Marcus stared out at the expectant faces, his mind churning over. And stalling. Cortes had told him what to do before they'd arrived. Tell them about the machine and how they planned to use it. As if it were that easy. He had once been able to give riveting speeches on a whim, but that was in his past. As if taunting him, the memories of standing in front of the resistance all those years ago came flooding back. Now he was a completely different man. He stood in front of these people, not knowing what to say, and he felt like a fraud. This was not his resistance.
"Is that Marcus Farrell?" someone asked.
"It is," Cortes had come to stand beside him. Marcus wasn't sure if the man realised he was struggling, or was simply impatient. "And he apparently knows where we can find a machine we can use to defeat the Sphere."
"Um... yes. The machine." He had found his voice. At first it felt hoarse; Marcus still felt groggy and unsteady. What he really needed was a drink. "I hid the machine back... before."
"You remember where?" A woman with dark hair asked. "What does this machine do?"
"Yeah, I remember. It... it can fix the planet."
"The machine Marcus is referring to is a gravitational engine, Iziel," the Vector stepped forward and explained. "It was originally designed to fix the damage caused when the Earth fractured. Whether it is truly capable of this or not, I don't know. But..."
"But that's not what we need it for," Marcus continued, gaining confidence now. "It effects gravity... if used on a fleet of ship they would be unable to navigate. They would be drawn together and break apart. Or be crushed. It depends on who's operating..." He trailed off. His mind was slowly piecing together the past. Who operated it. That had been the problem. That had been why they'd hidden it, he and Mila. Mila had never been powerful enough to control it. They'd tried to, and it'd nearly torn apart her mind.
The memory came rushing back upon him. Spinning gears. The hum of electricity and power streaming through wires and components. That then tearing through the one human component the engine needed to work. The sound of Mila's scream. In those few seconds it had taken Marcus to hit the fail-safes, dive into the chamber and tear the woman he loved from the machine's grasp, he had experienced a terror unlike any other.
Luckily, there had been no lasting damage. But Mila had told him, in no uncertain terms, that she did not believe using the machine was viable. That she hadn't liked the sheer, almost un-wieldable power, that was suddenly at her very fingertips. She'd told him it was too dangerous. What had changed? Of course, they had actually been trying to use the machine to reunite the Earth back then. But how much difference did that make?
Marcus realised he had not thought on these things in years. Yet how quickly everything came rushing back. He could hear the council arguing about him, conferring with each other in loud whispers, as if they were somehow afraid to really talk over him. He glanced across at Mila, meeting her eyes. "Who's going to operate it?"
Mila held his gaze for a moment. "I'm afraid I haven't discussed this with my daughter yet," she said, stepping up to Marcus' side. "But I think we all know who is the strongest seijin within the resistance. I am more than confident that Lena possesses the strength to use the machine, and the will to resist its power. And, of course, there's the prophecy..."
Cortes shifted at Marcus' other side, huffed loudly, and stepped away from them. But Marcus didn't have time to focus on him for long, because a young woman had pushed her way through the pirates crowding about, and paused a few feet in front of him. Once again, Marcus felt his once-sharp mind stall. In fact, he thought it was playing tricks on him again. It was as if he had shot twenty years back in time.
The woman before him was the spitting image of Mila. She looked up at him, eyes wide. "Dad...?" she eventually said.
Marcus swallowed. "Lena?"
His daughter broke into a grin, stepped forward and threw her arms around his neck. Marcus gripped her back. Why the hell had he stayed away for so long? The resistance be damned; this was why he should have returned.
"Dad..." The new voice brought him looking up. At Lena's shoulder, though hanging back, a broad shouldered young man stood. He stared at Marcus. "I thought you were dead..."
"Mahad..." Lena still clung to him, so Marcus reached out a hand towards his son.
Mahad hesitated, then reached out his own hand, gripping Marcus' firmly. He did not move in for a hug, and Marcus couldn't hold it against him. At best he was stunned, at worst the revelation his father was alive had woken questions of why he had stayed away so long. Marcus didn't know which it was, but at the moment he didn't care. He was far too happy.
Mahad's stoic stance broke, and he grinned sheepishly. He pulled his hand back and wiped at the corner of his eye. Marcus grinned back at him. Well, he couldn't be that angry with him.
"Hey, so Marcus Farrell is back! And he's bringing us a machine that will obliterate the Sphere, and make them pay for every bloc and ship they've taken!" Iziel stepped up and announced. She grinned at him, then winked. "Let's hear it for Marcus!"
A loud cheer went up from the rest of the council.
"I think this calls for a short break, a celebration if you will, and then I think we'll be ready to decide exactly how we make these bastards pay. All in favour?"
