Original Content Bought and Sold. Chapter 17, Arc 3

MyNameMeansBentNose

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Chapter 17
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The jarring impact had thrown them about in the chairs, and it took Trips a couple minutes to get the shuttle back under control. Umbra regretted not strapping himself in somewhere. The impact had thrown him from his feet, and his arm was numb from the way he’d impacted the wall.

The arguments began almost right away.

“You tripped over a building!”

“I didn't trip, there were no feet involved!”

“Semantics isn't getting you out of this!”

“I didn't do it on purpose!”

“Is this that irony thing?”

“No, irony is if he was coming to fix the hangar.”

“Wrong, irony would be if his name was 'Steady’.”

“Shut up.”

“Why is Trips flying anyways.”

“Because he's the only one who can manage it.”

“Oh, that's irony.”

“SHUT UP,” Umbra growled over the link. “That knocked the hangar over, with Mason in it.”

For a moment silence reigned. The tossing and rolling had caused most of them to disconnect. Everyone jumped back in to look at the damage they had left behind, although it was just about out of sight.

The first to speak was Patches. “We have to go back.”

“We can't go back,” replied Yin. “They'll kill us.”

“They won't kill us, they spared us,” Yang argued.

“The Grand Giant only hurt Rob, so they killed him and everyone involved!” Yin shot back.

“But it's not too-”

“We aren't going back,” Umbra declared.

They didn't speak again until the planet was long behind them.

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Tinker
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The crash brought him to full awareness. It was the middle of the night. What had happened?

Tinker wasn't one of those Gerlen who slept with his coveralls and his ballcap on. He jumped out of bed, nothing covering his lanky body but a pair of shorts. He didn't bother with clothes, heading out the door of his sleeping room before he even realized what he was doing.

Tinker burst out the front door and cast his eyes about to try and get an idea of what was happening. The lights mounted on the outer walls of the houses provided only dim illumination. Enough to wander around at night without tripping. Not enough to totally understand what was going on.

“Connect on me,” He sent out, drawing multiple Gerlen in for shared space. Panic was the last thing they wanted, having everyone on the same point was best. Connections arrived without hesitation, and his secondary awareness bloomed. He sifted through the local mental map, looking for the damage.

The hangar. It had… fallen over?

Tinker lived in the center of the settlement. It took him a few extra moments to arrive at the source of the trouble. Rob was floating outside the edge of the rubble. The building had indeed collapsed. With the dim illumination from the houses Tinker could clearly see the building had fallen, although the backside was shrouded in a cloud of particles floating through the air. Rob acknowledged Tinker with a look. “The composite supplies were ruptured I bet, that’s where the dust probably came from.”

“A sound assumption,” Tinker agreed. As he looked over the damage something ‘clicked’ as the Humans would say. The shuttle wasn’t there. After a moment of consideration, Tinker decided that could wait for a moment. Best to know who first.

“Name Call,” Tinker sent to the network, opening up the list of Gerlen who lived in the settlement. Those Gerlen were gathering around the hangar as the alerts came in, filling out the list of those present. Cynthia came running out from one of the buildings as this happened.

Two realizations hit at once. The first was Tinker’s realization that Umbra was not present. The second came with the arrival of Cynthia.

“Mason’s not in his room!” Cynthia shouted with worry.

The name responses were almost complete, the last couple popping up as Tinker watched. All but a handful. Umbra and six others, then Mason. Everyone else was accounted for. Seramana stepped up beside Rob and Cynthia

“If Mason is not in his room, he would have his band,” Seramana observed with worry.

“Yes, he would…” Tinker agreed, he ran a quick search through the dataspace for Mason’s presence. Something was scratching at Tinker’s mind. He dismissed the feeling while looking for Mason’s signal, and found him.

“He’s in the wreckage,” Tinker almost whispered with fear.

Cynthia gave him a horrified look then stepped forward to grab a fallen girder.

Tinker joined her while sharing commands over his dataspace. “We’ve trained for this now, we’ve been recovering wreckage for weeks. Get to work.”

