‘The Pipe-world, Ah’kis, is five thousand miles long and just over ten miles in diameter. It was one of a dozen Arks sent out from Earth to populate distant planets; each meant to journey a mere 200 years at one third light speed. But some accident knocked Ark Six from its course and now 10000 years have passed. Kassi seeks her brother who has been kidnapped by ‘demons’ and now travels north to the end of the world. She is accompanied by Sebastian a sentient bot of dubious origins with whom she can communicate telepathically. That ability seems to set her apart from the rest of the world’s population.’
 
 
IT WAS A beautiful sunny day. The Circle Sea was calm and the sunline cast speckled diamonds atop the soft waves as the Shadow Queen tacked against the wind. The crew was coalescing into a singular unit and they had made good coin on their last three journeys from south to north and back again. Guarding other vessels from pirates was a lucrative, if secretive, business. The ship cut into the waves like a knife as Sebastian stood at its stern.

Kassi came and sat with the robot following his line of sight. The island did not turn as such but the spray of foam shifted until it faced their vessel.

‘Damn! It is following us,’ she muttered. She now knew that in the Circled Seas many islands were in fact adrift and generally followed their own chaotic course. For a brief period you could calculate where an island would be but soon it would slip out of sight never to be seen; unless spotted accidently. This particular island appeared to defy each and every fact just stated. It had followed them for a day now. Changing direction with them. Speeding up. slowing down. Always a league away. Following.

‘We could try and chase it?’ she said.

‘If it is powered by ancient tech then we may never catch it using only sail power,’ Sebastian replied. ‘Besides if it is a ship then it is significantly bigger than any pirate ship we have encountered so far. Even El Bastille would be dwarfed by this thing[1].’

‘You’ve seen no one “on board”.’ Kassi said.

‘The absence of something is not proof that something is absent.’

As riddles go it was one of the robot’s easier ones.

‘We can set a boat out for it,’ she said.

‘And it may evade the boat altogether or allow it to land and then we find out how many people live there.’

‘Then I swim there,’ she answered. This had been a conversation they’d had all morning.

‘And they evade you and we cannot find you. You drown,’ Sebastian replied flatly. ‘My plan is still the only option.’

‘The only option!’ she exclaimed angrily. ‘Sebastian. You are not the most…’ She paused to think of a word. ‘Floatable of the crew. You have told me countless times that the Circled Sea is over a mile deep.’

‘Actually it is two miles deep at this point,’ the robot added.

‘Exactly. Two miles! Straight down. You’re made of polysteel and positronic brains. You do not float. You do sink. Two miles down! I at least can swim and float.’

‘And how do you find out what this island is up too? How do you return to us? Kassi, luv,  I can scan the thing as I pass by.’

‘UNDERNEATH!’ she almost screamed at her friend. ‘You’re talking about travelling underneath the island.’

‘Well. I do not breathe and if they are scanning for boats a submergible will be missed.’ He tried to calm his friend, an appendage on her arm. ‘Kassi. I have been collecting things when we docked just for such an occasion.’

‘You thought that we’d find a moving island?’ She eyed him suspiciously.

‘Not quite, no. But something that would need me to swim. After all we may run into difficulties. I would need to be able to move from here to... wherever, So I have made a sort of inflatable. My weight will keep it submerged but I will be able to swim. In a fashion.’

Kassi looked morose. ‘The doggy paddle, I expect.’

He persevered. ‘Beneath the waves I can pass either right by the island or even underneath it. My scanners work well at a close range and can cut through most forms of rock. Useful to a Surface Engineer Bot repairing damage outside of the ark.’

‘But two miles, Sebastian.’ She wanted to say that she couldn’t lose him but the words filled her throat making it hard to speak. He knew though. He always knew how she felt.

‘If it helps, I am waterproof,’ he said cheerfully.
 


Later she watched as Sebastian prepared himself for the ordeal. That his ‘carefully crafted collection of odds and sods’ (his words) looked nothing more than plastic bags and broom handles did not fill her with confidence. The fact that he fussed around with his wonderful contraption drained even the modicum of confidence that remained.

‘Are you really sure this will keep you afloat?’ she asked for the tenth time.

‘I am in part a calculating machine you know. I have most likely forgotten more math than most people can remember,’ he replied in a huff.

‘It’s the forgotten part I’m worried about. Sebastian?’ She tried to implore him again, but the robot refused to listen.

‘Kassi. I am best suited to do this. I know that. You know that. These bags, rickety as they may be, are more than robust enough to carry me. I have a number of back-ups in case some do not perform as I hope.’

