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Fiction Page 20


THE CONSPIRACY
OF EVOLUTION

by

Lawrence R. Dagstine

     Fear took a few minutes to assert itself in Vade Tucker's orderly mind.  Outer space was fair game for psychos.  What disturbed him the most was that the man with the gun in his back seemed intelligent and well-spoken.
But what was his purpose?
"You really don't want to kill me, do you?"
"No.  But if you resist I will."
"You know I'm the only one who can pilot this ship," Tucker pointed out.
"Something I already knew," said the gun-toting man in what seemed like a hoarse whisper.
"I'm due in Alpha Centauri."
"I'm going with you."
Tucker shook his head. "The pistol is against Federation rules.  If you put it away, maybe I can arrange for you to take a seat next to me and observe." He reached for his communicator. "I'll tell the engineering department you're up here."
The man smashed the pistol against Tucker's right forearm.  The pain seared.  The ship's pilot dropped the transmitting device. "What do you want? Do you want to torture me? Steal something? A free ride? What?"
The communicator screeched.  Tucker saw the man's eyes widen with fear. "Can I answer it?" he asked him. "They've probably already seen you."
"Yes, but don't try anything," said the man, raising his gun in forewarning. "Tell them a lie if you have to.  Space dust or something or other.  No hints, and no codes.  I won't hesitate using this."
Tucker found the idea of being shot aboard his own ship difficult to swallow, but what else could he do?
He got on the communicator and said, "Vade speaking.  The man you saw before is my guest.  He will be staying with me for the remainder of the journey.  Oh, and I also spotted some space dust in our trajectory.  Subordinate signs of radiation.  Perhaps the remains of a solar flare.  Request a report on the particle levels as we transcend it.  Keep me updated.  Vade out." He clicked off and looked up at his so-called guest. "Good enough?"
The man was smiling. "The great Vade Tucker.  The prominent benefactor of space delivery and planetary mining.  I chose the right voyager."
"What are you talking about?"
"No time for weak-hearted individuals.  But in a hurry to find you, one of the bravest parasites in the galaxy."
"Ah, so that's it." Tucker finally understood; or did he?  "You're some kind of rough
political figure or communist…."
"Be silent! Do you want to get hit again?"
"Not really.  You know this is hijacking?"
The man shook his head and laughed. "No, it's conspiracy."
Tucker narrowed his eyes at him. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
The man didn't mind going into explanations, however foolish the whole thing might have sounded.  They still had another four hours until they reached the Centauri system, and he was eager to tell the young pilot a story.
He started off solemnly, "Many millennia ago---perhaps even the beginning of time itself, who knows---the cosmic gods formed the planet Terra out of gastric juices and used dust from a comet's tail to create a race of aliens.  These aliens came to be known as humans.  The Reploids, who were also intelligent beings created by the cosmic gods, acted as petty servants to their masters and were responsible for the technological and spiritual growth of the human race-that is until a great revolt took place.  The Reploids turned on their creators.  Most of them anyway.  They felt that they should be number one, the ultimate universal anomaly.  And the humans were to be second, seeing that anything shaped from a comet was nothing more than an evolutionary project."
       "Interesting story," said Tucker skeptically.  He had a smirk on his face all the way through, and now, for some reason, he no longer feared the man. "These reploids, what do they look like? And what happened to the remaining lot of them?"
"They can look like anything, anyone," said the gun-toting man. "They were made that way.  As for the defectors, they were cast out.  Over two billion of them.  The cosmic gods were so embarrassed that after the revolt they locked themselves away in a black hole, never to make their presence known again."
"And you?" asked Tucker. "What's your place in all of this?"
"I am a descendant of the original reploids," the man replied. "Those servants were my ancestors.  I'm going to Alpha Centauri like you, but for other reasons.  My mission is one of redemption and justification."
"What do you mean?" Tucker was confused.  He was even more confused about the "cosmic god" part, where they had locked themselves away in a black hole.  He had always thought that black holes were celestial bodies with intense gravitational fields, bearing the stretch marks of a collapsed star, not some Event Horizon with a big door and a padlock at the end of it. "What is your plan?" His major concern was his ship and his life at this point.  Oh, and of course his cargo.
"My plan?" For a brief moment the man stood in grim silence, grinning to himself in the reflection of a nearby window. "My plan is to correct a four-and-a-half billion year old mistake.  My plan is to fix the error the cosmic gods made."