A few Gerlen ran off for some of the hovers they’d made work for the construction and demolition projects. The rest of the Gerlen stepped in and began manhandling the parts of the wreckage that could be moved. Tinker wasn’t wrong. They had been dealing with a mess like this all along.

The strange noise at the back of his mind increased in volume. He wasn’t imagining it, and it was coming from the warehouse node? Tinker was impressed the node had survived. Although now it was compounding his suspicions. What was wrong with the signal. It was only a minute or so as they were making headway into the rubble when Rob called out.

The man had floated up high in his floating chair. He’d risen up as the first couple hovers had arrived to lash straps to some of the heavier pieces of rubble.

“Something is moving!” Rob yelled down.

Tinker commanded one of the pilot Gerlen to join Rob in the sky.

Through the eyes of an accident prone Gerlen named Nick, he saw the same thing Rob did. And it was wrong. It wasn’t the small figure of a body moving, nor the rigid and unforgiving movement of a drone or such. It was… liquid.

A crackle of corrupted data lanced through the share space, using the open connection they had to the wireless as an avenue of attack. Just about every Gerlen there flinched. Many swore, especially Tinker. Daniel had taught him a word for this, and now it came out automatically. “Fuck!”

Seramana and Cynthia were both nearby and looked his way with surprise.

“Get back!” Tinker warned.

The dataspace signal was corrupted. A static unlike the taste of the overconsumption worm that had infected the Manifestation. Something was attempting to takeover the dataspace. And he knew what that something was. There were certain pieces of information that were universally known by Engineers such as him for the sake of emergency situations.

He looked at Seramana as she stepped back, Cynthia was still moving rubble.

Tinker sent the command out. “Restrain Cynthia and pull her out. Everyone retreat from the rubble.”

In a split second the Gerlen pivoted, changing their actions. They dropped whatever was in hand and climbed out with all haste. The party near Cynthia piled on and picked her up as a group to pull her out.

“No! Mason!” Cynthia cried hysterically tears streaming down her face. “Mason! Where are you!” She called out loud and over dataspace, the message echoing through Tinker’s mind.

The Gerlen Engineer put a hand on the middle of his torso. There was nothing physically wrong with him, but he was feeling ill. He remembered a similar feeling when the Elder had brought Tinker to the bridge of the Manifestation. A stress reaction? There was no time for that however. He commanded all available wireless nodes to shut down and his peripheral awareness of the settlement cut out. The wireless node in the Hangar was still functional enough to obey the command. The noise ceased and the movements of the soldiers in his influence improved instantly.

“Grab all available plasma weapons, Now!”

There was no time to waste.

-----
The Hangar
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Rixiniux was hungry.

This was normal.

The birth of the Ooze 'race’ was an accident, an experiment that went wrong in the hands of the complacent. It was made to eat and convert that which was difficult to process. Hungry was its natural state.

What wasn't normal was that he was eating.

Eating in the way that all Ooze wanted.

Eating in the way that no Ooze wanted.

He absorbed everything around him, searching for dense materials to absorb. Searching for information sources to add to its memory. While not 'natural’, these were the inborn instincts of the Ooze. Rixiniux wasn’t the Ooze, just as much as he was. The being called Rixiniux was the best semblance of control the Ooze gestalt intelligence could place on this part of its whole. Perfectly fine in a perfect world, but no world was perfect.

The materials he was finding were common enough, until he found a complex construction. He was still finding his bearings, but recognized the maker as he took it apart. But recognize it was all he could do, although it did seem damaged. Ooze were terrible at duplicating the things they ate. To properly make a thing they had to 'devour’ information sources, databases. And then it could brute force construct objects in a manner similar to the maker, but the cost was a different order of magnitude. The Ooze did have the advantage in terms of speed however.

He couldn't duplicate the maker, but it was connected to a node. And it did have a number of schematics loaded into its storage. The design simulator was duly absorbed as well.