‘And how will you find air beneath the ocean?’

‘It was not unheard of for a Surface Engineer Bot to become detached whilst performing our duty. We have propellant and valves we can deploy to push us back towards the Ark, if need be. I will merely use the hydrogen stored within as fuel for the bags rather than ionise it for propulsion. See? Everything is taken care of.’ He held up an ‘arm’. ‘And before you ask. I can electrolyse the water, creating an almost endless supply of hydrogen, if need be.’

He casually tossed the contraption over the side. It stayed together remarkably well considering it seemed like only a mess of string held it. Sebastian called towards Jago.

‘Are we turned away from the island?’

The dwarf gave a thumbs up and Sebastian paused to give her arm a squeeze before dropping overboard.
With her heart in her mouth she peered over the rail to find only a swirl of bubbles and water. Her friend had already disappeared beneath the waves.

{Sebastian?} She sent via the telepathic link they shared.

{I am fine, luv. Everything is working according to plan. The Shadow Queen has already passed overhead and speeds away as we speak. I will drop down to around fifty feet and wait for the island to come upon me.}

{It’s the come upon bit I’m concerned about.}

{Oh? I thought it was the ‘forgotten’ part that worried you?}

{I am a woman of many worries at the present time.}

She crossed the deck and tried to follow where her friend was but all she could see was the ever-present ocean. A tumbling surface of blue/green capped with white flurries.

{I can’t see you at all.}

{Which is the point of this manoeuvre is it not?}

She hated it when he was right. She sighed. Expansively.

{I heard that.} Sebastian sent, a little chuckle in his ‘voice’. {The island is coming up quickly. It is almost over me now. I can see some form of propulsion. Its berth is fairly shallow. Not much draught. The island itself must be honeycombed with tunnels and spaces. I’ll rise a little. See what my scans can reveal... Wait! What is that?}

Then there was silence. Not the absence of words but the disappearance of the person talking. Kassi knew the difference.

‘Buggeration!’ she said out loud to no one in particular.

The sunline was already fading into the moonline. The small voice of reason stated that whoever was on the island was more than capable of intercepting her. She choose to ignore it. Grabbing her sword and shield which always leant against the side she strode towards the small boats tied up at the stern.

A group of people blocked her way.

‘I’m going to that bloody island, so don’t try to stop me,’ she growled.

‘We’re not. C’ptain,’ Jago said cheerfully. ‘We’re going with ye.’

She started to protest but the dwarf just ploughed over her voice.

‘Sebastian is a member of this crew and as such is granted the same rights as anyone. He’s also our friend. We don’t leave friends behind.’ He added quickly, ‘C’ptain.’ And saluted.

There were mutters and nods of agreement from the rest of the crew.

‘Where y’go, captain. We follow,’ said one of the younger women, a smile on her face and a sword in hand.

‘And you’ll need to decide fast, Kassi,’ Fyonne called out. ‘The island’s stopped moving.’

Kassi ran to the stern to see the mass of land begin to recede.

‘Jago, can you?’

‘Already on it, C’ptain. Slowin’ t’ a stop.’

Kassi looked across at her ex-lover. ‘Fy. You’ve got the ship right? While I’m over there.’

‘I’m a WatchMother, not a bloody...’ She couldn’t think of a word. ‘Whatever it is you’re leaving me to be.’

Kassi nodded at the rest of the crew. ‘They need support and comfort. Not someone barking orders at them. You’ve got this. Johan?’

‘Here. Ready.’ The B’jing city captain waited at her side, sword in hand.

Old lovers and new ones. Kassi smiled to herself.

‘Okay. As I can’t dissuade you… Let’s prepare the smaller skiff. We leave when the moonline is dimmed.’
 


Night had descended. The curve of the ocean could be felt rather than seen. The thin moonline above was partly obscured by spiralling clouds. Only the white froth of the waves could be seen as the ten rowed away from the Shadow Queen. The island loomed as a shape. A darker shadow cast upon the relentless sea. Its presence sensed esoterically rather than physically.

They heard the waves first. Then saw the ripple of white water as it foamed across the sands. They readied themselves. Waiting for something to loom out of the darkness. For some monstrosity to rear up and attack; but nothing emerged from the stygian blackness that enveloped them. The small skiff touched land a few metres from the shore and the ten quickly jumped overboard and began to pull the boat up and out of the waves. Kassi watched the darkness with an intensity borne of experience.

