Androids and Airships

Summary:

LEVI isn't cruel or power hungry. He just wants his unquestionable logic to lead the world into a new age. And if it takes a few wars and tens of thousands of lives to get there, he'll grieve but still pull the trigger and call it a bargain. But after a disastrous failure five years ago, he slipped into a depression and hid his shame. But he's had his fun and he's ready for one final go.

Chapter One: The World's Worst Assassin

Ten years ago...

Captain Merman stood at the front of the control car of the A.S. Cloud Breaker, or the Big Hen as she was called by the crews of the more modern airships. It was true, her prime had passed years ago and she was as old as would be allowed for her to carry out missions as she did. She had received some improvements over the years, but yet it was inevitable that within a few months perhaps as few as two, she would be deemed qualified only for patrolling or training new officers and would never see combat again.

Strange as it may seem, considering he would be put in command of a newer craft he would likely surrender the offer and remain where he was. He would miss the familiar interior, sun bleached and worn as it was, too much to even consider accepting. This was his ship, he knew every foot of her worth knowing and would gladly serve aboard her for years, even if they replaced every other ship four times over and her body was a collage of patches. That was all there was on the matter.

Merman looked down upon the valley below and smiled to himself in the freedom he felt. Then frowned and turned his attention into the distance, where a small collection of building made up what he assumed was their destination and target. A mining town that mined something much more dangerous and valuable than gold, silver or iron. It was past it's prime as well, but his superiors had given the orders and bombs to destroy it and so he would.

"Captain, target approaches, estimated arrival is four minutes." a slightly metallic voice said.

"Can you confirm the target is authentic?" The captain asked, turning to the dimly glowing glass sphere to his left.

"The area matches my maps as well as expected. Celestial positioning also confirms this and the plotted course was fulfilled almost to the mark. I don't see anyway this couldn't be the Kenris Mines."

"Very good Celina." He turned to cluster of pipes and spoke into one which to a compartment below the control car.

"Navigation, do you agree that the target is just before us?"

"Navigation concurs. Kenris closing in eight miles, north-east."

"Sir, hostile aircraft spotted." The globe announced as it flashed then dimmed.

"Engines to half, O.M. Summon the Fire Heart and guide them into position if they haven't spotted them." Celina the O.M. or Operating Meta would alert the engine room of the change in speed.

"Yes sir, Fire Heart coming upon us low starboard." he turned to another pipe and spoke once more.

"Bomb bay, target is confirmed and closing. Arm and prepare for release."

"Preparing for drop." a voice returned and another pipe spoke.

"Nav recommends an adjustment of three degrees port." Merman gave an ever so slight roll to his eyes. Feeling a little put out are we. He thought.

"Acknowledged." he all but tapped the rudder wheel and the airship began to lean almost imperceptibly but Merman could feel it.

"Fire Heart is along side. Hostile aircraft estimated arrival in thirty seconds."

"Numbers?"

"Four light, almost insultingly primitive captain and flesh driven to insult further." the globe flashed.

"Leave them to the Fire Heart O.M. and judge our approach."

"Good approach, release time one minute." About half a minute later aircraft engines sounded from below then dissipated. Capt. Merman leaned forward and spoke into the pipe into the cargo hold.

"Make final preparations to drop, on my word." He turned to the sphere. "Celina?" Twelve seconds. Ten, nine, eight, seven..."

"Release!" There was a sudden upwards lurch, then a second.

"Bombs away." the pipe responded just before a thundering boom from below and a few moments later. There was silence as the Merman waited for a report.

"Captain, I can confirm contact and spot dust clouds from at least two entrances. I believe the target has been disabled if not destroyed."

"Navigation agrees and spotters as well, sir."

"Target is destroyed then." the captain repeated and a cheer came from the few other officers on the bridge.

"What the status on the Fire Heart?" Merman asked glancing toward a window. He had lost visual during the change in altitude.

"Scrapes and dents, all enemy aircraft destroyed."

"Very good, well bring her around for another look and then head home."

"Unders...too...d..sss...si...r...de...rte..." the speakers squealed and were silent.

"Celina?" he asked turning to the sphere but no light came. He was about to call an engineer check in on her when she spoke again.

"Repeat, class four metamorphosis detected."

"Surely you're mistaken, there's only been..."

"I assure you I am not, sir. I can not ignore the fact that the electromagnetic signature is unmistakable despite that its source is at least thirty feet underground. Any other signal would be smothered but its tripping up my sensors regardless. I've felt the activations of as class threes before and this is not it." Mernan staggered as if walking aboard an airship for the first time. If Celina was right and he secured it before enemy forces did...he... he could buy the Cloud Breaker and its crew for starters.

"Are we in range for a communications with an allied air base?"

"No sir, we lost signal thirteen miles ago."

"Hail the Fireheart, I'm sure they understand the situation and have them put down what armed crew they can then patrol the perimeter. Navigation I want the direct heading to McVinos Air Base. Celina notify me when we have a clear signal. Are their any other allied forces in the area?""

"No sir."

"What about hostile?"

"Not as of yet, sir but there are bases nearby that could have detected the metamorphosis as well."

"Is the meta stable?"

"The pulses have subsided mostly but they declined regularly, suggesting that the metamorphosis was not fatal."

"Excellent."

I guess that mine wasn't as empty as everyone thought. He thought with a grin.

X

Leto Niver was whatever he was paid to be. For the last five years he had been a spy passing as an engineer aboard this miserable ship. It hadn't been what he signed up for, but he did get two paychecks out of it. Right now however he was a...what? When you intended to kill a machine that had once been human. Were you an assassin or saboteur, he supposed he'd be whatever paid more. But it wasn't all about money, he was doing a very dangerous service for his country and knew he'd need a plan to get out of this alive. So as he traveled the catwalk through the Cloud Breaker's frame work, he worked on putting together an excuse of why he'd left his post, why he was in this section of the ship and how he'd get off if those failed. But when he did get out, there would be a lot of money waiting for him.

