Turns out that the villagers don’t really need any more help from us. The kedil was all they needed, and it cures the plague faster than I would’ve had expected. In fact by the time we pack up our things to leave for the Dead Zone, most of the villagers are out of danger. The little girl Naph was so worried about is going to be fine. She might have some vision loss, but considering what could’ve happed, she’s very lucky. She runs up and wraps her arms around Naph’s atom. He looks a bit startled at first, but he returns the embrace. I’ve been trying to work up the nerve to talk to Vitna about Nin. Dineen won’t tell us anything, but Vinta might know something, and considering we just saved her village, I figure she owes me something. I should know by now a human’s sense of gratitude doesn’t last long when Atoms are involved.
“I could careless about Nin or whatever it is you’re going on about?” she snaps when I finally catch her attention. “Can’t you see I’ve got more important things to worry about?”
Other than the little girl and her father, they don’t even see us off. Not that I expect it, but it would’ve been nice.
We lost Yafeth. He had a bit too much to drink last night, and Dineen couldn’t get his Atom rebooted. The good news is she is able to wake up Daive. We don’t seem him very often. His Atom is one of the glitchier ones so Dineen doesn’t wake him unless she’s out of options. I hope his Dreams are good ones since he has to spend so much time in them. He’s one of the nicer looking Atoms with chiseled features and wavy jet-black hair. He’s sweet and smart, and I’d like to get to know him better, but I get so nervous around him that it’s never gonna happen. Oh, well, a girl can dream.
On the long march through the Dead Zone we catch Daive up to speed on everything that’s been happening for the last few months. He takes it all in stride. He’s even patient with Naph’s constant interruptions and Zeet’s latest conspiracy theories.
After two days of travel, Naph stops suddenly.
“Does anyone feel…different?” he asks.
I don’t feel anything, but Myra-Blythe feels it too.
“Oh, that’s probably just the pillar, Sugar,” she tells them kindly.
Dineen says we don’t have to stay as close to the Arm when we are near a pillar. Zeet immediately tests it by running off. When he doesn’t immediately collapse, I breathe a sigh of relief and put a welcome bit of space between the others and myself. We have to walk practically on top of each other to stay in the Arm’s area of effect, and it’s driving me crazy. All I want a few minutes peace. We get to the pillar the next day. It’s locked, and Dineen can’t open the access port. She shrugs and tells us to keep moving. It isn’t long before the pillar’s influence fades, and we have to gather around the Arm again.
Three days later, we find the second pillar. Dineen asks us to stay close near the Arm the entire time. After studying the pillar for a few minutes, she stood up. “This must be why the Arco had the Communication Error – the pillar is not working.”
Since the pillar isn’t working, we have to stay close to the Arm. I don’t know how much longer I can take this.
The next day Daive asks Dineen and Naph a lot of questions about the Dead Zone and the pillars, and though some of it goes over my head, for once I think I’m catching on. Dineen says the pillars used to overlap so that Atoms could travel through the Dead Zone without needing an “Arm.” Over the years the pillars have weakened so that they don’t overlap anymore. Naph says that the pillars boost our signals so that our Atoms can still function away from the Arco. Does that mean our souls are being beamed into our Atoms from somewhere else? Maybe from the Arco itself? It would explain why Dineen’s so paranoid about the Arco being damaged. But that can’t be true. Can it?
Zeet interrupts Dineen to start asking about the Dragon in the Arco.
“Will you shut up about the Dragon?” I snap. “It’s not real! There is no monster evil or otherwise shut up in the Arco!”
It’s unkind of me, but I can’t stop myself. I am finally starting to wrap my head around what’s going on. Why’d he have to pick now to go on about his stupid conspiracy? Zeet’s face crumples. I try to apologize, but Zeet isn’t ready to hear it, so I back off. He pushes past me to join Myra-Blythe and Naph at the head of the group. I feel bad for snapping at him, and what’s worse Dineen decides that we’ve talked enough about the pillars for now. She doesn’t want to upset Zeet any further. We walk on for hours and hours. Suddenly Dineen screams “RUN!”
A barrage of needles comes flying out of nowhere. I hit the ground hard. I glance frantically around, but all I can see are these small leathery lizard creatures. Naph has shut down, Dineen and Myra-Blythe are bleeding heavily. As I watch the weird creatures raise their tail releasing another volley of darts.
I spot a small stone outcrop in the meadow ahead. We all scramble towards it. We all make it, but everyone is bleeding heavily, and I can’t make it stop. Dineen squints at wall of our makeshift shelter like she’s trying to remember something. Suddenly, I see what she does.
“It’s some sort of weapon!” I shout to the others. I clear the vines away.
“It’s a rock hurler,” Dineen told us. “There should be ammunition nearby.”
We spread out, crawling along the ground to find the rocks. Daive finds the cache first, and tears the vines off of the pile. There should be enough.
Naph manages to load a rock into the rock hurler and fired at the nearest creatures. The rock exploded on impact, killing several of the beasts. I fired another and took more of them out. But there were still some left, and everyone is still bleeding. I help Dineen patch the leaks while the others take turns blasting at the vicious creatures. Naph accidentally blows a hole through our only cover with the rock hurler, but Daive saves our hides with his crossbow. Thankfully, there are only two or three left, and he’s able to take them out easily.
All of the creatures are dead, but we’re not out of danger. Dineen and I are unable to patch the leaks in everyone’s coolant lines. Dineen tells us to head back to the second pillar. When we get there, she breaks into the access port and tells us to hold hands. I feel a jolt of psionic energy, and then I see dozens of tiny robots crawling over us.
“They’re repair bots,” Dineen informs us.
They tickle, but healing warmth flows through me as the repair the dings and leaks in my Atom. While the robots do their work, Dineen goes to the pillar and attaches the Arm to something. She tells us that she’s using the pillar to amplify the signal from the Arm.
“Why?” Zeet asks.
“And what were those things?” I add.
“Those creatures were conios. They are very territorial, but they generally hate the signals that come from the pillars.” Dineen tells us. “This just confirms my fears – the second pillar isn’t working. If it were working, the conios would not have been so close. Amplifying the signal should keep the conios away. We’ll be safe for tonight.”
We all gratefully spread out and make camp. Although I want more than anything to curl up alone in my sleepsack, there’s something I have to do first.
“Listen, Zeet,” I begin, “about what I said before—“
“Don’t worry about it,” he tells me.
“Yeah, I know you only said that ‘cause Dineen was right there. We can’t let her know how much we know about what’s really going on.”
“Yep, that’s exactly what I meant,” I reply quickly. “Glad you caught on.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t built yesterday ya’ know,” he replies with a yawn.