Chapter Five

 

Urban Sprawl

 

As the company came to the top of a slope in the dirt pathway they walked upon, they collectively stopped as one, their eyes cast wide open as they looked upon the outskirts of the island’s concealed city.  The slope turned from dirt to broken concrete about seventy yards downhill, which then turned to solid gray concrete streets perhaps fifty yards beyond that path, coming entirely out of the jungle and into the city itself proper.

 

“Look at the size of those buildings,” Hina whispered to Tim, who silently nodded.  He too was stunned by the sheer size and condition of the buildings, even from this distance.  Taking into account the various rises and dips the paths had taken on the group’s way from the beach to this point, he realized that the city itself sat in a deep valley, almost a crater, near what he assumed was the middle of the land mass.  He also realized that without Telfin’s guidance along the path between where they’d met the machine man and here, the company might have become lost amid the various path choices the island offered.

 

“Where the hell do we even begin,” Gronen Mattock said loud enough to be heard by the foremost members of the group.  Telfin emitted a series of short whirring noises, his eye units flashing orange, green, then finally back to their standard yellow.

 

“There is a communications post approximately three hundred feet northwest from the end of this path,” said the machine man.  “Prior to my leaving the city, I arranged for several walkie communicators to be fully charged when I finally led your group here.”

 

“How could you have known you would lead us here,” asked Derrick Henden, pulling on his short, rough white goatee.  The machine shrugged its shoulders with its hands up in the air.

 

“I did not know.  I only presumed your group would not destroy me,” said Telfin.  “The walkies should be fully charged by now.  They are able to reach anywhere on the island to the other walkies.”

 

“How many are there,” asked Henden, adjusting his artificial hand again. The smallest of the fingers kept twitching and seizing up on him the closer the troupe came to the city, and now it was locked in position.  Too many energy signatures around here, he thought vehemently.  This had better clear up soon, or I’m going to be useless.

 

“There are three walkie units,” said Telfin.  “My sensors do not detect any SF0012 units within 1000 yards of our present location.  We should approach the end of the path, but we should not go further yet as a group.”

 

“Oh yeah,” Mattock grumbled, arms folded over his chest.  “Well, what would you propose we do then?”

 

“If two or three of your people could accompany me to the communications post, we could retrieve the walkies and return here to the group.  At that juncture, we could then form up into smaller units in order to search the city for the Professor and deal with any overt threats in a tactically advantageous fashion, and remain in contact with the communicators,” said Telfin.

 

“Wait, Telfin,” Hina interrupted, catching the suspicious look in the Jaft captain’s eyes.  “Are you certain you’d be willing to help defend us against the others like you, the, uh, what did you call them?”

 

“SF0012 units,” said Telfin, turning his head back and forth from Gronen to Hina slowly.  “Yes, I would.  They are not functioning in accordance with the original Program by assaulting organic sentients such as yourselves without authorization from a technician.  It is my belief that the Guardian unit has somehow gained control of the authorization coding required to alter the Program and thus operate the System entirely on its own.”

 

“Okay, I don’t understand a word of that gibberish,” Mattock said, rubbing his temples.  “Let’s just get down there and then we’ll decide who’s going with you to get those, what did you call them?”

 

“Walkies,” said Hina, cinching down the ties on her scabbard belt so the hilt of her short sword would be more easily grabbed.  “They’re small electronic devices used for communication.  They’re like small personal radios designed for use in the field by law enforcement or military forces.”

 

“Ah,” said Gronen, for he at least knew about radios.  Many of the crew wanted to get one for the mess deck, so they could listen to music or talk shows while performing transport jobs along the rivers of Tamalaria.  But Gronen didn’t see the need, and the larger boxed devices of the size he would require for use in the mess deck did not come cheap, unless he purchased one secondhand from a machine shop.

