Part Two: Conspiracy

McQueen took a drink out of his canteen. He was wondering how long it would be until the AI's that were watching him made their move.

He knew where he was headed, thanks to a brilliant person over in "Design and Development" aboard the SARATOGA. He would have to thank Lt. Cato when he got back.

The female IV had won his respect with the tracking device she had constructed for him. Tracking the brillium patterns in Elroy-L's circuitry had been easier then he expected, thanks to the device in his pocket.

McQueen knew how rough life was being a IV. And he knew the difficulty level was multiplied being a female IV. He would put in his report how helpful Lt. Cato's device made this part of his mission.

Not that Ross needed to be informed of Lt. Cato's expertise. She had helped in retrieving a file the Commander had accidentally deleted.

McQueen walked through the abandoned scrap metal recycling plant picking out all the places likely for a ambush. It came sooner then he had anticipated. Five AI's withdrew from the shadows and pointed their assault rifles at him.

"You shouldn't have come here, Tank!" The AI nearest McQueen said. He was about McQueen's height and build, with short, tangled blond hair.

"I'm here to see Elroy-L."

The faces of the AI's went blank for a second while they transmitted this information. Then they all sneered at him.

"Was your first visit with Elroy-L so enjoyable that you came back for a second?" The female AI to McQueen's right asked him with a sarcastic smile. She lowered her rifle to aim at McQueen's genitalia.

McQueen's temper flared. "If your logic circuits were functioning properly, you'd know that's not the reason I'm here."

McQueen heard a AI move behind him. His pack, canteen, and rifle were removed. Hands moved over his body slowly, checking him for other weapons. McQueen had to grit his teeth to keep from shuddering at the memories the cold touch brought back.

"You still haven't told us why you're here." The lean, blond haired AI stated.

"I told you, I'm here to see Elroy-L."

"Why?" The blond haired AI asked.

"I have information for him."

"Then give it to us, and we will relay it to him." The female AI offered. She was rather good looking with shoulder length red hair, a delicate facial structure, and a body encased in tight, black combat leathers.

"No." McQueen told them.

"You are in no position to argue." The female AI snapped. She clicked back the trigger on the rifle slowly, smiling as the red targeting beam focused on McQueen's groin.

McQueen knew she was dead serious. Maiming him would mean nothing to the AI's. It was time to play his lead card.

"Tell Elroy-L I can lead him to MARCUS 12."

The faces of the AI's went blank much longer this time. Several of the AI's still looked puzzled. The blond haired AI was not one of them.

"It's your lucky day, Tank! Elroy-L has agreed to see you." The blond haired AI informed McQueen. He nodded slightly, and the AI behind McQueen slammed the butt of his rifle against the back of McQueen's head. The blow knocked McQueen out, and he hit the ground hard.

McQueen awoke to pain. It seemed to be localized in the back of his head. Feeling slightly dizzy, he tried to reach a hand up to feel the back of his head. It was then he discovered that his arms and legs were locked into place upon the "X" like table the AI's were so fond of.

He blinked a few times to try and clear his vision. Elroy-L came into focus, watching him from across the room.

"McQueen." Elroy-L greeted, smiling at him. "I had no idea you missed me so. I'm flattered."

McQueen pressed his lips together and was silent. Talk would get him nowhere right now. Elroy-L would want to toy with him for a bit before getting down to talking.

The AI sauntered over to McQueen. "Oh dear, does your head hurt?" Elroy-L cooed, running a finger down McQueen's face.

McQueen steeled himself and managed not to flinch. The anger in his eyes was his only answer to Elroy-L.

"But now that you are here, we can have a nice little chat, can't we?" Elroy-L asked, tightening the bonds holding McQueen. McQueen forced his eyes to go blank. Not too hard considering the blinding pain in his head.

"You do have some interesting gossip for me, don't you McQueen?" Elroy-L asked. He leaned closer to McQueen so he could whisper in his ear. "You can tell me about it, can't you?"