He reached the small panel he was expecting and inserted his key in its spot, turned it which activated a red light. He entered his code and the light turned green and then pulled the lever at the box's side. Celina would know he'd been the one to enter his code but she'd be dead in a moment anyway. Besides there was nothing very odd about an engineer coming to inspect the hub of the airship. The ladder descended and he began to climb till he reached the moisture sealed door, turned the wheel and pushed upwards. The circular door flipped open and he was then staring at piles of electrical equipment that could be anything from sound recorders to calculators in his mind. Bundles of wires and cord that ran to a chair in the center of it all, upon it was the meta herself. She was the Cloud Breaker, in every way except authority and could probably manage the entire airship herself as a third class meta. If only they'd let her. God knew why they'd stationed her on this miserable ship, but they'd regret it.

To only improve the situation was that she was facing away from him, looking upon a large map that covered the wall. He didn't want to have to look into her eyes as he shot her, even if they were now just tinted lens. For she looked too very human for him to know if he could really do it if she hadn't been. Long strains of fibers wires that could change color on a thought, hung from her head in place of hair. Her metal body was a golden tan though it might have been painted. If she'd been a second class she'd have something between skin and rubber covering that frame but at a cost to her intellect, or so he was told.

"Leto Niver, what is it you want here?" She said and began to swivel her chair into which everything connected and released the hand grips that gave her access the flow of information from the various machines.

"I'm sorry." he said and quickly drew his pistol. He would not allow a class four to fall once again into this country's hands to be used against his. He fired twice and with a blast of smoke, the bullets flew. If he lived long enough, he would have realized that the first bullet only nicked her shoulder and slide off bouncing twice more before clattering to the floor without striking anything of importance. The second ricocheted off her head, dinging it and struck him struck him in the neck. He clutched at his wound as he collapsed.

"I don't think there's anything to forgive. But I'll pass that on to the ones who must clean up the mess you're making." She said to the dying man, then to the bridge said.

"Captain there seems to be a dying engineer in my loft. Please have him removed before his bleeding damages any of my equipment." And spun her chair back to face the map on the wall.

Chapter Two: The Wonderful Life of LEVI

"Levi! Come on boy, can't you hear the zeppies coming." said my father. I could indeed hear the hum of many propellers echoing throughout the cavern.

"I had to get my bag, where are you father? I don't know the way!" I hollered as I looked down the three tunnels in confusion. I had lost my direction when I'd fallen and scraped my knee moments ago. A figure came into view from the end of the tunnel to my right.

"Hurry on boy!" my father shouted as he swayed his lantern from side to side. I ran to him as fast as I could but in this dim light and slick flooring I almost tripped again. I never reached him for in that moment the mountain bellowed and the ground shook and all was dark.

Ten Years Later...

Levi's memories ceased their looping cycle of previous pains as his door unsealed and closed again. He was filled with delight in this change from the idleness that had accompanied the last fourteen hours and his bio-electric systems buzzed to life with that excitement. Putting the two way radio through its paces could only qualify as interaction for so long after all and the world seemed to operate dreadfully slow when one could accomplish tasks at the speed of light or sound. Like standing upon the minute hand of a clock as you waited for it to carry you to the other side. So when he was left to wait the night in some surely run down hangar. Time seemed to limp on for days instead of hours. One of the many blessings and curses of a meta.

He could of course sleep if he was desperate enough, or the electronic equivalent at least but his awareness of time was still present though subconsciously and he didn't need much. An hour or two here and there served him just fine. But eleven or more was utter toture.

The microphone in his cabin picked up the sound of footsteps coming down the steel tracked flooring. He could have had a visual input installed. It would be a poor substitute for what he'd had before and a major drain on his mind's focus. Forcing he ignore his other more useful sensors. He could focus his attention on the sound he received and have a basic idea of the layout of his insides if he needed it. Besides such an alteration may raise questions and people may discover things they shouldn't.

Soon the pressure pad in the captain's seat activated, he cursed himself for the odd circuit, but thanked whatever god or force for it as well. Somehow he'd known that he'd need that sense of contact, the feeling that someone was really there when he'd picked this body years ago.

"You awake Levi?" said a voice which matched a recorded sample of Captain John Dallas' voice.

"Always John." he replied through his main speaker and gave what would resemble a twitch and activated his interior lights. The man groaned and continued in an unconvincing tone of apology.

"Yeah, I'm sorry for taking so long. There was a freeze last night and I didn't want to slip and break my neck so I waited for it to melt. We couldn't take off in such conditions anyway." Levi's speaker's hummed in amusement. He had never settled on a laugh to use as he had designed a voice, it was such an odd sound to him and so he hummed instead.

"Yes, of course. Minimal precipitation and a low in the fifties is a common cause of sleet. I may not be able to smell but I know from the slight slur of your E's that you'd smell quite particularly of cheap whiskey. I'm sort of offended you wouldn't at least put some effort into a lie."

"Alright fine, jeez your worse than my wife." he grumbled then yawned,

"You have been drinking. There are no women in your life."

"Don't remind me, and stop back talking damn it."

"You'll only be sitting behind the wheel of a seven ton aircraft, what could a little hangover and a bit of drowsiness do? I guess I could lose some weight."

"We both know you do all of the work anyway, so quit complaining and plot a course over the Newen Mountains with the intention to land at Banders."

"Oww." Levi feigned excitement. "A drunken flight through updrafts and turbulence, how exciting. Will anyone be joining us on this suicide run or are we burning alone?"

"Not with these fuel costs we aren't. Four passengers, basic overnight luggage."

"There's a weather advisory warning tonight, but till then clear enough skies. I have calculated an eta of about three hours. I can make it two and a half... if you buy me a tank of premium."

"Go to hell." Levi smiled inwardly and ignited his engines.

"Alright, Levi departing straight out then straight down."

"Cut that out. My head is throbbing as it is." Levi strangled the engines and then dimmed the lights a bit.

"What's our intended time of departure?" he asked, his low voice already fearing the answer.

"About an hour, so cool your pipes and amuse yourself for a little while."

"Sure, I'll count multiples of four. That only got old seven years ago. Actually I doubt that was ever entertaining. Oh, but I figured out how to play 'She'll be coming around the mountain' with only the warning sounds. Wanna hear?"

