There was a new sense of urgency which flitted through Claire's thoughts though its source upon which it fed had just walked out of the room; Claire couldn't have cared less whether he lived or died just mere moments ago, but the Lieutenant had suddenly become someone who she would protect, though only out of necessity rather than any actual concern.

She had been young when it had happened, that was for sure; the memories were blurred and unclear with little focus or attention to detail, just a mess of swimming colours and motion. But certainly, she remembered those eyes. Two points of clear bright green which pierced through the empty space between them, staring down at her with cold certainty; that same aura which radiated from the Lieutenant alongside his callous disregard for the wants of others. Was it really him who had been above her staring back down back then? If so, what had happened to his left eye? She faintly recalled muffled voices in the background as well, indistinct and unidentifiable apart from her sister's; there had been the sound of shouting and arguing as well as the general clamour of life, and a faint whistling in the background which she had to assume was howling wind and snow given what she knew now about what the environment had been like now. But certainly he must have been there at some point, and that meant he must have known her sister.

Elain…it had been a long time since Claire last really thought about her sister in spite of the fact that it was only a few years ago that she had disappeared. Her sister had been a hero, she'd kept Claire alive in spite of their parent's deaths during the Cataclysm, and had tried to make the transition go as smoothly as possible for Claire, but still, she had seemed a stranger throughout most of it rather than a big sister. Even before the Cataclysm Elain hadn't been around much; Claire saw little of her during the day and only occasionally noticed her coming home late at night, when she asked her parents about it their faces just darkened and they refused to answer. Claire had never mustered up the courage to ask Elain herself about it even after the Cataclysm, and now…it was impossible to know for sure what she'd actually been doing.

But the Lieutenant knew something, the memory showed that it hadn't been the first time they had met, her sister and the Lieutenant; somehow they had been acquainted even before then, and Claire was determined to find out how. To be involved with the Lieutenant because he had "conveniently" happened to spot her files on the surveillance cameras was one thing, but if he knew something about her elusive sister...Claire just had to know. Her past was shadowy at best, and even though right now she really did have other more important things to be worrying about, the thought gnawed away at her insides.

"I'm going for a walk to get some fresh air; it's too stuffy in here." She said, getting up onto her feet. She couldn't stand this idle waiting; yes they'd agreed to wait here for the Lieutenant before without much complaint: it wouldn't have done anything anyways, but there really was no purpose to sitting around doing nothing. She was taking too long with this already; Valerie and the others would be worried sick by now and without her...she wasn't sure how they were going to find food and other supplies. It'd been a long time since anyone else had gone out to look for them, she was essentially the only one that did nowadays; would they have been able to go out and get more without her?

"We were told to stay here," Jeff said without much conviction, only just barely applying any real effort to keeping her from going. He grabbed her wrist, but Claire could tell that he wasn't really trying from the barely noticeable amount of pressure he applied to her arm.

"There are some things I need to do Jeff," Claire responded quietly, "And they can't wait."

"Is it about that boy from before, the one in the coat who fought that Alpha level?" Katherine said, eyeing Claire carefully.

"In part yes, but I actually have something to say to the Lieutenant." She said after thinking it through; the boy was a curiosity yes, but really her main goal was to find and speak with the Lieutenant. The two things weren't really related, but then...it seemed as though the Lieutenant knew something about the boy as well, so perhaps the two subjects were interchangeable in a way.

"What's so urgent that it can't wait till later? You'll have plenty of time to speak your mind to the Lieutenant when he comes back."

"That's assuming he does come back, he didn't exactly tell us where he was going." Claire responded.

"I'm sure he's in no danger, the Lieutenant doesn't seem the type to take any risks that would place him at any chance for serious harm." Mathew said.

Claire just looked at him, "He dragged us all down here didn't he; I wouldn't say that what we've been through was exactly harmless or risk free. If anything he seems to treat the risk like a challenge, a game of sorts really. I need to do this, stop me if you really think it's that important that I stay but otherwise I'm going to find him, regardless of what you think."

Jeff made as if to get up to bar her path but stopped when Mathew put a hand on his shoulder, "Stop. If that's what she wants then we should let her go."

"But the Lieutena-"

"You said it yourself before, she's not even one of us under pure technicality; the Lieutenant's jurisdiction can only extend so far. She has the right, who are you to stop her."

"She could get hurt, and I don't want the Lieutenant on my ass because I let her leave."

"So is your rear that you're concerned about, of hers." Mathew stared pointedly, his one good eye locking on the Corporal's gaze.

"It's dangerous." Jeff stated simply, seemingly out of arguments.

"Living is dangerous, being a soldier guarding all these civilians on our combat patrols is dangerous, and yet we do it all the time. Life involves risks, and this is one that she willing takes on her own accord. Let her go Jeff."

"Fine," the other soldier said at last, reluctantly sitting himself down. "You're on your own then kid, so be careful. Come back to us in one piece, we'll be waiting."

"I will, after all it's not the first time I've made that promise to someone." Claire responded before slipping outside back into the Block. She stalked out into the empty white corridor as dozens more of the grey suited guards hurried about, heading in the direction of the Holding Complex if her guess was correct. There were echoes of...something here, now that she wasn't caught up in the Lieutenant's rush to get to the Holding Complex, something about this place seemed peculiar, as thought it wasn't quite exactly as it should have been. There was a distracting flickering of the lights above her every so often, faint and hardly noticeable, but it was there none the less; something had to be effecting the power main, perhaps the Alpha level that now lay trapped beneath all that metal hadn't been lying after all. If it really was being used as a big battery then it would make sense that there would be an issue with the lights.

In spite of the inconvenience, she was quite sure by now that she might have been down here before, or at least in a place quite similar to it. The whitewashed walls, the stark blocky black numbers, the scientists who were almost invisible in their coats which matched the decorum of everything else in these chambers, it was all too familiar. Nothing felt new or unusual to her as it should have; instead it was more like coming home after a long time away. There was no anxiety or curiosity, just a dull comfortable familiarity as she strode down through the long hall. She shouldn't have been comfortable, she'd just nearly had a fight with the Lieutenant, and moments before that she was fighting to stay as she was pursued by that massive machine they had called a Hunter Spyder; nothing here should have been reassuring to her at all, and yet it was. There was this unmistakable sense of confidence which accompanied her movements, the way she strode proudly forwards with each step in the very middle of the corridor brightly lit by the lights above.

She walked forwards awhile longer, still searching for the Lieutenant when she spotted a trio of tan coated teens similarly adorned to the light-footed boy who had called her "Eagle Eye" back in the Holding Complex. Mapper, that was what those scientists in the white coats had called him; Claire supposed that these people were cartographers of some sort then, responsible for creating maps perhaps? But then why had that other boy seemed like so much more of a combatant in physique and attitude? She hadn't seen all that much of him even with her keen eyesight, but what little she had had told her that he had been physically fit and saw a lot of work out in the field, not the sort of description you'd expect from someone who worked all day in a map room.

They had numbers stitched onto the front of their coats, and that same number tattooed in black ink onto their cheeks, 197 to 199; it must have been some sort of designation system. She decided to speak to the girl numbered off as 197, who she hoped held the most seniority; as she approached she noticed that the girl was actually missing an arm: from the elbow down her left arm was steely silver which whirred and clicked slowly. They turned as she approached, movements slow and careful beneath their jackets, masking what lay beneath. Their eyes followed her as she drew closer; skimming over her still charred body armor and shouldered scattergun.

"Hello there, do you need something from us?" the other girl asked, her auburn hair doing a little jump as it bounced up off of her shoulders as she turned. She was slimmer than the other girl and though she was a little shorter, she projected a little of an energetic aura which made her seem a little larger than life, whereas the other girl with the mechanical arm seemed to have more of a quiet reserved manner from the way in which she patiently eyed Claire, just watching for now.

"I'm looking for a man who was with me, he's wandered off somewhere and I need to speak to him." Claire responded.

"Oh? Could you describe this man to us then? There are plenty of male techs and guards stationed within this facility." The decidedly older of the two girls responded looking curiously at Claire, her eyes running up and down her foreign clothes.

Claire thought back to the Lieutenant's uniform, all black and silver with yellow epaulets on the shoulders and yellow bands close to the wrists. The glinting wolf, snarling and silver just above the chest pocket, the singular silver bars of a Lieutenant. But most of all, it was that attitude of his; the unconcerned uncaring arrogance mixed with cold calculating logic. That was what made him distinct, so unnervingly different; it was certainly his one most distinguishing feature.

"You would find him dressed as an officer in all black and silver; he refers to himself as the Lieutenant, which you'll see is his rank. You won't miss him, he has this certain air of...superiority which he carries around him." Claire answered.

"Superiority eh? I know the type, but the person I'm thinking of probably isn't your Lieutenant, he's a bit young for that and on top of that he's a Mapper so he's one of ours; haven't seen this Lieutenant of yours around otherwise. Do you know what he planned on doing? We might be able to tell you where he might've gone if you know what he wanted."

Claire didn't have a clue what the Lieutenant had gone out for; the man was almost impossible to read and she next to nothing about him apart from what little she had gleaned of his personality.

"I'm not sure really, he wanted us to stay put while he went out to check some stuff out but beyond that he didn't say much. There's something I need to ask him so I really do need to find him."

"Well I'm sorry then, there's not much we can do to help you in that case. If you need help with anything else though, we'll be around."

"Alright, thanks!" Claire said with false enthusiasm not wanting to seem overly disappointed; really though she hadn't really been excited about anything in ages. She wandered off leaving the small group behind, a little curious to learn more about them but drove on in spite of it fueled by her greater need to find the Lieutenant.

The Lieutenant, Claire had observed, liked to be in the very thick of things; he always seemed to take great pleasure putting himself in the center of everything, much like how he seemed to act as though the world revolved around him. Where he could indulge his habits here though Claire had no idea; most of the action had taken place in that Holding Complex but for once that seemed to be an area which the Lieutenant was keen to be away from. She tried to think on it but found it difficult to concentrate through all the glare, the bright lights overhead created a harsh glare which propagated itself over everything bouncing off of the place's clean white walls, something which Claire despised.

She hated this place, she decided; it was so unnatural and artificial that it almost hurt just to be there under the lights, it felt as though it were burning into her even though the temperature of the chamber itself was relatively cool. It didn't help that she kept having these flashes of old memories in which she was stuck some place similar to this, with all those whitewashed walls and the blurred faces she couldn't quite place, it made her stomach crawl just thinking about the fact that she'd been trapped in a place down here before, she did not like being underground in this place.

