Meeting of the Sides by Joel Fagin

Author's note: This one is heavily connected to another of my stories, but stands okayish on its own. I don't normally like the sorts of coincidences this story uses, but, well, this is hardly of pivotal importance. If the plot doesn't hinge on it, then it's just a coincidence and nothing more – and coincidences do happen. Most people in the world have had things happen to them that have less probability of occurring than winning lotto.

Yes, okay, I'm justifying something I shouldn't be doing and I'm a hypocrite.

The coincidence? That someone the main character in one of my stories knew just happens to be someone who talked to one of the Protectors when there is no other connection to make this seem plausible.

Final note: compared to the manga inhabitants of the Algol system, the description of... of the 'man' is completely accurate.

He woke from one nightmare into another. The world was jumbled black and red from high contrast crimson light pulsing through the room. He pushed himself out of the metal coffin and tried to stand, crying out as his legs collapsed beneath him. A painful tingle of deadened nerves lanced through his thin frame everywhere there was sensation. Even lying on the cold floor stung.

"You must get up," said an insistent voice. "We have a containment breach. The droids cannot -" There was a burst of fading static and the voice was gone.

The man knew the voice, but the memory of the name wouldn't come. Alarms whined in the air, hurting his ears. They had an insistent quality, one that drove him to try pulling himself forward. His fingers wouldn't respond, staying numb and unmoving. It was like he was a child.

A memory surfaced from somewhere. It wasn't much, but this had happened to him before. The discomfort would pass. A word was connected to these feelings, and the word was cryostasis.

You must get up, the computer voice had said. We have a containment breach.

There was no time for it to pass. The sirens were telling him that. He tried again, forcing all of his dream-like will on to his hand but only seeing it twitch. Not enough.

You must get up.

He rotated his shoulder, throwing the dead weight of his arm outwards. His fingers found gaps in the metal grating of the floor. He tried to lock them there, anchoring them so he could pull, but nothing happened. There was no power, no response.

A door hissed open, and it took every effort for the man to raise his eyes and look. A bulky man-shape stood there, stepping forward as he watched and reaching for him.

A droid, he remembered. On my side, he knew.

The droid lifted him up and pulled him through the door, saying nothing. Memories suggested to the man that it couldn't. He let the droid carry him, closing his eyes and resting in its arms as he was dragged. The all-over electric fire of recovering nerves was beginning to fade, but life and control was still to return to his limbs.

Time passed without measurement as they moved down the blood-lit passageways. The way was measured only by the corners and the bumps of his feet dragging on the floor.

We have a containment breach.

What did that mean? What was happening?

And, dimly, the man recognised the questions as the first faint presence of his true self, not the drunken, sleepy man whose thoughts seemed too much effort. He opened his eyes, but his vision was blurred and tired. The pulsing red metal world was impossible to decipher.

Containment breach.

Oh, no...

Suddenly full of panic, the man tried to push himself from the droid's grip. It released him and he stood shakily, wondering how to run.

They had created it to be powerful, and now...

The droids cannot... the computer had begun.

Now, not even the droids could stop it. The man felt death surround him, bite into his fragile rationality. How many were left alive, then? What was happening? He lurched forward, sensing the droid fall into step behind him. An escort. To see him safe. Good old...

The droid snapped around, raising its heavy gun in a fluid motion which stopped as immovably as a steel girder. The man turned as well.

Shock, or his weakened state, or both, lost him his balance, and he fell backwards on to his rear, feeling the sharp and heavy pain of a nascent bruise.

There was a shape down the passage. Two shapes, one mirroring the other. One purple in the red light, the other merely red, but ghostly, like the highlights without the object. It covered the first shape like an exoskeleton, huge and terrifying.

A name came to mind, a word meaning 'power'. Nei.

The droid's gun cracked loudly and continued doing so. The shapes moved, together, bouncing off walls with impossible gymnastics and coming their way...

The man pushed himself up and away, stumbling into a run. He daren't look behind, if only because that would lose him his balance again. An almighty cracking of ceramic armour drove him onwards as Nei First tore into the Warren with hands made from ghostlight and powered by Darkness. Her laughter was shrill, mocking, and evil. Like someone who never learned how to laugh but was merely letting savage emotion control her vocal chords.

Spurred by terror, the man stumbled and ran.

Rolf nodded and thanked the man before moving on.

He was dressed in casual clothes and not in the uniform and armour of his profession. Nei half-trailed and half-skipped behind him, a simple woollen hat covering her ears. It helped, Rolf thought cynically, to have a pretty young woman along when collecting information.

This had to be outside all normal channels, the Commander had said. Something told Rolf that the Commander didn't trust those channels, and that worried him at some deep, gnawing level.

Rolf asked a few questions of the next man, but didn't get any useful answers. The man had never been outside of Paseo and didn't know anything. He didn't seem to think the biohazards should be a problem.

He had a point. They shouldn't be. Not to Mother Brain.

It was as Rolf was strolling away from this man that he realised he was being watched. He ambled around a corner, and flattened himself against the building. Nei gave him a slightly puzzled look, but fell in beside him, crouching next to the wall. Rolf smiled to himself. Nei would be a natural Agent. Most people would have asked an inane question, but Nei both trusted him and believed in caution first and questions later. She quietly strapped on one of her metal claws and flexed that hand thoughtfully.

Footsteps approached.

Rolf grabbed the man as soon as he came around the corner but released him almost as quickly. He was obviously a simpleton. His skull was distorted; his eyes small and beady, even his hair was thin and lank, moulded to his head like a cap.

Rolf fumbled for equilibrium, feeling somehow that he should apologise.

"Why are you following us?" Rolf demanded instead. Next to him, Nei unfolded upwards like a cat. When the man replied, it was hesitantly, as if he was working out every word to say.

"I used to work at the... Biosystems Lab which is on the other side of the lake," he said, which was no answer at all. He watched Nei as he spoke, and she didn't seem comfortable with his regard. Rolf grabbed the man and turned him around to face him.

"I asked why were you following us?" Rolf repeated.

The man frowned. "I told you," he said, and gestured towards Nei as if it should explain everything. She looked worried, almost panicked, and Rolf wasn't too happy himself. The man looked... disturbing. His expressions were like caricatures.

"We're wasting time," Rolf muttered, letting the man go with a slight push. He took Nei's hand and led her away. Only Nei looked back. To the man, she looked confused and a little frightened.

After the initial shock, he had realised quickly that it wasn't... her, but the similarity was striking and too great to be a coincidence. And the hat, hiding her ears...

Gaia's mercy. What the hell was happening? What the hell was going on?

Professor Simon Chrison of Earth watched them leave with a troubled look.