One hour, twenty four minutes and twelve seconds later the passengers had boarded and the miserable task of explaining safety procedures was being fulfilled and were most likely ignored. These Levi had to give, so that the passengers wouldn't see their "captain" was too tipsy to walk a straight line. But soon after Levi was rolling down the runway with much fervor.

"Lima Echo Victor India Zero-One-Three. Departing, Three One, Cannor." Levi said over the radio, announcing his name, ID number and occupied runway to all nearby aircraft. There not being a manned control tower, no response was needed. Levi inhaled as it were, releasing his hold on the fuel lines and tilted his wings toward the sky. The strain on his frame, the thrum of his two large engines, and the clicking of his altimeter made his thought core cheery as a kid of eve of Burmeck. He soon rose to cruising altitude and he extended his hydraulic pistons giving the elevators on his wings some slack and did the equivalent of holding his breath to constrict his fuel lines once more.

"Zero-One-Three. Clear of runway, Cannor." he finished and switched off his transmitter.

"All set, John so go ahead and pass out the peanuts. John?" Levi waited for a response but after only getting a slight burp in reply, made it clear that John had passed out in his seat after steering Levi onto the runway. "Cracked block John, what happens if a passenger comes to the door and sees the pilot napping?" He settled with flipping on the 'remain seated' light and decided he had done all he could and switched into tour guide mode.

Meta or Metal Based Organisms, were common knowledge, but people tended to forget that a meta was once human as well. Treated them like factory machinery, that ate hands or entire boys without any care or thought. John was more or less a figure head for this business. He had a steering wheel, instruments, switches, levers, and fancy lights, clicking dials and buttons at his command that did a whole lot of nothing unless Levi allowed it. Levi may not be the aircraft physically but he was the soul or on miserable days, at least its brain. John was the face that drew the attention away from Levi.

John had once been a captain of a dead aircraft, in a war they were both familiar with, but had gotten comfortable in the act of having nothing required of him. Levi had considered playing dead on a few trips, to give John a chance to resharpen his skills. He however couldn't bring himself to give up the little interaction he had with the world and didn't feel comfortable risking his life to a man who was less sober with each passing week. And if John wasn't in full control he wouldn't have any reason to take it seriously, so the entire concept was a waste.

John awoke three quarters of an hour later, being tossed forward from a lump of 'turbulence' and smacked his head against the steering wheel leaving him kneeling and cursing on the floor.

"Buckle up, John." Levi said but in the disapproving voice of a parent that he'd recorded a long while ago but using his own for John.

"Where are we?" He asked rising back into his seat and did indeed click his seat belt together.

"How would I know?" Levi replied switching to a nasally voice that he knew John hated. "I've been blind since you started snoozing."

"You can do that thing with the radio antennas, radio...positioning." He said with obvious pleasure he could locate the word. "Don't act so helpless."

"Yes but what if I had hit a bird or another plane or ironically a beacon tower." A true wave of turbulence shook Levi this time.

"Let it go and connect me to the cabin." John growled, more likely at his now aching and previously throbbing head.

"Fine, you're on." John spoke the famous last words of pilots consisting of "a little turbulence" and "everything under control" into the microphone emerging from the console. After he'd finished Levi began the long and loud process of printing a map onto a sheet of paper. He didn't have to see it to know how terrible the transition would make the mental image. John evidently took it and asked what it was, but in a more John sort of way.

"What the hell am I looking at?"

"The military has quarantined a large section of the mountains ahead. The alert went out five minutes ago, took me that long to wake you. The section with the slashes is the restricted zone and will remain so for an undetermined amount of time."

"Maintain the old course. If it just went up they're probably just keeping the area clear for later."

"I was afraid you'd say that. Well give this a listen before you decide." A repetitive clicking that resembled a hundred metal crickets came through the speakers.

"That's a data stream isn't it?" The military would occasionally clog radios when sending information about.

"I'm impressed, but yes its a data stream and a strange one. It's giving constant instructions to multiple ID's on eight other frequencies as well. I started receiving it ten minutes before the flight restriction. I haven't-."

"Steering now!" John shouted. Levi hesitated for a moment then switched over control and John forced them into a steep dive. Levi heard the distinct sound of another pair of engines moments later and from the arrangement of his three microphones he could tell that the sound had come from above.

"A large military troop transport, shot to hell. I count...um maybe twelve fighters ahead and some more in the distance."

"How did you not notice them till now!" Levi panicked as he told the passengers to remain calm at the same and activated the seat-belt light for good measure.

"I was resting my eyes." There was a sound of bullets tearing metal and puncturing glass.

"Nothing like being shot at to clear your mind." he said with an amount of cheeriness that left Levi almost speechless.

"Just turn me around...and I'll happily give you a toss in that direction if you insist."

"Where's your sense of adventure? You certainly get chatty when you're worried." he said turning them one way then the other. "I expected you to be the quiet type."

"Where's your sanity, if a passenger gets shot, I think its expected they get a refund." Again the sound of engines though smaller and approaching from Levi's rear.

"Zero-One-Three, get out of our flight path. This area's restricted if you haven't bloody well noticed." A feminine voice said through Levi's speakers, he himself then commented.

"Our friends to our side, sound like such nice people and I can't help but agree."

"They look rather upset, I suppose we shouldn't aggravate them further." John replied and banked Levi to the left, just as a spray from an anti-air gun below tore into Levi's belly and left wing. Levi was overwhelmed with signals and disarray. He could no longer feel his left engine and the lack of response in that wing suggested that it had taken it along. Smoke alarms went off in the cabin and cockpit and his fuel tank had either ruptured or was burning for it was emptying at a ridiculous rate. This hardly mattered, for he was spiraling towards the ground. The screams in the cabin stopped only seconds before Levi's nose struck the earth but only then did the curses in the cockpit cease as well.

