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The Fall

The shuttle swept in low over the landscape and set down a few hundred metres from the Heir's throne. As PPA had said, the air was breathable - which was fortunate, as the symbiote made no move to allow Shiro to put on an EVA suit before steering his body through the outer airlock door onto the planet's surface. Controlled as he was, Shiro could feel the energy surging through the atmosphere - either because the symbiote conveyed the sense of it to him, or because it was something so primal he sensed it himself.

Shiro also noitced something else - the symbiote had passed no comment on his thoughts. Perhaps it simply considered them unworthy of its attention. He recalled Captain Carter's disorientation when his symbiote malfunctioned, as if he had woken from a dream in which he was barely aware of his own actions. If that was the case, then even Carter's inner voice must have been subdued when he was controlled - why, then, was he still so able to reason?

He realised that the symbiote was taking them towards the centre of the storm, where he knew he would be brought before the creature the symbiote had called the Imperial Heir. The Heir to the Master? Perhaps. But why had he been brought here? If the Heir could control him in orbit, then surely he could also have destroyed the Bomber in orbit or forced them to crash onto the planet. Why the symbiotic control? Whatever the reasons for his actions, it was clear that the Heir was the threat they had come to eliminate. Somehow he had to get a message to the Bomber.

As Shiro began to fight for some degree of control over his own body, PPA was waging his own war for control of his systems. He had managed to shield himself sufficiently to prevent a total systems failure, but now he was wholly without external sensors. He supposed that this might be what being "buried alive" would feel like to a humanoid. He surmised that although the external influence had withdrawn, Barry and Lee would be unable to assist him. With rescue from the outside apparently unlikely, PPA began to dig himself out of his self-dug grave, one connection at a time.

Shiro found himself kneeling before the "external influence" which had forced PPA to retreat into himself. He heard the symbiote call out, not audibly, but through its link with the Heir. "I have brought the human Shiro Hagen before you, by your divine guidance. What are your orders?"

The Heir did not move, but Shiro heard his response through the symbiote. Tendrils of blue energy snaked out from the ground to wrap themselves around the Heir. "You have done well. The F Zero One will not be able to resist the Master much longer. Within the hour, he will rise again."

Shiro directed his thoughts to the symbiote. "Why am I here?"

The Heir responded. "So, you retain a sense of self, Shiro Hagen. That is to be expected; your symbiote is not as complete as I would have preferred, but it suffices. As you must now realise, I was to succeed the Master. Your actions in keeping the F Zero One from us, and then preventing the Master's destruction of it before it reached full potency, were impressive. I cannot be the Master's vessel as I am - had he absorbed the powers of the F Zero One he would have merged with me. But to use me now he must first have a body to possess; a harbour for his living soul. By standing against him, you showed yourself to be a strong and worthy vessel, Shiro Hagen. This is why you still live, here and now. The Master will take your soul, and your body, and be reborn. When he has merged with my technology using the energies of this planet the Master will arise to dominate the universe once more!"

Shiro had stopped listening. He was focused on a single goal; activating the communicator on his belt. While the Heir had been talking Shiro had realised that PPA had lied to him. If the symbiote hadn't required him to wear an EVA suit, then the atmosphere on planet must be more than adequate to sustain him until the Master broke free. PPA, however, had injected him - with something that was intended to help him breath in what was supposed to be a thin atmosphere.

That left him with two conclusions - either PPA had made a mistake about the atmosphere, or he'd injected him with something else. The Heir hadn't sounded surprised that Shiro still had a voice - but there had been an air of disappointment in his tone. And Shiro retained more than just a mere sense of himself; he was able to reason. So whatever PPA had given him must be helping him fight the influence of the symbiote; that was the only explanation for the preservation of his ability to reason. How PPA had known to inject him was a question which would have to wait. Now his priority was getting the Bomber to fire on his position immediately; if they waited ten hours it would be too late, and a very different Shiro would be greeting the crew...

As the Heir gathered himself to provide a final burst of energy to the Master, Shiro gathered his own will. He forced his fingers to move towards the comms unit on his belt. The minutes crawled by and he made slow progress, balancing the need to move with caution in case he alerted the symbiote that he retained some bodily control with the need to succeed before the Heir freed the Master. Finally he felt the unit under his fingertips - and tapped it once. At that instant the symbiote responded and snapped his hand back away from the unit, transmitting a warning to the Heir.

On board X-Bomber PPA was bringing basic systems on-line when he received the "comms open" signal from Shiro's communicator. He immediately sent a signal back to the shuttle on the planet.

In the same instant the Heir received the symbiote's warning and reacted instinctively, activating the shield which had screened him from detection until he had disabled the Bomber in orbit. In doing so he failed to realise that the Bomber was not the threat.

PPA's signal reached the shuttle an instant before the Heir's shield could block its receipt. The Heir noticed the signal too late, focused as he was on the astral plane.

