The woman from the Federation -- a spy? A soldier? Special Forces? -- moved swiftly and silently down the hall, a small moving patch of darkness in the murk. Wally followed, head reeling at the absurdity of it all. Here he was, a pudgy, balding scientist, clutching a rifle to his chest like a child's doll, following a spectacularly lethal, beautiful woman half his age through a dark hallway in a building infested with murderous alien monsters, the closest thing he had to a close friend lying dead behind him, and all he could think of was that he didn't know the name of any of the people protecting him.
The woman paused at a corner and gestured for Wally to get behind her. She peered carefully around the corner. "It looks clear to the emergency stairs," she whispered. "We'll take those down to the lowest level and grab the other objective. We'll use the cargo lift to get back to the surface quickly."
"It won't work without power," he whispered.
"Leave that to me," she said. "Your job is to confirm the target and make sure it's in good condition. Ready?"
"What's your name?" he blurted.
She looked at him quickly, startled, then turned away to watch the corridor again. Her face returned to impassivity as he watched. "Diesieger," she said. "Sardula Diesieger."
"Ready," Wally said.
Sardula ran for the stairway door while Wally covered her. One of her knives dropped from her sleeve into her hand, and almost immediately began to glow. Wally watched, fascinated. He'd heard of the Hilbert Atrophy before, but never seen it in action. Sardula's knife sliced through the door like butter, and in a matter of moments it collapsed to the floor. She motioned to him, and he ran quickly to the stairs.
Even going down, twenty-two floors was a long way, and Wally was heaving and puffing when they finally reached bottom. "Rest a moment," Sardula said, not even breathing hard.
Wally leaned against a wall and sucked in a few deep breaths. Sardula kept looking around, scanning for any sign of danger. Her eyes, Wally noticed suddenly, were amber, not the light brown he'd thought they were earlier. She was a Realian, of course. It made sense; almost all of the Federation's frontline troops were, and it explained how such a tiny person could kick hard enough to make a Div stumble.
Sardula sliced through the door and rolled into the hall, springing to her feet with both blades drawn. "Clear," she said. "Let's go."
Wally followed as quickly as he could. Sardula clearly knew exactly where she was going--she probably had a map of the facility in her brain. They were headed right for the high-security lab where the Original was kept. Unfortunately, he knew how the lowest level was laid out, a series of increasingly secure areas nested inside one another. "You realize we're going to have to go through Div containment to get to the Original, right?"
"Divs are drawn to sentient prey," Sardula answered. "I'm hoping they've run out of people to kill down here and all moved to the higher levels."
Wally winced, not sure whether it was the concept or the matter-of-fact tone with which she stated it that bothered him more.
They reached the mangled remains of the reinforced double doors that led to Div containment without incident, but Sardula held up a hand as they approached it. "Careful," she said. "Hope isn't a battle plan. Keep your eyes peeled; this is a great place for an ambush."
She dove through the wreckage in the doorway, blades drawn and glowing as she sprang to her feet on the far side. Wally followed, keeping his distance and sweeping the room with his gun as he'd seen soldiers do in movies. Sardula led the way slowly, primed to leap in any direction if needed.
The very large room was crisscrossed by the remnants of transparent cubicle walls, shattered and broken by hammer-blow Div fists. Most of the chambers had been filled with medical or biological research equipment, oversized operating tables, scanning devices, or computers for genetic sequencing and chemical analysis. They were in a disarray of smashed metal and stains Wally desperately hoped were the residue of chemicals or samples, not researchers. In the center of the room was a cluster of now-defunct forcefield cages, each large enough to hold a Div and give it limited room to move around.
"There's the door to the top-security lab," Wally said, pointing to an intact double door at the far end of the room. "Let's hurry."
There was a crash and a roar from above them and Sardula rolled to the side as a Div dropped down. Another tore in through the side wall near Wally; he fell back with a yelp of surprise, losing his grip on his gun.
Sardula leaped high as the Div swung at her, slashing its wrist as it passed. Its hand fell to the ground and the Div roared in pain, staggering back. The hand dissolved before it touched the ground, as did the fat, viscous drops of black blood oozing much too slowly from the stump of the Div's arm. The Div screamed and backed toward the cages, Sardula pursuing it but keeping her distance warily, waiting for an opening.
