I can’t believe she told us – told us everything. She’s different now, I think…in more ways than just her name.
We were unable to wake up Bidi again. I wonder if we just put too much stress on him. He seemed to be unstable to begin with, and I’m sure that the lightning didn’t help much.
Dineen was still acting crazy, but she seemed to be improving each day. We tried to bring her back to reality, but there didn’t seem to be any change. She was nearing the end of her knitting materials, but there really wasn’t much for it. We’d just have to hope that she snapped out of her fits before she ran out. Although I wonder if she was worried that something like this might happen – I can’t believe how much yarn she packed! We could probably sell what she’s made and make a small fortune.
We decided to prioritize our efforts on opening the two remaining doors. Naph was able to get the door to the far left open. It was filled to the brim with living kedil plants. They were a lot larger than the kind we find in the wilderness. The kedil outside usually only grows to about 2 feet tall. This kedil was over six feet tall, and was so thick that we couldn’t see the other end of the room. Garden bots scurried everywhere, tending to the plants. The bots looked a bit like our healing bots, although perhaps a little bit sturdier.
M’rya-Blythe was adamant that we should not disturb the plants, so we all decided to focus on the last remaining door – the one to the control room. If one of us focused on removing the atoms from the hallway and placing them back at the entrance, the other three could focus on getting the door open. I volunteered to pull the atoms out, and the others focused on the door. We checked on Dineen occasionally, but didn’t move from her spot near the fire, the pile of knitted garments growing steadily. But it all ended up for naught – we didn’t make any progress, and the door stayed locked.
Naph pulled me aside that night, but he didn’t want me to tell anyone the details of the conversation. Since the recordings I make are fairly easy to get ahold of, I won’t detail it out here. But the next day negated everything we’d discussed anyway – Dineen finally awakened.
There was a clarity in her eyes that I’ve never seen before. It was as if some weight had been removed from her that normally held her back. She was still the lovable, grandmotherly Orber that we depend on…but she seemed more herself than ever.
“What happened? How did you get me out of the Research Facility?”
Jenna responded, “When we were in the caravan, another Atom told me how to get in. When you didn’t come back after you said you would, we went in after you…you were having one of your fits.”
“How long ago was that?”
Dineen’s eyes widened. “We have to leave. Now. If we hurry, we can still make it to the Caravan in time, and…”
Naph interrupted her. “I’m not going until you explain all of this, Dineen. Or, should I say, Nadine?”
“How do you know that name?” Dineen asked.
We told her about everything we’d learned from Bidi, and from our explorations of the Research Facility. Dineen didn’t react angrily as I expected her to, she simply nodded and listed to all we had to say. When we’d finished, she sat thoughtfully for a few moments, and then stood.
“Perhaps it’s best not to run from my past anymore. Yes, I was once called Nadine. I thought I was a different person, but perhaps not. Call me Nadine from now on.”
Why would Dineen…I mean, Nadine…want to change her name now? What’s she been running from? She’s always been somewhat of an enigma…but this revelation hasn’t really explained much more of her background.
“The plague has returned,” Nadine said. “There’s no denying that now. We have to do something before it spreads and kills everyone. Hopefully it didn’t spread beyond Agnora…but if it did, the people of Agnora, Durn, and Laaris are unprotected. We’re leaving now – we can stop in Laaris and tell…”
Naph interrupted Nadine’s planning. “No – I’m not leaving until you explain what’s going on. What are we? Why do the black pillars have names? Did you kill us?”
Nadine replied with fervor, “But people could be dying. There’s no time. I will explain what I can on the way back to the caravan.”
“I’m going with Dineen…er, Nadine,” I said. M’rya-Blythe and Jenna reluctantly agreed.
But Naph would not yield. “How can I trust you?”
Nadine seemed to take this quite seriously. She looked directly into Naph’s eyes. “I understand.” A moment passed before Nadine said something none of us were expecting. “What do you need to know?”
Naph was about as surprised as I was, but seemed to recover more quickly than the rest of us. “What’s going on – what are we? Why is this called a Research Facility?”
Nadine nodded, and sat back down. “When the plague first arrived, it spread quickly. The Atom Program, short for Automaton, was still being refined. It allowed a person to remotely control an Atom from one of the black columns that you saw within the Research Facility. Did you see the serial number in the black columns?”
Naph shook his head. Nadine got up and motioned for us to follow her. We went to the black pillar that Naph had been working on, and Nadine pulled back the panel and pointed to series of small letters to the far left side of the panel, faded and hardly visible. “That serial number is the Apples.”
“I thought you said it was an Atom’s Apple?”
Nadine shook her head. “No. It’s not Apple, it’s an acronym: A.P.L.S. It stands for Automaton Pilot Life Support.”
“So there’s someone in the pillar?”
“Yes. The APLS was only meant to house the pilot for short periods, perhaps a week or so. It keeps the body healthy, but eventually the human body becomes dependent on the APLS to survive. Once the person has been inside the APLS for approximately a year, it becomes very dangerous to remove them from – they’ll die.”
Jenna spoke up, “So we’re in pillars somewhere? Where?”
