel is prohibited from entering maintenance areas. Present valid identification or surrender yourself for custody. This is your last warning. Failure to comply will be met with lethal force."
    She has no idea what she's up against. The hunting dogs didn't bother to warn her. And their footsteps didn't sound like that either. Whatever it is, it's bigger and heavier. Maybe slower, but that doesn't matter if it has some sort of ranged weapon.
    She squints up. All she can see is a shadow.
    Definitely bigger.
    "Fine, hold your fire. I'm coming up."
    There's no reply.
    I'll take that as a yes.
    She concentrates.
    Slowly, the wires hanging around her begin to tremble. She hopes the thing doesn't notice. Or if it does, that it doesn't realise what's happening. She inches her way back up. The trembling intensifies. She can feel the vibration through her bones.
    Almost there.
    The wires are rattling loudly against the walls. The metal bridge starts to quake as well; she hears things rattling up there.
    "Anomaly in gravitational field traced. Unidentified intruder, sabotage in punishable by death. You are to cease your disruptive actions and surrender immediately, or be destroyed."
    Guess he noticed, huh? But it's too late now. She couldn't stop it if she wanted to.
    She lets go, kicks away from the wall and plummets. The gravitational field stabilizes and sucks the light from a roughly sphere-shaped area between her and the unseen entity on the bridge. The two gravitational sources above and below both tug at her and she feels like she's being slowly torn in two, but it works; the sphere descends along with her and counter-acts the ship's artificial gravity - slowing her descent. Above, she hears creaking noises rapidly fading as she falls, but the bridge seems to hold.
    She barely notices a series of rapid pff noises from above. But she certainly notices a stream of needles passing her, much too close for comfort.
    Crap. He did have a ranged weapon.
    She twists her body, tries to minimize the target area. The gravitational field may only be pseudo-magic, but it will throw most projectiles off course if they get close. She hopes.
    The second salvo comes even closer, but she can clearly see the needles spinning out of control as they pass.
    With the painful pull of the 'black hole' above her, she doesn't even notice one of the grazing her left arm until the wound starts to throb and burn. her stomach turns as she pulls the sleeve up and brushes away flakes of dried blood from earlier wounds to find a patch of fiery red skin surrounding a tiny scratch. The torn skin has turned black around the edges; the red has spread enough to cover the deltoid muscle entirely and stretch further across her shoulder and arm. She fights down another wave of nausea. She would be dead if the needle struck her straight.
    With fingers already turning numb and useless, she fumbles for the pouch on her belt. Her vision swims. She thinks she might be starting to drop faster, but can't concentrate.
    Come on... almost got it... come on...
    She transfers the bottle to her good hand before she can drop it and removes the cap with her teeth. Spits it out and closes her lips around the bottleneck to prevent any of the liquid inside from spilling. The concentrated solution hits her like an explosion of renewed vigour, but it still isn't enough to keep her awake. She is aware of a metallic clank and a rough impact as her feet make contact with the floor, but beyond that there's only darkness.
    Her last thought is that she hopes the gravitational anomaly she created fades in time, before it sinks low enough to crush her.

The seven listen with a growing sense of dread as the stranger tells his tale of a planet, green and beautiful, ravaged by war and pollution; of a population too caught up in the euphoria of power to realize that their ambition was destroying the only home they had.
    "We were a weaker people then," their enemy says, still with a sad smile on his lips.
    "I can't even imagine it. Such flagrant disregard for all life." Hugh shakes his head as to banish the images the words plant in his mind. "I have sworn to uphold life, but I can feel no sympathy for you."
    The man in black chuckles. "Sympathy? We ask for no such thing. Were I a religious man, I would consider us all damned beyond redemption."
    No one in Algo believes in anything these days, save for the omnipresent, omnipotent Mother Brain. The seven standing here now have even less to believe in, but though words like religion and damnation sound archaic to their ears, the meaning of his words is clear.
    "Then why take such action?" Rudo asks. "Why would you have to cause all this suffering? However many of you there are on this ship, Algo could easily support all of us!"
    To the six of them who are watching, the man appears to wince. His confident expression wavers, only for a moment, and they realise that perhaps even he does not truly know.
    The last member of the group stares up at the domed ceiling, at the light of Algo slowly creeping across Mota's surface. She feels lost in face of this beauty and has barely been listening. She knows she didn't join up to fight for the planet or the people living there, but she has come to realise that she doesn't want to lose it. This, she knows, is the last time she'll be able to see it. "He's judging us by what he knows," she says. As she speaks the words, she becomes more confident that she is right. "If we came to them, instead. How would they have greeted us? I think I have a pretty good idea." The feeling of hate she gets from the assembled men and women hasn't lessened in the time they've been standing here. She feels like it's choking her. She can't even imagine what it would be like to live with all that hatred inside her. She's not even sure it would be possible.
    "That's true," Hugh says. "We have been asking out of of assumption that our cultures, or possibly our minds, are as similar as our physical shapes. Would you have greeted visitors to your system with similar atrocities?"
    The man from Earth smiles again, but it isn't the same calm, calculated smile as before. His lips twitch, turning his expression into something resembling a snarl. "It hardly matters now, does it?" His voice is the same as before. A few seconds was all he needed to smooth his features into a blank mask once more. "Could you say that your government would have done otherwise?"
    And it dawns on them that as much as they would like to believe otherwise, they can not truly say that.
    Their enemy's smile widens. Their silence speaks louder than words.

