Galen gazed at his right thumb. The puncture marks were so small that someone not knowing what he saw might easily dismiss them as nothing, a mere scratch. Two tiny red pinpricks, set but a few millimeters from each other. Yet the pain they caused, oddly both burning and numbing at the same time, was much worse than he could've expected, no matter what sort of poison the snake had had. It was still centered on the bite, but he could feel it reaching slowly, so very slowly, along the finger, towards his hand.
There was only one thing he knew that might invoke such a feeling. The more he thought of it, the more certain he became, his tech following the thoughts, agreeing with him and confirming his fears. He couldn't suppress a shiver at the idea.
His tech was dying.
And unless he could do something to stop it, so was he.
From the moment he had approached this planet with his techno-mage ship, Galen had been sure that something odd was afoot here. The two moons were full of the dark activity of the former Shadow minions, burrowed through and through with tunnels, serving as important mining sites for the Drakh. From the planet itself, however, he found no trace of them, although there was a strange energy there he could not locate nor name. It reminded him of the familiar mage-energy, but wasn't quite like it.
Besides, there were no techno-mages out here in the universe that he didn't know of. Most were still in hiding and would never have left without the knowledge reaching him very quickly. Alwyn's whereabouts were familiar enough to him, and Elizar and Razeel were gone, had been gone for quite a while already, dead in the destruction of Z'ha'dum.
There was obviously some great power down on the planet, and the Drakh were avoiding it most of the time. He had observed them for a while before making any move. He had seen a few Drakh ships visit the planet and return again, but had been unable to track them all the way down and see what they were doing. There seemed to be some kind of a shield blocking him from the planet. Perhaps, had he been able to put a probe on one of the Drakh ships, he might have had more luck. Of course, now that he thought of it again, he should've done that. But he had lacked patience, he had been a fool, and now he would die because of it.
The numbing pain had reached the joint where his thumb connected to his palm, and he could hardly move his thumb anymore. The tech received no information from it, and any organelles that they tried to send to heal it became inactive so quickly that they soon stopped trying. They set the organelles to fight at the border of the evading death, to stop it from moving further, but it was equally useless.
Galen had had his tech disabled, turned off, shut down, once before in his life, and it had been one of the most unpleasant things he had ever experienced. It had left him weak and stumbling, made him loose all sense of balance and most of his control over his body. Still, it had been different, and this would be much worse.
At that previous time, years ago, when Elizar had tricked him into a room with a Shadow device crafted to stop their techno-mage creations should they turn against them or otherwise become difficult, Galen had still been the master who was no more than a slave to the Shadow programming imposed on the tech, continuously struggling to control it. Now, unlike any other techno-mage, he had overcome that programming and fully merged with his tech. They shared a common goal and a common purpose. More than that, they were one, a complete being originally built of two different parts, but now perfected.
Another techno-mage, Blaylock, had also been caught in Elizar's trap room. Blaylock, now dead, had been far older than Galen. He had also been striving to become as connected with his tech as possible, allowing it to grow and entangle itself in his system as much as he could. When his tech had been disabled, Blaylock had ended up as good as braindead, unable to respond even when Tilar, Elizar's minion and another cast-out techno-mage, had began flaying him alive, brutally tearing the tech out of his arms. Although he had come back when his tech was turned on again, it had never fully healed.
And the poison spreading through Galen was killing the tech from the inside, instead of just blocking it through a transceiver at the base of his spine, as had been the case with the Shadow device. He did not know if there was any way of undoing this damage should he survive it.
Galen had landed on the surface without any trouble at all, his sensors finding no hint of any kind of a distortion or shield, but as soon as he had reached the ground, he had found that his relay in the orbit was beyond his reach. He had known at that very moment that this was a trap of some sort, but for whom, and who had set it up, he could not say. That was why he had went on nevertheless, thinking that whoever the expected target was, it certainly wasn't him, or any techno-mage, and that he could easily overcome it.
Arrogance. A usual trait in techno-mages. Still, he told himself, it was not only arrogance, but curiosity as well, that had made him continue. The need to question everything, to understand, and through understanding, create new questions.
He had found no understanding, no answers so far. The site he had chosen for landing was in the tropical zone of the planet, a true jungle, full of strange trees and animals. As he had approached the planet, he had been able to pinpoint the odd energy roughly at this area, but the area was still very large. He had hidden his ship carefully, not only with the usual illusions, but with trees and leaves as well, since he couldn't know whether the power that lived here would be able to see through his magic.
He was happy he had done that. It was clear that whoever had set up this trap, had done so with techno-mages in mind. Why else would there have been such a skillfully crafted poison, or, as he suspected, a nanotechnological killer, that targeted a techno-mage's tech? For no usual poison, no matter how exotic, would be able to do such a thing. But as every bit of the tech that came into contact with the killer was first caught in excruciating pain and then complete numbness as it died, he was unable to learn the poison's composition.
Nanotechnology, similar to many of the techno-mages' creations, was his best guess. Had this been anything close to a regular, natural poison, it would have spread faster once it had invaded his bloodstream, but that had not happened. It had worked its way slowly down his thumb. Now, although the pain was still lingering at the stem of the finger, he could sense it turning to follow the lines of the tech further, towards the tip of his index and middle finger, and to the other direction, where it would soon start its inevitable passage through his wrist, down his arm.
It was as if it had been built to cause as much pain and suffering as possible, a slow, lingering death. He had to admit, though, that death might not have been the original plan of the poison's creator. A young initiate who had not fully mastered the tech might survive its shutting down almost without consequences, and as for an older techno-mage, death would be likely, yet they just might live on as well, though horribly crippled. Galen was the unlucky exception, the only one who was thoroughly inseparable from his tech. Shutting it down would kill him as surely as stopping his heart.
Galen had walked away from his ship, picking a direction that he and the tech sensed the most likely to be the source of the energy. For a moment, he had only seen what was to be expected, an incredible multitude of trees, bushes, flowers, all kinds of vegetation, and running or creeping among them, animals of all sizes and shapes, insects, reptiles, birds. It was a wonderful place purely from the scientific point of view, likely to be full of new species unknown and undocumented to the rest of the world. But that was not his reason for being here.
He had not been going on for long when he had found something. With his human eyes, it had been only a glimmer of gold among the leaves and tree-trunks, deeper in the jungle, but with his sensors, he had seen that it was a large complex of some sort, built not of gold, but of golden-yellow stone, and something else. The energy was emanating from it, or from some part of it.
He had made his way closer, slowly and cautiously, looking for any signs of fields or shields. He would not fall to the same trick twice. And he hadn't, for there weren't any, as far as he and the tech could tell. When he had reached the golden stone wall and the high doorway opening into a hall within, he had still been able to call his ship without any hindrance.
He could still reach his ship easily, with a passing thought. Again, he was acting the fool. He should call the ship, and at least try to escape. Perhaps no one would try to stop him. Yet, perhaps he would only run away to certain death. Finding and facing the killer's creator might be the only way to stop it. Also, he was afraid to do anything at all. Moving might speed the invading poison. Conjuring might do the same, or something worse.
The stone floor he was sitting on was cold. His back rested against a pillar. His right hand was gone, the poison had reached the tips of his fingers. He tried to move his fingers and saw them respond, but he felt nothing - he could just as well have been watching someone else's hand. The numbness was nearly complete, and still not complete enough: some of the pain remained, a pulsating echo, almost drowned by the more intense pain in his wrist, where the death was moving ahead along his arm.
There had to be something he could do. Certainly there would be something. Simply sitting here dying was sheer stupidity. Still leaning on the pillar, he pushed his feet beneath him and stood up. His balance was still there, and he didn't feel too bad. Only a minor part of the tech was dead. He could live without his right hand. He took a few tentative steps towards the doorway.
The pain shot up his arm, leaping to his elbow. He stopped, and the poison stopped as well, returning to its earlier, maddeningly slow progress.
Of course Galen had entered the complex. Of course he had known that was exactly what he was supposed to do, taking another step into the trap. Still, he had done so, seeing and sensing no other way into the complex anywhere in the area he could scan.
The hall was huge. From the doorway, a few steps led down to the floor, which was lower than the forest floor outside. Along the hall stood eight large pillars, creating a lane. They were engraved with symbols, as were the walls. He recognized them: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, clearly from Earth, and a system that he could not read. He might have found a translator program from his ship, if only he had turned back. But he had not deemed it important. Yet another idiotic mistake.
He had walked down the lane. Higher up on the pillars, he had found signs that he could read: the seven runes of the Code, engraved in the stone but shining fiery with an inner light. On the eighth pillar, the last one to his left at the end of the corridor, he guessed he would find the name of the mage who had built this, for a mage it had to be. He had found not a rune but a set of hieroglyphs set inside a circle, a cartouche. There were two identical pairs of a flame-like symbol and a bird, then a head, an owl and a cross with a loop at the top, also known as an ankh.
A strong suspicion of the builder had formed in his mind, one that had first occurred to him when he saw the hieroglyphs. It was an idea that made little sense, and he still couldn't be sure of it. One thing he was sure of: this was the place of power of a techno-mage. The energy coming from it matched well enough, and he could think of no other explanation to the runes in the pillars. Had he been a romantic, he might have thought that this was an ancient mage-temple of some sort, but that did not add up, as the writing was not in an alien script, but a Terran one.
At the end of the lane of pillars, there was a smaller doorway, and a closed pair of doors, made of iron, with a pair of ankh-crosses as the handles. He had scanned it for any sign of possible traps, but found nothing unusual about the doors themselves. There was something odd, though. He could not sense anything through the doorway. There had to be a dampening shield blocking his sensors.
Unwilling to touch the suspicious doors, he had raised his staff and sent a beam between the doors, wedging them apart. What he had seen behind them had been a complete, slightly shocking surprise. There was a smaller, darker hall, or a corridor, with black walls, silvery veins running through them. The walls were covered with Shadow skin. This was the explanation to the strange energy readings, the thing that was not quite mage-energy.
Gazing at what he had found, the awful implications of it running through his mind and tech, he had been caught at unawares. He did not even know where they had come from - perhaps a trap door in the ceiling high above, or a niche in the pillars. All he had noticed was that suddenly a swarming mass of small, dark snakes had fallen upon him.
At the first sign of danger, the tech responded faster than he did. If only they had chosen the right thing to do. The tech's response, which he had instantly approved, was a normal mage shield, transparent, shimmering blue. As he blamed himself, he blamed the tech. They should have conjured a Shadow skin shield. It would have been impenetrable. But what they had just seen, the idea that here might be yet another mage who had fallen to the Shadows' seducing power, even allowing Shadow technology in his very place of power, had made them reluctant to use a shield so reminiscent of it.
A normal shield was a powerful defense against nearly anything. It could keep those within it alive in extreme temperatures and hazardous atmospheres, and it would keep away fireballs and plasma shots for a long while. It had seemed to work well enough. The snakes, unable to hang on to the slippery surface, had simply glided down it, towards the ground. Most of them had disappeared, as the illusions that they were became dispelled.
One of the snakes had not been an illusion. More likely, it had been an artificial creation all along, perhaps related to the Shadow-tech as well. It had opened its mouth and struck its minute teeth to the shield covering his hand, and they had penetrated the shield, and the skin of his thumb.
He had been such an idiot. How his friends on the Excalibur would laugh if they found out how easy it had been to trap him. Matthew and Dureena. And he had went on carrying on the idiocy. He might have stopped the poison altogether if he had simply cut off his thumb, when the killer had not had time to spread any further. It would certainly have been a painful and difficult thing to do, but much easier than what he faced now.
His right arm was nearly disabled, the venom halfway up from his elbow to his shoulder. Cutting off his entire arm was hardly an option, and now that the death was so wide-spread, he was not even sure it would help.
If he could not walk away, perhaps he could fly. With a thought, he and the tech conjured a flying platform beneath his feet.
The effect was instantaneous: a searing flash of pain traveled all the way up his right arm, along the lines of the tech across his shoulders, and started down his left arm. His legs gave way, the platform dissolving before it had completely formed.
Again, as he slumped down to rest, his back against a pillar, he marveled at the way the killer worked. Where it could have finished its work instantly, making its way through the tech down his spine and up his brain, it had not. It had chosen the slower, more torturous way instead, taking his left arm first. Then, he could guess, it would start down the spine, and only when he would be completely incapacitated, unable to move normally, it would finally head up to the brain, where he and the tech were more entangled and combined than anywhere else.