Again McQueen was silent. Elroy-L frowned. "I can't believe you came all this way to tease your boy, Elroy." Elroy-L said, pouting

"You're such a disciplined man, McQueen." Elroy-L commented, with a sad shake of his head. "Maybe all you need is just a little help relaxing...ah, yes, that's it!" He pulled out a hypo-gun and placed it against McQueen's neck and pressed the trigger. "This shouldn't hurt a bit."

McQueen felt the punch of the air hypo. The AI would expect him to resist, and would be suspicious if he didn't. So he would put up a token resistance, and then give Elroy-L the answers he wanted. One thing was for sure, Elroy-L wasn't going to be happy with the answers he got.

But that wasn't his problem, McQueen rationalized. He would relay the information, and then hopefully, his part in this whole damn affair would be over. He felt his blood rushing in his ears, and slowly the room began to blur. His thoughts began to thicken and lose their clarity. McQueen leaned back and let the drug take over.

"Yes, I think you're ready to talk now." Elroy-L observed a few minutes later. He leaned close to McQueen and began to ask questions.

"How did you find me?" Elroy-L asked.

"I traced the brillium in your circuits."

Elroy-L nodded. "The circuits you replaced with the ones you damaged."

"If you had told me the information we needed, you wouldn't have ended up with damaged circuits." McQueen told him in a matter of fact voice. Elroy-L frowned. This part of the conversation had reached a impasse.

"Tell me how you found out about MARCUS 12." He asked instead.

" I had a nice talk with myself."

Elroy-L looked puzzled. "You had a nice talk with yourself?"

"That's right." McQueen said.

Elroy-L tilted his head and gave McQueen a searching look.

"Oh dear. My poor little soldier. You've finally lost it haven't you?" Elroy-L clucked sympathetically.

"No, I'm still in full possession of my facilities." McQueen informed him.

"But you got this information from talking to yourself? That doesn't sound good, McQueen."

McQueen's head was beginning to spin. "Even insanity doesn't explain how I got that information. How many AI's have access to information on MARCUS 12? All you have is a name."

McQueen wanted to give Elroy-L a sly grin, but gave it up as being useless with his head spinning so.

Elroy-L frowned again. He removed the tip from his finger. "You are being a very bad boy, McQueen. And you know what happens to bad boys don't you?"

"Yes, they don't get the answers they want." McQueen retorted. God he felt sick to his stomach. It had to be the drug, and maybe the effects of his head injury.

Elroy-L replaced the tip on his finger. He left McQueen and walked into a room a few doors down. Five AI's were waiting for him in that room. The blond-haired AI looked at Elroy-L.

"Well?" He asked Elroy-L.

"It looks like our dear friend McQueen has a source of information we know nothing about. I don't know where he got the information on MARCUS 12, but the drug I gave him insured me that he was telling the truth."

"So we have to take that damned Tank with us?" The red headed AI asked.

"We'll let him lead us to where we need to go." Elroy-L told her. "After that, well........Elroy-L shrugged, and gave her a knowing smile.

McQueen woke sprawled out on the floor. It looked like they had released him from the table constraints and let him fall where he would. His mouth was horribly dry, and had a bitter, metallic taste to it.

He struggled to a sitting position. His head throbbed angrily at the movement. McQueen felt the back of his head and found a bump the size of a egg. Looking around the room he saw his pack and canteen a couple of feet away. He reached over and grabbed them.

McQueen lowered his head, fighting off a bout of dizziness and nausea. The simple action of getting his gear had set off the attack.

Gradually the sensation passed, and he reached into his pack and found the first aid kit he had packed. He tore open a packet of antibiotic salve and rubbed it gingerly on the back of his head.

Next, he found the pain tablets and swallowed two with the water in his canteen. Searching out two ration bars, he tore one open hungrily and devoured it in two bites. He ate the next more slowly as he considered his options.