She knows when she opens her eyes that she hasn't been out for long; her body still tingles after the restoration shock, so it couldn't be more than a minute or two. She has no trouble standing up. The only thing that isn't working properly is her left arm. The fact that it still aches and doesn't quite do what she wants it to worries her, but it shouldn't impede her progress too much.
    She looks up. There's no sign of movement above, but it's not like she would be able to see anything at more than an arm's length in this darkness anyway. The lights she saw from above don't reach all the way down, and they aren't particularly bright to begin with. Unfortunately, being unable to see others doesn't guarantee that they'll be unable to see her.
    Better get into cover. It should really have been the first thing she thought of.
    She looks around. It seems that she has made it all the way down to the bottom of the room. She's standing on something solid, or at any rate more solid than the bridge she started on. The floor feels like metal, with some kind of texture to prevent slipping, but there isn't enough light to see properly. She can't risk lighting something, so she starts to slowly feel her way to the left - from what little she can see, it seems like there's a wall there, and she might be able to follow it until she finds a door or something. ('Might'. Hah. This is so pathetic.)
    Small, cylindrical things roll under her feet as she moves. She suspects that they're the projectiles that missed her earlier, which isn't the most comforting thought. Her Shune-brand boots aren't likely to let a needle through just from stepping on it, but judging by the effect that scratch had on her, there's enough poison down here to kill a small city. Another scratch and she's done for. The flask that saved her lies empty and useless somewhere on the floor; there wouldn't be any point in searching for it.
    A few steps more and she finds that she was right in her assumption. It was a wall, and she's standing right next to it. She can just barely see it if she looks close enough. There aren't any wires hanging here - the surface is smooth and empty. She turns right and continues, lightly running her hand over it as she walks. She half expected a long walk, but it doesn't take more than a few seconds before a hole opens in the wall. It's as dark inside as outside, and she feels it before she sees it - stops as her hand fumbles for something that's no longer there.
    She wastes no time getting inside. She has no idea what awaits within, but whatever it is, she'll feel more at ease here than she would out in the open.
    She seems to be standing in some sort of tunnel. The walls are the same here as they were outside, with the occasional pipe or featureless rectangular box. It feels like a maintenance tunnel.
    Not a particularly long one, it turns out, when she suddenly steps into another large space - a room, she can tell by the way her footsteps echo. She frowns. Now what? But then she notices a small glimmer of light, much like that cast by a computer monitor, to her right. Might as well check it out.
    It is indeed a screen, a pretty big one, surrounded by buttons and switches. The display is quite dim, but she can make out a large red symbol with unfamiliar characters floating over some kind of diagram - she imagines that it's displaying some sort of message about the situation on-board and wishes she could read it.
    There's something quite keyboard-like (though the layout and the symbols on the keys are unfamiliar) right in front of the screen. She pushes a key at random. The screen brightens (waking up from some kind of power save mode, she figures). She recoils and blinks several times as the sudden brightness make tears well up in her eyes. The pain passes quickly, and a few moments later she grows impatient and hits the button again. The red symbols on the screen fade and the background brightens. It appears to be some sort of map. A small red dot presumably marks either the location of this terminal or the recommended evacuation route - probably the former, since its position on the map seems to match the room. There's a short passage on one side, leading into a large open space. On the other side, there's a maze of passages and rooms. There's various data displayed in several locations, but of course, it's nothing she can read. She tries fiddling with the keys again. Several attempts result in no visible change; then the screen suddenly turns black, and nothing she does can activate it again.
    She straightens her back. She's definitely alone in the room, and if the activation of the terminal and noise of typing didn't draw anyone here, she can probably risk a brighter light. She takes a flat, coin-sized plastic disc from her belt and bends it sharply. There's a tiny crick noise as a glass container within the disc breaks, two liquids mix, and the disc suddenly yields a soft green glow.
    There's not much to see in the room, other than the now-dark display she already knew about. There's another passage just across from the one she arrived through, which seems to be the only sensible way to go. She can't see any ventilation shafts or other less conspicuous exits.
    First things first, though. Putting the disc between her teeth, she uses her good hand to pull up her left sleeve. She frowns as she looks at the wound. Her entire shoulder looks like a bruise. The limb still throbs dully and seems to react sluggishly. Either some of the poison remains in her system, or the damage it did in that short time is more extensive than she could have guessed.
    Of course, I'll be dead long before it has a chance to kill me. She snorts at the thought. It amuses her much more than it has any right to.
    Guess I should get going.
    She does. It goes a lot faster with the little green light showing the way.

