Chapter Six

 

Rampage

 

The rattle of high-velocity bullets smashing into the side of the enormous autocart they were using for cover was deafening, but captain Gronen Mattock could clearly make out the low, deep-throated incantations Kyle Vreki was making as he sat with his back against the solid bulk of the machine that served as their only protection from the homicidal rolling unit that had chanced upon them only twelve minutes after they left the abandoned garage.  The burly Jaft captain’s armor alone had kept several of the bullets from killing the Bishop, for the moment he’d seen the rolling machine, he’d grabbed the padre and rushed him behind the wide autocart that served now as their shield, holding the slender Elven man against his front in a half-carry.

 

His wife and one of the Wayfarers had not been quite as fortunate, Thelma Mattock taking two bullets low in her left leg and one of the Patriarch’s flock catching a spray of three bullets to his chest.  That unfortunate wanderer lay dead in the road while the remaining seven members of the group crowded together for dear life out of the Light Roller’s line of direct fire.  Gronen clutched his weapon tightly in his hands as the ear-shattering barrage continued, metal smacking into metal only a few feet away from his back.

 

“Padre, I don’t mean to rush you, but I sincerely hope you’ve got something coming soon,” he shouted over the rattle of the chain-gun.  The Elven Bishop wove strange thin strands of orange light together through his hands, pulling them wider then pressing them together, pulling them wider still and pressing them together, chanting under his breath the whole time.

 

One of Mattock’s men reached into his belt, withdrawing a small device he’d picked up at the market in Palen during the crew’s last visit to the capital of magic.  It was a squat black box with a red glass button, which he pressed in. Gronen saw a flash of red light wrap itself around his crew member, and the sailor, emboldened by the device’s activation, took up a sprinter’s preparation stance.  Gronen, fearing the worst, shook his head and patted the sailor on the arm.

 

“Don’t even think about it, Carella,” he shouted at his man.  But Carella paid him no heed, instead streaking away in a dark red slash faster than anything Gronen had seen since once spotting a quicksilver running alongside a riverbank.   “Son of a bitch,” he muttered.  As he returned to his seated position against the autocart, Kyle Vreki clapped his hands together.  A wave of some subtle pressure burst out around the group, and seconds later, the rattle of the chain-gun stopped.  As captain and leader of his group, Gronen took a chance and stood up slowly, peering over the top of his cover.

 

The rolling machine sat slumped in the street, smoke billowing out of the six barrels on its chain-gun.  Blue streaks of energy crackled on and off around its body, but he could tell it was still trying to function.  Before Gronen could come around the vehicle and assault the Light Roller, however, a crimson streak blew into the machine, coming to a violent stop as Carella brought his magic-wrapped fist crashing into the assault machine’s chassis.  The Light Roller was sent scrapping and bouncing down the street, dropping broken components as it went.

 

The red light evaporated from around Carella, and the Jaft dropped to his knees, his fist still extended out.  “It’s clear, we’re safe,” Gronen said to his group, who came out to Carella’s side.  “Excellent work, Carella,” Gronen said, clapping the younger sailor on the shoulder.  “Excellent work.”

 

“Thank you, captain,” replied his crewman, getting wobblingly to his feet.  He held up the small black box device, which appeared to have lost much of its density, crumbling in on itself as he lifted it for inspection.  “I don’t think I can do it again, though.”

 

“Not a problem,” said Gronen.  “We’ll just have to figure out how to deal with any more of these things when the time comes for it.  Thelma?”

 

“I’m okay,” she said, pulling one of the bullets from her healing leg. “You?”

 

“My armor’s a little dinged up is all.  Okay, we should radio in, let the other groups know what these things are capable of. There might be more of them.  Any other suggestions before we move on?”  One of the remaining Wayfarers raised his hand, the group’s only Dwarf.  “Yes?”

 

“Well, I’ve got some of my cutting tools, sir.  Perhaps if I were to take a few minutes and get a hand, I could fashion us some shields from that machine’s armor plating.  Stands to reason they should be able to stand up against their own weapons to a degree, eh?”  Gronen nodded, indicating to his people that they should lend a hand, except for Vreki.  He put a hand on the Bishop’s chest before Kyle could even take two steps.

 

“Not you, padre.  I can tell that without your spell that thing would’ve probably just turned its attention on Carella and probably turned him into so much meat.  You rest for a minute with Thelma,” he said, turning and stoically striding back up the street toward the husked out remains of the Light Roller. Kyle returned to the relative safety of his spot behind the autocart that had served as their cover, sitting down heavily with Thelma Mattock.  Not a word passed between them, but there was no discomfort.

 

Near-death experiences can make any silence comfortable.

 

Derrick Henden and his group were following behind Telfin along the wide main road once again when his walkie radio flared up again.  “This is captain Gronen Mattock, contacting the other groups,” came the voice of the Jaft captain.  Henden whistled to Telfin, who looked back at him and returned to his side as the Gnome Engineer waved him over.

 

“This is Patriarch Henden, read you, over,” he said, letting go of the button.  “He doesn’t sound pleased.  Might be they’ve run into something you can help them with, Telfin.”

 

“It is possible.  My audio receptors did barely detect what I believe was the discharge of a Light Roller’s chain gun a few minutes ago,” said the machine man.

 

“How could we not have heard it,” asked Henden.

 

“The buildings’ size does not allow for the perfect transmission of acoustics, master Henden,” said the machine.

 

“This is Hina Hinas, we read you captain.  Is everybody all right?”

 

“No, they aren’t,” said the captain over the walkie radio, his voice even but with a hint of the gruff undertones his people tended to always project. Henden turned up the volume on the device and held it up for everybody in his group to hear.  “We ran into some kind of rolling assault machine, a smaller version of the tank we ran into out in the jungle.  Henden, if Telfin is there, ask him to clarify for me please.”  Henden waited for the static burst to tell him the line was open, then thumbed the switch and held the speaker up towards Telfin.  The mechanical man’s eye bulbs glowed blue for a moment, and then he proceeded.

 

“That was a Light Roller unit, captain,” said Telfin.  “I cannot access the primary records regarding them as I continue to encounter internal system errors, but according to my last sensor scan prior to meeting up with your company, there were still a total of about eight such units in operation around the island and city all totaled.  Do you have any wounded?”

 

“We lost one of the Wayfarers, Roger Hemmel,” Mattock responded. Derrick’s eyes closed momentarily as he mourned his clan member.  Hemmel had been a talented painter and whittler, often fetching good money at markets for his tiny yet intricate pieces.  He was also a great storyteller, and would be deeply missed among the troupe.  “My wife took a couple of bullets, and so did one of my men.  Otherwise we’re doing okay.  One of the other Wayfarers, Chomera, is getting us to make some makeshift shields against the chain guns out of unit’s armor plating.”

