We hurried through the corridor, Casey cranking up her camera as best as she could while running. We had lost a little time, but I was confident that we'd get to the Central Core before the rogue core unit, as Cristlyn was no doubt leading the rogue core on a wild goose case.
As we dashed into the Computer Core, I called out, “Cristlyn! Are you okay?”
“I'm fine.” Came her voice from my PIM, “But three of the doors aren't responding to my commands. You'll have to use the manual override systems.”
“Walk me through it.” I said, turning back to the door through which we just entered.
“Okay, there's a panel in the floor just in front of the door itself.”
The stylish holographic floor shimmered, revealing a rather plain-looking metal floor just in front of the door. I spotted the panel she spoke of, a circular plate of metal that was nearly seamless with the adjoining plates.
“Put your PIM hand on the plate and activate your unlocking program.”
After I did so, the circular panel slid aside, revealing circuitry and wires.
“I need you to find the cable that leads to the tertiary power access supply. It should be red. As soon as you find it, pull the side closest to the door and plug the cable into the emergency port three slots to the left.”
I followed her instructions, eventually moving three more cables before another plate opened beside me, revealing a large handle. I pulled the handle up, twisted it ninety degrees, and slid it back into its housing, at which the security door slowly slid shut.
“One down.” I said, already moving for the next open door. “Cristlyn, do you have security feeds that display outside the doors?”
“Yes, of course.” Instantly, a small display panel appeared beside each security door, showing a view of the outer corridor. Most were blocked off at the moment, the corridor ending abruptly only a few yards away from the security door. One of the currently open doors opened to a corridor, however.
As I knelt beside the override panel of the door opening into a corridor, Casey asked, “Cristlyn, can't you switch the corridor to one of the closed doors?”
“I'm sorry, but it's the Inheritor override again. I can close the doors, but I have to leave at least one corridor open as long as I have control over them. Right now, Jimmy's the only one who can override that.”
“I'm working on it.” I slid the handle into place and watched as the security door slid shut in front of me.
As I moved to the last door, I heard Casey suddenly shout, “Jimmy! It's Terry and Arc!”
Swearing, I rushed over to the door Casey was watching. Sure enough, Arc and Terry were running down the corridor toward the closed security door.
“How do I reopen the door?” I asked Cristlyn.
“Jimmy, the core unit's hacking into the holographic matrix!”
“Which means it can kill my friends with a simple command. Open the door!”
For a long moment, there was no reply. I peered through the side display at Terry and Arc's face; they looked frightened. Well, Arc looked frightened. Terry, as usual, was hard to read.
Just as I considered trying to pry the door open with Glint, the door slid open. Terry and Arc rushed through the door and past me.
“Thank the Creator!” Arc gasped, collapsing against one of the consoles around the Central Core. “One of those damn rogue cores is in here!”
“I know.” I said, “Are you two okay?”
“We're fine, sir. You?” Terry said, sounding a bit winded.
“We had a run in with the rogue core too, but it didn't hurt either of us. Any sign of Mick?” I asked.
Arc shook his head. “Disappeared, just like you. What the hell's going on here?”
“It's too much to explain. Casey, do you remember how to activate the manual override?”
She nodded. “I think I remember how you did it.”
“Good.” I unlocked the panel for her, as she didn't have a PIM. “Go ahead and get this door going down. Arc?”
He looked up at me from his seat on the floor. He looked tired.
“Stay here and back her up.”
Arc gave me a weak thumbs up.
Patting Terry on the arm, I said, “We'll take the other door.”
As we started jogged to the last door, Terry said, “I won't lie, sir; I'm a little nervous.”
“You and me both.” I said, “Still, we stopped the last one, didn't we?”
“Er, yes sir. Of course.”
I could hear the slight hesitation in his voice, but couldn't blame him. After all, we only barely stopped the last one. Smacking him in the arm, I said, “Come on!”
We ran to the other door little as fast as we could. A little too fast, it turns out; I ended up skidding to a halt just past the panel and stumbled through the open door.
The core unit skidded to a halt just a few feet away, no doubt as surprised by my appearance as I was of it. The skrievers had left the already battered core scarred, but it still had full use of its arms and legs.