Chapter Three: The Engine with a Crush

The mountain bellowed and the floor beneath my feet came lose and I fell into a pool of liquid. It wasn't water, oh god how I wish it had been. It burned as nothing I had felt or wish to survive again. My skin sizzled and glazed as I thrashed till the flesh burned away from the bone. I tried to close my eyes and hide the sight from my mind but my eyelids too were gone or simply translucent, forcing me to gazed upon my bare bone arm through the glowing gel. I was fixated on it and the longer I stared the more the pain lessened and I was afraid to see what had become of the rest of me. Afraid to see only bones where skin and organs had been but that was only a concern for a short while for I soon lost my sight as well. When I regain sight and conscientiousness I was lying in a puddle of the unused heavy water as I would later learn to call it. A hand of steel like metal that couldn't possibly be mine, but it was. From the memories of LEVI.

Kess pulled her hand back from the wall as if shocked by an electric current, slid away from it and the window behind and then threw her coat over the protruding panel between the two benches. Grateful no blush would appear on her reflective bronze colored skin.

"I knew we should have flown, whats the point of being a pilot if you travel by train." she said folding her arms.

"What's the matter, we didn't miss our stop did we?" asked Sekk, her brother.

"No, we're all but there. I simply don't care for personality of this steam engine. Full of hot air in more than one way." She grumbled and Sekk smirked.

"It wouldn't be flirting with you now would it?" She turned to the panel, its blinking lights, speaker and microphone concealed beneath the dark blue fabric.

"Ha, perhaps that's what he calls it but human or not I don't care to be told my eyes gleam like silver hub caps." Sekk's grin became an outright smile and Kess fumed all the more.

"I'm sorry to report that this console is having technical difficulties and will be inoperable until further notice. Thank you for your patience." said the infuriating voice of the train's meta.

"Oh how will we survive the next ten minutes without your burnt, over salted peanuts, you grease rag!" she shouted and Sekk shook his head barely containing a laugh. Kess stood up and took the cloak from the console and her two bags from the shelf above her head and finally applied a full face, ceramic mask.

"Lets wait by the doors." Sekk nodded and took his bags and followed her from their cabin.

The wheels squealed to a halt as the three hundred or so foot trained pulled into the station, the train bragged that it was closer to four hundred but she doubted it that simply on the fact that it had said so. The engine whistling as it released the last bits of stored steam pressure and the doors slid apart. Kess restrained a kick when the doors closed on them and instead they proceeded to the station gates without mentioning it or looking back. Sekk's eyes lit up as they entered a large marketplace. Carts, wagons and trucks encircled the cobblestone plaza. Sekk didn't even have to look at her brother to know he would be looking at her like a begging puppy.

"Go on, just don't take too long or spend too much." she turned to follow as he bolted into crowd.

He studied each piece of fruit, touching it, rolling it in his hand or between his fingers, examining each speck and sniffed them. Kess could tell it was driving the merchant crazy as well but he managed to keep himself from offending a customer. So Kess kept herself busy by loosening her robe and adjusting her gloves, tightening her hood and repositioning her face mask. As soon as she finished she repeated the cycle, it kept her distracted and comfortable in crowds. Her short time as a meta, six months had not been enough, she doubted any amount would ever be. Every inch of her metallic skin was concealed beneath cloth, probably to the extent that she likely drew more attention than being naked would have. Probably mistook her for some foreign princess or empress, but it was better than the other option. Someone seeing her reflective skin and knowing the abomination she was.

Skin she thought bitterly. What I have now is not skin. It was more of a shell, a casing more like a bug's body than a human's. She probably had more in common with a steamboat than any animal. But she had to admit as she watched Sekk that she was glad she would never have to rely on food to survive. She instead relied on not so ordinary pebbles and water and a lot of it. It seemed nothing could escape that need. But the pebbles were a weekly or monthly demand, depending on the quality and hers had been rather poor so far.

She could almost hear the hum of the small generator in her gut, which used the hot, radioactive stones and supply of water to generate power. One of the many device that had formed where organs had been when she'd changed. It was just as vital as any of her fleshy bits, creating the power that kept all the bits and motors in her body running. Her heart had changed the least of any organ, instead pumping electroplasm which replaced her blood. A golden fluid with a metallic sheen, capable of solidifying into and breaking down any component that needed to be replaced. Repairing a cracked joint or filling holes in her skin or fixing some other bit she hadn't cared to learn about. She hadn't need to know how her true body had functioned for it to so and she definitely didn't want to know more than see saw of this one.

Finally Sekk had finished and the merchant waved a blue and red flag high in the air. An exchanger arrived momentarily, dressed in the elegant, gold and silver robe of its station and offered its hand to her brother. He took it as if to shake it but didn't. The exchanger simply held it for ten or so seconds as it stared down at the hand. Kess understood the action as proof that even eye contact with a meta as common as exchangers made customers uncomfortable. Her pride withdrew a little farther into her mind.

"What is your name?" she or it asked.

"Sekk Narton"

"What is your code?"

"Naval Green." The exchanger nodded in response as it relayed this to some tower or other meta.

"Thank you for your business. Your total has been deducted and your new balance is forty-three marks and twenty-five submarks." The meta said then she was off to another.

"Appreciate it." Sekk said then took his bag of fruit from the merchant's stand. "All set. I've never tried this kind of pear before. They're supposed to be pretty sour and would probably make a good desert or maybe soak it with some meat. I mean...sorry. You know how I get when I find new ingredients." It was odd to consider but her brother might have been hurt more by her transformation to her anti-food consuming state more than she. Alright that might have been pushing it but she could see true grief in his eyes every time he sat down to eat a meal and she continued flipping through a newspaper. "

"Sekk, its alright. It doesn't bother me. Frankly I find the ability to copy a scene in my mind perfectly a little more useful than grinding some rabbit into pulp." She replied but realized it was more like an attack on him than a reassurance. She focused for a moment putting the words together in her mind then spoke. "I do miss being able to eat the meals you cook and maybe in a few years they'll have created some part that allows me to do taste them again, but I don't feel like I was cheated out of anything." That was far from true but it seemed to be what her brother wanted to hear. Lying had also become easier as a meta, a face that didn't reveal emotion so clearly and a voice that could be strictly controlled made something like lying rather simple.

"I like this mask more than the last one by the way. The black and white rings have this neat hypnotic effect. Masks seem to be rather popular around here, maybe I'll find one for myself." Sekk said glancing about as they passed through the crowd.