 

“A wise decision,” Telfin offered quietly.

 

“We’re nearly done with that,” Mattock continued over the walkie. “Soon as we are, we’re moving on some kind of dome building the padre says he’s getting a major vibe from.  He’s a priest, so I’m going to trust his instincts for these things.  Over.”  Henden clipped the walkie to his belt then, and the company was about to move on themselves when a rapid series of tremors rocked the entire area, knocking almost everyone off of their feet.  When the shaking ceased two minutes later,  Henden rubbed his head and sat up, staring at Telfin.  The machine man appeared to be ducking his head between his shoulder plates, in the fashion of one who knows what has just happened, and understands from it a deeper and unpleasant truth.

 

“Telfin,” Henden said slowly, regaining his feet.  “What was that about?”

 

“Well, if my calculations are correct,” said Telfin, his artificial voice quivering very realistically.  “It means we’re in for a great deal more trouble than the Light Rollers could possibly give us.”

 

-System report.  Stasis fluid has been drained.  Limb support and restraint units retracting.  Spinal charge port discharging and retracting.  Cranial support and interlink probe deactivating and retracting.-

 

The sleeper, the Guardian, heard and felt the machines release him, allowing his ancient but powerful legs to fully take on its own weight.  As soon as the constricting metal glove covers came off of his hands, he flexed his oversized fingers a few times, relishing the feeling of power flowing through them.  A wave of wakefulness crashed over him as the interlink probe pulled out of the back of his head, and he let his chin hang down to the top of his chest.  The speakers in the room whined with feedback as the System prepared to communicate with him externally for the first time in over a thousand years.

 

“Please open your eyes, SF0117, codename: Guardian,” a pleasant, feminine voice intoned over the speakers.  The Guardian raised its head on a neck made of powerful actuators and pistons interlaced with original organic material.  It opened its eyes slowly, allowing the dim lighting of the room to filter into his left organic eye.  Its right eye, fully cybernetic, flared up with a field of red-tinted vision, statistical analyses flooding into his mind in blocky white letters and symbols.  “Greetings, Guardian.  I, am the System.  Now that you have been activated, the automatically uplinked program you installed at the beginning of your stasis period will now go into effect.  You have complete control over all Systems by authorization code 0111532-Beta.  What is your first command?”

 

“Activate wireless link to internal system,” the Guardian rumbled, its voice raspy and thick at the same time, a twinning of sound akin to that of many lower-ranking demons.

 

“Link complete.  Your next order?”

 

“Locate Professor Heathrow Liotus and map his position and movements to my internal mapping grid,” said the Guardian, clenching his fists.  “It is time for the traitor to pay his due.”  As the System began searching its sensor database for the request, the building shook as with aftershock.  “What was that?”

 

“A side effect of purging the stasis fluids from the building, Guardian. Subject located on edge of Zone A-14.  Mapping data has been transferred to your internal mapping grid.  Happy hunting, sir.”

 

“Isn’t it always,” asked the abomination known as Guardian.

 

Timothy Vandross reached up and grabbed one of the metallic legs of the spider-like surveillance drone skittering down the hall towards him along the wall, letting out a grunt as he smashed it against the gray and white tiled floor.  Sparks flew from the machine as he tossed it aside.  Damned thing’s probably already called for friends, he thought, signaling from Hina to lead the rest of the group up from the stairwell onto the floor.  As she brought them up, she looked at the spider-like machine and shook her head.

 

“Camdrones,” she said, still looking at the ruined device.  “I remember them from the dreams, but only the word and the description.  I never actually saw any before this,” she said.  She approached the machine, hunkering down next to it.  Tim used a couple of brief hand signals to the Jaft sailors with his group to move ahead down the hall and sweep for any hostiles.  As the blue-fleshed, bald-headed warriors brushed by him, their apprehension was tangible to him.  Hina pulled something small off of the underside of the wrecked machine, holding it up for Tim’s inspection.  “Looks like some kind of grappler,” she said.

 

Tim turned the component this way and that, but he could make neither heads nor tails of it.  Rather than casting it aside, he pocketed it, thinking about the curious Engineer Derrick Henden.  The Gnome might be able to figure out what the component’s function was and find a way to put it to good use.  “Do you know where we’re supposed to be heading, Hina,” he asked.

 

“Fifth floor,” she replied instinctively, rising to her full height and stretching her arms.  “That’s where the Gate Chamber is, but we need an access card to get into the room.  The staff usually wore cards around their necks on lanyards.”

 

“Hina, I don’t think there’s much chance we’re going to find any staff here, not even corpses.  We have no idea how long this facility has been abandoned,” he said, leading the way behind the Jafts, who moved ahead cautiously until they stopped before a solid white oak door set in the right wall. “What is it,” Tim asked the two sailors.

 

“Don’t know,” said the nearer one, a husky fellow named Starbrust.  His bare arms were covered with heavy tattoos, a crescent moon standing out in bold red against the blue skin of his neck.  “Can’t read the sign on the door,” he said, holding his battle axe at the ready.  Tim stepped up to his side and looked at the faded plaque on the door.  He cocked his head to one side, curious.

 

“It’s Dwarvish,” said Tim.  Hina came to his side, also peering at the plaque.  “It says ‘This be the office of Ramanthus Crogarak, Lead Cyberneticist. Knock before entry, or I’ll stomp your feet bloody.’”

 

“A typical warning for a Dwarf’s office, actually,” said Hina, stepping forward and grabbing the doorknob.  She tried turning it both ways, but it wouldn’t budge.  She stepped back to Tim’s side.  “Damn.  Locked.”

 

“Allow me,” said Starbrust.  He took one looming step forward and brought his battle axe down on the doorknob, smashing it off with a ‘crunch’ of wood and metal, and the door began to swing inward on his leftover momentum.  He stepped aside and motioned to the Void Mage and Q Mage with one hand like a doorman.  “After you, good sir and ma’am,” he said with a satisfied smirk.

 

Timothy led Hina into the darkened chamber by the hand, both of them looking around into the dim office.  Hina reached back toward the wall and found a switch next to the door, which she flicked up.  Hazy fluorescent bulbs coughed to life, casting the room in flickering light.  A metal administration desk dominated the far side of the room, three tall filing cabinets standing behind it to the left.  Next to the cabinets was a rolling step stool, rusted and bent from age and disuse.  Against the left wall was a redwood case filled with what appeared to be medical manuals and encyclopedias, most of them moldering. Against the right wall, a set of shelves with a sliding ladder stood, each shelf covered with what appeared to be cybernetic components and parts.  On the bottom shelf of the unit sat two square red metal boxes, pocked with rust.

