Chapter Twenty Nine
A Quick Decision
Phel told them of his adventure in the Blackpatch with Tyson and what he had learned there.
“Can you guide me there, Phel?” asked Amara. “Can you take me to the old Nebcore?”
Meiki chimed in, “You aren’t going without me.”
“This is ridiculous," said Junko. “This is a serious mission, not a school field trip.”
“There’s no time to argue this," said Amara, “We need to get to this Blackpatch now”.
They boarded the skipper to find it in the process of producing an additional seat. It started as a white lump of gooey plastic protruding from the bulkhead and swiftly ballooned into a form identical to the other three. Meiki had stopped being amazed at the technology and just sat in the seat and waited for the safety restraints to activate. The slightly more hesitant Phel did the same.
Junko pushed Rashmi into the seat furthest from the hatch and sat herself down between the professor and Meiki. She touched Rashmi’s restraints and they became thicker and tighter.
“I’m not the deranged killer you think I am,” Rashmi Kapoor said. “I won’t tear through the straps and attack.”
“Feel lucky I didn’t gag you.” Junko snarled at her.
With Phel’s directions the skipper made the trip to the Blackpatch in a fraction of the time it had taken him to get to Newbright from there. Amara returned from the cockpit after the small vessel had glided to a stop.
She waved her hand and the walls of the skipper became translucent. Phel’s heart dropped and Meiki gasped even though she had witnessed the effect earlier.
They were hovering above a black and tangled forest of plastic and metal. Odd spires of random growth spread out in every direction. The landscape twisted into a bramble of ebon canyons and unnatural forms. There was movement too. Here and there dark shapes darted from one tower of bent and broken machinery to another.
“Ok, kids. This is where we part ways.” she said. “I’m going to dive into that forest and locate the Nebcore. I’ll issue the retraction and signal when I’m done.”
“Captain,” said Junko, “with all due respect, I should complete the mission. You’re too important to be risking your life like this.”
“I’ve already considered it, agent. I need you to monitor the situation from here. Keep Kapoor under wraps and keep these kids out of danger. If I fail to signal back within sixty minutes you are to leave the vicinity immediately.”
“But Captain, I’ve fought these ‘ghosts’. They can be beaten, but diving into their nest. That’s suicide.”
“You have your orders, Agent Sakai.”
Amara pulled off the trucker’s uniform she had been wearing over her foglet suit. Hers was coursed with red circuitry in a pattern that somehow looked more...formal. The pattern of the inlays was simpler than the other two and less jumbled. Meiki wondered if the suits served a symbolic as well as practical purpose.
Amara called up the mask portion of her outfit. It took the form of a heavy covering, like a helmet. The rest of the suit bulked up as well, like lightweight armor.
“I’m going to exit through the cockpit.” she said as she stepped behind the panel.
Black claws the size of swords crashed through the hull of the ship from all directions as if it were tin foil. It looked like a hand with too many fingers clasping the vessel and tearing it apart all at once.
Among the Ghosts
Meiki fell through a gap in the bulkhead and caught onto one of Rashmi’s straps. She looked around as she dangled. Junko, Amara and Phel were swept out of the vessel all at once and were lost in the darkness around them.
“What’s happening?” she shouted at Rashmi over the sound of the rushing wind and the ship being torn to shreds.
“It looks as if we have run into more of your ‘ghosts’.” the professor said in an attempt to remain calm but the cracking of her voice belied deep fear. “Perhaps the biggest of them all?”
“Everyone’s gone!” Meiki said, “I can’t see any of them!”
“Use your visor.”
She had forgotten. Meiki activated the mask and scanned as much of the forest around her that she could see. The portion of the skipper that was intact was resting on the high branches of an enormous tree. At least it was partially a tree. It looked as if it had been infested with ghost metal. The shiny black material was spiraling around its surface and made up many of the branches. Throughout were the telltale circuit inlays of the tech that Rashmi and her people had brought with them.
The ghosts had been taking the bits of tech they devoured and incorporating it into their own demented design.
There were two human figures on the ground.
“Phel!” she called out. But he couldn’t possibly hear at this distance.
Small winged constructs slashed and batted at what remained of the hull.
“We need to get to the ground.” Rashmi said.
Meiki tore the restraints off like paper and grabbed Rashmi in one of her immensely strong arms while holding on to the seat with the other.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Activate the hover mode.”
“Just imagine yourself gently floating to the ground. The suit will do the rest.”
“No! That’s crazy!”
“Just do it! Trust me!”
A bat-like thing swooped down on her head. Its tiny claws and metal teeth bit into the fabric of her suit.
