Dineen doesn’t show any signs of recognizing Bidi. Or anyone else for that matter. She goes right back to her knitting as if nothing had happened. I’m not sure how long I stand there staring at her. My thoughts are spinning as fast as her frantic needles. How is Bidi still alive after all these years? Is he still alive? Is he some kind of ghost? What did Nadine do to him? Did she do the same thing to us? I think about the Dreams I’ve had ever since I can remember. My parents—were they part of the mob pounding on the glass? Is there a pillar somewhere with Lea’s name on it? With mine? If Dineen is really Nadine, why doesn’t she look anything like the woman in the video? Why didn’t she tell us the truth when she saw the plague was in Agnora? So many questions, and as usual, no good way to get any answers.
Naph tries to examine Bidi’s Atom, but ends up completely destroying it. Myra-Blythe continues to comfort Dineen, but she only succeeds in easing her into a fitful slumber. Zeet is sitting with both feet on a rock facing north and muttering to himself about kedil and Arcos and the end of the world. Naph seems to have figured out more of what’s going on than anyone else. I know I’ll probably regret it, but I ask anyway.
“Do you really think Dineen is Nadine? Did she kill all those kids to save them from the plague? Do you think she killed us too?”
Naph’s reply is as blunt as always.
“There aren’t enough pillars here to account for all the Atoms we know exist. It’s just as likely that the children here were put in pillars to save them from the plague and we were built to stockpile kedil for when the plague returned.”
His words hit me like a punch to the gut. At first, I’m not sure why. It’s not like I ever wanted to be human. They think they’re so much better than us, but I don’t see why. We might be glitchy but we don’t age. We don’t get sick and die. I think it’s because of my Dreams. The idea that they could really be memories, that I was someone, with a family who loved me. That I meant something to someone even once upon a time. That I’m not just an overgrown siln like the humans believe. As tragic as Bidi’s story is, and as much as the thought of Dineen killing children to save them freaks me out, it also gives me a hope I’ve never had before. I refuse to let Naph take it away from me.
“Dineen’s the only one who knows the truth. We have to get her to snap out of it. If we take her back to Tern in this state, he’ll wipe all of her memories clean again. If everything Bidi told us is true, no wonder she’s reacting like this. I don’t even want to think about it. Maybe if we tell her that we know everything, and that we don’t blame her she’ll come around. It’s not like she had a choice. At least she was able to save some of us.”
“I doubt she’ll care what we think. We’re not what she’s haunted by. Any mention of this place and what happened will only make things worse.”
”But we have to do something!” I cry in frustration.
“I intend to,” he replies calmly.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to open the last door.”
With that he goes back into the facility. I go sit by Dineen and Myra-Blythe. Myra-Blythe seems almost sick with worry over Dineen. I’m starting to share the feeling. Dineen’s fits have never lasted this long before. What if she doesn’t come out of it? What if Tern can’t or won’t fix her? What would I do without her? I push the emotions aside. Panicking isn’t going to solve anything. Instead I sit quietly at Dineen’s side untangling the careless knots in her yarn. I wish I could untangle the snarls in her mind as easily.
A few hours later, Naph announces that he’s opened the last door. Behind the door lies an entire forest of kedil! These aren’t the squat scrawny weeds that we harvest in the wild. These plants are nearly as tall as I am. They are thick and lush and cover every inch of their enormous greenhouse. Bots that are slightly larger heal bots skitter over the plants. Naph tries to catch one, but they are way too fast for him.
“Don’t touch the plants! Leave them alone!” Myra-Blythe shouts.
We all stare at her.
“Don’t touch the kedil,” she repeats.
She’s probably right. Dineen mentioned security protocols. There’s probably some sort of defense system in place to protect the plants. Besides, with the Arco malfunctioning, all the kedil in the world won’t do us any good.
We reluctantly leave the greenhouse and head back outside. The only door left to unlock is the Control Room. Maybe we can find a way to fix Dineen in there or at least determine whether she obtained the override key. By now it is after sundown. We decide to leave the Control Room for the next morning. Halfway through my watch, Dineen wakes long enough to recognize me and call my name, but she quickly slips back into incoherent babbling. If she doesn’t return to her normal self soon, we will have to leave anyway. We can’t risk missing the caravan. We spend the whole next day trying to unlock the control room with no luck. We return to the campfire frustrated and discouraged. The rhythmic clacking of Dineen’s knitting finally lulls me to sleep.