 

The troupe followed Telfin down the slope towards the city, its slate gray and dull, rust-red structures looming larger as they approached the concrete roadways.  When at last they reached the bottom of the slope, all of them standing on solid footing, the Jaft captain ordered Foamrider to accompany the machine, and Henden asked that Henry go with as well.  “In case something harry goes down, you’ve got your magic on your side,” the Gnome Engineer told the Kobold, who accepted the request with a curt nod.

 

The rest of the company spread out a little along the open street, engaging in idle conversation to try and keep themselves from succumbing to paranoia.  Weapons were kept in hand at the ready by the sailors, and the Wayfarers were themselves starting to get the idea, about half of them taking up spots a few yards away from their fellows and crouching down, scanning the area before their eyes carefully for any sign of impending danger.

 

Timothy and Hina stood guard on either side of Kyle Vreki, who sat between them, meditatively praying to the Great God Lenos for courage, wisdom, and protection.  And oh, he thought as he offered his prayers, perhaps a little boost of mana would be helpful too, my Lord.  I am but your humble servant, he offered.  A warm flood of energy began in his feet and flooded up through his body then, and the Elven Bishop’s lips twitched with a slim grin. Always appreciated, my Lord.  May your name be praised.

 

All that remained was to wait for Telfin to come back with Foamrider, Henry, and the walkies.

 

Foamrider jogged along behind the metallic Telfin, Henry keeping stride by riding a small dust devil he’d summoned with his magic, seated like a swami atop it.  But Henry wasn’t smiling or in any way looking like he was enjoying this little reconnaissance trip away from the relative safety of the company.  The Kobold’s hands sat loose and ready in his lap, and Foamrider, though a Jaft with little if any comprehension of the schools of magic, could feel the palpable force being gathered around the Kobold Aeromancer.

 

The Jaft sailor for his part kept his eyes alternately on Telfin’s back and the side streets they passed as they moved steadily and swiftly towards a metal Quonset shed Telfin clanked toward.  If he looked over his shoulders, he knew he’d still see his group crystal clear, but with each jogging step he felt they were getting miles and miles away from the captain and the crew of Wayfarers who were their charge.

 

Finally they arrived without incident at the wide white door of the communications post, a bronze plaque set in the exterior wall next to the door. Much to Foamrider’s surprise, the plate’s stamped letters were still legible and in the common tongue.  ‘Comms Post 3’, it read in bold black letters. Underneath, in smaller letters, ‘Authorized Personnel Only’.  He shifted his hands on his steel warhammer as Henry dismissed his dust devil with a casual wave of his hand.

 

“We must be quick,” Telfin said, rolling the door to the right into its slot in the outer wall, revealing the dark, dusty interior of the hut to Foamrider and Henry.  “My sensors indicate that there are four SF0012 units rapidly approaching our location.”  The machine man’s head moved rapidly back and forth as it stepped inside ahead of Foamrider, who followed next, stepping inside and to the left of the doorway.  Henry came inside, but only after Foamrider heard him utter something outside on the street, accompanied by a ‘whoosh’ of air.  When the Kobold stepped inside, he used his magic to pull the door shut behind him, leaving the interior in near darkness.

 

“What did you do,” Foamrider whispered to the Kobold, who brought a flashlight from his bags and clicked it on.

 

“I locked a spell just outside of the door.  If those machine men are indeed coming for us, they’ll be in for a surprise,” said the Kobold confidently, moving ahead, letting the beam of his flashlight guide him and the larger blue humanoid.  Foamrider saw the light pass over several steel benches, all of them host to strange, unknown bits of technological equipment the likes of which he’d never seen, and for purposes he could not even guess at.

 

“Telfin,” Foamrider called out into the darkness.  Both travelers stopped as they heard a wrenching of metal and a scraping shriek, followed by a clatter of machine parts being dropped to the floor.  “Telfin,” he called out again, louder.  The approach of pneumatic legs came towards them, and the artificial man stepped into the unstable beam of light coming from Henry’s flashlight.