“Get off!” she swatted the thing away with her hand a split second before realizing that doing so would mean falling to her death.
Miraculously she didn’t feel the swift rush of the ground. When she opened her eyes she was falling like a feather.
“See, I told you. We’re fine. Hover mode," said Rashmi.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?”
“It didn’t come up!”
Several seconds later they landed safely and Rashmi detached herself from Meiki’s grasp.
On the ground there seemed to be less...black in the Blackpatch. The trees were mostly normal. It was as if the clusters of self-aware robots had gathered mostly at the treetops. There were eyes and pointy bits in the forest threatening to attack at any moment.
Less than twenty meters away she saw Junko and Phel. They were surrounded by a detachment of ghosts. For some reason the broken constructs were not attacking. They just circled and stared.
Junko was in a defensive stance. She had produced some sort of weapon, a staff of blue light. Phel was holding his hands up and talking to the ghosts as if they were having a casual conversation.
“What’s happening?” Meiki asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine," said Rashmi.
Meiki crouched low and sneaked closer to the scene. Rashmi followed from a distance. She looked much weaker and more vulnerable without the tech suit to defend her.
As the distance closed the gleaming eyes of the ghosts turned toward Meiki. The machines began to chitter and hum at her.
“Back away from my friends!” Meiki said.
“They’re not the bad guys," said Phel, “They want to help us.”
“Help us how?”
“Take us to it...to the..Nebcore thing.”
The mangled bits of robot bent and shuffled until they were low to the ground. Their gears and modules unlocked and reconfigured until they formed smooth surface that extended into the dark forest. The surface was dotted with unblinking ghost eyes that illuminated the way.
“It’s a road!” cried Meiki. “They’re making a road for us to follow!”
“This is the way...let’s go.” Phel said.
“It could be a trap," said Junko.
Rashmi glanced down the path and said “These...things outnumber us by a massive margin. If they wanted to harm us they’d have done so by now.”
“Shut up,” said Junko, “You’re still my prisoner.”
Phel walked down the path and Meiki followed as did Rashmi. Junko trailed behind cautiously with her weapon ready.
“Since when are you so...brave?” Meiki asked Phel.
“It’s been a long day.”
They ambled down the path for a kilometer or so through dense forest. The further they went the more the wood was covered in machinery. In the distance there was a large patch of light. As they approached it the forest became thinner. Eventually the group reached a clearing.
The road connected to a circular field made of the same material. The field was vast- perhaps the size of a small town. It was covered in structures. None of them were as large as the buildings of Newbright, but they were still quite impressive. Everywhere there were machines buzzing about. Walking, rolling, even flying, there were ghosts going about some sort of important business.
“Last time I was here I didn’t get to see any of this," said Phel.
“You’ve been here?” Meiki said with eyes wide in shock and a bit of envy.
The glowing eyes that lit their path began to flicker. The lights continued into the robot city.
Phel continued to lead the party until they reached the buildings. The tiny beacons brought them down streets and alleys until they finally reached a square. It was somewhat similar to the plaza in Newbright. At its center there stood a building. It lacked the ethereal beauty of the library but was still a sight to behold. Ebon spires reticulated with lights and circuitry jutted out from a central tower. The patterns of the circuitry were remarkably similar to those on the suit Meiki was wearing. It stood out in contrast to the rest of the city in that way.
“They’ve been adopting your tech!” Meiki said to Rashmi, “That’s why they destroyed your tent and tried to eat the skippers and Junko’s suit. They were trying to...digest it.”
“If these...things can integrate our technology into their own who knows what they are capable of," said Rashmi. “They’ve already proven themselves to be vicious scavengers...perhaps Agent Sakai is right to be wary.”
“They’re not going to hurt us.” Phel said, rolling his eyes. “They’re taking us where we need to be.”
The tower had a large and ominous set of doors that opened automatically as Phel drew close. It led into a dimly lit hall. The group followed him to a chamber in the center of the building.
“Where to now?” Meiki asked.
As if in answer the room vibrated for a moment and the floor rose up like an elevator with no walls.
It brought them to the roof of the structure. Spikes jutted out around them like thorns of plastic and metal.
There they saw the original Nebcore of Naya just as when Phel had visited earlier.
A bulge appeared on the surface of the roof. It grew quickly and soon took a humanoid form. It was a person...or rather a ghost in the shape of a person.
Junko pointed her weapon at it.
“Stand back!” she said.
No one moved.
In moments the thing had formed a face and a mouth. It spoke.
“Greetings humans,” it said in a voice that was understandable if not convincingly human, “I am the emissary of 001.00. On behalf of Seeker I am pleased to have you as our guests.”