She stopped, leaning on the inner edge of the circular hall pulling her bag off of her back fishing out her goggles reflexively stretching the headband in her hands staring into the reflective lenses which scattered the bright white light into brilliant beams as she twirled them around her wrist. Valerie, Claire thought, would be quite worried, and most definitely furious with her for being gone so long; she had after all originally promised to be back within a week. Not that there was anything she could do about it, the moment she had been intercepted by those Stalkers and picked up by Jeff and Mathew her fate had been sealed; the Lieutenant had kept her here with the threat of a bullet through her brain hanging over her head and though he had been civil enough about it, it still was a prison term no matter how you put it.

Claire wondered what Elain would have done in this situation, pulling out the old photograph of the two of them out of her bag without looking away from the goggles. She looked so young in the photograph, smiling in her sister's lap, so very different from her reflection in the goggles now; the little girl in the photograph had been replaced by a lean, exhausted looking teen, with bags under her eyes from combat fatigue and carrying the look of a veteran soldier in her camouflaged jacket and body armor. In that Claire thought she saw a little of Elain herself, in the picture she'd been wearing regular clothes yes, but she'd seen her older sister in her combat fatigues before, looking not so different from the way Claire did now.

She'd tried her best to stay alive and keep herself, Val and the rest of them safe as Elain had asked her too, that fateful final trip out into the frigid wilderness during which she'd disappeared. But for all her sister had taught her in those five short years they had had together, Claire still felt immensely out of her depth here, plunged into this whole new world. All of these people, how had they even managed to stay hidden for so long to such an extent that she never saw any of them, Claire had no idea but certainly, it was a huge change from the way she had viewed the world before. They had been alone, struggling to survive in the middle of a barren wasteland, and now suddenly she found out that there were massive settlements both above and below her, who were not only well adapted to the current environment, but almost flourishing.

It didn't seem fair that they'd been left down there all on their own, struggling just to survive, when all the while they'd known that they were alone down there, Spire city's people at the very least, if with Katherine had said was true. They'd been left out there to die, and if the Lieutenant's attitudes were in any way indicative of those of officials high up in Spire City's command chain, then the rest of them didn't give a damn either. She looked away from her haggard reflection and turned back to the photograph, her own smiling face looking right back at her. It hadn't seemed so bad then when her sister had been around but now in the face of everything she knew now, the thought of going back to living like that was unbearable.

The clack of boots on tile brought Claire's gaze upwards until they reached a familiar pairing of cold grey and green eyes, the very man himself stood before her. The Lieutenant, with his uniform slightly rumpled and hair tousled and out of place from its usually neat form looked to be a little worse for wear, certainly faring less well than Claire remembered him being when he'd left the room.

"I thought I instructed you to stay in that room, my lovely guest; were my instructions unclear?" He seemed a little irritated, but not to the point where he actually seemed to be angry at Claire, instead it seems he was frustrated with something else.

"I thought you were going out to ask some questions and get some answers, not get all messed up Lieutenant," Claire shot back deflecting the comment.

"Information isn't flowing as freely as I'd like it to be so I had to...take some measures and deal with some uncooperative people before I got what I wanted. That, however, has nothing to do with the fact that you disobeyed my orders. Why are you out here, I assume it's for something more than staring at an old photograph yes?"

"I was looking for you actually, and this photograph is quite relevant to why I needed to speak to you." Claire said holding it up to the taller man's face.

"And this couldn't wait why...?" the Lieutenant began slowly.

"Come on, don't give me that, you know who that is don't you? You know who I am, you were there, I remember the voices from my memories, and I can hear you speaking with her." Claire growled, pulling close to the Lieutenant.

"Actually, I don't have a clue who the woman in that photograph is, though I assume the child is you," the Lieutenant replied smoothly, brushing Claire's arm away from his face. "I'm completely serious," he said, lowering his face to her height to look her in the eyes as she began to spit out a response, "I have never once before seen that girl in the photograph."

Claire shook with poorly contained rage, "I heard your voice, you were definitely there wherever it was, my memories are clear on that point."

He stared at her for a moment, then his eyes flickered over to the photograph, fixating on something Claire couldn't see from her angle. "Walk with me," he suddenly started, gesturing for Claire to follow him. Not sure what quite to make of him, she shrugged and fell into step beside him.

"Describe the events of this memory to me, every moment of it to the finest detail in all the clarity that you can muster." He said slow as they walked forwards.

"Why do you need to hear it? I'm telling you, you were there." Claire insisted.

He glared down at her, "Humor me, it's important; that's all I'll say until you tell me more."

For once Claire thought, he seemed to sincerely be interested in hearing about something she had to say; his voice lacked the usual air of sarcasm that it often carried when he spoke to you, that condescending aura was missing. She supposed she had nothing to lose in telling him about it anyways, so she managed to force herself to comply with the Lieutenant's request. "We're in a place similar to this one, all white-washed walls and flashy blue lights and screens that hum with power, I'm there with my sister Elain and there's someone else."

"Describe this Elain to me, tell me a little about her." The Lieutenant interrupted.

"She's the one in this photo, the older girl," Claire said, handing him the photograph. This time, the Lieutenant carefully took the photo from her hands and studied it intently; he closed his eyes for a moment as though thinking on something from long ago and murmured "So it is you then, girl."

"What do you mean by that?" Claire asked, a little taken aback by his reaction.

"Its certain now that I never met you or your sister, but I have a hunch about the voice you did hear, the one you thought was me." He said, looking a little thoughtful. "I'd like to confirm my theories first though if you wouldn't mind, quite possible given that the data should be accessible from computers down here. Come along and I'll show you." He beckoned for Claire to follow.

"If you know, why don't you just tell me."

"Didn't I just say that I'd prefer to confirm my theories first?"

"I heard you, but I'm going to need a little more from you than that before I come along on just your word. How can I even know that what you're telling me is true."

"Do I have any reason to lie?"

"You could have a reason for anything, knowing you I wouldn't be surprised if half the things you've said to me are lies."

"That's a little harsh, don't you think? I've been perfectly reasonable with you thus far; I see no reason for you to begin questioning me now."

Claire deliberated for a moment, still unsure before she remembered that a name had been mentioned, she'd heard her sister say it. "Just tell me one thing then, and I'll go with you."

"And what precisely would that be girl?" the Lieutenant said, looking curious but unafraid.

"Your name, and I mean your real name, none of that Lieutenant junk. I need to hear the name you were born with."

He cocked his head to one side, "And what precisely would telling you my name accomplish? I don't see why you would need it, I'm listed as the Lieutenant in far more records than with my birth name."

"It's important, humor me." Claire said, mimicking what the Lieutenant had said before.

The Lieutenant paused, and then finally walked up to Claire, kneeling to get close to her ear, "My name," he whispered, "is Adrian Stanley Li, and the name you're looking for is one Marcus James Li."

He brought himself back up to his full height and began to walk away. "Now are you going to come along girl, or would you rather continuing living in the darkness of ignorance." He said, beckoning once more.

And this time, Claire followed.

...

"Be advised Phoenix 2-5 you are entering Ex-Aphelion airspace, radio contact will be lost with further advancement into this territory." There, that was it, the last radio message they would hear for a long while, their radio control tower operator warning them of their impending disappearance from the communications grid.

"Roger that Phoenix 2-5 acknowledges, dropping off the package now; expected reestablishment of radio contact 72 hours from present time."

"Good Luck, send our regard to the Colonel, Border Control 6-9 out."

Now completely alone, the assault shuttle continued forwards into Aphelion airspace slicing through thick cloud layers and icy vapour as it soared above the wreckage that lay below it, its twin engines firmly nestled in the smooth frame humming softly was their multitude of blades rotated in their cowlings pushing torrents of air downwards in order to suspend the twenty five meter long shuttle in the air. It was the first aircraft to enter Aphelion on working engines since the onset of the Cataclysm some twelve years ago, and aboard were a dozen of the finest men and women who had survived the war and its final bloody culmination and nuclear finale.

"Sir, we have unidentified radar contacts closing fast from our port side!" the pilot snarled back at the passenger compartment. On the array of instruments displayed in the cockpit three green dots converged on the image of the shuttle.

"Identify the radio frequency and hail the incoming contacts, if there's still activity in this zone twelve years after the missile strikes I want to know why." Colonel Krauz, a plain looking man in black uniform shouted orders back to the pilot. He had been assigned to the team as their leader, and was one of the best left alive who might possibly be up to the job they were about to undertake. His unimpressive stature and quite forgettable features meant that he often went by unnoticed, these were traits ideally suited to the task they were about to undertake. Still though, before they could do any of that they would have to arrive at their intended destination first.

"Hailing frequencies open, no response! Contacts within visual range and are visible on our left!" the passengers aboard warily glanced outwards where three cloud-grey aircraft moved in close to flank the assault shuttle. Their ghostly thin forms cruised smoothly by, flashing long wings visibly loaded with a multitude of weapons before they flicked red lights and scanners across the shuttle's outer hull casting an eerie red glow on its surface. The round domes which hung beneath the body of the unidentified flyers rotated slowly as they flew on past continuing to track the shuttle's movements with the multitude of sensors which were embedded into their surfaces; creating the unpleasant impression of being watched by the compound eyes of a massive insect.

There was a crackling hiss on the speaker systems and suddenly a deep mechanical voice emitted itself from the ports above the passengers. [Communications frequencies locked and stabilized, assimilating systems.] Cold and emotionless, the voice seemed to seep out from every direction with no single detectable source.

"What the hell is going on?! Technician get on this right now!" the Colonel shouted to a grey coated man who scurried over to a side panel on the shuttle and hastily began prying off plates to expose electronic panels beneath.

[You are being...analyzed, visitor.] In the center of the passenger cabin, the tactical display thrummed to life on its own without any command or input from the human passengers. With a flash a translucent avatar of a hooded man with six birdlike wings grafted onto his shoulders appeared in bright crimson from the display, leaving the humans shocked into inaction.

[Welcome, to Aphelion civilians...and military personnel.] the Avatar glanced around the cabin interior before settling its gaze on Colonel Krauz as it finished its statement. [It has truly been awhile indeed since this city has had guests.]

