“Why?” Ursula said puzzled.
“Why is he here? Why am I connected to him?”
“I don't know, but Triad does.”
“Why am I not surprised. It seems it's still playing me like a piece in a chess game.”
Ursula sighed. “Triad said I shouldn't interrupt you, that what you were about to discover was important, that it would change everything. It couldn't have said that unless it had known what you would find down here which makes sense. Triad was the last person to see Micha... to see Tetherson alive. Knowing what I know now, maybe I should have listened to Triad. What were you about to do before I interrupted you?”
Michael looked at Gabriella then back to Ursula. “I'd already worked out it was a cold sleeper in there. I was going to see who it was and wake it up. Now I'm not so sure.”
Ursula chewed her bottom lip. “I'm not convinced that's a good idea, but if that's what you were going to do, then that's what should probably be done. If Triad's right that is.”
“And if we want to trust that duplicitous SOB.”
Suddenly, the tank bean venting mist and lights began to come on around the inside of it. The panels began changing their displays and the generators started to let out a low, resonating hum.
Gabriella looked worried. “Looks like we don't get to decide. I think it's waking him up now!”
Michael gritted his teeth. “Damn it, must be some kind of safety mechanism. We shouldn't have left the lid open so long.”
Ursula just stood in silence as they all watched the man in the coffin begin to thaw.
* * * * *
The bombs went off perfectly, sixteen perfectly timed detonations, each one happening one after the other, perfectly spaced to cause maximum damage, while adding a twisting force to the overall explosion that tore the building apart, sending it flying apart like a tornado of bricks and mortar and metal. Just as people recovered enough to panic, the next building in the chain detonated the same way, and the next. In just under forty-five minutes twenty-two buildings were rubble. It was the worst attack the Technomancers had seen in a long time. The buildings didn't seem to have any connection but the Technomancer forces were rapidly analysing the threat. Within fourteen seconds, they had their answer. The building, when detonated, formed a pattern. When seen from above they formed the Aetheric symbol for gateway. They didn't know what that meant until it was too late, by then, their defence network was already possessed.
The Aetheric denied any involvement but with the attack but the motive and means were clearly theirs. In the last few days they hadn't backed down from their accusations of a planned attack on one of their Universities by the Technomancers, and the Technomancers had clear evidence that the school was a haven of Possessed. Prejudices were blown out of proportion, after all, the Aetherics dealt with all things Aether, why then, would they not make a pact with those that dwelt there? Of course, the Aetherics found such accusations abhorrent and even accused the Technomancers of murdering they own citizens to give them an excuse to invade. The possession of the defence network was rapidly dealt with but not before it managed to rewrite some of their software. Soon, the Technomancers would retaliate, whether they wanted to or not.
* * * * *
Hello again, Triad. I told you, it's beginning and there can be no stopping it.
Tetherson, don't think you have won. You only win these battles because I give them to you. You eat the scraps from my table, nothing more.
So you claim to be the master? You're nothing but a drip in the pond. You cause ripples, yes, but ultimately you are nothing. Do you know what happens when two ripples of equal force collide Triad? They cancel each other out.
I know about your little plan Tetherson. Surely you don't think that I am without a plan of my own?
Your plans are meaningless, impotent. There is nothing you can do to a god!
Such delusions Tetherson. You are as I, not gods, just mere mortals with more than our fair share of power.
We will see how long that assertion holds. Goodbye Triad, when next we meet, you'll cease to exist except as part of me.
* * * * *
The man gasped as the monitoring harness disengaged and he started breathing on his own. Shakily, he tried to lift himself out of the coffin but slipped on the remaining frost, to weak to hold himself up. He coughed.
“Where am I?”
“You're in an abandoned hospital near the Chenobyl reactor. Who are you, how did you get here?” Ursula said.
Gabriella whispered in Michael's ear. “Don't we already know who he is?”
“Yes,” Michael whispered back, “but we want to know if he knows. We want to here it from his own lips. Maybe he's a fake, a clone. Who knows?”
The man tried to pull himself up again and this time strength seemed to return to him. With a slight struggle, he pulled himself into a sitting position.
“Chenobyl? What the hell? Who are you people?”
“We're explorers, we were taking photographs and found you down here. Who are you and how did you get here?”
The man looked at the fearfully, with a glint of suspicion in his eyes. “I don't believe you. Help! HELP! I've been kidnapped! I'm being held against my will! HEEEEELLP!”
“Stop that! We don't want to hurt you! I'm here because I was drawn here, we're connected somehow.” Michael said.
The man looked back at Michael. “You... I know you!”
Ursula and Gabriella exchanged shocked looks.
“How, how can that be? You've been missing for sixty years. You were missing before I was even born!”
“I don't know, but somehow, I know you.” The man said, struggling to pull himself up. “Help me up.”
Michael grabbed his hand and helped pull him out of the coffin. Stood next to each other, they looked remarkably similar.
“So who are you?” Michael asked once more.