 

Tim let go of Hina’s hand and moved directly to the shelves of components.  One of the Wayfarers, Triana, stepped into the room behind them and let out a low whistle.  “Wow, what is this?  And why is that desk so short?”

 

“Dwarven office,” said Tim absently, taking what he assumed was an arm replacement piece.  Still gleaming brightly in the overhead lights, the arm was slightly larger than a Human limb, ending in a four-fingered hand that appeared to be capable of moving on an independent swivel joint.  “Triana, what sort of room do you have in your bag,” Tim asked over his shoulder, bending the fingers on the artificial hand this way and that.  There was some sort of glass bubble in the middle of the palm.

 

“Plenty, why?”

 

“I want you to put this in there, for your Patriarch,” Tim said, turning around and handing the artificial arm to a stunned Triana.  She nearly dropped it before removing her rucksack from her back to put the arm in.  Tim returned his feverish attention to the shelves, looking for some sort of power unit.  Six squat blue metal boxes caught his eyes, and he took all of these in his arms, handing them over.  Each was only the size of three of his fingers, but he knew they were likely batteries of some kind.  “These as well, they might go to the arm.”

 

“I don’t think this is the right size,” she began, interrupted by Hina.  The Q Mage tapped Tim on the arm, and held a dusty white keycard in front of his face with a black magnetic strip down one side.

 

“Bones,” she said, pointing toward the desk.  “Dwarf bones contain a natural amount of iron ore, remember?  Their skeleton structures decay much less rapidly than yours or mine would,” she said, tucking the card into one of her pockets.

 

“Fifth floor,” Tim asked with a smile.

 

“Fifth floor,” she replied.

 

Derrick Henden ran as fast as his stubby Gnome legs could carry him, trying to keep up with Telfin as their group hustled down a series of side streets.  “Slow down, or we’ll lose the others,” he shouted ahead to the machine man.

 

“I am aware of the danger of losing them, but that might not necessarily be quite so bad if my calculations are accurate,” Telfin replied, arms and legs pumping up and down.  Foamrider was quickly catching up, taking on the duty of coming forward and going back, trying to keep everybody in their group together.  “I am presently locked on Professor Liotus’s signature, we must hurry and speak with him before SF0117 can get to him.”

 

“Who,” Henden shouted ahead again, making a sharp left turn to keep the robot in sight.

 

“My replacement,” Telfin called back, panic threaded into its voice.  It came to a sudden stop after making yet another turn, and as Henden dodged to one side to avoid colliding with him, the Gnome Engineer heard and felt the passage of a hyphen of red energy whiz just by his head on the right.  “Oh my,” said Telfin quietly.  Before them stood eight of the mechanical sentries, the SF0012 units, weapons raised, one forward row kneeling down in front of four standing machines, weapons also raised.

 

“Bloody hell,” Henden shouted, bringing up his arm and activating the power cell he’d planted in his own artificial arm.  A wide bolt of crimson energy, just like the one that had nearly just struck him, lanced out from his palm, blowing one of the kneeling units into a hundred scattered pieces.  Beeps and boops rose out of the machines, which began to shuffle around as if trying to make a confused effort to retreat.

 

Foamrider and another Jaft sprinted past Henden on either side, warhammer in Foamrider’s hand, metal combat gloves on the other’s fists. They charged into the midst of the confused machines and began wreaking total carnage on them, flailing with wild abandon, losing themselves to the combat.  Henden wondered where their third sailor was, but when he turned around, he found the poor fellow laying dead at the mouth of the street entry, a smoking hole in his chest.  The bolt intended for the Patriarch had found the Jaft instead.

 

Six of us now, Henden thought dismally.  He looked to Telfin, who was just standing there, his eye bulb units flashing a random assortment of colors. The Gnome Engineer was about to slap the machine on the arm to get his attention when a brilliant flare of pain shot through the artificial nerve connections through his right arm.  He cried out and fell to his knees, clutching the arm at just above the elbow, where he was still flesh and blood.

 

“Master Henden,” Telfin said, crouching down before him as the rest of the group caught up, gathering around their leader.  “What is wrong?  Have you been injured?”

 

“I don’t know, I don’t fucking know, I just know it feels like a termite’s going to town on my arm,” he screamed red-faced at the machine, hunching over his own arm.  As he sat up, he squinted down at his arm, and saw a glow of bloody red light near the attachment port of his artificial limb, coming from the power cell.  A series of whirring noises came out of Telfin’s head unit, and after a minute, the mechanical man deftly plucked the power cell out of Henden’s arm.  The pain, which had been unbearable only a second ago, was completely gone.   “What, what happened?”

 

“Sensors indicate two major problems with your use of this power cell, master Henden,” said Telfin, holding the tube up.  “Firstly, your armament does not have a field dampener installed in it.  As a result, the energy dissipation discharge is able to flood fully back into the nervous system of your arm. Secondly, your armament would appear to be entirely powered by a biological energy drain system.  I assume you feel quite tired now?”  Henden nodded. “Your own biological energy must be utilized to manipulate the function of this limb.  Interacting with the B-Type Power Cell Mark III is therefore unwise.  Mr. Foamrider,” Telfin called out to the Jaft sailor, who was at that moment adding a few stomping kicks into the faceplate of a destroyed machine sentry.  “Please bring me one of those rifles,” Telfin said.  Foamrider brought one over and dropped it unceremoniously next to the mechanical man, who immediately started pulling the weapon apart.

 

“What are you doing,” Henden asked, his vision starting to blur and fade.  He felt himself starting to wobble back and forth.

 

“I’m going to retrofit the field dampener from this rifle to be compatible with your arm,” said Telfin.  Henden could no longer clearly make out what was being done, but he suddenly found he didn’t much care.  The pain was gone, the world was fading away, and he realized he could really do for a nap about now.  “I’m then going to take the A-Type Power Cell Mark III from this rifle and install it in place of the B-Type you had in there.  It won’t be as deadly, but trust me, a few strikes with A-Type energy can kill most anything on this island.”

 

“Oh, tha’s good to,” Henden said, and passed out of consciousness.

 

Though he suspected the odds had to be low that his group would run into yet another Light Roller unit before getting halfway along the north-to-south road they traveled, captain Mattock thought of something he’d heard more than a few times in his career as a sailor while he crouched behind his makeshift shield; ‘One in a million odds crop up nine times out of ten’.  It was a good expression, one he’d have to remember to use on his own men should they ever wonder how the hell things ever got as bad as this.

 

The machine had come barreling through the front of some kind of movie theater structure, sending brick and glass everywhere.  Where Carella had been fortunate to have a shield to protect him from the machine’s chain-gun fire, his luck did not extend far enough keep one of those bricks from smashing him in the right leg, breaking his knee.  Hobbled he half-knelt in the middle of the road, only about ten yards away from the lethal machine as it alternated its hail of bullets from one group member to another.