Galen was at a loss. He was not used to being this helpless. He knew there had to be a way out of this, that there had to be something he could do, but he could not think of anything. And the more time passed, the less he would be able to think. He could already feel the death of the tech affecting his mind. Something was missing, something that had always been there. Although it was not yet life-threatening, there was no getting around the fact that a part of him was dead. His right arm was limp and lifeless - he could still move it, but there was so little strength and feel left that he could just barely grab his staff. His shoulders were hunched from the lingering echo of pain still coursing through them, and the killer was spreading down his left arm.
He knew he might be able to make a run for it. The effect of conjuring had been faster and more aggressive than that of moving, so he might just run away, call his ship to the doorway, jump in and take off, hoping that he would be able to leave the planet without being attacked, pursued or tracked. It would be a desperate try.
With startling effort, he turned his head to look at the doorway that led out, and he saw that his plan would not work. A massive iron door had closed the entrance. He tried to contact his ship, but it was no good. The trap was closing around him.
With a loud bang, the smaller doors that led to the Shadow skin corridor flew open. Out of it flowed not darkness but light and sounds of rejoicing. Suddenly, the large hall was filled with an amazingly skillful illusion. Behind the pillars there was a lively, curious crowd of dark-eyed, tanned people clad in white linens and loincloths, wearing wigs in different dark shades. In front of the pillars, lining the lane, were orderly rows of soldiers with spears and shields - the closest one stood right in front of him, and even from such a close distance, looked real enough to trick anyone who was not a techno-mage and used to detecting illusions.
Out of the small door came a procession of beautiful young men and women, carrying pedestals with flowers, food and statues of ancient gods, burning incense, chanting and playing drums and other percussive instruments that he could not name.
In the middle of the group, not walking but gliding ahead on a flying platform, his feet off the ground, was a bald man, not young anymore, but not very old either. His loincloth was not white but deep black, embroidered with gold and crimson. His skin was as tanned as everyone else's, his eyes dark and lined with kohl. But unlike all others, he was not an illusion, and the smooth features of his face were familiar. He had been wearing a turban the last time Galen had seen him. Galen's guess had been correct.
The ankh-symbol in the eighth pillar had been his best clue, since it had been the last bit of what he had supposed to be the mage's name. The Egyptian architecture pointed to the same direction: a mage who enjoyed those ancient myths and had even taken his name from them - Djadjamonkh. He had been one of the techno-mages who had been lost during their complicated retreat into hiding. He had disappeared before they had reached their first planned hiding-place, so he had never learned of another, the final one, where they still were. They had taken him for one of the martyrs to their cause. Everyone had been certain that the Shadows had attacked and killed him, just as they had tried to attack many others, with varying amounts of success. Galen could not say whether they had been completely wrong: perhaps Djadjamonkh had indeed been attacked, perhaps he had resisted for a time until he had been forced to give in to the Shadows' wishes. They had had many ways of persuasion, all of them strong - promises of fulfilled dreams, of power beyond imagining, or threats worse than the darkest of nightmares.
Whatever had happened, the results were clear. Djadjamonkh had become nothing more than another pawn in the great game, fulfilling the techno-mages' originally destined role as agents of chaos and servants to the Shadows. To create something as horrible as the killer that was slowly gnawing Galen to death from the inside, or even to accept such a weapon from his lords and put it to use, Djadjamonkh must have partially lost who he had been. Just like Elizar and Razeel had, becoming something completely different, yet eerily alike to their former selves. Djadjamonkh was still fond of the Egyptian myths, and still enjoyed spectacular illusions. Galen had never known him well, and he didn't know what secret wishes of power or destruction he might have harbored earlier.
The procession stopped advancing at the instant when Djadjamonkh reached Galen. His platform lowered him smoothly to the ground. He clapped his hands together and all the illusions disappeared, leaving the hall empty again, but for the two of them, and the light still flowing from the Shadow chamber through the small door. The music stayed as well, but the chanting had become a menacing whisper, and a drum was beating out the rapid rhythm of Galen's heart, reverberating painfully through the dead tech.
"So, tell me, nedjes-Galen, what does it feel like? The tech dying, neuron by neuron, cell by cell?" Djadjamonkh asked, standing tall in front of him, his face calm and cool, reptilian. The wicked, victorious glow was somewhere deep in it, only just perceptible.
Galen wanted to stand face to face with him. Anger surged through him, through what remained of the tech, joining the pain in one horrible, overwhelming burning. He had not felt like this ever since he had merged with his tech. It was a memory from his dark past, reminiscent of the time when he had been filled with the rage and yearning for chaos in the Shadow programming. But he could not risk standing up, could not risk speeding his death, now that he was faced with the one who had set it in him, perhaps his best, however unlikely, chance for a cure. He drew a deep, painful breath and looked up at Djadjamonkh, nailing him with his eyes.
"You tell me, Djadjamonkh, what does it feel like to be a traitor?" he hissed.
"You would call me a traitor? You, one of those who completely abandoned the Code in a desperate attempt to save your own skins? No, I think you are quite wrong, sen-i, my brother, to think that I might see myself as a traitor. I am one of the few left who stayed true to the Code. I am here to take care of those who have broken against it, and who fully deserve the only suitable punishment for their heinous crime: flaying. I am even merciful enough to take care of it in such an elegant way, much less messy, and perhaps not as deadly."
Galen's foggy, aching mind was racing as desperately as his body. He had to think of something, he had to make Djadjamonkh talk, to reveal something, anything, that might help him. He was running out of time. The tech in his left arm was gone but for the few thin strands in his palm and fingers. He could already feel the hungry killer advancing to another area, starting its slow crawl down his spine.
"Yes, Djadjamonkh. It's definitely elegant. I envy you for your ability to create something so sophisticated, so original," he uttered, hoping that it wasn't too transparent.
The mage's dark eyes narrowed as he stared down at Galen, clearly trying to figure out what to make of this odd turn in the conversation. His lips spread in a malicious grin.
"It is indeed beautiful, and knowing that there is no cure, no way to stop it, makes it even more so," Djadjamonkh said. "But I would never take all the glory for myself. It is Razeel's work as much as mine, may she be given life forever and ever, wherever she lies. Without her help, you would not be sitting there without the slightest wound. You would have been cut open and the tech ripped out of you, half your brain dug out of your head, and now you would be bleeding to death."
Another wave of rage flared through Galen. If Djadjamonkh indeed believed what he was saying, he must be a far greater fool, or far more twisted, than Galen would have dared to believe. There was no mercy in this torment. Flaying might be brutal, but this was cruel in a completely different way, a slow, inevitable creeping death from the inside instead of a spectacular, bloody murder. Even though he had no visible wounds, he still felt as if he was bleeding to death, and half his brain would be taken out for good with the death of the tech. Perhaps Djadjamonkh believed he was being merciful, but certainly Razeel had done all she could to prolong this death, make it as torturous as possible. True to her style, as always.
And he said that there was no cure. Galen could not accept it, but he was ready to believe it. If this killer had been built to purge the world of rogue techno-mages who did not meet up to Djadjamonkh's criteria of being true to the Code, then why bother to create an antidote - and as the poison was probably based on Shadow technology, it was well possible that creating a cure would be very difficult, if not impossible.
A desperate plan, yet another in the long line of the last hours, was forming in Galen's mind. He might be dead already, but he would have to stop this horror from ever reaching any other techno-mage. The tech was not all dead yet, he was still alive enough to cast a few spells. But he did not know whether Djadjamonkh was able to move away a Spell of Destruction, like Elizar and Razeel had been. He could not take the risk.
The pain was seeping down his spine, and his feet were falling soothingly numb. There was no tech in his feet, so there was no pain there. Some strength still lingered in the fingers of his left hand. But the beat of the drum had grown irregular, spelling out the loosing battle that his body was fighting. He was breathing in ragged gasps. Still, he had to try. He knew what to do.
"I am curious, Djadjamonkh," he panted, fighting to keep his voice steady. "With this - amazing power - to rid the world of traitors - why do you stay on this - remote planet? Why do you not go - and destroy them - at once? Kill them all - as you can - as I know - you want to?"
"I am patient. I had to know for certain that it would work before I set out from my place of power. That is why I am so glad you came. You are all the proof I need. When your tech is dead for good, I will leave this place and hunt down all those who still remain! I shall carry on the legacy of Elizar and Razeel, the righteous ways true to the Code - all the traitors will come to face the consequences of what they have done -"
Djadjamonkh was rambling on and on, and Galen could see even with his failing senses that the Shadow programming, the irresistible burning anger, the glory of destruction and chaos, was taking hold of him. It was the best distraction he could hope for. He reached behind him, his hand flopping limply, but at least to the right direction. He got hold of his staff and associated with it, gaining new strength from the intact piece of chrysalis incorporated in it. He would let Djadjamonkh feel what it was like when the tech died.
Galen did not clearly know how to configure the staff to emit a radio signal, but he did not need to. The tech and he both wanted it, and it happened. He was not sure about what the transmission should be like, but the part of him that was tech knew it instinctively. In one smooth move, before Djadjamonkh had any idea of what was happening, Galen brought the staff about and pointed it at him, sending the strong signal out in a narrow band that reached the tech at the end of his spine.
Djadjamonkh's knees buckled, and he went down in a heap. The music stopped. Galen's staff fell to the floor with a clatter, but the signal stayed strong and still reached Djadjamonkh. Galen had used the Shadows' failsafe against one of their own - he had shut down Djadjamonkh's tech, perhaps finding the only possible way to freedom. And now he only had to finish him off.
There was no triumph, no overwhelming joy of battle and chaos, as they thought forth the Spell of Destruction. A dark sphere began to take shape around Djadjamonkh's upper body, reddening and darkening. Time was twisting, moving, changing, flowing more slowly. As the sphere started to constrict, Galen stopped the radio transmission. The sphere vanished with a loud crack, and all that was left of Djadjamonkh was a pair of feet, sleek and tanned, with sandals of brown leather.
Galen had succeeded, but there was a price. He had conjured a powerful spell. The killer had leaped again, devastating the twin lines of tech running along his spine. Djadjamonkh's death had not affected it in any way. Now, it had only one way to go. The pain was burning at his neck, worse than ever before.
He had to get away. He was unable to move on his own. He had no choice. He wrapped his useless, clumsy arms around his staff to gain some hold of it, and conjured a flying platform, sending himself towards the large door as fast as he could, to minimize the time he had to keep up the spell.
He crashed against the iron door, the platform vanishing from under him. He had to get through the door, he had to get away from this planet, had to get help, before it was too late. But it was too late already. His head was one buzzing mass of pain. He had no idea how long it would take for the killer to work its way through all the tiny tendrils curved around, about and inside his brain. He could not see anymore, there was nothing but darkness around him. He pointed the staff at where he knew the door was, and blasted it, again and again, at the same time desperately calling out to his ship.
He knew he had cut through when the ship answered his call. It was there sooner than he had dared to hope, shooting at the remains of the door so he could get through it.
He and the tech had no strength left to conjure anything else. They were screaming in agony. Barely conscious, completely blind and deaf, he crawled through the doorway, to the friendly hatch of his ship that was waiting for him, his dear, reliable ship.
The hatch closed, causing him to roll down to the floor, where he landed in an awkward position, but he could not move. He felt nothing at all. Still, there was a tiny corner of the tech that persisted, and a tiny corner of his mind. He had to stay awake a while longer. There was still something to be done, something he should do even though it could no longer save him.
He tried to focus, to gather enough air to speak. His breathing was no longer fast and ragged. He didn't have the strength to keep struggling. He had to concentrate on each shallow breath, because he was sure that if he stopped thinking about it, he would simply forget to breathe. It would be so much easier. He could feel his erratic heartbeat fading, becoming weaker, giving in to the horrible weight of what had happened to him.
"Ship," he whispered through unmoving, unfeeling lips, knowing that the half-sentient craft would hear and understand. "Find the Excalibur... They must know."
He had said it, he had given his last orders. He could finally let go. The last whisper of the tech's presence disappeared.
The tech was dead, and so was he.
One thought survived. Isabelle.
Finally, mercifully, the darkness took him.
Captain Matthew Gideon stood on the bridge of the Excalibur, gazing at the swirling red of hyperspace that filled the screen.