"It is a fascinating tale," Hugh says at last. "Intriguing from the viewpoint of a scholar as well as an enemy. But I can't help but wonder why you are telling us all this."
    The man smiles. "It seems fitting that you know. Call it... admiration. Respect. A hundred of my men could not do what you have done. Perhaps I am hoping to turn you to our side."
    "You can not possibly believe that after all this, we would sell out Algo."
    "Sell out?" Their enemy arches a brow. "Do you believe Algo will thank you? Each one of you has an astronomically large bounty on your head. The Mother Brain may be lost, but we can easily create another. The only ones who are against us are you."
    "Ignorance may indeed be bliss," Hugh says, "but is it lasting bliss? Were we to let you do as you please, you would ruin Algo. You have demonstrated you ability and eagerness to do so in apt measure.
    "It is not thanks we desire from Algo. It is its continued existence. If the only way to ensure that existence is eliminate yours, we do not consider it a choice to be made."
    The man nods once; it is obvious that he is not surprised. "Point well made."
    "The time for conversation," Rolf says, and his sword ignites with searing white brilliance, "is over."
    They who are Algo's last hope wearily raise their weapons for one last, desperate fight.
    All but one.
    She runs.

The passages she encounters are conveniently marked with large, detailed signs, each with a small lamp illuminating it. She bets they would be incredibly informative, if she could read them. Instead, she follows the old keep-to-the-right rule. She's sure there are better ways to go about this, but she'd need someone to tell her about them. Her method seems to get her to end up in dead ends a lot - virtual ones, anyway. There's a lot of doors, but they are all closed and she can't find a way to open them. There aren't any handles or visible opening mechanisms. After spending a few minutes trying to get the first one open, she just shrugs and keeps on walking. Sooner or later, she hopes, she'll find some way to proceed. It's not likely that she'll find anything important that way - it seems more and more like a hopeless idea - but the alternative is lying down and giving up. That is not an option.
    She doesn't have a way to tell the time. Her watch broke the second or third time someone tried to kill them on Mota, and she never replaced it. She's not sure why. Probably figured she'd always have someone proper and organized around to ask if she wanted to know. If she cared at all.
    She wishes she had been more thoughtful. She tries counting seconds as she walks, but then she sees a shadow or makes a noise she didn't mean to make and spends the next several moments with her back pressed against a wall and a knife in her hand, and by the time her heart slows down to an acceptable level she has long since lost count. The fight above must be over by now. She quietly accepts the demise of her friends; no tears, no rage, just a hollow emptiness in her chest and a bitter determination not to go down without a fight. She knows they didn't.
    She must have been walking for twenty minutes by the time she finally finds something new. It's a larger corridor, dimly lit by a series of red lights along the floor. The signs at the junction are simpler than the ones she has seen so far - there's only a few unfamiliar symbols, and a large arrow pointing to her left.
    She has no idea how these people of 'Earth' think, but on Motavia such an arrow would point in the direction of the emergency exit, which means she'll be more likely to find something interesting in the other direction. A few moments of consideration is all it takes for her to turn right and continue down the lit corridor.

...Hansen, Carl - Engineer.
    Harris, Joel - Technical advisor.
    Hendrick, Matthew - Bioengineer.
    Holt, Maria. - Second lieutenant...

