THE MAZE OF B'RCKT (PK)

Someone was following Seraphin. If the metaloid's face had possessed features, she would have smiled with anticipation. As it was, the living metal glinted momentarily as she passed beneath a weak and flickering street lamp.

Only a fool or an innocent would leave the safety of Main Town to follow a metaloid down into the Refuse where even the Cosmo Guard feared to tread. Innocents bored Seraphin and she had no time for fools.

She touched the butt of the dragoon holstered at her hip and stepped into the Maze.

Some long extinct alien intelligence had formed the gigantic maze from the ground of B'rckt, creating walls that towered far into the sky and stretched for over twenty miles. Later, human settlers built their capital on the plain that overlooked the Maze, that they might look down upon it and not feel the shadow of its oldness upon them. When humans were the Lords of the Stars no more, but merely survivors, they had found shelter in the Maze with the other outcasts of the Universe, burrowing into its walls to escape the harsh elements of B'rckt.

No one had truly mapped the Maze. Something in it prevented most eyes from seeing it as it truly was.

The Maze was haven and arena, proving ground for the survival of the fittest. Few who were not its children exited once they had entered.

Seraphin was one of the few. She turned a corner quickly, her dusty brown cloak swirling about her. The thousand eyes of the Maze watched silently and waited.

The steps hesitated, stopped, then came on slowly, as if there maker had only realized where he had come.

As soon as the follower moved past, the metaloid leapt from her place of concealment. Between one breath and the next, Seraphin's shadow was forced to kneel on the ground, muzzle of the dragoon between his eyes.

Seraphin's optic sensors observed the sweat that beaded the gengineered's brow, registering its trembling. An inner chamber slave not often sent beyond the master suite's walls Seraphin judged. A loyal messenger, but one easily replaced if circumstances fell out so.

"Mercy, Master!" cried the slave in pure High Tone. "My master would speak with you!"

The dragoon remained in place. "Name your master and his business. And speak softly that the Maze might not hear."

"Arzaela." The slave's voice was almost non-existent, and its trembling increased. "I know not why she sent me."

Seraphin holstered the dragoon and the pulled the terrified gengineered to its feet. "Lead on," she said.

Arzaela. A name to make the bravest tremble. A star rover, a city plunderer, a world destroyer. Once she had been a Power. She controlled the fate of many a world and even the agents of the Cosmo Guard feared to challenge her.

But time had taken its toll and now Arzaela was but a shadow of what she had once been. She retreated to B'rckt, played at smuggling, dabbled in extortion and murder, and moved in secret among the houses she kept in Main Town, pretending she was still the most wanted woman in the universe.

It was to a modest house that any spaceport worker might own, that the slave led Seraphin. They entered the through the outer basement, the metaloid following slowly, wary of traps.

The strange companions passed through the basement into a warren of tunnels. The slave had donned a pair of infrared goggles and his step was light and sure as he led Seraphin along the dark and circuitous route. He turned to look back and said, "Stay close, Master. Many have been lost in these tunnels."

Seraphin inclined her head, but made no reply. It is impossible for a metaloid to become lost above or below the ground as they can sense and orient themselves to the planet's magnetic field.

After many unnecessary turnings designed to confuse the follower, they came to a steel door. The slave tapped a silent series of commands upon the surface, then stood aside for Seraphin to enter.

She entered unafraid. Her optic spectrum analysis confirmed there was but one living being in the small room and no device that could harm a metaloid.

The door slid shut behind her as Seraphin entered a room bare of all furnishings save trophies of hunts. There was the head of a Zetukian boar. There, the skin of the Fire snail. Other heads and skins of animals equally rare or recently extinct covered the walls. Scattered among them were the heads of Cosmo Guards – men and women both - that had disappeared in the lines of duty. But there was only one that truly caught Seraphin's attention and that was the head and torso of the female metaloid displayed on the wall in front of her.

"It's from the war," said Arzaela. "We were all fair game then." Arzaela shrugged. "It's the way of the universe. One lives, one dies. But we're all friends now, aren't we? Let me see you, metaloid."

Seraphin released the clasp at her throat and the threadbare cloak pooled about her feet.

They studied each other, the metaloid and the space pirate, two survivors in a Darwinian universe.

Although the tufted ears and whip like tails protruding from the back of her neck bespoke a Mismian ancestor, all the arrogance of humanity was apparent in Arzaela's stance, the undisguised metal hand she raised before her, and her mocking tone as she said, "Welcome, kinswoman."

