"What's that racket?"
Dana shrugged her shoulders, but it wasn't in response to Dennis' question. It was her best effort to keep the oversized robe from slipping off her shoulders. "What racket? I don't hear anything but your big mouth."
"Listen." She stopped squirming and cocked an ear. "It sounds like the raid siren." Her face went pale. "Are we under attack?"
"I don't know. Come on." Dennis ran toward the Lairdhall, robes flapping behind him, generous hems threatening to trip him with every step. He was so focused on the complicated task of remaining upright as he darted through the narrow, crooked streets that he didn't heed the cries coming from the homes he passed.
"Slow down! Hey! Wait up!" Dana's cries were no use. Dennis had already vanished into the dim alleyways of the subterrene. "Crapsticks," she said to no one in particular. "Stupid lab with its stupid fire. Who makes a stupid lab that can catch stupid fire in the middle of a stupid stone cavern?"
It was a fair question, even if she did not stop long to dwell on it. Though she had no way to know it, the flash point of the impregnated quartzite was 5100 °C, far hotter than what conventional ignition sources could produce. To set that fire and have it burn through the cladding of the containment chamber, an arsonist would need an exceptional heat source, like a plasma torch or some exotic zero-point energy lens. To the best of Dana's knowledge, no such technology existed in Solace Caverns, not even in the Nanomancer's expansive toolkit of bizarre devices.
Because she was so dreadfully enveloped in the billowing, borrowed robes, Dana traveled slowly enough to hear commotion from inside the homes she passed. It seemed peculiar that so many residents would be so lachrymose, and so she poked her head through one open window.
"Hello? Is everything okay in there?"
A ragged sob emerged from the hovel. "Help me. I think my mommy's hurt."
A chill went up Dana's spine. "Okay. I'm coming in." She tried the door. It was locked. "Hey there," she said in what she thought was a cheerful tone. "Can you open up the door, honey? It's locked."
The child only responded with more crying. Dana adopted a fighting stance. She whirled around, pivoting on her leading foot and kicked the door near the handle with her heel, making sure to make eye contact with the target before the blow landed.
Unfortunately, even with a strong follow-through, the door proved too tough for her. It shuddered, but held fast. "Aw, crud-knuckles. Here, let me try again."
The second spinning back kick proved more effective. The latch held, but the jamb splintered enough that she could shoulder her way through.
She immediately wished she hadn't.
The smell hit her harder than when Shelly McDermott punched her in the belly in primary school when she thought Dana had stolen her lunch box. She doubled over, clapping her free hand over her mouth and nose.
But as bad as the stench was, the sight was far worse. The scene in the one-room dwelling seemed dredged from the darkest depths of nightmare. A child bundled in cavemoss rags knelt beside a creature oozing on the ground. As Dana drew nearer, she came to understand that this creature, whose skin had almost complete sloughed off to reveal pulsing, bulbous tumors beneath, was the child's mother. It tried looking up at her, but where its eyes should have been were blackened pits. Remnants of its lips hung down the sides of its ruined jaws, which worked wordlessly as it aped the motions of speech.
"What's wrong with my mommy?" The child asked. "She," the child tried to continue, but was overtaken by a coughing fit. Globs of sticky blood flew from the child's mouth, dotting Dana's hands. "Help me, please." The child pleaded with the stranger in the red robes, but it was too late. Dana had already stumbled back out of the house in horror. "Hello? Are you still there? It's so dark. I can't see anything."
Dana did not hear the child's final words, nor did she stop to check any other houses on her way to catch up. She didn't even take the time to wipe the tears from her eyes as she stumbled awkwardly under the gleam of the crystals far overhead.
Dennis was too embroiled in conversation to notice Dana's breathless arrival. "No, Nerida. It can't wait. Something happened at the lab, and Grand Lord Omnigarros has to hear about it."
"I'm sorry, young apprentice, but I'm under strict orders. No one is allowed inside."
"B-but," Dennis started to say.
"Miss Nerida," Dana interrupted, "it's horrible out there, and we think we might know why." Dana's eyes were wide with fear and her face was as white as a gall-mushroom.