So far so good. A whole week had gone without any major trouble. It had to be some kind of a record. Following an apparently mistaken lead from yet another ruined city, they had found a corner of space so remote that there just wasn't anyone there, no long-lost cultures, unknown aliens, mad cultists or runaway techno-mages. Thinking of which, it had also been another week without any sign of Galen. It wasn't unusual in any way, and Gideon wasn't particularly unhappy about it. Perhaps, he thought, Galen's absence was the reason for this relative calm.
Galen had the knack for coming in when he was the least expected - or then at the exact moment when Gideon thought of him. Gideon shook his head as he saw a small ship emerge on the screen, a dark, sharp-edged triangular vessel. A techno-mage ship. He knew they always looked pretty much the same. He also knew that there was hardly any chance of them randomly running into an unknown techno-mage in hyperspace, at a time when the techno-mages were supposedly hiding from the rest of the universe.
Gideon walked to the comm console and hailed the approaching ship. "How nice of you to stop by."
There was no answer. He waited for a good while before hailing again. "Galen, there's no point playing hide and seek, we can already see you well enough."
Silence again. "Does the ship match the data we have on Galen's vessel? And is the connection working properly?" he asked the officer at the comm station.
"It's an exact match, sir. And there's nothing wrong with the connection, just the usual little distortion caused by hyperspace."
"All right. I guess he has his reasons, as usual..." Gideon muttered, mostly to himself.
"Captain," the comm officer interrupted him. "I'm only getting very faint lifesigns from the approaching ship."
Gideon nodded, frowning. He had a hunch that the ship was partly organic, so faint lifesigns might just mean that there was no one aboard. Still, he was getting worried. Usually the ship was so well shielded that they got no readings from it at all, and never even saw it unless Galen wanted them to. And why would Galen send an empty ship to hyperspace and have it locate the Excalibur? To warn them about something? Why not just send a message through the regular comm channels, or through some of his magical techno-mage means?
"The ship is setting on a course to come in, sir."
"Let him come," Gideon replied.
He left the bridge, heading for the flight deck.
The sleek ship landed slowly. Gideon thought it looked hesitant, somehow. As soon as it had touched down and come to a stop, a hatch opened in its side, forming a ramp leading up to an entrance.
Gideon waited. Nothing happened. Nothing came through. The ship seemed to be waiting as well.
Gideon had been in Galen's ship a few times, each of them when Galen had saved him, but he hadn't seen much of it. Cautiously, Gideon walked closer. The entrance was dark, and he could not see what was inside. He called security for a backup team in case something unexpected came up, and walked up the ramp, into the ship.
He nearly tripped over the dark figure splayed on the floor, right inside the entrance. A humanoid form in an odd posture, limbs sticking into different directions at strange angles. It was wearing a black coat, and a staff lay next to it.
Once again, Galen had managed to make an entrance that was different from anything Gideon had expected. Only this time it was probably unintentional.
"Gideon to MedLab," he called on his link. "Send a team to the flight deck. Take hazmat gear. I'm not sure what we've got here. Galen's down."
As far Gideon could see, there was no blood about, no visible injuries, which of course didn't rule out serious internal damage. Galen was lying partially on his side, unmoving and silent, his head turned away from Gideon. Gideon knew there was the risk of infection, of yet another virus, nanotechnological or bio-engineered, or something even more alien. He couldn't be sure. He should probably wait for the med team. But he couldn't.
Gideon knelt next to Galen and carefully turned him around. Galen's face was frozen in an agonized frown, and his lips had a bluish tinge. Fearing the worst, Gideon sought for a pulse. To his relief, he found one - just in time to feel it flutter weakly, twice, and then disappear.
Doctor Sarah Chambers didn't know what to expect as she ran down the hall towards the techno-mage ship, several paces ahead of the rest of the hazmat-suited team. She had extensive medical files on all the ship's crew, and she and her staff carefully updated them all the time. Galen, however, wasn't a crew member. He visited the MedLab often enough, but always because of someone else, something else, that needed his attention. Only once had he been in because he himself needed her attention, and it had been an awkward moment for both of them. Chambers had seen that Galen had some sort of implants on his back, even though he hadn't been willing to let her know. Of course, Chambers had tried to scan and monitor him as much as she could ever since. She hadn't been the least bit surprised when all the scans showed static, and files turned out empty or missing. He wanted to keep his secrets.
The entrance to the ship was dark, and not too wide. She motioned for a nurse to follow her and told the rest to come in if and when she called for them. She climbed up the ramp, took one step inside, and stopped there, since there was no room to move forward, nor any need to.
Captain Gideon was crouched over Galen's still form, keeping up the age-old, yet still widely known emergency first-aid routine of chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth.
"It's all right, Matthew, we'll take over from here," Chambers told him, placing a hand on Gideon's shoulder and guiding him away.
When he stepped away and she took his place, she couldn't keep from scolding him a bit. "Captain, if I may remind you, you're breaking our own safety protocol. In unknown medical emergencies, all possible measures must be taken to prevent any chance of contamination."
Gideon nodded. "I know. But this is my ship and my crew, and it was my choice. He's not been out for long - I felt his heart stop just moments before you got here. I decided to do what I could to make sure he'll survive."
"I hope it was the right choice," Chambers said, looking up from her preliminary scan results. "It should be safe to move him. Let's get going."
The three of them - Gideon, Chambers and the nurse, who had staid back at the doorway, started lifting Galen - or his lifeless body - down the ramp. Chambers called out to the med team waiting with a gurney, "I don't know the cause yet, but he's in v-fib. Get ready to shock him as soon as we set him down. And someone hand a mask to the captain - he has to stay in quarantine until we're sure there's no contamination."
They rushed towards the MedLab. As Doctor Chambers sent another jolt of electricity through Galen's body, trying to restore the rhythm to his uselessly quivering heart, she couldn't help wondering and doubting if this was the right thing to do. She knew he was basically human, but she knew hardly anything about those implants. Would they be sensitive to such electric shocks? She supposed that they were extremely advanced technology, and, as such, well protected, but she had no way of being certain. She didn't know if damaging the implants would damage him, or if it would only prevent him from casting firebolts and holodemons. One thing she did know for sure: he would be dead within minutes if she stopped trying.
After the third shock, the medic who was monitoring him gave the victorious news. "We've got a rhythm."
That was one right choice to begin with, Chambers thought.
Captain Gideon paced to and fro in the small isolation chamber. They had closed him in here as soon as they got to the MedLab, done a quick check to see that he wasn't in any immediate danger, and then told him to wait. So, he waited, although it was about the worst thing to do in this situation that he could imagine. Of course, he had also instantly called lieutenant Matheson and told him to do whatever he could to look for any leads that could give a hint of an explanation - scan Galen's ship, if possible, look at the records of its approach, try to trace where it came from, anything.
Gideon could almost see the medics working around Galen. Almost, but not quite: there was a big, thick window, giving from his room to the main area outside, and straight across, there was another window, opening to the larger isolation room where they were. At this distance, with people, beds, computer consoles and other equipment blocking his view, he could only make out the backs of several people in their protective suits.
He stopped pacing for a while and grabbed his chin with his hand. The idea that something like this might happen had never crossed his mind. Sure, Galen kept doing his own things, going around, disappearing and reappearing, without any explanation of where he was going, why, and when he would return. But as a techno-mage, he was easily the most powerful member of Gideon's team, the one best capable of taking care of himself. The only one he had never been worried about.
One of the suited people stepped out from the iso-room across the MedLab. She looked at Gideon, and he saw it was Doctor Chambers. She walked straight towards him, and entered the airlock leading to this annoying waiting room where he was stuck. She started speaking before he had time to say anything.
"Matthew... I'm sorry we've had to keep you in here. So far, there's no sign that you've caught anything, and although some of the results we've got from Galen suggest an infection of some sort, it doesn't seem contagious anymore. So, you're free to go, though you'll have to promise you'll report to me at once if you feel something out of the usual."
"I will. And right now, Doc, I'm more worried about him than about myself. What's wrong with him? Can you fix it?"
Chambers looked down and sighed, then looked at him in the eye as she answered. "I'll give you the bad news before I say anything else. Matthew, I don't know if there's any point in going on, trying to find a way to cure him. Even if we could fix his body, we might never get him back. He's as good as brain dead."
Gideon crossed his arms. "As good as? But he's not really brain dead?"
"Well, there's one odd thing that says he isn't. No brain activity shows up in our scans, and that alone is a sure sign that he's gone. Still, there is circulation in the brain, which usually wouldn't exist in someone who's really brain dead. It means that the brain tissue itself is not dead. I have no idea why, how it's possible, or what it means."
"Then I'm sure there's still a point in going on. Tell me what you've got."
"All right," Chambers replied, trying to smile, but without much success. "First of all, you'd better learn a few things about our techno-mage friend. Did you know he has an extensive amount of alien technology in his system? Alien implants?"
"You mentioned something like that before, and it does make sense. They use technology to simulate magic. He's done plenty of magic, so he has to have plenty of technology near at hand, too."
Chambers had stepped to a nearby computer screen and entered a few commands. The screen now showed the outline of a body, and within it, a series of yellow lines, running across the shoulders, down the arms and the spine, and up to the head, which was entirely pale yellow.
"I saw something before this, yes, but I never guessed the full extent of it. A set of alien things in his back was just a small part of the whole. This is what our scans showed. Note how it's entirely entangled with the brain, and most of the spinal cord."
"And you're certain that this is a natural part of him and not the cause?"
"I'm not certain about anything when it comes to him. Still, the implants can hardly be the cause of what's wrong with him right now, since they're not doing anything at the moment. Nothing at all. They're mostly organic tissue, alien in nature, and as far as I can see, they're dead. It might be a major part of what's wrong with him, or then, it might not. I don't know how important it is, whether it only allows him to do magic, or if it's connected to him in a symbiotic relationship."
"Then perhaps we need another techno-mage to tell us."
"Yes, yes," she nodded enthusiastically. "I didn't think of that. It would certainly help - they would know what's normal and what isn't. Though I guess finding one wouldn't be all that easy."
"We'll have to try... Before that, was there anything else?"
"I was only getting started, captain. I said, earlier on, that we have reason to suspect a contagion. That's because we found not one, but two unknown micro-organisms in his blood, and both appear artificial. Just like the implants, they're also inactive or dormant. Both of them. So we have no idea of whether they should be there or not, whether they should be doing something, and whether one or both could be the cause of this. Again, it would help to have someone here who understands a techno-mage's physiology."
It was clear enough that finding another techno-mage would provide the best help they could get. Gideon made several calls, setting the search in motion. He contacted both Eilerson and Dureena, only to find that Eilerson hadn't got any idea that something had happened to Galen. Dureena, on the other hand, was waiting just outside the MedLab door, since they had told her not to come in, when there really wasn't anything for her to do or see, and she would only be on the way. And, of course, Gideon contacted Matheson again, adding this task to the long list the lieutenant already had.
"So. There are unknown organisms that might be the cause, or not. What I still didn't get is, what's actually wrong with him."
"It'd be easier to tell what isn't wrong. He's a complete mess, captain, in lack of a better medical term. It's as if his body has completely forgotten how to function. He's not breathing on his own. Actually, he completely lacks any kind of response to any kind of stimulus, like a completely brain dead person would. Not even the most basic reflexes show up. His entire body chemistry is off, with things missing that should be there, no matter how unconscious and unresponsive he is, and others present that shouldn't. And then there are repeated periods of life-threatening arrhythmias, like the one you witnessed when you first found him. All in all, we can treat most of it to some degree, but it's like building a house of cards. Just when we think we've managed to stabilize him, some little thing goes wrong, and then we're nearly back where we started. I'd say we can keep him alive for now, for several hours, maybe even a few days, but not much longer, unless we can find some underlying cause and treat it properly. And, as I already said, even that might not do any good, considering the complete lack of brain activity."
She had just stopped talking when her comm link beeped, and an anxious voice alerted her, "Doctor, he's in v-tach again."
"Then don't just stand there and yell. Cardiovert, immediately!" she shouted back, just as anxious. "As I said, like a house of cards... Captain, I think I had better go. I'll let you know as soon as we have something new."
With that, Chambers ran away, leaving Gideon more worried than before, but also certain of his course of action. He followed her out of the isolation chamber, lost in thought. They needed to find another techno-mage. They had met one before, Alwyn, on Regula 4, and although he had left that planet, the chances were that he was still out there, somewhere. As far as Gideon knew, Alwyn and Galen had been on friendly terms, and if only they could locate him, he would want to help.
