“What happened between you and Tern? He’s an Orber too isn’t he? What did he do to make you--”
“We have more pressing things to worry about right now,” is Dineen’s only answer. I suppose she’s right. We are closing in on the city gate.
“Follow me, and stay close,” Dineen warns.
Dineen threads through the narrow alleyways of Laaris until I’m completely lost. She stops few times to ask directions of a few shop keepers. I’m confused. We have to warn everyone. Why aren’t we going to the city council? Instead she leads us to three story building of unadorned stone.
“Stay here, I’ll be right back,” Dineen tells us.
“Can’t we come too?” I plead. I haven’t come this far to be left out again.
Dineen shrugs and starts up the stairs. Dineen stops at the office of an Atom named Judge A1. The Judge stands up from behind his desk as we enter the room. His Atom is pristine. There isn’t so much as a scuff mark on its gleaming surface. Judge A1’s form is elderly, even older than Dineen, with a flowing white beard and a thinning hairline.
Judge A1’s voice is deep but gentle. “Greetings, Nadine. It has been some time."
Dineen nods. It still feels weird to hear that name.
“It has, Judge. It’s good to see you.”
“Likewise. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Dineen grimaces, “Nothing that I would call pleasurable. The plague is back, sir. South of here, near the Arcos, it’s spreading around a nomadic tribe called Agnora. We happened to be passing through, and obtained for them some curative distilled from Kedil. We were at the Research…”
Judge A1 holds up his hand to stop Dineen midsentence.
“What is the meaning of this, Nadine? To speak so blatantly of the plague in front of the uninitiated…there are protocols in place for their protection and ours!”
I’ve had about enough of all this secrecy. What gives them the right to keep all this from us? Before I can object, Dineen speaks up.
“I understand, Judge. But the time for caution is over. Our hope of never reawakening the plague has been snuffed out.”
“Do you have proof?”
“Only our word. We visited the Research Facility in the north to obtain the override key for Nin Arco C, which needs repairs. My hope was that I had misread the signs…but I and my team have been doing research on the plague. The symptoms are unmistakably the same as the original plague. It’s returned.”
I expect him to order us out of the room, but instead he nods and keys in commands at his terminal.
“Did you see any evidence of its reemergence in the north?”
Nadine shook her head. “Then I will have trusted Atoms monitor all traffic into Laaris, especially from the south. Anyone with symptoms will immediately be quarantined.”
“There’s also a store of Kedil that my team uncovered at the Research Facility,“ Dineen informed him. “I suggest sending harvesters now – if they move quickly, they should be able to return in only a few days with enough Kedil to refine.”
Judge A1 finished keying commands, and closed the terminal. “Thank you, Nadine. I will do so.”
He goes back to gazing at his terminal, and we turn to leave.
“Umm…Judge?” It’s Zeet.
Please don’t ask him about the Dragons in the Arco or Evalis, or black market connections! For once just don’t be Zeet!
“We are travelling back south to check on the other human settlements…our team was almost killed by conios on our trip to the Research Facility, and it’s important that we move quickly.”
I sigh with relief.
“Then take these with my blessing,” the judge answers. He reaches into his drawer and hands Dineen some paperwork.
Naph starts to open his mouth, but Dineen drags him back down the hallway.
“Nadine!” Naph whined. “He could have helped us more!”
“He already helped us more than you know.” she grinned and slapped Zeet on the back.
“Everybody follow me!”
Zeet may be crazy, but this time it paid off. The paperwork from Judge A1 was for free tech from Naahman, one of the best magnet smiths in the city. Zeet and Myra Blythe get new weaponry, and I get the best armor I’ve ever owned. Naph goes into his spiel about his magnet stone retriever. Amazingly, the smith knew what Naph was blathering about. Naph upended his knapsack on the table. Gears and springs rolled everywhere. Gram snatched up a small grey bag. She poured a small amount of what looked like glittery dust into her hand. Naahman looked from Naph to Gram with disgust and disbelief.
“So Naph,” she asks casually, “have you remembered to put this on your food every night like I asked?”
Naph completely misses the undercurrents in the room. I have a feeling he’s going to regret this, but it’s not my problem.