Rixiniux continued to expand. This wasn't good. Did they have the stasis rod? Krangkunkek had at least picked up one…

No, it had been used on Rixiniux already. Matchka had done it? This node he was eating into, he didn't know it. A nearby signal drew his attention. He expanded towards that signal in body and mind. It was connected to the node he had accessed.

He flinched back once, faltering for a moment as Tove’s anger bubbled up in his mind. The first true will to become a part of the Ooze always pushed back. The Tove imperative was the first and last line. So many Sapients dissolved into fragmented, incoherent minds when devoured. It was her who had proved not all minds scattered in the wind. Although there was a base requirement of needing translator and control implants.

Then those minds needed a powerful anchor to hold onto against the devouring wave of the Ooze. Tove’s rage and grief had given her that anchor. Still, he flinched back only once, then continued. The anger only worked when he was 'full’ after all. And that anger could cut the other way too. He didn't deserve to be shut into stasis.

The Imperatives were methods of self control gained through the devouring of powerful minds at the right moments. Without them, the Ooze was nothing but a plague.

The Lawkrin imperative didn't help. That Veprutasian had maintained his intelligence and savvy. He'd drawn an unleashed Ooze into a golden web, baited with the largest possible stepdown generator. All it took to distract an Ooze was a great deal of power or high quality materials, but there was none of that here. Curiosity wouldn't stop him. And he was already connected to the buried power network supplying the area.

He slowed again under the wave of indignation and disappointment of the Silianiscan Elder, Orota Elt Beroson. This time there was an effect. Orota was one of the first Silianisca to dare speak to the Ooze. A sample had been taken aboard Orota’s city ship. Then it had lost itself, using one of its devoured technologies to break loose. Orota had died far too easily, but his disgust with the abhorrent waste of all that wealth and technology once his had stalled the Ooze. He had then sent it back to the primary colony from which the sample had arrived. Orota would have it try again of all things.

Anger stopped. Curiosity distracted. Greed directed.

Rixiniux, the controlling mind of this Ooze body, did everything it could to follow the direction of Orota. It was difficult to fight the instincts designed into the Ooze, but Rixiniux could do nothing less than his best.

All for the sake of the real prize.

-----
Mason
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It had eaten a portion of his arm.

He could barely even whimper in pain. The beam laying across his chest allowed him only the slightest amount of movement and air. And since he couldn’t move around, he also couldn’t properly see anything around him.

It had eaten a portion of his arm… and then stopped. On a second glance Mason realized it was still advancing, but the pace had changed drastically. Was it stopping? Then something hit him directly behind the eyes.

The static expanded and his vision dimmed at the edges. He was still connected. Mason lashed back with what Otto had taught him. It took him so much longer to build the attack.

[Command. Attack. Overload pulse.]

He couldn’t even build a proper dataspace field. The program activated and the static seemed to retreat for a moment, then pushed forward from another direction. It was occupying the node, but had lost a portion of its control when Mason had attacked. And as if he’d made it angry, the tendril spread several inches in a moment, then slowed again. Mason hissed as the horrifying cold spread deeper into his arm.

[Command. Attack-]

A nerve in his arm flared to life, then died, destroying Mason’s concentration. The program dissolved before it could form into something dangerous at least. He didn’t need to deal with backlash too. But if he could just...

[Command. Attack. Fragment pulse.]

Rather than attempting to overload it using capacity Mason didn’t have, he tried a different tack. Mason hit back with a repurposed portion of the corruption worm Otto had tamed. It rolled into the encroaching static and ate away, forcing the static wave to retreat. Once again its physical form rushed further up his arm, now digging into his shoulder.

Attacking wouldn’t work.

[Command. Defense. Multiplying barriers.]

Rather than a barrier that fixed itself as it was damaged, Mason elected to fill the capacity of the node. It didn’t slow the mass working itself up his shoulder. He could see his hand was gone. It began to sear into his side and he lost control of the program again. The defenses had barely even started to rise before they fell again.

It was eating him alive!