The core unit recovered first and immediately lunged at me, but all those years training at my bridge weren't for nothing. I leapt back just beyond its reach, and batted its arm aside with the flat of Glint. As it charged forward, I looked for its soulstone only to find it covered by a plate of metal; apparently, the skriever had added it after my earlier attack.
“Jimmy! Get down!”
I threw myself aside just as Terry opened fire. The core unit put up some kind of energy shield, but not before a few shots tore through ancient armor plating. While it looked two steps from being scrap, nothing vital in the core unit was apparently damaged.
The shield produced by the core sent plasma flying in all directions, including mine. I spun out of the way as Terry quickly stopped firing. The core unit was on him in an instant; with one well-placed punch, the corrupted core unit sent Terry flying into the wall. Terry hit with a clang of metal plates before falling to the floor.
The rogue core turned just in time to see Arc leaping through the air, his massive sword coming down like a steel girder. The core unit twisted away, but Arc's sword still managed to smash off one of the core unit's arms at the elbow.
Using the weight of his blade to further propel his small frame, Arc planted a kick straight in the Core's face. It was a nice technique, one that showed promise and ingenuity, and would probably have worked a lot better on an opponent whose skin wasn't metal. The Core grabbed Arc by the leg and sent him flying, blade and all.
I rushed forward before it could even turn. My blade clanged against the unit's armor. The blade only left dents in the corrupted unit's armor plating, but the force of my attack was enough to push the core unit back. I swung again and again, batting aside its grasping hands as I looked for some weakness I could exploit to bring the rogue core down.
Unfortunately, I didn't have the power of a soulstone giving me strength. My endurance, though high from years of training, eventually began to wane. The core unit made a feint, I attacked before I could stop myself, and soon found a metal hand was clasped around my throat.
I struggled to release the unit's steely grip, but it was no use; it was too strong. I heard something metal hit the ground behind me just as I began to black out.
Suddenly, I was on the floor, gasping for breath as the core unit spun about, flailing wildly at something vaguely green and gray that had latched onto its face.
One was pummeling the rogue core in the face with what looked like a miniature version of his signature weapon 'Headache'. The rogue managed to knock One away, but the possessed plush toy spun about easily in mid-air and landed in an offensive stance. He leapt forward with a wild cry and slammed both fists against the unit's chest.
It was a very impressive maneuver, and while I was sure the mini-Headache could amplify the Dreamer's strength by the same magnitude as the real Headache, the fact remained that it was amplifying the strength of tiny cloth arms. The core unit rocked back slightly at the attack, the expression on its face a mix of disbelief and confusion.
“Okay,” I heard One mutter, “Let's see how you much you like this!”
One rose into the air, his doll body surrounded by a halo of lifestream energy as he was unmistakably preparing to blast the core unit out of existence with raw dream energy. Small cracks appeared across his 'skin', revealing a brilliant light beneath it.
The unit swatted him aside like an older brother knocking a toy out of his sibling's grasp. I watched as the plush doll flew across the chamber and smacked Arc in the face just as the young would-be hero started to rise. Both promptly collapsed on the floor.
Staggering to my feet, I struggled to raise my blade as the core unit turned to face me. Just as it raised its arm to strike, however, blast of light engulfed the core unit. I turned to see Casey backpedaling as she quickly cranking up her camera again, a fire in her eyes I'd never seen before.
As it moved toward her, I saw another core unit enter through the open doorway, this one wearing jeans and a baseball cap. It grabbed the core unit and tossed it against the wall. Another flash engulfed it as Casey took another shot, this time encompassing the whole unit.
The rogue core, slightly steaming, rushed toward her, but wasn't as fast as Mick. Grabbing the corrupted core by the waist, Mick pulled him back and slammed a metal fist into the shielding on the soulstone. To my amazement, Mick's fist left an imprint.
It turned toward the Central Core, and stared directly at me. I backed up, sword out and ready to attack as it advanced with arms outstretched.
“Stay back!” I said in what I hoped was a commanding voice.
It lunged at me. Had I been at my best, I probably could have side-stepped it easily, or even shot a Force Edge at it to slow it down. As it was, I barely had the strength to hold on to my sword as it crashed into me and bore me to the ground.