"Well, you two just tell me, and I'll be sure to pass it on to the captain of the guard." Nerida's rough natural accent had been supplanted by more formal diction, a sure sign that something was amiss.
Dana bit her lip and let Dennis start. "There was a fire at the lab. There is a chance that, um, containment was breached," he faltered, "that is, an unknown agent may have found its way..."
Dana interrupted him. "A virus broke out and now people are dying in the city. I saw it with my own eyes."
Nerida's eyes got big and she stood taller on her hind paws. "Oh no. So that is what caused it?"
Both Dennis and Dana went, if possible, even more pale. "C-caused what?" Dennis asked.
Nerida gripped her spear a little more tightly. "The chamberlain locked the hall right before you got here. I heard some commotion inside. People were yelling and I think I heard some explosions. I was just told to not let anyone inside until further notice."
"I think this counts as further notice, Nerida," said Dana. "We have important information."
"Well, tell me what it is, and I'll pass it along to the chamberlain as soon as I can."
Dana frowned. "Well, I guess we already told you pretty much everything. There was a fire in the lab and we think that one of the Nanomancer's virus samples leaked into the city."
"Whoever set the fire must be responsible for what's happening. We think there is some sort of saboteur in Solace Caverns," Dennis said.
"We have to find who it is and stop them," Dana furrowed her brow in resolute determination. "But we need help. There's just two of us. We need a search party."
Nerida dropped back into a squat and leaned toward the pair. "You let me worry about that. If what you say is true, there's only one who can help us now, and I think you know who I mean."
"The Nanomancer," muttered Dennis.
"The Nanomancer, boy," Nerida said. "You have to go get him," she shook her head a little. She took a deep breath. "You know what that means, don't you?"
Dennis clenched his jaw as he felt his stomach fall. He could only utter one word. "Outside."
"That's right, boy. You've got to run up."
Running up could refer to those few special operations needed of Solacites when the cavern could not produce all the resources that the town needed. This was ordinarily done as a carefully coordinated activity at night under clear skies. It could also refer to the occasional bout of madness that gripped a resident once in a while. No one knew why it happened, but roughly once a year, someone would make a mad dash for the surface, unprotected by anything but the clothes on their back. If it happened to be nighttime, the Hobguard might be able to recover them before dawn. If it was daytime, well. Let's just say that no one ever bothered to recover what few remains might make it through the day.
Nerida shifted her gaze to Dana. "You'll have to go too, lass."
"What? Me? No way."
"You don't honestly believe he would be able to succeed on his own, do you?"
Dennis bristled. "I'm standing right here."
Nerida ignored him and continued to speak to Dana. "He needs you. You know he needs you. Ask the Hobguard for help." She pulled a golden amulet from a bandoleer pouch. "This is my official seal as guard of the Lairdhall. Give it to Lance Captain Adams. She will know what to do."
Dana took the trinket and glanced up at her old friend. "I'm scared, Nerida."
Nerida laid a gentle paw on the girl's shoulder. "Keep your wits about you, trust your instincts, and you'll do fine, young lady. Trust in each other."
Dana looked at Dennis and nodded. "Okay," she said, despite her concerns. "You're right that this idiot would forget to put his boots on in the morning if someone didn't remind him."
"Hush," she said before turning back to Nerida. "How are we meant to find the Nanomancer anyway?"
Nerida tapped Dennis on the wrist. "I have seen you use that fancy doohickey to speak remotely with your master before, young man." She flared her nostrils and sniffed at the air. "Use that to aid your search."
"But that's not how it works," Dennis started to object. "At least, I think that's not how it works." His tone veered toward petulance. "I'm still just learning how to use this."
Dana felt a surge of pique. The sensation was oddly calming. She flicked Dennis's earlobe. "Stop whining. You'll figure it out. Nerida's right. Everyone is counting on us." She adjusted the far-too-large robes once more and hugged the big bear. "Thanks, Nerida. We'll see you soon, okay?"
Dennis and Dana bid a tearful farewell to their old friend and began to make their way toward the solar lock in the forbidden reach of Solace Cavern. They pretended that the howling they heard on the way was just the wind whistling past the rough stone houses.