"And how's that?" Some of this had become somewhat nonsensical.  
"To learn what has become unlearnt, a challenging destiny to obtain my ancestors' power, and to bare the essentials necessary for eradicating human life.  It's unfortunate that I need a human to complete this task."
Tucker jumped out of his seat. "Now you're just mad!"
The man sat him back down with the end of his pistol. "Only in the mind of a theologian maybe."
       "Look," said Tucker. "There's a large delivery which needs my attention.  Whether the cargo is valuable is immaterial.  I operate for anyone who pays me.  That's why I'm the best at what I do, the top of the Federation freelance list!" He looked straight into the man's eyes without fear and massaged his aching arm. "You want to use me? I don't give a damn! Just let me profit at least.  I'll be able to explain it to my bosses later."
"I'll do the explaining around here.  I don't want you near that radio anymore unless I give you permission.  After all, this is an act of war."
"War? Who in the hell is at war around here? Sabotage maybe, but not war.  So far what you've told me sounds like a big fart in the wind, and on top of that, I don't even know your name!"
"You can refer to me as Reploid No.9," said the man; or the reploid, seeing that that is what he was.
There was a moment's silence as the significance of this name sunk in. "Are you an android?" Tucker suddenly asked him.
"No, I'm not," he replied just as quickly.  He was definitely a dangerous stowaway if anything. "Why do you ask?"
"For someone who considers himself a higher being, you sure look like the average man to me.  Just look at yourself in the mirror.  You have fair hair, blue eyes, and a mustache among other features."
"Basically I'm an existential form of a 45 year old male, strong and physically fit, and currently posing in this primitive state."
"I see." But Tucker hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about.  This was all a big mystery to him.  Even the story about the cosmic gods and these reploids sounded a bit far-fetched.  Perhaps it was a little too much to embrace, especially after being taken hostage.
Tucker was a pleasant man, when pleasantries were called for.  He was against violence, and most violent people.  His only association with them was based on monetary profit.  Nothing but profit.  He had no enemies, until now, and he never cared what other people thought of him: that's why he was one of the Federation's most highly respected messengers.  He was always exactly on time.
At 0:900 he was still sitting with his eyes fixed on the vastness of space, when there came a hand on his shoulder.  He looked up and saw the reploid, now wearing a blue and white jumpsuit with a high metal collar. "Where'd you disappear to?" he asked him.
"Explanations later," said No.9, pistol back in hand.  He moved his head robotically, his eyes never leaving Tucker's face.
Tucker shook his head. "You're very weird.  What did Estos and Gonzalez have to say about your behavior?"
The reploid was slightly confused. "Who are they?"
"You know, my engineering buddies," Tucker went on. "What'd they say when you went downstairs to change?"
"Oh yes, them." No.9 almost wickedly smiled, and Tucker wasn't very indulgent of the grim face one bit. "They didn't put up much of a struggle."
Tucker almost choked. "What? You mean you killed them?"
"They were obsolete.  Their necks snapped like twigs."
"They were good men!" Tucker said arguably. "And very close friends!" He clenched his fists and was about to make a pass, but the reploid halted him off with his pistol.
"I told you before, I only need one human to complete my mission.  Those other two imbeciles were only in the way.  They were unnecessary.  You're an excellent pilot with the exact same skills---even better.  But perhaps this will serve as a warning in case you try anything."
"You ruthless bastard! I'll kill you as soon as I get the chance!"
"Anyone is expendable on this trip," stated No.9, "even when we get to the Centauri System.  Mess with me and I will see that you step in a pool of blood.  If you persist, I'll make sure you drown in it." And he was serious, too.
"A warning well put," said Tucker bitterly. "But your actions were still uncalled for.  Maybe you don't find human life precious, but there are others who do."
"Emotion is the universe's worst clutter.  I find it irrelevant."
"To you maybe.  But when was the last time you smelled a flower, enjoyed the view of a tropical landscape, or kissed a girl on the lips? Tell me! When was the last time you hugged your mother or read a good book?"
"Well, if you find these things so precious I wouldn't stop there," No.9 grinned.
Tucker leaned back. "What do you mean?"
"Not including the absence of your two friends, there are ten cryotanks aboard this ship."
