Chapter 18 - Falling Back
I took a deep breath and leapt forward, knocking the doors aside and landing with Glint in hand, stream energy radiating from the blade. Terra was beside me in an instant, followed by the others, but there wasn’t a single one of us who was prepared for what was waiting for us.
The bodies of mages and techs lay all over the Lobby. Some were strewn over couches, others were slumped against walls, and a few looked to have been smashed into cabinets; some were even hanging by their appendages from the second floor balcony. Most of the people seemed alive, though I spotted a few that looked as though they had been hit with energy fire, and more than one limb seemed to be resting at an odd angle.
“No fatalities.” I said, checking the pulse of a young mage with a nasty gash in her cheek. “No one to tell us what the heck happened, either.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Terra pointed to a charred hole in the wall, obviously from plasma fire. “Zig happened.”
“No way!” Smokes argued. “Zig’s a cool guy! He’d never do something like this, seriously!”
“Unless he’s not in control.”
Everyone turned to me, surprised looks on their faces.
“What is it, Jimmy?” Terra asked me, looking more than just a little worried. “Something’s been bugging you about this for awhile.”
I couldn’t help but let out a defeated sigh. “I think he’s corrupted.”
The group stared back at me, most with expressions of either shock or disbelief.
Jenna’s face was a mask of pure horror. “Corruption? Are you sure, Jimmy?”
“Think about it.” I said, “The Corruption takes hold by accident; some artifact or object lying around injects him with transversion cells. The ancient Glyche knowledge knows about the facility beneath the Center, but can’t get there because of the conflict, so it goes into remission and waits.”
“Until we come along.” Terra said, her concern magnifying my own. “It sees us as an opportunity, takes control of Ell knowing full well he’ll end up smashing the mages the first chance he gets. Ell’s practically a giant; why wouldn’t the magi-sect want to control him?”
I nodded and continued, “He then sticks with us, knowing that we’d want to rescue our friend, giving him access to an unbound portal device. He probably thought Zig could take us out as well, but when that didn’t work, he tried to get rid of us.”
“To kill us.” Terra corrected. “Corrupted Cores don’t throw away useful shells; Zig made a conscious decision to stop us then and there, probably because you’re an Inheritor. He gets to the facility, but finds out that the Central Core is gone.”
“Which means he’s heading to the next nearest Central Core.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Flip said, stepping between Terra and me. “Slow down! What are transversion cells?”
Fortunately, One was able to provide a reply. “Transversion cells are nanites; tiny machines small enough to enter the bloodstream. They were designed to help enhance immune systems and provided a limited regenerative ability, with the long-term goal of prepping a biological body for conversion into partial or full synthetic. It was one of the ways the Glyche hoped to avoid extinction.”
“Sounds nice.” Smokes replied cautiously. “What’s the catch?”
“Transversion cells affected by the corruption can indoctrinate and ultimately assimilate biological beings. During the original Corruption, the corrupted Glyche used transversion cells to convert hundreds into sleeper agents.”
“During which time, they can infiltrate security, corrupt key programs, and in extreme cases, form a Corrupt CIC.” I said quietly.
“I think I get all that,” Smokes said, rubbing his temples, “But how in the name of the Creator did they end up in Zig?”
“I bet Kanook knows.” I said. “He called Zig, remember? Told him to come back, but Zig just hung up on him.”
“Creator’s grace.” Terra whispered. “Can Zig corrupt people?”
“Not as he is.” I said grimly. “Transversion cells can’t replicate above a set number even when corrupted, and it takes a lot to fully control someone. If he were to try and infect someone else, he’d risk all the standard firewalls and virus scan software integrated in his cybernetics catching the infection and fighting it off. Still, we should tell Kanook to scan everyone just to be-”
The doors on both sides of the area burst open, revealing a sizeable fighting force from either side of the Center’s rift. Both mage and tech stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of us surrounded by the fallen bodies of their friends.
“Oh boy.” I muttered, fighting the urge to draw Glint. “Here it comes.”
“Freeze!” Wands and guns pointed at us as the leaders of both groups shouted at us at almost the same moment.