"Easy now." Brent rapped sharply thrice on the buckboard. The dire vixen slowed to a trot. The boy peered at the horizon. Something didn't sit right. "Should be coming up on Umbrabaum Forest," he mumbled under his breath. "That ain't no forest there. That's a desert."
"What's wrong?" A tousled head of fiery hair poked over the backboard. "Why are we stopping?"
"Whoa." Brent bore down on the wheel-brake and the swift-brougham ground to a halt. Being off course like this should not have been possible. "We's not where we's meant ta be, Miss Kindror." He tapped the face of the compass, suspecting it might be stuck.
"It's..." she sighed and decided that she had already had enough of correcting his mispronunciation. It had been four days already, and if he hadn't gotten it by now, he never would. "Well, where are we, then? And why are we off course?"
"Not sure." His attention was fixed on the map and the compass. He was not feigning ignorance this time. He was sincerely unsure of their location, or the reason for the delay. "Da's compy-sass says we's drivin' ta Umbybom Wood. I fink it's busted."
Kendra snorted. The compass was of Gnome make, as reliable as it was beautiful. She scrambled over the contoured backboard to open the royal-teak-wood access panel for an inspection. She mumbled to herself as she tapped the side of the device and peered inside with the penlight she always had stashed in her coiffure.
Brent took the opportunity to hop down and stretch his legs. He set the claw brake into the tough soil of the choke meadow and began to forage for the sweet sunroot blooms that should be just coming into season. He rolled his sleeves down to protect his arms from the tiny, stinging needles of the tough stalks.
"Dung taint flibert," Kendra cursed softly. "What's wrong with you? Gyro's spinning freely, oil level is fine, no scoring on your gimbals." She blew a lock of hair out of her eyes and went to fetch her tools. "Have to disassemble the whole thing, I suppose. Should get some lunch too, now that I'm not barfing my guts up every ten minutes. I think I packed some polishing compound, though something tells me that's not the problem. Should feed Saunders too, unless he's already gone off to hunt on his own. Kid should have noticed it was sticking earlier. I wonder how far off track we are. What is that cat doing here, anyway? What kind of house cat tags along for a cross-country voyage without being invited?"
Her trains of thought were interrupted by yelling from deeper inside the meadow. She recognized the human boy's voice, but the other was much higher pitched, and bore a buzzing timbre. The owner of the second voice was clearly annoyed.
"I apologize for treading on your home, but let us be reasonable: you must admit that it is well camouflaged. How could I have possibly seen it among these dense brambles?" Brent kept his voice low, hoping to resolve the conflict without drawing Kendra's attention.
"How could you have seen it? You blubbering, cow-footed, feckless, trollpated, human lunk-oaf! How could you have seen it? You have eyes in that oversized pumpkin tottering on your fat, pimpled neck, don't you?" The meadow fairy scolding the boy could have comfortably walked underneath T.W. Saunders without stooping, and was perched atop a ripe sunroot thistle, arms akimbo. "My whole foyer is RUINED. Crushed, just like that with one tread of your bovine trotter. Do you have ANY IDEA how long it took me to build that? Do you have any idea what SEASON THIS IS?" His wings quivered in furious indignation.
"What's all the ruckus here?" Kendra asked after arriving to witness the fairy's tantrum still spinning up.
"You! Yes, you. Help me here, Gnome. This braying human ass stomped all over my beautiful home, smashing my crockery and crushing my elegant, handcrafted cabinets. I demand you thrash this insolent rapscallion for his... his," the fairy realized he had sort of spoken himself into a corner, but pressed on regardless, "insolence. By the Seelie Covenant, you must obey."
Kendra stifled a giggle, and just barely managed to avoid grinning. "Broke your home, did he? May I have a look?"
The fairy tapped a tiny foot shod in extravagant winklepickers. "As long as you box this fluff-kettle's ears, by all means, have at it." Kendra bent down to inspect the damage to the half-tun, a dwelling common to meadow fairies looking to attract a mate. "See? Look at the lintel? Cracked in twain. Witness the threshold. Wrecked asunder."