Still nothing happened. The sound of the waves breaking across the sand filled the night. Kassi had them wait. Longer than she would have normally. Something was not right. Obviously as Sebastian had been taken. But it was more than that. She recalled her time on another desert island only six months ago. The long nights filled with sound. Birds chattering to each other. Insects humming through the air. The rustle of vegetation as a cat or something bigger strolled by. There is none of that here. Only a preternatural silence roaring above the sound of waves crashing.

She took one step and felt the solidity of the beach beneath her feet. Solid. Unyielding. Not sand. She opened her mouth to speak but from somewhere around them comes a hiss and the air is heavy with a sweet scent. No words come forth as her body slowly drifts away into a dream and all ten lay upon the hard carapace of sand.

 

Kassi is awake. There is no transition from one phase to the next. There is darkness and then she sits up eyes wide open. She finds herself in a large room crowded at one end by a collection of cheap tables. Where she sits unfortunately it is crowded with cages. A dozen of them, two lying open. The others occupied by one of her crew. Some are awake. Some slope forward still sleeping. Each has a thick collar around their neck. She fingers her own.

‘You each have one,’ a shrill voice came from over her left shoulder.

Turning, she saw an oldish man. White haired. Gaunt. Dressed in a flowing gown of white cotton. Kassi had seen pictures of an ancient earth being called god. She wonders if this old man has seen something similar. Except for the black stains that are haphazardly pasted on his face and arms. They had definitely not been in the image she saw.

He tapped the side of his neck. ‘Try to remove it and, poof.’ He simulated an explosion with his hands. He tutted. ‘Don’t know why I bother. Little more than apes, I reckon.’ He tapped the side of his head and smiled sadistically. ‘You haven’t got a clue what I’m saying, have you? Thick as two planks.’ He continued muttering to himself before leaving making a great show of showing them a camera perched high up on the opposite wall.

‘We’ll be watching. WATCHING. YOU.’ He pointed at them. ‘Well, I can’t stay here and talk to idiots. They should be cracking open the S.E.B. around now.’

He left. All ten of them watching him go in silence.

‘So that’s a Sigh?’ Jago said, a little disappointedly.

Kassi was more concerned with the remains of a robot across three of the tables. For one agonisingly brief second she had seen a Surface Engineer Bot and thought it was Sebastian. As she looked closer though she could see that it was broken and in a decrepit state. Sebastian must be elsewhere. Most likely the S.E.B the Sighs were about to crack open.

‘So what do we do now, C’ptain?’ Jago asked with a worried look on his face.

She smiled warmly. ‘We escape, of course.’

‘But the CeeTee...’ There was a spluttering of voices raising concerns, but Kassi had already retrieved one of her three knifes.

‘Relax. Sebastian and I do this all the time.’

She carefully judged the distance and angle and threw the knife. It spun in mid-air turning hilt first before knocking the side of the camera. The camera tilted away from the cages and up at the ceiling.

‘But that does us no good. We’re still locked in here,’ one of the women said.

Kassi strolled out of her cage and curtsied. She moved instantly to Johan’s cage and unlocked it.

‘I need to see the mechanism,’ she said, brusquely lifting up his head to inspect the collar.

‘And hello and thanks to you, darling,’ he said amused.

She concentrated on the device attached to his neck. ‘Hmmm. Simple three tumbler lock. Simple explosive. How is it activated? Ah yes. Wires attached to a battery here! The Trey is hidden on the underside. Unavailable. Put key in lock. Metal completes circuit and…’

She stepped back.

‘Boom?’ Johan said with a smile.

‘So, the question is. How could the Sighs lock the thing without setting off the explosive, eh?’ She smiled at him.

‘A rhetorical question,’ he replied. ‘You already know the answer.’

‘Aye.’

She leant forward and kissed him.

‘A ceramic key! See. Any metal here, such as this lockpick, will blow your head off.’ She waved the set of lockpicks close to the collar. Johan turned a slightly paler green.

‘And this is good news because?’ he asked hesitantly.

She lifted her other hand to show him another set of lockpicks.

‘Ceramic, see! Sebastian got them for me on my last birthday.’ She gazed longingly at the collection of instruments in both hands. Then the thought of her friend shook her out of her reverie. She tossed the metal picks onto Johan’s lap. ‘You get the rest out of the cages. I need to fiddle with this thing.’

She stepped far away and started to work the picks into her own collar.

‘Kassi,’ he said, taking a step forward.

‘No!’ She raised a hand. ‘I need to work this out and I’m only willing to do that with my own life.’

‘We’re fucked if you fail,’ he said quietly.

‘We’re fucked as soon as these arses return. The Circle of Sighs are only after Sebastian. Once they have him broken down we’ll all be disposable.’