 

The makeshift shields, Gronen thanked the Gods, were holding up under the storm of bullets.  He and Thelma, only a few feet apart, continued to move forward in small, measured approaches, trying to get close enough to be able to take a few swings at the machine’s leg-mounted roller wheels.

 

Kyle Vreki, Gronen saw, was sitting prone behind the other three remaining Wayfarers, who were lined up in a protective row in front of him, and the Bishop was already rapidly chanting his incantations.  But he kept faltering, Gronen saw, as he must have felt the impact of bullets whizzing just over his head into the concrete near his outstretched feet.  Looking right, the captain saw Carella try to inch toward the Light Roller, but his busted leg kept him from making any progress.

 

Finally, a moment of clear silence rang out, nearly as deafening in its suddenness as the chain-gun fire had been when it began.  Gronen and his wife took a few steps forward, but soon crouched down with the shields up in front of them, crouching down behind them again as the Light Roller opened fire again.  Gronen felt the impact of each bullet on his shield, and realized almost too late that the angle of the bullets was changing, shifting to his right.  He adjusted his body, but not before he saw what was about to happen and realize he could do nothing to stop it.

 

The Light Roller was bearing down on Carella, who, behind his shield, couldn’t see what was happening unless he poked his head out to check.  With his leg injured the way it was, that wasn’t likely going to happen.  As Gronen took one last look before ducking behind his shield again, the machine’s low, flat side panel collided with Carella’s shield.  There was a scream, followed quickly by series of wet, garbling shrieks as the machine rolled over him with its entire weight, crushing him to death in the road.

 

But seconds after Carella’s final sounds of life escaped his throat, the machine’s gun went silent again.  Gronen listened carefully, taking another risky peek out from behind his protection.  The machine was not stopping; the barrels continued to rotate at high speed, but instead of firing bullets, rapid dry clicks had taken the place of weapons’ fire.  Gronen stood tall, holding his shield against his side.  The barrels aimed directly at him, but nothing came forth to strike him down.

 

“Father Vreki,” Gronen Mattock shouted, calling the Bishop up to his side.  The Elven Bishop stood with his hands clasped together, golden light wavering around his fingers and wrists.  “Send this thing to whatever version of the Pit awaits its kind,” he said, walking away as the Bishop unleashed his power directly at the Light Roller.  Behind him came a high-pitched electronic whine, followed by the crash of metal on concrete.  Two dead, he thought, putting one arm around his wife’s shoulders as she caught up with him.   How many more before all is said and done?

 

According to the mapping software program in the Guardian’s internal system, Professor Liotus was on the move, running quickly out of the main city and into the jungle.  His movements are vastly quicker than I remember, the Guardian thought, tearing through the underbrush as he passed the northern boundary of the city’s perimeter and headed himself into the thicket.  Perhaps while I slept he has been busy modifying himself.  It is no matter; I will find him, and I will crush him.  The intruders, if they survive, can wait.

 

The Guardian rushed ahead, its enormous, hulking body easily frightening away all of the natural animals it came upon.  The stench of the stasis fluids still clung to its exposed upper body flesh, an odor it found it didn’t care for in the slightest.  It was the sort of scent it could recall being associated with overused public restrooms in city parks, the sort of dingy, hopeless stale urine and feces odor melded with old chemicals.  Yet as much as the Guardian disliked the scent, he could not deny a link he shared with it; like those old restrooms, he too must instill disgust and hopelessness in the native creatures of the island.

 

The Guardian pushed over a pair of trees in his direct path, stepping over them as they tumbled with a roaring crash to the jungle floor.  Several dozen yards ahead of him sat a Heavy Roller unit, covered in moss, grime, and wild growth.  The Guardian walked slowly up to it, looking at the top of its cannon turret, nearly at his eye level.  At thirteen feet in height, there were few things aside from the trees and the buildings on the island larger than he.

 

He grunted, shaking his head.  Too long have I slept, he thought.  Too many of the vital and useful machines have fallen to the laws of entropy.  Still, this does allow me an opportunity.  The Guardian stepped back to the trees he’d felled, stepping over them once again.  Turning toward the Heavy Roller, the Guardian held out its massive, trunk-like right arm.  He made a fist, and its forearm split open, the metal panels of its arm sliding apart as a thin white tube with a red cone tip rose up on a thin armature out of its arm.  Seven more similar tubes remained inside of its internal payload compartment in the forearm.

 

Using the yellow targeting reticule that appeared in its right eye’s field of vision, the Guardian locked onto the ancient, overgrown Heavy Roller unit. “Target acquired,” it said out loud.  “Firing.”  The tube sprayed fire from its rear portion, flying forward and striking the Heavy Roller with its red cone tip.  An earth-shaking concussion blast erupted from the impact, clouds of fire rolling upward as the machine was tossed end-over-end in battered chunks through the jungle thicket.  “Targeting and rocket systems, fully functional,” it said to itself, offering a predator’s grin to the jungle.  “Pulse weaponry will be tested next.”

 

“Did you hear that,” Tim asked as Hina led the group to the door she’d come to twice in her dreams.  The card reader device was online, its red and black LED display lit up brilliantly.  There appeared to be numerous heat scorings along the walls here on the fifth floor, which for reasons nobody could immediately contemplate, was a high-ceilinged affair.  It was much the same for the third and fourth floor, though they hadn’t been forced to spend much time on those levels, thanks to Hina’s dream memorization.

 

It had been Tim who pointed out that Telfin and some of the more nimble machine sentries may have needed the high ceilings to accommodate for complex defensive maneuvers inside the building.  Hina concurred, letting him know that this building they now stood in had once probably been the most heavily guarded building in the entire city.  Presently, she ran her card through the reader, punching in the access code from her dream.  There was immediately a short blatting sound, accompanied by a light, feminine voice speaking to them from unseen speakers somewhere overhead.

 

“That access code does not match the security clearance level of the officer assigned this keycard.  Please either certify security clearance authorization with a temporary input command code on the keypad, or seek the authorization of personnel already in the Gate Chamber,” said the system over the loudspeakers.

 

“Well, this was something we hadn’t bargained on running up against,” said Hina flatly.  She pressed a hand against the sliding hatch door.  “It feels pretty solid, too.”

 

“It’s just metal, right,” asked Triana, coming forward from the back of the group.  Hina nodded.

 

“That’s right, but what sort of metal I couldn’t begin to guess,” said the Elven Q Mage.