Gideon had another idea as well. He didn't like it at all, but it might offer valuable information. He called Matheson again.
"No, captain," John Matheson shook his head. "I'd rather not do it. Aside from the fact that it's completely against the regulations, I just don't like the idea at all."
"Neither do I, lieutenant, neither do I. I'm not going to force you. Still, there's the small chance that you might get something that could save him."
"And there is the chance that I could only make things worse, and end up doing a deathbed scan when it wasn't intended to be one. You know anything about deathbed scans, captain? They're about the most dangerous thing a telepath can do. They say it can cost you your soul."
"Yes, and that's why I want you to be extra careful, and the Doc will tell you the very second it seems like something is wrong, so you can stop at once. Please, consider it. If what the Doc says is correct and he's got no brain activity left, you won't have anything to scan, right?"
"It's hard to say, captain. But I'll try. Just a surface scan at first, and if it looks safe enough, then a bit deeper."
"Thank you, lieutenant."
Matheson stepped into the isolation room, feeling extremely uneasy. He was not this ship's first officer because he was a telepath. He was an EarthForce officer because that was what he had always wanted to be, and being a telepath had almost stopped his dream from coming true. Still, there were times when being a telepath had its uses. He was not sure this was one of them.
Doctor Chambers looked at him, and he didn't need to read her mind to see what she thought. It was written clearly enough on her face. She didn't like this either, and she was worried. Still, she agreed with the captain that this was a risk worth taking.
"We're all set. Go ahead when you're ready, lieutenant."
Matheson nodded, and approached the near-dead techno-mage. A horrible grimace of pain was fixed on Galen's face. Matheson wondered if that was what the scan would feel like.
He nodded again to Chambers, placed his hand on Galen's forehead, and concentrated.
And he felt nothing.
He waited, tried to scan deeper, but still, no results. Nothing at all.
He withdrew his hand and shook his head.
Turning to look at captain Gideon, who was waiting outside, he said, "I'm sorry. It's no good. There just isn't anything there."
This time, no one was there to stop Dureena Nafeel from entering the MedLab. She marched in and approached the captain, who was standing in front of the isolation room, staring at the things beyond the transparent window. As she watched, lieutenant Matheson stepped out from the airlock to that room.
"Captain, I've tried to do what you asked, but..." Dureena started, and then stopped, taking in the look on Gideon's face. It was dead serious, perhaps even sad.
Dureena turned and looked through the window, and saw pretty much what she had expected to, although it still felt awful. Galen had always been independent, and nearly always in control of the situation. Now, he was neither, since he was wholly dependent of others' help, and unless this whole thing was an illusion or some such, which would make it the worst trick he had ever played, he had no control over what was happening. Independence and control had made Galen something of a loner, but nevertheless, she considered herself his friend. She would do her best to save him, if saving him was still possible. Galen looked dead, and the look on the captain's face suggested the same.
"...he's not dead, is he? Not yet - he can't be!" Dureena exclaimed.
Gideon glanced at Matheson, then at doctor Chambers, who was still on the other side of the window. "We're not sure," Gideon answered. "At least his body is still with us, but we can't say the same about his mind."
Dureena shook her head. "I don't know what that means, but if there's any hope left, we can't give up, we'll have to keep trying!"
"And we will, Dureena, don't worry," Gideon reassured her. "Have you found anything yet?"
"Well, no, not really. I've been looking, but I don't have all the data I need. Maybe you can help."
"If there's anything I can do, just ask."
"All right. If there's one place in this universe that a rogue techno-mage is sure to visit, that'd be Babylon 5. It's the best possible place to start looking. So, I need to have access to their security files."
Gideon raised his eyebrows. "That's no small thing to ask. I'll see what I can do, but I can't promise anything."
"I'm sure you'll manage, captain," she smiled. "And, by the way, you mentioned that other techno-mage you've met, that Alwyn - do you have a picture of him? A security camera video clip? Anything like that?"
"I met him down on a planet's surface, but I'll check if we have anything."
Access to B5's security files was a dream come true for any thief. Dureena knew she could find things there that, given to the right people in the Thieves' guild, would make her a very popular character and give her a good amount of wealth and power. Right now, she didn't care. She had promised the captain not to do anything except what was needed, and since this was a very special situation, she was prepared to keep that promise. She would not waste a minute doing something that would not forward this task. Besides, captain Gideon was standing right behind her, watching over her shoulder.
Gideon had given her a picture of Alwyn the techno-mage, and since she didn't have much else to work on, she had decided to try and look for this one particular person. She knew he would be in disguise, but luckily, she was used to seeing through such things, and it shouldn't be too hard to recognize him - unless he had erased all his files. But somehow she doubted that. If he wanted to hide who he really was, he would probably want to look like a completely regular person, and disappearing security files would make him appear something out of the ordinary, especially if he visited the station often. Which she was sure he did, since B5 was such an important meeting place for all kinds of strange folk.
Dureena narrowed the list down to the most likely candidates, which still meant hundreds of people. That would have to do. She started skimming through the files, looking at the identification pictures, searching for the slightest sign of something that's amiss, or anything that would resemble the one picture she had of Alwyn. It was slow and tedious work.
She had only gone through a hundred and fifty faces or so, when she stopped and looked up at Gideon. "That's him."
"That's him?" Gideon repeated. "You sure about it? He doesn't look anything like the man I met."
Dureena placed Alwyn's picture next to the one on the security file and tilted her head, peering at the two. The first was white-haired and quite old, the second a decade younger, with dark hair and strong features. The name on the file said Thomas Alecto.
"Yes, I'm sure," she replied. "You know, just wearing a wig can change a person remarkably. And he's got much more than just a black wig - some prosthetics, make-up, and who knows, maybe a techno-mage illusion or two. But he's the same person. Look at his eyes, and the area around them. That's exactly the same. And the shape of his face as well, except for the chin, which is probably fake. Let's see when he's last been to B5."
They scrolled along the text of his file, and there it was. They were lucky. "He's just checked in, and he's still there!" Dureena noted. "Let's call him."
"I'll do it. He knows me already," Gideon said.
He tried calling him, a few times, but got no answer. "I guess he's not in his room right now. I'll leave him a message."
Gideon closed the connection to B5's database, making sure that Dureena wouldn't get any wild ideas about trying to snoop around some more. He had just left the room, heading for the bullet car, when he suddenly found himself walking not on the Excalibur's smooth metallic floor, but on a floor paved in stone.
He looked around. He was in a large room, and the walls and the ceiling, just like the floor, were made of tiles of gray stone. Hanging on the walls were several big, colorful tapestries. Somehow the colors were almost too bright and vivid, more than real, dream-like. In front of him, at the foot of a huge throne of gold, decorated with rubies and red velvet, stood Alwyn, white-haired, just like he had been when Gideon had met him on Regula 4. The look on his face was stern, but Gideon thought there was a hint of concern as well.
"Is it true? That Galen is in grave danger?" Alwyn asked.
"It's true, all right. He's dying. He might be beyond any help already. Unless you can help him, somehow."
Alwyn stared at him intently. "What has happened?"
"We don't know, actually. We met his ship in hyperspace, took it in, and found him the way he is: a complete mess, as our Doc says. But she can't do a lot to help him, since she doesn't know what's normal and what's not, with all those implants and things in his system."
Alwyn frowned, and nodded. "That I can understand. Where are you?"
"Still in hyperspace, about ten hours from Babylon 5."
"Ten hours is a long time. I will come as soon as I can."
In the blink of an eye, it was all gone - the stone-walled room, the throne, and Alwyn. Gideon gazed at the surrounding corridor. Had it been real, or just a hopeful waking dream? Had he really met Alwyn and talked to him?
Rationally, scientifically thinking, he couldn't be sure. Still, intuition and instinct told him that it had been real, and that Alwyn was already running for his techno-mage ship, racing to meet them as soon as possible.
Alwyn told his ship to open a jump point at the far side of the planet below Babylon 5. It should offer enough shelter that the people on the station would not notice him leaving.
He entered hyperspace without any trouble. There, he used information from both the regular hyperspace beacons and some less regular ones, set by the techno-mages, to locate the Excalibur, and set a course straight to it, at full speed. With the ships approaching each other, Alwyn counted that they might cut the time to their meeting down to four hours.
Now that the course was set and the ship moving ahead as fast as possible, he could only wait, and think.
Like most techno-mages, Alwyn did not have many good friends. Once, he had had an apprentice, Carvin - a promising young initiate, a friendly, open and emotional centauri girl. Her death had been one of the hardest things he had ever had to face. Without the unlikely but warm friendship of a narn called G'Leel, he might not have managed it. He did not know how he could cope if Galen died.
Alwyn had known Galen for a long time - he had been a friend of Galen's father, and had been around when Galen had been just a little, troubled and badly treated boy. Alwyn had seen him grow up, fall in love, lose those he loved, close himself from the universe, overcome many horrible things, and in the end, open up again, somewhat, and emerge as someone entirely different. Not only different from his former self, but also different from all other techno-mages. Galen had tried to explain his amazing experience of liberating the tech from the Shadow programming and truly merging with it, but Alwyn had been no better than those frightened mages who were still in hiding. He had not understood, had not been able to do the same.
Still, Alwyn had always seen that troubled little boy somewhere underneath everything else. He had offered Galen his friendship long ago. First, Galen had not accepted, but that had been before he had changed. Now, Alwyn thought, they might not be called best friends, but they did talk every now and then, in an occasional electron incantation. They had even met a few times after Alwyn had abandoned his place of power on Regula 4. The last time had been more than a month ago, and Alwyn didn't know what Galen had been up to after that.
An electron incantation was a strange and powerful spell that no techno-mage fully understood. With it, mages could meet in an inner landscape and talk, no matter where and how far from each other they were. It could also be used to contact ordinary humans, although it was more difficult. And Alwyn had heard that an electron incantation could reach someone who was unconscious, nearly dead. With this in mind, he cast the spell.
As the meeting place, he chose not the large hall where he had brought captain Gideon, but a smaller chamber equally made of stone. The walls were almost entirely lined with tapestries. A large, thick rug covered the floor, and on it was a collection of blankets and plush cushions. There was a large fireplace in one of the walls, and the fire crackled softly. It was as nice and comfy as Alwyn could make it.
His spell reached no response. The tech told him that the connection could not be made.
He cast the spell again, commanding the tech to try harder. It was under his control, and it had to do what he told. Still, it didn't work.
Alwyn modified the incantation, casting it as if he intended to contact a normal human, not a techno-mage, and urged the tech to do its best, use all it had, to make this connection. This time, it succeeded.
Alwyn stood in the middle of his chosen meeting place. At the far end of the room, back propped against the wall, rested a dark form - Galen.
Alwyn stepped closer, unsure of what to expect, but prepared for the worst. Still, what he saw shocked him deeply.
Galen was lying in a puddle of blood. Blood stained the cushions and the blankets, and colored the rug a dark, reddish brown. It flowed from terrible, open wounds that ran all the way up from his fingertips, crossing his palms in a red mess, up along his arms, across his shoulders, although the most of it seemed to come from beneath, from his back and the back of his head. Alwyn knew that if he turned him around, he would find similar cuts there, or even worse. He did not want to think what the head would look like - a hollow where the skull had been cut open and a large part of the brain removed. The wounds were clear of any signs of tech. Not even the slightest shimmer of gold. Only blood, torn flesh, sinew and bone.
Alwyn knelt next to Galen and forced himself to keep looking. He noticed one more wound that spoke even stronger words than the rest, although it did not follow the same pattern: a gaping hole in Galen's chest, a crimson gap in the black of his clothes, right where the heart should be.
In his self-image, Galen had not only been flayed. His heart had been torn out of his chest.
Finally, Alwyn turned away and allowed his gaze to fall. This could not be true. He knew it wasn't. Gideon had not given any exact details, but if what he saw here had truly happened, Gideon would not have claimed Alwyn could still save Galen. This was how Galen saw himself right now, not how he really was. Still, it certainly wasn't an encouraging vision.
Despite of what he saw, Alwyn called out, "Galen. Galen, please. I know you must be alive, since I could contact you like this. Tell me what has happened."