He looked shocked. ‘You know the Circle?’

‘They’re the ones who took Sebastian on our third day in B’Jing[2].’

He laughed. ‘So on your first day you have a run-in with the guard. On the second with me.’

‘Not forgetting the snipers,’ she added whilst still fiddling with the lock.

‘Long range wand division. Then on your third day Sebastian gets kidnapped by the Circle of Sighs? Y’know, most people come to B’Jing to see the sights? Relax in the baths. See a show. Visit the ancient sites.’

‘Guess Sebastian and I aren’t most people.’ She looked up at him a thin smile on her face. ‘Now, please get the others out and leave me to this lock?’ She saw the concern in his eyes and added. ‘I’ve got this. Honest.’
She was as good as her word. By the time Johan had unlocked the last cage Kassi had, perhaps too, casually tossed the collar into a far corner and was already freeing Jago and the others. She was almost complete when there was a noise outside and the door began to open. Calmly she slipped her shield down and threw it. She was unsure if there were any dampeners in place so she used the whole shield and not just the outer rim.

The thin old man entered saying. ‘Did you think we wouldn’t see you imbeciles throw your little rocks or whatever you...?’ The shield struck him in the chest knocking all the air out of his lungs. He dropped to the floor. Before he could do anything else Kassi was on top of him. One swift punch later and he was out. Without a word she went back to freeing the others. Johan collected their weapons and armour.

‘So now we fight back?’ he asked.

‘Now we put this bastard,’ she indicated the Sigh, ‘into one of the collars. Then I go and explore. Alone!’ she added quickly.

‘What are we supposed to do if he wakes up?’ someone asked.

‘Threaten him with a fork. Anything metal near that thing will scare him.’

‘Kassi?’ Johan was at her side.

‘I said alone.’

‘And I agree. If they have any more CeeTees around, a lone figure would be able to avoid them better than ten of us dashing about the place.’

He didn’t need to say that the lone figure best suited for sneaking around was Kassi.

‘Besides, we need a grown-up in here to stop someone accidently putting a fork into that collar. Thank you very much for that by the way.’

‘A pleasure.’ She quickly kissed him. ‘I’ve fought Sighs before. Don’t worry.’

He kissed her back. ‘I can’t help it.’

Then she was gone.
 


The corridors were uniform. Bland rectangles opening onto even blander rooms or cupboards. Kassi initially checked every space carefully but the place was huge. Seriously large and she quickly fell into giving each room a quick look over to ensure that there was no one behind her. Neither the corridors nor the rooms had visible cameras and she was almost certain that hidden ones would be unnecessary here. This was obviously a Sigh stronghold. A place where they felt comfortable. She knew from experience that comfortable people made mistakes. Took liberties. Relaxed a little too much.

The one thing she could not be certain of was any form of electrical dampeners that could affect her shield. Her and Sebastian had both seen, and felt, the effects of what he called electro-magnetic pulses and scientists, that was the word Sebastian used for the Sighs, scientists loved to tinker. So, she kept her shield close. Unwilling to send it bouncing across any corridor just in case. Of course, she knew enough from her friend to understand that her every move may be tracked by the heat she gave off or the mere pressure of her foot on the floor. The magic that scientist could conjure was great and deadly to behold.

There did not appear to be other floors so she presumed that the main headquarters and suites of rooms would be found nearer the centre of the ‘island’. Given the size she also assumed that any lift from the surrounding waves would be more easily felt on the outer edges. So given that the floor of the initial room fairly heaved and as she travelled ‘this’ way said ‘waves’ became less this must be the way to the centre.

She was pleased to have a form of confirmation a few minutes later when two Sighs came around a corner ahead of her. They stopped. Speechless and frankly confused before belatedly reaching for their wands. One even manged to bring it completely out of his pocket before Kassi slammed into them both shield first. One was flung against the far wall and slid to the ground no longer conscious. The other tried to stagger to his feet but the edge of her shield put paid to that idea. She pulled them into an empty room and continued onwards.

Kassi noted that this new corridor was wider and obviously more opulent. The rooms off it were well stocked and clean. An obvious sign she was nearing the centre. A tall spindly black man stepped out of a room, his back to her. Kassi threw her shield catching him before he even knew she was there. Inside the room he had just left she found a fully stocked laboratory. Glass vials and noxious smells permeated the place. She tied him up. Stuck a rag in his mouth and left.

‘Stop! You there!’ The voice was weak and crackled with age.

Shit!

Kassi turned and was surprised to see a young man, no older than the warrior. He had a wand pointed at Kassi. The end firmly centred on her chest. Its black hole steady in the man’s grip.