Seraphin had seen too much of humanity come and go to rise to the bait of insult that the pirate dangled. She was no static appendage attached to weak humanity. She was living metal bearing a woman's form; slim and supple like a blade ready to strike, the dragoon holstered at her side was her only adornment. The perfect silver oval of her head bore only the slightest hint of features, a high, broad forehead and the bridge of an aquiline nose, and yet none could say she was incomplete or unfinished. She was perfect in her alien-ness.

Although the war between humanity and the metaloids was long over, and although Arzaela was a woman without ordinary fear, even she could not suppress a shudder at the sight of the being in front of her.

"Beneath the Maze is another Maze," the pirate said abruptly, turning from the metaloid and beginning to pace the width of the room. It was the pace of a maddened, caged animal. "You know this?" she said, glancing over her shoulder.

Seraphin inclined her head the slightest bit.

The Under Maze had been discovered after the humans came to B'rckt, but none had breached more than the first turnings. Like its mirror above ground, the Under Maze defied the attempts of organic and electronic brains to map it. There was something in it that kept the curious away, though no one could say what that something was.

Arzaela stopped before Seraphin and forced herself to look into the ever shifting metal face. "Take me to the center of the Under Maze. You'll be well-rewarded."

Seraphin was silent.

Arzaela smiled. "You want to know what we're searching for. I can't tell you, but it will be worth the effort."

Seraphin remained motionless.

Anger flushed Arzaela's face, the fur rose on tufted ears, and her neck tails slashed the air in agitation. "I've plundered the libraries of a thousand worlds, seen the memchips from a thousand more. Do you know what they all say?" She didn't wait for the answer that would never come. "B'rckt! B'rckt, the dying world. B'rckt, the forgotten. But something sleeps at the heart of B'rckt! They all agree. There is a power at the center of the Under Maze." She seemed to have forgotten the metaloid's presence. The aging pirate was giving voice to the dreams that consumed her. "I will have whatever it is for my own. I will be a Name again! Arzaela will be a Power again!"

She spun to face Seraphin, her neck tails wrapping themselves about the metaloid's head. "See what I have seen!" she cried out.

Serving as an organic connection between minds, the tails forced Seraphin to see Arzaela's memories.

There was unrelenting darkness, a creature alien beyond comprehension, the corridors of a maze, unbearable light, the universe spread before her like some rare fabric. Behind it was a sense of strength and power, but also of desperation, madness that came not from Arzaela, but from whatever lay at the center of the Under Maze. It was overwhelming, threatening to swamp all that was Seraphin beneath its alien-ness.

Gorge rose in Seraphin's throat. She caught the neck tails in a grip that could crush rock when necessary and ripped them from her head.

Pain sharp as lightening lanced through Seraphin's skull. As the neck tails recoiled, the metaloid thought she heard a cry of rage.

Arzaela screamed and fell to the floor, overcome by the pain.

Seraphin looked down on the fallen space pirate for a moment, then knelt and settled her cloak about her shoulders again.

The gengineered waiting outside the room bowed as Seraphin stepped out. "This way, Master," he said and made to lead the metaloid away.

Seraphin strode past him, cloak waving behind her. "Your master needs you more," she said. "Go to her now." Her words drifted back down the corridor. "And tell her when she wakes, to keep far from the Under Maze. It is not a place for one such as she."

In the days that followed a miasma of unease settled over High Town, the Refuse and the Maze. The air took on a dark and brooding quality and weighed heavily in the lungs and on the soul.

Before she felt the first tremblings of the earth beneath her feet, Seraphin knew the Under Maze had been breeched. She rose from dreams of shadows, falling walls, and screams of torment unbearable.

Before the first cracks appeared in the walls of the Maze Above and the first child was felled by fallen rock, Seraphin took a long box from beneath her bed.

A long sword resting in a sheath of intricately tied knots lay within. She lifted them from their bed of old velvet and belted them about her waist, feeling the sword's eagerness for battle as her hand brushed the pommel.

Seraphin strode out of the Refuse, and even in their blind, panic-stricken flight, its inhabitants knew to draw out of the metal Valkyrie's path.

Arzaela had awakened something better left sleeping. Seraphin had no interest in what happened to the space pirate, the Mazes, or B'rckt, but whatever had been disturbed was reaching out for the metaloid now, and that Seraphin would not tolerate. She would return the creature to its slumber or slay it before the day was through.

To the north of the Maze the ground dropped swiftly, sheerly, creating a narrow gorge in the barren landscape, and it was there that the entrance to the Under Maze lay.

Seraphin climbed down the sheer wall, using ancient glyphs carved into the rock by some alien race as hand and footholds. There were other, easier ways to reach the Under Maze entrance, one of which Arzaela would have used, but this was the quickest. The sword at her side understood Seraphin's urgency. The thing that had touched the metaloid – first through Arzaela, then on its own – carried with it a sense of great age, great power, and madness. Released, it would consume all that was before it.

