We carefully stepped over what jagged shards remained embedded in the alien soil and passed through the carnage of the fallen Steel units. Circuitry littered the floors of the vast chambers, some still still glowing that ominous shade of blue-green. Some of them still twitched where they lay. I wished I had the time to spare to end their suffering.
We found the laboratory that Jeremiah had unleashed his madness upon our Sparkfather. Ash was certain that he could repair the equipment and use it to track friend and foe on-board the station, but I advised against. Jeremiah, or even Darien for that matter, may have set traps in the infrastructure to prevent the station from being taken over by the enemy.
It was an odd sight, seeing Jagers in full battle uniform stooping over to sniff at Father's bare footprints. They did succeed in tracking his scent. Kira seemed to be following the scent of the trail effortlessly as well.
I did notice some disorientation among the organics in our company. The lock-step of the Jagers was slightly off. They occasionally bumped into each other, muttering "Bitte" under their breath. If not for the obvious footprints I'm certain that the humans in our group would have gotten hopelessly lost. At first I dismissed it as battle fatigue, but then I correlated the team's pauses to the energy readings I was detecting. The time-space fluctuations were becoming more frequent, and if anything the epicenter of the singularity seemed to getting stronger.
I made a direct line of sight with Darien just as the chorus of "OVERRIDE! WORMWOOD!" rose to crescendo. Ash leveled his rifle and fired a blast just as the lead Arachnoid Steel was ready to pounce on the Doctor. The predator flipped skyward end over end from the shot to her head. The rest of the collective immediately turned their gaze to us as we charged forward. Dr. Mason took advantage of the distraction to lift his improvised weapon and open a large hole in the insectoid torso of the Steel unit closest to him.
As we closed in, Qli-2 extracted the Talons from her forearms that I had originally equipped myself with in Toxia. Her guerrilla warfare experiences in her Nova incarnation came through as she slashed her way through the colony. While the claws were not strong enough for taking on the colossus, they proved fast and sturdy enough to end the functions of several Steels.
As we struggled to keep them from encircling us, Qli-2 and Ash kept asking each other and me the same questions. Who felled that unit? What angle was that blast? We were too busy to answer each other's queries. The distortions were getting much stronger and denied us the ability to mentally graph every move in the midst of such an intense firefight. But we still knew something was not adding up.
The remainder of the Steels scattered in all directions. Was this some new strategy? It seemed to me more like a breakdown of their programming. A panic reaction. We surveyed the carnage. Too many dead Steels.
I whispered to Qli-2. "The disruption shifted its epicenter", I surveyed the hypnotic designs of the columns and vaulted ceilings warily. Dr. Mason had dropped his weapon again, trying to pull the seized gears of the engine room doors open as he called out for his son who was still enslaved on the other side of the barrier in his new form.
She responded as she scanned the archways along with me. "It's a tesseract...non-galvanic."
"A stealth teleport? Let's draw back in opposite directions", I replied. "We might triangulate..."
Darien was just fast enough to roll to the side as the glow of an aether sword disrupted his calculations. Even with the split-second humming and gout of solid light as a warning, the Doctor was unable to roll fast enough to save his mechanical arm. It clattered to the floor, the green syringe shattering against the tiles as he crouched for cover. The split second of seeing his father's face looming over him lingered in his memory.
"JEREMIAH!" Darien gasped as he dove out of the way. Ash bounded towards the good Doctor over our cries to stop. He pushed Darien aside as gently as he could and pressed rows of stone buttons furiously until the spokes of circular locks on the great door began to turn on their own. Kira leaped towards the growing opening, harnessing the last of her draconian strength to speed the opening of the gates.
As the aperture to the crystal chamber grew, we saw the maddening array of massive chains linked to pyramids of glowing crystals (the Avarian answer to cavorite) that hung at impossible angles...it was soon clear that the demon-winged, crimson-furred creature impaled on the hooks of the chains at seemingly every bone was serving as their center of gravity.
Kira's roar blended to a scream as she shrank back to her humanoid form and raced into the chamber, crying out for Koen. The semi-conscious victim raised his head, jostling the chains as he yowled.
"Kira! Look out!"
A swirl of black robes and the arc of an energy blade blocked Kira's way. Ash dove to shove Kira out of the way as the solidified aether severed flesh and bone. The world tumbled around Ash as his head slammed into the floor. After the flash of pain and and numbing shock, Ash discerned the black goggles and insidious grin of Jeremiah's face, staring down at him. As reality rippled again when the mastermind vanished into thin air, Ash's eyes focused on his own body, still standing upright until it tottered, fell to its knees, and collapsed to the ground beside him.