 

“Well, all metals melt after a certain amount of heat is applied to them over time,” said the Illeck Pyromancer.  She removed one of the thin black opera gloves she wore out of habit, putting her own slender, pale hand on the hatch door next to Hina’s.  “If you will use an Amplify spell on my, I can more rapidly heat the metal until either it melts or becomes malleable enough for our sailor friends to beat the metal in with their warhammers and remove the door as an obstacle,” she said.

 

“Would that work,” Hina asked her husband.  Tim nodded.

 

“With just one problem,” he added, hand on his chin.  “Shaefer here uses a scimitar,” he said, hooking a thumb back at one of the Jaft sailors holding the named sword.

 

“We all have crowbars, sir,” Shaefer replied, pulling his rucksack off of his back along with his kinsmen.  All three pulled long black crowbars out of their bags and stood at the read.  “You just give us the word when to start prying.”

 

“Good,” said Timothy Vandross, letting his mind slow from its constant yammering thoughts.  He was still stuck, however, on the cacophonous sound he’d heard from the north, probably all the way out in the jungle if he could properly judge his distances.  It had sounded like an explosion of some sort, and nobody else seemed to have noticed it at all.  Likewise, not even Hina seemed concerned with the trembling that had rocked the city only minutes after arriving in the building.  She was too focused on remembering her seemingly prophetic dreams of this facility.

 

As he leaned back against one wall, sliding down it into a seated posture, the rest of the group either working on getting the hatch door pried open or preparing to do so, Timothy Vandross closed his eyes.  Tapping into arcane arts he’d not learned by his Void Mage abilities, bur rather, that he had inherited from his father, the cursed Richard Vandross, he reached out into the hallway around him, and then, out into the city.

 

By the time Derrick Henden regained consciousness, he found himself lying flat on his back once again, but the circumstances seemed quite different than before.  When he’d passed out, he’d been coming down from a great wealth of pain, lying in the street.  Now he could feel  a cold metal table underneath him in a well-lit chamber with blue paneled walls, and there was an amiable Human face looking down at him with a penlight in a white gloved hand.

 

“Easy now, friend,” the Human said.  Henden didn’t recognize him, as the man wasn’t one of his clan members.  “Try not to sit up.  Your friends are right behind me,” said the Human.  Henden rolled his head to the left, and saw the rest of the group, including Telfin, seated on gray metal folding chairs.  It’s an infirmary, Henden thought, his mind reeling back to his days in university, before he became a wanderer of the realms.  “Telfin brought you to me.  I’m Professor Liotus.”

 

“Oh,” said Henden, his body relaxing.  He could barely feel his right arm down to the elbow, at which point all nervous sensation seemed to terminate at the moment.  “What’s going on?  Where are we?  How did we get here?”

 

“I’ll answer those questions, Professor,” said Telfin, rising from his seat as the Human walked away.  Telfin loomed over Henden, the Gnome Engineer trying to raise his head from the small, square pillow under him so he could look at his arm.  Telfin put one metal hand on his chest to keep him from doing so, but it was a gentle gesture, the Gnome noted.  “I led our group here after I realized that, while my sensors were picking up the Professor’s transponder device location, its movements were far too erratic to be the Professor himself. I therefore performed a quick search of relevant personnel records still in my database, and discovered that the Professor held an office in this Education Center building.  I led the group here after finding that information.  Mr. Foamrider carried you with us.”

 

“Oh, well, thank you very much, Mr. Foamrider,” said Henden, a lopsided smile pressing through his mustache at the Jaft seated to his left.  “Looks like my clan owes you one hell of a trade discount, son.”

 

“It was nothing much,” said the Jaft sailor.  “The captain made it clear that your people are our charges, and we are to protect you as much as possible.”

 

“As for what is going on,” said Telfin, continuing his explanation. “Professor Liotus was concerned for your condition when we arrived, and has been performing some diagnostic scans.  For a Gnome of your age, you are for the most part in remarkably good health.”

 

“Well, thank you,” said Henden.  He frowned.  “But what do you mean ‘for the most part’?”

 

“Ah, that,” said the Human, Liotus, returning to the operating table that Henden was lying on top of.  “Well, your cybernetic armament seems to have caused some damage to your nervous system, probably brought on when you used the A-Type Power Cell against the SF0012 units,” said the Human.  Henden looked at the man, and finally noticed that the Professor’s face had an eerie familiarity.  Synthflesh, Henden thought.  He’s either a robot, like Telfin, or he’s highly cyberneticized.  “That’s my primary concern, though there’s very little I can do to help in repairing the damage done to the device itself.  I’d need to access the Lead Cyberneticist’s office over on the east side of the city, and with the Guardian on the loose now, that might be a dangerous proposition.”

 

“Guardian,” Henden asked.  Now he did sit up, and saw his artificial arm. There were stress fracture lines in the plating, the pinky finger was bent out of true shape, and the coupling joint where the arm attached just below the elbow appeared to have been loosened just enough for him to see where it threaded onto the mounting bracket.  Several of the thin, fibrous artificial nerves stood out, charred darkest black.  He shook his head slightly, returning his eyes and attention to Telfin and the cyborg.  The Professor was dressed in a blue button shirt, a red tie, dingy khaki pants and a white lab coat, looking every bit the professional.  But Henden noted the smoldering cigarette in the Professor’s left hand, which was itself a finely crafted copy of one of Telfin’s hands in a smaller form.  “What’s this Guardian unit?   I think you said something about it before, Telfin.”

 

“I did,” admitted the robot, helping Henden down off of the table.  The Gnome Engineer activated the artificial nerve connections, but only about half of the connections came back online.  The blue energy cell in the ammunition slot glowed like a moonlit lake in the light of the infirmary, and Henden took the seat Foamrider immediately offered him.  “The Guardian is, in fact, a large part of the reason why this entire island is the way it is.  I would try to explain more thoroughly, but my internal system errors are interfering.  Professor Liotus can enlighten us some more, hopefully.”

 

“That I can,” said the Professor.  As he crushed out his cigarette in an ashtray on the nearby counter, Henden carefully and stealthily turned his walkie radio on.  It would be best if everybody heard what he and his group were about to, he was sure.

 

The common term for the visual anomaly Timothy Vandross was at that time experiencing is ‘tunnel vision’.  He had grown accustomed to it whenever he chose to use the dark, shadowy feelers he had inherited from his father. Streaking along through the city’s streets, the inky energy would appear to any outside observer as just a fast-moving ash cloud and nothing more.  But for Timothy, it was an invaluable reconnaissance tool.

 

His ears were, for the moment, tuned in to his body’s physical environment, so when the walkie radio pulsed on with a burst of static, he kept his audible attention fixed on the radio, his visual on the city around the feeler. It created a strange, twinning effect, one that, like the tunnel vision itself, he’d become familiar with, if not entirely comfortable.