 

“I am very sorry,” said Telfin apologetically.  In his hands he held three small black devices, which he held out to the Kobold and Jaft.  “There was a camdrone performing a surveillance sweep of this building.  That is likely why the SF0012 units were dispatched this way.  The walkies are intact however, and fully charged.  We should make our way back to the group.”

 

“Wait a minute, not yet,” said Henry, facing in the direction of the hut’s rolling door.  Two minutes later, all three of them heard a sudden, violent blast of wind, as of a hurricane-force.  Half a minute later, there was a great cacophony of crashing metal and strange warbling electronic blips.  Telfin’s head unit cocked to one side, curious.

 

“The three units have been destroyed,” said the machine man.  “How did you manage that?  According to the records I have, Aeromancy has seldom had an affect on the SF0012 units.”

 

“I was thinking about that,” Henry said, walking easily towards the rolling door.  He snapped his fingers, letting another gust roll it aside to let the piercing daylight into the hut.  Foamrider stepped between Telfin and the Kobold, staring in wonder at the shattered metallic sentries which lay in broken pieces just outside of the communications post.  “The last time we encountered them, most of my spells didn’t seem to do anything, so I decided to see if gravity might work better.  I let a Hurricanus spell launch them up as far as it could get them, then let the fall do its work.”  He practically beamed at the Jaft and machine.

 

“I’d say it did wonders,” said Foamrider, patting the little man on the back gently.  “Come on.  Let’s get these devices back to the group.”

 

It had been Timothy’s attention to details which had kept Hina from being the one to receive the crushing power of the Hurricanus spell that he saw Henry lock just outside of the Quonset hut in the distance.  The Elven Q Mage had been ready to run after them, just to provide a guard outside of the post if they should need it, but Tim had used a quickly cast Retanis spell to hold her in place.

 

“Henry’s taken care of it,” Tim warned, and a few minutes later, though everybody capable of fighting had been prepared to head off the three machine sentries speeding toward their companions, as soon as they were within a few yards of the Quonset, they were hurled skyward like so much debris, falling with lethal velocity and impact to the street.  The Void Mage in Timothy Vandross came alive the moment the spell had discharged, however, and the blue ring of light flared to life around his feet.  Even from this distance, he absorbed the knowledge of the Hurricanus spell.

 

Moments later, Telfin, Foamrider and Henry were hustling back to the group, the walkie radios in hand.  Kyle, Tim, Hina, Mattock and Henden stood in a cluster to receive them and talk over how they would split up their group, Telfin standing only a couple of feet away from the Elven Bishop.  “All right,” said Henden, taking one of the walkie radios and turning it on.  “I’ve worked with these things before, or something like them.  Let’s everybody turn the number selector to three so we’re all on the same page,” he said.  Mattock took one of the radios, and Hina took the third one, both turning the knob with white numbers around it until a white dot on the knobs lined up with the three.  “Now then, how should we divvy up our company?”

 

“If I may,” said Tim, holding up one finger.  He handed his radio to Kyle, who rolled his eyes and accepted the device.  “If you need to talk to the other groups, just hold the thumb switch on the left side and talk,” he said to his childhood friend.  “First, the six of us should each work in twos to keep everybody safe and organized.  Hina and I will head one group, Kyle and you, captain, and then Patriarch Henden and Telfin.  Does that seem reasonable?”

 

“Aye,” said Mattock.

 

“Oi,” said Henden.

 

“Certainly,” said Kyle, moving over to the captain’s side and handing the walkie off to him as quickly as possible.  Typical Bishop behavior, Timothy thought, they never trust technology.  He dismissed the thought a moment later, looking over at the collected sailors and Wayfarers.

 

“How many are there minus us,” he asked.

 

“Twenty-four even,” said Henden.

 

“Good.  That’s eight people to each of us,” said Tim.  “Telfin, is there a central road that splits this city evenly down the middle?”