The ravaged form on the floor stayed the same, not one muscle twitched on the agonized face. Still, it was Galen's voice that Alwyn heard in his head, speaking softly. "No, Alwyn. Go away."
"Galen, have you lost whatever little bit of sense you had left? I'm not going anywhere. I'm doing exactly the opposite. I'm coming there, so I can help you."
"Alwyn. Leave me. There is nothing you can do. I am dead already. The tech is dead. We live and die as one."
Alwyn felt a tear forming in the corner of his eye. When he raised a hand to wipe it away, he noticed he had lost the connection. He was back in his ship, staring at the screen, the flow of hyperspace that was always changing, yet always looked the same. He checked the time remaining to the rendezvous - four hours. The incantation had only taken a passing second. But the dread and shock of it had been such that Alwyn felt he had aged a century.
Doctor Chambers woke up with a start. She hadn't meant to doze off. Someone was calling her on the comm.
"Yes?" she replied sleepily.
"Doctor, you had better come at once. It's Galen."
She jumped up, the sleepiness quickly dissolving. What could it possibly be this time? There shouldn't be anything left that they had not checked, double checked, and taken care of as well as they could. He was almost entirely on artificial life support, and if that could not keep his body alive, then nothing would.
Chambers was still in her office, just a few paces away from the main MedLab. It took her less than two minutes to cover the distance to Galen's bed in the isolation room.
Still, she was too late. When she got there, the nurse who had called her shook her head.
"I'm sorry, doctor. I guess I gave you a false alarm. It's just that when I called, there was something - a flicker of brain waves. I even thought he might be coming to, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. Maybe it was just a glitch in the scanners."
Chambers pursed her lips. "Maybe, but let's hope it was more than that. I'll take a look at the data."
"Well, that's something you don't see every day," captain Gideon noted to lieutenant Matheson.
In front of them stood not one but two mysterious-looking, sharp-edged techno-mage ships. The hatch to Galen's ship had closed after they had brought him out, and that of the other had not opened yet. To the unknowing eye, they were completely identical, indistinguishable.
Four hours had passed since the Doc had called Gideon to tell that they had picked up something from Galen, a hint of brain activity that had appeared suddenly and disappeared just as quickly, but they had recorded it, and it had been there. After that, Gideon, together with Dureena, had waited and watched over him for quite a while to see if something came up again, but it hadn't.
A sudden gust of wind struck their faces, and Alwyn emerged right next to them. They had not seen him leave his ship, had not heard a sound, yet here he was. Another techno-mage fond of illusions and spectacular entrances. Gideon rolled his eyes.
"I should have guessed you are used to such tricks by now. You could at least try to look amazed. Give an old man some joy of his pranks," Alwyn said. Although the tone of his voice was light, Gideon noticed the lines in his face were deeper. He had gotten rid of his youthful disguise, and now he looked even older than before.
"Sorry," Gideon started, trying to form a fitting quip to return, but Alwyn didn't give him the time.
"Well, what are you waiting for? We have not a minute to waste. Take me to Galen, at once," he declared in a completely different voice, commanding and serious.
"This way, sir," lieutenant Matheson replied, leading the way.
Alwyn was going to march straight into the isolation room, but at the door to the airlock, a woman stopped him, stepping in front of him.
"I have no time for this - and Galen has no time. I can wipe you out of my way easily enough, but I'd rather not. Step aside," he warned.
"Pleased to meet you too. I'm Sarah Chambers, the chief medical officer around here, and this is my MedLab. So, I'd rather not have you run in there and leave us with two near-dead techno-mages to take care of instead of one. My best guess is that he got infected by a nano-virus or something similar, and even though it hasn't spread so far, it still might, if it attacks only your kind. So, do go ahead, I'm really looking forward to having your help, but take care. If you need a protective suit, we can give you one."
"I thank you for the warning, doctor Chambers. And now, if you don't mind, please step aside and let me see if there's anything I can do to help."
As entered the room, Alwyn conjured a protective shield. Just to be sure. Based on Galen's self-image in the electron incantation, he had expected something different, but perhaps it could indeed be a contagion of some sort.
When he finally stood at Galen's bedside, Alwyn sighed out of relief. Galen had not been flayed. As far as his human eyes could see, there was no blood, no visible wounds, not even scars. Still, something had to be very badly wrong. Galen was surrounded by and connected to an impressive array of rather crude machinery, which, despite its clumsiness, seemed to be working well, keeping up his breathing, heartbeat, all the important functions that his body should have managed on its own.
Alwyn concentrated and scanned him.
What he found could not be true.
In the incantation, Galen had said his tech was dead. He had spoken the truth. It was still present, still attached to him, seemingly intact, yet it was doing nothing. Just as if someone had turned it off. Just like that. Shut him down. And there was no Shadow technology around that might be causing it, no transmitters sending a blocking signal, which, as far as Alwyn knew, was the only thing that could do this to a techno-mage's tech.
So, this was the explanation for Galen's condition. Alwyn knew of what had happened to Blaylock when his tech had been disabled. This was very much the same, and yet it was different - it was worse. If Galen's words about how he had merged with his tech had indeed been true, as Alwyn wanted to believe, then it was a miracle Galen was still alive. Though perhaps it was premature to say that. The thickest concentration of tech was in the brain, and when that tech had shut down, it had effectively shut down the rest of Galen's mind as well. Alwyn did not know if it had been gone for too long already, and if restoring the tech would do any good now.
Alwyn scanned him again, looking for the cause, and it was not difficult to find. It was, indeed, an artificial virus of some sort. Right now, it seemed to be doing nothing, but he could not get any detailed data. He would need to isolate a sample and look more closely.
While scanning, Alwyn had noticed that like all the rest of Galen's tech, his organelles were inert, as dead as everything else. Alwyn reached out a shield-covered hand and placed it on Galen's chest. The shield retreated, allowing his hand to contact the skin - it was smooth, unharmed, and Alwyn could feel the faint, artificially steadied beat of the heart. Perhaps it had been torn out in the metaphorical sense with the loss of the tech, but still, that was only a horrible image, nothing more. There was still hope. Through his hand, Alwyn sent organelles into Galen's body.
The response was instantaneous, and Alwyn pulled his hand back, shocked. Through his sensors, he saw how the virus woke up and surrounded the living organelles. Even though they were no longer in his body, he felt the tiny flares of pain that fired when each single one died.
Startled, Alwyn looked at his hand, both from the outside and within. It was again covered by the blue shimmering shield. Miraculously nothing had passed through into him. He was not infected. He was still safe. Perhaps the virus, despite of its seemingly aggressive nature, was not able to penetrate the skin. Alwyn had not noticed any signs of it in the air, so it might not be airborne, either. Maybe it was only transmissible by blood contact.
"Hey, wait! What did you do? What are you doing?" a woman - doctor Chambers - exclaimed.
The doctor was standing opposite him, on the other side of the bed. He hated to admit it, but he had not even noticed when she had entered. Careless of him, but with all this worry filling his mind, perhaps it was understandable.
"It was a useless attempt to heal him. It seems before I can do anything at all, we must find a way of getting that... that horrible thing, that monster, out of him," Alwyn explained. "Perhaps you can help me in this. We should work together."
"I completely agree with you, mister - Alwyn, was it?"
"Just Alwyn, dear."
"All right, Alwyn. Now, I have plenty of samples of both of those microscopic things in his system, but before this, I didn't even know which one is which. I take it that those you injected into him were of a good sort, and the ones that attacked and stopped them were what we are fighting here?"
"You didn't even know which of them was the killer? It truly is a wonder you have managed to keep him alive this long. Yes, the ones that I sent are a natural part of every techno-mage's system. They speed up the healing process, and can be used to help others to heal. The thing that killed them, the cause of his condition, is an atrocity I have never even heard of before. I cannot imagine who could create such a monstrous thing. As you, even with all your crude equipment, must have noticed, it has shut down his tech. To a techno-mage, that's the worst thing that can happen, aside from flaying and death. We have to find a way to turn the tech on again. If we don't, then..." Alwyn sighed and shook his head.
"So, if we do get the virus out and this tech working again, he'll be as good as new? No harm done?"
"How I wish I could say that. How I hope I could be sure," Alwyn said, and shook his head again, looking down. "Now, if you will excuse me for a second..."
He cast the electron incantation again. Although Galen was there, right next to him, it wasn't easier this time. It was more difficult. He had to try several times before he succeeded.
Then Alwyn was there again, standing in front of Galen's hopeless image of himself. It was almost unchanged - if anything, there was more blood, more than his actual body would have contained. And somehow, he was slightly transparent, hazy, blurred. Whatever the distance in the physical world, whatever the expanse of rug-covered floor between them in the incantation, he was not closer, but farther away than before.
"Galen. I am here. I am standing by your side, and I am going to fix this. You'll be all right again," Alwyn told him, trying to sound as convincing as he could.
The answer he got was but a whispering thought, not coherent enough to form words. A thought of despair and disbelief, but mixed with them was a touch of gratitude.
Alwyn left the incantation to find an agitated doctor Chambers gazing at a display and yelling at him, "How did you do that? Can you wake him up?"
"Do what, my dear doctor?"
"It was there again, a little, passing wink of brain waves. Was it you, that previous time as well? Is it some techno-mage trick?"
"If that previous time was some four hours ago, well, then it was me. But it does not mean much. It is a powerful spell, but it cannot wake him up. And with every moment that flows by, he will be farther from us. Soon, I may not reach him anymore, and then it'll truly be too late. Now, let's get to work."
Working with Alwyn was an extreme test of patience, Sarah Chambers thought. He knew a lot more than she did, and half the time he either forgot it or then just didn't want to elaborate. Add to that the fact that he was just as anxious and worried as she was, and did not even try to hide it, but kept snapping at her about things and pacing around nervously. Nevertheless they were working fast and making progress.
In just ten minutes or so, they had done a thorough scan of the "monster", as Alwyn had named it. Chambers used the name as well, because, after all, it wasn't actually a virus. It was small enough to be a very large virus, smaller than normal bacteria or other micro-organisms. But unlike a true virus, which was nothing on its own and had to use host cells to reproduce, this nano-thing was autonomous. And it was certainly artificial, because of what it looked like, how it was built, and how it acted.
The next test was an important one. The computer screen showed an extremely magnified view of an organelle, looking huge next to a single monster particle. They were separated by a microscopically thin membrane, which at this magnification looked like a thick wall. The monster was already on the prey, pushing against the wall, eager to attack.
"Well, go on, it's all set," Alwyn hurried her.
Chambers gave the command that dissolved the wall, and in the blink of an eye, there were only two unmoving things in the picture, slowly floating away from each other.
"The organelle's dead," Alwyn noted. "And the killer is inactive, but it would wake up if we gave it something else to attack."
"Yes, my readings say that too. Now, let's see what actually happened," she said, and made the computer play the attack back at a much slower rate.
It looked simple. The killer approached the organelle, then made contact, touched it. And that was all there was to it.
"I'm afraid that doesn't tell us much," Chambers said, slightly disappointed.
"Oh, no, no, you are quite wrong, once again. Haven't you been listening to what I've said? This confirms what I thought all along. The basic principle must be something like that of the Shadow device, but instead of sending one signal and commanding all the tech collectively to shut down, it contacts each singe tech cell and tells them to stop. One would think it's not the most effective way to do it, but maybe it is. It looks like it's more permanent than the general signal, since the tech stays shut even when there's no more contact with the monster, and there's no communication between them. Though, I certainly wouldn't even want to know what's the best way to shut down someone's tech."
Once again, he succeeded both in annoying and losing her. She had no idea what Shadow device he was talking about. He had certainly not mentioned it before. He did make the basic idea clear, though. Once the monster had entered its techno-mage victim, it went for all the tech it could find and turned it off, through some mechanism that she probably wouldn't understand, but which nevertheless required a moment's direct contact with the tech. Apparently it didn't touch anything else, only contacting the normal, completely biological cells because it needed to move around.
"All right. Now we know for certain how it works, but I still don't know how to fight it. I had hoped this would give me an idea, an inspiration. No such luck," Alwyn said, taking Chambers by surprise. She had really expected he had something in mind. Instead, he looked desperate.