Kendra prodded the delicate straw-and-twig structure, noting the reinforced tunnel leading deep into the turf. She knew that nothing short of a proper earthquake could damage the chitin-bolstered interior of the fairy's warren. The exterior hut was for show only. Females of the species found such structures appealing, the more delicate and rustic-looking, the better. She also knew that the fairy's pique was part of his mating ritual. The hut was built with the specific intent to be wrecked, and the subsequent tirade was for the benefit of curious feminine onlookers. "Yes, I see. You are right. The house is positively devastated. You are right to be aggrieved, sir. I shall see to it that this miscreant tastes justice by the terms of the, er..."
"Seelie Covenant," the fairy helpfully added.
"Yes, the Seelie Covenant."
Brent went wide-eyed. "Buh Miss Kendra, I dinnt do nuffink amiss. 'Twere a accident. I was jus lookin' fer a bite."
The fairy wagged a scolding finger. "Drop the charade, you ponderous jiggle-flank bedswerver. Feigning stupidity won't absolve you of your sins, you arthritic second cousin to a blind goat." In his heart, Thrinwildert was overjoyed, of course. Most suitor fairies had to be content with scaring away a careless roe deer or curious bobcat. Here, not only did he get to upbraid an actual human, but he had the rare opportunity to enlist the aid of a seemingly-friendly Elderkin. He was absolutely convinced he would get lucky this year. He had to make sure to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime situation. "I'll see to it your backside gets welted so badly you won't sit for a month. Your grandchildren will cow in terror from the whipping you are about to receive." The little voice carried easily all the way to the edge of the wood.
Kendra peered over her work spectacles at the little creature, silently informing him that maybe he shouldn't be laying it on quite so thick. "By the Covenant, then. Just play along, Brent."
Brent scowled, then allowed himself to be led back to the brougham, out of sight of the fairy romance playing out among the thistles and burdock. "Yuh ain' gon whoop me, is yuh Miss Kendra?"
Kendra proved unable to hide her laughter this time. "No, Brent. I will not beat you. It's an act. There is no Seelie Covenant. He was preening."
"Showing off. For the ladies. Look." She tilted her head toward the tree line. Amid the elm boughs, a dainty head with big eyes gazed in admiration at the fairy in his waistcoat fussing about atop a tall thistle stalk. "He'd better hope T.W. Saunders isn't in a hunting mood."
Brent scowled. "Dumb fairies." He trudged over to check on the dire vixen. "Fairies is dumb."
Kendra smiled and went back to work on the compass. Something the fairy said stuck with her, though. Drop the charade. What had that meant?
By the time the sun was nearly overhead, the compass had been disassembled and each part meticulously checked with caliper and micrometer. Each part was well within tolerance. After reassembly, the motion was as smooth and sure as ever. She performed a standard incantation to placate the maschinegeist and saw that the north rose point still stubbornly pointed in the direction of the rising sun. She even checked with her chronometer to verify true north using an old trick she had learned as a girl. "What in the blessed lathe is going on?"
Kendra's thoughts were interrupted by another commotion out in the field. Shrieks of fear instead of indignation rang out right before a gout of flame erupted from the site of the ruined fairy domicile. Moments later, an abashed T.W. Saunders slunk to the safety of the brougham, whiskers badly singed. Kendra laughed despite herself. Firebolt reprisals were the last resort of meadow fairies looking to defend themselves.
Brent ignored the feline conflict and asked, "Yuh fix yon fingy yet?"
Kendra rubbed her sleeve on the crystal faceplate, erasing a non-existent smudge. "The mechanism does not appear to be damaged. I can think of only one other explanation. Something must be interfering with the local magnetic field." She looked Brent in the eye. "When did you start noticing something wrong?"
He shrugged. "Jus' afore we stop. I ben hawin' all mornin', thought mebbe one o' th' team caught a bum leg, but I ain't seen no limp. Then I sees that no all a-sudden they's no Umbrybumber Forst come up. So I stops the cart ta look roun'. Still dun see no Applebutter Wood nohow." He laboriously picked his nose with one grubby finger.
