Given Paige's perilous situation, Mark knew he had to do something next. He took a couple of cautious steps toward Mr. Bradford, and while trembling much, pointed his revolver at his back. He thought of his wife and the threat he issued to him before and was not sure of shooting him right away. The older more bulky man was leaning down and strangling Paige with his bare hands in his rage, and she was audibly gasping for air on the other side of him. He quickly remembered Warren mentioning his real name to him and shouted it to effectively get his attention.
"Xavier!" he exclaimed.
He released her then, whereupon she collapsed to the floor, and abruptly turned around to face him. "You are too late to save her or your own mate," he said and raised his fist.
His action prompted Mark to use the reloaded revolver twice -- too fast. So, his shots were not square hits. One bullet just caught the top of his left shoulder, and the other struck the right side of his head at the top of the forehead. The second shot did the most damage, and the impact of it from only a few meter's distance twisted him around in almost a full semicircle. Some blood, small bone fragments, and bits of his brain spattered against the adjacent wall, and he toppled onto the floor beside her.
Paige put her hands to the sides of her face and let out a loud scream upon seeing what should have been a mortal wound for a typical person. However, the power of his ring provided for stubborn life-sustaining abilities, as it did previously for her, and he turned and slowly returned to his feet. Mark was vividly amazed and stood motionless as he glared at him, turned again, and staggered quite fast down the hall and stairway, almost like a zombie. She regained her emotions, and with emphasis, yelled, "No! Don't! He's not human!"
"Then, what else is he, woman?" he shouted back. "He still bleeds."
She coughed. "He's . . . he's -- "
"Doesn't matter. I'm goin' after him before he kills Jolene."
Mark approached her, as she tried to stand, and another android cyborg attacked from a storage room across the hall from the library he was in with Warren earlier. Its strength was very intimidating, and it crashed through the side door upon being activated and detecting him outside. He was sent to the floor with the thing but wisely kept rolling to use its momentum to gain an initial advantage in position. Thunder boomed from the storm again, and heavy sheets of rain blew as furiously against the windows of the grand place. He could not tell if it was distracted by the external noise, but he quickly used the time gained to slam his fist hard across its human-looking non-sweating face.
The cyborg's face jerked just meagerly, and showed no emotion; the pupils of its eyes remained a steady glowing red, seeing his body in the infrared wavelengths. It swatted his right arm with a strong blow, and his pistol went clumping a short distance down the hall away from Paige also. It deduced incorrectly that he would try to immediately retrieve it, and he pushed free and clear of the thing instead. He was only able to glance at her and get another breath of air, before having it knocked out of him. The powerful attacker shoved him back hard against the opposite wall after it seized his arms. He was dazed and grew weaker then but continued to fight out of greater desperation.
Mark twisted some as it held up up against the wall and delivered aggravating kicks to its side. In response, it used one hand to apply a vise-like grip to his neck, and his eyes watered as he struggled more to breathe. He punched it again with his freed arm, but their impacts were abbreviated by the wide angle needed to land the blows and lack of secure footing. Its six and a half foot tall and almost 300-lb structure was swiftly the superior. The cyborg applied more pressure to his throat, and before crushing it, his blurred vision saw the thing's head blow away also to the right. Synthetic blood, tan-colored lubricant, and other oily fluids with some sparks briefly shot out of its gaping neck, and he slid slowly down the wall and shoved it aside with one more arduous effort before resting in a seated position on the floor.
As his vision cleared more with each subsequent deep breath, he looked to his left and saw Paige on her feet and holding her ring fist out in his direction. He coughed again, smiled faintly, and said, "Girl, you got some real attitude."
Her vacant gaze in concentration turned to an expression of concern, and she replied, "Are you going to be alright?"
He sat more erect, gave a "thumbs-up" sign, and added, "I'll live, but I sure hope Jolene will. We gotta find her."
"Where is Sarah? Thought she was with you."
"No," she said and shook her head. "Miranda was waiting for us in the pool and sealed her underwater in some sort of . . . plastic pillow thing. Do you have any idea where Jolene is in here?"
He paused a bit and then said, "The old guy said she was below only -- in some cylinder. That's . . . oh, shit!"
Paige saw a renewed vigor enter him as he grew more excited and concerned, and she helped him to his feet. He recovered his weapon, kicked the motionless cyborg, and commented, "I wonder if the bullets left in this thing will have as good an effect on him as your ring did with Frankenstein here."
"How many are left?"
"Just four. I only had enough ammo to reload it once after Warren and I met the . . . little welcoming committee downstairs."