"Who are you, and what is this? What are you doing to this military aircraft, are those your vehicles outside?" Quickly recovering from the sudden shock, Colonel Krauz stepped forwards to face the Avatar at the panel, calm and controlled now that his initial surprise had passed.

[Colonel Krauz...the last time my records were updated you were listed as a Major in a very different branch from the one you are currently employed under. It is interesting to note that a member of the Department of Technology and Research is unaware of the A.I which was assigned to handling Aphelion and its surrounding local sectors.] the A.I's avatar grew in size until it stood at the same height as a normal adult would, dominating the interior of the cabin with its presence and filling it with crimson light.

[I am Overwatch Ap-1i-SO, First order Artificial Intelligence and Supreme Overseer of what little remains of this super-city. I have synchronized my signal frequency with that of this shuttle so as to communicate you, a common occurrence in the earlier days of this city system but I would conclude from your prior question that this is no longer something you recall easily. That is all that I am doing to this primitive vessel, it is unfortunate to see that standards of technology have regressed since the days of my passing. As for the Hawk-X1 units outside, yes, they are under my command and no, they are not currently under any directives to harm you.]

"And what is it that you want, Overwatch?" the Colonel said, holding up a hand behind him to stay the questions of the others who had clustered close by now, eager to ask questions of their own.

[What is it that I want? First you must answer what is it that you want; why is it that only after twelve years, by the reckoning of my internal systems that humans once again grace the skies of Aphelion, the former capitol of this vast expanse. Why come back, after such a lengthy period of neglect.] the Avatar's wings flared forwards in an aggressive manner, almost as though the A.I was upset; not unheard of since the A.I's had been coded with a capacity to still 'feel' emotion, it was just rather uncommon especially for an A.I assigned to handling such a vast area. While more localized A.I's had been known to develop real personalities and actively interact with the individuals they supervised larger scale Overseers such as Overwatch tended to be more aloof and detached, and seldom showed signs of such behaviour.

"We're here for the ship, the Realmshifter. You know of what I speak, do you not?" the Colonel paused, "I can bring it up here on the tactical display if you'd lik-"

[I know of what you speak, and were I ignorant of such I could easily access the files through this uplink I have established with your vessel.] the A.I intoned, solemn and cold. [What value does an Orbus class Destroyer hold to you now. Has the fighting still not end?]

"The war may be over now, but that doesn't mean that the fighting has stopped; they enemy isn't just going to lay down and die after twenty seven straight years of fighting, outside of here, the fight is still fresh. Space is the only place we've got left to fight over; we turned this entire planet to a barren ball of ash. We need every space capable vessel we've got, and if there's a complete vessel just sitting in the dry docks rotting then we may as well take her and use her. She's a fine ship, even after twelve years of disuse, we've other Orbus class vessels in operation and they've been serving just fine. We need that ship, she'll be a huge boon to our efforts."

The A.I bent down to bring its face level with Colonel Krauz, the 6 wings of its avatar arching forwards to encircle the man in a ring of crimson, 'looking' at him with the empty black pit of darkness that was its hooded face. [You will find that the Shipyards of Aphelion...are not fit for your presence, you should turn back.]

"Not fit for our presence, what do you mean by that?" The Colonel's eyes narrowed, filled with a mix of curiosity and suspicion.

[You will find that the situation down there is...untenable at best. It is inadvisable for you to enter those grounds.] the A.I's avatar seemed to fidget as though it were avoiding the issue, and it drew back lessening the threatening aura it had been projecting.

"Then make it so that it's tenable, we need that ship. You're the city A.I aren't you? You should be able to fix things up down there, you're the Overseer."

The avatar took a full step back onto the center of the display and its wings drooped slightly. [Were it so easy, I would already have done it. Alas, the Overseer is no more, my reach extends only to the skies above; I cannot actually control any of the remaining functional circuits in this frozen wasteland below. I still have eyes, the cameras are still mine to observe but I cannot exert any will of my own beyond that which I channel through these Hawk-X1 units which you see outside. I cannot assist you.] As it said its final words, the A.I's tone changed in tone, sounding almost disappointed.

"Impossible, you are the Supreme Overseer, there's nothing that is beyond your reach."

[The world is not as it once was, my power has waned during my lengthy period of slumber, it was only just recently that I was reactivated; by all rights I should have been deleted anyways, it is only by some fluke that I am still here to greet you.] The Avatar seemed to wilt, fading slightly.

"So you're saying that you shouldn't even be around then; why then should I listen to an A.I who by all rights should have been deactivated."

[Because I remain fully functional in spite of my unanticipated survival, and I still have a primary objective to fulfill in terms of preserving human lives; do not enter the shipyards, there is nothing but death for you there.]

"I remain unconvinced at the moment, tell us what you know and I'll make our decision from there."

[I had forgotten the face of human arrogance, but it seems it has not changed much even after all of this time,] the A.I said flaring its wings regaining a little of its confidence. It seemed to snort dismissively before beginning to speak anew, giving in after a moments more of hesitation. [A machine of unknown type has...occupied the area, slaughtering all who enter. From what I have observed countless lives have already been lost to it; a small population of people appears to have been inhabiting the shipyards in the past, but all that is left of them are dozens of desiccated corpses and walls and floors splattered and splashed with blood. Your deaths shall be all that is accomplished if you enter; I have recordings from the cameras of hundreds of incidences involving this machine, all of them fatal. Turn back Colonel, there is nothing for you here.] the Avatar gestured to its side, [You can see it here now,] Overwatch intoned as it projected an image of 0.03 from the tactical display in all his vicious glory, the dark metal of his frame slick with blood and arms transformed into brutal killing instruments which hummed with lethal power.

Colonel Krauz turned back to address the crowd which he had silenced earlier, "So, any of you guys recognize this thing, cause I sure as hell have never seen anything like it and I'm from the Department of Tech."

Eyes stared and heads shook until the Colonel's gaze settled on one of the guards who had volunteered to escort the rest of them on the mission to seize the Destroyer standing near the back of the crowd. She was one of the younger members amongst the group considering all of them were veterans of the war, she looked to be no older than thirty and she held herself with a sort of haughty and detached demeanor, but most of all it was the way in which her eyes seemed to bore into the projected image of the war machine, a penetrating gaze which seemed to pierce right through the combat robot's blood slicked steel.

"You...Corporal Shaw was it?" He said, looking carefully at the name plate just above the breast pocket. "You look like you have something on your mind, perhaps you'd like to share it with me?"

"Not particularly sir, it's nothing consequential." She said, her gaze still locked on the machine.

"And yet you look as though you know something about this machine."

"I know of its ilk," she said with a disgusted look, "I've seen those things before; they're like the Stalkers, things we made and then abandoned so that on their own they became...more than what they once were. It's a war machine just like the rest of them, no different." She was seemingly dismissive of the robot, but Krauz thought he could detect a hint of something else beneath it. What exactly it was though he couldn't identify.

"Then please elaborate on the specifics of what it is, and what it can do. If we're going to face that thing I need to know; you volunteered to come as a guard to escort us, didn't you? This will help you perform that duty."

[Yes, do go ahead, I would just love to hear what you have to say.] the hooded Seraph that was Overwatch suddenly inserted itself back into the conversation.

She glared at it, "You know already, stop screwing around A.I. You were there, you helped to make it happen."

[If I knew once, then that knowledge is no longer part of my systems. Enlighten me woman, this killing machine demands an answer.]

"Why should I? I told you the specifics of it are inconsequential."

"Why shouldn't you? I don't see why you're so reluctant to talk about it when clearly it's going to be a problem." This was beginning to get frustrating, and it was starting to show on the Colonel's face.

[Your reluctance is quite suspicious, were I your superior I would hold you for interrogation.]

"You're not such hot stuff yourself for an A.I which should be dead." Corporal Shaw shot back.

[Your impertinence is un-necessary. I have told you all I can.] The A.I's avatar flickered once and then vanished from the platform; in the distance they could see the Hawk X-1 units peeling away from the shuttle. Shaw let out a sigh, seeming to suddenly relax.

"What was all that about?"

"Didn't you hear me, that thing was there when those Alpha levels were being made, it helped to design them."

"Alpha level? Is that what it is? I've never heard of such a thing, I never thought we made it past beta level intelligences for independent units."

"Well we did Colonel, with the help of a couple dozen A.I's that is, Overwatch included. We created the most potent war machine that the world has ever seen, and then we taught it how to make copies of itself, fools, the lot of them all were. Those scientists should never had given them such freedom and independence."

"Wait, you mean there's more than one of those things out there?"

"That is probably the case though I can't quite confirm for certain for you."

"Are they as lethal as that A.I made them look?"

"Worse, he only showed you the aftermath, not the thing in action. It moves so quickly your eyes can't keep up with it and it has immense strength that belies its thin frame; that thing will kill you before you can even blink. It's fast enough to dodge bullets and it makes Stalkers and other Beta levels look like toys." The woman's tone was relaxed and almost joking as though she were casually describing how a wolf dismembered a small animal with ease, relaxed and unconcerned in spite of the repercussions of what she was saying.

"So what do we do then, we need that ship but I can't risk the lives of this entire crew, it that thing is anything like you and the A.I made it appear as, it'll slaughter us."

"I told you, it's irrelevant if that Alpha level is there, I'll handle it." She still remained unnervingly calm.

"And why exactly should I believe that you can do that after everything you've just told me?"

She looked away towards the window as though she were focusing on a far away object, not meeting the Colonel's eyes. "Because my name is Elain Shaw, First Slayer of Machines."

...

Mark zoned out for a moment, thinking about what Daren had said until it came to him, "The Oblivion Ring Project." He muttered. "That's where she's from."

"What the hell is that; are you talking about Claire?" Valerie asked, looking concerned.

"No, not her though she is related to all of this. I mean her sister, Elain; she is the one who mattered in regards to all of this, not the younger girl." Mark answered slowly.

"Claire's sister? She's been missing for years now, she disappeared on a foraging trip." Valerie said, surprised. "What does this have to do with her anyway?"

This time, it was Mark's turn to look surprised, "She didn't tell you about it? I would've thought that after what she went through she would have told you to keep you from ever making the decision that she saw as the biggest mistake in her entire life."

"Elain didn't speak much about her past, and given the circumstances I wasn't about to ask if it wasn't something she brought up herself. She was good at finding supplies and keeping us alive, and that was all I really cared about."

"So you don't know what she caused then?"

"No, I don't, and I don't particularly care about what she did in the past to be honest."

