I awaken the next morning to find Dineen and Naph standing over Daive’s Atom. He stopped working during the night, and now Dineen can’t reboot him. It figures, the one person I wouldn’t mind being stuck within a dozen feet of for the next week…Oh, well, it was nice while it lasted. Dineen says we only have an hour or so before we have to leave the pillar, and I intend to get as much peace and quiet as I can before we go. Naph wants to find more rocks to hurl, and that gives me the perfect excuse. It’s pretty easy to slip away from Naph. Once he’s focused on something, nothing short of an earthquake will catch his attention. I spend a wonderful half an hour lost in my own thoughts-then a panicked few minutes of being actually lost. Then, at least, according to the sun’s height, I spend another half day shut down with everyone looking for me. I wake up to see the others standing over me. Dineen’s expression switches back and forth between relief and annoyance.
I blush furiously.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get out of range. I just needed some time to myself, and then I got lost…” I trail off waiting for the lecture I’m sure will come. The silence is getting uncomfortable when Dineen shrugs resignedly.
“I can definitely understand the need to get away from some people,” she mutters.
Everyone chuckles, and even she cracks a wry smile.
“Okay,’ she says, “We don’t have much daylight left. It’s more dangerous to travel at night, but time is of the essence. Let’s take a vote.”
Since it was my fault we were behind in the first place, I vote for moving on, but Zeet and Myra-Blythe are nervous about being attacked after dark. In the end, we compromise. We agree to travel until midnight and then make camp. It’s the right decision to make. Zeet is able to use the heal bot he kept to fix the rest of our dents and dings, and we are all able to catch a few hours sleep. Well, everyone but Naph that is. He wakes us up just as the first rays of light peak over the horizon.
“I did it!” he shouts bouncing up and down like the little kid he resembles.
“Did what, Sugar?” Dineen murmurs sleepily.
“I took the bot apart and got it back together. It works!”
“That’s great!” Dineen responds with more enthusiasm than I can muster so early in the morning. “I told you that you have a knack for tinkering.”
Dineen reaches up from her sleepsack and ruffles his hair. Sometimes she really does seem like a grandma. The grandma of a weird weapon-bearing band of misfits, but a grandma nonetheless.
It takes us another three days to make it to the outskirts of Laaris. The sight takes my breath away. The city is enormous. Buildings tower over us, the babble of a thousand voices surrounds us and smells I couldn’t begin to name hang in the warm stale air. I try to suppress my excitement. Someone around here must know more about the Arco and the research center than Dineen is willing to tell us.
“Stay close,” Dineen warns. “We’re not here to see the sights. We’re only staying long enough to locate a caravan that’s passing close to the research center.”
But she’s too late. Zeet is already gone. I should’ve known he’d run off the way he was muttering about Dineen’s black market mafia contacts. I’ve got to find him soon before he wrecks any chance of getting away from Dineen later. Thankfully, I’m able to catch him before he gets too far.
“Come on!” I tell him. “Dineen and the others are waiting!’’
“Sorry, I didn’t notice that you weren’t all behind me,” he explained.
“I want to explore the city as much as you do,” I tell him, “but Dineen is already looking for you. We need to wait until tonight. Besides underground mafia contacts don’t just hang around in broad daylight. You’ll have better luck after dark.”
This seems to satisfy him, and we wait for Dineen and the others to catch up to us. When Dineen finds us, she curtly reiterates that we are not here for anything other than finding a caravan that will get us close to the research facility. After an hour or so of threading our way through the narrow streets, Dineen ducks into an alley and passes through the doorway of a squat beige building. The sign in the foyer says the “Pod.” There is a waiting area to the left of a short hallway. There’s nothing in it except a few sagging chairs, some faded posters, and a spindly looking potted plant that has clearly seen better days.
“Don’t touch anything,” Dineen orders, “I’ll be back soon.”
There’s nothing to do but wait. Apparently, Zeet has recruited Myra-Blythe for his underworld expedition. They start blinking in and out of sight as Zeet tries to teach her invisibility psionics in preparation. It’s going to be even harder for three of us to sneak out, but there’s no going back now. I glance quickly at Naph, but he’s yodeling to himself and paying absolutely no attention to the spectacle in front of him. After a while, I get bored and start practicing my illumination psionic. Soon I notice that when I cast it at just the right time, Zeet seems to vanish for a few seconds longer. I hope no one from the caravan can see us. Between the bright flashes, yodeling, and Zeet and Myra-Blythe popping merrily out of existence, we seem more like circus performers than bodyguards. Thankfully, we hear Dineen coming back down the hall and quickly settle down. Dineen is pleased with the contract she’s signed.
“We’ll be leaving with the caravan in the morning. In the meantime we could all use a good night’s sleep. There’s a barracks nearby where we can stay for the evening. We barely make it to there before Zeet starts babbling on about all he wants to do and see in Laaris. I shoot him a glare willing him to shut up already, but that only makes it worse. He starts talking about how we can use his invisibility psionic to sneak out right under Dineen’s nose.
“She won’t even suspect a thing,” he says gleefully.
I cringe as Dineen reaches up from behind and quickly keys in a code. Zeet’s Atom thunks to the floor as he shuts down. Dineen doesn’t say anything. She only gives Myra-Blythe and I a long hard stare before settling down on her cot. Myra-Blythe shrugs and goes to bed too. But I’m not willing to give up so easily. I wait in the darkness until I can hear the soft wuffling of Dineen’s snores from across the room. I creep carefully to the door. I am just about to close it behind me when I hear Naph’s whisper.
“Where are you going?”
“Shhh!” I hiss. “I’m going out.”
“But Dineen said--”
I think quickly.
“I’m going to do some research. You can come with me if you want. You’re good at that kind of thing.”
Naph eagerly follows me out into the streets. It’s actually kind of a relief to not have to go alone. Maybe I can get him to do most of the talking. For as weird a guy as he is, most Atoms and even some humans seem to take to him. It doesn’t take long before we find out first taste of Laaris nightlife. There is a well-lit tavern only a few blocks from the barracks where we’ve been staying. The music blaring from inside is deafening. There are more humans than I’ve ever seen milling around the place. Suddenly, I can’t move. I’m completely petrified. Naph walks through the swinging wooden doors and looks back at me.
“Aren’t you coming?” he asks curiously.
“No, no that’s okay. I know you can handle it.” I manage to squeak out. “Let me know what you find out!”
Naph shrugs, and enters the bar. Soon he has a whole group of both Atoms and humans gathered around him. Although he’s getting drunker every minute, I can’t bring myself to go in after him. Instead I huddle by the door cursing myself for sneaking out in the first place. Naph, on the other hand, is having the time of his life. His high-pitched drunken warbling can be heard halfway down the block. At dawn the bartenders drag him out by his arms and drop him in the dust at my feet.
“Looks like your boyfriend’s had one too many,” they laugh. “Better get him home to sober up!”
“Research is fun!” he slurs. “I’ll help you do more research anytime!”
I ignore the patrons’ laughter and fling him over my shoulder. I shudder at the thought of facing Dineen. She’s going to kill me. But there’s no way I can sober him up on my own.
“We’re gonna be in soooo much trouble…” Naph chants in a drunken sing-song. “But it was sooo worth it! I had soooo much fun! You’re my new best friend! You know that? My bestest friend ever!”
With friends like these…