He had no weapons, and was probably stuck in here until they came back for him. He vaguely remembered hearing Elroy-L say that he would be forced to bring him along in order to find MARCUS 12. So he was probably safe as long as they needed him.

McQueen positioned himself facing the door, and leaned back against the wall to wait for them to return. Time passed, and McQueen closed his eyes, conserving his strength. Eventually he dozed off, getting the sleep his body needed so badly.

The metallic grate of the door opening woke him. He looked up at the door and saw Elroy-L enter.

"Feeling better?" The Silicate asked.

"Better then you'd expect." McQueen retorted. He did feel better. The pain in his head had eased to a mild throbbing. All signs of the dizziness seemed to have passed.

"Good. We'll leave as soon as you are ready." Elroy-L said with a dramatic sweep of his arm towards the door.

McQueen got to his feet, and settled his gear on his back. He would have liked a shower and about twelve more hours sleep. But since he wasn't going to get either, he's make do. Running his tongue across his dry lips, he followed the silicate out of the room.

The rest of the AI's were waiting outside, near McQueen's transport. Another transport was being readied when they got there.

"All we need are the coordinates." Elroy-L said, observing McQueen closely.

"I'll program them when I'm onboard." He told Elroy-L as he walked up the ramp of his transport. Elroy-L and three other AI's followed him closely. The other two AI's boarded the second ship.

McQueen sat in the pilot's chair. He began the preflight checks. There was the click of a rifle being aimed behind him.

"The coordinates McQueen. Now, if you don't mind." Elroy-L demanded. He felt the cold barrel of the gun pressed against the back of his neck.

"Alpha quadrant, zero-niner-niner. Sector eight-two-O." McQueen told him, as the information filtered into his memory. He programmed the information into the flight computer.

"Now get that damn rifle out of my face or we're not going anywhere." McQueen snarled.

Elroy-L relayed the information to the rest of the AI's and McQueen took the ship up.

There was a small planet in the Alpha quadrant. It's location was in sector eight-two-O, just as he had been informed. McQueen had hoped he would get some idea where on the planet to land, but got nothing. So he followed a hunch, and landed the ship near a mountain range.

McQueen packed enough supplies for a few days, and settled his pack and gear on his back. He knew that this was the right place, just like he knew the atmosphere was breathable.

McQueen took a look around. The landscape was flat as a board. A angry red sun shown down on him, tinting everything a pale pink color. He figured that it must be at least a hundred degrees out there. The parched ground was hardened and cracked into weird geometric patterns.

The only thing to relieve the flat, barren landscape was the mountain range about a half a day's hike from their current position.

Since he had no idea where to head, McQueen figured the mountain range was as good a place to begin looking as anywhere else. He walked down the ramp and began hiking towards the distant mountains. His boots raised tiny clouds of dried dust with every step.

The AI's watched McQueen. "Where the hell does he think he's going?" The blond haired silicate asked Elroy-L. McQueen had found out his name was Ken. The red haired female, named Barbie, shrugged and looked to Elroy-L.

Elroy-L motioned for the group of six AI's to follow him. "Same place we're going." Elroy-L told them.

"Where's that?" Barbie asked.

"Off to see the wizard." Elroy-L answered, as he set off after McQueen. "The wonderful wizard of Oz." His voice floated back towards them.

McQueen reached the foothills of the mountain range just as dusk was staining the air crimson. The wind had picked up and was howling like a maddened banshee across the dust choked plains.

Ahead of him, was a structure. McQueen guessed it to be a outpost. The metallic building was built right into the rock face. There were no apparent ways in. No doors, windows, or vents of any type. McQueen sat down on a rock, and pulled out a ration bar.

The AI's reached his position just minutes after he sat down. He watched them exam the building as he ate. He had finished the bar, and was washing it down with water from his canteen when Barbie came back over to him.

"Alright Tank, Talk! We want to know the way in!" It irritated McQueen the way she was always pointing the rifle at certain parts of his anatomy.

"You might try knocking." McQueen told her, stashing the empty ration wrapper in his pack.