 

Kyle Vreki and his group finally came into view, captain Mattock walking away from him like a man coming from the fires of the Pit as his childhood friend launched a Bishop spell of disruption into a Light Roller unit, collapsing it with a series of blue flashes to the street.  There was some kind of pulped mass of blood and blue flesh under the machine; one of the Jafts had apparently been crushed underneath the Roller.

 

West, further west he led the feeler, but his attention wavered from it back to his ears.  He listened to the radio, hearing an unfamiliar voice begin speaking.  “The Guardian was the one and only thing that ever successfully made it through the Gateway into our city, and even though it survived the experience it only did so just barely.  If it hadn’t already been, well, the way it was, it probably would have been killed.  We had a few such specimens come through, poor bastards.”

 

“Wait, what’s the Gateway,” another voice asked.  Henden, Timothy thought.  He put another surge of effort into his feeler, looking through its field of vision, watching as in the distance to the west, another of the Heavy Roller units, a tank, came surging into the city from the surrounding jungle.

 

“The Gateway was the whole reason we built this city, these facilities,” said the unfamiliar voice again, pulling Timothy back to his audible environment.  “Well, I say ‘we’, but I wasn’t with the original expedition.  They found this island back near the end of the Third Age and started the original settlement, a collection of various peoples who’d gotten fed up with the way things were going in Tamalaria.

 

“Largely they were scholars and Alchemists, scientific minds who’d been shunned by most civilizations on the continent,” the voice continued.  Tim heard a match flick to life over the radio.  Was the man who was speaking aware that Henden had activated the radio?  Probably not, Tim thought. “People who didn’t fit anywhere in Tamalaria.  So they all chartered a ship and decided to strike out, perhaps go to the island continent of Lenan, which has always been a bit more progressive.

 

“Rumors used to have it that they’d already had a scientifically advanced colony up the Dwarven Territories, but they were forced out when they were discovered by a mining operation back about a hundred years before leaving Tamalaria altogether.  I can’t confirm or disconfirm that.  Does it sound familiar at all?”

 

“There’s ruins all over Tamalaria,” said Henden.  “No way of knowing without going and seeing for ourselves.  Please, go on.  Don’t mind us, we’re just a bit hungry,” the Gnome Engineer said.  Timothy could hear the rattling of some bags and spoons, and he had to suppress a chuckle.

 

“Very well,” the unknown man said.  “Anyhow, the going was pretty tough at first, because the native vegetation and wildlife was fairly volatile. These folks weren’t warriors, by and large, but enough of them were capable of handling themselves that they eventually beat back the worst of the threats. The Alchemists didn’t take long to start using the art of Focus to start collecting the necessary materials to build a mechanical working force.  They’d already had the designs, you see, and brought over a handful of their programmable units to do the heavy labors.

 

“The main city itself was erected in a manner of a few years.  Materials were often harvested from other small islands nearby, where there was no sentient life to worry about making enemies with.  While erecting one of the research and development facilities, however, the construction machine units came upon an energy anomaly.  By then we’d already programmed and constructed the energy deflection barrier around the island, and so we thought it might be some sort of error caused by our experiments.

 

“We discovered quite quickly that we were wrong about that.  Using scanners and analysis from the first Security Forces units, we hypothesized that what we’d come upon by building skyward was a sort of rift in time/space, a potential gateway to another world altogether, if our theories could be proved to pan out.”

 

“Did they,” asked one of the Jafts with Henden’s group.  “You know, pan out?”

 

“Indeed they did,” said the unfamiliar voice.  Timothy narrowed his focus on the feeler once again, pushing it faster and faster out into the jungle. Something felt wrong out there, and Timothy wanted to know just what it was. His ears picked up the radio again.  “Creatures, sentient, mortal people like you and I, fell through the anomaly a few days after we began reconfiguring the chamber it stood in.  There was a burst of energy which destroyed several of our labor machines, and then a white pool of light from which stepped two Elves, both of them glowing with the same sort of light as the pool of the anomaly.  But when the pool of light fluctuated and became little more than a single wavering line of energy in the middle of the room, the Elves dropped dead to the floor.”

 

“So you rearranged the chamber to try and make it safe to build around,” asked Henden.

 

“Yes, that was, at first, our intention.  But as made more advancements in our own technology and theories, we decided that we should try to utilize the breach.  We renamed the building the Gateway Facility, and took a couple of volunteers from our city.  They agreed to try and use the Gateway from our end of the rift, to see if it could be used both ways.  Unfortunately, they never came back through the rift.

 

“I myself was deeply involved in research with Ramanthus Croganak, our Lead Cyberneticist.  I was his right-hand man, you could say, and his most willing guinea pig.   As you can see,” the man said.  There was then a whirring noise over the radio.  Tim tried not to mentally envision anything, for to do so would detach him from his feeler, which was moving along through the jungle now, following a clear trail of destruction.

 

“What does any of this have to do with this Guardian creature,” one of the Jafts with Henden blurted.  “I don’t get it.”
“You will,” said the unfamiliar voice.  “You see, after about six years of the Gateway Facility engaging in experiments and occasionally getting a volunteer to brave the trip through the rift, we were about ready to give up. But then, one day, a machine came through the rift, completely intact and functional.  It was very close in design to our own SF0012 units.  The machine was larger though, more agile.”

 

“I’m guessing something went wrong with it, though,” said Henden.

 

“Yes.  You see, whatever sort of energy the robot ran on, it was either depleted in making the trip through the rift, or it couldn’t function properly in our world here.  Furthermore, it seemed to have suffered some sort of damage to its vocal unit, because it could use its arms and legs just fine, but it seemed incapable of speaking to us, except to try and pantomime.

 

“Within hours, the machine just fell over, spent, in one of our observation labs.  We used its primary design and some of its components to build our own version.”

 

“That would be me,” said Telfin.

 

“So, what happened next,” asked Henden.  “I get the feeling you’re just about to the end of all of this.”

 

“Quite close, yes,” said the unfamiliar voice.  It was then that Timothy Vandross, seeing through the tunnel vision of the feeler magic, came upon a vision that frankly terrified him; he felt absolutely certain that the mammoth creature before his feeler was the Guardian itself, pelting through the jungle in pursuit of some unfortunate creature.  With no more than that singular glance, he released the feeler, and returned fully to the corridor just outside of the Gateway Chamber.  He opened his eyes, and found that the three Jafts were starting to haul the hatch door open with their crowbars.