 

“Not exactly down the middle, but close,” responded the machine man. He pointed east down the road.  “It is the next major intersection, which runs the entire distance of the city north-to-south.  I would presume by logical extrapolation that you would recommend that one group travel that road while the other two groups run parallel routes to the east and west?”  Timothy nodded, marveling once again at the machine’s use of audible tones and vibrations to assume a life-like voice.  “That is a very logical and sound tactical procedure to follow, master Timothy.  I shall go and inform the remainder of your group of the plan,” it said, moving off with a clank-clank series of steps.

 

Before the rest of them divided up to lead their groups, Henden pulled Timothy to one side, begging pardon to Hina for ‘stealin’ your man for a moment’.  When they were out of earshot of the group, he whispered to the Half-Elf Void Mage, “Why’d you stick me with the machine?”

 

“Because, if something happens to him, you’re the only one of us who has even the slightest idea how to fix him,” said Timothy.  “Besides which, if your arm needs repairs or replacement, he’s also the perfect person to help you find the equipment you’ll need to do it.  Besides, your group will be safer since he has those sensors.  You’ll be able to use his knowledge of the city to find safe locations.  I have a feeling your less capable group members are going to want to stick with you, no offense.”

 

“None taken,” said Henden with a sad grin.  “They do look to me for guidance and protection, after all.  Very well, young Vandross,” he said, offering a handshake.  “Stay safe, and make sure you and your woman keep in touch.”

 

As he’d suspected would happen, Tim and Hina wound up with two of the Wayfarer magic users, Henry and a younger Illeck woman by the name of Triana, a Pyromancer.  Three more Wayfarers, all Humans, and three of the Jaft sailors rounded out their group, and together they started east, toward the central road running north-to-south through the massive, seemingly lifeless city.  A dusty wind blew through, a gentle breeze bringing little if any sound upon it, and Timothy felt a shudder run up and down his spine.

 

Many of us are going to die here, he thought involuntarily.  Many will die here, and never see their native soil again.  When we find what we’ve come for here, and deactivate the barrier around the island, how long is it going to take to repair the ship?  A question he didn’t have an answer for, and if there was anything in the world that irked Timothy Vandross more than that, it would only be the hard truth of his bloodline on his father’s side.

 

Leading the group with Hina at his side, the Half-Elf Void Mage nearly shouted as, rounding the corner onto the main thoroughfare, he spotted six of the machine sentries in a cluster over by what appeared to have once been a small diner of some sort.  Almost without thought, he launched an Ice Drop spell, blue light shooting from his outstretched hands to a pinpoint over the machines’ heads.  As they swiveled toward his group, weapons whining as they powered up for combat, the light spread into a steel gray cloud and dropped thousands of shards of razor-sharp ice into their fragile bodies.  In seconds they were reduced to so much scrap on the street, smoke smoldering out of their ruined chassis.

 

“Gods Above, Vandross,” one of the sailors remarked, his cutlass returning to its scabbard.  “Where’d you learn to do that?”

 

“A very gracious Aquamancer in Desanadron,” said Tim.  “Hina, can you do a quick Scan ahead, see if we’ve got more company coming anytime soon?” The Elven Q Mage nodded, spreading her hands apart over her eyes and incanting the spell under her breath.  After a minute, she brought her hands down and nodded to Tim.

 

“About half a mile ahead, there’s another group of them.  Left side of the street.  I don’t think they’ve detected us yet.”

 

“Then let’s not give them the chance,” said Triana, the Pyromancer.  She swirled her hands in a circular formation, and before Tim could protest, she sent a blue fireball racing down the left side of the street, the ball roughly the size of a grown man.  Twenty seconds later, they all heard a thundering explosion which shook the street underneath them.  The Illeck patted her hands and beamed at the group.  “There, problem solved,” she said.

