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Chapter 21

After her encounter with the protected Peacekeeper Rebecca knew what to expect. She saw the shimmering wall that hazed out any view she might normally have had of the machine's control systems. But this time the wall was slightly different. It had holes. Not huge holes, but faded areas that allowed her to peek through and glimpse the systems she was to take control of.

She knew what would happen if she tried to smash through the wall. She'd learnt that the hard way. Her previous encounter had left a faint buzzing headache that still refused to leave her. But she could force this wall to allow her to pass. Those faded areas in its shimmering surface bowed at her mind's touch. Confused, as if they weren't quite sure how to respond to the gentle intrusion. It took her perhaps a half hour but she was determined not to let this thing beat her. And eventually the protection fell away like a harmless curtain.

"I think I’m through.“ Rebecca opened her eyes and looked at Jason.

Jason started, as if he'd been in a light sleep. He leaned forward and staring out at the miner as if he could somehow see she’d done as she’d said, despite not being in possession of a Control himself. "You're sure?"


Jason swallowed. "Shut her down. Carefully. She'll... she'll look like the central computer or controls... but make sure you don't damage anything..."

Rebecca went back in. In contrast it took barely seconds to execute Jason's instructions. Protection down, this was simply another machine for her to control. Except that when she pressed up against the machine's control system it felt odd. Intricately more complex than it should have been. Her mother. Had Jason not told her the truth earlier she doubted she'd guess that this was because the control interface was human, not a machine.

"Done." Her mouth was dry as she spoke. "It was just like you said. It's like she was just the brain. And there's some outside signal telling her what to do and she just does it."

"Damn it," Jason hissed. He put a hand to the door but before he could open it a horrendous mechanical screech rent the air. Metal on metal. In front of them the spindly legs of the continuous miner began to shudder and shake. Then one buckled. The machine shuddered and screeched, tipped and then sunk to the dirt floor. When its upper body hit the ground the earth rumbled and shook around them. It lay twisted on the ground, its legs twitching like a dead spider.

"I thought you said you'd turned her off!" Jason snapped.

"I did!"

"She's still trying to control it..."

Rebecca raised her hand and went back into the machine. This time she disconnected the control system - her mother - completely. She was sure she felt that central system fighting back. Clawing to remain connected to the machine that was her prison. Why? Wouldn't her mother want out? But she had been in there for ten years. What had that done to her?

Jason slamming the vehicle door behind him and ran over to the fallen machine.

Though she was sure the miner was shut down its legs still twitched sporadically, though this was becoming less frequent. Somewhere in the distance an alarm had started blaring. The fall of such a tremendously huge machine had to have been noticed. The things were visible for miles. Rebecca drew in a deep breath and slipped out of their vehicle, and then she ran to catch up with Jason.

Valerie made her way to her Peacekeeper on the roof. When she stepped out onto the windswept rooftop the blaring of an alarm reached her ears. It didn't take long to figure out its cause. One of the continuous miners was shuddering out in the orange red haze. It toppled to its side, sending up a cloud of red dust that added to the muck in the atmosphere.

"No you don't you little bastard." Valerie leapt into her Peacekeeper. The systems powered up in response to her mere presence. The familiar tingle in her reconstructed hand was back and she flexed it briefly. Jason Gray may have taken her real one, along with everything else when he'd destroyed her career all those years ago, and so trapping the person he'd cared about most had been Valerie's only recompense. She wouldn't let him get his girlfriend out.

The Peacekeeper took to air and powered towards the toppled miner. It would take her mere moments to reach it but Valerie still found herself tweaking the Peacekeepers systems to give her every possible ounce of power.

The continuous miner was even more massive up close. It's bulbous body stretched skyward in a curve, broken by equipment and a trail of metal rungs along its surface. One of its fore claws stretched up, mangled, beside her, the drum covered in metal teeth at its tip now still. The miner was all but silent, the only sound it made was the click of cooling metal and the occasional creak and groan of settling gears.

Jason was nowhere to be seen. “Jason!"

He appeared on top of the machine's body at the sound of her voice. "Rebecca! Hurry up!" He disappeared from view once again.

“Hang on, I’m coming." The metal rungs on the machine’s side looked as if they had seen better days. Rebecca put one hand on the bottom rung and tested it with her weight.

"Rebecca!" Jason's voice came down to her, ragged. "Open this hatch! It's locked!" He made an inarticulate sound, as if despite realising this he was still trying to tug open the access point.

Rebecca activated her Control. She found the hatch and disengaged the lock. There was a loud resounding clang as Jason threw it open. Rebecca climbed up the rungs as quickly as she deemed safe. On the top of the machine was a small metal deck, perhaps four meters square. It was on a slight angle due to the fact the miner had toppled. Still, it seemed safer than the rungs, which were covered in grit and rust.