“Hold your fire!” I said, hoping that I would be able to reason with them (more of my usual foolish optimism), “We are not responsible. Give me a moment, and I will explain!”
More mages and techs were rushing through the doors as I spoke, and the leaders didn’t seem to give much credence to my words. As the techs began activating their weapons and the mages began charging stream energy, I felt someone yank me backwards.
In mere moments, the room was filled with thrown spells, energy blasts, and summoned beasts. Some rocketed through the air I had previously occupied, while others flew on toward the tech and mage students. In a matter of seconds, the room was in complete chaos.
Terra continued to drag me out of the lobby. “C’mon, Jimmy! We need to fall back!”
I quickly followed her. I don’t know how we made it out of the lobby without at least one of us getting blasted by something, but at the moment we were all too busy running to care.
One used his mini-Headache modules to weld the lobby doors shut. As he stepped back, the doors shook as though hit with tremendous force.
“This ain’t gonna hold long.” He said as I picked him up.
“What now?” Flip asked, her hair raised as the static of a lightning spell swept over us.
“The tower!” Smokes said, pointing at the same, “Seeds have teleport gates to the other Centers we can use to escape! We can duck into the center of Ircandesta until the situation blows over.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” I glanced back at the doors.
Terra and I stayed at the back of the group as we moved toward the tower. Smokes skidded to a halt by the massive golden doors.
“Give me a few seconds.” He said, his hands already on the door.
We waited with bated breath as he worked on the door, our eyes on the lobby doors that were still miraculously sealed.
After a few moments of silence, I said, “I’m sorry, Terra.”
She looked at me curiously. “About what?”
“This isn’t exactly the kind of romantic experience I wanted our first adventure together to be. I just hope you w-”
She shut me up by planting a kiss on my lips. As she stepped back, I couldn’t help but return her smile. I wasn’t grinning long; the doors from the lobby burst open moments later with a hail of fireballs and energy shots. Terra opened fire as I shot a Force Edge at the group. Most of our pursuers were either stunned by Terra or knocked clear off their feet, but I knew it wouldn’t take long for them to recover.
“Smokes!” I shouted, “The door!”
I flinched as an energy blast left a crater in the pillar I was using as cover, showering me with tiny bits of stone and plaster. “Just do it!”
With a worried look at our pursuers, Smokes turned his attention to the door again. He spoke a few arcane words, made a few strange gestures, and even tried hitting it with a few spells, all to no avail.
“C’mon, Smokes!” Terra said, firing a volley of shots at the oncoming horde.
“I’m trying, dammit, I’m trying!” Smokes stopped chanting and started kicking the door, shouting, “Open up, you piece of …”
With his last kick, a spark of energy shot from the tip of his sandaled foot. Smokes stepped back quickly, a surprised look on his face.
“What did you do?” I asked, but the answer had already become apparent; the door was falling toward us. We managed to scramble out of the way before the massive door the ground with a bone-jarring thud; a quick look showed that the hinge pins were missing.
I clapped Smokes on the shoulder. “Good thinking. Good work, Smokes.”
He scratched his head for a moment before shrugging and following the rest of us into the tower.
Ell, Terra, and I lifted the door back into place so One could weld it shut while Jenna kept an eye out from the nearest window. I honestly don’t know how much help Terra and I were; Ell seemed to have no trouble lifting the doors and fitting them back into their frames.
The base of the tower was a beautiful garden that put the courtyard to shame. An elaborate carved fountain depicting the story of the Dust Knight stood in the center, the twin figures of Shienec and Nocturnes spouting water out of their fingertips. The flowers ranged from ordinary to exquisite; I even saw a rose bush. Someone had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to keep the garden well-tended.
“Looks like the weld’s holding for now.” Terra told us. “How long that lasts with a bunch of pissed off mages and techs … well, I don’t know.”
As One and Jenna worked on sealing the door, I took a good long look at my team. “Everyone okay?”
Everyone nodded, with the exception of Smokes; he was busying himself in the Seed’s Garden. It seemed to help him relax, so I kept my peace.
One and Jenna stepped away from the now-sealed door. “Won’t be as easy to break through this one. Still, we shouldn’t hang around and find out.”