When I awaken near sunrise, the first thing I notice is that Dineen is awake, but her hands are still. The others are awake too. We all gather around Dineen, holding our breath. She stares at us for a few minutes, and a light dawns in her eyes. There’s something different about her now. She seems more herself than she’s been in a long time.
“What happened?” she asks urgently.
“The old Atom in the caravan told me the code,” I explain. “When you didn’t come out we went in after you. You were having one of your fits.”
When Dineen hugs me I’m afraid she’s going all maudlin again, but there’s nothing in her expression but relief and gratitude.
She quickly gets down to business.
“How long ago was that?”
“That was four days ago,” I tell her.
Dineen’s eyes grow wide.
“We have to leave! Now! If we hurry, we can still make the caravan in time!”
She starts to gather her things, but she stops when we don’t follow.
“What are you waiting for?” she demands.
“We’re not going anywhere Dineen. Or should I call you Nadine?” Naph says.
Dineen turns around slowly.
“How do you know that name?” she asks cautiously.
We explain about the graves, the pillars, and the disturbing videos with the strange woman. We explain how we opened the doors to find the control room and the greenhouse full of kedil. Finally, we explain about Bidi, what told us, the ancient room full of children’s cots, and how he recognized her as Nadine. She listens calmly without interrupting. She shows no signs of shutting down again. After a moment’s silence, she sighs.
“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.”
So it’s true. I glance at Naph, but I can’t read his expression. I know he suspected all along, but now that he knows for certain…
Dineen doesn’t notice at first. She starts packing up her stuff again.
“The plague has returned,” Dineen says. “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’s eyes are hard, but his chin is trembling. He swallows hard.
“I will not leave this place until you tell me what’s going on. Did you kill the children here? Did you kill Bidi?”
I blurt out, “Did you kill us too?”
Dineen’s voice held equal measures of pleading and pain.
“But people could be dying. There’s no time! I will explain what I can on the way to the caravan.”
“How can I trust you?” Naph demands angrily.
I waiver torn between the urgency in Dineen’s plea, and the desperate need to know finally, once and for all what is going on. I strap on my pack, but Naph stays frozen in place. His eyes are locked on Dineen. Minutes pass by with no end to the standoff.
“I understand,” Dineen says finally. “What do you need to know?”
“What’s going on? What are we? Why is this called a Research Facility?”
Nadine nods, and sits 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 shakes his head. Nadine gets up and motions for us to follow her. We go to the black pillar that Naph had been working on, and Nadine pulls back the panel and points to a 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?” Zeet says, confused.
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.”
“So we’re all in pillars somewhere?” I ask excitedly. “Where?”
Maybe Lea’s there too! Maybe I’m not alone after all.
Nadine shakes her head. “I…I don’t remember. It’s been hundreds of years, and I’ve been all over the world in that time.”
Before I can swallow my disappointment, Naph asks another question.
“What is the Control Room used for?”
“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.”
“I’m glad to hear you got it,” I say relieved. “We weren’t sure if you had, and we couldn’t get in ourselves.”
“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 stops for a moment, as if she’s steeling herself. In a strained voice, she finishes, “…my APLS.”
Then she changes 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 turns to Naph, speaking gently. “Is that enough for you to come with me? I will explain more on the path.”
Naph nods, and we quickly pack the rest of our things, but it’s too late. The caravan has already left. Myra-Blythe examines the ruts the caravan left behind.
“There’s no way of telling when they left,” she tells us. “It could’ve been hours or days ago.”
“This is bad,” Dineen tells us. “Without the protection of the caravan, we’re vulnerable to bandits and slavers along the way. If the slavers have Orbers with them it’s even worse. Some Orbers use their abilities to enslave other Atoms. They can attach a device to your Atom and take it over. As long as I’m free I can simply call you into another Atom, but if they capture me…”
I shudder. I guess I never realized how lucky we were to have Dineen. The thought of being enslaved forever…let’s just say in some ways being mortal would have its advantages. Dineen looks at all of us and sighs.
“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.”
Yes because that’s the only problem with us being captured.
“I know of a longer path through the desert that will avoid the possibility that we run into bandits and slavers, “ Dineen continues, “but that will slow us down, and we won’t be able to warn Laaris.”
The idea of being enslaved is terrifying, but the technology that created Atoms is already starting to break down. As far as I know, there’s no way to create new ones. We are the humans’ only chance. Dineen told us that kedil only grows in this part of the world. When the plague struck, there were fierce wars fought over it. The Atoms are already battling over it now. If the humans start fighting Atoms for kedil…
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” I say, “but it’s not worth the risk. Let’s go. If we can hurry, maybe we can catch up to the caravan, and all of this will be a moot point.”