“I'm, I... I don't know, I can't remember.” The man said. All of a sudden he fell to his knees, clutching his head in pain.
“It's in my head! It's in my HEEEEAAAD!”
The man collapsed, frothing at the mouth and shaking violently, before anyone could do anything, he stopped moving. Ursula knelt down and took his pulse.
“Is he...” Gabriella asked.
“Yes.” Ursula said. “He's dead.”
“Crap. Crap, crap and double-bloody-crap! We came all the way here for this?! What the hell was that, what happened to him? We learnt nothing! Nothing!”
Ursula placed a hand on his shoulder to comfort him but he pushed it away.
“You! This was your fault! Triad told you not to interrupt and yet you did anyway! You cost me the only chance I had of finally feeling like a normal person! You cost me my life you stupid...”
“Michael!” Gabriella yelled. “She was just trying to help, she was worried about you, we all are!”
“No, he's right.” Ursula said. “I'm sorry, not that it's any consolation. All we can do now is act on what we've learnt.”
“Which is nothing. Nothing at all.”
“That's not true Michael. We learned a great deal. I say we take the body back with us. Maybe we can learn more on an examination table.”
“Damn it. I don't know. Sure, I guess. Crap!” Michael spluttered, still unable to come to terms with what had happened.
“Michael, stand still.” Gabriella said quitely.
“Just stand still. Something is happening.”
As they stood still, Gabriella watched as the life force of the dead man began to fade, as it did when people died, except this time, something was different. It wasn't fading, it was travelling down the thread and into Michael. Slowly, the life unravelled and Michael and his missing pieces filled out and bloomed in colour, in fact, the rest of him did as well, like he had more Aetheric energy than any single man should possess.
“Michael, how do you feel.” Gabriella asked tentatively.
Michael stood there, blinking with confusion. “I feel...I feel...whole.”
* * * * *
When they got back to the surface, the body of Michael Tetherson in tow, the Neutral was nowhere to be seen and the craft had been heavily damaged, as if something had slashed at it repeatedly with razorsharp claws.
“What the hell happened? Do you think the demons found us?”
Ursula lowered the body to the ground slowly and tensed herself. “Be careful, I'm going to look around. The Neutral attacked me when I arrived. It could have done this to the craft.”
“The Neutral? That makes no sense.” Gabriella said.
Suddenly, she felt something cold in her side, then a white hot blossom of pain as she looked down, almost in slow motion, and saw a clawed hand tearing through the side of her abdomen.
“Gabriella! No!” Ursula cried and she ran at her assailant, the Neutral, as it spun around to attack Michael.
She quickly rolled as it's swung it arm, ducking beneath the blades and then grabbed the Neutral under it's armpit and flipped it over her head. Moving faster than a natural human could normally she hurled the Neutral to the ground and in the split seconds it took to fall she punched it and hard as she could in the face, slamming it even harder into the ground. It's face imploded in a shower of bone and blood, wrapping around her fist like a sponge. She pulled her fist back out and flicked off the gore and then ran to Gabriella.
“Gabriella? Are you okay, do you think you can make it to Max?”
She tried to respond but just gurgled up blood.
“Michael, you deal with the body, I'll get Gabriella some medical attention.”
Michael looked up to Ursula but she was already sprinting off to Max's entrance. By the time he was half way to the door, she was speeding back out again with weird looking gun-like device. He dragged the body onto Max's ramp and watched, worried for Gabriella's safety.
“Don't give up damn it! Don't give up!” Ursula yelled as she began checked the device and then placed it against Gabriella's torn side.
She pulled the trigger and it ejected thin, spider-silk-like threads into Gabriella's wound and then began pumping out a thick, pink paste. Soon, Gabriella's waste was nearly cocooned in the pink substance which was rapidly hardening. When it was dry, Ursula snapped Gabriella from the ground and carried her unconscious body to Max.
When the body was successfully loaded, they took off. Michael was sat in the living room while Ursula saw to Gabriella. After what seemed like an eternity, Ursula emerged from the other room where she can been monitoring Gabriella.
“Is she okay? She's gonna make it, right?”
“Yeah, she's gonna make it. Christ Michael, it was touch and go for a moment, but yeah, she'll pull through.”
“What the hell happened? Why did the Neutral attack us? It's meant to be an extension of Triad. Why would it bring us here if only to kill us? Triad could have done that any time.”
“The other Triad, it must have gone online!”
“Oh crap! Ursula, you've got to disable your AT – now! And Max, everyone, we've got to disable all our ATs. If demons can come through whenever they want then everyone and everything with an AT is vunerable.”
“Gabriella! She can't disable hers, she's unconscious!”
“Then you'll have to wake her up.”
“I can't, she's in too critical a state.”
“Then you'll have to remove it entirely. Except...”
“Well, she's blind. The only way she can see is using the Aether. If you take that away from her she'll be completely blind.”
“Better blind than demon.”