    The commander remains stone-faced as he counts his losses. The list of fatalities is long. The battle has cost him over half his crew, some with near irreplaceable skills. It is the price they paid for underestimating the children of Algo.
    He sits in the chief officer's chair in the control centre. He supposes he should consider himself lucky that he escaped. The great room where he received the Algolians is a shattered ruin; he still does not understand what power enabled their leader to lay waste to the area and even crack the observation dome with a single word. He doubts he'll ever understand. He only hopes that the man was unique in this aspect as well, just as he was unique in his resistance. If not, he knows they'll never take Algo. Even one more warrior like that would be the end of them.
    But as formidable as they had been, the others were nowhere near as dangerous. He knew now that the people of Algo did indeed bleed red, and they did so just as easily as any of his human brethren.
    There was only one left, now. After all that had happened, he had few androids left to send after her. Most of the functioning ones were still locked in sealed areas - but it didn't really matter. Sooner or later, she would be cornered.
    A knock on the door interrupts his ruminations.
    "Sir?" It's not even an officer, but he'd be surprised if he has any officers left.
    "Have you tracked the girl?"
    "We believe so. She was observed falling from bridge C in the four-three maintenance area. Just a little later a terminal was accessed in the s-four basement levels. We're currently examining the data from cameras in the area, but the ship's resources are limited. It may take a while."
    "Keep me informed."
    "Yes, sir."
    He watches the man leave. On his screen, the list of names continues.
    ...Hong, Kim - Navigator.
    Ibrahimovic, Jessica - Warp drive operator.
    Ines, Joseph - Medic...

    And perhaps soon, there will be an end to this madness.

She's running again. The passage seems endless, but she knows she's getting closer to something. She can hear a slight humming, and she's certain that it's not just her imagination telling her that it's getting louder.
    It's a bit suspicious that she's not running into any resistance. For now, she's prepared to call it dumb luck.
    Something green glints ahead, and she slows down. There's a door - big, solid, and closed, but with a green light shining over it. If she's lucky (or maybe unlucky, depending on where it leads), that means it's open.
    She's right. The door slides open as she steps closer. She's half expecting something to jump out and attack the moment it does, but all she can see beyond the opening is another stretch of corridor like the one she's standing in. A little bit further down, there's another door; also with a green light shining over it. She proceeds.
    The moment the second door opens, the humming noise she's been hearing for the last few minutes intensifies. A large chamber lies ahead, brightly lit - she squints, taking a moment to re-adjust her eyes to the light.
    A giant steely grey cylinder rises in the centre of the room, among a maze of walls and computers. Though the room is well lit near the floor level, there's darkness overhead; the cylinder disappears into the shadows and might reach through the entire ship for all she knows. It seems to be the source of the humming.
    She smiles thinly. If this is what she thinks it is, her work may soon be done.

"Sir! We've found her!"
    He freezes the display at Lyon, Michelle - Technical sergeant. "Where?"
    "Lower levels, as suspected. Picked her up passing through one of the gates. She's in the core drive chamber."
    "Then we've got her. Seal all exits. Notify Major Adams and have him gather as many healthy soldiers as he can find by the closest entry point. He is to report to me once the task is complete."
    The messenger salutes awkwardly and is gone. The commander sighs and looks down at his monitor again, reads technical sergeant Michelle Lyon's name one more time and closes the window.
    There's still time for one more thing before he sends in the soldiers.