Kendra tried to tease some meaning from the boy's rambling, but decided that it might be easier to chart a new route. "May I have the map, please?"
Brent pointed to a box under the buckboard with a finger that wasn't a knuckle and a half deep into his sinuses. "Wiv th' telly glass." She smiled. A spyglass would be useful for reckoning.
The map was smaller than she expected. It only showed the major cities of New Urland, as well as provincial boundaries, primary roads, and the larger waterways of the south. She frowned as she examined the parchment. "How old is this thing?"
"I dunno. Me da gave it ta me afore we's left. It's his map."
"This is inaccurate." She pointed to a road indicated on the southern part of the map. "Right here. This road between the old Dwarf keep of Sudhammer and the city of Necromore in Hagsland was destroyed during the war. The Thanemoot ordered the entire length overgrown, along with the fenbrake on the border to Galesreach."
Brent shrugged. "We's going 'ere." He pointed to the dot on the Horn of Westmere. "Gnome city. Becky wots-its."
She felt a wave of irritation toward the boy, but kept studying the map, looking up every so often to look for landmarks. "Where are we?" She took the map and began climbing the massive hectacle oak dominating the center of the heath. "Please don't let me see Lac Duerin," she said to herself as she ascended, nimble fingers easily traversing the sturdy boughs.
Brent wiped his smutty nose with a dirty sleeve, then went to check on the cat. "Ps psps ps ps." He used the Universal Feline Summoning Chant as he gently tapped his knee with an open palm. "Here kitty kitty." His entreaties were answered as a less-than-fully-dignified T.W. Saunders poked his head out. "Aw, poor old boy. Burnt your whiskers, I see." Working in the stables had granted Brent some basic knowledge of veterinary medicine. "No corneal damage though. Pink nose. I reckon you'll make a full recovery, my good fellow." He scratched the cat between the shoulder blades, and earned himself a brief head bump before the big tom turned tail to recuperate among the luggage.
At the top of the tree, Kendra started cursing in her native tongue. Over hilltops to the west, she saw the unmistakable spires of Silusia. They were assuredly off course, and had probably lost two days' travel. She hopped back down, still muttering invective. "Oi! Brent! Hitch the team back up."
"Okay, miss. Wot did yuh's see?"
Kendra returned the spyglass to its proper place. "Silusia. Over those hills." She pointed to the horizon. "The bad news is that we have already missed the trailhead for the Spine. The moderately better news is that we should be able to drive south to pick up the old beggars' road to Arpem. I didn't want to go that way, but Shatterbone Pass should be well thawed by now and the ford ought to be clear. We can go from Arpem to Beaside and from there pick up our scheduled route on the Via Incandentia to Beckinn City."
"Da says Incanduhdenty Bay lights up at night."
"Your father spoke right, Brent. A species of shrimp uses a phosphorescent gland on the underside of its tail to attract prey. The light gets reflected off the backs of all the tiny little animals in the water. By the time the light reaches the surface, it makes it look like the whole bay is glowing blue. It's really quite lovely. I think you'll like it." She finished packing with impressive efficiency.
"I never saw the sea before." Brent also worked with minimal wasted effort. The lines were soon hitched and the dire vixen pawed the ground, eager to be off.
"It has been many years since I have seen my home. There are cliffs of columnar basalt to the north. The geomancers of Beckinn City periodically adjust the height of the columns to aid fishing fleets as needed to ensure a good catch. If you have time while I'm at the forge, you should visit as the tides change. It's unforgettable."
As they struck out southward, Kendra shot the meadow fairy a little wink, and got a nod in return. Soon, the scrubby thistles gave way to hardpan and tough succulents. It would be a cold night in the high desert and her nose was slowly filling with clay dust, but at least Kendra could be sure that they would be able to pick up a proper road before long.
"The worst thing about the surface," spat Dennis through a mouth full of abrasive dust, "is the wind."
"What?" Dana yelled. "Speak up, I can't hear you over the wind."
He opened his mouth to repeat himself, but caught her grinning at him in the dim light of the bismuth worm lamp. "Ha ha." He opened the pack given them by the captain of the Hobguard. "Help me inventory this stuff."