A chorus of 'ayes', perhaps even louder than the initial cheer went up. Marcus felt himself pushed and pulled as the pirates crowded about him. And, despite his initial misgivings, he was now too caught up in everything to worry. He was back with his family, and that meant that anything else that might happen would be okay. He'd thought he'd flushed his life down the toilet long ago. But it looked like he'd been wrong.
Marcus Farrell was back.
* * *
Wayan knew there was no way he'd make it through the press of the crowd to reach Marcus. Not now. So, aware he was grinning like an idiot with the excitement of it all, he instead found his way across to Cortes. His captain had moved himself away from the crowd and was far easier to approach.
"So this is what you were up to," Wayan said, raising his voice to be heard over the surrounding commotion. "I wish you'd told me, we've been hard pressed with all this stuff coming up with the Sphere. But I get why you kept it to yourself..."
Cortes stood with his arms folded. "Aye, Marcus Farrell is back. Everything is going to be just fine."
His sarcasm was unmistakable. Wayan frowned. "This was your idea? Going to get him, right?"
"Aye," Cortes finally admitted. "You know, I've just realised what I did wrong..."
"I should've disappeared for twenty years. Then turned back up half-pissed."
* * *
After the exhilaration of finding their long lost leader, the rebels quickly settled to matters of importance. Though they had a tendency to party if it was called for, the situation was far too dire at this point in time to do so for long. It was quickly decided that they should find this machine. A brief squabble arose over who would take their ship to find it, but Marcus quickly affirmed that as Cortes was the one who had found him, he would be willing to go on the mission with no other.
In addition to the decision to get the machine, the rebels had also agreed to let Cheng see if he could develop his program to gain more information on the enforcer. Muffasa had agreed that if he should get it working, he would take him to a convenient location to use it.
In all of this excitement it had been difficult for Mahad to find time to talk to his father. But Mila had made sure they all went on the Saint Nazaire to retrieve the machine. It was more than a day's journey to the location Marcus had specified, and it seemed Mila wanted to be certain the whole family had time to catch up.
So here they sat in Cortes' cabin, leaving the running of the ship to Cortes, Dahlia and Christophe. Marcus seemed a little uncomfortable at first, but Lena was not at all so. She had quickly spilled all her excitement and joy at seeing her father alive, which seemed to boost Marcus' confidence. But once this was out of her system she soon moved onto questions about the machine.
"You guys want me to use this machine... is it safe? What does it do? I mean... I guess you hid it for a reason."
"We did," Marcus confirmed. "Mila wasn't strong enough to use it... I didn't want it to hurt her."
"If it does anything to you, sweetheart," Mila said, "we'll shut it down immediately. But you are far more powerful than I ever was. I'm certain you can handle it."
"It's not handling it that bothers me," said Lena, chewing her lip. "It's the power..."
"It was supposed to unify the earth," said Marcus. "I'm not convinced it can do that - not safely anyway. You'd destroy all the blocs in the process..."
"And that's not what we want to use if for," said Lena firmly. She looked between her mother and father. "You want to use it as a weapon."
"Hey, don't look at me," said Marcus. "I got dragged into this too."
Mahad didn't miss the quick glare his mother fixed Marcus with, before she spoke. "Yes, in a manner of speaking. But think of it this way: there will be a lot less death if we can defeat the Sphere quickly. That's why I'm confident you are the one to use this, my darling. You won't go overboard; you won't use it as a hammer when you can use it as a scalpel."
"I suppose..." Lena didn't sound completely convinced. Mahad knew how much she despised being forced into a position she didn't agree with. She was more likely to anchor herself down and try and do it her own way.
"Look," said Mila. "Let's just find it. We can decide if it's too dangerous to use once we get it. But things are getting dangerous without it anyway; we need to try something."
Lena nodded. She couldn't really argue with that.
"Besides..." Mila reached out a hand and grasped Marcus' in hers. He seemed to start a little at the touch, as if he wasn't sure what to do with it. "At least we're all together again."
Mahad found himself shifting uncomfortably. He was happy his father had returned, really. But over the years he'd come to accept that Marcus would not be returning. After all, surely he was dead? But here he was, and apparently all he'd been doing was hiding out on some backwater bloc, drinking. Cortes had admitted as much to him when Mahad had found him taking the alcohol he usually kept stashed (somewhere) in his cabin, which he'd been handing over to Wayan to keep safe for him. Apparently, Mila thought it was a bad idea to have it on the ship when Marcus was aboard.