"So? Those are just ten Federation colonists in stasis.  They're my delivery."
"They were your delivery," said No.9 rather harshly. "We are nearing our destination so they too are of no further use.  But I did happen to notice that one of these tanks contains a female.  I've heard that they are reproducers of males.  I might need her in the event I lose you, but as for the rest of your cargo---they are obsolete! I want their life support cylinders shut off."
"But that's genocide! I won't do it!" Tucker refused.
"Strange, but all of a sudden you find these ten lives valuable.  Wasn't it you before that said the cargo is immaterial? Wasn't it you five minutes ago that found human life to be endearing? And I thought you were a man just devoted to making money."
Tucker didn't know what to say.  The reploid had a point. "I still won't do it!" he repeated, refusing the order once again. "You can't make me!"
"I think you will," said No.9 unworriedly, "because I have this." He waved his gun in the air. "Now, defrost the girl and kill the rest."
"But how?"
"From your computer remote, using saline solution for cryosleep patients."
"Is that all?" Tucker was getting sick and tired of being ordered around.
"No," said No.9. "Now I want you to use that same remote to empty the oxygen filters to the other nine tanks, terminate emergency life support, and release a lethal dose of carbon monoxidejust enough to fill up their little caskets." He grinned once again.
As horrible as it was, Tucker obeyed.
"We should begin finding a place to land." No.9 looked out into the emptiness of space.  Well, not so empty.  Planets were beginning to show up on the visual system. "Yes, now I remember.  That one!" His attention was set on a not so distant star, and his index finger was outstretched and pointing at it.  Tucker hadn't taken notice of it yet, but he knew what it was all about.
Tucker was very worried, and curious. "What'll happen to the other travelers once I remove their oxygen and fill the cylinders up with the gas?"
"I'm not a human doctor," said No.9, "but the arteries which carry blood from their hearts will narrow." He muttered this as if it were a good thing. "Less blood flow through their aortas and brains will cause a deficit in oxygen.  Temporal lesions will most likely appear, and if they aren't relieved they will clot or spasm."
"Horrible.  And if spasming occurs?"
"The results will be instant heart attack, seizure, cardiac arrest, coma, and most of the time death.  The carbon monoxide helps speed the procedure."
"And the cryotanks help maintain the heart and blood flow?" asked Tucker.
"Yes, once long-term periods of sleep have been induced." No.9 smiled, an unusual trait for a reploid. "It's true what you humans say: you learn a new thing every day."
"Knowledge I could have done without," Tucker said under his breath.
No.9 snickered at the informality of his comment.  Were all reploids like this? Were they not only so hateful or jealous of humans, but were they all so obnoxious and stuck-up?
Suddenly, No.9 sat down in one of the other pilot's seats.  He took out a map, a sort of star chart of the nine Federation-owned systems.  Alpha Centauri was the only section of the chart marked in red.  It was one of the few Federation-colonized areas in space. "There's a satellite I want you to touch down on," he said most specifically, squinting his eyes at the location. "It's highly unlikely we'll be within range of a Federation probe, and probability of being spotted by a scout ship is even more unlikely.  The oxygen should be breathable for your kind because of the moon's dense atmosphere and nitrogenous dry-ice core.  According to this chart, it's the cold air which supplies the necessary means of survival.  So you won't need to burden yourself with the use of helmets or respirators."
Tucker turned to his own map. "Beta Maximus? But that place is uncharted."
"So?"
"So, the Federation hasn't gotten around to mapping or populating that chunk of ice.  The temperatures are hypothermic!"
"Tough luck.  I did say you wouldn't have to burden yourself with helmets or respirators.  I never mentioned anything about warm clothes."
Tucker became slightly nervous. "But what about the girl? She will just have come out of cryofreeze."
"We'll both carry her tank until she's out of stasis," said No.9, thinking up a solution. "Then she can walk."
"Just tell me one more thing.  Why does it have to be Beta Maximus?"
No.9 muttered the word, "Rebirth…." And said no more.
Piloting the ship into Centauri, Tucker found his access blocked by another space vessel.  It was a Federation scout ship.  He feared something like this might happen, but No.9 was as cool as a cucumber.  It was as if he was expecting this encounter, in some ways, and in other ways he dreaded it.