It was not an easy climb. The way was steep and led into darkness. Wind swept through the gorge and the accumulated dust of centuries swirled about her, coating her metallic skin, dulling it to grey. Unable to escape, the wind howled its desperation, echoing unceasingly, and trying to loose Seraphin's precarious hold. Beneath her hands and feet the earth trembled. The rumble of it pulsed through her. Above her head great masses of black clouds rolled in to cover the sky.

She reached the Under Maze's entrance and found it opened. The simple seals that kept most away, broken.

Seraphin stepped into the Under Maze and fell to her knees, clutching her head. White noise filled her skull, clawed its way through her mind. Her clasping hands were a futile defense against the mental hissing and scratching.

She lost track of time. She lost track of self.

The noise receded; fading away so gradually that at first Seraphin was unaware that it had stopped. She dropped her hands and lifted her head. Impossible as it was to imagine the metaloid's face as anything other than unchanging perfection, it now seemed ravaged and aged.

She rose unsteadily to her feet and nearly fell back to her knees. She stumbled in a circle, staring at the Under Maze walls.

She didn't know which way to turn. The metaloid's infallible sense of place, of direction, was gone.

Seraphin straightened. She was Metaloid. She would not falter in the presence of the enemy. She moved forward, her step only slightly less confident than before.

The turnings felt familiar. Even without her sense of the magnetic fields, she could recognize the shape of the maze. It matched that of the one above, but rotated at a quarter turn's difference.

But her steps didn't quicken. This Under Maze was far fouler than the one above. The corridors were sized for something far larger than the human form. The walls and floor were wet with an iridescent black slime that cast a sick and weakly light. The ground and walls trembled without ceasing. The metaloid knew how much earth lay above her head, but still she went forward.

As she drew nearer to the heart of the maze, it grew more difficult to walk. Gravity was increasing, pulling on her body. Heat thickened the air. Moisture beaded on the slim metaloid's body.

Seraphin pushed around another corner and stopped. A gengineered lay in the path, the blood from its open throat seeping into the black slime.

It wasn't the one who had tracked Seraphin before. This was a woman. Judging from the well-muscled form and armored skin, she had been gengineered for combat. She would have led Arzaela through the Maze, protecting the pirate from possible traps. It would have been difficult to kill her. Unless one was mad past all hope of insanity.

Seraphin stepped over the body and continued.

She was close to the center now. The pressure was gone; gravity returned to normal.

She felt feverish, light-headed. The walls seemed to be wavering around her. A voice was calling to her, hypnotic in its intensity and urgency. It wanted her. It needed her as no one ever before had needed her.

Seraphin forced herself not to run to it, knowing it was the thing at the heart of the maze. But she was helpless to resist its pull. Her pace quickened.

The metaloid's restless hand fell upon the pommel of her sword. A clear, cold wall dropped between her and the siren of the maze. The fever subsided as reason returned.

The subsonic call faltered, reached again for Seraphin.

Shielded and strengthened by the sword's separate intelligence, Seraphin resisted the mental tentacles that reached to entangle her. Keeping her hand upon the pommel, she set her own pace forward.

Arzaela leapt out of the shadows. They grappled for a moment. Seraphin thrust the pirate away, never losing her grip on her sword. The figure fell back against the slime covered wall. Illuminated by the iridescent glow, Seraphin saw that Arzaela was no more.

Gone were the bold, roving glance and proud arrogance of the world destroyer. The unseeing eyes rolled wildly. The neck tails were wound so tightly about her neck as to be embedded in it. Her tongue protruded grotesquely from between blackened lips. The limbs were stretched beyond bone and dangled uselessly from the strangely twisted torso. It moved with the awkward agility of a well-handled puppet.

The mouth opened and grim parody of Arzaela's voice spoke, "Metaloid, come to me. Come to me. Come--"

There was no conscious thought in Seraphin's actions. She drew her dragoon and shot what had once been Arzaela between the eyes.

The head fell back, bounced forward again, the voice never stopping, "β€”to me. Come to me. Come to me. Come to me." It was the mad litany of a spoiled child.

Beneath Seraphin's hand the sword throbbed, begging to be released. She drew it from its sheath of knots.

Burning with an inner light, the living metal long sword flashed in the dimness. The golden jewel in its hilt burned with intelligence. It was as alive as Seraphin and it lived for battle.