Dana scooted over, bumping her head on one of the tent poles. "Here, give me the thing."
"The thing with all the things on it. You know, the thing."
Dennis gazed blankly at her, then handed her the equipment manifest. "This thing?"
She snatched it from his hand. "Obviously." She started reading. "Pursuant to blah blah blah... your surface kit has been sanitized yadda yadda yadda. Ah. Here we go. Component list. You ready?"
Dennis started pulling items out. "Ready."
"Gamma Radiation Counter. Source Range. Two Kilograms, Brushed Nickel."
"Uh, I guess that's this thing?" He held up a box sporting a few knobs and dials. "Yeah, here," he pointed to the nameplate on the detector. Source range gamma detector." He removed the wand attachment from its clip and flicked the power switch. "Let's see if we picked up any contamination on the way here." The detector clicked a little, perhaps once every two seconds or so. He slowly moved the wand over all surfaces in the tent, including the clothes on their backs and the hair on their heads. "Okay, looks good. We're clean."
"Great. Next is Water Purification Pump. Three Stage. Point Eight Kilograms, Nerelite."
"Check." The pump was a smaller version of the one everyone in Solace Caverns had in their homes. "The little instruction booklet here says the sopfungus should be good for five thousand liters."
"That should be more than enough."
"Yeah. What's next on the list?"
They went through the manifest one item at a time as the sun crested the rocky crags to the east. Before long, the reactive coil-weave fabric of the tent began to crackle and hum with electricity as it generated a broad-spectrum ionic barrier, protecting the inhabitants from lethal solar exposure. Food, medical supplies, radiation exposure pills, maps, wilderness tools, cookware, and bedrolls were all present and accounted for. The only thing missing was a "Sidearm. Plasma Wave. One Point Four Kilograms, Ruthenium and Corozite." Dana wrinkled her nose in disgust as she read that particular entry. "Why would they give us something like that?"
"It looks like they didn't. That's everything that was in the pack," Dennis pointed at the pile of gear. "No plasma pistols anywhere to be found."
"Huh. Okay. Do you think it's dangerous out here from anything other than the sun?"
He raised an eyebrow and said, "I don't know for sure. You've heard the rumors before about those headless things with six arms that bend the wrong way, haven't you? Maybe they're more than just scary stories to get kids to eat their starchrooms."
"The so-called Krauth? Yeah," she snorted, "right." Despite her dismissal, it did worry her that the Hobguard would have included arms capable of reducing a person to ashes in a single shot among their standard kit. The surface was supposed to be completely uninhabitable, even for the most highly mutated residents of Solace Caverns. Anything topside capable of surviving the punishing radiation and toxicity would have to be something powerful, indeed.
"Well, whatever." Dennis started repacking the gear. "Hey, did you keep the robe?"
"What, the one from the lab?" They were both now dressed in onx-leather exposure suits meant to protect them from crusted-over pools of acid common in the topside wastes. "Yeah. It's in my ruck. Why?"
Dennis had pulled his own robe out and was examining the lining more closely. "Does yours have this?" He showed her a section near the base of the hood that had a cluster of metallic dots connected to a terminus by laminated foil runs.
She retrieved her cloak and peered inside. "Yup." She looked up. "What's it for?"
He shrugged. "Beats me. I only just noticed it when I was changing."
"Check it with the thing." She nodded toward his wrist.
"Yeah. Good idea." He pulled up the holo-display and made a gesture in the robe's direction.
"Hmm. Let me try this." He waved the robe around inside the display, making sure to include the funny little cluster of metallic dots.
"Try putting it on," Dana suggested.
"Sure. Can't hurt, I suppose." He slipped the oversized garment over his head and tried again.
The first thing Dennis noticed was a searing pain at the base of his neck as metallic probes pierced his skin to merge with his spinal cord. Buzzing automated queries battered his unaugmented basal ganglia in a vain attempt to secure a proper neural connection. He clawed first at the connection site, and then at his wrist device to try to end the pain. A great voice inside his head announced, "SECONDARY PROTOCOLS ENGAGED. COMMENCING STAGE ONE DATA VERIFICATION SEQUENCE.” He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound emerged.