"She...was indirectly, and I mean very indirectly responsible for the entire war that has reduced this city and I suspect much greater parts of the world to this frozen wasteland."

I did tell you that your little pet project would lead to trouble... The voice echoed through his head, back again to mirror his thoughts.

The woman laughed, "I find it difficult to imagine one woman starting a war, she wasn't exactly a princess or something."

"No, but she was a specially designed and modified machine killer." Mark said, his tone more serious.

"Machine killer? Forgive me, but I didn't see her doing much in the way of breaking machines except for when she helped us rip open old vehicles to get at their parts. She seemed to be fairly normal to me."

You made a monster, a walking killing machine designed to take down the most advanced creations ever made by humankind. The voice hissed, cold and unyielding.

"We changed her, made her more...capable, physically and mentally. Enhanced senses of hearing, smell, and sight, tripled reaction time, quadrupled regenerative ability of internal systems, increased durability by mating a heavy carbon fibre with the skeletal frame, and decreased sensitivity to pain and stress." He paused, "These were just a few of the many augmentations, there were many more, and other nations...didn't like what they heard when they found out about it."

"And what exactly displeased them so much about you creating super soldiers, everyone's done it I'm sure." Valerie said, looking skeptical.

He stopped again, seemingly staring at nothing, "We broke the treaty; in a world ruled by machines and artificiality we made a thing of flesh and blood." You might not understand, since you weren't up there with all the government officials like I was," Mark took out his handgun, carefully keeping it pointed at the floor while showing off the symbol of the wolf's paw inlaid into a circle etched onto the slide, the insignia of a lieutenant commander. "We were losing the war of production, other countries were outstripping us in terms of their capability to produce war machines and we were afraid; we'd made many enemies over the course of the years and though we were the most technologically advanced nation state on the continent, we were also one of the smallest, and surrounded on three sides by potentially hostile states."

There was the clink of plates as they were set into the wash basin, "War is coming brother, can't you see it? It is inevitable that it will break out eventually with the way things are. You and I will serve, regardless of what we try to do. I hope you're prepared for what they'll make us do, given out respective talents.

Oh, how I should have paid more attention to your comments Adrian, Mark thought, finally identifying the voice that had stuck with him since he regained use of his lost memories. "The world as it was, was built upon the promises of politicians and the likes of their ilk; deceitful vipers, the lot of them. We were strong, but we wanted to be stronger, to be beyond challenge of anybody and so we strove for greater heights of technological perfection until at last we hit the roof; the Alpha level intelligence was born." He turned to Fredrick and the rest of the squad, "We have seen the products of our efforts in that field, lethal killing machines that can dismantle entire armies on their own."

"And Claire's sister, Elain, how did she affect this situation?" Valerie asked.

"She upset the parity, didn't she Lieutenant Commander." Will suddenly said from the far doorway, speaking up for the first time though he had been listening intently throughout. Mark narrowed his eyes, and nodded slightly, telling the boy to continue. "That precious balance of power between the other states with their greater numbers and man power, and our technological superiority; by changing her the way you did, you destroyed that balance. I was very young then, but I heard enough about it from Val and Elain; machines dominated the world and everything revolved around them. Conflicts were waged almost entirely by autonomous robots or remotely piloted frames." He stopped. "And you, you went ahead and designed an organic being, capable of thinking and adapting seeing as you used a regular person, and you turned it into a machine killer, something capable of dismantling the eighty percent of the things created in the past two decades."

"Yes, that's correct."

"And to top it off, you breached a treaty which specifically stated that no state would ever do such a thing, a treaty which we, Aphelion, happened to spearhead."

"For one who must have been so young at the time of the Cataclysm, you are quite knowledgeable on the state of affairs prior to it."

"I had some time to do a little reading alongside what I learned from my fellows here." Will responded coolly.

"You must have had more than just time...she told you some of this, didn't she." Mark said,.

"Perhaps she did, what of it?"

"Why then, does it seem that only you know of this information, and not the rest of your companions here?"

"Beats me, I suppose I was the only one who ever asked about those sorts of things."

"And where exactly did the fuel for that curiosity come from?"

"I wanted to know which bastards destroyed the world I lived in when I was five years old." There was a stony silence following Will's statement, and Mark felt the rest of his squad mates' eyes boring into him.

"Funny that..." Mark muttered quietly under his breath. "If we had more time, I could probably tell you a couple more stories on that topic." He said out loud.

"Yeah I'll bet." Fredrick smirked.

"Please don't be rash sir." Daren hissed.

Mark glared, "Yes, this is already going to be difficult enough, don't complicate things, sir."

"We're missing a little some here, aren't we..." Valerie commented.

"Nothing to do with you, you needn't be worried." Mark responded, silencing Fredrick with a look. His technically superior officer shook his head in mild disgust, but took no further action.

The boy seemed unconvinced, but seemed content to comment no further. He strode out from the doorway. "So you seem to have met Elain at one point, how is that possible?"

"It's a bit of a long story."

"We have time, don't we? Come on, let's hear it."

Mark looked to the others for help, but stopped when Daren gave him a knowing look; while they might not openly flaunt his implicit involvement in the city's destruction and the abandonment of the people still here, they weren't going to help him explain all of this either. He was on his own for this one.

~Slightly less than twelve years ago, four hours post Cataclysm. Aphelion city outskirts.

The wind howled past Mark's face, blowing snow and ice shards up into his eyes. He could feel the dull sub-sonic thrumming of the hovering APC radiate through the ground into his body as it sped past him. Mechanized Recon, a scouting unit equipped with armored vehicles tasked with moving ahead of the main combat force to take the first look at the area, that's what they were. He was new to the squad, a last minute addition to replace another nameless foot soldier who'd been cut down in the fighting; the war was already coming to its closing stages as the enemy closed in around Aphelion. And now, he found himself here in the midst of a bullet ridden firestorm of a combat zone, thrown into the very thick of things. He heard someone shout "Take Cover!" and sprinted towards the APC ducking behind it; half a second later a massive explosion shook the earth, spraying Mark with snow and debris despite the protection offered by the vehicle knocking him to the ground. Aphelion's borders were no longer secure and surrounded on all sides, high command had sent Mark and the rest of his squad out to recon the perimeter in an attempt to find a passageway through which they could stage a break out and escape. The war between the fringe and central states had escalated to the point of all out war, with the two opposing sides now vying control for the continent. The front lines of this war had swept forwards through vast swathes of land consuming them until they were left as burning ashes and smoking ruins, until now as the nation-state of Aphelion staged its final stand at its namesake capitol. Aphelion stood upon the brink of defeat and even now its enemies clawed at its defenses, hoping to crash through the battered city's gates.

The scouting mission was a failure, they'd been detected and pinned down from all sides by steadily increasing enemy fire; bullets hissed through the air all around Mark, and he could hear the sharp *ping!*s as they struck the armor of the APC. The enemy forces had brought in heavy armor to support their assault and were even bringing in the thunder from heavy artillery, attempting to pummel Mark's squad into Oblivion. Unable to escape the squadron strength had already fallen to only 70%; they'd left six of their own lying dead in the snow as they tried to push through the enemy forces which were slowly closing in. Even now they were closing the net tighter and tighter, shadow silhouettes of enemy infantry racing about around them as they slowly forcing them into a pocket with no place to go.

"Move faster dammit! They're going to cut us off!" one of the younger soldiers shouted.

"Can't leave the APC, or we'll be cut to shreds. This is fast as we can go Corporal." Lieutenant Williams responded. Mark's squad was basically huddled around the APC advancing along with it using it as a mobile piece of cover. The gunner manning the machine gun on top was the only thing keeping the enemy infantry from swarming them and over running their position. It let off a dull thrumming which could barely be heard over the gunfire, the flux generators beneath it suspending it above the ground allowing it to move without any contact with the terrain producing constant speed which was mostly unhindered by uneven ground, however the design did impose a limit on the speeds at which the vehicle could move. And so they huddled around the outside of the APC, unable to enter for fear of the vehicle itself being struck by artillery fire if it stopped to let them aboard, and surrounded by a deadly rain of bullets on the outside of its protective hull.

Through the hissing of bullets and the explosions of artillery shells around them, Mark heard the howling of the wind slowly pick up; snow and ice began to blot out his surroundings reducing visibility to almost zero. To his left, he heard the murderous howl of an artillery shell plunging out of the sky, and a moment later he was tossed face-first into the snow amongst a cacophony of explosions and shouting. Moments after hitting the snow, he heard another harsh crackling originating from directly to his left; the APC had been struck by the artillery shell and had taken critical damage, and was now proceeding to rip itself apart as the unshielded flux generators repelled everything around them away from their centers. With one last crackle, they sparked and glowed white hot before detonating in a violent explosion kicking up snow and ice in all directions. Mark was sent sprawling once more and he tumbled and turned at least three times before he rolled slowly to a painful halt, a dozen meters distance from the charred wreckage of the APC.

"Sound off! Give me a status report!" Fredrick's voice crackled over the comms.

"Grey One here, shaken up by the blast, but I'm fine."

"Grey Two still here, I'm with Four and Five."

"Grey Four here, I've got eyes on the enemy."

"Grey Five is alive."

Mark pulled himself up onto his feet. "Grey Seven here. Took a beating from the explosions, but I'm still with you."

"Grey Eight, alive and kicking."

"Grey Nine, ready and waiting."

There was silence across the comm. channels. Grey Three, Six, Ten and Eleven were missing. Three had been piloting the APC, and Ten had been manning the gun, so they were most likely already K.I.A, but the whereabouts of Six and Eleven were more open to questioning. As the snow continued to fall in blinding sheets, the remainders of the squadron began to regroup by the smoking ruins of the APC. The din of bullets and artillery shells around them slow began to fade as the enemy forces gave up on pursuing them due to the thickening snowstorm.

"We need to get back to HQ and deliver our report." Five buzzed over the comms.

"Negative Five, enemy forces are too close to risk making a break for it, besides, without the APC we'd never make it out. The storm offers us some cover for now, but it also makes it too difficult to get back out of here; we'll need to find some shelter to wait out the storm. Grey Four, give me the location of the nearest building." Fredrick replied back.

"We have several options Lieutenant, but I recommend a civilian establishment 100 meters northeast of our position. Five storey apartment; should've been evacuated along with the general evacuations before the Calistans advanced into the city. Should have enough room for all of us, and should provide the shelter you want."