‘You’re one of the savages from the ship, yes?’

He slipped a small oblong of metal out and momentarily stared at it. His thumb began to move. Kassi tensed, ready to leap when the man collapsed in a heap. Standing behind him was Sin, the young boy from the Shadow Queen.

Kassi began to berate the lad then stopped. If she was honest with herself she would have sneaked away after them at the age of eleven. She would probably done so at nine! Telling him not to do something she plainly would do felt wrong; besides he had been useful.

‘Fine. We’ll talk about this later. Back on the Shadow Queen. Understand?’

The lad nodded, looking serious but there was a wry smile on his lips.

‘Then I need you to do something for me. This is corridor twelve. See?’ She pointed at the faded lettering.
The Formative Advisory, Guidance and Nurturing robot—nicknamed a Fagan—had taught the boy some reading and writing, and Johan had taken up the challenge of teaching him more. She was unsure how much Sin actually understood, though.

‘Yes. I came in through a hatchway into corridor seventeen. That way.’ He pointed to a corridor running away from them at right angles. He understood plenty.

‘So, I need you to find corridor thirty eight, room twenty. The others are there waiting for me. Tell them to leave. Go the opposite way to me and find another hatchway. Okay.’

She looked at the dark-haired boy as he solemnly nodded. His face was beginning to lose the puppy fat. High cheek bones had appeared beneath his long lashes. Some day he was going to break hearts. Today she needed him, and the others, just to survive.

‘Tell them I’ll see you all back at the skiff.’

She turned back towards the inner part of the island and hurried onwards, looking back once to check that Sin had done as he was told. He was. From there she proceeded cautiously. Some of the corridors opened onto suites of rooms. Living quarters for the Sighs and she would hate to have one sneak up behind her. Of course, it did seem as though all Sighs were officious—perhaps there was a school they all attended where the subject was compulsory. So anyone finding her back to them would probably shout it out for all to hear. That would give her plenty of time to silence them. One way or another.

It took Kassi almost thirty minutes to complete a circuit of the corridors that led into the large, enclosed area at the centre of the island. No doubt this was where they experimented. This would be where Sebastian had been brought. Circumspect she listened in at one of the doors. Either no one spoke within, or the door was too thick to hear through. She had no choice but to enter. Not knowing if on the other side was a phalanx of guards or dozens of Sighs each with their wands raised at her.

Softly she tried the handle. The door opened silently. She stepped into a large auditorium. Here there were rows of chairs all welded to a steel frame. Each row stepped down with wide shallow stairs leading down into the brightly lit arena below. The floor of the arena was long shaped like a lozenge with Kassi standing high above it along one side. To her right bright lights flooded that end and she could see a raised platform upon which a number of machines whirled. Not robots but machines to operate others or view things.

People stood along the raised platform and she could hear distracted voices echoing in the vastness. At the far side, close to the platform, she saw a circular hole with a similarly sized circle held above it by chains. A dozen people, perhaps less, stood chained there. Her heart sank. Even from the distance she recognised her crew from the skiff.

A voice loudly echoed from the brightness.

‘Our monitors tell us you opened one of the doors into here, barbarian. So just show yourself. This is over. Do you understand?’

She focused on a figure to one side. Tall, holding a smaller figure who was struggling. The Sigh held a short barrelled wand. A pistol, as Sebastian called them. It was aimed squarely at Sin’s temple.

‘Are you deaf as well as stupid, bitch? Show. Your. Self.’

She walked down the stairs and into the edge of bright light near the end of the circus.

The Sigh smiled. ‘There you are. That’s a good girl.’

Sin looked miserable. She shook her head slightly and he stopped struggling.

The tall Sigh continued. ‘Throw the shield of Ornn away. We’ll be better able to use it than a slut like you.’

Kassi weighed the shield briefly before tossing it to her right. It hit one of the brick support pillars dead on and bounced across the space, hitting the Sigh heavily on the side of his head. He crumpled to the ground.

‘Santeed!’ one of the Sighs exclaimed from the raised platform and made to run to the unconscious man.
Sin meanwhile ran to her, burrowing his head into her stomach.

‘So sorry, Captain. They were taking ’em out jus’ as I arrived. They said they’d kill one o’ ’em unless I put me weapon down. So sorry.’

She whispered softly. Soothing words and sounds. It was not his fault, after all.

A second Sigh stood at the top of the raised dais holding a long rifle.

‘The boy goes with the others. You come to me and wait here.’ He pointed with his wand a spot about twenty feet from where he stood.