Rebecca slipped under the handrail that enclosed the deck. The open hatch was at the deck’s centre. It was barely big enough to allow a big man to access. The space inside was only a meter high, though Rebecca couldn't see how far it extended. She could hear Jason moving around. He crashed and clattered and cursed. Should she go in and help? Was there even room down that tiny hole?

Jason's head came up. His teeth were gritted, he tugged at something as he fought to drag it up with him through the tiny space.

"Have you got her?" Rebecca asked. She wanted to help but there was no room.

"Bloody hell," Jason gasped. He was drenched in sweat and struggling. He pulled himself out of the hatch, dragging with him something tangled in a mass of cables and tubes.

Rebecca moved beside him and tugged at the cables she could reach, snapping them out of whatever connection points held them to free Jason's load. A particularly thick tube pulled free with a hiss, spraying her hands and arms in something sticky; she assumed it to be grease or oil.

Jason heaved again and the last few cables snapped like rotten rope. He sagged onto the deck and the mass he'd been struggling with tumbled into his lap. It was a woman. Or it had once been.

Rebecca drew back with a gasp, hand to her mouth. Her mother should have been in her mid-forties. This woman looked nearly twice that. She was nothing but skin and bones, the former stretched like old leather over the latter. Her eyes were wide and she stared straight ahead as if she could not comprehend the light. Rebecca tripped over herself in her efforts to get away from this creature and only stopped when her hand slipped off the edge of the deck and her back pressed against the handrails.

Jason was pulling the last few cables away. Cables and tubes that were attached directly to the woman's skin and that tore off patches as they came free. "Sam, can you hear me sweetheart? It's Jason..." He cradled the living corpse, stroking the few long white wisps of hair that were left from her face.

Her mother reached up, but not for the man who held her. With crooked fingers she clawed at the air before her, staring blindly.

Rebecca drew in a shuddering breath. Her initial panic was subsiding, but she could not bring herself to move away from the deck’s edge and approach her mother.

She was trying to speak. At first it was only a croak that accompanied her clawed fingers reaching upwards. Then she finally managed to form a word. "Dig..." she rasped. "Dig..." Her hands clawed at the air in long, slow motions.

"Sam?" Jason's voice cracked. He pulled the woman closer, trying to get her to look at him.

"Dig. Dig. Why can't... why can't I dig?" Her hands didn't reach quite as high now, her clawing motions became weaker.

"Sam, I'm right here," Jason tried again. "We came to get you out of the machine. You don't, don't have to dig anymore. I promised I'd come back for you, and I have... Sam, please..."

Samantha's gaze shifted ever so slightly. Perhaps she looked at Jason. Perhaps her eyes had simply lost focus. She reached a hand up shakily again, towards him. Her lips moved slightly, but now she could not make a sound. The hand fell back to her side and she slumped in Jason's arms.

Rebecca let out a breath she did not know she'd been holding. Her throat was hoarse and as she lifted a hand to her face she felt tears sliding down. She should have felt more. This was supposed to be her mother. But she'd never known her, and what she had known she could not connect to this creature. It was the horror of what had happened to this woman right in front of her that brought tears to her eyes and choked up her throat. She drew in another breath and wiped the tears from her eyes.

Jason still cradled Samantha's body. He dissolved into sobs, holding the corpse close and crying into the tattered remains of its clothing.

Rebecca found herself capable of movement now, now that her mother lay motionless. "Jason?" She reached out a hand to his sleeve.

Jason drew in a shuddering breath. "She's dead. Gods..." He shakily laid the body on the decking and got to his feet.

Rebecca paused, her gaze trapped by the desiccated body in front of her. She cautiously reached out a hand. The state of her mother still filled her with dread. But she forced herself just to touch her. She owed her that at least. She ran a hand through her hair and then stifled a shudder. The eyes still stared open. Rebecca shut them tentatively. "Bye, mother..."

Jason was gone. He'd moved off the machine near silently. Rebecca turned her back on the corpse and made her way carefully down the metal rungs. She found Jason at the bottom. He stared out into the distance, arms wrapped around himself as if he were cold, despite the heavy coat that seemed to be his constant companion. "I... I didn't know... it had done that, I should have known..."

"You didn't know releasing her would kill her."

"I should have... she was hard wired into some gods forsaken piece of machinery for ten years, what else could have happened? If I hadn't been so desperate to get her out..." Jason drew in a shuddering breath and wiped a hand across his face. More tears stubbornly replaced those he pushed away. "I'm sorry... sorry for dragging you all the way out here for, for this..." He glanced back at the silent miner behind them, then choked and covered his face with one hand.

Rebecca swallowed. "Look, the way she was... maybe taking her out of there wasn't wrong. She doesn't have to live like that anymore."

Jason lowered the hand from his blood shot eyes. "Maybe you're right."

"Jason,” she added. "You and my mother... you were more than just friends, weren't you?"