The scout ship was small; very small.  It came in close and the two chief officers peered into the ship's window and saw Tucker and No.9, both dressed in jumpsuits with the Federation insignia on the breast pockets. "Hold it," the first officer said, in what was meant to be a halting tone. "We've been expecting you, but the people at the command center oughta take a course in cancellation routes and drop-off details." His voice grew louder and more confidential over the radio. "It's the new element." Then, cautioned by the gun in his back, Tucker withdrew from doing anything stupid.  He looked up at No.9, and the reploid gave him an assuring nod to answer the call.
"Nice to see I'm still appreciated around these parts," said Tucker quite nervously, but he was trying to hide it under his tongue. "We just picked up another ten rats for first class delivery.  Fourth batch of the quarter."
"See what I mean? Probably more colonists." The first officer shook his head. "All right, Mr Tucker, take it in.  Sorry about the delay."
"That's okay.  Security is security.  I have some spoiled fuel (which of course was a lie) I want to get rid of.  Request permission to dump over Beta Maximus."
"Permission granted, but don't circle too long.  We don't want our asses on the line."
"Will do," said Tucker. "Thanks again, boys.  Vade out." The scout ship then flew off in the opposite direction.
"Very good," said No.9, much impressed. "You even had me convinced."
Tucker gave him the middle finger.  A few seconds later he wondered to himself if the reploid even knew what that meant.
Within the hour Tucker parked at the very northern edge of the muddy, ice-patched moon.  It was the area No.9 requested to touch down on.  The young pilot took a peek outside and saw it as hostile, a vast sprawling foe.  He was now a stranger on an enemy world, and under the influence of a very unsound and deadly enemy.
       They disembarked the spaceship through one of the cargo hatches.  Tucker stood beside No.9 in the frigid morning air.  At least he was right.  The air was breathable.  They stood on either side of the woman's cryotank, holding up separate ends.  The tank had still been in use when the ship arrived.  Tucker felt the pegs that had supported the handle digging in his fingers.  But they were firm.  The only way it could have fallen was if it had been tipped from one end, or if he and No.9 suddenly dropped it.  Tucker looked
       On ice-paved trails adjacent to the ship, sodium crystals and frost patches painted the atmosphere a reflective blue and yellow hue.  But now, in the day's early mistfall, all seemed peaceful.  On one side of the landscape were green ice sculptures, crafted by forbidden elements of nature.  Perhaps traces of sulfur.  Across the frozen tundra, the wide-gapping mountains pierced what seemed like a drooping sky.  
       Then all of a sudden Tucker and No.9 were brought to a stiff stillness by the sound of a reverberation, a jingling reverberation.  It came from a jagged ridge, one of the much smaller hilltops up ahead.  Tucker was about to resume his trek, but the No.9 pulled him back. "No," he said.  His voice was grim now. "I'll go first."
The two walked into an open courtyard made of solid ice.  No.9 was leading now, of course, and if Tucker tried to make a run for it, he still wouldn't hesitate to shoot him.  They passed under a walkway, a sort of open arch that looked like it had been built by an ancient civilization.  Other than that, the courtyard connected the trail with the rest of the icy terrain.
There was something eerie and ominous about the place.  They both surveyed the area. "No guards," said No.9. "No idols." He put down his side of the cryotank for a moment and frowned. "I hope you haven't forgotten the details of my story, the one I told you back on the ship."
       Tucker rolled his eyes. "How could I? The one about the cosmic gods.  After all, they locked themselves away in a great big space closet." Sarcasm was evident in his voice.
       Without further ado No.9 picked up his end of the tank and said, "Let's go.  We're on schedule."
       They continued their trek into the blustery cold.


2

       Masina Ustinov lay staring upward into the cold, thick blackness of someplace that wasn't exactly nowhere but wasn't exactly somewhere either.  It was finally over for the Russian cosmonaut.  A ten-month journey at an end.  It had been over for some time now, but she was still in it, terrified and exhilarated.  At least she had the vital signs to show for it.  Up to a short while ago she had known only one side of cryosleep.  Now she knew two, and the second one she liked least of all.  It even scared her.
       The tank.
       She was cold to the bone, even though there were padded heating comforters on the sides.  The air inside this small metal coffin was like nothing she had ever breathed before, not even when the icicles had formed on her eyelids.  This was a different air and a different cold: a damp, deadening cold.  Her body couldn't stand to go back to sleep, she told herself; for that is what boredom had been like.  She hadn't bargained for this.  No, she hadn't.     