I waited for the unit to start tearing into me, but there were no grabs, no punches … just a heavy and very warm weight pressing me to the floor. A tiny light of hope starting to blossom in my heart, I opened my eyes.
The unit's green eyes flashed for a few moments before deactivating, its now-frozen fingers still reaching out for the nearest console. Even on my back, I could see the end of Glint sticking out of the dead core's chassis.
I tried to push the Core off, but there was little strength left in my arms at that point. Exhausted, I sat there for what felt like forever, stunned by my victory and pinned to where I lay by the machine.
I gradually became aware that One was tugging at my sleeve. “Jimmy! Are you okay?”
I looked over him, dazed. “One?”
He let out a relieved sigh, apparently no worse for wear from his earlier flight. “Thank the Creator. I was worried for a second there. Are you okay?”
“I think so.” I said as Mick hurried over and lifted the core from me.
“Thank you.” I said as he helped me to stand.
We stared at the core unit for a long moment before I bent down and pulled my blade from its chest. It slid out easily, the dull blade still sharp enough to cut through the metal of the core unit after it had been softened by Casey's camera. A quick glance showed that my family's blade was no worse for wear.
The same couldn't be said of the rogue core; Glint at pierced it straight through the unit's soulstone, even managing to spear the skriever that had hidden itself in the chest cavity. It took me a second to realize just how lucky I had been.
I slid Glint back in its sheath, my body aching with every movement. Glancing at my friends, I asked, “Is everyone okay?”
Terry managed to nod, a grimace on his lips. “I think I broke a rib, sir.”
Mick was already at his side, a blue light emanating from his hands. “Don't worry, Terry,” he said, “I'll have you fixed up in no time.”
As I plopped down between Terry and Arc, I turned my head to my fellow would-be hero. “Pretty impressive fighting, Arc. I don't think I've ever seen that kind of sword style. Well, not while awake, anyway.”
“Thanks, Jimmy.” Arc said, a tired grin on his face. “You did pretty good yourself.”
“How about you, Casey?” I looked to our resident playwright to find her scribbling busily in her notebook, her cheeks still flushed.
“Just a second.” She said, no trace of the fear that had plagued her earlier. “I need to get all this down now before the memory fades.”
One crawled up my arm and plopped himself on top of my head. We must've been quite a site, the six of us piled up against the wall like that.
After a few moments, I realized that Terry, Arc, and Mick were staring at me, or rather, One.
“Huh. I didn't think I hit the wall that hard.” Arc muttered, rubbing the back of his spiky-haired head.
I let out a sigh. “Everyone, Narrator Number One. Narrator Number One, everyone. He's possessing the doll.”
Casey's head popped up. “Really? How? Where did you get the doll? Is Jimmy your new assignment?”
“Yes, enchantment on the doll, Maya Thistlethorn, and maybe.” One said. “It's been pretty fun so far.”
As Casey went back to scribbling in her book, a swarm of skrievers skittered into the room. A group of them approached the core unit, but One hopped off my head and shooed them away, “Oh, no you don't! I call dibs! You get your own materials!”
A single unit approached him, clicking angrily at him.
“I don't care what Cristlyn wants! Rebecca wants a look at it, so it's coming with me. Now get lost!”
The skriever backed away and rejoined its brethren, but not before making a very inappropriate sound at One.
“Hey! Do I talk about your mother?” Muttering beneath his breath, One turned back to the fallen Core. Wispy streams of the same light energy that practically engulfed him earlier shot from the stitched rune on the back of his right hand and swirled around the core unit. In a matter of moments, it was gone.
I asked, “You're taking the corrupted Core?”
“Yup. I've got a CIC in the Elsewhere who wants to run a few tests. Don't worry; no one's corrupting her. I've got a few things I'd like to check out myself.”
“Oh.” I said, feeling awkward, “You're leaving then?”
He patted me on the arm. “Just for a bit. Don't worry, Jimmy; I'll be back. Try not to die before then, okay?”
With that, the doll fell lifeless to the ground. As I picked it up, Arc said, “That was … surreal.”
A hologram suddenly burst to life mere inches from Arc, eliciting a startled shout from the young would-be hero.
The image was flickering, but it was clearly a young girl in her early teens.