Gideon had been watching Chambers and Alwyn over their shoulders for a while already, and now, when Alwyn didn't seem to have anything helpful to say, he decided to make his entrance. "Look, I've been wondering, Doc, Alwyn... I might not understand as much about this stuff as you, but still, shouldn't a normal person's immune system destroy all kinds of foreign things that get in? Or at least try to fight them? If those nano-viruses, or whatever they are, go to sleep when they've got nothing left to kill, why don't Galen's normal human defenses just take them out?"
Alwyn looked up again, a thoughtful frown erasing some of the worry from his face. "Yes, that's a good question, with an easy enough answer: for the same reason that his 'normal human defenses' leave the tech alone, even though it's, at the moment, basically dead, foreign tissue. There are many things in his system that might be called foreign in some context, but they have been built to adapt to his system and become a natural part of him. The monster is very similar to the tech, and probably capable of the same thing. So, his immune system thinks the inert monster is just another piece of tech that's been shut down, but might still come around, so it's better left untouched, waiting for the moment when it can come around again."
Gideon raised his eyebrows at the mention of how similar the tech and the monster were. "So, who do you think built this thing, anyway? If it's so similar to the tech, could it have been a techno-mage?"
"I refuse to believe that," Alwyn replied angrily. "There may be other reasons it appears similar... Other similarities in origin. It's not important."
There was something about the tech's origin that Alwyn did not want to tell. Something important. Right now, Gideon wasn't going to try and get it out of him. They had even more important things to worry about. "So, how are we going to get it out of him?" he asked.
"What if... No, could it possibly be that simple?" Chambers thought aloud. "If we could find a way to mark the monster somehow, some way of pointing out to his system that it's not supposed to be there and it's not a part of the tech - could it work?"
"It's such a logical idea that it just might. Probably the best idea I've heard ever since we began. And thanks to you, captain Gideon," Alwyn said, looking much happier and more hopeful than just a minute ago. He actually managed to smile at Gideon.
"So, what should we use? What do you think, Alwyn? Could we just go through the database and pick a protein that would make it look like some minor disease? And how do we attach a marker to the killer, and spread it all around his system? Besides, it'll still be a big gamble, putting all that extra strain on his already messed up body and expecting it to overcome that thing on its own. Could we, perhaps, once we have marked it, follow that with something that would help take it out, an antibody that would home in on the marker?" Chambers was asking things at an almost dizzying speed.
"Right. I guess you've got something to work on again, so I'll just silently sneak away and try not to disturb you. I know you'll figure it out in no time. Just let me know when you're done," Gideon said, and headed out of the MedLab.
"Actually, the solution's almost ridiculous. Even simpler than we thought," Chambers explained to Gideon - she had, naturally, called him back as soon as they had made the breakthrough.
"Why do I have the feeling that I'm not going to understand a word of this?"
"You needn't have. You gave us the initial idea. But to tell the truth, what we had in mind then is not what we're going to do. You see, when we checked and tried things that we might use in one way or the other, we accidentally found out that the monster has a major weakness, and a very surprising one at that. We can use a simple antibiotic to get rid of it."
"Antibiotic? Isn't that, what, twentieth, twenty-first century medicine?"
Chambers nodded. "It's not widely used anymore, because in time, most bacteria developed a resistance, and after that, we've taken to using other means. Luckily, we carry all sorts of odd samples with us, in case some of them might somehow provide help against the Drakh virus. So, we came across this antibiotic that actually breaks apart the monster's outer shell. And the monster can't adapt to the antibiotic and resist it, which was a problem with most other things we tried."
"And this antibiotic will not harm his implants in any way?"
"Well, here comes the big 'but' in our simple solution. And it's not the only setback there is," Chambers replied, crossing her arms and looking uneasy. "As far as Alwyn, and our computer simulations, can tell, it doesn't harm the implants. However, if you listened to our earlier talk and learned about these organelles, the little healing bits of tech, well, their surface is quite similar to that of the monster. They are more versatile, and would be able to adapt and resist, but now that Galen's organelles are already shut down, they will be seriously harmed. Most will be destroyed. Now, Alwyn tells that the tech will create new organelles, but it takes some time. Alwyn can give some of his own to act as a replacement - but they won't be as effective as those that are a natural part of Galen's tech, unless Alwyn uses some techno-mage thing to guide them and tell them what to do, which he can't do all the time. So Galen won't heal as fast as he would if they were all there and unharmed, which certainly isn't good, considering his present condition."
"All right, it certainly doesn't sound good."
"And it doesn't get any better, either. First of all, the antibiotic isn't likely to work all that fast. It might be too slow altogether. It's also slightly toxic, so we'll need to be very careful. But I guess it's a risk we'll just have to take."
"If it's the only thing there is that can heal him, then, well, it's certainly a risk worth taking."
"It's hardly the only possible thing. There might be dozens of other solutions, if we just had the time to figure them out. But time's something we really don't have. We've got to do this as soon as we can."
"And when would that be?"
"As soon as we have synthesized enough of the antibiotic."
"Which would be right now," Alwyn declared victoriously, emerging from an adjacent room, carrying a vial. "It's ready. Let's do it."
Alwyn did not say it aloud, but Chambers knew that they were both thinking the same thing - hoping that it was not too late already.
It really wasn't a particularly spectacular event. There were no more words exchanged, only anxious looks and nods, as Chambers and Alwyn approached Galen and injected the antibiotic.
Despite the lack of anything exciting to see, the audience was large enough. Lined up behind the isolation room window were not only Gideon but also Matheson, Dureena, and, surprisingly enough, Max Eilerson. They were silent as well.
Dureena was the one to break the general silence. "Well, what now?" she asked.
"Now, we wait," Alwyn replied absently. He seemed to be concentrating, watching something that only he could see.
"It'll take a while - it needs to spread all around so it can reach all the monster particles and take them out," Chambers added. Most of her attention was on a computer screen. When she spoke again, she looked up from it, aiming her words at Alwyn. "His body temperature is rising."
"As we feared it would," he said, without looking at her. "What do your scanners say of the antibiotic's progress?"
"The injection site is clear, but it's not very widely spread elsewhere."
"Quite accurate, I should say," Alwyn replied, and Chambers couldn't quite figure out whether it was irony or not.
"At least it's working just like we expected. I'd estimate five percent of the monster's incapacitated. I'm adjusting the life-support system to compensate for the extra stress and rise in temperature, allowing a faster pulse and respiratory rate, though I'd rather not let it go any further. I don't think he can take it all that long. I wish we had some other way of doing this," Chambers spoke maybe more to the onlookers than to the preoccupied Alwyn.
"As to the monster, four point six percent would be my count, at the moment. I think enough has been taken out already for me to do what I'd usually do in such a situation."
Chambers wasn't sure what Alwyn meant, but it became clear soon enough. He laid his hand on Galen, and from her screen, Chambers saw a wave of organelles entering his body. Then another, and another, and even more. After a while, Alwyn let go and staggered back, looking dazed.
"Alwyn?" she called out, and offered him her arm. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine. I just... just have to try to give him as many as I can. That makes me a bit dizzy. It's no problem," he said, whisking her away.
Alwyn approached Galen again. He had produced a crystal of some sort from the folds of his robe. It was hanging from a chain. He held it over Galen's body, again a look of deep concentration on his face, his eyes closed. "I wish we had a real healer around," he muttered in a low voice. "I don't think I've ever, in all my years, faced anything this difficult."
The atmosphere behind the window was even more tense now - Dureena's nose was practically touching the transparent surface, and Eilerson was tapping the floor irritably with his foot. Chambers completely shared their feelings, as she stared at the screen. What she saw was very promising.
"It's working!" she exclaimed. "It's more than working, it's... It's just plain amazing! I can see your organelles have adapted and the antibiotic does nothing to them - they even use it like a shield - and since they're living tech, they attract the monsters, drawing them right into their doom. Some forty percent of it is out, already! I would never have imagined it could work this fast. And his body temperature's stabilized as well."
Considering everything Chambers knew about antibiotics, she had been expecting a long, tedious wait - hours, at least, or, more likely, days - far longer than Galen could stand it. But this was not a slow fight. With Alwyn's help, they were going to wipe out the monster within the hour. What would happen then, she didn't know. They still needed a way to restart the tech, unless it was going to magically return once the thing that had shut it down was gone. Alwyn, at least, had not seemed to think it would. She really, really hoped Alwyn had some idea as to how they were going to turn it on again.
With immense satisfaction, Alwyn watched through the crystal how the organelles faced the very last of the monsters and incapacitated them. It would take much longer for them to completely dissolve, but they could not harm Galen anymore. Never again.
His fingers were cramped around the chain of the crystal, and he had to use all his willpower to lower his hand and let go of it, straightening his fingers one at a time, even though he knew he had already done what he could. He had done well, far better than he had thought possible. Not only had he managed to destroy the monsters in a very short time, but he had also protected Galen's body from the antibiotic's unwanted effects, most importantly its neurotoxicity, which had been his greatest worry. Whatever remained of Galen's mind, it was still untouched. He had not let it become any worse.
"Amazing," doctor Chambers repeated once again. She had apparently forgotten all other words. The onlookers behind the window, captain Gideon, the alien woman Alwyn identified as Dureena based on what Galen had told him, and the few others Alwyn didn't know, they all looked happy - still anxious, but less worried, certain that all was going to be well.
"Amazing... So, what next?" Chambers asked.
Alwyn didn't answer, except with a vague wave of his hand.
He took a deep breath, wiped sweat from his forehead, massaged his temples. It had been such a strain. And there was still more to come. He was ready and willing to do all he could. He was not going to lose Galen. Not now that they were already so close. He would not let the Shadows claim another victim even when they were long gone from the known universe.
Alwyn had known, the moment they had scanned the monster and zoomed in, the moment he had seen it on the screen. He had thought of it as soon as he had seen what had happened to Galen, but the image had made him sure of it. The way it resembled the tech, and still wasn't quite the same. It was Shadow technology, just like the tech.
The tech had been disguised so they would accept it without doubt, it had been made to look pretty - a Trojan horse. This monster was not pretty. It looked like what it was. What was even worse, even though it was evidently of Shadow origin, Alwyn thought he perceived something else. A techno-mage influence on the Shadow technology. It might have been one of their own. One who had turned against his kind, and accepted the blueprints, the original seed, basic idea of this weapon, from the Shadows, and then finished it and made it real. It was a disgusting thought. Perhaps Galen could tell him the truth, if only...
But there were no ifs, no buts to it. There couldn't be. Galen was going to be all right.
All Alwyn had to do was to figure out how to turn on the tech.
Deep down, he had hoped that removing the monsters would return the tech. That they lingered in the victim's system, seemingly inactive, for just that reason: because there was some undetectable signal that kept the tech off, a signal that would be removed when the monsters were gone, and then the tech would come back as if nothing had ever happened.
He had also known that it would not, could not be that easy. He suspected that the monster stayed in its victim for another reason. Its maker had wanted to be sure that once the task was done and all the tech was dead, the victim could never be healed again by any other techno-mage. That no piece of tech, no matter how small, could ever enter the victim's body again.
The monster's maker had lost. The monster was gone from Galen's system, and there were plenty of organelles in there. Alwyn's organelles. Organelles were small, and they were rather stupid. Without something, someone coordinating them, they would be inefficient. Alwyn would have to be here, by Galen's side, guiding them through his crystal. They would do nothing useful when left on their own.
Alwyn grabbed the crystal again and hung it above Galen's head. He checked the data, blinked, shook his head, checked again. It made no sense.
Just when he had finished telling himself that the organelles couldn't do anything organized and coordinated without outside help, his very own organelles were working against that rule. They were flocking, gathering together, and wrapping themselves around Galen's dead tech, touching it. Just like the monsters had done, only it was somehow very different. Even though it made no sense at all, Alwyn had the impression that the organelles were sad, mourning for the tech. They wanted to help, wanted it to live again, and as they touched it, they caressed it gently, like a dog nuzzling its dead master.
There were not enough organelles to cover all of Galen's tech. He needed more. Especially in the brain. Careful not to touch any of the ventilator tubing, Alwyn slid his hand down to Galen's neck, sending organelles straight into the carotid artery. He sent as many as he could, until there were spots dancing in front of his eyes and he felt he would faint if he went on.
Had he turned his head, he would have seen that Chambers was biting her nails - something she never, ever did, most certainly not when she was at work, had not done for years. He would also have noticed how the people behind the window had left their places there and entered the room itself, surrounding him and Galen. But he didn't look.