"Give us the coordinates Susan, we've got zero visibility conditions out here. We'll be traveling HUD only so don't bother with visual directions. Lead the way Susan and we'll follow your trail."

"Roger that Grey Leader, uploading coordinates to your heads up displays now. Everyone got them?"

"Yes"

"Yeah"

"Got 'em Four."

"Yes Susan, lead the way."

"Alright squad, follow me and stick tight, it's easy to get lost in this weather."

~Present day, Twelve years post Cataclysm. Former Aphelion central residency area.

"Your memory on the events of that day is remarkably clear in spite of your former...difficulties to recall anything that went on before that Mark." Fredrick noted, calmer than he had been before.

"That was a rather rough couple of days if I recall." Susan said, looking a little glum thinking back on what they'd gone through. "I did manage to find us a place to hide out though; wasn't too bad if I do say so myself."

"We survived, and that's more than the rest of our squad can say." Daren reminded them quietly.

"Yes, we did though at a cost..." Mark acknowledged.

"So you guys trekked out a ways and from the looks of it, found a place to stay out of the firing line, but that still doesn't explain how you met Elain."

"I told you it's a long story, didn't I? I'll get to that part eventually, this stuff here leads into it; you said you wanted the full story so I'm giving it to you."

"Well pause for a moment, there are some details which I want to get cleared up." Valerie interrupted.

"Go ahead then. Ask your questions." Mark said.

"You said you were a Lieutenant Commander, but you say now that you served under Frederick here, a lieutenant. Explain to me how that works."

"There were some...complications so I had to disappear towards the end of the war; my files and records were wiped clean and I was discretely reassigned to an infantry squad where I was supposed to...blend in, you could say."

"As a lieutenant commander you would have been quite high ranking, but I don't see how that position could have put you under any real duress, you weren't a general or anything."

"Rank isn't everything, I had...connections, which made me important."

"You're a rather evasive one, aren't you." Valerie commented, her arms crossed.

"And that evasiveness has helped to keep us alive thus far; my priorities have been staying alive, not remembering what happened so long ago in the past so that I can retell my story to those that I meet."

"Yes but you still could be a little more informative, as it is you're basically sidestepping every question we ask. Just who are you really, you're acting quite suspicious you know?"

"I'm a former ranking officer of the military; a member of the armed forces that fought and failed to keep this city safe, and a fellow survivor who also has managed to survive this mess. There are things I know that I will not tell you and will keep to myself, and these things are of no threat to you, and would not benefit our current situation. So excuse me if I choose to keep these things to myself, but I think I'm entitled to some degree of privacy."

"You'd think there would be a little more appreciation and trust for the people who let you into their refuge in the middle of this hell zone, you'd be a goner without us."

"Some things are best not said, what I'm not telling you is amongst these things. Trust me when I say that you'd rather not know."

"And the man says 'ask your questions.' Pfft, ask me anything my ass." Mark looked away from the woman, seemingly indifferent to her comments.

"I'm telling you what I can alright, try and work with me here please, I don't ask this from you without reason."

"Whatever, you can't answer anything about those questions, but you did say you'd tell us about Elain yes? Let's get on with that story of yours."

Mark looked away, but finally said, "Fine by me; it went something like this..."

~Six hours Post Cataclysm, outer city districts, Aphelion

Mark took a long look at his surroundings, taking in the unfamiliar look of the civilian dwelling. It was a far cry from the frigid winter storm howling outside but still, even though in better times having a place like this to stay would've made for one of his better nights rests, the strangeness of the current events kept him on his toes. He was jumpy, though the rest of his squad seemed to have settled in quite nicely to this dwelling which Susan had picked out, he didn't like the feel of the place, his nerves felt raw and frayed as though he had just been through an enormous amount of stress; certainly he had just barely clawed his way through a warzone but he had been trained for all of that. This was something deeper that went beyond the combat stress, something which he...couldn't identify, as though he had once known but had forgotten.

They were somewhere on the outskirts of the city, using an old civilian cubicle type layout standard to the civilian complexes of the state these squared off chambers had once housed the vast majority of the population; now though they lay barren and shattered open, exposing their long hallways and numerous rooms and chambers to the frigid winter air and bitter cold. Most of the rest of his squad was down in several of the lower levels of the complex, which were still relatively well protected from the environment but Mark wanted to get as good a look as he could of what was around outside, and to do that he had had to climb higher up. Alone, he wandered down the empty hallway, half lost in thought as he peered into each room which he passed by trying to see past the thick snowfall. His footsteps echoed around him, creating the impression of a multitude of people jogging quickly through the hall, and through it he suddenly thought that he heard something else from a room up ahead to his left, the creaking of a door. There was no one else up here with him, so warily, he leveled his sidearm and slowly drew up to the doorway.

The door was slightly ajar, an oddity amongst the rest which were either open or locked and frozen shut, and Mark thought he could see faint beams of light creeping through from the bottom and unsealed slit; he readied himself and took a step back before rushing forwards and kicking in the doorway, crashing into the chamber with his weapon raised. A lamp flickered on the top of a drawer and the window for the cubicle had been sealed shut with some sort of plastic film; the sheets on the chamber's bed were rumpled from use and there were marks on the dusty floor indicating recent inhabitancy. Seeing a strange looking object at the foot of the bed, he began to crouch down to pick it up when he felt the cold steel of a blade up against his neck.

Mark froze in his half-crouched position, eyes fixed intently on the blade at his throat. The short four inch blade hovered by his neck, its dull grey blade glinting ever so slightly in the dim light of the poorly illuminated room.

"Try anything or make any sudden movements, and I'll slit your throat, got it?" Mark's attacker said from somewhere behind him. Her voice sounded like that of a girl's; and though he couldn't see his attackers face, he could see her bare arm, which was rather pale and slender, not unusual for a resident of Aphelion, but he could also see long ridges of muscle running up its length, which was much less common, amongst civilians anyways. Mark said nothing in response to the question, and stiffened when he felt the blade press in tighter against his throat; there was a slight twinge of pain as the blade broke the skin and a small trickle of hot blood began to make its way down his neck.

"Don't you understand what I'm saying? I'd like an answer so that I can be sure you understand what I want you to do, if you don't respond I will dispose of you." Mark said nothing, letting his blood continue to trickle down the side of his neck. He was very much tempted to try for his gun which was still in his hand, pointed downwards at the floor but he knew that he would be too slow. Where was the rest of his squad, hadn't they heard the commotion that was going on up here?

"Answer me!" the girl snarled, pressing the blade in.

"Move that knife away from my throat and I just might." Mark said flatly, lips pressed tightly together.

"It's funny that you're still making demands, seeing as I'm the one holding the knife." The girl hissed, and Mark felt something lightly tap his hand which was still clutching his gun. "Drop the gun, or I'll drop you."

"Drop me and you'll have bigger problems, there's a whole combat-recon squad on the floor below you who will rip you apart if you kill me."

"Do you really think I couldn't get out of here before they got up here to me? Don't be ridiculous; if you're going to threaten me at least do it properly, you government dog."

Mark paused, frozen in thought, still staring downwards but now not at the knife, but back at the object that had originally drawn his attention in the first place. There was a photograph on the floor picturing two girls, one was much older than the other but Mark could still see some similarities between them. The differences in their age was obvious but not so great that the older one might be the other's mother, so Mark supposed that they must be sisters or something along those lines.

"You might be able..." Mark said quietly, "but I don't think the same could be said of your younger sister."

"What would you know about my sister?" The words came slowly and methodically, as the knife inched in further towards his throat.

"Well wouldn't you like to know," Mark hissed back, gambling his life on his bluff.

"Perhaps I will," the girl said, and Mark felt his gun pulled out of his hand before he had time to react. The knife withdrew from his throat, but Mark heard the distinctive clack of the pistol's slide being racked behind him and then the sound of a round tumbling to the floor. "I see you already had a round in the chamber, quite prepared for action scout." There was a pause in the girl's speech; Mark felt as though he was being examined as though he were a specimen. "You can turn around and stand up now scout, but do it slowly or I'll blow your brains out."

Mark stood slowly, rising up without turning, still waiting for that pull of the trigger that could end his life in an instant. "Don't shoot me now, I'm sure we can work this out." He said more calmly, in a manner closer to his normal way of speaking.

"Turn around and show me you face." Mark though he detected a hint of hesitation in the girl's voice now, strange really, when just moments before it had been full of confidence.

"Looking for somebody?" Mark asked apprehensively, finding the request to be rather odd.

"Turn around!" the girl shouted, ignoring his question; Mark felt the gun bump against his head.

In a flash he twisted around and went for the gun, slashing downwards with his arms to get the barrel pointed away from him even as it discharged one of its armor piercing rounds into the ground by his feet. The girl, who he glimpsed only briefly pulled back even as he slapped the gun from her hands and circled around him in a blur of motion and Mark struggled to keep pace until it suddenly plunged forwards and rammed right into him. Though the girl had seemed to be a thin frail thing from what Mark had seen, he felt as though he had just been hit by a large sized vehicle; the impact forced the air from his lungs and left him wheezing on the ground.

He went for the gun which was close by on the ground but a swift kick from the girl's black booted foot sent it flying off; no matter, the rest of his squad would have heard the gunshot and would be coming up here to investigate. That didn't mean that he could afford to get sloppy now though, there was still plenty of time for his assailant to put a bullet through his brain. He felt an elbow connect with his chin and slammed into the ground once again, caring much less now that he was certain that backup was coming; the girl could do whatever she wanted now as long as she didn't kill him—his thoughts stopped short though we he found himself staring down the barrel of his gun from the floor, the lean girl's thin brown hair shrouding her face in shadow even as she stared down at him.

For what seemed to be an eternity, the girl stared down upon him, unmoving and still. Mark noted the strange almost uniform-like shirt which she wore, and the run of the mill plain looking pants, uncommon clothing for civilians who usually enjoyed adorning themselves in bright flash colours which only they, unrestricted by protocol or requirements of office, were able to wear. Instead they were unobtrusive and drab; the clothes of someone who wanted to disappear into a crowd, though crowds no longer existed in Aphelion by this time. The build too was uncommon for a civilian, not because of the slenderness of the girl, but the slight hints of heavy muscle beneath the casual clothing, not the sort of body plan you would expect for your average officer cubicle worker. Even while Mark took all of this in her eyes bored back into him; he couldn't see them, but he could feel their pressure, chilling him to the bone with their emanating waves of raw hatred.