In light of this revelation, Mahad had kept a close eye on his father. He'd noticed Marcus was jumpy and skittish. If he had been drinking heavily, then he certainly seemed to be missing it, though he hadn't actually mentioned needing something to drink. This observation, more than what Cortes had told him was what made Mahad uncomfortable. He could deal with his father not being quite the man he had imagined, or he could have, if there had been some good reason for him to stay away.
His mother had lied to them on Babylonia about being a seijin - that had been for their protection; they had been only children. But Mahad could not imagine a scenario where hanging out getting drunk was helpful to them.
Mahad yearned to know what had kept his father away. Instead they were discussing the machine, like they would be if this was just some briefing session. And then the part of him that, tempered though it was by experience, flew headlong into a fight without the slightest bit of planning thought, hey, why not?
"Better late than never, I suppose."
"Mahad!" Mila's retort was quick, as ever.
"Why are you yelling at me? I'm not the one who disappeared for nearly two decades..."
"Mahad," Mila continued, her voice calmer now. "I've already discussed this with your father, we've worked it out..."
"We didn't really..." Marcus said quietly.
"Maybe, but he hasn't discussed it with us. And yeah, I think it's great he's back, really, but I still want to know why it took so long."
Marcus rubbed a hand across the bridge of his nose. "I don't know if I can give you a decent answer..."
"Well, you could at least try."
Marcus stared as his son for a moment, and Mahad wasn't sure if the look meant he was annoyed at him or not. How could he be sure? He barely knew his father. But after a few seconds Marcus lowered his gaze and let out a deep sigh. "You're right. I can try.
"Once I realised the resistance was in trouble," he began, "I had to run. It all happened to fast... Mila..." Here he reached a hand across and tentatively squeezed Mila's hand, which was still lying close to his. "... she wouldn't leave you two. So she took you to safety. And I took the Hyperion. And the machine. I hid both. One in New York... and the other, the more dangerous one, on a bloc close to the remains of the core..."
"This much we know already," Mahad growled. He didn't want to hear about his father's marvelous planning. He wanted to know why he had stayed away.
"Mahad!" Lena hissed.
But Marcus just nodded. "Okay, I get it. You want to know why I hid myself..." Here he faltered. He paused, drawing in a breath. "I can only really remember in any detail where I went first. It was a bloc called Antigua. It was out of the way, run down, and the Sphere would never find me there. And I don't know, maybe I got disillusioned waiting... I couldn't leave for fear the Sphere would find me, so... I guess I started drinking. Not much, at first. I just needed to distract myself until I could be back with my family, with you. I figured the Sphere would eventually lose interest. But they just grew more powerful. I couldn't return to you; that would have been too dangerous."
"Yeah, but you stayed away for almost twenty years!" Mahad exclaimed. No one scolded him this time.
"I... I know. It was wrong. I got into a rut, I..." Marcus trailed off, unable to meet his son's gaze.
Mahad found he could feel little pity for him. He chewed his lip, folded his arms, and looked away. As he suspected, his father was unable to come up with an explanation. Not a good one anyway. It didn't surprise Mahad; he himself could think of no reasonably excuse, none he would buy anyway. And yet, a part of him was angry at his own inability to attempt to understand what Marcus had done.
"It's okay, dad," said Lena. She moved to Marcus' side and squeezed him around the shoulders. "We're all together now. And we're family. Whatever you've done, we'll forgive you. Right, Mahad?"
How was he supposed to answer that without sounding insincere?
"Lena," said Marcus. "It's fine. I'd be angry too..."
Before Mahad could respond, the Saint Nazaire shuddered, and there was the resounding boom of weapon fire from the ship's forward cannon.
Mila stood to her feet. "Think we're under attack?"
Marcus shook his head. "No. The Sphere's not foolish enough to come down here."
They made their way up to the bridge. Cortes gripped the wheel of the ship, focused intently on their surroundings. He spared the family only a brief glance as they came in. "You picked a hell of a place to hide this thing, Marcus."
Around about the Saint Nazaire, almost too close for comfort, massive blocs floated. But unlike their counterparts in the higher regions, these were packed closely together. In many places they touched, and ground against each other. Luckily, relative movement appeared to be minor. Only the blocs massive size allowed the Saint Nazaire room to pass in the canyons and tunnels between the earthen behemoths.
The forward cannon let out another foom. The crack echoed off the surrounding blocs.
"Careful, Dahlia," said Cortes. "We don't want to create too much debris."
Dahlia was manning the forward controls. "I've got it under control," she replied tensely.
Cortes didn't appear to notice, but Mahad could easily hear the tension in her voice. He frowned. He was fairly certain she hadn't yet talked to Cortes about not wanting to simply pilot a ship. Mahad was finding it harder and harder not to say something himself, but that was Dahlia's call, not his. And he knew she'd kill him if he did.