       And what the devil was going on outside?
       Slightly claustrophobic, she moved slightly in this enclosed space, resting her hand on her breast.  She sighed and breathed her cousin's name, who had also been part of the cargo.  Well, not anymore. "Nijir," she whispered inaudibly. "Oh, where are you?" Then her breathing fell into a sort of rhythmic flow.  She was drowsy again.
       Slowly, her body relaxed against the surface of the tank.  She felt a lot warmer now, and sleepy.  As she drifted into a dreamlike state, she thought she heard her cousin; it was actually Vade Tucker's warbled voice, laughing and shouting from the outside.
       When she awoke an hour later, there was a rime of thick frost on the glass in front of her, and she shivered as she tried to push her way out.  For the next few minutes she dusted the inside glass with her sleeve, hoping to uncover some kind of release latch.  Just as she finished wiping, she felt the tank stop moving.  Things were motionless now.  Through the little scratch in the glass above she watched the dark figure---not one, but two---that had been carrying her release the lock and remove the outer casing.  When the tank was open and daylight jumped in, a man held out his hand and helped her out.  Another man, but much taller, stood in the background, pistol at the ready.
       Tucker pulled her up; her knees were still weak. "Who are you? And where am I?" she asked him, her eyes half-shut. "This isn't the Federation building."
       "I know," said Tucker coolly. "You can thank this guy for that." He pointed over at No.9.  He had been to blame for everything up until now.
       "What is this place?"
       "Beta Maximus."
       Masina looked over at No.9. "A moon on the outskirts of the Centauri System? What is the meaning of this?"
       "Explanations later," he said, waving his gun. "Now walk."
It took Masina a while to get into the swing of things, especially the feeling back in her legs.  One thing she learned after Tucker explained everything to her: there wouldn't be much time to celebrate her awakening, nor would there be enough time to take in the panorama of this barren satellite.  Just No.9's plan to exterminate all human life.
       They soon came to a wall, etched with caricatures and drawings.  They looked like they had been drawn by an early humanoid species, perhaps Neanderthaloids.  What was also fascinating was that the pictures were still fresh in their fossilized sockets and places, and that this was the only mountainous wall not iced over.  
       The drawings described great robed figures with long beards and large books in hand, and above them mighty creatures with planet-sized wings.  There were also trivial things in the background, such as stars, planets, moons, and a great big sun.  
No.9 walked over and opened a niche in the side of this wall; it was almost as if he knew where to look. "This is the place."
       "This is where?" asked Tucker, ever so curiously.
       "The entrance to the home of my ancestors," No.9 happily replied.
       Tucker huffed. "It must feel good to be home, especially after spending quality time in the malign environment of us humans."
       No.9 just shook the comment off and kept working on the niche.  He had other business to attend to.
       After Tucker stopped prattling, throwing out scurrilous remarks at the alien hijacker about his need and role in the destruction of mankind, and long after the revival of the Russian cosmonaut, the trio entered into what seemed like the principal corridor of some ancient cave system.
       All the way through the narrow passageways, Masina hummed.  But the moment they pulled up in front of two very large stone idols, she stopped in silence and looked around with interest.  Like an overcurious archaeologist, she basked herself in the surrounding science, just like she had done back on Terra during her university days.  She came upon a raised dias, just to the right of the idols.  Important rituals or ceremonies must have taken place here in the past, she told herself.  At once Masina knew she was in a holy place.  She sat down with her hands crossed in her lap in a kind of worshipful silence, even though the semi-tall redhead had been an atheist.  
       She called Tucker over.  The pilot quickly observed her, walking up to the dias with a sort of outward self-assurance: though Masina knew his heart must be pounding with a hidden fear.  He spoke in a strong sweet voice.  He whispered to her, "I guess we can both agree that this is the place." He had meant the idols and everything else around them.
       "And looking for it I have," No.9 didn't hesitate to interrupt.  He'd been within earshot for some time, without them even realizing it. "I've been looking for it for eons.  But on the contrary, this is just one hall, one cave system of many thousands." He went back to looking at what his ancestors left behind.
       Tucker stood back up. "I have an important question, No.9.  What do you plan on doing with us? What do you need a human for in the first place if you're going to end up destroying the whole race of them?"