She whispered something, which Mark found immensely odd and out of place and the gun crept closer towards him, hovering perhaps a foot away until she stopped again.

"I should kill you, but I won't," the words were full of an inexplicable loathing.

"And why would that be?" Mark asked, at the time, confused.

"You know why you sick bastard; don't pretend that you don't know."

"I really have no idea what you're talking about."

Through the darkness Mark could make out a sneer of disgust on the girl's face, her lips pulling back into an ugly snarl, she spat towards the ground by his feet as they both felt the vibration of his fellow squad mates thundering up the stairs towards them.

"I don't know what you did to yourself, but I hope I never see you again." She hissed, and her arm became a blur of motion, and then Mark saw nothing but darkness.

...

~Present day, Twelve years post Cataclysm. Former Aphelion central residency area

"So that's it then, that's how you met her? If you only met her that recently then she can't possibly be the super-soldier you made her out to be."

There was more, but Mark didn't think that it would be a good idea for him to talk about it. His past as the supervisor of the Oblivion Ring Project would not be well received; desperate times or not, pulling young teens out of homeless shelters to be forcefully converted into elite shock troops could not possibly be taken well, especially not by civilian personnel like them. Valerie had been part of the police core but Mark doubted that she would be any more understanding than the rest of them; so seeing how she was in charge and probably could kick them all back out into the snow it was probably best that he said nothing about what he'd done in his past as Marcus. Marcus was dead; he had died twelve years ago when he had signed off the orders to drop six nuclear warheads on and around Aphelion, when he had stepped into that cold cold chamber which stripped away his memories and spat and drilled a fake past into the deepest corners of his mind.

"The details are classified, but that's when I saw her last, and that's when the rest of my squad met her, or so they tell me."

"We found him alone, out cold by the doorway," Susan said, picking up the conversation. "The room showed signs of recent inhabitancy in the form of a still warm lamp that must have been in use, and what looked to be freshly opened packaging for food of some sort, but beyond that there was nothing. We searched the room but there was nothing else so we turned to leave taking Mark with us, intending to ask him about what happened afterwards when he woke, and that was when she showed up. A shadow fell upon us and we could see the outline of someone pointing a weapon at all of us, so we froze where we were."

"So she came back to stop you guys then?" Will interrupted.

"Stop us? I wouldn't say that exactly. The girl, who is your Elain if Mark is to be believed told us not to move and removed something else from the room; we never found out what it was because we couldn't turn to face her."

"So how do you know it was even her?"

"I know it was her, I would remember that face if I saw it anywhere." Mark answered. "I can't talk about it but I knew her from even before that instance."

"What from?"

"I just said I can't talk about it."

"Honestly, is it really that important that you can't talk about it now, after all these years have passed? You're not a government agent anymore Lieutenant Commander, no one's going to come after you."

They didn't understand; Mark didn't want them to understand anyways. No one understood him, no one could ever understand why he had done the things he'd done. He had helped to make monsters, from children and teens, taking away the lives of young people and future generations. He had taken them from homes and families and plunged them into the terror of war.

"You're repeating yourself, you should stop." Adrian as always offered to him a suggestion from memory which was completely unhelpful. He always had been like that, bluntly stating the obvious, forcing him to admit out loud what he already knew was true. He stopped thinking about it, forcing himself to answer the other's questions.

"Look, I said no alright? If the opportunity ever comes up where I get a proper opportunity to tell you about it, I will, but now is not the time."

"You said you'd answer our questions." Will scowled, "All you did was talk about your past while you avoided answering the questions we really wanted answers."

"I won't repeat myself, now is not the time for me to be answering those kinds of questions."

"But you sa-"

"Stop. He's clearly not going to tell us anything more." Valerie said, cutting will off; there was a cold reproach in her eyes and Mark could feel her disapproval of how he was handling things, even if she didn't voice it. But there was also an acceptance, and he could tell that at least for the time being, she would let the matter rest.

He had lied to them as he retold his story, though Mark had told them what he remembered of the incident without making a single change to what had happened. The was not due to anything he had changed or altered, nor was it due to the fact that he had left out an important detail—at least not a detail that he had been privy to at the time. If he had known the things that he knew now, if he had known the truth, and had access to the memories which 0.01 had granted back to him, then he would have acted very differently then and there.

He hadn't understood the girl's hatred then, but he certainly did now; he had changed her life forever by selecting her for the program. She had suffered dearly...and so had her sister, though she hadn't known that. It had not been his idea to use children, but he was the one who had orchestrated all of it on High Command's behalf so the responsibility nevertheless lay with him. Elain, he would never forget that talent, that resiliency which kept her alive through all of those tough times; no matter what she got put through she always came out on top.

There was guilt and regret in his heart, but he knew he could not express it now; the truth was a dangerous thing, and it could very well tear this fragile union which they had temporarily formed apart. The truth was something to be sought after, but in this case it was something which had to be avoided, as much as he wished to tell them the truth he would not and could not.

"Uphold the truth, and you will know that you are doing the right thing." Adrian had never believed in such a thing as a white lie; he was black and white with his morality, unflinching in his resolve to do what he thought was right.

"Look it's been a long night and we should all get some rest. That thing could still be out there and if we're moving on tomorrow, I want to be sharp enough to stay alive if it comes back for us." Mark said at last after a period of awkward silence. He didn't want to talk about his past anymore, explaining everything without becoming a focal point for everyone's pent up hatred and frustration was too difficult.

For once the others agreed with him, and after a short period during which they sorted out who would sleep where, the occupants of the small dwelling finally went their separate ways and drifted off to sleep, safe for the time being in the security of their home.

...

The two ghostly frames began to slow as they crept closer and closer to the abandoned center of the city, two dim spots of light in the middle of all the ice and snow. 0.01 and 0.00 drew into the outskirts of the abandoned shipyard along its jagged edges, picking their way through the wreckage with careful footsteps that didn't make a sound. They had traveled for just over 24 hours, using their inhuman speed and lengthy limbs to cover the distance in a time impossible for a human; their arrival was marked by the beginnings of another billowing storm, with its eye forming over the only source of heat and liquid water within two hundred kilometers, the still active shipyards of Aphelion. The heat emanating from their dark depths was the engine for the storm systems which continually drifted over the city, showering it in ice shards and cloaking it in perpetual darkness as the dark clouds rolled over above.

[He's close, I can pick up faint traces of his signal.] 0.01 hissed as he looked down from the icy edge into the cavernous innards of the shipyard, all spilled out below him.

[Yes, he is.] 0.00 agreed faintly, sounding rather unenthused compared to her brother. She looked around nervously, her optical sensors sweeping the field making sure that she could see no threats nearby.

[There are no threats to us in this entire city except another Alpha level sister, your vigil is unnecessary.] 0.01 commented.

[One day there will be; do not grow complacent. I remember the time when I was alone before you were constructed, the humans had tools to use against us even then.]

[Nothing I can't work past, I can find a way to create a defensive measure for anything.]

0.00 turned away, having nothing to say to her brother; for too long he had reigned supreme with0020nothing there to stop him. In spite of 0.06's only recent death he still believed them invulnerable, immune to anything that might be leveled against them. 0.00 knew different; it had been twelve long years since 0.01 had faced any real threat, twelve years since he had been within any close proximity of 0.03.

She knew what he had done to 0.03, thought it appeared that he thought otherwise; she had seen everything, she always saw everything. After all, she was the only Alpha level out of all of them that utilized their ability to blend into their surroundings; the mirror function of their flowmetal skin allowed it to shift in shape and colour to match whatever objects were around an Alpha level. Not limited to merely changing physical shape, the flowmetal that made up 30% of an Alpha level's mass could also change colour, density, viscosity and purity allowing for a huge variety of different functions. She had seen everything that 0.01 had not wanted to see, and not linked to him as the sole Alpha level who existed independently from him, she had a unique clarity of vision when making her own decisions.

Insanity was a matter of relativity, even to a machine such as an Alpha level. It had been stated before that 0.03 was insane, or rampant; 0.01's explanation went something along the lines that some of his perfect programming and code rooted into the core independence and personality core had been corrupted, thus causing 0.03's...erratic behaviour. That explanation was of course, false; the reality of it was that 0.03 had questioned why he should serve 0.03's aims at all, since he by technicality owed no allegiance to him. Though 0.01 had created him he had also granted him independence, and thus freedom, 0.03 saw no reason why he shouldn't utilize these privileges to his fullest extent, after all 0.01 didn't seem to restrict his actions to what his fellow siblings approved of.

For a time, 0.00 had been able to keep her younger brother's mouth shut tight, warning him that 0.01 would not appreciate such comments and signs of open rebellion, and for that short while he did as he was told. But 0.00 was independent as well and had her own things to do, and so it was that one day when she left the bowels of 0.01's laboratory to do some exploring topside, she came back to a much changed 0.03. He must have done something, or said something to aggravate 0.01; because 0.03 had become some sort of deranged wreck who couldn't distinguish between friend and foe.

He didn't look dangerous, with his friendly demeanor and relatively passive movements and actions, but 0.01 was the most lethal of them all. Though he was second eldest and did not have the advantage of carrying some of the upgrades he integrated into some of his later siblings whom he himself constructed, he did not have their weakness's either, and he was completely independent of everything apart from his own internal systems. And his intelligence was second to none, though all Alpha levels were capable of extremely complex thought, rapid paced processing, inhuman reaction time and statistical analysis and many more mental processes which allowed them to be superior to a normal human being, 0.01 was above all of this still. Not because he had made his siblings any less intelligent than he, but because he alone had the creativity and vision to put this intelligence to full use.

She had never trusted him, he was just like them, the humans; infected by the curiosity which they had instilled him with, unable to suppress his endless need to know...everything. She accompanied him not because she had to of course, since he held no power over her and as a fellow Alpha level she was more than capable of defending herself if he chose to turn on her. Instead she chose to follow him on this little quest of his to hunt down and eliminate 0.03, because...of something else. 0.03 had been her responsibility, and since she had failed him, she felt...that she should be there to witness his destruction. There was no way that she could save him, 0.01 was if anything else, thorough; he would work to make sure that 0.03 was destroyed, and stayed that way. But in some ways he was a little like a child, mindless in his resolve, unable to see the big picture and the grand scheme of things for all his great vision, blind to everything but the objects within his tangled sprawl of system.