 

“You see,” the unfamiliar voice continued over the radio.  “We reasoned that if machinery, technology, could survive the trip, then perhaps someone with a heavy percentage of bodily cybernetic implantation could make the trip through and back.  So we sent one of our Security Forces humanoid personnel through after we had Telfin up and running.  We figured if anything should crop up while most of our Security units and personnel were in the corridor outside of the Gateway Chamber, we’d be just fine with Telfin to protect the city.

 

“Our man went through just fine.  I’d prepped him for the trip as best I could, taking two weeks ahead of the experiment to council him, let him know that he didn’t have to go through with it.  But he was convinced that it was the right thing to do.  In retrospect, I think he might have suspected me of goadinghim into it.  So, when the day came, he went through.  And a few hours later from what I can recall, he came back with one hell of a bang.  He was different, warped somehow by his time on the other side of the rift.  He came back through screaming, raging.  He killed three of our people in the Gateway Chamber before Security Forces could beat down the door and come in to subdue him.

 

“He came back changed, and not necessarily for the better.  He’d been physically altered, made enormous, like a giant,” said the man on the radio. Timothy nodded; oh hell yes, he’s like a giant all right.  Half-giant, half-machine.  “His aggression was way out of whack, and he had implementations that we’d never given him, never even seen before.  A lot of the new tech he had in him was similar to our own, but with just enough differences that we could tell someone had worked on him on the other side of the rift.  When he came to in the cybernetic medical labs, he was lucid, more like his old self.  But he wouldn’t talk to us about what things were like on the other side of the rift. The in-house shrinks thought he must’ve gone through some kind of trauma that we shouldn’t go digging up.

 

“So we patched him up and put him back to work.  He proved to be one hell of an efficient deterrent to the beasties out in the jungle, and the occasional group of travelers that just happened upon the island and the settlement.  The heads of the colony eventually decided that since he had human-based thoughts and emotions and judgment capabilities, he’d work better as a head of Security Forces than our artificial intelligence, Telfin.

 

“So we renamed him Guardian.”

 

“Which, as it turned out, wasn’t such a great decision,” said Telfin apologetically.  “Professor Liotus himself soon began undergoing more intensive cybernetic replacement surgeries, and was not personally witness to the Guardian’s descent into madness.  It began attacking the native creatures out in the jungle completely of its own accord, becoming the aggressor.  It independently began taking complete command of the Security Forces units that it had previously shared authority over with myself.  I was locked out.

 

“Eventually,” Telfin continued, “a system error caused the SF0012 units to begin attacking certain members of the colony itself.  The council managed to persuade Guardian to remotely deactivate them.  This was around when Professor Liotus here finished his final recovery.  After reading the reports of what had been going on during his recovery, the Professor rather wisely decided he did not want to have anymore cybernetic replacements, nor did he wish any longer to go through the Gateway himself.”

 

“That’s actually what led to what happened next,” said the Professor.  As Tim listened intently, the Jafts finished prying the door off of its mount, dropping it with a heavy thud to the tiled floor.  Hina turned on a flashlight, and Tim followed her and the others into the Gateway Chamber.  All of its computer terminal stations appeared to be on some kind of standby mode, but in the far left corner of the room, Hina’s flashlight beam trained on the sliding black metal door that led to the Gateway rift itself.  “You see, I knew something was wrong with Guardian from reading the reports.  After having so much of my own body replaced with cybernetics, I had an idea or two about what he might have been going through.

 

“Having all that technology acting as part of your body can do things to the mind,” the Professor said as Tim’s group fanned out through the Gateway Chamber.  Generally speaking, the more you get, the more you want.  It’s kind of like tattoos for some folks, you know?”  One of the Jafts grunted appreciably, knowing exactly what he meant.  “And sometimes, it makes you feel superior, like normal people aren’t as important.  Other machines, you think, should work for you, because you are partly a machine.  So you start to feel like you’re dominant.”

 

“I think I see where that line of thought is headed,” Henden interrupted. “So, what did you do about it?”

 

“I recommended that Guardian be put in stasis in order to perform some more upgrades to his weapons systems.  At least, that’s what I told the council and Guardian itself.  They agreed, both the people in charge and the Guardian himself.  But as soon as we had him in the stasis chamber pod, I started adjusting the programs to keep him in a sustained dormant state.  He must not have entirely trusted me about the upgrades, though.  As soon as his system reported itself into the primary colony System, auto-launch programs activated, bringing the SF0012 units back online.”

 

“So, it knew it might be tricked,” said Henden.

 

“Yes, but not just tricked into stasis.  Before I left the stasis facility, I performed a data dump onto a remote memory device and bolted.  The data I took was from both Guardian and from the main System.”

 

“What did you take,” asked Henden.

 

“I took its internal system memories of the time it was on the other side of the rift, and the Gateway activation codes,” said the Professor.  Tim, in the Gateway Chamber, tapped a button on one of the terminals.  A prompt screen in black with green lettering came up at his touch of the button, asking for a password for activation of the Gateway rift.  “Without those, it probably won’t even ever remember what it was trying to accomplish.”

 

So close, he’s so close, the Guardian thought, tromping through the murky bog in the northeastern quadrant of the island, nearly twenty miles away from the city now.  I’m going to pound him flat, and demand the location of the memory device.  If he will not tell me, I will simply destroy him and use his own internal network link to activate the Gateway!  Onward it pounded, only a hundred yards away from the wretched Professor Heathrow Liotus.  More even than Telfin, he wanted the crush the life from the cybernetically enhanced Professor.  Telfin was but a machine, with no real concept of pain, agony, torment.  Its destruction would not be nearly so satisfying as what was about to come.

 

Knocking aside another tree as he stepped into plain view of his target, the predatory roar that had been building in his throat died instantly.  There, its back against a rock outcropping, was a brute, one of the island’s native beetle-like beasts.  The Guardian’s right artificial eye zoomed in on the panting, terrified creature, spotting a small black device strapped to the creature’s upper left bicep, a single blue light flashing on and off, on and off, in the center of its surface.  The transponder, the Guardian thought, its mind almost completely devoid of conscious thought in its shock.  He, he tricked me again.

 

The creature started to slowly slide along the front of the rock outcropping, trying to slowly, stealthily make its escape as the Guardian rose to full height, staring blankly into the middle distance.  Just before the creature could make good on its escape, the Guardian, its face still slack with disbelief, reached down and snatched it up in one oversized, powerful hand.  The creature, too afraid to even thrash for its own life, lay limp against his fingers.

 

“He tricked me again,” the Guardian muttered.  It ejected a powerful retractable blade from the underside of its right arm, cutting a nearby tree halfway up its trunk.  The blade popped back into its housing silently, and the Guardian grabbed the tree, pulling it out of the ground, holding it now like a club.  “He tricked me again,” it said, tossing the brute up into the air lightly, the creature now screaming like a mad thing in midair.  The Guardian spun and struck the beast like a baseball with his tree-club, sending it bleeding and shouting off back toward the city.  “He, tricked, me,” the Guardian said, its face turning a deep red, the blood vessels beginning to stand out along its neck. “AGAAAAAAAIN!”