And finally Mason realized what was happening. Rixiniux had been smashed open. He’d left the ball that was the stasis locked Rick next to his desk! What kind of stasis was that?! Why would it be put to sleep, why not just kill it! Panic sent adrenaline through his body, but there was nothing he could do with it, and he was become even more short on breath.

Just when he thought it was going to be a quick death, the beam shifted, the support on the same side as the Ooze giving out. Mason grunted in pain and did something guaranteed to fail. He pushed all of himself into the Node, purposefully shunting away any feeling of his body. He toggled the adrenaline and focus switch pushing himself as hard as he could.

A fragment of a conversation drifted through his head.

‘I didn’t give her up!’

He had though. He had sacrificed his own desires when he realized the truth. Rob was her future, and while they all knew the reasons behind it were terrible, she was determined to make the best of it.

He’d given her up, and while he felt miserable about it for his own sake, he didn’t hate Rob. And he still cared so much for Cynthia…

Pushed out so far into the dataspace node, Mason left himself bare for counterattack. He didn’t care! He reached as far as he could for some way, anyway, to strike back, pushing his mind through the static, pieces of his mind fragmenting as he did so. Mason could feel it closing around him. He only dug further.

Mason gave Cynthia up for her sake.

He’d give himself up too.

-----
Tinker
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“You can’t!” she cried.

“Fire!” Tinker ordered, disregarding Cynthia’s cries. He didn’t have the luxury to listen.

Rob seized Cynthia, wrapping his arms around him. She yanked at Rob and pulled him right out of the hover. They fell into a tangle, but realizing Rob had fallen, she ceased struggling. Tears still poured down her cheeks.

The Gerlen arrayed around the expanding mass fired the first volley of plasma. The attack blasted into the Ooze, disintegrating great portions of the material.

“Don’t mind the top!” Tinker ordered. “Aim low! It digs!”

From handheld plasma rifles to left over turrets they’d set up in a rush to the weapons of the four wheeled bouncers, the Gerlen unloaded on the mass with everything they had.

As Tinker judged the damage, he could only wish he’d realized sooner what was happening.

Then things got worse.

-----
Rixiniux
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Rixiniux was a separate entity, although closely entwined. The Ooze wanted more than to eat. It wanted self control. He was there to maintain control, be a useful Sapient and learn as much as he could to bring back to the Gestalt without killing everyone around him. But if Rixiniux sunk too far into its body, leaving the membrane and impeller controls behind, the instinctual mind of the Ooze would take over. And that part of him just wanted to eat. So that was something that he, and all those control constructs like him, simply didn’t do.

But when the membrane was broken and the impellers smashed, The instinctual side took over. Rixiniux was being absorbed into the mass. It was taking everything Rixiniux had to not just devour the Human. But this was really the whole reason the construct was here.

It was vaguely aware of the heat burning along its outer body. That would slow the growth a little on the upper side. But the heat of the plasma could be recovered. The reflexive instincts of the Ooze did just that, shifting structure and directing the flow of heat to the lower extremities where it had already begun tunneling.

That couldn’t keep happening of course. The plasma was not a boon, but a danger. The Ooze sifted through the schematics obtained in the initial spread. Constructive nanites gathered and went to work near the center, building as quickly as they could for the health of the whole. The deviation field went up with little trouble and the plasma was no longer a problem. Especially not when it had the power grid to draw on.

Then something changed.

The Human, Mason, threw himself open, digging into the flow of the Ooze mental substrate. The Human didn’t even try to protect himself. No, he was instead disregarding any notion of self protection. Mason was purposefully burning away himself looking to save not himself, but the others. Pushing as far as he could to look for some way, any way to stop the Ooze.

This was it. Rixiniux surged to life, pulling the remaining fragments of itself together and pushing aside the wayward instincts of the Ooze.

It could only maintain a safe state for a short period of time. Rix needed a good reason to do so.

This was IT.

-----
Cynthia
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Mason was gone, in the middle of the mass.

The Plasma weapons had stopped working, the thing had made a D-field! How did it do that?