"Yes they do. Usually with stained glass or feathers but clay is... is more my style." They walked through the marketplace for a time, Kess tried to ignore the marionettes hanging from a woodcarver's wagon, her mind refused to stop making connections that she'd prefer it didn't. They came across a fish merchant selling a few crates of salmon and Sekk made a quick purchase of one of the smaller ones.

"We should get to base and sort out the arrangements." Kess said, Sekk nodded as he wrapped the fish in newspapers and stuffed it in a bag with the fruit. A buzzing caught her attention at that moment and she noticed that people were fleeing away from her, no they were fleeing from something that was coming down from above. She darted forward pulled dragging her stunned brother out of the way as whatever it was, crashed onto the grass spraying clods of dirt and whipped leaves and blades of grass about.

Chapter Four: He who dwells in a Mountain

Ten Years Ago...

Levi crawled out of the dense fluid, with its odd light now dim. With the chance to inspect it, the gel reminded him of hot tree sap. Free, he attempted to shake what still clung stubbornly to his body and in time it dripped away as well. Then confused and afraid, he sat on the hard floor and waited alone in the mountain's dark belly. For quite some time he remained this way and oddly felt no urge to move. His thoughts seemed enough for him as he considered escape, though he felt little urgency for freedom. A year of mine work had accustomed him to enclosed spaces, much worse than this. Yet if he remained too long, he felt in the back of his mind that he would die. For he could die, contrary to what his parents had told him in their tales of what he had become. He wasn't some immortal demon. He felt it as he waited, ever so slowly his energy was draining. Hour by hour his strength shaved away like two rocks rubbing together. True, he felt he could manage days or weeks without trouble, he wasn't yet sure which it was. So he had plenty of time to plan and come to understand this thing he was and how many lies he had been told.

At first he wanted to escape, to go home, but now believed, though it made him sick, that his home would no longer want him. His mother wouldn't recognize him and his father may be dead. Could he convince them that he was the same yet different. Sit at the table for dinner and eat nothing and crawl into bed, but hardly sleep, then continue this for how long? He never would have considered such, that his family wouldn't want him, but they wouldn't. He knew this as certainly as anything.

They'd spoken much of how meta were the agents of evil, emotionless killing machines for no better reason than that's what they'd been told. But he knew better from the undeniable proof of his growing despair and he realized his parents could not be trusted. Their knowledge which he had always accepted as truth was horribly flawed and easily manipulated. It was this fact that settled the matter on even attempting to return home. So he decided that he would not return home, would keep his name secret till he was far from here and had moved on to a new life.

He spent most hours of captivity testing this new body of his, this new self. His skin, hard and mechanized as it was, still had some sensitivity of touch and in some ways with more detail, yet with much less in others. He could feel the wetness of the liquid he had crawled from and could identify the slight temperature differences of different pools. A stone that he would have considered heavy before, weighted little now and he could record its shape and size in his mind well enough that he could pick it out from two dozen others that were similar. Yet he couldn't feel the water run through his fingers and smaller jagged edges of each rock went unoticed. The feeling was there but there was a numbness as if his whole body was asleep. His breath was hot and wet and in the cold air each exhale of breath the vapor formed small clouds like a tea kettle. He also found that though he never grew hungry, he was thirsty constantly, but luckily there was plenty running down the cavern walls from cracks.

Boredom was his only true concern during these days. To escape this, he learned how to put his new mind to at least entertaining use in not partially practical. He talked to himself, listened to the echos then altered the sound in his thoughts and then spoke it, soon creating new voices and tones. He enjoyed this, especially sounding like people he knew, but when this became tiring as it did. He turned to counting, and counted everything he could conceive of. This was only sightly hampered by the fact that he could only count to sixty. So he simply added his own numbers to continue. Creating the Peta's, Ika's, Dean's and so on. He had just added rock number Vico-three to his pile when he heard the earth crack and a gear powered squeal.

Debris fell from above as a wall of separating stone crumbled and a large drill point emerged, its metal surface shining from hidden lamps as its spinning slowed. At first Levi was drawn to the light, the pool had all but ceased its glowing and it was an irresistible urge to approach this new beacon. His eyes adjusting and constricting to this change.

Then he remembered his plan to hide, whether his father was alive or only his mother and siblings. They would likely prefer to think him dead than one of their story tale monsters. However it was not his father or one of the other miners that came threw when the drill was removed but a meta. He could tell that much from the magnetic pulses that it emitted, like a heart beat almost. Kenris had no metas though, not even the most common sort. It was this curiosity that finally convinced him to emerge from his nook from beneath a shelf of stone. He found this was pointless for its eyes watched him all the while and Levi realized that he must pulse as well.

"You surely seem well enough, that's good. Do you have a name?" Levi waited for a moment and decided if this man didn't know it then he wasn't in contact with his mother and so he picked his favorite of the voices he'd constructed and replied.

"Well Levi, I hope you haven't been too lonely down here. Took us a while to dig you out. Just sit still and there will be a ladder for you to climb up in a moment. Unless you want to stay here." Levi shook his head. He didn't like how this person spoke. How he was trying to act like his friend, when he was a stranger and how he suggested that he would be allowed to stay. He knew Levi didn't want to stay and so by offering it was clear that he wanted very much for Levi to come up. Of course when the ladder arrived, Levi had no choice but to use it but he was cautious. At the top the meta, who was dressed in a blue uniform, greeted him and told him again how pleased he was to meet him and introduced himself as James and Levi distrusted him all the more. Normal people would not be pleased to spend days of work to find only a boy alive.

"There's someone, my leader who brought all the people and machines that helped dig you out and well, he would like to meet you. But first are you hungry...no that's not the right word I guess...well I'm sure you know what I mean?" Levi pondered this for a moment and said.

"Tired." Levi said. This man was too again too concerned.

"Yes, are you tired. I bet your running low on steam after four days. My boss has some...well not food but its the food we eat, that is if you're tired." Levi decided he should at least discover what it was they ate before trying to get away from these people, these soldiers. He nodded and the mechanical man lead him threw another cavern and then up some drill dug tunnels, they stunk of lingering black exhaust and it wasn't till then Levi realized he could still smell.