Dennis's thoughts were overtaken by a blizzard of otherworldly information. Ten thousand years of exotic history overtook his mind. Lost lore of dead races, distant worlds, and forgotten technology raced past his consciousness. Knowledge of long-abandoned colonies, degenerate cults, and the horror that lurks when you peel back the thin veneer of reality overtook his every sense. He was made privy to forbidden data his mind was not ready to receive.
"Hey!" Dana shook him with both hands after he stopped convulsing and became catatonic. "Hey! Wake up!" She raised an arm to slap him across the face.
He caught her swing with uncanny agility. "It's okay. I know where we have to go."
"Dennis, what happened to your eyes?"
He blinked a few times. "Eyes? I don't know." He looked around in awe. "By the Beacon, I can see so much more."
Beacon? What beacon? "They're silver. All over. Like mirrors. What did that robe do to you?" She had already thrown her own robe into the far corner.
"Is this what the fardwellers see?" Part of the mushroom farms in Solace Caverns needed to be kept in extreme darkness for the spores to develop properly. Fardwellers tended the delicate fungi beds deep in the cropwarrens, coming to town only rarely to deliver their harvest. "I can see the smallest little details." He raised his arm to peer at the robe's sleeve. "Look. The electricity in the weave." He looked up at the tent. "The magnetic field keeping the radiation away." He scowled at something, then activated his holo-display. "Let's just fix that, shall we?" He twiddled with a floating control and almost immediately, the static hum of the tent quieted. He smiled. "Just had to adjust the gain a little. This old tent probably hasn't been calibrated since before we were born."
"What? How?" Dana was stunned. Until now, all Dennis had ever been able to do with his little wrist device was to pull up either his own notes, or messages to him from the Nanomancer. Now here he was tinkering with Hobguard gear like it was nothing.
He frowned a little and again manipulated his holo-display. His robes contracted to fit him perfectly. He looked downright ministerial. "Your turn."
"Your robes didn't fit before. I can fix them."
Dana scoffed. "If you think for a second I'm going to do what you just did, you're crazier than a dunny-rat. I like my eyes the way they are, thank you very much."
"Oh, the neuro-link?" Dennis smiled. "I've already disabled it for this node. It's slaved to my client.
Dana scowled. "I don't like that word."
She crossed her arms. "Not funny."
"Okay, fine. Sorry. I have disabled the thing in your robe that would connect it to you. On me, it connects to my holo-display. You don't have one of those, so you don't need the neurolink."
"So, what? These are obviously more than just robes. What do they do?"
"Hang on." He flicked through a few displays and said, "huh, how about that." He stuck his arm through the northern flap of the tent and smiled. "Well, it looks like that works."
"What do you think you're doing?" Dana's voice rose to a shriek. "Your arm, idiot!" She yanked at his collar, pulling him backward.
He pulled the sleeve back to reveal perfectly undamaged skin. "See? It's got reactive shielding, just like the tent." He again offered her the other robe. "If I had to guess, I'd say that the tent is modeled after the robes. These are probably the Nanomancer's original clothes from before he came to Solace Caverns." He pulled the hood over his head and drew a membrane hidden in the lining over his face. "Look, even our faces are fully protected. It's even got integrated gloves and boots." He demonstrated how to finish donning the protective garb.
She wasn't quite ready to trust the strange (and evidently ancient) robes just yet. "I don't get it. You were wearing those robes when we left the lab. Why didn't they go all woogity then?" She waved her hands in the air to help illustrate what she meant by "woogity."
"I didn't have my holo-display active. The link protocols are part of an automated subroutine in the device."
"This is absurd. You're absurd. Why did I agree to this?"
He looked at her sternly. "Do you really want to be back home right now?"
She remembered the screaming, the eyeless faces, the blood, and the stench. "No," she finally admitted.
"It's safe." He thrust the robes toward her once more. "We can move during the day with these. The sooner we find the Nanomancer, the quicker we can help everyone back home. Come on, Dana. This is important."
She glared at him one last time, then grudgingly put the robe on. When nothing happened, she flapped her arms and said, "There, see? It doesn't even work for me."