Wally scrambled after his gun, but the Div stomped between him and it. He rolled aside, barely avoiding its kick, and scrambled hastily to his feet. He ran for the nearest cubicle. Slow, heavy footsteps resounded right behind him, but he didn't dare look back.
The Div Sardula was chasing reached the cages. Its hand was now partially grown back, a lump of red flesh without fingers or skin. Without turning, it tore a half-ton forcefield generator free of the bolts holding it in place and flung it at Sardula. She dove underneath the attack and charged the Div. She leaped for the kill, but had forgotten to take its injured arm into account; a sweeping blow flung her with a crash into a torn-apart cubicle.
The Div stomped after her as the lump of flesh on the end of its wrist separated into fingers with a wet rip. Its healing was accelerating as the effects of the Hilbert Atrophy wore off; scabrous skin grew rapidly to cover it, then hair and claws began rapidly to grow.
Sardula lay amidst a pile of smashed computer equipment, momentarily stunned. As her senses returned, she realized the Div was approaching rapidly, and leaped to her feet. She shook her head to clear it, and realized her hands were empty. She scanned the room quickly, and spotted one of her knives lying on the floor, near where she had been struck by the Div. Its glow was already fading rapidly, and she had no time to search for the other, as the Div was upon her.
It grabbed for her, but she was able to duck out of the way and try to sweep its legs out from under it, to no avail. The Div's other arm came ponderously about, but Sardula was too far inside its reach for it to have much effect. She slid between its legs, kicking it in the crotch, but there was nothing there to kick but leathery armor.
She rolled to her feet grabbed the nearest weapon she could improvise, a broken-off length of glass tubing, about an inch across and three feet long. As the Div turned to attack her again, she jumped and stabbed, burying the tube deep in its eye.
The Div screamed and clawed at the makeshift spear, trying to pull it out, but its large claws were too clumsy to get a good grip. Sardula took advantage of its distraction to sprint for her knife. She reactivated the Hilbert emitters in her wrist as she grabbed it off the floor, then spun, scanning the room swiftly.
Wally scrambled desperately from hiding place to hiding place as each one was destroyed by the Div relentlessly pursuing him. He rolled under an operating table only to have the Div rip it out of the floor. In the time it took the Div to do that, he fled over the smashed cubicle wall and behind a metal table, which the Div pounded flat with a single blow of its fist.
Wally's chest was aching and his head swimming with exhaustion, but he was past noticing. All that mattered was making sure there was always one more obstacle between himself and the pursuing Div. He could barely see from the sweat pouring into his eyes, but he knew the red, moving blur was the Div, and all the other blurs were non-Divs. That was all he needed.
Indefatigable, the Div followed, destroying one obstacle after another, never hesitating. It was inevitable that it would eventually catch up to him. Wally dove behind a pile of several large pieces of equipment -- protein extrapolators and gene sequencers, he vaguely noted) -- through a gap too small for the Div to reach through. He wiped the sweat from his eyes and realized he'd backed himself into a corner. Through the transparent cubicle walls he could see the other Div snap off the glass tube buried in its eye. A moment later, the portion buried in its eye popped out as the eye reformed as if no damage had been done. Of Sardula there was no sign, and Wally realized that, in his mad scramble, he must have gotten between her and her Div.
A deafening roar echoed a few feet from him, and the Div chasing him swept the top half of the pile to the ground. Wally backed against the corner, but to no avail. The Div wrapped its enormous claw around his torso, pinning his arms to his sides, and lifted him. Wally screamed and kicked at the air as he rose into the air toward its hideous face. Its skin was hot, much hotter than a human's if not actually painful, and its stinking breath poured over him in waves.
Its claw was tightening, and Wally knew that it could crush him like an egg. Would, in a second. He wanted to scream and rage, but his arms were completely pinned and there was no way to scream louder than he already was.