‘It’s alright, Sin.’ She smiled at him. Holding his hand briefly. ‘You know what to do? Stay safe?’

He nodded. Then walked over to the hanging platform where the rest of the skiffs crew stood waiting.

‘Wait!’ another Sigh called out. He ran down the steps, carrying something. ‘I’ll check him out before we put him with the rest of the dogs.’

He ran up to Sin and waved a small collection of boxes and wires all around him.

‘He’s safe. No metal on his person.’

Sin turned to Kassi and smiled slyly. She just curtly nodded. As they tied Sin up and hurled him onto the swinging circle above the large hole she walked casually towards the dais. The Sigh held his rifle on her at all times until he told her that it was far enough. She waited. Behind her two other Sighs ran and collected her shield.

‘You and this S.E.B. seem to have been joined at the hip. It has taken us longer than we hoped to acquire it. It was surprisingly malleable; did you know that?’ He scoffed. ‘What am I thinking? All these big words. Malleable. Acquire. Surprising. Do you even know what any of these fine words even mean?’

He did not wait for her to answer. ‘What I mean, barbarian, is that it is ours now. Bring it out.’ He called to the others in the shielded dais.

A S.E.B. skurried out like a young foal. Skittish and nervous. Their feet tapping on the solid stone floor. A staccato drum beat. Kassi had no doubt at all. This was Sebastian. Even under the Sigh’s influence there was a way that he walked. Even this nervousness could not hide that.

Without looking the Sigh asked Sebastian a question. ‘Who is she, robot? What do we wish to do to her?’

‘She-is-your-enemy-master.’ Sebastian’s voice sound shrill and stilted. Devoid of the humour Kassi knew was there. ‘She-is-to-be-eliminated. She-is-to-be-exterminated. Exterminate! Exterminate!’

‘Wait,’ the Sigh commanded. Sebastian stood still. His sensors focused on Kassi.

‘I think it is a fitting example of its loyalty to us, do you not think, barbarian? It destroys the bitch it called friend.’

‘You took my shield.’ Kassi spoke harshly, almost grunting the words. They wanted to see a barbarian; a barbarian she would give them.

‘Adreanne! Bring one of the shields from up there.’

Another Sigh came out of the doorway set in the thick plastic covering that shielded the raised platform. He moved almost softly, the hood of his cloak pulled over his face obscuring it completely in the harsh down lights. He tossed a shield down at Kassi’s feet. She saw a hand scarred yet delicate. Kassi wondered if this was actually a female Sigh.

They turned and walked back up the steps and behind the thick transparent sheet. A door closed. She was alone with her friend and her crew. Careful not to give anything away she glanced quickly at the ten people standing tied up. Sin gave a thumbs up, the ceramic lockpick in his hand. She smiled. At least one thing was now going right.

A voice came over the sound system. ‘You may finish the girl.’

Sebastian looked up and then at Kassi. ‘Exterminate!’

He ran at her. She dodged easily. He skidded to a halt. Tapping out as he turned. Tap! Tap! Tap! He ran at her again and yet again she dodged him. This time he stopped short and turned swiftly. An arm, razor thin, whipping the air where her arm had been a second before.

They faced each other. He trotted to the left. She moved slowly right. He stopped. She waited. They jostled about like small sumo wrestlers unwilling to engage in battle. Finally she stood with her back to the Sighs. A dozen were now watching from behind the thick Perspex sheet.

Sebastian stood. Asymmetrical. His left front leg a little way inside more than his right. Kassi watched. His left, her right.

The bot ran at her. She half dropped and raised her shield catching him as he leapt forward and pushing him away, using his momentum to slam him against the clear barrier behind her.

She ran away. Waited. Watched as Sebastian turned to face her again.

‘BOT!’ The Sigh called, throwing two blades towards him. Sebastian caught both in his front ‘arms’ easily. Then he ran at her. Blades whirling. Kassi waited. Sebastian was whirling the blades at a pace but she could see a pattern. A swooping rhythm that showed that he was not functioning at his best. This would seem fast to the Sighs but she had practiced so many times with him that such a rhythm was second nature to her.

They fell into a sword fight. It looked to be furious and horrible. The sound of metal on metal resounded in the vast arena. Yet it was a dance. A ballet of choreographed movements. Sparks flew from the edges of blades and Kassi even managed a pirouette; a spin that looked, she was sure, magnificent from where the Sighs stood.

Then she noticed her sword's edge.

