I dread going back to the barracks, but there’s no help for it. There’s no way I can sober Naph up on my own, and anyway there isn’t enough time before the caravan is supposed to leave. Dineen is already waiting for us at the entrance to the barracks.
“Where have you been!” she demands. Then Naph vomits all over her feet.
“Dineen, I’m sorry,” I begin, but she cuts me off.
“Hurry up and get ready! The caravan leaves in half an hour!.”
“My head hurts!” Naph moans.
“I know, Sugar,” Dineen soothes. “I’ll get you fixed up in just a minute.”
Unfortunately, Naph is too far gone. Dineen’s only option is to shut him down. Zeet is still shut down too.
Daive picks up Zeet, and I grab Naph. At least I don’t have to worry about him throwing up on me again. Good thing the contract’s already been signed. I’m sure the caravan wishes they could back out when they see us pelting up to the wagons. It doesn’t help that Daive shuts down the moment the caravan rolls out. He’s been so glitchy lately that Dineen doesn’t even try to bring him back. Instead, she concentrates on waking Zeet. I am now officially the only one in our “guard” who can even halfway wield a weapon. So, of course, bandits spring out of the bushes and arrows start flying out of nowhere. A bandit scales the carriage I’m on, throws the driver down, and grabs for the maltar’s reins. The stupid creature goes half wild making it impossible for me to land a solid blow. Before I know it, I’m flat on my back staring up at sky. The man looks down at me, and suddenly his eyes get huge and he jumps down and breaks for the woods. I glance behind me to see Zeet staring fixedly at another bandit who flees after his companion. The arrows cease, and at least for the moment, we’re safe. Myra-Blyth took a beating. There are at least three arrows sticking out of her. But she’s tough! She barely even whimpers as I yank them out. Thankfully Zeet’s heal bot along with my psionics are able to plug the leaks. After a few minutes, the merchants come out of hiding, and the guards from the rest of the caravan come to see if we need any help. It’s so embarrassing. Sometimes I wonder why Dineen always picks us. She’s an Orber, it’s not like she’s stuck with us. I’m sure there are other more qualified Atoms out there. But then again, at least she knows we won’t turn on her. When you’re an Atom, that can be a rare thing. But is that all there is? Considering what I’ve put her through lately, now isn’t the time to ask why she keeps me around. Instead I figure it would be better to give her some space. I find a guard at the front of the caravan. His name is Jasom, and he’s been running this same route for years. After a bit of ribbing about our less than stellar mercenary skills, he told me some of what he knew about the Nin Research Center. He couldn’t tell me much about what it was for, but he did tell me how to get inside.
“It’s easy,” he explains “There’s a keypad next to a large window. Just put in the code, and you’re in.”
He even tells me what the code is. I’m glad he told me because Dineen refuses to let any of us go inside the Research Center.
“It should take me less than a day to get the override key,” she says. “Wait for me here. Naph, there are probably some old artifacts lying around, and Myra-Blythe, there are quite a few poisonous plants around here.”
“Wait a minute! Why can’t we go?” I demand.
“There’s too many security protocols. You’d just slow me down. Don’t worry I’ll be back soon.”
I know that I can get in without her, so I let it slide. If I follow right behind her, she’ll probably just shut me down. Besides even if I can get in I won’t get far if she’s right about the security. Instead I start wandering around the outside of the facility. If nothing else I can get a few hours to myself. I walk about halfway around the perimeter of the structure when I see a strange metal obelisk poking out from a field of zikrownium. I’m a bit creeped out. Zikrownium are tangled vines of beautiful blood red flowers. They often grow in fields where there have been many battles fought. Humans are superstitious about them. They believe they are planted by the ghosts of their dead. Naph says that’s stupid. The plants just take advantage of the extra nutrition from the decomposing bodies. I don’t know, but I do know that it can only mean one thing. Many humans are buried here. I make my way to the marker. The language is a little difficult to decipher, it says something about a plague that killed nearly everyone who contracted it. The symptoms are the same as the ones the Agnora suffered. I kneel down and brush the vines and dirt away. I find several flat stone markers with names. The field is huge. I wonder how many are buried here. I continue my way around the facility and find two more zirkrownium fields. They have more markers and names. Was the plague what the Research Center was built to research? What did that have to do with us? I hurry back to the others. When I explain to the others what I found, they all want to see for themselves. Naph is especially excited. Ever since he helped cure that little girl, he’s been obsessed with the plague. I’m not sure what the big deal is, the Agnora seemed to handle it fine once we were able to get their medicine.