       "Experimentation," said No.9. "There are some things the cosmic gods never taught us during the time of creation.  Things such as DNA, hereditary gene and chromosome factors, cloning, mutation and natural selection of mammalian life forms, and the female reproductive system.  This is important knowledge for us, things lost to evolution."
       "And by using us as lab-rats or tissue samples you can rebuild your race like ours?"
       "Even stronger."
       "Look how this jerk speaks!" Masina suddenly cried out.  Her eyes were filled with tears of melancholy. "I can't believe I lost my cousin to this megalomaniac!"
       Tucker dried her eyes with his sleeve. "And I too lost two very important friends," he said peacefully, realizing they shared the same peril.  It was this sort of thing that usually brought two strangers together.
       His hands were stroking hers now, and there was in her a feeling she had only experienced once in her life, an excitement in the region of her stomach.  Suddenly, the feeling of joy went from her and she pulled back. "I've felt this at times…but I can't.  Not now."
       Tucker understood.  It was neither the time nor place for romance.
       "Let's go!" No.9 ordered, waving his gun around. "I haven't got all day!"
       Masina shook her head and then, with no time to waste on idle chatting, began hopping around.  
       Tucker found this behavior rather odd. "You're rather happy for someone whose species is about to be annihilated," he said. "Why the sudden vigor?"
       "Because I don't believe in such nonsense," she remarked flatly, "especially since the death of my cousin." She was acting calm and cool at this point. "Your captor is--"
       "Our captor," Tucker interrupted her, to make a valid point known.
       "Whatever," she continued. "Our captor seems somewhat of a religious fanatic when it comes down to it.  He also has some sort of evil, Hitler complex about him…just like great emperors and conqueror wannabes of ages past.  I don't believe in such things.  Back on Terra, I was brought up in an atheistic camp.  My beliefs are utterly and totally different than his and yours.  So in a way I don't care what happens.  I just mourn for my poor Nijir."
       "That's a very inferior way to think," said Tucker, looking down at her. "And a very defective attitude which could use some adjustment, if you don't mind my saying so."
       Masina was a little shamefaced. "I'm sorry," she said, "but a humanitarian I'm not."
       By the time their conversation ended, they were in another hall and No.9 was concentrating his efforts on digging his way through another niche in a nearby cave wall.  It turned out to be a secret door, and once again Tucker found it strange because it was almost like the reploid knew where to look, the way hunting dogs sniff out a rabbit's trail, right to their hole. "This is the library," he said. "The masters kept much knowledge in this place.  For many centuries and beyond the kind of time you can fathom."
       "Looks almost Shakespearean," said Tucker, walking a full circle around the room. "I must admit, these reploids and cosmic gods were great decorators."
       "Mock me all you want," said No.9 acidly, showing some signs of vehement. "In the end I will have the last laugh." And he had the weapon to prove and enforce it.
       Masina stood out of the conversation, for the time being.  She noted that the room was somewhat new, and perhaps recently used: for there was no dust, just dead ash piled up in the corner fireplace, and strange skeletal remains as well within it.
       "What are those?" she asked curiously.  She had meant the bones.
       "Mastodon remains," No.9 replied. "An extinct species of mammoth, which just happened to exist on Terra during your so-called Pleistocene era.  They were the sole food of my species, the way humans eat red meat."
       "What were they doing here, on a barren moon?" asked Tucker.
       "The Reploids put them here.  But now there are no moreanywhere."
At the end of the next passage, No.9 led his captives up a spiral-shaped flight of stairs; steep, these, and narrow for a spiral.  Tucker had thought about making a run for it, but he reconsidered.  He had thought about making many runs for it, but reconsidered those times as well.  Like Masina, he was curious to find out what else was in this place.  What histories of the universe lie hidden? What secrets of the two species lie unexposed or unexplained? What facts remain about the existence of the cosmic gods, and what was this rebirth for No.9, a sort of spiritual tract, which he constantly spoke of.
       Out on the landing, No.9 stopped and said, "My ancestors suffered a great deal during the dawning era.  But those who survived were able to procreate genetically using anti-matter, and were able to build this place.  To think that this was the foundation for the reploid revolution, and to think that I am the seed of one of those revolutionaries." He looked around him. "Let's push on," he then added, finishing his brief moment of wonderment. "These corridors we are about to embark on are like a maze."