We were about halfway up the ivory staircase that circled above the beautiful garden when I noticed Jenna was favoring her right leg.
I wanted to give her a moment, perhaps even have One patch her up again, but seconds later we heard the door below us being torn open.
Ell solved the problem by picking her up easily. As we started climbing again, I heard Jenna say, “I’m sorry. If I wasn’t such an antiquated piece of scrap-”
“Now that’s not true,” One chided her, once again riding Flip, “Leave anything out three-thousand years and it’s bound to need a little fixing up. Your design is still way beyond anything anyone on Vinta or Earth have come up with.”
Jenna shook her head, looking sad. “Maybe that was true back in the day. Now I’m just a relic of a forgotten time.”
Ell gave her a kiss on the cheek. She promptly blushed gold.
“Yeah,” Flip said, “Ell says you look fine, and I think so too. You just wait; we’ll get you fixed up, and you’ll be turning heads so fast that they’ll snap right off.”
One glanced at each door we passed in turn, muttering beneath his breath. The sounds of pursuit were getting louder, making us all a little uneasy.
Finally, he stopped us. “Here! This one! Teleport Access!”
The door was locked, but that hardly seemed like an obstacle anymore.
“Smokes!” Terra and I called out in unison, both glancing back. He was gone.
Before anyone could ask where he had gone, Smokes floated up through the center of the tower. From the smell of him, I guessed he was back to his usual self.
“Hey, Jimmy! Found some good stuff in the garden. Got plenty for me, and a bit extra in case any of you change your mind. Oh! Let me get that door.” With a wave of Smokes’s hand, the door folded itself into the shape of a paper crane and fell to the floor with a clunk.
A few blasts shot through the open stairwell, narrowly missing Smokes. I grabbed him by the front of his robes and pulled him into the room, saying, “Put the door back up!”
“What door?” He took another deep puff and let it out. “My, it’s a nice day, isn’t it?”
Rolling my eyes, I turned back to the room. I was somewhat surprised to see several consoles I recognized as waypoint controls; I looked around for a teleport pod to no avail. The rest of the technology was a lot more elaborate than what we had found in the portal room, but I spotted a few Gineran pieces amidst the Kindred and Glych tech.
Fortunately, I had the foremost authority on Gineran technology with me. Sure enough, One was already hopping from console to console, tapping at the controls.
“Uh … not that I’m trying to rush you …” Terra said, glancing uneasily at the door. The angry shouts were getting closer.
“This might take a minute or two.” One called back. “Can you buy me some time?”
Terra and I readied ourselves for the coming throng as Ell helped Jenna to a chair. We waited as the shouts drew nearer and nearer. In a matter of minutes, the fastest of our pursuers reached the top of the stairwell.
Terra started shooting immediately. Remembering the incident in the facility, I channeled stream energy and thrust it forward into more directed Force Bursts, knocking a few people clean off the stairwell. Unfortunately, there were just too many of them. Within moments, they were almost at the door.
“We could really use a good mage about now.” Terra said loudly, glaring at Smokes.
He nodded and rubbed his hands together. “I got a good one. Everyone, stand back!”
Lifestream surged around him with startling clarity just as an energy blast hit the wall beside him. It didn’t hurt him, but it did reduce a chunk of the wall into powder … powder that Smokes inadvertently breathed in.
“Aaaa … aaaa … ACHOO!”
Terra and I barely had time to dive out of the way before his sneeze set off a small magical explosion that blasted him backwards straight into the main console of the teleporter.
One stared out the pile of scrap topped with a stoned mage with as much dourness as a plush toy can manage. “Great. Well, on to plan B!”
“What’s plan B?” Flip asked curiously.
“When you can’t get away from a problem or go around it, you punch straight on through!” With a roar, he leapt from what remained of the console and charged the door, knocking the mages and techs away with carefully aimed blasts from his tiny Headache units. It was quite amusing (and just a bit disturbing) to see grown men and women cowering before the wrath of a tiny doll.
We followed after him, blades swinging and guns firing. Under our concentrated assault, the Center forces slowly retreated.
Ell moved to pick up Jenna, but she waved him off. “It’s okay. I can make it.”