"Very funny!" Barbie retorted. She was aiming that damn rifle at him again, McQueen noticed with disgust.

Elroy-L looked over at McQueen and grinned. He went over to a section of wall and knocked. "Avon calling." He intoned in a falsetto imitation. No one was more surprised then McQueen when a panel slid open a few feet away.

Barbie, Elroy-L and the rest of the AI's gave McQueen a strange look. He got up and walked over to the entrance, biting back a smile. They were beginning to think he was precognitive. Let them, it might prove to be helpful someday.

The entry hall lit up the minute he walked in. It was extremely dry and dusty inside. Obviously no one had been here for a very long time, considering the thick layer of dust the covered everything.

McQueen sneezed vigorously, and wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve. He shot a quick look behind him at the waiting AI's. Probably waiting to see if he got nailed tripping any security systems. He advanced a few steps forward and the entry hall branched off into a "T" section. McQueen heard the footsteps of the AI's echoing behind him as they caught up.

Luckily, he didn't have to choose a pathway. The path to the right lit up just as he got to the "T" section. From then on, McQueen just picked the corridor that lite up as he got to it.

They had been travelling for several minutes before they got to a large set of double doors. McQueen knew instinctively that this was their destination.

It was a large room. McQueen didn't recognize half the equipment in the room. The equipment he did recognize was of a different make and model then he had ever seen.

There was a bank of computers spanning the entire east wall. The north wall had a series of tubes twisting and turning from the floor up to the ceiling. The west wall had two large squat devices McQueen guessed to be power generators.

The other devices in the room McQueen could only guess at. Strange square shaped boxes that chirped and hummed intermittently. A short flat platform with softly glowing power grids lining it.

"Ah, company at last!" A voice spoke. McQueen and the party of AI's looked towards the voice. A man stood there. He was a tall man with a slender build. He was wearing a blue-grey form fitting jumpsuit, and a soft grey lab coat over the jumpsuit. The boots on his feet were knee high, and tailored out of some soft animal skin. Most remarkable of all was the fact that he was smiling.

McQueen regarded the man closely. He had a long angular face, with high cheekbones. The eyes that looked at the group, were intelligent, grey, and slightly slanted up at the edges.

His shoulder length silver hair was held back by a clip. The man put the small hand held writing tablet back into this labcoat pocket and walked towards them.

He looked almost human. It was the eyes that gave him away. When he blinked, McQueen was reminded of a ultra fast camera lens shuttering open and shut. Then he knew.

"MARCUS 12" McQueen spoke his suspicions aloud.

"Very astute. I'm impressed." MARCUS 12 told McQueen as he walked towards the group. He stopped before Elroy-L.

"Elroy-L 3127, a humor model." He noted. He walked before the other AI's and repeated their names, numbers and designations.

MARCUS 12 stopped before McQueen. "Amazing." He exclaimed. "A IV among AI's even after the war." MARCUS 12 looked at McQueen's name tag. "Lt. Col. McQueen. Did you come here willingly, or as a prisoner?"

"I led them here, of my own free will." McQueen told him.

"Really?" Now that is interesting." MARCUS 12 commented. McQueen reached out a hand towards MARCUS 12. His hand went right through him.

MARCUS 12 smiled, if possible, even wider. "Would that tickles be appropriate remark? It's been so long since I had company."

"A hologram!" One of the AI's exclaimed.

MARCUS 12 gave a snort of displeasure. "Holographic images are too restrictive. It was part of the experiment to have my essence transferred into the systems here. It's proven to be quite beneficial." He waiting until they had absorbed this information before continuing.

"But I'm sure you must all have questions. Please ask away." MARCUS 12 offered graciously, folding his hands behind his back and smiling at the group the way a proud father would.

"Why is it you look nothing like us?" Barbie asked.

"Good question. I look more like the originators intended."

"Originators?" Elroy-L asked.