It was crinkled. Beaten down. For a second she almost lost her place in the dance, but recovered quickly enough to parry a double blow from the bot. She studied her blade. Notches ran its length at carefully considered distances. Carefully she watched as Sebastian swung each sword. She saw a sliver of a spark. The sword in his right hand was the one cutting into her tempered steel blade.

Then Sebastian twisted his right ‘arm’ awkwardly, bring the blade in at a blunt angle. Kassi quickly shifted her stance and caught the blade mid-tempo, throwing the bot off-balance. The sword jarred in his grip and he lost hold of it sending it spinning to the left.

She quickly dodged that way scooping the blade up and then rolling away out of reach of her friend’s arms. (Although she knew that Sebastian could in fact extend each appendage far longer than he had done so.) She tossed her damaged blade which the bot scurried to pick up. Pushing Kassi once more back towards the large perplex barrier protecting the Sighs.

Again he stood slightly off balance. This time his right leg tucked a fraction in. Kassi circled to his right. He tapped to his left forcing her back slightly. She could almost feel the raised dais behind her.

Sebastian ran at her, swords flailing haphazardly. She parried and thrust. Cutting her old sword in two and pushing the S.E.B. back. He glared at her.

‘Exterminate!’ he repeated in a flat, metallic sounding voice.

She smiled.

He ran at her. Full throttle.

She stood her ground. Waving her newfound sword and snarling. A low growl of hatred and anger. Then, with a sly smile, she dropped to one knee and pivoted her shield again. The robot leaped at precisely the right time catching the shield and repelling upwards and into the vast plastic sheet above her.

It cracked and shattered in parts. The bot dropped to the arena floor in confusion. A jumble of limbs. Kassi was already up and using Sebastian’s prone body to push herself upwards against the shattered pane. Her weight proved too much and it folded inwards almost silently. A transparent flower opening out to an invisible sunline.

The long narrow chamber was only slightly larger than a corridor. Before the wide clear plastic an array of machines sat. More than a dozen Sighs either sitting or standing at them. Most had been watching her fight with Sebastian and their gaze had followed her alarming entry into their own space. Almost to a man they stood and began to find their wands. She stood amidst them yet couldn’t really be sure that they would not start firing even if it meant hitting one of their own behind her.

The Sigh to her right held her original shield up as protection. One step and she placed a hand on its rim and pushed it down.

‘Peek-a-boo!’ she said playfully before smashing her fist into his face. He fell. She held onto the shield. Of course, she could not be sure what spells or mechanisms the Sighs were using. It could protect her from most bullets, the things most wands spat out, but the electric field would be better.

A few wands discharged. Perhaps warning shots as none came near her; or perhaps the Sighs were totally useless at aiming?

She bowled into three Sighs standing close by, head butting one and kicking another between the legs. That was always a favourite. Another volley of bullets cut past her.

‘Wait!’ a voice called. ‘We may need her. The Surface Engineer Bot obviously malfunctioned. Perhaps we can use the girl to make him more amiable.’

Someone else shouted the ‘magic’ words, ‘I’ll use my Taser.’

Now Kassi knew that a Taser was a complex type of wand that used electrical current and circuits. Odds were that if that could work so should her shield. She flicked her right wrist both switching it on and sending the upper section cavorting back and forth along the narrow room. Ten Sighs were hit or their wands destroyed in a second or two. Kassi leapt onto the complex wall of machinery and cut through it as she ran with the other section of her shield. Sparks and smoke happily trailed her.

As she leapt the two halves of shield re-joined. She landed amidst a hail of bullets but a circle of blue flowed before her stopping them all. The remaining seven tripped over themselves in their desire to leave the control room. Six made it. The seventh found Kassi’s foot in his back. As he fell to the floor a thick metallic door slid shut. She stomped on the man’s head knocking him unconscious. Somewhere inside her own head a flicker of ‘sound’ re-appeared.

{Sebastian?} she asked silently.

‘Here, luv.’ She almost jumped. He was right behind her, sword in ‘hand’

‘They had some sort of dampener that effected our telepathy,’ she said needlessly. She smiled twirling the new sword in her hand. ‘Thanks for this. It’s perfectly balanced and almost ridiculously light. And it cuts through metal.’

Sebastian shifted his head in a mock bow. ‘My pleasure. It is made of a ceramic material. The edge will become blunt fairly swiftly but it sharpens itself with a little bit of silicon.’

‘So we feed you milk and this rocks?’ she replied.

‘Something like that.’

She looked out across the arena. Her crew had been freed and left ages ago, when she and Sebastian were mid dance. Perhaps they would meet the remaining Sighs. ‘How did they try to control you?’