       "You have been here, haven't you?" asked Masina. "Even for an atheist, I see great sin in your eyes.  The cosmic ones are angry."
       No.9 just grinned.
       At the far end of the landing he pushed open a heavy stone door, which once again led to another large area, and forced Tucker to go ahead of him.
       Tucker acted cautiously. "What are there, traps?" the pilot asked him.
       "Just being considerate for once.  Wouldn't want me falling into a gorge, now would we?"
       Suddenly, Masina ran up ahead and stopped Tucker in his tracks. "No, wait! I'll go."
       "No, let me." Tucker pulled her out of the way. "I've been a part of this insanity since the beginning." He started to walk slowly.
       "That's a good boy, Tucker." No.9 vested a short laugh. "Show her whose boss."
       The next minute the young pilot heard an ear-piercing shot, like that of a laser.  He felt a pinching sensation in his back and then a pain travel up his spine.  He didn't have enough time to turn around, for by the time the pain fully hit him he was paralyzed on the floor.
       And then a few seconds later there was blackness.

¨      ¨      ¨      ¨      ¨      ¨

       Tucker opened his eyes.  He found himself stretched out on some sort of operating table.  Above him loomed the masked, gowned figure of a surgeon; a rather ugly-looking surgeon.  And the word "EXPERIMENTATION" kept popping up in his head.  He must have not only been stunned but drugged as well, he thought muzzily.  Yet there was something terribly wrong.  Where was that Russian woman who was part of his cargo? Why was the operating table set up in the middle of a cave? And why was the surgeon lunging at him with an enormous hypodermic?
       His memory wasn't all too perfect.
       In sudden panic, he rolled from the table.  He hit hard, rocky ground, scrambled to his feet and started running, just as the mild anesthetic started wearing down.  The ugly surgeon probably wanted to give him a stronger dose or something, which explained the big needle.
       "You are a joke, Vade Tucker!" The surgeon yelled, pulling down his mask. "You can't escape, not after you've come this far!" The face of this strange doctor belonged to none other than No.9 himself, but now his skin was lizardlike and leathery Perhaps his true form, almost as if his race, the reploids, were a more intelligent form of amphibian life.
       "I am not a prisoner!" Tucker yelled back at him, running somewhat wobbily. "I am a free man! And I won't let you destroy my race!" He turned and fled.
       "So be it," No.9 mumbled to himself. "But if it's a chase you want, then it is a chase you'll get."  He walked over to a nearby cabinet and loaded his pistol.
       After ten minutes worth of running, Tucker paused for a much-needed rest when an explosive blast blew a chunk from the rock beside his head.  He rolled over and ran desperately for cover.  The crazed reploid was in pursuit of him, but he thanked the cosmic gods himself that the strange anesthetic was wearing off.  
       Scrambling to his feet, Tucker burst through a dense clump of stalagmites, crossed a narrow passageway leading who knows where, and started climbing his way down a partially-lit chasm which seemed to offer the only possible way out.  At the bottom, he spotted a shallow tunnel filled with torches in sconces.  Scrambling down it, he pulled a few small boulders over the entrance to conceal himself, and crouched waiting.
       Suddenly, he heard a voice. "Vade." It was almost an inaudible whisper.
       There it went again. "Who's that? Where are you?"
       "Over here, Vade.  Chained to the wall."
       Tucker turned around.  It was Masina, the Russian cosmonaut, hanging bound like some kind of fugitive about to undergo interrogation.  Tucker picked up a rock, slammed it against the chains to break them, and released her.  She fell into his arms, practically crying.  He knew now who she was.  He knew everything.  It had all come back to him now, along with his memory.  The anesthetic had worn off.
       "Listen, we must get out of here," he said. "That reploid thing's on my tail, and from what I saw, he's not what he seems."
       "What do you mean?" asked Masina.
       "He's some kind of alien, a creature I've never seen anything like."
       "No.9?"
       "Yes, of course No.9! Who do you think I'm talking about?"
       Masina shook her head. "Sorry," she said. "I was confused.  I know a way out.  I was brought down this passageway after he shot you.  He lied you know.  It's not really a big old maze, just a mountain with many corresponding holes that network one another."
       "Good to hear." Tucker started to pull on her arm. "Let's go before he finds us."