He flicked a holo-control and in seconds, the robe contracted around her to form a perfect custom fit. "Shall we be off?"
"Sister Meaux, you have certainly been spending quite a bit of time with your computer-assisted devotionals."
Meaux glanced up from the auxiliary terminal, dark circles around her eyes. "Yes, Sister Evgenia. Penance is good for the soul."
"So is sleep. And food." She held out her machine-augmented hand. "Come, let us give thanks for the bounty of the Silent Rose and its mess hall."
"Ah yes," the tactile connection crackled as the fighting nun withdrew her hand from the terminal interface. "It is by cold suet and gruel that we truly know His Imperial Grace." As she stood, her knees creaked loudly enough for her companion to hear.
"How long have you been sitting there, Sister Meaux?"
"Too long," she stumbled. "Ah, my leg has fallen asleep." She started to massage the circulation back, but quickly remembered that she was still wearing her shipboard service armor. "A moment, if you please."
Sister Evgenia looped her companion's arm over her shoulder to bear her weight. "Come along. No excuses." They headed for the crew's mess. "You mentioned to Sister Neriah that you would have your neural interlink checked by the ship's chirurgeon. How did that turn out?"
The blood was starting to return to Meaux's leg. She extricated herself from the bionic grasp of her augmented battle-sister. "I believe I can take it from here, sister." She stomped her feet to make sure that sensation had returned. The noise echoed amid the high, angular arches overhead. "Some polymide ribbon along my arm had to be replaced. The targeting computer upgrades we got from the Red Calamity run on a two volt system, which proved too much for my original interface harness. I should have known better."
"It is true that diligence is a virtue, Sister. However, mistakes happen, and what is important is that we learn from our errors."
"As long as we do not fall to temptation," Meaux added.
"Quite so, sister." Evgenia gripped her titanium rosary with her unaugmented hand. "Tell me, what have you learned since last we spoke?"
"Less than I would like. The rift continues to shrink. The rest of the fleet has yet to arrive. No sign of Magos Anatidius, though it appears that a native has activated a warcloak."
"Indeed? Fascinating. I would not imagine that a venerated Magos would permit a filthy mutant access to heirloom technology like that."
"It is indeed surprising, Sister Evgenia. It has me worried that perhaps the Magos has become corrupted after spending so much time stranded down there."
Evgenia took a deep breath. "I admit to harboring similar concerns, Sister Meaux. We all know how swiftly ruin can strike, how thoroughly a soul can rot while still maintaining a veneer of righteousness. If we must smite the Magos, I will not hesitate in my duties. However..."
Meaux did not need to hear the rest of the sentence. They were both keenly aware that the lost high priest likely retained a sizeable trove of unique data, otherwise lost to human civilization. They were aware that recovery of the data could lead to a significant advantage against humanity's adversaries. Most importantly, they were aware that a race was underway. "I pray that we succeed before the Conclave arrives. After what they did in the Stradanye system, I cannot imagine that they understand the importance of subtlety.
"Worry not, sister. I have faith in our mission. We will succeed."
The mess hall was nearly empty. A pair of sallow-faced conscripts wordlessly sopped up polygrain soup with rough lumps of ship's starch-cake. The sisters fetched packaged rations of mufulon-cheese, black bread, and slab suet from the gene-coded dispenser near the entrance. Sister Evgenia offered a short prayer of thanks before they tore back the thermoseals on the recycled trays.
"Heat signatures from the caverns indicate that as many as 40 percent of the mutants have already perished."
"Forty?" Evgenia's eyes widened. "That exceeds projections by a wide margin."
"The ship's biomancer thinks it's some combination of a higher mutation frequency than we expected and the virus being more potent than forecast."
"Do we have new projections for lethality? If everyone in that cavern dies, we could alienate the magos. If he ends up inimical, it won't look good for the Mother Superior."
Meaux nodded in agreement. "I have the biomancer developing a countervirus just in case."
They finished their meal in silence, while far below, busy planet-side residents rushed toward an uncertain future.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Header photo: Astronauts in Lifeboat After Apollo 11 Splashdown, 1969.