“Of course,” he huffed. “I have an eidetic memory! Even in my dreams I—“
Naph squeaks as Gram yanks him out of the shop by his arm. Over the next few minutes we hear a series of groans and high pitched shrieks coming from the alley. Whatever Gram is doing can’t be pleasant. Zeet and Myra Blythe go to investigate. Against my better judgement, I follow them.
“Naph stop squirming!” Gram fusses. “This isn’t exactly fun for me either.”
Naph is bent over Gram’s knee and she has his hand up his—oh how I wish I could unsee it.
“All I can say is that you better wash your hands after this!” I told Gram.
The rest of us go back inside. Gram and Naph return a few minutes later. Naph dumps some raw magnet stone on the table. Gram gives me a look as she washes up at the sink.
No way! Not for all the magnet stones in the world!
Naph forgets his discomfort as he refines the raw stones and begins working on his invention. Naahman keeps looking between Naph and Gram, and I can tell his mind isn’t on his work. He ends up breaking Naph’s power supply beyond repair. After all he’s been through, I’m sure Naph is going to murder him.
“Please accept my apologies!” Naahman says quickly after the power coupling snaps for the second time.
“Do you have any idea ANY IDEA what I’ve been through trying to make this thing?!” Naph’s eyes bug out of his head and his voice goes up an octave. He’s shaking with rage. Naahman backs away nervously.
“Look, I’m sorry! I really am! Tell you what. You give me just a few more days and—“
“We don’t have a few more days,” Gram interrupts.
Naph takes a step towards the smith, and he squeaks with fright. Naahman reaches behind him and picks up a blueprint form the table.
“Here! I’ve been working on these prototypes for months. Take your pick!”
Naph calms down as he looks over the designs. He chooses the one that looks like a miniature portable rock thrower. Naahman brings the gadget out of his work room. It doesn’t look impressive.
“I call it a gun,” the smith says proudly. “If it works it could revolutionize warfare as we know it.”
“What do you mean, ‘if it works’?” Naph demands. He puts the gun up to his shoulder.
We all dive to the floor when Naph pulls the trigger. Everyone but Naahman that is. He turns pale as the suit of armor right next to him crashes to the ground. He shakily picks up the armor. There is a large jagged hole straight through the breast plate. Naph grins.
“Thank you, this will do nicely.”
With that he walks out. Gram squeezes Naahman’s arm.
“I’m sorry. You know how kids are.”
“Y-yeah…kids…don’t even worry about it…”
We left Laaris soon afterwards. After we warned Judge A-1 there really wasn’t anything more we could do. Besides, we still had to repair the Arco. More days of being forced to crowd around that blasted Arm. Just when I think I can’t stand one more minute, Naph speaks up.
“Nadine, I think the pillar’s working!”
We stop, and Gram frowns in concentration.
“I think you’re right…” she mutters. She doesn’t look happy. How could she not be happy?
Before she can even answer I dart ahead. Unfortunately, I’m so eager to get away that I trip over a rock and land flat on my face.
“I guess it isn’t working,” Zeet says.
“No,” I moan, “it’s working. I’m just a klutz.”
Now Gram definitely looks worried. We continue to the pillar in silence. When we get there, Gram popped open the control panel.
“The pillar is definitely working,” Gram tells us. If anything she seems more concerned than before.
“What’s wrong?” Zeet asks.
Gram sighs. “I think I know what’s going on…it’s time for me to tell you about Tern.”
Tern was the child who was crying in the video at the Research Facility. His parents were part of the mob outside the facility. The people that Nadine couldn’t save. Nadine looked after the children in the Research Facility for years. They were quarantined from the Plague, but lack of food and other disease still took its toll. One by one she placed the children in the pillars to save their lives. Tern showed promise as a technologer, so Dineen trained him up as an Orber. It was her plan to save the final pillar for Tern so that he could take care of the children after her death. But Tern blamed Nadine for his parents’ deaths. He figured out how to escape the Research Facility and ran away. Nadine placed herself in the final pillar and went after him. By the time she found him, Tern had found another pillar in our Arco, and put himself in it. Tern tried to kill Nadine. Nadine was able to defeat him and fit him with a restraining bolt. Unfortunately, Tern damaged Nadine’s connection to her pillar. That’s why she goes crazy sometimes and has to be reset. By the time Nadine was able to return to the Research Facility, it was too late for her to be able to leave the pillar.