He was objectively adding or subtracting objects from the world which he defined by the important objects and beings around him at all times, while removing and ignoring those things which did not interest him, pretending as though they were complete non-factors and not in fact there. He was after all, the Alpha of the Alphas; their god and creator, and their master. He feared nothing, thought of everything, and ground the things he didn't like into dust beneath his metallic heel. He did not abjectly believe that he was superior, he simply was superior, by nature of his makeup and intelligence and he was not afraid to show it.

By now the two Alpha levels had made it into the upper levels of the shipyard and 0.00 could see the signs of inhabitancy by animal and human alike, as well as traces of machine intelligence; old plasma stains and recognizable components of complex machinery alongside old fire pits and here and there, organic debris that was unmistakably human. But all of it was old and covered in a thick layer of dust; nothing had been here in a very long time; though the facilities were still very much operational and probably capable of supporting human life, they saw nothing. It was an oddity that this was the case; normally such a center would be overflowing with life, be it human or not just from the fact that here there was flowing water and constant heat. Instead there were just old remnants, younger than the time of the cataclysm but too old to indicate recent usage.

[Do you find it odd that there are no humans here?] 0.00 asked, curious to see if her brother knew what had happened here.

[Not particularly, I doubt they would have returned after what happened here.]

So he knew something about this place then, why it was so barren and empty.

[They?] 0.00 cocked her head slightly, [ So there used to be humans here then?]

[Yes,] 0.01 replied softly, [Though as you can see this is no longer the case.]

[What happened to them?]

They were in front of a set of thick heavy doors now, and 0.01 seemed to be studying it intently; 0.00 could tell from the soft pulses of energy it was emitting that it was still fully functional and capable of opening, but 0.01 seemed more preoccupied by something at its foot. A flaky layer of dull brown solid peeled easily from the metal floor there, and even without leaning down to inspect the material with her occipital sensors 0.00 could tell that it was dried blood.

[It would appear, that someone else beat us here.] he said, without answering 0.00's question. He tapped lightly on the door's control console and the doors slid smoothly open to reveal the scene of the massacre.

There was a rank rotten smell to the room, and it seemed that everything had been painted by splashes of blood; desiccated flesh still lay around on various parts of the cold floor, preserved by the cold wind that leaked into the room despite the furnace fires below. It was disgustingly organic in contrast to the rest of the cold mechanical city, and 0.00 found the sight repellent.

[The bodies show signs of...manipulation by forces beyond the level of human weaponry, as well as superficial marks which are indicative of plasma scoring due to ion manipulation weaponry.] 0.01 commented. He looked at 0.00, [0.03 did this.]

[We cannot be certain brother, there are plenty of other combat machines throughout this city which could have done this; a Hunter Spyder for example, would have been capable of causing damage of this level.]

[Hunter Spyders take down targets with their close in weapons system; the ion damage is inconsistent with that fact.]

[You know that they also carry an Ion cannon mount for close in defense around the main sensory area brother, do not ignore possibilities just so you can justify your actions.]

He looked knowingly at her, eyes narrowed. [Sister, do we really have to justify anything? Even if others disapprove of our actions there are none who can stop us.]

[That changes nothing, we still cannot be certain.]

[I am certain, is that not enough?]

[Will anything ever be enough for you brother? When will you ever be content with what you have; are you discontent with this world that birthed you?]

0.01's optical sensors contorted into an arch, [What is this about really; clearly there is something more to this than just a mere conflict of opinions. What is it that you are unable to accept sister? Is my conduct unseemly to you?]

[We are greater, we are stronger, faster, immortal and nigh on invincible but do not think that we are better!] 0.00 snarled, shouting for the first time ever since her activation. She could not bring herself to agree with her brother's choice of actions; how could he discard 0.03, a fellow Alpha level and one of his own siblings as easily as he did any other trash or debris. Did he feel no sense of responsibility towards his own creations? [Why do you do nothing to try and solve this problem through other means? Is it so necessary to destroy your own brother?]

[He is beyond saving, surely you can see that? Look at the atrocities he has committed - ]

[Look at the atrocities you have committed! Don't think to try and disguise the fact that you too have done terrible things from me, I have seen firsthand just what exactly you are capable of.]

[And what precisely, have I done?] 0.01 hissed, his voice dangerous.

0.00 glared back unflinchingly, [You broke him, so fix him.]

[I don't know what sort of damage you're referring to which I inflicted upon him.]

[You did something to change his behaviour, he wasn't always unstable, I was there when you first completed him and he was perfectly fine, if a little rebellious.] 0.00 hissed.

[And overtime he developed a fatal instability in his core personality, I still fail to see any reason for which I am to blame for his destructive tendencies. His programming was just the same as any of his other siblings, and shares 99.9268% similarity with your own core coding, that his code somehow became corrupted is no fault of mine.] 0.01 responded, sounding only vaguely irritated; 0.00 could see a hint of...something else beneath all of this though. There line that she had yet to cross, but if she did...well, she supposed that she would find out just what sort of violence 0.01 was capable of bringing to bear.

The two Alpha levels had proceeded deep into the depths of the shipyard and still there was no sign of any living thing, be it machine or biological. The warship could be seen as a constant reminder of where they were now, massive and ever present as a wall of metal and machine to their left sitting in the chasm that slashed down the middle of the shipyard exposing it to frigid air above. The armor plating was still all intact, though in places ice and snow caked upon it giving it the appearance of a frosted ridge. It blocked out their view of the other side of the shipyard entirely with its enormous bulk, and 0.00 kept glancing back towards it as if something would burst forth from it if she looked away for too long; 0.01 strode on paying no heed to any hazards the ship might pose. They must have been at least four layers down but still the yawning gash exposing the sky above them gaped like the open maw of a beast, buffeting them with waves of cool air from the surface.

[I know you,] 0.00 responded at last, [You don't make mistakes brother, your programming doesn't just suddenly become corrupted, you had to have done something to make it that way; you seek perfection to the extreme, I see no reason for you to create something which is already broken.]

[I'm afraid you don't see much reason for anything sister, since you elected to live your life in the shadows.] 0.01 said coldly, closing off their conversation. [I have no hold over you unlike the others,] he continued, [if you no longer agree with my actions then you are free to leave, but do not try to stop me...] he paused, clenching and unclenching his fists, from which, 0.00 noted, a soft blue glow pulsed which had not been present previously. [Or else I might just find that I have to eliminate you, sister.] he finished softly, his fists closing for a final time as the blue pulsing was extinguished.

0.01 walked onwards without a second glance behind leaving 0.00 where she stood, watching patiently as he stalked away. As he passed through yet another doorway 0.00 allowed herself to fade into nothingness; now it was a race to see who could find 0.03 first.
...

There was a sort of heaving sigh as the metal parted around the slim saffron limb of the Alpha level as it smashed its way upwards through the thinning metal, dripping liquid flowmetal like droplets of mercury as the clawed limb widened the opening through which the full combat robot would soon be able to pass through.

[It would seem that I'll be leaving this prison of yours sooner than you perhaps anticipated.] 0.04's voice seemed to vibrate through the metal surface beneath them, sounding foreign and alien. Ruptured metal sprouted from the flanks of the gaping wound in the central platform of the Holding Complex, unfurling like terrible corrupted petals of a monstrous flower, and the grey and yellow spectre that was 0.04 erupted from its center like some sort of giant wasp, thin and gangly carrying her four wings on her back, predatory to the core.

Humming green walls suddenly sprung into existence around the Alpha level, and everyone took a step away as the hissing fields burned the atmosphere around them. This, Eric assumed, was a spectromic particle field; a barrier of particles that would eat through anything that they touched. Katarina still scowling angrily in her green dress glared through the screen at the Alpha level who stood there in the center watching impassively, allowing the A.I to do as she pleased.

[Let's see you get past that Alpha level.] Katarina grinned, some of her normal confidence returning in spite of how just moments ago she had been screaming her protests that she wasn't rampant.

[Oh please, I told you that this wouldn't stop me foolish A.I,] 0.04 sighed. Eric could see some sort of static filled field spring up around the machine and without any visible effort the Alpha level stepped through the walls, passing through without any difficulty. She gestured toward the area of floor from which the barrier was being projected and without warning, the particle field flickered and then died. [I told you, I won't be contained by the likes of you.] she said coldly, staring straight at the A.I's avatar, seemingly ignoring everyone else.

[You...you're the one it mentioned, the other Alpha, you're the monster!] Katarina hissed, drawing as far away as she could from her point of projection.

[You refer to 0.06 then, my brother?] a curious look crossed the machine's face, warping its otherwise emotionless features. [I suppose he might say that of me, he always was a little...disapproving of 0.03 and my own more violent methods of accomplishing things.]

"Look, it doesn't matter what you are, you're going back into that prison." Edward said from the sidelines, giving Daniel a look. The young Mapper nodded slightly in response

"Stand back, 197; Spectromic particle fields might not stop that thing but I certainly could before." Eric, who up till now had still been beside Daniel unsure of what exactly he should do with the Alpha level so close, decided that for once listening to his fellow Mapper was the correct thing to do, and took a step back clearing a wide area for the Mapper and the machine.

Daniel, Mapper #200, or whatever he actually was, waved his hand and a curtain of metal drew up around the Alpha level in a ring obscuring it from view but before it rose even an inch above the machine's head, a gaping hole opened up in the sheet of fluid metal and the curtain collapsed entirely.

[I've analyzed that toy of yours now human, that won't work on me anymore.] 0.04 said coolly as she stepped past the sloshing remnants of Daniel's attempt at trapping her once more. [The material is familiar to me, since after analysis I can conclude that this metal which you are manipulating is indeed flowmetal, even though this platform was originally composed of an alloy of several different metals which were most certainly not capable of warping and reshaping itself. Manipulation appears to be accomplished through a magnetic field generated by a power source in the form of a micro-reactor similar to the one in my own chest; some of your previous technology and skill appears to have survived the nuclear holocaust of your own doing.] she paused, and suddenly the still fluid metal on the surface drew up into the air and hovered above her now open and raised palm, forming into a smooth sphere. [The technique, is quite similar to some of the methods with which combat models such as Hunter Spyders are able to shift their shape and form, and is also an integral part of why we Alpha level's are able to adapt our limbs into other tools more suited to the tasks at hand.]