 

Though he wanted to shout at her for her compulsive actions, Timothy had to admit that there might be an advantage to her seemingly reckless actions.  The explosive fireball had more than likely destroyed the machine sentries down the road, and with the noise and force of the impact, anything that might be looking for them would be likely to begin with the point of impact.  And there was another advantage, though it wasn’t one he was proud to admit to; the raek, according to Hina, fed on mana flowing through the environment.  If the mosquito-like beasts were nearby, they would latch onto Triana as their target instead of him.

 

He led the way across to the right side of the road, carefully choosing his cover points.  Tim drew out his void rod, cracking his wrist, and the weapon morphed with a shine of white light into a cutlass of pitch black metal.  The rest of his group followed him to the side of a towering structure, where he assumed a half-crouch and moved forward to the north-most corner of the structure.

 

Hina stayed right next to him, her short sword also in hand, mimicking his movements, trusting to his instincts.  Though the Elven Q Mage possessed plenty of knowledge of tactical maneuvers and movements from various manuals and guidebooks on the subject, she knew that Timothy’s self-ascribed training over the years was more efficient to follow in real life situations. Though he seldom spoke of it, she knew he’d spent some of his years before meeting her working with a small band of mercenaries that traveled the realms of Tamalaria, their contracted jobs often taking them into hostile situations on a nearly constant basis.  When it came to managing hostile environments, she trusted his judgment.

 

“What are we doing,” Triana asked aloud as she took up a position against the wall next to Hina.  Tim put one finger up to his lips to silence her, giving the Illeck Pyromancer a glare filled with apprehension.  Triana rolled her eyes.  “This is ridiculous,” she said with a huff, stepping away from the building’s outer wall and sauntering forward past Hina.  Tim let her take one step past him, out from the cover of the building into the mouth of a small alleyway before he reached out with his free left hand and wrenched her backward to the ground.  She landed awkwardly on her backside and hands, crying out.  “What the hell, Van-,” she began.

 

Eyes wide, she watched as one of the island’s native beetle-like beasts, a brute, barreled out of the alley with its claws swinging where she had been only a couple of seconds before.  As soon as the creature’s arm carried through and returned to its side, Timothy stepped forward and stabbed his cutlass twice into the face mounted on its barrel chest.  The creature let out a groan before quietly slumping dead to the street, and Timothy retreated to his crouched post at the corner of the building.  Triana, panting, stared at the corpse of the brute laying in a spreading pool of its own blood.

 

“You’re welcome,” Tim rasped back at her over his shoulder.  He took a quick peek at the alley’s mouth before moving forward again in his practiced half-crouch, stopping again in the doorway of what one could be forgiven assuming was an apartment building of some sort.  He darted his eyes this way and that up and down the road, and signaled for Hina to lead the rest of the group.

 

Triana decided that she might do best to bring up the rear and follow the lead of the Half-Elf Void Mage from then on.

 

Captain Gronen Mattock strode confidently along at the head of his group, the Elven Bishop Kyle Vreki close to his right side, his smooth-headed mace held tightly in his left hand, constantly adjusting his robe sleeves.  The Jaft liked the padre well enough, and respected him as he would any member of the priestly orders or Classes of Tamalaria.  But he feared for the young Bishop as well.  Since arriving in the city proper, he’d noticed a constant thin sheen of sweat on the padre’s forehead, which Vreki dutifully and instinctively armed away every few minutes.  Additionally, the padre’s breathing had several times become rapid and labored, something Mattock was fairly certain his wife, Thelma, had also noticed from her position a few yards behind him and the priest.

 

Thankfully, half an hour after splitting into the smaller group, Vreki seemed ready to explain.  Moving quickly away from the group to a dusty garage space of some kind, Kyle took a heavy seat on the ground and hung his head down until his chin was touching his chest.  Gronen made a quick hand gesture to one of the crew members that had chosen to accompany his group, and the sailor came forward with a small gourd of sweetly scented liquid. “Drink this, padre, it will calm your nerves,” Mattock said, offering it to the green-robed Elf.

 

“Thank you,” Kyle said.  He took a quick, small swig of the drink and grimaced.  “Ye Gods, what is that?”