We run for a solid hour before we give up. The caravan must be long gone. Zeet scouts ahead and uses his invisibility and fear psioncs to scare any enemies off of our path. Thankfully, we don’t run into any. Either we’re very lucky or Zeet’s a bigger asset to our group than I’ve ever given him credit for. To my surprise, Dineen keeps her word about telling us more
She explains that the Arcos house more pillars along with stockpiles of kedil. Every available Atom had been used to save as many humans as possible. The chaos after the plague made it impossible to release people from the pillars before they became dependent on them. The breach in our Arco will kill the people in the pillars if Dineen doesn’t seal it in time. If the plague has spread beyond Agnora, the kedil in the Arco will be needed to cure the humans before disease gets completely out of control.
Dineen has been suffering from her fits for quite a while now. Each time she loses a little more memory. I’m sure we’ve all thought of it, but Naph is the one who brings it up.
“You should write all this stuff down,” Naph tells her. That way if anything happens to you all this information won’t be lost. Otherwise what will happen when you’re gone?”
Dineen shrugs. “I haven’t really thought about it. Anything I write down will eventually rot away. I am doing what I can while I’m here.”
I’m more concerned about the immediate future.
“You’re the only Orber we have,” I say. “If something happens to you, we’re stuck with Tern. Can’t you teach Naph how or something?”
Not that the thought of Naph as our Orber was that comforting, but it’d be better than Tern.
“Naph doesn’t have the right skill set. I can try to find another Orber when we get to Laaris, but I can’t promise anything,” Dineen says after a moment.
“How do you think Tern’s doing?” I wonder aloud.
“I don’t want to talk about Tern,” Dineen snaps.
Something about the way she answers bothers me. It might just be that she’s shutting us out again, but I don’t think so. I start to wonder why Dineen and Tern have such a rocky relationship. And why does Tern only wake up when Dineen is in trouble? I remember Tern calling us puppets. Does Dineen have some power over him besides being his Orber? Does she hold that same power over us? I can’t bring myself to ask her. Instead I ask her what I’ve been wanting to ask forever.
“Why did you pick us?”
Her face softens as she beams at us.
“I’ve chosen many Atoms over the centuries to help me guard the Arco,” replies. “I’ve found them in all sorts of places. Most only stay for a little while. But you all have grown on me. I’ve truly come to treasure you. You aren’t necessarily the best fighters, but each one of you is special in your own way.”
She glances fondly at Naph.
“You were one of the first prototype Atoms,” she tells him. “The imprinting process didn’t quite go as planned, but your intelligence and spirit weren’t dimmed in the slightest.”
She looks at Zeet. “Your talent for strategy is the best I’ve seen, and you’re a natural leader. But what I love most is your imagination. You have such a gift for…storytelling.”
Zeet seems somewhat confused by the compliment, but happy nonetheless.
“Myra-Blythe, you may be quiet, but I love how you catch every detail of what’s going on around you.”
Myra-Blythe only nods and blushes. Finally, Dineen turns to me.
“Sometimes you let your curiosity get the best of you, but I know that I can always count on you. You have a loyal heart, and that’s a rare thing in this world. ”
“Nadine,” she corrects gently, but firmly. “My name is Nadine.”
I try, but I just can’t call her Nadine. Nadine is a pale, haunted lady on an ancient video. A woman forced to make choices I don’t even want to contemplate. She’s not the kindly old Orber who’s calmed our nightmares, knitted us sweaters, and watched over us all of these years.
“Do you mind if I call you Grandma instead?”
She gives me a gentle hug.
“Sugar, I would love it!”
Zeet brings out a small wooden drum from the storr. He beats a soft rhythm to a song I’ve never heard.
“This one is by Evalis,” he tells us.
The song is upbeat and catchy for being written by an imaginary dead guy. I find myself singing along. We really shouldn’t be making so much noise with the threat of bandits and slavers around, but I can’t help it. I feel a peace and a joy that I’ve never felt outside of my Dreams. I am loved. I matter. I have a family, however strange a family it may be. Not even Tern’s jab about being puppets bothers me now. I can’t be a slave if I’m following Gram willingly. I still don’t quite see myself as human, but now I know for sure that I’m not some soulless, heartless mecha either. Whether they deserve it, or even want it, the humans need our help. And I owe it to Gram to at least try…