Cynthia had burnt out all at once, as if the strings holding her up had given out. She and Rob sat on the ground.

The Gerlen gathered around the two Humans as the Ooze has resumed its growth. She understood, and so did everyone else. Now that it was growing there was simply nothing to do. This planet was done, and there was no way off. There was no way to stop it and no one to save them.

“What is it doing?” Seramana asked, standing at the front of the group.

Cynthia looked, so did everyone else. The… thing had stopped moving.

Tinker had explained it to her and Rob. He’d dumped a whole info package on them in the midst of trying to burn the Ooze away. There was no stopping the Ooze. It only stopped for its own reasons, and those reasons no one understood.

“Mason?” she whispered.

-----
Rixiniux
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Tove’s Imperative had activated. It had linked together with Orota when the new mind had made itself known. And then Lawkin had come awake. The Ooze had codified them as imperatives, but they were more than that. The three of them were minds that had held themselves together long enough to force the Ooze into submission with force of will. A will it lacked on its own.

But a living mind wasn’t meant for transposition to a different state. Not like this. Never like this.

And being the minds of squishy, short lived biological creatures, they had plenty of flaws. The foremost was the inability to concentrate, to hold themselves together of their own volition. That’s what their original body was for. Something interesting had to happen.

In a datascape field, four Sapients faced each other, all of them held together by strands of flowing grey material. Those strands represented Rixiniux, built on the minds of those who gave the Ooze purpose.

Mason flopped onto his backside as he arrived, then slowly climbed to his feet. The first thing he looked at was his right arm. It was bound in strands, but he could see the outline of it moving under the bands. Tove sat down on a rough hewn chair that materialized as she did so. Lawkin the Veprutasian stood straight with poise and control. Orota, a red serpent type Silianiscan Elder, flowed about in the air, a constantly moving knot. He had the beard, spines and way too far spread out limbs Mason remembered from chinese style dragons.

“What?” Mason asked. “Where am I?”

The Dragon Orota chuckled and his head poked out from the knot to look at Mason. Its body went from flowing to lazily rolling about. “You cannot remember? I remember being eaten very clearly.”

“Must you remind me? I’d rather converse of things new and interesting!” complained the Veprutasian standing to Mason’s left. He emphasized the point with a clack of his beak.

Tove smiled, although her blue eyes were flinty with restrained emotion. “You resolved yourself to fight to the end, and you charged directly into the battle.”

Mason’s jaw finally moved. “What happened to Cynthia?”

“Oh you’ve saved her for a moment,” The Elder answered. “But you need to finish the transition. I’m aware of at least three other conversations like this that didn’t proceed as needed. A fourth if you count the one who only had useless luck to offer.”

“Transition? I… I was looking for something?”

“And you sacrificed all that you were to do it!” Lawkin’s voice rose high and he shook his arms and wings out. “And that is precisely what we need.”

Mason just blinked at the black bird.

“The Ooze has a hollow soul, it is missing the parts it needs,” Tove explained in her own way. “Each of us has given it something it didn’t have before. Each of us have made it more whole.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I gave it the will of a warrior and mother!” Tove stood as she spoke. “I give it drive and mettle! Without me it would just… be.”

Knowledge arrived as she spoke. How Tove had died to the first wave of the Ooze. How she had forced it to face the shame of what it was doing. How she’d given it the will to control itself while bloated with everything it had eaten.

“Of course, I give this dull mass Pride!” Orota proclaimed, his head pulling from the knot to rise high. “The Pride to do better and accomplish more. The Pride to use and create and certainly not waste what it destroys with its meaningless hunger.”

Orota had died shortly after the first contact, getting too deep into his research and drive to put the Ooze to use. Mason didn’t have it in himself to enjoy the idea of the Elder getting his ‘just rewards’ for attempting to exploit the stuff. But Orota had sent the sample Ooze he’d gained control of back to the whole with its tail between its legs.