Jason drew in a shaky breath. "Don't be stupid," he snapped. He squared his shoulders and drew himself up. "Give me the Control," he said roughly.

Rebecca glanced down at her hand and the thin glove that hugged it. "Why?" Jason was a wreck. She was certain he wasn't thinking clearly. "Look, we have to leave. They're going to notice the machine is broken; Peacekeepers could be here at any moment." They still had to get out of the mine. She doubted that was foremost on Jason's mind.

"Just give it to me!" Jason snapped. But his voice cracked, and if he had been going for intimidating he failed miserably. What little composure he'd gained was precarious.

Arguing with him in this state probably wasn’t a good idea. She slipped the glove off. "Okay..."

Jason made a grab for it but Rebecca held onto his hand as he did so, stopping him for the briefest of moments. "Whatever you need to do, do it. I'm going to get the vehicle and I'll bring it down and then we can get out of here. It'll be okay, I promise. But we need to leave."

Jason stared at her, shaking his head. "I... okay..."

Rebecca let him take the device and then jogged back to the idling vehicle. How were they supposed to escape in such a thing? It had no anti-gravs, and whilst she'd be able to get a little bit of speed out of it, the terrain would certainly slow them down. She could only hope that once they got away from the crippled miner the mine's Controllers would not know it was they who had done the damage. But what would she do if this wasn't the case? She’d have to deal with that if it came up. At least the need to escape gave her something to think about besides her mother.

Jason watched Rebecca as she made her way to the vehicle. She was taking over in a way that was reminiscent of her mother; like Sam had in moments when Jason needed it the most. She did remind him of Sam, if only in brief moments, like a brief flash of a facial expression. He felt a shudder run through him and his shoulders slumped. All his body wanted was sleep. Or to lie down and not get up again. He forced himself to move; he slipped on the Control and watched the material melding to his hand.

Rebecca wouldn't have a problem getting out. She was smart enough. He could only hope once she got to the vehicle she would figure out what he was doing, that she’d know just to leave. He didn’t have the strength to do anything to assist in her escape. But she’d be more than capable of figuring it out for herself. She had to be.

Jason drew in a breath and took a couple steps out of the shadow of the dead machine behind him. He activated the Control, reaching out with his mind, feeling for any machinery within his range. The mine was full of powered tools, vehicles, equipment. But clutter had never bothered Jason, never given him headaches like it did some Controllers. It was in chaos that he operated best. And amongst the clutter he easily identified the machines he was searching for. The other continuous miners with Controllers fused directly into their systems. As obvious in his mind's eye as they were stark slow moving silhouettes in the red haze.

Sarah had estimated there were up to forty of the machines operating within the Galilee mine. Jason could feel seven of these fused machines within his range. All contained souls trapped within the same hell as Sam.

They were all protected, visible only through the electronic haze that let him know it was there, warned him not to attempt entry. Being visible wasn't necessary to the protection's function but rather a deterrent as much as the mind-wrenching pain that accompanied any substantial attempt at intrusion. Jason had only ever broken through protection once but at least that meant he knew what to expect. He’d never get though all seven. If he was even conscious after the first, if he could even function by the second, he would most certainly be a vegetable by the time he smashed his way through the fourth. Maybe he'd get further before his mind and body gave up on him completely. But those four of five he might reach would be as free as Samantha now was.

Rebecca had been right about one thing. He'd failed to save Sam, but whatever she had experienced in that machine she no longer had to live with it anymore. And once he broke through the other machine's protection, the sheer confusion of such an invasion would cause the minds of the Controller's so tightly fused to them to collapse completely.

"I'm sorry I failed you, sweetheart,” Jason choked. “But I’m going to get something right.”

He focused on the nearest fused machine. Threw his mind against the protection with barely a hint of hesitation. He hit the wall and it shattered instantly. It was like stepping through a glass window naked. Jason heard a scream. He couldn't be sure if it was his own, or the shriek of the once human creature he'd connected with briefly before its mind was ripped apart.

He was on his knees, staring at dirt. He drew in deep shuddering breaths, willing himself to find the strength to pull himself together and go back in after the next machine.

Rebecca heard the scream as she put her hand on the vehicle's door. She spun on her heel, though she had already guessed where it had come from. Jason was down on his knees. What the hell was he doing?

"Shit..." Why had she given him the Control? She wasted precious seconds as she almost turned to run back to him. But the utility was closer and already running. Rebecca hauled herself in, put the vehicle into gear, and jerked it forward.

There was a powerful roar and something leapt over the mound of dirt behind her. Rebecca caught only the briefest flash of white, then something clipped her vehicle at speed. It was a glancing blow but enough to send Rebecca's lighter vehicle skidding, one wheel lifting from the ground entirely, and smash her forehead into the steering wheel. The impact elicited a brief beep of protest from the horn and sent Rebecca into a daze.

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