‘A simple remote. It sent their orders directly into my head. It’s that which probably jammed our telepathy.’

‘So they just asked nicely?’

‘Oh, they buggered around with some code first of all but they did not understand the fundamentals of positronic brains. The spongium inside here…’ He tapped the side of his ‘head’. ‘…has neural pathways etched into it giving each S.E.B. a rudimentary A.I. The code part of our brains is really just to create an interface. There is no code that can actually rewrite my brain. Their “commands” were essentially just a background of annoying questions and demands. Easily ignored.’ She could have sworn he smiled despite having no movable facial features.

‘Because you are so used to ignoring “annoying questions and commands”, eh?’

He shrugged. ‘That is not what I said.’

She harrumphed but ignored him. ‘I noticed the hints you gave. The slightly off-balance stance. The ineffective sword play.’

He nodded sagely. ‘You are welcome.’ Then he became serious. ‘What worries me is that these people were connected to the Circle of Sighs. I am sure I saw a few who were also in B’jing months ago.[3] They also covered their bodies in pitchblende in the mistaken believe that it will turn them into elves.’

‘How?’ Kassi asked.

‘For a start it makes them look the burnt black that most elves have but also it makes them thin and emaciated. They think this is because it is turning them into elves but in fact it is the radiation that is slowly killing them. It is so bizarre. This mixture of fantastical belief system and hard science.’

The ground beneath them rocked abruptly and a high-pitched whine erupted overhead, loud even through the thick rock.

‘A machine!’ Kassi exclaimed. ‘They left through that door. Can you open it?’

Sebastian studied the door. Noting its weaknesses. The balance of hinges. Its weight. He scanned the interior of the lock mechanism.

‘It is very complicated. Multiple locking mechanisms and numerous redundances built in.’

‘So. That’s a no.’

‘I did not say that, luv.’

He narrowed three of his ‘hands’ too wafer thinness and slipped them into the door close to its hinges. A careful tug and the door toppled open with both robot and girl stepping aside.

They rushed along a corridor that swept upwards. It opened out into a shallow bowl simulating an extinct volcano. Four large machines trembled. Large blades spun at each corner and the farthest one suddenly jumped into the air.

‘Magic carpets!’ Kassi exclaimed in wonder. ‘I’ve heard about them but to see one actually fly.’

‘They’re actually large transport drones. Each capable of carrying a dozen or more people.’

A second drone suddenly ascended followed closely by a third.

‘Is it worth chasing them?’ Kassi asked.

‘No. They are too far away. Besides I can feel this artificial island list. They have obviously scuppered it in the hope of drowning us. We really ought to make our way back to the skiff. If we do not get clear, the island will create a vortex, dragging us down with it.’

 

Hours later the island languishes three hundred feet down. Its artificial trees shifting in the current. It is without life outside. Artificial in the extreme it floats gently, as though a behemoth. A kraken awaiting a time to rouse from its sleep.

Inside most of the lights remain off. Only the small bridge built within the slope of the ‘volcano’ is alive with electricity and people. Belaroonnë sits along with the others from the Upper Circle. The hangers on, the riff raff had been allowed to make their escape, concealing the fact that the innermost circle of The Circle of Sighs had remained on board. The island was more than an edifice to conceal a ship. It was in fact capable of submersion for long periods of time. A benefit at present although the Sighs’ abilities to penetrate the gloom was limited.

Belaroonnë sighed and asked the question even knowing the answer. ‘So. We have lost the machine?’

Henraae answered. ‘Yes. The puter can give us no clear direction to follow.’

The senior Sigh wondered aloud. ‘The girl? That barbarian. She was cleverer than we thought.’

‘And the Puter indicated some connection between the two. There is a similarity within their brainwaves,’ Adreanne added, saying. ‘The old Tech tells of a time when the Builders could speak mind to mind.’

Belaroonnë snorted. ‘An old wives’ tale to scare the young Sighs. Telepathy does not exist.’

Adreanne replied. ‘And yet “The Others” watch both of them.’

Belaroonnë looked calmer than he felt. ‘The outsiders can have the girl. We have always known that They were more interested in her than it. No, we redouble our efforts. This S.E.B. will be ours and with it the secrets of the ancient Builders will be ours. Then we can deal with the Others.’

Belaroonnë’s silence seemed to fill the small room. He recalled his first meeting with the red furred creatures. Their preposterous story of coming ‘from the outside’. The information they had sought from The Sighs. He did not know where these things had arisen, but he was sure they meant ill for Ah’kis; and more importantly The Circle of Sighs. He needed the bot. By gods he would have the bot.
 


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