Ursula walked into the operating room she had Max set up and looked at Gabriella sleeping on the table, the pink cast material having crumbled away now and the grafts growing nicely, replacing and strengthening the damaged tissues. She picked up the scalpel and moved towards her.
“Gabriella,” she whispered. “I'm sorry.”
* * * * *
When Gabriella woke up, it was dark. She was lost in a dark place, devoid of anything. A voice spoke out from the darkness, it was Ursula.
“How are you feeling? What do you remember?”
Gabriella thought about it for a moment. She'd been attacked by the Neutral as they were about to get on Max. She'd been hurt, quite seriously too. After that, just blackness. Now, she felt fine, she felt no pain at all, as if she'd woken from a deep sleep except unlike every time before her, she couldn't open her eyes.
“I can't see anything. Are we still in Chenobyl?” She said hopefully, though she knew it wasn't true. The effect had been like static, a fog. This was just nothingness, emptiness.
“No. We're on board Max.”
“We were attacked, I was hurt. What happened?”
“You were badly hurt in the attack but I managed to save you in time.”
“Thank you Ursula, I owe you my life. What happened to my sight? Were there complications?”
Ursula choked back a sob. “You could say that.”
“Are you crying? What's wrong?”
“Nothing, it's just I removed your AT. I took away your sight.”
“Was it the Neutral?”
“No, it was me.”
“Michael and I, we figured out why the Neutral attacked us. It was possessed Gabriella and if Triad's own drones could be possessed, then that meant that Triad was offline. We were too late to do anything, the demons made their move. Without Triad, anything with an active AT would be vulnerable to possession. You weren't awake to ask and it wasn't safe to wake you. I did what I thought was best.”
Gabriella reached out in the darkness and her hand brushed against the soft curve of Ursula's left breast. She flinched back, embarrassed, and then swung herself from the bed she was into a sitting position. She reached out again, more certain of where Ursula was and touched her side.
“Sit.” she said gently.
Ursula sat down, her eyes moist with guilt.
“It's okay.” Gabriella said, reaching out to Ursula and hugging her close. “You saved my life. Twice. Once from a Possessed, and again from experiencing once again the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Don't cry. You're a hero. Besides, I can always get another one installed, right?”
Ursula sniffed. “I suppose. Gosh, I've been so silly. So emotional, I don't know what came over me.”
“You're only human.”
Ursula felt a surge of joy at that simple phrase. For so long she'd felt apart, separate. She knew she would never be human but for that moment, she felt something she imagined was akin to it. Before she knew what she was doing she reached over and kissed Gabriella, a long, slow kiss. Gabriella didn't know how to react so she just let it happen.
“I'm sorry, it's just, I've never felt responsible for someone before, never cared. Somehow, you're different from the rest.” Ursula murmered.
“It's okay, but I'm not sure I'm ready for what that kiss might mean.”
“I've offended you.”
“No, it's not that. We've barely met, barely no each other but already you've saved my life twice today and I know it's strange, but I feel something too. It's just, I'm still grieving. Someone close to me died not long ago.”
Ursula remembered what Michael had told her. “Oh God! I'm such an idiot! I didn't mean-”
Gabriella smiled. “It's okay, really. I'm just saying I need some time.”
“So... I mean, we could...?”
“Maybe, I know I'd like to get to know you.”
Ursula smiled. “Yes. I'd like that. Umm... I'd better get Michael, let him know you're awake.”
Gabriella squeezed Ursula's hand as she left to fetch Michael.
Michael was with his head in his hands next to the stretched out corpse of Michael Tetherson.
“Michael, she awa... what is it?”
“It's a match. It's a bloody perfect match.”
“The DNA! I'm a bloody clone! I'm Michael Tetherson. Michael Tetherson is me!”
“Wait, that can't be. You had parents, right?”
“I don't remember my parents. I was an orphan.”
“It must have been Triad. Triad made me, another puppet for it to play with in it's sick games. That's how Triad knew what I'd find, that's why it's was so interested in me. It made me.”
“And it makes no difference. You're still you Michael, whatever your DNA may say. Meat is meat, the soul is the soul. I don't know what to say to make you feel better but you've got to be strong. Gabriella needs us right now. She's awake, you should go see her.”
Michael let out a long, deep sigh and picked himself up. He nodded resolutely at Ursula and then walked into Gabriella's chambers.
“Gabriella, I heard you're awake.”
“That I am.”
“How are you?”
“As well as can be expected, I guess.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“You can come over here and sit next to me.”
Michael smiled and sat down next to Gabriella on the bed.
“Michael, I never told you what I saw. What happened when Tetherson died.”
“When I died.”
“What do you mean?”
“I had Max run some tests on the body. It was a match. I'm his clone.”
“That... that could explain some things. Michael, what I saw, it's important.”
“Explain some things? I'm just some toy, an amusement that Triad conjured up. I'm not even real.”
“That's not true Michael. If I'm right,” Gabriella said, grabbing his arm. “Triad had far bigger plans for you than any of us ever imagined.”