Nadine shook her head. “I…I don’t remember. It’s been hundreds of years, and I’ve been all over the world in that time.”
“What is the Control Room used for?” Naph demanded.
“It oversees the administration of the Research Facility. Most of it isn’t helpful right now, but that’s where I got the Override Key.”
Jenna was relieved. “I’m glad to hear you got it…we weren’t sure that you’d gotten it.”
“Me too. It takes a while to get past all the security. The only other thing that’s in there that’s of any significance is…” Nadine stopped for a moment, as if she was steeling herself. In a strained voice, she finished, “…my APLS.”
Then she changed the subject. “Once the plague had done it’s ravaging, there wasn’t much left that the Orbers could do. Many of them did what they pleased, and the world has become a sad and hostile place because of it. But some of us still want to fight for the cause we originally committed ourselves to – saving lives from the plague. If we don’t go back now, many lives could be lost.” She turned to Naph, speaking gently. “Is that enough for you to come with me? I will explain more on the path.”
Naph considered her for nearly a minute, then nodded.
“Good. Let’s get moving. If we leave now, we should make it in time to meet the caravan.”
Less than an hour later, we finished packing and were travelling once again. We pelted Dineen…I mean Nadine, with questions. I’ll try to catalog what she has told us.
Apparently there are people within the Arcos – the reason why we put the kedil into the access port is so that they have something to eat, and it can be stored up in case the plague returns. Laaris doesn’t have large stores of kedil, but there are a few Atoms left that remember the plague. Dineen…augh, Nadine!... will warn them that the plague is definitely back, and they should send harvesters to the Research Facility to gather the kedil we found in case the plague returns. It may be their only hope.
We need to return to the Arco, repair the breach to protect the people inside, and then find out if the plague spread to Durn or is running rampant in Agnora. If it is, we need to deliver some of the kedil in the Arco to them.
Nadine doesn’t remember where she found any of us, but apparently we’ve grown on her. She says that we are treasures to her. In some cases, the only available APLS were prototypes that had some odd side effects. That’s why Naph looks so strange – almost like a cross between an Atom and a human, and why he has such difficulty with learning psionics. The technology was more refined in later versions…but when the plague hit, every APLS was used, even the prototypes.
The Arcos were nearly self-sufficient when the plague first appeared, but the Atom technology was still being developed. There was a lot of effort placed on the APLS technology because keeping the pilot alive was of utmost importance, but less time had been spent on ensuring that the signals and receivers within the Atoms themselves was solid. That’s why Atoms seem to collapse at random times – the signal from the APLS is interrupted, or the Atom cannot receive the signal.
The Research Facility was transformed into an emergency shelter for children from nearby settlements, since the Arcos in the Nin region are all in the south. Dineen…I mean Nadine…was responsible for overseeing their protection. She kept the children alive for several years, but eventually her only recourse was to place them in the APLS. Bidi was one of the children.
Nadine was still talking when we arrived at the arranged meeting point with the Pod, but to our dismay, we saw deep ruts that indicated that they’d already passed by. Nadine called us all over. “This is bad. Without the protection of the Pod, we will be at the mercy of bandits and slavers along the route. The slavers are especially dangerous – if they have an Orber with them, they can take control of you, and you lose the ability to make most decisions for your Atom. The good news is that, as long as I am still free, I can call you into a separate Atom, and you’ll only lose your equipment that is not made of magnet stones.”
“I still need to warn the Atoms in Laaris that the plague has reappeared…but if we’re captured, a lot more people could die needlessly. I know of a longer path through the desert that will avoid the possibility that we run into bandits and slavers, but that will slow us down, and we won’t be able to warn Laaris. There’s no way to tell if the Pod passed by a few minutes or several days ago.”
The others agreed that we should simply move as quickly as we could – perhaps we could catch up with the Pod, and all of this would be a moot point. But a day later, we were all exhausted, and we didn’t find the Pod.
We took a vote, and decided that the risk of being captured was worth the benefit of warning Laaris of the plague. Thankfully, since Atoms walk this path often, the signals were strong enough that we didn’t have to use the Arm. I volunteered to scout ahead using my invisibility and scare away anyone near the trail with my fear psionics.
For the next four days I walked alone. I managed to scare away several people and atoms, and we arrived safely at Laaris. The time alone gave me an opportunity to reflect on everything Dineen…oh, Nadine, had told us about ourselves and why we are the way we are. I always knew that Atoms weren’t worth any less than humans…I mean, I’ve tried to convince all of my fellow Atoms of that for as long as I can remember. But I never realized why – it’s because we are human. And now we have some sort of odd immortality that we can use to do good or evil…to work towards the betterment of everyone, or live to our selfish ways. And yet we’re tied to the will of our Orber, and are often steered and directed by them because they have power over us.
I’m glad Dineen, er, Nadine, picked me. I love her too, and I’m thankful for the times I have spent with her. Maybe we can do good work with the knowledge we’ve gained. We can save lives, convince dragons to help us cure the plague, and show the world’s humans that we will fight for their lives, because we are human too.