“Ah, Miss Cristlyn I presume?” I said. Part of me wanted to stand up, but my body didn't seem to want to cooperate at the moment.
The young girl bowed respectfully to us. “Indeed. I wanted to thank you personally for taking care of the corrupted core.”
I waved my hand at her. “Not a problem. Why, we're practically experts at this sort of thing, right Terry?”
“Something like that, sir.” Terry said, sounding somewhere between tired and stunned.
“I'm glad you happened along. I've sent my remaining skrievers to repair the link to Iniagusville. In a matter of hours, I should be able to initialize the Wenapaj Glyche Network and link up to my sisters.”
Mick cleared his throat meaningfully.
“Right.” I said, snapping my fingers, “Miss Cristlyn, I was wondering if you could help us out. We're trying to track a dragon, and seeing as you're connected to the Yaevin station-”
“-you'd like me to configure the Yaevin station for a more precise geological and lifestream scan to locate either the dragon or its lair in Wenapaj?” She asked, an intrigued look on her face. “That shouldn't be a problem. A full scan will take a few days, but I can update you real time once the Glyche network is up. Mick, would you mind assisting me in calibrating the search?”
“Certainly, ma'am.” said Mick, heaving his metal mass off the ground. The rest of us stayed there, sitting against the side of the console as Mick worked with Cristlyn.
“What a day.” I breathed.
Arc chuckled. “Hey, at least we're still breathing. Any battle you can walk away from is a victory, right?”
“I don't know.” Terry said, hanging his head, “I got knocked out before I could be of much help.”
“Yes,” Arc said, “Because this was a battle that made all of us look really good.”
A grin spread on Arc's face as he let his head loll to the side facing Terry. “Still, if it makes you feel better, we'll give you first dibs on the next corrupted core.”
“Gee, thanks.” Terry said, smiling nonetheless.
“There.” Mick stood back from the console, and cracked his metal fingers. “I've finished recalibrating-”
The hologram of Cristlyn coughed pointedly.
Mick's cheeks tinged gold. “That is to say, we've finished recalibrating the Yaevin satellite-”
“Actually,” I interrupted, unable to suppress my grin, “it's more of a space station.”
Mick fixed me with what was undoubtedly a glare. “Thank you, Jimmy. We've set the station to scan for any subterranean space capable of housing a fully-grown dragon, as well as to scan more thoroughly for any stream-flux patterns large enough to be produced by a dragon.”
I nodded. For once, it seemed like everything was going according to plan. Terry and I shuffled apart so that Mick could sit beside us.
As he ran scans on Arc and me, Casey asked, “Say, Mick, I've been wondering: are you male or female?”
“Core units usually choose a gender starting with once we reach our second evolution.” Mick said. “I haven't reached a decision yet, but I'm still two months off from having to make the big choice. For the time being, feel free to refer to me as male.”
Casey pouted. “Oh, please! Girls are much better than boys!”
“Really?” Mick said, seeming legitimately interested. “Please explain.”
“All my story scripts feature heroines. They're more rational, quicker on their feet, and they don't make as many mistakes as guys. Take it from me, girls are better in every way.”
“Except for those special few days every month.” Arc whispered not-so-subtly, prompting Casey to whack him on the head with her notebook.
“Sorry.” Arc said, an apologetic grin on his face. “Couldn't help myself.”
I rose reluctantly to my feet, trying to ignore the painful ache that seemed to permeate my entire body. “So, what now?”
Cristlyn coughed politely. “I have a task for you, if you don't mind.”
“It's not another core unit, is it?” Arc asked, sounding more than a bit apprehensive.
“No, nothing like that, I assure you. I'd like you to return to the Hub and head for the residential area. My sensor records tell me that the rogue skriever was there earlier, and I'd like to make sure everything is okay.”
She quickly added, “I don't sense anything dangerous, but I'd like someone to make a visual inspection. Besides, you'll need rooms for the night, right?”
I shrugged and turned to the others. “Seems easy enough. Who's coming with me?”
Everyone was on their feet in an instant.
Taken aback, I said, “We seem to have a consensus.”
“Frankly,” said Arc, “I don't care if you're heading into Nocturnes. I'm staying with you.”
Everyone else nodded in agreement. Feeling a little embarrassed, I said, “Okay then. Let's