The shuttle detonated inside the Heir's shields. The explosion itself was not massive. The electromagnetic pulse which it released, on the other hand, was.

The Heir's personal shields protected him from the worst of it, but his own shield bubble was amplifying the effect. Even as he brought his attention back to the physical plane he made another mistake. He failed to sever his link with Shiro's symbiote.

The symbiote was not shielded from the EMP. Shiro felt it scream in rage and pain as its systems were disrupted, and realised that he was screaming with it and flailing his arms and legs like a rag doll. Out of control, insane, it broadcast its pain, amplified a thousandfold, through the direct link it maintained with the Heir.

The shockwave of sensation smashed into the Heir as his consciousness was halfway between the astral and physical planes. At that critical moment of transition his concentration was disrupted and he lost control of the vast energies at his command.

On the astral plane the Master was readying himself for a final assault on Lamia's aspect of the F Zero One. She was on one knee, barely able to stand against him. With her vanquished, he would be able to escape back to the physcial realm. Halley and Kirara were restrained, unable to assist her. Roaring with triumph he unleashed all his powers against her. The astral plane collapsed around him. The F Zero One was nowhere to be seen. The Master hung in darkness, savouring his victory. He stretched out his hand to form a portal to the physical realm.

Nothing happened.

Surprise turned to anger as his continued attempts to create a portal failed. He did not understand; the F Zero One was destroyed. Why could he not escape the astral plane? Why... Lamia suddenly appeared before him. "Imperial Master. You will not escape this place. The power which was feeding you is no more, and we have fashioned this place so that it may never reach you again. Your time may come again, but not this day. Good bye." In the palm of her hand, the Lamia aspect of F Zero One held a small black pyramid. Deep inside it, the figure of the Imperial Master cried impotent rage.

Shiro gradually came to his senses, and found that he was able to get to his feet by the exercise of his own will, not the symbiote's. His left eye was obscured by it; no information seemed to be flowing to him from it any longer. The symbiote's death throes had taken his body out of the ruins of the temple. He looked at the smoking crater which had been the shuttle. Yes, PPA would have a few questions to answer when he got back. He tried to contact the Bomber, but the EMP had destroyed his communicator. He had no way of knowing how long he'd been out.

Suddenly he was aware of a shadow falling on him and he rolled instinctively. A large chunk of the temple ruins slammed into the ground where he'd been standing. Shiro regained his feet and span to face the temple. What he saw surprised him, in spite of everything. The Heir towered up out of the temple ruins. He was much larger than he had been when seated in the throne - and he was also utterly insane. Losing control of the energies he had been drawing on had caused them to turn in on him, infusing him with a vast amount of power - power which he was now unable to control. His mind was as twisted as his body was becoming. The only clear thought he seemed to retain was a desire to crush the one who had brought about his downfall. Shiro did the only thing he could. He ran.

In orbit, PPA's self repair mechanisms were working flat out to restore his control of the X-Bomber. Although he'd managed to react to Shiro's signal he had no idea of what the result of his action had been. He hoped the gamble had proved successful. With control over main propulsion restored, PPA dispatched one of his drones to wake Lee and Barry - if they could be woken. Fortunately the application of a broad spectrum stimulant proved successful and they gradually raised themselves off the floor of the bridge, trying to gather theit wits.

Barry was capable of speech first. "P...PPA? What...? I don't remember..."

"Lieutenant Hercules. We have little time. You were incapacitated by a force from the planet, as was I. Although I have brought many of my systems on-line I will need your assistaaaaagh!"

Barry managed to grab the side of the comms console to save himself from another fall as the ship bucked under his feet. PPA's drone looked similarly disorientated for a moment before it righted itself. Barry growled. "Looks like we just ran out of time PPA." He studied the scanner. "I read one large Imperial signal and several smaller signals, coming out of the shadow of S'Kirina. These guys mean business."

The K'Tharsis had been waiting on the other side of the planet to evacuate the Heir if necessary. Having lost contact it assumed the worst and had launched its full compliment of cruisers to escort it in a low altitude orbit of the planet. The Bomber had not been fully operational when it entered orbit of S'Kirina, and the Heir's assault had further reduced its ability to fight. With its initial volleys the K'Tharsis had inflicted greater damage, and X Impulse was no longer an option. With no Dai-X in reserve, Barry realised that the only thing they could do was run and hope to return when the tactical situation improved.

The Bomber never got the chance. As the great battlecruiser turned to slingshot itself around S'Kirina, space warped in front of her in an all too familiar way as the K'Lar decloaked directly in her path. As Lee moaned Barry ordered PPA to transfer power to the shields and weapons systems. Fighters began to pour out of the K'Lar's launch bay as it powered towards them. Caught between the two ships, Barry prepared to take the X-Bomber into battle for the last time.

Last updated 14 December 2013

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