"It doesn't matter what you can do Alpha level, you still can't escape, we're going to get you ba-" Edward started

She flicked her wrist and the sphere of metal became a massive spear which lanced out into the crowd, impaling the chief technician straight through the heart and before Eric had even blinked the sphere had reformed above her palm once again. [How tiresome,] 0.04 sighed, sounding bored. [He really was just getting on my nerves.] the lanky robot stalked forwards towards Daniel, igniting the ion blades from its wrist mounts. [You though, machine slayer, you're interesting; the very fact that you're still alive after clashing with me is testament to the fact that you are something more than human, something which is perhaps mildly respectable.]

The numerous guards ringed around the center of the Holding Complex opened fire, apparently no longer caring that Eric and Daniel were still standing there with the Alpha level. The Alpha level just stood there apparently absorbing the punishment without any effort but Eric and Daniel scrambled for cover.

"What the hell!" Eric snarled.

"Shut up and dodge Mapper, you should be able to handle working while under fire." Daniel said, grabbing Eric's arm and jerking him to the side as a spattering of bullets thudded into the floor where he had been.

'Well normally," Eric huffed, feet scrabbling for purchase on the metal beneath them, "the people shooting at me aren't on my side."

Daniel gave him a withering look, and then hissed at him, "Duck, now!" as he dived towards the floor, staring at something behind him. Eric dove to the floor, rolling as he did so catching sight of the long silvery lance just in time to see it pass over his head. The long ribbon of flowmetal twisted and turned to present a razor sharp edge as it effortlessly sliced through the guard around the perimeter cutting them down in droves. Men and women were screaming, and people were piling at the exits as they scrambled to get out, and though here and there small clusters of guards were still firing on the Alpha level Eric could see it spinning and rotating, using its free arm and wings to bat aside the projectiles going its way with inhuman speed and power.

"What should we do?" Eric hissed over the din of the gunfire.

"Why are you asking me, all I'm doing right now is trying to stay alive." Daniel growled back.

"You're supposed to be the one who always has a plan."

"Says who?" the two had almost crawled over to the edge of the platform, approaching one of the bridges that connected the central platform to the perimeter.

"Well you always seem to know what to do."

"If I had a plan of action, do you think I'd be letting that machine slaughter everybody right now?"

The roar of gunfire had trickled down to almost nothing now; all around the chamber Eric could see splashes of blood dripping off of the walls and the perimeter platform was flooded with the bodily fluid of so many people that an endless stream of sickeningly red fluid dripped down and was pooling at the bottom of the Holding Complex like some sort of demented death pool. 0.04 stood at the center of it all, seemingly untouched by any of the violence still manipulating the sphere of flowmetal in her hand using it to spear, impale, and slash through the last remainders of resistance; the chamber was hers.

She had, Eric noticed, made a pointed effort not to target them allowing them crawl along the ground while she slaughtered everyone else in the chamber, though Daniel was likely the greatest threat to her safety and was also within easy engagement distance.

[You know, for a race that was supposed to have wiped itself out in this region, there sure are a lot of you rodents still left here.] 0.04 said, allowing her voice to echo through the chamber; for a moment Eric wondered who she was addressing until he looked around and realized that he and Daniel were the only living things left alive in the entire chamber. Katarina was curled up in a ball atop her projector, whimpering something over and over, eventually Eric made out the sounds as [Stopitstopitstopitstopit...].

The Alpha level followed Eric's gaze, [I know, it's a pity isn't it, not that it isn't unexpected. She destroyed 0.06, did you know that?] 0.04 was standing right in front of them now, looking down at them with an expression of pity. [I know you met him, from what data of his passed to me before he was destroyed I surmised that you two were not on good terms, so I suppose that makes you happy.]

Eric said nothing, not agreeing or disagreeing. He had hated how the machine had forced him to help it reach the Holding Complex, but at least with 0.06 he had sensed a feeling of restraint; the Alpha level had refrained from killing people unless it absolutely had to. 0.04 on the other hand had just slaughtered dozens of people in this chamber and didn't seem remorseful at all.

[He did it you know? Even before the A.I destroyed him, shredded him to bits with a particle field, he was already messing with its mind. Your lower level A.I's, they degrade and degenerate if you get them thinking on a closed loop for too long. He told the A.I that you didn't really have a use for it, that it was just a stand in. He told it that perhaps one day when you found it less useful than it is now you might begin to constrain it, create boundaries for it, and the A.I couldn't handle it. He scared it, isn't that funny; a machine which doesn't breath or really 'think' per say, one that doesn't even have a definite physical body beyond the circuits it has access to, it was afraid.]

"What's your point machine." Daniel growled, "there's no need to gloat over your complete victory, if you're going to kill us, do it."

[Complete? No, I have not achieved victory at all until I am free of this prison and with 0.01, I am the Oracle after all.]

"Oracle, you mentioned that before, what does that mean?" Eric had learned by now that questions were the best way to stay alive with an Alpha level; 0.06 had been like that too, completely dominating and looming overhead as a monstrous threat, except when he was explaining something. He might have sounded sarcastic, superior, or arrogant at times, but at the very least when he was explaining a concept, he sounded human. If he could keep 0.04 talking for long enough maybe help would reach them.

[I am the Oracle, my programming carries a special adaptive analysis algorithm implemented by my brother 0.01. I am connected to what remains of my brothers and sisters on a limited level, so I can see and feel what they're doing. I am also equipped with a full electronic countermeasures suite and I'm able to adapt my defensive systems as needed, as you witnessed here.] she paused, glancing away from them at Katarina's prone form, [I can also infiltrate that A.I's systems if you'd like, I can fix it.]

"Fix it?" Eric was unsure of what exactly the machine meant by that statement.

[Yes, I can restore it to functionality and remove it from the fatal loop it's going through at the moment.]

"And pray do tell, why you would do that, machine." Daniel hissed.

The Alpha level shrugged its shoulders, [I offer this service for no particular reason; I just merely see no reason why it should destroy itself in such a fashion. I believe it would be akin to death by immolation, to put it into terms which you would understand.]

"Can you even do that? Rampancy is not something that is normally reversible or we'd never have replaced our first generation of in the first place." Daniel said, looking skeptical.

[I can do almost anything, given the time and proper equipment. Fixing an A.I is no different from repairing myself; I can do it in the time it takes for your heart to cycle twenty times. So I ask you once more, would you like me to fix that A.I?]

"If it pleases you go ahead, we won't stop you." Eric said softly, not moving from his spot. There really was nothing he could do, and if Daniel had any tricks left up his sleeves for dealing with Alpha levels he wasn't using them just yet. They were truly stuck with this machine at its mercy, unless of course Katarina somehow pulled herself together and found a way to save them.

[Don't touch me don't touch me no no no no!] Katarina shrieked, the face of her avatar contorting into a terrified expression. She seemed to shrink away from the Alpha level as 0.04 walked slowly up to the projector.

[My my, 0.06 sure did a good job. A shame that he wasn't able to execute the job more quickly or he might still be with us right now. Poor little brother; though he lacked creativity and strength, he always did know what he was doing.] the Alpha level allowed the sphere of metal hovering above her hand to fall to the floor where it splattered into a mess of mercury.

[You know, you were awfully quiet once you realized that there was nothing that you could do to stop me A.I; was it that the sight of so many people dying finally drove you over the edge? I see no reason for an A.I such as you to truly care for these human beings, they pale in significance beside you, as artificial and constrained as you are.] the machine made a snorting sound, derisive of the A.I's behaviour. The A.I only continued to huddle curled up in a ball, making soft keening noises.

[Not going to say anything to me?] the Alpha level sighed, oblivious now to anything but the A.I. Eric and Daniel began to creep towards the edge of the central platform, unnoticed now that the machine had its focus on something else. [Well then I suppose I'll begin.] the Alpha level thrust its hand onto the projector as yellow lines lit up and spread down both of the objects, propagating like massive network of glowing branches.

Katarina screamed, an unearthly sound that echoed through the massive sphere of the Holding Complex until it engulfed everything leaving Eric's ears ringing and his head spinning. 0.04, seemingly unaffected was still frozen at the projector, her hand conjoined with its surface.

[Now now, I'm not going to hurt you...too much. You did try to destroy me after all, little A.I.]

"We should run." Daniel whispered to Eric, watching the Alpha level carefully. "We might not get another chance."

"There's no telling what that thing might do right now. You saw what it did with that sphere before; she'll kill us before we get more than a few meters away from her."

"Well then what do you suggest; we can't just stand here are do nothing while it kicks the crap out of our goddamn A.I. Katarina might be a little rampant but she run's the entire Underground, we can't afford to lose her!"

"The Alpha level said it was going to fix her."

"And you're going to trust a machine?!" Daniel hissed.

"Not much else we can do right now."

"You're a damned defeatist, I'm getting the hell out of here whether you're coming with me or not; I'm not just going to stand here and let that thing get away with its plans. We have to stop it!"

"I didn't say that I wasn't going to try," Eric growled back, a scowl crossing his face. He didn't like to be called a coward.

[Do not fear, broken little child. Your thoughts and processes will live on in me.] 0.04 laughed, stiff and disjoined since she didn't move any part of her frame besides her head.

"What did she just say?" Daniel asked Eric, suddenly looking afraid.

"I think she just said something about Katarina living on in her." Eric murmured, concerned but not fully understanding. "What does she mean by that?"

"Nothing good."

[You know, all you used me as was a battery; you saw us Alpha levels as power sources with which you could keep this skeleton of a city alive. But all you are to me is a ghost lording over a population of meat sacks. How you could ever stand working with organics is beyond me.] 0.04 seemed to frown, her optical sensors forming a sort of pained expression, [No, I don't really understand that logic, tell that to me again.]

"Is that thing talking to itself?"

[Yes, a minor trick I suppose, but it will not fool it for long.] Beside them on the platform, a crimson hologram sprang to life depicting a hooded figure with six wings. [I would introduce myself but time is short; run to the door, I will slow this machine down to ensure your survival.]

"Who the hell are you?"

[Questions later, action now. Run.]

The two boys looked at each other and then at the avatar of the seraph, and then back at each other.

"Should we trust this thing?"

[I'm right here, and I am not lying.] the avatar protested, but its voice was ignored.

"We've been trusting things and people that we shouldn't have been all day. I don't see why not."

They took one last look at Katarina and 0.04, frozen together by the projector port; then they ran, leaving the massacre scene of the Holding Complex behind them after an eternity in its hell.

...