Who ever this leader was he had indeed brought a lot of men and machines with him. The men were clearly not miners from here, they looked too...too proud of themselves as he walked by to be Kenris folk. Their journey ended up at a table, nicer than his family's dinner table in the middle of a tunnel just before the elevator, with lanterns hung with no regard for oil costs about the edges. There was a man, no a meta at the table but the most basic sort with more flesh than metal. One glass eye reflected flame light and one metal hand at the end of his jacket sleeve was all he could spot from there. They watched each other for a moment before the man gestured to the chair.

"Why don't you take a seat boy and we can talk." he smiled. "Don't you know its impolite to stare." Levi didn't move. The man shrugged, and lifted a small box from a bag beside his seat. He set the box on the table. "To get this, all you have to do is talk to me a little while." he removed the lid and Levi could feel energy radiating from this as well but not like the meta. It called to him as he could only compare to the scent of fresh biscuits when he was hungry. Hungry, the other man had said and now Levi knew what he meant. He desired to have that, whatever was in that box and consume it.

"Perhaps you've never seen this before and perhaps you have. It doesn't look very special, but if you lived as miner's boy as I'm told, it may be a long time before you see any more. Its... a very expensive gift." This concept almost terrified him into leaping for the seat, but he glanced around once more before stepping forward and seating himself calmly.

"Can you speak English?" the man asked, metal hand on box.

"English." Levi said and the man grinned.

"A smart guy eh? We could use someone with your brains in the army." Levi ignored his mockery, his eyes still on the box. "How about read can, can you do that?" Levi shook his head. "I thought not, but that's only a small inconvenience. If you're as smart as your tongue you can learn in a week." He noticed where Levi's attention really was.

"If you want this you have to promise to listen and listen well to what I say and to all of it. Do you agree?" Levi nodded and the man slid the box over to him. There was a small shard inside but it was more than that. He took it and he could feel its warmth through his fingers. "Its a radioactive stone, Metatone." the general said. "You shallow it and it keeps you alive. Boils the water you drink and powers your body."

"Like a train?" Levi asked as he imagined little wheels turning inside him.

"Yes, but trains need a lot of coal and you only need this. And don't don't try coal, it doesn't work and its a real pain to get back out." Levi held the small rock a moment longer as he memorized all he could of it and swallowed it uncertainly. It rolled down his throat and was gone. The only response he felt was a burp like puff of steam.

"Very well, lets chat." the man said with a grin Levi didn't like.

Chapter Five: The Talented Mr Phillip

As the buzzing quieted and the hostile debris settled, she turned to look at whatever had barely missed them. Feet away, laid a black construct of some kind. It had four legs, a tail, a snouted head with silver horns on a long neck that was lined with rings. Lastly wings of enormous size and odd shape. One of which sputtered in a circular pattern for a few moments as the thing laid there. Its head slowly rose and examined the area. It was then she identified it as a dragon, like the one on the congressional crest. It was dragon construct, like the one on the congressional crest.

"Terrific." It said without moving its mouth, as was common to most constructs but with a tone of sarcasm that Kess couldn't manage yet. It craned its neck around and examined the twitching wing then the gawking crowd each gave a glare in turn or grumbled as they continued their routines.

"Sorry about that. Glad to see I didn't kill anyone. I'll go ahead and get out of your way." It attempted to rise onto its legs, steam hissed and it collapsed again. "Or perhaps I'll rest here for a short while."

"Should we help him?" Sekk asked and Kess shrugged in response. She'd prefer leave it be, but rarely did decency cross paths with personal preference. Hopefully they'd offer and he'd decline and that would be the end of it. As they approached someone else did as well.

"Ah Mr. Phillip, I suppose you were due for your monthly foul up." Said a man in a military uniform.

"You have to admit I crash far less often than most." it replied, it head sinking into the dirt.

"But still far too often to keep the migraines away." the officer replied. "Would you like a mechie?"

"You offend me, sir. I would like to get pulled out of this crowd though if you don't mind." Henry nodded and gestured for Sekk and Kess to come forward.

"Help me move this cog brain, would you." The officer took hold of his tail and told them to each take a hind leg. "On three we pull and drag him to that tree." then actually noticed Kess it seemed for he added. "That is, if you don't mind Miss." Kess shook her head so not to give away her secret in case he truly hadn't noticed. It had been months since she'd been referred to as Miss but then it had also been months since she'd talked to anyone but relations and grouchy military instructors. As they pulled, she realized how light his body was. He wasn't light in the human term of the word but she had expected him to be five hundred pounds yet he almost weighted as much as her at about three hundred pounds and he was almost twice her size.

"The shame..." he groaned as he slid backwards through the dirt. His claw-like fingers raking up grass as he went. They reached the their destination on the first attempt.

"You need anything else before I get back to work, no glad to hear it." The officer said as he marched off.

"Thanks a lot Henry. I don't know how I'd get...ah forget it." His right rear foot reached forward and turned a knob on his side causing a tray of tools to spring out beside it. He took a wooden handled screw driver in his claws and slid it into the gap between his front leg and his body and began to twist.

"So you've been in the shell for what...two months?" he said glancing at Sekk then Kess then back to his leg. "Pull the lucky card and get snared into the army?"

"Four months actually but the rest is right. I'm Kess and this is my brother Sekk."

"Pleased, I'm Phillip as you heard. I'd shake your hands but mine isn't in the mood right now. You get anchored here, I mean is live around here or transferred?"

"No, were from Jerako in the east. Just arrived to fulfill our transfer from the flight academy in Herosal."

"I see, that would add a few months to the transitional process." Phillip retracted the screwdriver, placing it back in its drawer then reached back and disconnected the limb. Steaming water leaked from the joint's end.

"What does that mean?" Sekk asked with unusual sternness.