"We'll be fine," said Marcus. "I didn't bury it too deep down here."
"But you did bury it," said Lena. She was still nervous. Mahad didn't blame her.
Marcus stole a glance at Mila. "If you don't want to use it, you don't have to..."
"No, it's just... it's powerful, isn't it? I just don't want it to be misused."
Mahad smiled faintly. "Lena, you're the one who's supposed to run it. I know you too well to think you'd let anyone misuse it."
Lena smiled back at him. "I suppose so."
Christophe was sitting at the central console, monitoring their surrounds. "I'm picking up a gravity anomaly on the sensors." He turned to Marcus. "Your machine?"
Marcus nodded. "That'll be it. Set course for that anomaly, and..."
"Dahlia," Cortes said loudly, cutting Marcus short and fixing the man with a pointed glare. "Set course for the anomaly. Take it slowly."
Marcus smiled faintly and raised his hands in a half apology, half surrender. Cortes didn't seem amused by the gesture.
"Well," Mahad muttered to himself. "At least I know where I got that from."
* * *
Cheng had almost finished setting up the equipment, and now he was just running final checks to ensure it would run his program correctly. The plan was simple, at least as far as Cheng was concerned. There had been a couple of recent attacks on rebel outposts, and in the last a sighting of the enforcer had been confirmed. The fact that in both of these attacks the rebels had lost ground had been a concern, but also an opportunity. It was fairly obvious the Sphere was using, perhaps still testing, but certainly using its new weapon to take back ground. Along with reports on the Sphere fleet's movement, it wasn't too difficult to pinpoint the next most desirable target.
This turned out to be one of the rebel's main listening posts. These had become far more complex than they had been in earlier years. If taken out it would leave a hole in their communications and monitoring grid, and make it harder to determine the Sphere's movements. This meant gaining some sort of advantage over the Sphere now was critical.
Of course, Cheng had had no problem finishing his program in time for the attack. Now, all that was left was to set up the equipment and get out of there. Despite his confidence in his abilities, Cheng still found his hands shaking as he completed the set up.
And the Vector wasn't helping.
"All I'm saying, and the thought only came to me yesterday mind you, is that if I'm right, the program you've designed may have no effect whatsoever."
"Well, this is why we're testing it..." Cheng was trying to ignore him. The Vector had offered to come and help set up, which would have made it quicker, but Cheng had still ended up doing most of the work himself, whilst the Vector had continued to talk about his latest theory.
"Yes, but if I'm right we may give away our hand."
"Lena said it was a machine. I can hack a machine, Vector, you just need to trust me. I've got it all under control."
"A machine with human characteristics," the Vector continued, "or at least seijin. Unless Sphere technology is miles ahead of what I'm aware of, that would require an organic component."
"Not really, it's just energy..."
"Seijin energy is very special, very difficult to manipulate. It's at least something we need to consider, Cheng."
Cheng stood to his feet. "Look, I know what seijin energy is! I couldn't have made the program if I didn't... and I don't see why everyone keeps on treating me like a kid!"
The Vector paused. "If I thought you were too young to understand this," he finally said. "I wouldn't be discussing it with you."
Cheng sighed and looked at the ground. "Sorry."
The Vector smiled. "I'm not angry at you. I understand. If I was half as brilliant at your age I would be frustrated too. But there's something I've come to understand with age - just because you think you've got it all worked out up here," the Vector tapped a finger to the side of his head. "Doesn't necessarily mean you do. The world is a complex place, I still haven't got it all worked out. And that's with years of pulling apart and analysing, even just bloc drift kept me busy for years, and even that I haven't worked out. All I'm saying is it's never a good idea to assume you've got everything under control. You need to consider all possibilities, and even once you've done that, you need to consider the fact you may have missed something."
Cheng couldn't help but smile. "Alright. But I suppose we'll find out in a few minutes. And If you're so certain this won't work, maybe you should put your money where your mouth is..."
The Vector grinned. "Oh no. I know better than to bet against your intellect. But maybe you're right. We'll find out soon enough either way. I think we've still got a half hour until..."
But as the older man spoke, the whine of approaching ships filled the air. At first, Cheng thought it was just Muffasa's crew pulling in, on seeing they were completed, to take them away from the post and to a safe distance. But the look on the Vector's face told another story.
Cheng turned around. In the sky above them a half dozen patrollers approached. Between them were the black shapes which could only be Hyperion class ships Mahad had told them about. "Our information was wrong," he said, his mouth dry. "They're early..."
"See? Nothing ever goes according to plan..." The Vector grabbed Cheng by the arm. "We can't be here. We need to hide."