To Wally's astonishment, the Div dropped him suddenly, screaming in rage and pain and clawing at the knife Sardula had thrown into its shoulder. It turned to face her as she charged, but she leaped lightly over the blow it swung at her with its good arm and vaulted over its shoulder, pulling out the knife and landing on its other side.
Sardula reached into the pile of equipment Wally had hidden behind and pulled her second knife from where it had embedded itself in the white plastic casing of a computer, then turned to face the two angry Divs converging on her and Wally.
She crouched low, knives held so that the blades pointed back along her arms. "Saoshi!" she screamed, and leapt for the farther of the two Divs. She landed on its shoulder and immediately backflipped off, slashing it with both her blades. She kicked off from the other Div, and attacked again, spinning and dodging tirelessly, never touching the ground, never touching a Div for more than a fraction of a second.
Wally stared a moment, flabbergasted, but then returned to his senses. "Gun," he said to himself, peering around the room. He soon spotted it, and ran, crouching low, desperately hoping neither Div would notice him. He stumbled as he reached the gun, tumbling to the floor, but managed to keep his grip on it.
As he scrambled to his feet and turned toward the Divs, he saw one manage to clip Sardula as she spun past. Even the glancing blow was sufficient to throw off her aim, and she barely managed to get her feet under herself before she hit the ground. The nearer Div swung for her, and she dove too slow out of the way--
A hail of bullets brought it up short with a roar, and Sardula gasped in relief. Then she returned her attention to attacking the two Divs. Wally's bullets, lacking the Hilbert Atrophy channeled along Sardula's knives, could not injure the Divs, but they were highly successful at annoying them and keeping them off balance. Together, they made short work of the Divs.
After the last one collapsed with a guttural, mournful cry, Sardula sheathed her knives and began checking herself for injuries. "You all right?" she asked Wally.
He felt suddenly, intensely cold and sick, and noticed for the first time the dull ache in his chest and the cuts and bruises all over him. "Nothing serious," he said. "You?"
"A little internal damage to my left arm," she answered. "Nothing my autorepair can't handle." She walked over to the doors to the maximum-security lab.
"You're a follower of Saoshi?" Wally asked.
Sardula darkened, barely perceptibly. It took Wally a moment to realize she was blushing. "There doesn't seem to be any way to open the door without power," she said. "I'm going to have to cut it open."
"I'm sorry, I was just curious, since you saved me and all. I didn't mean to offend you."
"I'm not offended," Sardula said. "However, I'm here to accomplish a mission, not to make social engagements."
It was Wally's turn to blush. "You think I'm--no no no! I know what they say about cyberneticists, but I really honestly was just curious. I've never met one of Saoshi's followers before."
Sardula grunted noncommittally as she carved an opening in the doorway for them. "It was an exclamation under the stress of combat," she said. "It's not worth dwelling on."
"All right," Wally said. "It's obviously a sore subject. I'm sorry." Mentally, he cursed the popular conception of Realian designers and cyberneticists as clankers. Okay, so yes, pretty much all Realians were designed to be aesthetically pleasing--why not? So were most children. Parents weren't under constant suspicion of being perverts, were they? Maybe they were. Wally didn't actually know any parents.
Sardula finished cutting through the door and pulled herself through the opening. She helped Wally through, and then turned into the room. "So, where is it?" she asked.
"Huh? It should be right in--" Wally stared, then cursed and punched the wall.
The Original was already gone.
End of Chapter Two. Next weekend I'll have some more original fic up, and then Chapter Three starts after that. What do people think so far? I really struggled with this chapter--there were a lot of problematic descriptions of Sardula in the original, and I really struggled with removing those while also making clear that the same kind of blend of cultural standards, objectification, and sexism that influences the design of (for example) female superheroes and video game characters in our culture was at work on her. I also struggled with Ritzi, because she, Jensen, and the security guard all exist solely to die. I tried to avoid most of the fridge clichés as best I could, and in particular tried to make it clear that throughout Wally is driven by his own fear, not some kind of macho revenge BS, but I don't know how well I succeeded.
Soundtrack! Only a couple of tracks for this chapter, including the first from a non-Xenosaga source, ar Tonelico:
What do people think of this "chapter soundtrack" idea? Does it do anything for you?