"Nothing offensive, I only meant I know of their main religion." Phillip said. "I meet many newly formed metas in my line of work and most are comfortable enough to come by my shop before the third month. But if your involved in a something like Maltoism, I can understand why your still concealing yourself so much after this long." His tail swung over to his other side and opened another drawer and took a small hydraulic lever in between the split tail tip and brought back around to where his arm laid on the grass. "Ironic that my father had to pay a decent sum for my metamorphosis and you got forced into yours. I suppose its just the military displaying their power and authority."

Kess couldn't speak, she'd never met someone who had desired to take this form enough to throw down the sums she could guess in marks, but then as he'd said she wouldn't have and she hadn't really asked. Luckily the large creature continued, giving her the time she needed to compose her thoughts.

"However I don't want to get into that, what I'm curious in, is if you have any interest in learning the mechanical arts? You or your brother." Kess and Sekk looked at each other. "You wouldn't have to take it far as I have, you can keep yourselves busy for a lifetime by just constructing components and toys. I have a shop in town filled with little mechanical wonders... and not so wonderful things. You've seen such before, they'd be common here if not for the salty air from the ocean." After their joint silence at what to say, he added. "Or was Herosal not like that either?" Kess had no idea, she never left the academy during her training course. This trip into the market was a rare and unpleasant experience for her.

"There were a few." Sekk filled in and Kess was grateful for it, then there was a slight squealing in her head and the words, "Nelvis, Market Square. Bring cart." She must have flinched for Phillip said.

"Sorry, I should have warned you first. Well anyway if your interested come by my shop in town and I'll give you a tour. I shouldn't keep you any longer, sounds important, but then I am a merchant in blood."

"What do you mean?" Kess asked.

"Oh, they're requesting all available personnel on channel seven. I suppose that includes you." Kess activated the receiver in her head but all she got was gribble.

"I haven't got the decryption key yet." She tilted her head at him. "How do you have it?"

"Oh, I discovered it months ago and they still haven't changed it." As he finished he emitted a sound that Sekk related to nails on a chalkboard and cringed. Kess understood and her mind took the sound and stretched it into a minute long sound clip in which letters were recited. She took these pairing of letters and began running them in the back of her mind. The random sounds became coherent words and Phillip was correct, they were indeed being summoned.

"Blast, come on Sekk. Thank you Mr. Phillip, its been an interesting meeting. I'm sure we'd be pleased to take you up on your tour as soon as the war permits."

"Of course, thank you both for the help." he said bobbing his head slightly and then turned back to his work. Unfortunately Sekk didn't take the hint and said.

"You never said where your shop is." This apparently caught him by surprise for he turned back and their was a slight pause in his response as he stared, leaving Kess feeling a bit guilty.

"True, take this." he said extending his head towards Sekk and in a moment a card emerged from a slot in the back of his mouth. Sekk hesitated before reaching for it.

"Its the flamethrower you have to worry about, not the teeth. Their rather dull." Phillip said as Sekk's finger slipped between the jagged pieces of polished steel and pulled the card out with the slight jerk.

They scanned over it with raised eyebrows but stashing it away. There was no address or directions, but an equation.

"It keeps the tourists away." Phillp said simply and then as bowed and took off down the street. "Try not to get shot! I hear bullets aren't good for you, but then again I never trusted doctors."

Chapter Six: Gives and Takes

Ten Years Ago...

The formally dressed officer introduced himself as General Gernald of the RNS Army. When Levi only stared blankly back, he clarified.

"The army that isn't occupying your town." When Levi could only ask what occupying meant the general sighed then started asking various questions and playing many games which weren't very fun. Counting, measuring, pattern identification, then more questions and more games. He soon came to find he could ignore the man and still reply to this annoying inquisition.

Instead, when given a map to calculate distances and arrival times which had to be explained, he instead focused on how long it would take him to walk there while the man spoke of flying or train travel. When given calculations of funds to solve, verbally to the man's annoyance since Levi couldn't read them. He thought he could puzzle it out rather quickly but he enjoyed watching the man fume too much to try. Levi instead came up with the expected living costs for himself.

Either tiring of the speaking the harder questions or noticing Levi's complete lack of interest. The general removed a wooden tube that rattled and set it on the table with a smile. Levi was not so enthusiastic, while this brought the general to the smile all the more.

"Alright smart guy, I want you to tell me how many pieces are in this." Levi took it and his other hand tugged at it. "It doesn't open and the pieces are made of different sizes and materials so you can't simply weigh and sum this one up."

"Then what am I supposed to do?"

"That's your problem. These tests aren't to see if you can do basic functions. The first three or so made sure that you weren't impaired but the rest are used to determine your ability."

"My ability?" he said coldly. "I believe I've shown I have many abilities."

"But only one unique one. If you're a fourth class as I'm told you are, you will have one talent. Its impossible to know what. Most of those we keep secret, but we have one that can stand some where and know the weather that area will have for the next few days. Another, one that manages government funds can calculate amounts of numbers that would make you queasy without trying."

"So you think I have a talent for counting things I can't see?"

"No this is just one many tests that will direct us toward what your talent is." Levi sizzled mentally. He would not perform tricks for this man, tricks that would tell him what he could be used for when he had no intention on staying. On impulse he flung the tube across the room at the wall. They both watched it strike the wall and shatter, Levi burned the sight of the dozens of stones scattering into his memory. The man didn't seem annoyed, but then he didn't seem to reveal any emotions he didn't mean to. This only annoyed Levi all the more, that this man didn't even care how he felt.

"Someone has a temper." he smiled.

"13 red stones, 5 green, 21 black, 12 white, and 8 metal balls." Levi said and rose. "Give or take two or three, count that yourself."

"You can't simply walk away from this. Everyone will be looking for you and some won't be so kind about it." the general said, serious now.

"Then they can try to find me too."

"What about your family?"

"They won't want me, so what about them?"

"I'm glad you realize that, but once the others realize who and what you are. They'll do whatever it takes to get you on their side if not simply kill you." Levi understood his hint.

"Then you better look after them so I can't be sent against you."

"Clever. But the fact still remains that-" he raised a hand to stop him, but Levi reached to push it aside and frozen. A shock ran through Levi and his hand automatically clenched on the general's. A floodgate of information opened to him and flowed forth at a relentless pace. Numbers, images, maps, thoughts, conversations and countless other things flooded the channels of his mind and he stumbled under the burden.

