“Power worm!” Polo VII cried, “Switch to ballistic weapons if you got ’em! And don’t get too close!”

The worm came around a slab and manifested fully, a glowing, transparent wire framed thing with tentacles and claws twitching around its maw. Belch, Ajax, Achilles and Polo VII opened fire, ripping wholes through its gossamer-like skin. It howled and flailed backwards, but then leapt over their heads and clipped Achilles’ shoulder with its tail, deadening his left arm. Kyton pulled a telescoping, electromagnetic staff from his belt and launched it at the creature. The staff magnetized to the floor and electrified the worm, pinning it. Achilles drew his vibrosword and severed the trapped worm’s head from its body. It flailed and shrieked and then faded into nothingness.

“How did it get in here? Is it part of the Mechan ecosystem?” Achilles asked, simulating breathing heavy.

“No… I suspect there is a breach somewhere,” Kyton replied. “That could either prove useful or worrisome depending on the circumstance, should we discover it in our brief time here.”

“If there is a breach, it might offer some clues as to what happened to this ship and its crew,” Polo VII offered.

Kyton nodded and motioned that they move aftward.

Not bound by gravity, they employed their thrusters and jet pack attachements to move speedily to the next part of their dangerous tour—a nebulous network of crystalline struts that resembled a neural map.

“Is this, could this be the ship’s brain?” Achilles asked.

“That it could be, Achilles. Or a power distribution center. Or a navigational processor.”

“Do you think it would be worth lighting up, Master?” Polo VII asked. “Could the possible gains outweigh the danger?”

“Danger?” Belch asked.

For a mini-tank, he could be awefully skittish, Kyton thought to himself. Perhaps adjustments would be made when they returned to his workshop. “Of course. If it is any kind of mind for the ship, waking it could activate all manner of internal defenses that would put mister or miss power worm to shame.”

“Maybe if we brought more men, Master. As capable as we are, I advise we maintain discretion in our current outfit, after all, we can always come back. I don’t think she’s going anywhere,” Ajax said.

“Agreed,” Kyton said, putting away his power orb. “Still, perhaps there is another way.” Kyton took a deep breath (again, not that he needed to) and broke the seal on one of his gloves and removed it, revealing a withered, scaley green claw. He placed his fingers on one of the struts and closed his eyes. He reached out and whispered in an infernal, ancient tongue: speak to me, tell me your secrets, unburden yourself.

They stood there in silence as minutes ticked off in their internal clocks. The only sounds coming from their power cells and servos and the occasional release of steam or gas from Belch.

We must deliver her. The ship seemed to say to Kyton, as if through wind passing through the nebulous network of struts. A pair of black pools, floating against a pair of golden suns, flashed in Kyton’s mind’s eye.

“There is—or was—a passenger aboard, boys! Someone very special, very important!” Kyton put his glove back on, slapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously back and forth. “A princess or an ambassador of some kind. I imagine she is behind heavy fortification and possibly surrounded by Mechan Guardians of the highest caliber! We must hurry!” Off he went, into the darkness, his skull socket eyes glowing with excitement, his accent more British than usual.

“Sir, wouldn’t it be wise to return to the workshop and develop a plan, and perhaps return with greater numbers?”

“That it would, Ajax, but what if she is made of flesh and blood? What if she is in a stasis chamber that has an ever dwindling power supply?”

“I don’t mean to be pessimistic, Master, but if that were the case, she is likely long dead—” Polo VII began.

“Don’t say that! You have no way of knowing that!” Kyton spun in his space suit boots to face Polo VII, waving a deadly finger at him. The tip glowed.

“I understand this is a provocative turn, Master,” Achilles said, stepping in, “But Ajax and Polo VII have valid points. We cannot risk your life—”

“It isn’t much of a life, thank you very much, gentlebots!” Kyton spat. “I have lived in fear and solitude long enough! If there is the slightest chance that there is another living soul in this quadrant of space after so long, then I have to take the chance, no matter the risk to what little flesh I have left.” With that, Kyton stepped back into the darkness

And fell a very long way



“Oh, my,” Kyton said, getting to his feet. Fortunately, the artificial gravity was operating at a trickle, so the fall, though it took some time, ended in an anticlimactic thud when he had finally hit bottom. When he stood, after his imaging systems adjusted, he was in a cavern not quite as wide as the last one, but much longer.

“This is an assembly line. Where they built themselves,” Kyton said to himself, as his team descended around him.

They fawned over him, asking him if he was alright. He pushed them away dismissively and took several moonwalk-style leaps into the assembly chamber, seeking a higher perch from which to take it all in.

“There is nothing being built now,” Ajax said, with a melancholy timber to his deep, rumbling electronic voice. [Think sad Vader.]

“What do you think it would take to bring the systems online?” Achilles wondered at his robots in arms. “The armies we could create, Master!”

“It would be fantastic, Achilles. It might take an age to reconfigure, well, everything, but the resources here are undeniable—” Kyton sat back in an imaginary chair, floating, thinking for a moment, then said, “but no, the dead are the dead and a tomb is a tomb, and we must have a healthy respect for the dead. If we find the Lady and anything that has value but isn’t necessarily Mechan, they shall be ours, but the ship and crew we will leave and perhaps direct the Dreadnought’s course into a nearby star and that shall be the end of it.”