Nodding, Ell picked up Smokes instead. The Idestan mage was a bit bruised, but seemed otherwise unharmed. “Hey, thanks, Ell. I’ll just take a break up here on your shoulder for a bit.”
Once we were all back on the stairs, I risked a look down the stairwell. The factions were still scattered by our assault, but it was clear they were regrouping.
“Where are we going?” I asked One.
“Only one place left to go!” He said as I picked him up. “Top floor! If this Seed was like any of the others, he’ll have a few backup escape plans set up in case the portal room was compromised. If not, I’ll see if I can’t Dreamer us a way out of here.”
“I hope you’re right.” Terra said grimly. I could see the lines of heat rising from the barrels of her spurs. I sympathized; all my streaming was making me feel a bit dizzy.
Fortunately, we were already near the top of the tower. The Seed’s Office was a grand affair with stained wood furniture, a small library of books, several sturdy desks buried beneath mounds of papers, reagents, and parts, and a large stained-glass window that looked out over the school.
I locked the door behind us and looked around for something heavy to barricade it with. Spotting a reading couch near some of the bookcases, I said, “Ell, help me push the couch against the door. Jenna, can you fry the door mechanism?”
“Of course.” As Jenna approached the door, I noticed her leg was wobbling badly; One’s jury rig wasn’t going to last too much longer.
Ell let out a snort, reminding me of the task at hand. I grabbed my end of the table, and just barely managed to lift it off the ground. Ell picked up his end easily, though I didn’t expect it to give him too much trouble.
We’d just reached the door when Terra called out, “Jimmy! Come take a look at this!”
I dropped my end against the door against the door and nodded in thanks at Ell before hurrying over to her. She was standing at the desk nearest the stained glass, where several notebooks filled with spidery handwriting had been left open. I tried to read it, but the language was unfamiliar.
“Can you read this?” I asked curiously.
“Of course. It’s written in common; his handwriting’s just a bit fanciful.” She glanced over the pages for a few moments before saying, “It looks like the Seed was experimenting with something big. There’s something here about some kind of crossroads.”
“Crossroads?” One turned around instantly, his plush eyes wide. “Are you sure?”
Terra stepped back as One leapt onto the book. “It looks like he was trying to create a stable threshold.”
One stared at the books, pausing only to flip the pages. The intensity of his stare was clear even in his current form. After a few moments, he muttered, “Good call, John.”
“Uh, One?” Terra asked, eyeing the study door nervously. “Think you can fill us in quickly?”
“Right, right. The Crossroads is … well, it’s kind of a pocket dimension with its foot in every other universe. Reality and dreams are twisted in ways you wouldn’t think possible. It’s … a strange place.”
“You’ve been there?” I asked curiously.
One nodded. “Once.”
One’s sudden reluctance to share the story struck me as a bit odd. Still, it wasn’t the time or place to question the dreamer. “Anything in his notes we could use? Perhaps a way to reach this … Crossroads?”
One shook his head, saying, “There’s only one way to reach the crossroads, and you don’t want to do that.”
We all jumped as someone pounded on the Seed’s door. “Open up and surrender!” shouted someone whose optimism rivaled my own. Ell was the only one who replied, and that was only to throw a cabinet on top of the couch we already placed in front of the door.
“That’s not going to stop them for long.” My eyes fell on the sturdy oak desk. Nodding more to myself than anyone, I called out, “Everyone bunker down where you can. Ell, help me flip this desk over!”
“But it’s made of wood!” Terra objected as Ell approached.
“Wood that the late Seed probably enchanted to resist magic if he spent any large amount of time behind it.” Ell and I managed to push the table over. “Okay, everyone get behind cover!”
One, meanwhile, was waving his rune hand at a bare bit of wall. “Ugh; someone’s using the damn CPD! It won’t appear until the idiot on the other side closes the damn door!”
“Keep trying!” I said. There wasn’t much else we could do.