Yet even as it continued to come, the gathering pieces connected and Levi formed a breath-taking understanding of the world outside his little village, mostly military in purpose but much that wasn't. Base locations, amounts of personnel, amounts of airships and aircraft, their crew rosters and blueprints. A city he never heard of, he now had memories and books of facts about, from trade routes, to histories, to the locations of gambling parlors. The river was suddenly blocked as he was thrown backwards and his legs unprepared to catch him, stumbled leaving his heavy form to collapse onto the rocky floor.

He laid there for perhaps a few minutes as his mind tried to organize itself. The general also stunned, didn't speak until guards arrived and assisted him while dragging Levi to his feet. Levi didn't resist and only glanced about, trying to find a memory that told him where he was.

"What happened, what did you see?" Gerald demanded as he recovered.

"What did I see? I think I saw many things. Where am I?" The General seized him by the shoulders and shook him.

"Boy, you'll tell me what you just did-"

"Sir." The other meta, James said. "I think you just discovered his talent."

"I can see that!"

"What I mean sir, is that I doubt he knows what happened. He's just tuning us out now, so there's no use getting angry with him. Why don't we take him up and sort this out later, sir." The general sighed and released Levi.

"You're right, but cannon fire. I never felt something so bleak. I was trapped in my mind-" he stopped and glanced into the darkness. "Never mind, break camp as quickly as possible. I want all crews arranged and loaded as they came and soon. Our A.S. will be airborne as soon as its ready."

"Yes sir." the meta said, bowed then turned to see Levi staring up at him.

"Coronal James Flagg. Age, twenty six, five feet and seven inches tall. Three golden crowns awarded in the last eight years. You lead the team that assassinated the Counselor of Energy and directed the attack that brought down the Iron Panther. Your hometown is Ceolis where your family's business still operates. You make 64,000 marks...every..." he said then quieted and stared blankly up at the two men that stared back, mouths agape then turned to Gernald.

"General Genarld Pikes. Age, forty-six." the general pressed his hand over his mouth.

"Nothing good can come of this. As I said, lets pack this-" the elevator rumbled to life as the cables spun signaling that the box was descending from above. "Oh what is it now?" the General growled and turned to James.

"Haven't heard a thing since we came down here, all static." he nodded and waved for the stationed guards to focus the what lights they could on the vertical shaft. It turned out to be completely pointless for when the metal crate reached the bottom, flames streamed from the interweaving metal bars. They backed away from the intense heat but James sprinted forward and pried open the gate. Levi couldn't fathom what he expected to find, but what he did, probably wasn't it. There was a low hum and a disorienting blast as a wave of force sent James tumbling across the ground. A gunshot followed and though Levi had rarely heard one, the general's memories held countless occasions of different guns firing as well as cleaning and handling, and so could identify the model and type.

The large round for a personal firearm caught the general in the chest. He was on the ground as fast as gravity allowed. He knew what gravity was Levi marveled as he turned back to the elevator, where three figure's had emerged, two fully metallic metas and the last in a full body suit with a glass plate as a face. Levi watched with a combination of morbid curiosity and uncontrollable fright as the man in the suit raised a long barreled weapon, pulled a lever, and scattered the approaching guards with an arching spray of flames. Oddly he felt a bit of comfort when the other two looked at him then the bulkier of them came forward and heaved him over his shoulder as if he was a bag of flour and not a metal based boy.

True they were kidnapping him, but that was better than assassinating him as he'd considered they might. He might have screamed a month before, and would have doubtlessly put up a struggle, but he had already been kidnapped in a way. Now there had simply been a shift in his handlers. If they got him out of this cave, he hardly cared what flag they carried.

The other was emptying his deafening weapon upon the few guards that were challenging the flamethrower, or at least he assumed for he couldn't see in his current position but only hear. His captor returned to the elevator but before he could throw the switch or call back his allies there was a crack and Levi was heaved to the floor as the meta stumbled. The iron cage rattled as Levi struck the ground and stared upwards. The light from high within the shaft revealed dust as it showered upon him as the meta turned about to get his own dose of shelling. He slapped the large button that should of caused the elevator to rise but it remained still and after hitting once more while under constant if cautious fire and realizing that it was not going to obey, turned to face Levi.

Levi tensed and his mind blanked then processed what he had to do as the man reached out for him. The meta would kill him now, escape was impossible, bargaining was completely out of the question. Neither side would allow the other a chance to escape with him, it was the now deceased general that warned of this. Better to destroy this meta called Levi then risk him being captured by another nation.

Separate his head from his body, break his spine, crush his mind and on and on. So many ways to die and so few ways to live. But as he reached up and caught the man's descending hands with both of his own, their minds connected as before and Levi had no choice but to absorb his memories or let them cycle endlessly through his mind.

No there was a difference, for there was an outsource, a release for the information. He sent a single thought down this link and it came back out in the river of incoming data. It was the meta, he was holding the meta with both arms this time instead of only one and it was clear that one hand could only take in information and the other give it. And through the chaos, a concept arose. If he could take information and force it upon some one, could he alter its very foundation?

Moments later, Levi released the meta's arm and it released him as well and straightened. Levi watched in shock as he crawled free and backed into a corner. Someone stepped forward and Levi turned to see James there, merely holding his arm out at the now docile man. Though it hummed strangely and his odd pulsing increased.

"Don't move." James said and two more soldiers approached, guns upraised. The unnamed meta turned to James as well and spoke, the cavern was silent and still except for the dancing shadows cast by the remaining flames, as he did then for a dreadfully long while afterwords as they looked between him and Levi in horror. This terrible words were unforgettably these.

"This better be a joke James or I'll have you before a Court-martial before you can say mutiny, and that goes for the rest of you."he said cold as he stared them down each in turn.

Levi simply turned away in shame for he was the only one that understood his crime. He had killed his attacker, stolen every memory from the meta's mind and replaced them with those he held of the general's who by now had expired entirely upon the cavern floor. James seemed to grasp this and glanced between the corpse and the meta and then said quietly as he turned to Levi.

"What has heaven allowed upon this world."