The bloc the listening post was stationed on was some hundred meters across. The listening post was built into a phone box, but there were also a couple of trees and a derelict stone house, missing its roof, on the small bloc. The Vector pulled Cheng towards the old house. The crumbling walls would at least provide some cover.
"Wait!" said Cheng as they moved quickly into the shadow of the stone wall. "I didn't activate the program... it won't work..."
In response, the Vector pushed a communicator into Cheng's hands. "I'll go turn it on. You contact Muffasa on the secure channel. Let him know what's happening and see when he can get us out." With that he moved back towards the phone box.
"Vector..." But he was already gone. Cheng pressed his back against the wall and activated the communicator. "Muffasa, this is Cheng..."
"Cheng," the man's booming voice responded almost immediately. "They snuck up on us, I'm sorry. Are you and the Vector safe? We'll be there as soon as we can, I promise."
"I hope so," Cheng responded. His voice shook. "We should be okay, yeah..." He clicked off the communicator and looked around for the Vector. He spotted him quickly; he hadn't yet reached the phone box.
That was because, blocking his way, was a tall and imposing form. Its smooth metal body was almost completely black, but with red highlights. Cheng recognised it immediately from Mahad and Lena's description. The enforcer.
The Vector stood before it. He was talking animatedly, waving his hands. Cheng knew the man was in trouble, knew he should do something to help. But instead his breath caught in his throat and he froze in place, back pressed against the wall behind him.
The enforcer cocked its head to the side. Beneath its black domed head, a red light flashed, roughly where its mouth would be. Was it speaking? If so, it was too far away for Cheng to hear.
And then it lifted its hand, which glowed blue, and sent a splatter of energy out that caught the Vector on the left shoulder, spun him around, and dropped him to the ground a few feet away.
"Vector!" The violence of the act spurned Cheng into action. He dashed across the open ground and knelt at the Vector's side. "Are you... okay...?"
The blast had burnt and melted through the Vector's clothing. A blackened mark spread across his left shoulder and part way down his arm. Cheng cradled the Vector's head, and heard him groan. He was still conscious, but barely.
The enforcer stared down at them, or appeared to, since it had no obvious eyes. Cheng looked up at it warily. "I'm just... I'm not going to do anything. I'm just going to move him out of here... I'm not... there's no reason to hurt us, I swear..."
Above them in the skies, a ship exploded, and the enforcer looked up sharply. Muffasa's ship had just drifted into view. Its forward weaponry had made quick work of one of the patrollers. The enforcer shot up into the air to protect the Sphere fleet that had accompanied it.
Cheng draped the Vector's undamaged arm around his shoulders and wasted no time in dragging him back towards the safety of the old building.
"Cheng..." the Vector said weakly.
"It's okay. You'll be fine. There's no reason for it to come back after us." He pulled the Vector around the crumbling wall, into the interior of the building. He glanced back around the corner. "It's gone..." He swallowed hard. His moment of fear earlier ate at him. Could he have stopped the Vector getting shot if he hadn't frozen in place? And the Vector still hadn't managed to turn on the program, despite what it had cost him. "It's not going to see if I try turning the program on..."
"Cheng," the Vector said again. He grabbed the young man's sleeve, firmly enough that it drew him to a brief halt. "It's not a machine. It said... she said, she said she knew me. That she wasn't going to fall for the harmless old man act again... your program isn't going to work..."
Cheng pulled his arm away. "I have to at least try." He moved out from the safety of the building. The way to the listening post was clear. He crossed the bloc, his heart hammering in his chest. He just had to throw one switch. It would be quick. If the enforcer was still in range then they would have the information they needed.
His hand was above the activation switch when directly overhead a Mosquito and Sphere patroller collided.
* * *
The pain in his shoulder was excruciating. But the Vector couldn't let himself slip into unconsciousness until he knew Cheng was safe. He pulled himself to the edge of the ruin's wall, and looked towards the phone box.
Just in time to see the explosion barely twenty feet above the listening post tear outwards in all directions. It engulfed the phone box in an instant, in a roiling ball of flame and debris. It tore towards the Vector's position, and he just managed to pull his head back around the wall as the superheated air impacted the wall. He felt the impact through the three feet of stone, and it dislodged loose material from the top of the wall, peppering him in dust and pebbles. A complete stone block fell to the ground only two feet away from him.
"Cheng..." Despite his effort to remain conscious the impact shook him to the core, sent his head spinning even more than it was before. Between that and the growing pain in his shoulder the Vector drew in a shuddering breath, then slumped down against the wall.
Around and above him, the battle continued to rage.