“But what does that have to do with this pillar?” Naph asks.
“I think we fixed it the last time we came through. Remember the repair bots?”
“But that’s a good thing…isn’t it?” I ask.
“With the pillar working again Tern has direct access to the Research Facility,” Gram explains. “He attacked me in the Control Room, and when he couldn’t kill me, he turned on the videos to put me into a fit. Since he didn’t appear to reset me, he must no longer be controlled by the restraining bolt.”
Gram stares into the fire for a long time.
“He wants to kill me,” she says finally. “He knows we have to come back to repair the Arco. He’ll be waiting for me.”
“So what now?” I ask.
“He’ll challenge me to an Orber Battle.”
“What’s an Orber Battle involve?” Zeet asks.
“In an Orber battle, two Orbers face each other alone. All Atoms in the vicinity shut down. Then each Orber summons as many Atoms as he can to fight for him. The winning Orber…places a restraining bolt on the loser.”
“That’s crazy!” I shout. “Tern already tried to kill you once. What makes you think he’d even honor an Orber Battle? And even if he did, who are you going to summon? You haven’t been able to summon Volara or even Yafeth in months. I’m good, but I’m not that good.”
“Hey what are you trying to say?” Myra Blythe growls indignantly.
“No, Jenna’s right,” Zeet replied. “I don’t know if we could win an Orber Battle. If we lose, there won’t be anyone to repair the Arco.”
It took some convincing, but Gram agreed that an Orber Battle would be our last resort. In the meantime, we had to check with the Agnora to see if they were still affected by the plague. When we find the Agnora, Vitna looks even older than she had the last time we’d seen her. The good news is that the plague has been wiped out among them. The bad news is that the plague has spread to Durn.
“Can you help us?” Gram asks.
“I cannot risk my people,” Vitna responds. “I already sent Empa with what little cure we had left. However, my people can train you in any skills you lack.”
Gram gave us two days to train. I spent the time improving my axe skills. Arden drills me from the moment I walk into his tent until Gram drags me off of the practice range the morning of our third day.
“We have to hurry,” Gram says. “There’s no more time.” As we made our final march back to the Arco, Gram is solemn. “Tern doesn’t have your APLS,” Gram tells us. “If he defeats me, you must complete our mission.”
”It won’t come to that,” I say with more confidence than I feel. We’d settled on ambushing Tern. He knows we’re coming, but he doesn’t know when. Zeet would use his recon skills to let us know who we were dealing with. When we get close to the Arco, Zeet vanishes. He returns a few minutes later. Things aren’t as bad as I feared. Tern doesn’t have an army. There’s only five of them including Tern. We decide to split up. I would take the left and protect Gram; Naph, Myra Blythe, and Zeet took the other.
The battle is over almost before it begins. The only bad moment is when Gram trips over a root and falls right out into the open. We are able to take Tern out right away. I’d like to take the credit for it, but Naph’s new toy takes him out before I can land more than one blow. Myra Blythe completely loses it. She keeps taking shots even after Tern’s Atom’s surrender.
“Myra Blythe! I said stand down!” Gram orders sternly.
Myra Blythe pays her no attention. In the end Zeet has to tackle her. After everything is over, Gram runs over to one of the downed Atoms and reboots her. The mage immediately gives Gram a hug.
“Dineen!” she cries. “I’m so sorry! We didn’t have any choice. Tern said he’d shut our Atoms down for good if we didn’t do what he said!”
Gram pats her arm. “Don’t worry about it, Sugar. It’s over now.”
Dineen tells the archer and the knight to watch over the shredded remains of Tern’s Atom.
“Everyone else take all the kedil you can carry and head to Durn. Find Empa and help her. I’ll stay here and repair the Arco.
I’m so used to following Gram’s orders that we are halfway to Durn before I have a chance to think. There’s every reason to think we’ll be able to stop the plague. But when it’s over, what then? Do we go back to guarding the Arco waiting for the next time? We aren’t mindless robots. We are human. Or at least we were. Don’t all Atoms deserve to know the truth of who they are? Would Atoms behave differently if they knew the truth? I don’t know. But now I know the truth. And when the plague in Durn is over I intend to let everyone I can know the truth.