Naph gleefully sets to work locating and studying the markers. We have to drag him back to the campfire to sleep. I’m starting to worry about Dineen. She said she would be back by sundown. I know she doesn’t want our help, but I swear if she’s not back by morning, I’m going after her.
Zeet shakes me awake. His expression tells me all I need to know.
“She’s not back yet, is she?”
Zeet shakes his head.
“That’s it!” I grumble. “I’m going in. I knew I shouldn’t have let her go alone.”
I think the others thought I was going to try and hack my way inside. I enjoyed their startled looks as I keyed in the access code.
“How’d you figure that out?” Naph demanded.
“Simple, that grey-haired driver Jasom told me. You’d be surprised what the old Atoms will say if you’re willing to let them talk long enough.”
When we touch our hands to the sensor, we are transported in new Atoms inside of the research center. There is a dead end to our left and a long corridor to our right. Naph ran down the dead end and ripped a circuit board off the wall. I’m not sure why, it’s not like he can take it back outside with us. I thought he was supposed to be the smart one. I forget about Naph when we got to the end of the corridor. Dineen is curled in a ball in the center of a huge room.
“I had no choice!” she sobs over and over.
“Dineen what’s wrong? No choice about what?”
I use my strongest calming pscionic, but it has no effect. She keeps babbling incoherently. Naph taps me on the shoulder and points to a massive screen above our heads. Two video clips play one after the other. The first clip shows a woman standing at the window of the Research Center. She is shaking her head and sobbing. The view shifts to hundreds of people with blood pouring from their eyes. They shriek in pain and fear demanding that the woman let them in. To do something—anything to help them.
“Please!” one woman wails, “You can’t leave us out here to die!”
“I’m sorry,” the woman sobs brokenly. “I have no choice!”
With that she turns down the hallway leaving the frantic mob to pound uselessly on the unyielding glass.
The next clip is calmer, but no less haunting. The same woman is in a large room filled with sleeping children. One little boy sits up in bed crying for his mother. The woman kneels next to the bed and puts her arms around him. He whimpers into her shoulder, and she murmurs soothingly into his ear.
We all stare in horrified fascination until Dineen’s keening cuts through the monitor’s spell.
“Come on! We have to get her out of here,” Zeet urges. He and Myra-Blythe grab Dineen’s arms and start dragging her towards the entrance.
I stare up at the screen. What did all of this have to do with Atoms? What did some disease from who knows how long ago have to do with us? Are we robots the ancients constructed to stockpile kedil? Are we ghosts? Or are we something else? I might never get another chance to find out.
“We’re so close!” I mutter in frustration. “I know the answers are here somewhere! If only we had more time.”
“Why do we have to leave now?” Naph asks too innocently. “You know how Dineen gets. It may be hours or even days before she comes around. You want to know where we come from. I want to find out more about the plague. It’s not like we’ll get a chance once she is back to normal.”
Zeet sees us talking and loses it.
“Can’t we just get outside so we can find something to calm her down! Come on Myra-Blythe! These two can stay here if they want, but Dineen needs us now.”
Naph shrugs and starts back down the corridor. I follow him halfway down the hallway, but Dineen’s pitiful wailing makes me turn around.
“Wait up!” I call to them.
I might not have a heart, but that doesn’t mean I’m heartless.