With speed unimaginable the sword fell upon Arzaela. No human could match the metaloid's swiftness. And yet Arzaela's artificial hand met the sword, though it did not slow its strike. The useless appendage fell to the floor, splashing in the slime. And still the monotonous chant of "Come to me. Come to me. Come to me."

The parody of Arzaela jerked toward Seraphin.

The sword met her, striking through the heart. The space pirate stopped. Whatever was controlling her was surprised perhaps by Seraphin's actions.

Seraphin drew the sword from Arzaela's body.

Dead, but still animated by the alien intelligence, Arzaela stood aside. Its litany had stopped.

As Seraphin watched, the body shuddered as if racked by seizures. Its limbs flapped wildly. The head rolled on the neck.

Then it jerked upright for a moment, before falling into the slime at Seraphin's feet. The intelligence had withdrawn and Arzaela was truly dead.

Seraphin set her face toward the center of the maze.

With living sword and dragoon in her hands the metaloid took the final turnings of the Under Maze. The frequency and intensity of the quakes were increasing, as was the depth of the slime. It clung to her ankles. A fetid, rotten odor filled the tunnel.

Seraphin turned the corner and entered the heart of the Under Maze.

Metaloids are a long-lived and ancient race. Seraphin had seen many things in her lifetime, but nothing like the sight that met her eyes.

A pulsing, cocoon-like sack reached from the floor to the ceiling, dwarfing the metaloid into an insignificant insect. Through its cloudy membrane she could make out extenuated limbs and an elongated head. Unable to break free of its cocoon, it had tried to reform Arzaela in its own image.

In the instant Seraphin stepped forward to end its existence, she was blasted with a psychic bombardment unlike any she had met before. Memories, emotions, thoughts, everything that had left a trace in the chamber exploded in her mind and she understood what had happened here.

B'rckt was an incubator for this alien life. The two mazes, pieces of a timer. The Under Maze turning until in synch with the Over Maze when B'rckt would break apart and the alien would be released into the cosmos.

But the timer had failed and the alien was caught in a strange half-life. Who could know how long it had been there in its solitude?

Then humans, metaloids, and other creatures of the universe had come to B'rckt and the cocooned life form had tried to reach out to them. It had failed. Not yet fully formed, it had no control over its own awesome abilities. Unable to make B'rckt's inhabitants understand, frustration had turned to anger and then madness. Until finally its seeking mind had touched the mind of one as crazed as it. Arzaela had offered it escape and companionship.

But Arzaela was a fragile creature. Her mind couldn't withstand the onslaught of the alien. Her body was frail and weak. Both had broken under the alien's well-meant attempts to make them equals. And the creature had mourned until it remembered.

There was another that could release it. Through Arzaela's mind it had felt Seraphin. The metaloid could succeed where Arzaela had failed. The creature could be freed. They could be one and the universe could be theirs.

Seraphin fought the invasion, the seductive promise of what she most desired if only she surrendered to the creature. The intelligence in the sword was also caught in the pull. It wavered in its defense, the golden jewel dulling.

Sensing weakness the alien pressed the mental attack. Seraphin staggered under the force. Lifting the dragoon with an unsteady hand, she fired at the cocoon.

Even as a tendril of energy snaked out from the cocoon and knocked the dragoon from Seraphin's hand, a wail of pain heard and felt rocked the cavern. Then a rage so palpable it would be death for anything human to stand in its path burst from the alien creature.

Bracing herself, the sword once more blazing brightly, Seraphin forced her way through the waves of accumulated anger.

How long did it take to cross those few feet to the cocoon? Centuries? Seconds? Seraphin could never remember.

Whip-like bursts of energy exploded around her as the sword parried the attack.

United in will, Seraphin and the sword struck, driving deep into the cocoon. For a moment there was a total cessation of sound and movement. A stench like the festering decay of a million years rose from the sac, then a cry of pain that sliced through Seraphin and the planet. Above ground, B'rckt's inhabitants paused and shuddered, even the dullest among them feeling the creature's pain.

Seraphin stabbed again and again, fighting the nausea that threatened to overwhelm her. Blood and placenta covered her arms, dripped from the sword, and still she struck.

Long after the last cries of the alien had ceased their echoing in her mind, Seraphin struck at the cocoon. Only when her arms grew too heavy to lift did she let the sword drop.

A deep rumbling filled the chamber. Seraphin lifted her head. Great cracks opened in the walls even as they slowly began to move. Earth rained from the ceiling.

Destroying the cocoon had restarted the timer on its countdown to B'rckt's destruction.

Seraphin sheathed the sword and started from the gruesome chamber, her sense of direction restored.

She stepped quickly. She would need to find a departing ship.