Michael stood perfectly still and tried not to breathe as the crunching sound continued.
“So many toys to play with. This world was made for us.” A voice said.
“Hmm, and I'd like to keep it that way. This plan of his, the Demon Machine. I don't like it.”
“What's not to like? Destruction on a scale never seen before, it'll be fun.”
“You're not thinking ahead. What happens after that? What happens when we have nothing left to play with?”
“I don't know about you but I don't trust it, these composites are bad news, you can't trust 'em.”
“I wouldn't let anyone else hear you say that. The Demon Machine has quite a following, promised a lot and so far he's delivered. He one of us you know, in part.”
“I'm just sayin' it can't be that simple.”
“Is that why you wanted to meet me out here? I'm meant to be doing a mission right now.”
“That's what I'm sayin'. This mission, what is it?”
“Not meant to talk about it. Not out in the open.”
“It's them bombs innit? He wants you to set 'em off. He wants to start it off now.”
“If you already knew, why'd you ask?” The voice said confused.
“You bloody idiot.”
“What? Ain't my fault, this meat suit ain't got much brains in it. Hard to be a thinker with no brains in your head.”
The second voice just sighed.
Michael thought about what he was hearing. Seems all wasn't happy in demon land. They didn't trust their new leader, at least some of them didn't. Maybe there was a way in there, some way to turn this to their advantage. He'd questioned his knowledge of events and come up with no reasonable explanation for Tetherson's plan. Why destroy everything? Sure, maybe it was insane but when his own followers started questioning it? Something wasn't right.
In fact, that seemed to be a common thread throughout his life, now he thought of it. Something was never quite right, like he knew what was coming, or sensed it at least. Maybe he'd inherited part of his mother's gift for foresight and prophesy. He decided to stop thinking and just trust his gut. Thinking had only hurt everyone around him. He stepped around the corner into the alley. The alley was dimly lit, most of the overhead street lamps had been smashed and so only a dimly fading one remained, flickering occasionally to cast crazy shadows stretching down the walls like ghouls. The broken droid lay in the ground in pieces, it's metal carapace crushed and warped out of shape and the delicate circuit boards and gears within spilt like entrails. The two men looked at him intensely. One of them was tall, taller than Michael eve but gaunt, sallow as if almost starving. His face was a cluster of metallic sensory nodes and lenses. Obviously this man had been on of the more extreme technological fetishists, replacing nearly his entire face with technological replacements and enhancements to the original. Even though his mouth was half hidden by the mechanisms Michael could make out the distinctive curve of a scowl. The other man was a short, bulldog of a man. Dark skinned and immaculately dressed, or at least had been before alley life had taken it's toll. He looked like a business man turned homeless drunk.
“I'd find somewhere else to walk if I were you, mate” The short man grunted. The taller man just continued to stare.
Michael stood, his heart racing. He had a chance to turn around, to leave or he could confront them. Intellectually he knew confronting them was probably a bad idea, one born of some emotional need to atone or prove himself but that didn't change the fact that he still wanted to. He went with his gut.
“Gentlemen, I know what you are.”
A large metal blade slid silently out of the wrist of the taller man, but he otherwise remained motionless. Michael swallowed and continued.
“I've met your master, I've met the Demon Machine, as you call him. You are right not to trust him.”
The short man looked up at the taller one. “Let's just kill him.”
“Shut up.” The taller man spat at his companion. He turned his head back towards Michael with a fluid, mechanical motion that made him shudder. “Continue.”
“I've spoken to Triad. It lead me to you, it told me the Demon Machine was not to be trusted.”
“I've heard enough of this bull, if he's been talking with Triad then he's the enemy! We should kill him now!”
The short man charged at Michael but the taller one flicked his arm into the way almost to fast for Michael to see. The short man stopped in his tracks, slumping to the floor except for his head that continued forwards and rolled against Michael's foot, a look of shock on it's face.
“I said shut up.” The taller man said quietly. “He had a point though. Explain.”
Michael gulped. He realised he had no way of escaping this man now, it was win him over or die. He began to explain what had happened, the events with Triad, the things it had said, the things he'd seen and heard in the hospital in Chenobyl, the things that had happened in the Aether itself. The taller man stood motionless and silent and Michael did not dare to move. Eventually, it spoke.
“All very interesting but it does not answer the core question. Why should I not trust the Demon Machine, or Tetherson as you name him? Or more accurately, why should I work with you against him? What do I have to gain?”
“I could guarantee you a body in the real world.”
“Even if that was within your power,” the man said, sweeping his hands down in a gesture towards himself, “I already have one. I think this conversation is over. Goodbye Michael Tetherson, the death of the master's son will be an amusing piece of defiance.”
He took a step forwards.
“Wait!” Michael yelled, gasping at straws. “Four clocks! Four clocks! Fours clocks wind down sunwards!”
“What? Where did you hear that?” The man said, stopping in his tracks, his blade arm still raised.
“Triad told me it, it said other things, it's how I found you. I followed 'a shallow scarab with a yellow eye'.”
The tall man looked down at the broken droid and scooped it up with the point of his blade. He examined it, the various lenses and sensors whirring on his face as he held it to his eye.
“So you did.”
“What does it mean? Four clocks?”
The man paused for a moment, as if thinking.
“It means you are going to die Michael.”
The man continued. “But not today. I do you a great mercy now. It is true we demons have a great thirst for destruction. It is the ultimate act, the most primordial affirmation of all creation. It is power, to take that which exists and destroy it utterly. To those of us that spend eternity without form, it is the ultimate drug, pure euphoria. That I deny myself this for your life is a great honour.”
The man lunged at Michael and in his effort to back away Michael fell to the ground. The man stood over him, his blade held perfectly still over Michael's right eye, so close Michael could only see the blade.
“Four clocks, Michael. They have a special meaning. There is no time as you know it in the Aether but there are four clocks all the same. They count down to a new dawn, they count down sunwards. One clock for mankind, the second clock for us. The third clock for machines. The fourth clock, no-one knows for what or whom it counts the hours but there is a saying. When the four clocks all count down, there will be the end. It is known only the oldest of us, the ones long before the coming of the Demon Machine, the old ones that saw stars born and die. It is known only to friends and that it why I spare you now human.”
“I-I don't understand.”
“I don't expect you to. I will lend you one further boon in addition to your life. You may call on me once and I shall come. However, when you do our deal will be at an end and no words or sayings will save you.”
“How will I call you?”
“Whisper to the Aether and I shall hear you. Goodbye Michael.”
In a blink, the man was gone and Michael was laying in the gutter, wondering just what to do.