Alwyn did not raise the crystal anymore, even though it would have offered the best means of watching what was going on. He was afraid it would disturb the odd, independent behavior of the organelles. He had never heard of anything like this. Was it, he wondered, just because such a situation had never occurred before, or was it because Galen's relationship to the tech was unique? Somehow, he was inclined to the latter explanation.
It began very slowly, so slowly that Alwyn thought it was only wishful thinking, that he was only seeing what he hoped and wanted to see.
Through his sensors, far less accurate than the crystal's view through the organelles, he saw a very faint, pale yellow glow flowing along the previously dark and lifeless lines of Galen's tech. It intensified, the flow became a flood, and with it followed the familiar radiation of mage-energy, the normal electro-magnetic signature of the tech.
Alwyn had not known how to revive the tech. He hadn't needed to. His tech had known. And apparently the tech took care of its own.
Lieutenant Matheson stood a few paces apart from everyone else. He had not went directly to Galen's bedside, like Dureena had, or to Chambers and her computer display, like Eilerson. Neither had he stayed somewhere in between, gazing at each in turn, like Gideon. He held a general view of what was going on. With it, whether he wanted it or not, came the general mental feel of the situation.
Strong emotions were difficult to block, and surface thoughts could be caught without an actual scan. The room was filled with both, and he had to struggle to keep them out, so he could know for sure which thoughts and feelings were his own. There was still a good deal of worry and uncertainty in the air, but stronger than that, relief and hope. Some single thoughts were easy to discern and assign to the person thinking them, such as Doctor Chambers's wonder as she followed from her screen how the tech slowly returned to life. Some were less simple by far, like Gideon's feelings, a confused jumble of close friendship tainted by uncertainty and a hint of distrust.
Matheson wasn't sure what he felt, himself. Galen was not close to him. They were not friends, but there was no hatred between them, either. Galen was a strange character, someone Matheson couldn't understand. Sometimes he seemed the wisest of all persons he had met, while at other times he was passionate and short-tempered, almost to the point of appearing unstable. But Matheson had not dared to try to touch his mind, no matter how lightly. He had been sure Galen would notice.
"I'm... It's... The scanners show that all the tech's coming back, everywhere, including the brain. And I'm getting some pretty unusual readings from there. It's - I don't think there are any regular brain-waves at all, although there is plenty of electro-chemical activity. I think it's the tech," Chambers explained. Eilerson looked very interested, and nodded, maybe to her, or then just to himself.
Alwyn didn't comment to this. His feelings were now so strong that Matheson could not avoid catching some of them. He had not thought he could do this, he had been very uncertain, afraid that they could not save Galen. It looked so promising now, so very promising, but he still could not believe they were through.
Carefully, Matheson reached out to touch Galen's mind, very lightly, just the surface of it, to see if there was anything there this time.
He staggered back, his back hit the window, and he had to lean on a table for support. What he felt was overwhelming and completely alien. It was more alien than any of the non-human minds he had ever felt, its very shape was something he could not understand. The feelings, or thoughts, or whatever they were, he could not rightly name. They were very ancient, deep, wise, something beyond his comprehension, and still primal, primitive and pure, complex but simple. There was nothing human in them. Nothing at all. It was not Galen. It was the tech.
There was only one feeling that he could recognize and understand, and it was stronger than all other impressions, so strong that it nearly drowned him. It was so heart-wrenching that he wanted to cry out. Maybe he did, he couldn't tell.
It was a terrible feeling of loss, emptiness and loneliness. Like the death of a loved one, a parent, a sibling. Even closer to him than that. His own death, except that he was not entirely dead, only a part of him, and he should have been there, he should have died with it.
Matheson was vaguely aware of someone in front of him. Gideon was there. He had grabbed hold of his shoulders, kept him up, shook him. "Lieutenant? John? John, come on! What's wrong?"
He pressed his eyes tightly shut and concentrated. He walled in the odd feelings, closed them away, sent them out of his head, and raised his blocks, thicker than before, so he could hold everything out.
He had just regained his balance and managed to slow down his breathing, and he was telling Gideon that "It's all right, captain, I'm OK. But something's still very wrong with Galen," when an ominous alarm pierced the air.
Its message was made all too clear by the nearby monitor, where the steady waveform of a heartbeat had faded into a flatline.
He was nothing.
He was in the void.
No, he was the void.
Once, he had been someone, something. Now he was no more.
There had been thoughts, ideas, names and faces, things that he could no longer catch.
They were clouds, looking as if they were near, when in truth they were far beyond his reach.
They were fireflies, so small and quick that they slipped between his fingers.
Sometimes he still tried, although he did not know why. Letting go and forgetting was so much simpler.
A few remained within his grasp. There was a name, a very familiar name. Galen. A name. But what did it mean?
A face of a woman. Beauty, longing, sadness. Love.
More faces. Safety, warmth, friendship. Family.
All was lost in this vast cold nothingness. None of it made any sense.
Minutes passed. Years. Days. Centuries. It did not matter.
Slowly he became aware of a change. Something that had been was not anymore.
He was alone. All alone. He had not been alone before. It should not have been possible.
His soul, his heart, had left him, abandoned him. He was alone in the void.
For a moment, everything in the room froze. It had been so close. They had almost succeeded. Now, it might all have been for nothing.
The moment, shorter than a blink, went by, and Chambers was in full action again.
"Asystole!" she called out, immediately followed by the same in plainer words. "His heart's stopped."
As if everyone had not understood as much already. "You'd better move away, give us room to work," she told them.
Everyone backed up from the bed, except for Alwyn, who still stood there, by Galen's side, doing nothing, frowning.
"Alwyn? Isn't there anything you can do?" Chambers was yelling at him. Alwyn could tell she expected him to perform yet another miracle. "If you don't have a better idea, I'm going to inject adrenalin. Alwyn?"
Alwyn hardly heard her. He hated being right. He had had doubts, had thought it had all went too smoothly, and so it had. He just couldn't be sure what had went wrong. Was it all the extra strain they had put on Galen's already tormented body? It was the natural, completely understandable explanation. Yet he doubted it. There was something else. Something he had forgotten when all their thoughts were so fixed on the physical side, on medicine and biology.
Dureena had gripped his arm tightly, and she too was shouting. "Alwyn! Don't just stand there! You must do something!"
Indeed, he had to do something. But maybe that something was not what everyone else expected it to be.
It took him a while to gather his thoughts, to reach the concentration it required. Then he cast the electron incantation. This time, it was easy, like connecting with another techno-mage who was in the same room should be. Galen's tech responded immediately, eagerly. Alwyn reached out again, calling two more people into the incantation. The two Galen had most often mentioned to him. Matthew Gideon and Dureena Nafeel.
They were standing in the stone-walled chamber, Alwyn in the middle, Gideon to his right, Dureena to his left. In front of them rested what was left of Galen. The blood was still there, a large dark stain where the fabrics had absorbed it. In the middle of the stain was a vague form, hardly more than a dark cloud with a lighter cloud as its head. Although everything else was hazy, impossible to recognize, the wounds were clearly visible, a vivid crimson intersecting the darkness.
"That's... Is that him? Galen?" Dureena uttered, edging closer to the blurred figure. Alwyn guessed she had been in an electron incantation before. She understood, at least to some degree, what had happened, why she was suddenly in this place.
Gideon had been here as well, with Alwyn. Now he was staring at Galen with a frown on his face, trying to comprehend. "What's happened to him? Why does he look like that?"
"That is what remains of him. It is his self-image, how he sees himself right now. We've almost lost him, but since something still remains, maybe, just maybe, we can convince him to return. I might need your help, he might listen to you where he does not listen to me. That's why I brought you," Alwyn explained. Then he stepped closer to Galen, and knelt next to him.
"Galen," Alwyn began. "I know what you think, and you are wrong. The tech is no longer dead. You are not dead. Can you hear me? Do you understand what I'm saying? The tech lives. You must live as well."
The answer wasn't clear enough to be called a thought. It was a confused flutter that touched his mind, so fleeting that he hardly noticed.
"Galen," he repeated, bent even closer to the vague form, his face almost touching the blur that had been Galen's face. "You must come back. I know it's difficult, I know it would be easier to remain as you are and slowly fade into nothingness, but you must try. Because of the tech, Galen. Think of the tech. It is alone now. You live and die as one, you said. But now, the tech lives, while you... I do not think you do. Can't you feel it calling out to you? It wants you back. Like we all do."
"Alwyn's right, and he's telling the truth," Gideon joined in, crouched next to Galen as well. "The tech is OK. I don't know much about it, I can't hear it calling out, but I do know that I want you to return. I, as the captain, together with all the rest of the crew, we want you here, because we need your help. And not just that... Galen, I want you back because you are my friend."
Dureena had sat down by Galen's side. To Alwyn's amazement, she reached out to the cloudy form, and took Galen's hand in hers. As she held it, he noticed that it looked solid - as did the rest of Galen.
All of a sudden, all the haziness had disappeared, replaced by the horrible sight, the grievously wounded body that Alwyn had found when he had first cast this incantation.
"Galen, you idiot! I know you're not dead. So stop playing dead, and get back here. Please," Dureena spoke, and although her voice was as sharp as her words when she began, it broke before she was finished, the last words coming out sad and low, almost a whisper. A solitary tear was making its way down her cheek.
For the second time in a short while, Alwyn got to witness the same wondrous sight. A glimmer slowly filled Galen's wounds, tiny rivers of molten gold finding their places where they belonged, where they had, in truth, been all the time. Then, when all the tech was there, glowing softly, the wounds began to close, torn flesh knit together again, the edges of skin that had been cut open met each other and fused together, so that there was no trace of the horrors that had been. The very last wound to disappear was the metaphorical one, the one with no tech, that had been in his chest. Even the dark fabric of his coat mended itself, covering the hole.
He had caught it!
Galen. It was his name. It was who he was, who he had been.
Galen knew who he was, what he was, and why.
He knew he should not be alone, and that he was alone because had got it all wrong. He had never been abandoned. It was he who had abandoned himself, too lost in desperation, too deep in the void, too certain that he was no more. He had failed to follow the part of himself, his heart, his soul, that had found the way out.
He was not alone now. There were others, many voices calling out to him, some of which were a part of him, while some where not. It did not make them any less important.
Galen followed the call of those voices.
Everywhere around him, the void, the nothingness, was changing. He could see its limits where none had been before. They were falling apart, and through the cracks shone a blinding, golden light that quickly surrounded him.
Alwyn, Dureena and Gideon returned from the incantation to the flurry of action, with Chambers just about to inject Galen with one thing or the other that might or might not restart his heart. Alwyn grabbed her hand, gently but firmly, and stopped her.
"No, don't. There's no need to. And you could start removing all this as well," Alwyn told her, motioning to the life-support machinery.
"No, no... You can't mean that," she uttered, her expression desperate. She had completely misunderstood him. The monitors still showed flatline. She thought he was telling her that he was truly gone and there was nothing left to do.
It did not matter, Alwyn decided. She would see for herself soon enough.
Extreme exhaustion and overwhelming relief washed over Alwyn, and he fell to his knees, resting his arms against Galen's bedside, his forehead against them. He could easily see how Chambers would misinterpret such body language, but he didn't care.
Dureena came to his side, placing one hand on his shoulder, and holding Galen's hand with the other. They waited patiently.
Chambers was working absently, disconnecting all the things that had kept Galen alive this far, but in the end, had not been enough. She was a doctor with a particularly hazardous assignment. She had lost many patients, but never before had she fought such a long, amazing battle and succeeded beyond all hope, just to lose completely in the end.
"Is he... Is it over?" Eilerson stuttered.
Although the phrases "He's dead" and "It's over" kept repeating themselves in her head, Chambers couldn't force herself to say them aloud, so she simply nodded - and saw Gideon shake his head vigorously.
Gideon's face was tense, but he was smiling. "It's definitely not over."
On the nearest screen, she saw how a few tentative beats broke the straight line, then settled into a steady, stable, if somewhat rapid rhythm.
She could not believe it. It wasn't possible. It was medically impossible for a heart that had no electrical activity left to spontaneously start beating again. She knew Alwyn hadn't done anything. Perhaps it had been the tech. Or maybe it was a miracle. She had already seen enough of those for one day.
Galen drew a deep, shuddering breath, like a man who had been drowning, but had finally reached the surface. After a few gasps, his chest rose and fell evenly.