"Really? Then, why are the pockets bulging in your pants?"
He quickly reached in a frontal pocket and revealed an old heraldic-eagle gold coin in new condition to her. "Can't shoot this."
She turned her head slowly in disbelief, and he moved beside and ahead of her after pocketing the rare coin again. They followed the irregular narrow blood trail Mr. Bradford left on the stairs and eventually came to the dim entryway to the basement stairs. It brought back a memory to Paige -- the descending passage where she was rudely escorted by Miranda to him. He stopped and said, "Girl, I sure hope he doesn't have another one of his musclemen waitin' for us down there."
"I hope not either, but being that I have the better potential weapon, I'll lead the way now."
Paige put a finger in front of her lips to signal him to be silent, and she went onward into the coldly familiar passageway. With the swim slippers on her feet, she was as quiet as a cat. When she came onto the third last step, she put an arm out in front of him and stayed beside the right wall in case of a counterattack. Her pulse quickened as she heard labored breathing, and more thunder echoed into the corridor from above. With her spine tingling, she crouched down some and finally peered into the centralized basement room, where he earlier proposed a grotesque exchange for her ring, and saw the large table in the middle of it. Nevertheless, the breathing seemed louder, and she cautiously took two more steps, before bending forward and looking all the way in it to see why.
Mr. Bradford was standing before the universal power stabilizer in between large opened wooden panels of the adjacent wall, and it definitely did not look like any 20th-century machine. It hummed and had glowing blue and green tubes going into a rectangular shiny structure from the floor, and there was a complicated frontal panel with many touch-sensitive buttons of various shapes and other unfamiliar protrusions and designs. An electromagnetic, blue-glowing dome force field hovered and shimmered over a circular elevated mount, where the nine other power rings were placed evenly apart in, and they were kept inert in a broken circle -- so far in front of him. He appeared wrecked and was either programmed to stay alive by them or independently seeking more power to repair the damage done by Mark's bullets and activate another hidden trap.
Paige and Mark decided to intervene before their opponent could do more harm, and she entered the large room with her ring fist held out at him. "This is over, Jack. It didn't have to be this way. You had your chances with me."
He turned some and slowly replied, "History repeats itself all the time, Miss Everhart. Violence brreeds . . . violence."
His voice sounded synthetic, almost mechanical, but Mark's was much more demanding. "Where is Jolene, chump! I want her back -- now."
"Being from . . . the future, I predict that her life is . . . forfeit. Blame your brazen female companion . . . for that, fool."
"You bastard!" he shouted back and raised his revolver fast.
"Mark, don't do -- " Paige sharply said, for naught.
With anger surging, he fired his weapon three more times at the prevailing older man, and the bullets ripped through his torso and into the mysterious machine to his immediate rear. Their impact collectively sent him back against the electromagnetic force field, which became breached, and the energy stasis that the rings were kept in destabilized. Ironically, what Mr. Bradford said about violence became true. The panel of the futuristic machine actually changed shape some, as if to accommodate the intrusion of his body, and exploded apart afterward as many white bolts of electricity shot wildly forth, to replace the energy dome in a lethal way.
Paige and Mark flinched and ducked down behind the central table as the mayhem ensued, and the force of the frontal panel detonating toppled Mr. Bradford's further- damaged body backward onto the floor. They smelled ozone, charred flesh, and more importantly, burning wood, as the heat from the breached power stabilizer ignited the surrounding support frame of the mansion. Paige turned quickly to Mark and yelled, "Now, look what you've done! This old place is going to burn like a tinderbox. We've got to get out of here."
"Not without Jo! Those rings aren't as important as her."
"Neither is that stash in your pockets, Mark. I'll worry about the rings. Just look further down through that side hall into the den over there. Maybe, she's in another room further on."
A couple more bolts of electricity shot forth, crackling and branching apart, and grew in size and frequency. Gray smoke also began to fill the top of the room. The strange machine was just a little larger from the outside than a grand piano, but Paige wondered if it was drawing energy from the storm outside to compensate for the damage done to it or worse -- overloading the rings from the surrounding energy of the storm to cause their impending destruction and more. Her female intuition made her feel first that time was ever more of the essence in completing what had to be done yet, including to save themselves, and it was.
Just before they bolted from the protection of the table, Mark took a hold of her forearm and emotionally said, "Promise you'll help me get Jolene out of here safe, Paige. Please! I don't want to lose my wife. I love her so much!"
After a pause, she coughed, nodded, and replied, "Yes, Mark. I promise. Just as you've helped and trusted me, I will do whatever I can to help you."
Continued to Pt. 10.