“I give it curiosity! The seekers eye!” Lawkin said, his head high and beak pointing upwards. “The need to seek the unusual and understand the why.”

Lawkin had not been nice to the sample he’d caught. Not that Mason could detect any grudge over the matter. The Veprutasian had come with the second round of Silianiscan researchers and had been a core part of the team developing the stasis contingency. And the Ooze wanted that contingency to work.

“And what is it I have to give it?” Mason asked, still confused. What did a weakling like him have? He hadn’t any talents or any accomplishments. He wasn’t a fighter and he was only a mediocre technician. What did he have to offer?

Tove stood up and approached Mason, ducking around the tendrils of what Mason realized then was Rixiniux. Those tendrils were becoming thinner, pulled taut by forces he couldn’t see. Mason’s eyes had wandered to the closest tendril, but Tove’s hand on his shoulder brought his eyes up to hers.

“Mason, You bring self-sacrifice.”

“How could that be-”

“It doesn’t understand how to surrender, to let go,” Orota cut Mason off, his voice leaving no room for argument. “It eats and keeps, although it knows there is something it lacks. But you-!” The head of the flying serpent flew down and directly above Mason. “You’ve had the fortune of being eaten whole instead of being slowly absorbed. And you did it via a means Rixiniux here only understands as ‘important’.”

“Transition…” Mason repeated. “I have to become a part of it? I’m here but not a part yet? Then what are you guys?”

Tove stepped around to his right and Orota pulled his head back. Lawkin hadn’t moved from his perch.

“Reconstructions really,” Lawkin replied. “Ghosts of our former selves kept on record for conversations like this, updated when Rixiniux or those like him return to the Gestalt.”

“So these aren’t the real you?”

“Yes and no. Our souls are part of all the Ooze, but these apparitions are changelings here to speak to those on the cusp,” Tove explained next to him.

“That’s not quite…” Lawkin immediately thought better of trying to argue her interpretation. “We alter the Ooze simply by being a part of it. You have some small understanding of SI construction. We are an accidental SI personality with partial control over the Ooze. The more effective minds to complete that core, the more agency the Ooze has over its own self.” Lawkin followed up “But that base instinct to eat generally overwhelms when the shackles are broken, Like so...”

Mason saw an image of the outside. He stood as the center looking outwards. Everyone was there, and they had clearly given up. Seramana stood at the front, greeting the end with dignity. Cynthia was leaning into Rob’s chest, weeping, the pair of them crumpled onto the ground. The Gerlen stood and sat about, their large faces almost universally that of shock. Most of them were dressed in little more than shorts or pants, having leapt out of bed. Tinker stood next to Cynthia and Rob, wearing a surprisingly human expression of regret.

One of the strands snapped with a loud ‘crack’.

“What… what do I have to do?” Mason asked.

“Oh, for you that should be easy! The irony of a stubborn spark throwing Human willing to let themselves die so easily!” Orota chuckled, then cut himself short. “I speak too soon, I’ve seen your kind sacrifice themselves for another, I must admit.” He paused for a moment looking up and away, although all that surrounded them was black nothing. After a moment Orota continued, slowly bringing his head around to face Mason as he spoke. “The last three to talk to us couldn’t bear to do it, they decided they’d rather die than to exist as part of the Ooze. But all you really have to do is resolve to live, and then let it happen. Rixiniux will do the rest, although it will take time.”

Another crack echoed through the space, but there was no longer any rush.

“Oh,” Mason replied. “Ok then.”

That was all it took.

-----
Cynthia
-----​

Dawn had come and gone, They were still mostly silent, waiting to see what would happen.

Except Seramana. She had turned pragmatic, grabbing Taster and a few other Gerlen to go make food. Or at least see if the food makers had been part of the dining hall to get eaten.

The Mass had spread quite wide. The hangar was long gone and a couple of the houses had been absorbed as well. It wasn’t far from Seramana’s house, but Tingtantun and SPIRE remained safe.

Cynthia felt numb now. She had cried herself out hours ago. She too waited to see what would happen.