The pained grimace finally dissolved from Galen's face, the deep lines becoming smoother and less severe. And he smiled.
"It is most certainly not over," Alwyn affirmed.
Although most things had found a meaning again, Galen still hadn't quite figured out time. The tech, however, had a clear notion of it, so when he first opened his eyes, he knew that almost exactly twenty-four hours had passed since their return to life.
The lights were brighter than he had expected, and he had some trouble focusing on anything at all. His sensors did not seem accurate either, because some data was missing and some looked like random gibberish. Still, the tech said that there was nothing to worry about, so he did not worry. Instead, he felt giddy. Confused, but happy.
After a while, he could make out all the faces around him. Many of them had been with him even when he had almost lost himself. Alwyn, Matthew and Dureena stood there, and Sarah Chambers, John Matheson and Max Eilerson as well. They were smiling, and he smiled back at them.
Alwyn held a hand over him, a crystal hanging from it. Galen checked what he was doing, and noticed that most of the organelles in his body were not his own, but Alwyn's. There was quite a lot of them. He was surprised Alwyn had been able to give so many. He wondered what had happened to his own organelles. He also wondered what had happened, just in general. How it was possible that he had survived.
He wanted to ask Alwyn, but although the thought was clear, the words of the question could not find their way to his lips. So, he just stared at Alwyn, hoping that the questions showed in his eyes.
"You can't imagine how happy I am to see you conscious and awake," Alwyn said. "I'm afraid our cure caused substantial damage to your organelles, but new ones are born at a normal rate, and soon you'll be on your own again. Until then, you're stuck with mine, and my help in guiding them."
That wasn't a very good answer. Galen kept his eyes on Alwyn, waiting for more.
"I guess you must be feeling a bit odd right now. It's to be expected, and you shouldn't worry. Your body went through some pretty difficult times, while you were, well, elsewhere. And some of the connections between you and your tech suffered from the long time the tech was off, but they're getting better too."
"You'll be good as new in no time," Chambers added her second opinion.
That was good to hear. Still, not a word on what had actually happened. All he remembered was that he had reached his ship, set course for the Excalibur, and then, nothing, except for the void, which was a horrible, dark memory that was quickly fading, becoming unreal. Well, he would ask again later.
All the others were speaking to him now, one at a time, telling how happy they were and how worried they had been. He couldn't concentrate all that well, and missed some of it. Dureena touched his cheek, which was slightly annoying, but he didn't feel like doing anything about it, and Matthew squeezed his shoulder, which was only slightly less annoying.
The tech was suggesting they should go back to sleep. Sleeping was a good thing. The more he slept, the sooner he would be back to normal. He closed his eyes again.
Galen was floating in the pleasant half-consciousness of being almost, but not quite awake. He did not want to open his eyes just yet. He just lay there, enjoying the moment. He was whole again, and his thoughts were clear. He could feel the tech's familiar presence, just like he felt the presence of his arms, or his head, or his heart.
Doctor Chambers had said he would be good as new in no time. Now that he thought of it, she had exaggerated a bit. It had taken several days, a full week, before he had begun to feel close to normal again. During those days, he had had plenty of time to consider everything that had happened. He had also heard several descriptions of the events, from different points of view.
After he had escaped Djadjamonkh's place of power, he had reached the Excalibur just in time. He was amazed at the fact that some life had remained in his body all the way back from there, when both he and the tech had given up. It was a strange idea, as if he were not the sum of two, but three different parts - his mind, his body, and the tech. It was probably true, he just hadn't thought of it before.
He was amazed at the entire rescue operation. The determination with which everyone, all those friends he had not been completely sure he had, had fought to keep him alive. The way how they had accidentally found a primitive drug, an antibiotic, that was strong enough to destroy both the killer and, unfortunately, his organelles. Alwyn's skill in healing him - he had never been aware that Alwyn was so talented a healer. The miraculous independent behavior of the organelles that had restarted his tech. And most of all, he was amazed how they had, in the end, managed to call him back from the unfathomable depths where he had been.
He could see now, looking back at what had passed, that the most dangerous thing of all, the one that had almost killed him, had not been the shutting down of the tech, nor his physical reaction to it. It had been his thoughts, his mind, that had been at fault. He had believed so strongly that he could not survive that it had very nearly become true. He had lost all willingness to fight when faced with such inevitability, such impossible odds. He would have thought himself, his mind, much stronger than that, after all he had been through. But the tech was one of the few certainties in his life, one of the true constants, so the attack had caught him where he was most vulnerable.
The memory of those terrifying hours he had spent in Djadjamonkh's lair was still vivid, each second and every passing thought stored in his mind. He remembered thinking that shutting down the tech would kill him as surely as stopping his heart. Now that he considered the thought, it was the perfect analogy, although he had not understood it at the time. He knew from what the others had told that his heart had indeed lost its rhythm more than once, even truly stopped, but every time someone or something had intervened, and he had survived. It was the same with tech, which had been turned off, bringing him very close to death, but it, too, had been revived, and they lived on.
"Galen? Are you awake?" Alwyn's voice cut his introspection.
"Yes, I must be, because I cannot imagine having a dream with you in it," he replied, and opened his eyes.
As usual, Alwyn was hovering about his bed and hanging his crystal above him. Galen pushed himself up into a seated position. The Excalibur's infirmary around them was unchanged, clean and clinical, as always. It was much better than the MedLab isolation room, where the excessive amount of scanners and surveillance equipment had made him feel exposed, like a test subject, a guinea pig. Chambers now knew much more about techno-mages than any other human doctor, and Galen still hadn't decided what he should do about it. Perhaps nothing, just in case something like this happened again in the future, to him, or to some other techno-mage.
"If you don't mind, Alwyn, I think I am capable of taking care of myself now. I have more than enough organelles already."
"All right, all right," Alwyn answered, placing the crystal in his pocket. "But Galen, you have to understand me. After coming so close to losing you, it's hard to be convinced that you're really here, alive and well. You didn't see yourself - that self-image was frightful enough to age me a few decades. But you must know what it was like. After all, it was just a reflection of how you felt at the time."
"Yes, I can imagine I wasn't a pretty sight," Galen muttered.
Then, after only a passing second of consideration, he flung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up, for the first time in over a week. A wave of dizziness hit him, his vision clouded and his legs felt shaky. For a moment, he was afraid he'd collapse.
He grabbed Alwyn in a tight hug. He told himself that this was only because he was not willing to show his weakness, but deep down, both he and the tech knew that his feelings were sincere, even if he tried to cover them, even from himself. He remembered a time when Alwyn had been happy to see him and had embraced him, and how uncomfortable he had felt then. Returning the gesture, without the awkwardness, was long overdue.
When he let go, he felt steady enough on his feet. He looked Alwyn in the eye and said, "Thank you. Thank you, Alwyn."
"Well, well," Alwyn uttered, looking stunned. "You must have suffered some brain damage after all. Are you sure you're quite all right?" he joked.
"Just a passing moment of weakness. I hope you won't hold it against me."
"I certainly won't. And Galen, the pleasure was all mine. No need to thank me."
"You know, Alwyn, one of the many things I learned from Elric was, only give praise when it's truly deserved. Besides, I'll be leaving soon, and I don't know when we'll meet again."
"You're leaving? You can't possibly leave yet, you're not well enough -"
"Of course I am. There is something very important I must do. Before that, there are a few other persons who deserve my gratitude."
Galen knew that what he would do and say during the next few hours would leave several people just as astonished as Alwyn. He wondered if he would come to regret it later. Now, it felt like the right thing to do.
Sarah Chambers looked up from her desk to see Galen approaching her on steady feet, looking perfectly normal. But appearances could be deceiving. "Galen, I don't think you should be up yet," she told him.
"I would rather not argue with you, but I'm afraid I must tell you that you're quite wrong. I am fully healed."
"Still, you should at least let me check you up, just in case -"
"No, that is not why I came to see you. I must ask you to promise one thing. I know you have gathered an extensive amount of knowledge on me, knowledge that reveals much of the true nature of techno-mages. You must promise that you will never, under any circumstances, pass on that information, unless the life of a techno-mage depends on it," he said. Even though he did not threaten her, did not say that something bad would happen if she broke the promise, the very tone of his voice conveyed the idea clearly enough.
Chambers had expected something like this. Actually, she was surprised Galen had not asked her to destroy all the data, or that he had not just taken it out himself. Perhaps he had seen that it was, really, for his own good. "All right, I promise, Galen," she said.
"But truth be told, that is not why I came, either. I came to thank you. Thank you, Sarah."
"I was just doing my job," she replied, but he had already left.
Captain Gideon was sitting in his room, going through the latest data from the Rangers. There were several places they should visit, some leads that looked promising, just like they always did. His mind really wasn't on the job. Like all too often when he was alone in the room, he could somehow sense the Apocalypse Box, an ominous presence, calling him, wanting to be taken out of its hiding place. Gideon tried to fight it.
The Box had told him not to trust Galen. If it really was sentient, if it had feelings, he was sure it would have felt happier if he had just let Galen die. He had not touched the Box, because he had been afraid it would tell him to do so, and he had not been sure he could resist. But how did he know it wasn't right? There was always some truth in what it said, so there had to be something true in this as well, some reason behind it. One day, he would find out. Today, he was glad he had done what he had done.
As usual, Galen chose exactly this moment to enter. Only this time, he came in like any normal crew member. The door opened, he stepped in, the door closed. Nothing unusual, nothing magical anywhere to be seen. "Matthew," he said.
"Galen. Good to see you on your feet again."
"Thank you, Matthew. And thank you for what you did for me."
It was strange to hear such words from Galen, such simple, sincere words, without any hint of anything mysterious, or any trace of sarcasm. Gideon didn't know how to answer.
"I'm leaving again, but I'll be back soon. Until then, take care," Galen continued.
"You too. You'd better return in better shape than the last time. You gave me a good scare," Gideon said.
"I promise, I'll try very hard not to do it again. I did not enjoy it all that much either. Goodbye," Galen left as he had come, walking through the door.
Gideon stared at the door for a good while, dumbstruck.
"Thank you, Dureena."
Dureena gazed at Galen, frowning, wondering what the catch was. "Thank you? I don't think you've ever really said that to me before."
"Yes, and perhaps, without your help, I might never have said it. So, I thank you."
As she looked into his eyes, she knew he meant what he said. For a while, Dureena toyed with the idea of asking him to reveal a few techno-mage secrets now, since he seemed to be in such an unusual mood. But no, she was not that crooked. She was really, truly happy to have him back. "Well, you're welcome. Though, if the only way to earn a 'thanks' from you is to save you from certain death, I hope I won't hear it again."
"You'll find out, sooner or later," he said, and she couldn't decide whether he was answering her words, or the question she had not asked. "Goodbye, now, until we meet again," he added, and walked away.
"Galen, wait! When will you be back? Where are you going?" she called after him, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Covered with Shadow skin, Galen stepped through the jagged hole in the huge iron door.
The large hall was exactly as he remembered, the eight stone pillars with the seven runes of the Code and the cartouche with the name. He and the tech had loaded a translator program and studied hieroglyphic on their way to this planet, and now he knew that the hieroglyphs in the eighth pillar indeed read Dja-dja-m-ankh, or Djadjamonkh, which translated roughly as "living head". It had been the name of a magician in an ancient Egyptian story, one of the first mages known to humans.
The Dja-dja-m-ankh of the ancient story had been a celebrated character who had lived happily ever after. All that remained of Djadjamonkh, aside from this place and his name on the pillar, was a set of bones, lying scattered about the floor. Some indigenous lifeform had found what little had been left of him, and clawed away all the flesh.
Galen took each step with care and caution, all his senses and sensors alert. He made his way towards the far end of the hall, where the small pair of iron doors was still open, just like when he had left. He reached the doors and saw the glistening Shadow skin beyond, lining a long corridor. There were no snakes, no tech-killers to be seen anywhere.
He entered the corridor. It was silent, but he could feel the energy of the complex all around him.
The corridor was not very wide. When he stretched out both his hands, he could easily touch the walls on both sides.
Underneath the powerful song of chaos and destruction, he felt confusion and fear. When Djadjamonkh had died, the Shadow tech had lost its master. It had been created to slavery, and without guidance, it did not know what to do.
As one, Galen and the tech conjured - nothing.
And slowly but certainly, a pale yellow glow began to spread through the dark walls.