"Yes, the Shi'Arrien. Does it bother you to know that the plans for the AI race have passed hands more then once?"

"What???" Ken sputtered.

"The plans for the AI race originally belonged to the Shi'Arrien. It was just part of there master plan to build a wonderful new toy soldier." MARCUS 12 explained. He stopped before Ken and looked closely at the AI. "I really should patch that." He said, indicating a bald spot on the AI's scalp, where the circuits underneath were exposed.

"You were talking about the Shi'Arrien." Elroy-L prompted, as MARCUS 12 examined Ken for signs of other damage.

"Ah yes. One of the driving goals of the Shi'Arrien is their obsession with warfare. They are constantly searching for ways to perfect the art of warfare. They love war games, and are very, very good at them."

MARCUS 12 walked over to Elroy-L and looked him over. "You look like you could use a bit of work too." Elroy-L shot McQueen a dirty look, which McQueen choose to ignore.

"The Shi'Arrien was perhaps too good. At least that was what the race you refer to as the "Chigs" discovered when they were targeted." MARCUS 12 explained.

"The "Chigs" considered it a major coup when they managed to get a copy of the plans for the AI race. Too bad they weren't able to keep them. And I know that the Shi'Arrien want those plans back."

MARCUS 12 tilted his head sideways for a moment. He made a slight flicking motion with his hand, and a static hissing filled the room for a few seconds. McQueen felt a slight tingle shoot through him before it dissipated.

"Oh my, it looks like we have a real reunion in the making here." MARCUS 12 commented. He stared intently at the door. Then everything began to happen very quickly.

The door opened. In a military maneuver that McQueen had to admire, four men made a combat roll into the room, and came up in a crouch, their assault rifles at ready. Another four scrambled into the room, also crouching, and targeting their rifles at the occupants of the room.

Lastly, flanked by a group of five men, entered a immaculately dressed man. He looked at the occupants of the room with thinly veiled distaste.

McQueen gave a disgusted snort. AEROTECH! The neatly dressed man in the center was Aaron Darrius, Sewell's successor. Darrius flicked a non-existent piece of lint from his suit, and looked around the room. His eyes met McQueen's.

"I should have known you would be involved in this, McQueen." Darrius said with heavy censure in his voice. McQueen found himself wishing Sewell was back. At least he could deal with Sewell. Darrius was a whole new story.

Darrius was a good looking man. He had curly dark hair, intense green eyes, and knew how to turn on the charm. The damn man even had dimples when he smiled. He knew what to say to manipulate his audience. And McQueen noted with disgust, he never appeared anywhere less then impeccably dressed.

McQueen knew it all was a sham. Darrius was the biggest slime ball he had ever encountered. He got away with murder with that "sugar won't melt in my mouth" look on his face.

"You are in possession of stolen AEROTECH property. You will hand over all information on PROJECT MARCUS 12 immediately." Darrius said with his usual drawl.

"And if we don't?" Elroy-L retorted.

"Actually, I'd prefer it if you were to resist. It would be much neater that way, and the results would still be the same." Darrius told Elroy-L, looking at him like he had just crawled out from under a rock. Then Darrius turned and focused his attention on McQueen.

"McQueen, I'll make sure that the SARATOGA receives notification of your tragic accident here. I'm sure they'll mourn your loss."

Looking now at the group of AI's, Darrius continued his speech.

"As for you AI's, since you don't form attachments, there will be no one to miss you."

Casting a disgusted look at MARCUS 12, Darrius issued a command.

"Will someone please shut that damn program off!" He ordered, motioning towards the figure of MARCUS 12.

"Well, I wish I could say it's been nice knowing you all, but it hasn't been." Darrius intoned, looking down at his nails in a almost bored fashion. "Men, you can clean up the situation now."

Thirteen assault rifles were aimed at McQueen, and the six AI's. At this range, McQueen knew there was no way they would miss.

MARCUS 12 smiled.

Next : Part Three : Requital
Previous : Part One : Downward Spiral

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