She carefully makes her way over to the centre of the room. It takes longer than she would have guessed - the area is more maze-like than it first seemed, divided into tiny spaces by walls that seem to serve no real purpose and heavy workstations with enormous monitors. The equipment seems functional, but the screens all remain black. She ignores them and pushes on, climbing when she has to, avoiding it when she can. Her wounded arm is beginning to sting, and she worries that she might hasten the effect of whatever poison remains in her system if she exerts herself more than she has to.
    Finally she stands at the foot of the pillar. It's made of the same unfamiliar material as the walls, at least thirty meters across, and seems impervious. The humming noise is even louder now, and she can feel a slight vibration as she touches the curved surface.
    There must be a way in, she reasons. Whatever is inside must be important, and there must be some way to get to it in case it malfunctions. All she needs is a door. A door and five minutes alone with whatever sensitive technology lies at the core of this thing.
    She starts to circle around it, slowly. But she doesn't get far. A sudden noise makes her jump; then, every single monitor in the room flickers into life. From every direction, the 'Earth' commander's impassive face stares at her.
    "Calling Algolian intruder. Respond, intruder."
    She walks up to the closest monitor and glares back. "You're the intruder. Don't pretend like you belong here."
    The man's face remains neutral. "Even if you made it this far, you can't damage the ship from there. Simply give up, and we will be lenient."
    "You mean you'll kill me quickly? Is that what you're saying? Like you just killed all my friends?" She can't stop the tears welling up in her eyes. The enemy's face becomes a blur, and everything else with it. "Like you murdered six billion people when you blew up Palma?"
    "That was an accident," he says. "And your friends attacked us. We must preserve our own lives."
    "Liar." She punches the monitor. "Fuck you. Fuck off and die. I'm already dead! If you want me, come get me! I'm taking you all with me!"
    "It is a pity that you prove unreasonable." And the screen goes dark. She punches it again.
    "...fuck you."
    She looks up at the wall in front of her. It's solid. Enormous. There's warning signs all over the place - she doesn't have to read them to know that. They probably aren't necessary. There's no way anyone is getting through that wall with anything short of anti-tank weaponry.
    She raises her hands, looks down at them through the tears. They look so weak. The left, red and swollen; the right, bruised and scratched across the knuckles.
    So they know where I am. Which probably means they're heading this way even now.
    She can hear a door open in the distance. Someone speaks - short, sharp words, commands. They aren't going for stealth. They don't have to.
    Guess it's my last stand.
    Maybe it'll be more of a symbol of defiance than cause any actual damage. Maybe Algo is doomed to fall. She's almost glad she won't be there to see it. But before that, she has time for one last desperate act.
    She takes a deep breath. Finds her focus. Clenches her fists.
    Her will takes shape, a tiny, flickering sphere of absolute darkness. She feels it pulling her closer, even stronger than the one before. She resists. She can keep it from drawing her in, but she can't isolate herself completely and feels her body start to fail. It pulls the air from her lungs. She closes her eyes before they can pop out of her skull. The pull intensifies. Veins burst. Something bigger, deeper in her stomach, follows suit. She ignores the pain. It's not even all that bad, now. Mostly, she just feels warm. She knows well enough what that means. Please... just a few more... seconds...
    She can hear footsteps now, approaching quickly.
    Her left eye gives in. She can feel something wet and slippery being sucked out under the eyelid. She's losing blood rapidly now, not only from the latest wound but through her mouth, her nose, even the pores of her skin. The air is a howling vortex, but even over that noise she can hear bones splinter as her left lower arm goes limp.
    And then it's done. With her last ounce of strength, she lets the thing fly, straight ahead. She opens her remaining eye, damaged but still weakly functioning, and watches. The sphere is the size of her fist, but it sucks in light and matter alike and seems much bigger - perhaps the closest thing to a black hole that has ever been created in Algo.
    It moves slowly at first, but picks up speed. When it strikes the wall, it's too fast for her eye to follow. She only knows that it breaks through the wall like a bullet through wet paper, and whatever lies behind it, and whatever lies behind that. Cold blue light spills from the hole, and the humming noise she's been hearing becomes an unsteady, high-pitched whine. She laughs, but no sound emerges. She tries to breathe, but feels only a wet gurgling in her throat. Her vision flickers and fades, and when her body decides to collapse, she does not fight it.
    The last thing she sees is the arrival of the earthling forces, and she still laughs silently when the first bullets hit.
    In his room in the control centre, high above, the last commander of the Earth Alliance forces silently observes the scene as his men tear the girl to pieces, venting their fear and hopeless anger as the hole piercing the ship's nuclear drive grows.
    Then he rises from his chair, grabs the sword he took from the blue-haired warrior who killed so many of his men, turns to the blue and green flag of the Alliance hanging over his desk, and salutes it.

On the Alplatin plateau, just outside the Esper mansion, Lutz watches as a new star blossoms briefly on Dezoris' pitch-black night sky. A sudden wind makes him shiver inside his magically heated robes and mantle, and he looks away from the display to see if there is anyone else out here, even though he knows he is alone. The wind, unconcerned, keeps blowing, forcing the wizard to pull his cloak tighter around himself and mutter a quick incantation to bolster its enchantment.
    Then, as quickly as it came, the wind is gone.
    Lutz looks up once more at the fading light in the heavens, then bows his head. He sighs and walks slowly back to the building where his pupils anxiously await his return. He has yet to choose his successor, and years of training await once the choice is made. Then, he too might be allowed to finally rest.
    The first thing he'll teach them is to always remember the names of those who have fought and died for them.
    Perhaps doing so will ease the guilt he feels.
    But he's not counting on it.


Endnote: Fun times writing characters who get a grand total of four lines in the entire game! This was actually more of an experiment and kicking-myself-in-the-rear thing than anything else. The missing name is quite intentional, but it probably didn't work anywhere near as well as I had hoped and most likely makes even less sense if you haven't played the game. O well.

All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition

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