Seramana brought out a collection of simple meal balls and bottles of water for everyone to eat and drink. Nothing exciting, just something to fill their bellies.

Cynthia stared at the bowl in front of her. She barely had the energy to care.

“Eat,” Rob told her, “As long as the chance remains, you’re still eating for two.”

As if given permission, her stomach grumbled at her and Cynthia put a hand on her swelling belly. “Okay,” she whispered, grabbing one of the balls. The moment she raised it to her mouth, Tinker spoke.

“That’s not… how?”

She looked at the Mass. The Grey Ooze had looked… ‘wet’ the whole time, glistening much like the liquid it emulated. But now it was hardening. She could hear a subtle crackling of the material and streaks of lighter grey ran across the thing as it dried out all in one go. The outer edges of it… collapsed.

“That should be impossible…” Tinker breathed with wonderment. “It doesn’t do that. Does it?”

As the misshapen structure dried out it disintegrated into piles of dust, much like the composite powder used in the makers. Cynthia stood up, although she was one of the last. Several of the Gerlen approached wordlessly, taking Rob in hand. Rob put his arms around the shoulders of a couple of them, and a few more grabbed the larger man’s waist and legs. Another had set Rob’s personal hover to rights and the six settled Rob into the chair.

As soon as Rob was seated, he pulled his chair in next to Cynthia and they walked. It was clear to everyone where the epicenter was, the last place to dry out.

“Mason,” Cynthia breathed.

The hissing and crumbling of dry sand sliding to rest around them was the only sound aside from the footsteps of everyone approaching. The spot that had once been the hangar was now a pit. Piles of dust had settled around the edges, as if the Ooze had excavated itself away. Perhaps it had.

At the center of the crater stood two figures. One was a robot? The front was open, it was a suit.

The other was tall. Perhaps as tall as Rob, but it was looking away. It’s body was that of a Human, blond hair, fair skin, toned muscles.. It wore Human clothes, black tshirt, jeans and running shoes.

“Mason?”

Slowly it turned around. The face was… it bore a resemblance to Mason, but was mostly the face of someone else. She could see a datajack in his neck as he turned. On his left temple was the same translator nodule she had on her own head. Flinty blue eyes stared at her, but there was no expression in them. “I regret to say I am not,” the man replied. “I am… I suppose ‘Rick’ would be the most suitable,” The mouth moved, but the motion was robotic, inhuman. It tried to move its arm and the motion seems suitable enough, if it wasn’t so jerky. Rick looked down at its arm, frozen halfway to a wave. “This form seems to have been a mistake.”

“You are Rixiniux?” Seramana asked, stepping past Cynthia.

“Hmm, No… yes,” Rick said with a shake of his head, then a nod. He completed the wave, gesturing to the suit. “A gift from Mason, he regretted not being able to finish that.”

“But… what about him?” Cynthia asked.

Rixiniux fixed his eyes on her, and his expression shifted. This expression formed naturally, as if Rick wasn’t aware. “He sacrificed himself for you, and in doing so he saved everyone.”

His expression was that of gratitude, gratitude that slowly descended to controlled grief.

“Mason is a part of me now, and it’s thanks to him that I can talk to you,” Rixiniux sighed. “It’s an honour that I could meet and talk to the one he loved and the one he respected.” Rick then lifted his hand and looked at it with wonder, flexing the fingers one by one. Once again the action was robotic and strangely stiff and yet smooth. He looked up, his eyes meeting Cynthia’s. The eyes were too perfect, as if she was looking at a sculpture given life. She was convinced his body wasn’t organic.

But for all that, she couldn’t bring herself to dislike Rick.

“So he’s gone then?” Rob asked.

Her heart trembled, threatening to bust free of the hold Cynthia held on herself.

Rick put his hand down and looked to Rob, then fixed his eyes on Cynthia again.

“Yes, and no. He’s up here now,” Rick said, tapping on his head. He hesitated a moment before speaking again..

“...I can’t begin to tell you how amazing that is.”

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End Chapter
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