Jenna was shambling over slowly to join us; her leg wobbling more and more as she walked. I moved to help her, but only made it a few steps before a high-pitched creak shot through the air. Jenna (or rather, all of Jenna except for her right leg from the knee down) fell to the ground.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the door burst open violently enough to knock aside the furniture we had set to barricade the door. She clawed her way toward us, a desperate look on her face as the first of the mages stepped through the door. One of the mages took aim and released a burst of energy large enough to shatter Jenna into spare parts.
My reaction was instinctive and swift; a full-powered Force Edge aimed just above Jenna that sent rows of books and bits of experiments flying. I wasn’t the only one to react either; Terra opened fire with both spurs, One held out his tiny plush rune hand and shot three intertwined beams of light, and Smokes sent some sort of massive ripple flying through the air.
The various blasts and shots and fireballs all collided in the air just in front of Jenna and exploded into a brilliant white light that nearly blinded us all.
As the light faded, I stumbled forward, trying to get in front of Jenna in case another spell was forthcoming. It was still a little difficult to see, but I was pretty sure I was close until I tripped over something small. I reached for it and found myself touching something warm and shivering … definitely not a Glyche unit, or part of one as I had feared.
As the light faded from my eyes, the object was in fact small girl child, no older than eight, with pink hair, wings and the furry ears of a tigreth. She was unclothed, wasn’t wearing any jewelry, and had no identifying marks of any kind. In short, there was no clue where she came from or how she ended up in the top of the Seed’s Tower in the first place.
I had never heard of any such creature before; tigreth were the only species I was familiar with who had cat ears, but even tigreth half-breeds had fur on their bodies as well. Jenna was still lying nearby, broken but alive, so it couldn’t be her, and the rest of our team was unharmed.
Even the techs and mages who had broken into the room were dumbfounded by what had happened. Knowing they wouldn’t be for long, I stepped in front of the child and assumed a defensive posture.
A brilliant flash of light shone from the massive stained glass picture. When it faded, a man who looked like the very definition of wizard appeared; old, wizened, white hair and wearing fancy robes and a pointy hat, all with sequins. He was facing the group, so I couldn’t get a good look at his face, but he definitely had an air of authority about him.
“Finally! I’m ba- …” He stopped, no doubt noticing the scene laid out before him. It didn’t help that most of my team still had their weapons drawn. “Put those toys away at once! What the devil are you dervishes up to? Messing up my beautiful garden, no doubt!”
“I-it’s the Seed!” I heard several of the mages and techs whisper. “He’s alive!”
With the fight temporarily stalled, I pulled off my keikogi and handed it to Terra. “Terra, could you-”
“Right.” She put the keikogi on the little girl as the Seed calmed his students down. I turned my attention to Jenna, who seemed to be in shock, but was otherwise unharmed. Well, save her broken leg, of course.
I picked up her leg, assuring her, “Don’t you worry, Jen. We’ll get you fixed up in no time. They’ve got an impressive tech-bay here.”
“Jimmy, the girl … she …” Jenna tried to continue, but it was as though the words just wouldn’t come out.”
I glanced at Ell and the girl, and was astonished to see Ell looking absolutely distraught. He looked at me helplessly, obviously wanting to say something.
“Flip,” I asked, “What’s Ell saying?”
No response. I looked around, but there was no sign of the little yulias.
An image flashed through my mind: a pair of wings flashing into my sight a mere instant before our little magical convergence.
I looked at the girl asleep in Ell’s arms, my jaw practically on the floor. The pink hair, the cat ears, the wings: it all seemed so obvious now.
I was so surprised that I didn’t notice Kanook rush into the room. He spoke to the Seed in one jumbled up blur of syllables, occasionally pointing at us.
“I think I get the gist of it, Kanook.” The Seed said, patting Kanook on the shoulder before turning to our group. “It seems you and your team have been quite busy in my center, Sir Sakamota. Is it true you’ve uncovered the path to the ancient Glyche ruins beneath the Center?”
“Huh?” I quickly shook my thoughts from Flip’s condition to the much more immediate concerns. “Right, the Cylell facility. We found the entrance, but there’s no computer co …”
One look at the Seed’s face and my words died in my throat. He looked wizened all right, and his beard and hair were long, straight and respectable. It was the enormous red mustache that gave me pause, however.
“King Iniagus?” I whispered in disbelief.