       Swiftly they made their way into the main hall and up on to the raised dias, the one by the large stone idols.  Tucker lost his balance and jumped down, catching Masina in his arms as the whole central area of the dias slid away to reveal an interior platform.  A strange shape emerged, its black cloak almost invisible in the cavern's dim light.  No.9's slits for eyes glistened with anger, and his bloodless lips drew back in a smile of hatred.
       "Ah, so we meet again," the creature chuckled, displaying discriminatory wit.  "Going someplace?" Once again, he pulled out that black pistol of his.
       Tucker and Masina were leaning exhausted now by the door that led to the original passageway, which also led to the exit.  They had heaved the big stone hatch until their muscles creaked, but nothing happened.  They were out of breath.
       No.9 walked down from the dias. "It's no use," he said despairingly, but in his favor. "You'll never open it."
       "We'll find a way, don't worry." Tucker pressed on, even though Masina had long since given up.
       "But I insist that you both come back to my lab and let me finish what I've started.  If I am to destroy the human form, I must first learn of the human form."
       "Wouldn't you have more fun dissecting a frog?" said Masina sarcastically.
       Back against this one wall with a useless door, arms and legs against each other, Tucker and Masina edged slowly forward; they might as well have for where could they go now; they had no options.
       "I guess you win, No.9," said Tucker, putting his hands in the air.
       "Did a simple human like you think otherwise?" asked No.9, making his approach.
       "I thought I was more than simple.  I thought I was a benefactor.  You told me that when we were first acquainted."
       "No, you're still just a parasite."
       Suddenly, as the small talk ended - [and No.9 tried to grab hold of Tucker and seize him once more] - there was a rumbling sound.  A very loud rumbling sound.  As the force from the floor grew steadily greater, the rumbling from the cavern they were in grew scarier.  The idols itself began to hum with a sort of energy.  An earthquake-like tremor rocked the open dias, and numerous cracks appeared in the walls.  The tremor almost shook Masina off her feet.  She did actually slip back a few feet, then managed to brace herself again, thrusting her legs and back against the unopened door.     
       "What's going on?" asked No.9, looking around very nervously.
       "You tell me," said Tucker, putting his arms down. "This is your birthplace."
       "No, it can't be.  The cosmic gods are history.  It's impossible!"
       Tucker suddenly smiled. "I hate to rain on your parade, No.9," he said, "but it seems you've misused this place and your conduct has been accounted for.  Masina was right.  You've sinned greatly.  Somebody must have picked the lock to the door of that black hole."
       "Never! I refuse to believe it!"
       "Believe it!" said Masina. "You're finished!" A second later she almost fell head over heels as the door behind her slid open.
       Tucker grabbed her by the arm and started running out, as the ceiling came crumbling down.  Everything, including the idols, the caves, the dias, and the tunnels and lab came collapsing in on itself.  No.9 perished under tons of ancient rock before he even had a chance to do anything.  
       Down the narrow passageway, Tucker pulled Masina out of the way as a chunk of masonry crashed down from the ceiling.  The whole mountain was shaking.  They were nearly at the exit now, the principal corridor from hours before, and even there, masonry was collapsing in on itself.  The hole to the outside ended in a metallic grille.  Bracing himself awkwardly, Tucker kicked upwards his right foot until the grille came free.  Along with Masina, he struggled through the niche - [which had been much narrower now] - and emerged through the floor of ice.  The whole area, for at least twenty or more yards, was rumbling and shaking.  A high-pitched whine of pure energy was most strident behind them, as they ran for the ship.
       "Come on!" Tucker yelled out, as he dashed ahead of Masina.
       And then the terror and crash of falling masonry stopped.  Tucker and Masina were well clear of the mountain, and the courtyard that the reploids had once built.
       Back at the ship, Vade helped Masina up onto the boarding ramp. "Is it really over?" she asked him, knowing that, unfortunately, both had to go on living with their sacrifices: the death of Estos and Gonzalez, members of the cargo, and the death of Nijir.
       "Yes, I think so," Tucker quietly replied.  He kept looking back at the mountain and courtyard which was now nothing more than a blossoming cloud of dirt and ash.
Masina took his hand and wrapped it around hers. "Is there something wrong?"
       "No," he said. "Not at all." He then looked into her sparkling blue eyes. "You just got to love those cosmic gods, that's all…"


                                                                                                        END