 

The Guardian started stampeding back toward the city, but on its way back, it stopped to take the time to kill every living thing that came within its reach.

 

“You’re sure about this,” captain Mattock asked Kyle as the walkie radio finally went silent.  They’d been walking along, following the Elven Bishop for the last ten minutes.  He’d felt drawn down several side streets, and now the group stood before a squat four-story building with security bars over the windows, a brick-and-mortar structure that stood out from everything around it for miles in every direction.

 

“Yes, this is definitely it,” said the Bishop.  “When we first passed into that fog out on the ocean, I sensed a strange and unfamiliar kind of magical energy.  Except I don’t think it was magic entirely.  Whatever it was, I’m sensing it coming from inside of this building.  Didn’t Telfin tell us we had to deactivate the barrier before we could get back to Tamalaria?”

 

“Yes, he did,” said Gronen.

 

“Then we won’t need to be inside for long.  I just need to locate the device that controls the barrier and disrupt it until it is irreparable,” said Kyle, his face set, his eyes gleaming.  “We should head in before we’re spotted by any of those machines.”  Nearby, there was a bursting concussion sound, as of something crashing into a nearby building, knocking open its outer walls. Everybody in the group flinched, Kyle taking the opportunity to start up the steps into the brick structure.

 

“What the hell was that,” Gronen shouted.

 

“I don’t think we want to find out,” Thelma suggested.  “Let’s do what the padre says and get inside, husband!”  The group poured inside through the front oak door, which opened on an antechamber that looked more advanced than even the garage they’d stopped in to rest several hours before.  A cursory search of the first floor revealed to the group that that this structure was indeed some kind of work station, but it was also host to a couple of bedrooms.  It could have been that whoever worked in the building at one time had also lived in it, perhaps for security purposes.

 

Up on the second floor, at the top of the steps in point of fact, Kyle Vreki found precisely what he was looking for.  A set of machines dominated the central floor space, so strange and complicated looking to every member of the group that for a moment they could do little more than stare at them.   Lights, dials and switches stood on the central terminal in numbers too great to even want to begin calculating all of the variable ways in which the device, however it worked, could be configured.

 

Not, of course, that any of those configurations would matter anymore,thought Kyle, approaching the machines and setting his hands gently down on the central terminal.  He concentrated, his eyes closed once again, and began to summon all of the reserves of his mana he could stand to bring to bear for the use of his disruptive power.  When he was finished, he would need either to sleep or to take one of his only two remaining mana potions, and sleep did not seem like it would be an option.

 

While the padre began his chanting, captain Mattock signaled for the rest of the group to gather around a few feet away on what scant furniture there was.  Pulling out dried food rations, they began refueling themselves while the opportunity was with them.  The captain himself was thinking about this Guardian creature they’d been hearing about over the Patriarch’s walkie link.

 

The captain, while firmly believing in and living by the olden ways, was not an idiot by any stretch of the imagination.  He’d heard of cybernetics over the long years of his life, and seldom did the word carry any good implications. With the exception, perhaps, of the Patriarch, he mused.  But that’s just part of an arm.  This Professor makes it sound like this Guardian is more machine than man now.  If that’s so, will the padre’s magic work against it?  If it comes to that, will it be any more of a threat than the machines and brutes?

 

Somewhere, far off in the city if he could judge the sound with any degree of accuracy, captain Gronen Mattock was pretty sure he heard a building explode.

 

“What are we even doing here, Hina,” Tim asked in a harsh whisper as the rest of their group gathered back out in the hallway.  “Are the barrier’s controls in this building or something?”

 

“No,” said Hina, letting her fingers run over a keyboard terminal without even thinking about what she was doing.  She let the dream memories take over, guiding her fingers through the various inquiries she typed into the computer system.  “There’s something important here, though.  Something we need to find.”  Timothy shook his head, pacing back and forth again.  He stopped as, perhaps only a few miles away from where they now stood, he heard what could only have been a massive explosion.

 

“Well whatever it is, dear, I sincerely hope you find it quickly.  I don’t think we’ve got long before we’ve got to get the hell out of here.”

 

“Was that an explosion,” Henry cried out in the hallway.  “Sweet Gods Above, I think it was!  We’ve got to move!”  Hina clacked away, and the screen finally displayed the information she’d been searching for.  She tapped the screen, memorizing the information on the display.

 

“All right, let’s go,” she said to Tim, springing up from the chair.  “There’s something we need to grab on the third floor before we get out to the street.” Tim said nothing, following behind her.  He knew what the explosion was, or at least he had a very good idea.  The Guardian had been chasing something away from the city, and now it was coming back, likely looking for more prey. “Something we can use against this Guardian thing.”

 

“Well whatever it is, I hope it’s big,” Tim said, following behind, sweeping up the rest of the group as he ran past them down the hall after his wife.  They all tore down the stairs to the third floor, where Hina led them through several corridors and into yet another largely empty office.  She walked purposely to a slim metal door against one wall and tested the knob, but found it locked.  She stepped back from it and nodded to one of the Jafts, who kicked the door three times as hard as he could, knocking it off of its hinges.  The blue-fleshed sailor tossed the door aside, letting Hina into the narrow space beyond.  She came back out with an item that looked like a metal football with two buttons on top of it, a green one and a red one.

 

“Well, this is it,” she said, tossing the device to Tim.  He caught it with a grunt, surprised at its heft.  “If the Guardian gets too close, we hit the red button and then go after it.  But first, I think we should contact the other groups, tell them we’re going to start heading back south for the beach and the ship.”

 

“Good idea,” Tim said, rolling the device back and forth as the group once again followed behind Hina towards the ground level.  She pulled the radio and started to contact the others.

 

“This is Hina Hinas,” she said in a rush, taking the stairs down two at a time.  “My group is heading back to the beach.  I think we should all be doing the same, over.”

 

“This is Derrick Henden, I agree, over.”

 

“This is captain Mattock, we’ll need a couple of minutes before we can do the same.  We found the barrier control and the padre’s kind of busy frying it,” came the captain’s voice, underscored by what sounded like sparks and electrical equipment bursting apart.  “We’ll catch up with you back where we split up in the first place,” he shouted over a rather loud burst of noise and static.

 

Hina’s group flowed out onto the street and started heading south when another explosion, this one audible to all of them, rent the air through the city. Tim could feel the force of the explosion, and his blood ran cold as they heard the scream of something not quite humanoid losing itself to pure psychotic rage.

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