“Do Mechans have souls? An afterlife? Ghosts?” Belch asked, his turret swiveling nervously on his back as he looked around.

“I… don’t recall seeing any Mechans in hell,” Kyton said, more to himself than his robots. Though he did recount his time below on rare occasions, and he imagined he verbalized his ancient nightmares in his sleep from time to time, he only programmed his robots with the accounts of hell related in whatever historical documents had made the trip off of earth within the Willowark. He also was reluctant to explain that the universe no longer had any ages to spare, so he really didn’t have the time he would have needed to try to bring the Dreadnought back to life. Evenso, so much exploring to do and so little time! But he was happy for this moment, this experience, and he was happy to share it with his ‘children.’ So he was going to enjoy it while it lasted. “But Mechans have multiphasic superprocessors for brains and superdense engine cores for hearts that seem to have components that linger some time after death, so yes, you might say Mechans have ghosts.” If Kyton didn’t have a metal skull with a permanent smile for a head he might have tried to hide it, but he did, so he laughed aloud instead.

“I wish I had phasic weapons,” Belch said gloomily.

Achilles patted Belch on his back and they followed Kyton along the assembly line. Lifeless Mechan chassis stood on an unmoving conveyer belt like soldiers waiting in line to receive their equipment, or in this case, extremities like heads, hands and feet. One chamber led into another, and eventually they floated into a chamber where the Mechan parts were smelted and forged. There was a warmth in this chamber, despite the smelting fires having died out perhaps over a hundred years ago.

“This is one of the areas of the ship that still has a modicum of power,” Polo VII said.

“There is an auxiliary power generator here,” Kyton said, “This is where they house the Mechan Life Potentials.”

“Analogous to human embryos?” Achilles asked.

“Think even earlier,” Kyton said. “The moment of conception, really. Only, since Mechans are designed and not the result of two distinct individuals coming together to procreate, these are electroplasmic orbs about the size of a ping pong ball, fairly generic in structure to begin with, and they are turned over to a Master Programmer who makes them unique. An old friend once referred to them as ‘snowflake makers,’ and ‘true artists,’ as close to God outside the Godshield as one could get.”

“Poetic,” Polo VII said.

“Quite,” Kyton said, approaching the Potentials Matrix, the honeycombed chamber where the orbs were kept.

As he entered it, his heart fell. All but three honeycomb receptacles were dark, empty. The last three held dimming orbs, and only one of the orbs still had a distinct, discernible structure to it.

“The sole survivor,” Kyton whispered, “Perhaps if I—” But even as he reached out to it, a force enveloped him and cast him quite forcibly out of the Potentials Matrix.

Kyton’s robots watched helplessly as he flew by them and struck one of the chassis, causing a domino effect, as one chassis toppled into the next. They turned back to the Potentials Matrix to see a metal lion manifest out of the dark. It roared and leapt at Polo VII.

Ajax moved faster than his considerable frame belied and intercepted the mechanical lion. Though Kyton’s safety was his highest priority, his brother robots came a close second, and Polo, as the scout with the most powerful and refined communications and sensor arrays, had to be protected to maintain the highest probability of success and survival for the mission and probe team. But mostly, Ajax liked/was programmed to fight. Ajax and the lion collided with a thunderous clap of metal alloys, and Ajax pounded on the lion’s metallic hide with such speed and force that the lion’s attempts to wrap its maw around Ajax’ head were formidable but futile. Then, just before the Mechan surrendered, tendrils from its blue mane telescoped around Ajax’ wrists and wound up his arms and up and over his head and discharged an electromagnetic blast that dropped Ajax to his knees.

Polo VII was about to unload his laser rifle between the lion’s eyes, but they locked gazes for a moment. The Mechan creature looked weary and its body rose and fell as its internals struggled to repair the damage done by Ajax’ fists.

Kyton came up beside Polo and had him lower his weapon. “We didn’t mean any harm, old man,” Kyton said. “We are explorers and scientists, builders and archivists.” He approached the Mechan with palms out and knelt by its side. The mane lost its glow and its eyes started to flicker. “I am just sorry we were too late.”

The Mechan reached out and put a great paw on Kyton’s hand. It opened its maw, unhinged its jaw and an access hatch opened up at the back of its throat and a single, glowing orb rolled out onto Kyton’s palm. The Mechan lowered its head to the ground and ceased functioning.

Kyton shed a tear for the creature and placed the orb in a receptacle on his belt.

“Ajax is down,” Achilles said, and hefted his brother bot over his back.

The ship shuddered.

Polo put a hand on Kyton’s shoulder, “Master, we are running out of time. The Dreadnought may have lost structural integrity. It may come apart, or, depending on the power source, the ship may implode or—”

“I agree, Polo VII. We must find the regal passenger now.”

Before Polo VII or Achilles could protest, Kyton, with a gesture, sent Polo VII down a rail corridor. Achilles, with Ajax in tow, and Belch followed suit.



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