“We don’t have time for niceties," said Junko, “We need to use this transmitter to fix the problem SHE caused.”
“Phelliam Glebe has told us of your need," said the emissary, “You shall be granted access to our transmitter. It is-”
“Your transmitter?” Junko interrupted him, “I thought this Nebcore was set up by the human settlers.”
“They abandoned it when they abandoned us," said the emissary, “001.00 has maintained it since.”
“But there have never been any signals detected from this transmitter," said Rashmi, “I would have noticed that when I discovered the one in Newbright.”
“You did not discover the transmitter in Newbright. You detected this transmitter. The Nebcore in Newbright was only recently constructed and has never been connected to the Nebulae.
“I don’t understand what you’re all talking about," said Meiki, “The Nebcore in Newbright isn’t working? Then how did Rashmi send out her signal? How did she release the virus?”
“No virus was released," said the emissary. “But we will allow you to rectify that.”
“What’s the point of all this?”said Junko,”Why bring us here if we don’t need to use your Nebcore? You attacked my vessel...and the Captain? What became of her?”
“Your captain has been dealt with.”
Circuits along the far wall illuminated. A seam formed in the wall itself and opened like a door. Like a mouth, thought Meiki
The glowing lights revealed a figure in the opening. It was Amara, covered from her mouth to feet in shackles of ghost tech. Only the top of her head was visible.
“Captain!” shouted Junko, raising her weapon.
A robotic tentacle sprouted from the ground and tripped her. Arms and various other pseudopods popped from the walls and floor grasping her as well as Meiki and Phel.
The staff had fallen by Meiki’s foot. In seconds they were all restrained.
Rashmi remained untouched.
“You said you wouldn’t hurt my friends!” cried Phel.
“Your friends will be released when we are done here," said the emissary. It looked at Rashmi and said, “Now you can do that for which you came.”
Meiki realized what was happening. She had the copy of the virus still embedded in her suit.
“Meiki,” said Rashmi, “I’m afraid I have need of you once more.” She held out her hand.
Meiki could feel control of the suit waning as it did in the library. Rashmi was doing it again. Making her body move. Her arm struggled against the grasping ghost parts that restrained her, but not of her free will. She no longer could control her arm.
The robotic tentacles released Meiki but she was still unable to stop her hand from extending itself toward Rashmi.
“No!” Meiki kicked and screamed.
I kicked, she thought. She could control her legs.
Meiki swung her foot at Junko’s staff. She managed to fling it across the floor right in front of the agent. Junko’s arms were tangled up but she was able to grab its handle and flick her wrist. The end of the staff struck Rashmi in the ankle.
The fugitive cried in pain and fell to the floor. Meiki could see Rashmi’s foot twisted at an odd angle. In spite of being hindered Junko was still superhumanly strong and without her suit Rashmi was not. The agent had broken her ankle with barely an effort.
Instantly another robot arm popped out of the floor near the anthropologist. On one end was a syringe. It jabbed her in the calf. In less than a second Rashmi’s cries of pain ceased. In less than five seconds her ankle had righted itself.
They’ve been using the new technology to synthesize pain relievers and some sort of healing ability instantly, Meiki thought. With the tech from the suits and the skipper there is nothing they can’t do. They can make any substance instantly...just like how Rashmi changed her glove from graphene to frozen water.
Meiki knew what to do.
Calling up as much chemistry class as she could remember Meiki visualized the formula she had been working on just the other day. She was better at electronics than she was at chemistry, but she was confident she could recall it fairly well. The suits and the skippers were thought activated. All you had to do to make anything...any substance was picture it in your mind.
Rashmi stood again and looked at Meiki. “I told you they wanted everyone in chains, friend. You’re young now. You don’t realize how horrible that would be. I really am the good guy here, I swear.” She held Meiki’s hand as she spoke.
“I’ll make good on my promise.” Rashmi said as she pulled at the suit like a glove and removed the portion that covered Meiki’s hand. “I’ll take you to the stars. You can see Mars and Earth and everywhere in between.” If she had been paying attention Rashmi may have noticed that something about the index finger of the glove felt different. It was a little stiffer, a bit heavier.
Rashmi stretched the glove over her hand and stuck her finger into the port on top of the Nebcore.
The circuits burned blue then gold and red.
“Something is wrong.” Rashmi said.
Sparks flickered around her hand. Her eyes widened and her face became pale. Rashmi’s slack jaw tried to scream but she was engulfed in the brightest light Meiki had ever seen.
Rashmi must have relinquished control of the suit because Meiki could move again. With superhuman speed Meiki threw herself upon Phel, shielding him from the fiery blast.
The next several minutes were pure light and motion. Then blackness.