 

“It’s pugwon juice,” said Thelma, crouching down next to her husband on Kyle’s left side.  “It relaxes the muscles.”

 

“How?”

 

“There is a greatly diluted drop of scorpion venom mixed into the fruit juices during the blending process,” Thelma said.  She grinned mischievously at Kyle’s shocked, goggling eyes.  “Not to worry, it isn’t even enough of a drop to harm a child.”

 

“Of what Race,” asked Kyle in a pitched tone.  “Let us not forget that my people’s constitution is not quite as potent as yours.”

 

“Relax,” Gronen said.  “The stuff was originally concocted for use by Humans, who are even less resistant to poisons than Elves.  You have nothing to worry about from the pugwon.  But you seem to be in some distress, padre. What’s wrong?”  The four Wayfarers who had accompanied their group began exploring the inside of the garage structure they’d stopped in, and Gronen wanted to cover his face when he heard them begin poking around.

 

“I’m sorry,” said Kyle softly.  “I get like this whenever I’m surrounded by too much active technology.  There are energies at work all around and even underneath us on these streets.  As a Bishop, one of my order’s highest priorities is to ensure that we never become enslaved by technology.   Many of us don’t even tolerate the presence of a telephone in our homes,” he said with a wry snicker.

 

“Must make you difficult to get in touch with,” said Thelma.

 

“Not as difficult as you might think,” said Kyle.  “Wherever we choose to live, there is almost always someone with a working knowledge of such technology near to hand, someone in possession of a telephone or other means of communication.  Before joining Patriarch Henden and the Wayfarer Clan Todaro, several of my neighbors in Whistlie would allow me to list their telephone numbers as contact points with the church and with my employers.”

 

“That was good of them,” said Gronen.

 

“Yes, it was.  ‘Share of thyself freely whenever thou can, and know unity as closely as you may’.  Lenosian Bible, Book of Rodimus, Chapter 7, Verse 6.”  A nostalgic gleam shone over Vreki’s face.  “Ah, how I miss preaching to the flock.  Anyhow, I should be fine in a few minutes,” he said to Gronen.  “I just need to adjust my inner perceptions that I might not be overwhelmed by the presence of so much technology and its energy.”

 

“All right padre,” said the captain, standing up.  He stalked over to the garage doorway where two of his men were holding guard positions.  “But we don’t have all the time in the world.”  He took the walkie device from his belt, adjusting the knob on top and thumbing the button on the left side, his warhammer resting in his right hand against his shoulder.  “This is captain Gronen Mattock speaking.  We’ve stopped to allow for the padre to rest.”  He let go of the button, and a crackle of static burst out of the speaker.  He stared, confused, at the device.  “I wonder if it worked,” he muttered.

 

“This is Patriarch Henden,” came the Gnome Engineer’s voice through the device’s speaker.  Gronen noted that the crackle of the static could be vaguely heard behind the Gnome’s voice.  “We hear and acknowledge.  We haven’t run into any trouble yet ourselves, but Telfin has our group standing about in some sort of medical facility.  We’re scrounging up whatever supplies we can locate, over.”  Again came the burst of static, and Gronen nodded to himself.

 

“This is Hina Hinas,” said the Elven Q Mage over the radio.  “We’ve had a couple of encounters with the machines and one of the brutes, but everybody here’s all right.  But Henden, I think you should be aware that Triana is going to probably a little less cocky in the future.  If not for my husband, she probably would be dead in the street right now, over.”  Another crackle of static.  Gronen smiled to himself; the certainty and confidence in the Elven Q Mage had, from the very moment he met the padre’s friends, impressed him.  Most Q Mages, regardless of Race, had often struck him as quiet, mousy, fearful sorts.  Their particular brand of magic was seldom seen as useful in a combative situation. Yet he sensed that she had not only other skills to defend herself, but an inventiveness that probably allowed her magic to be much more effective than one might assume.

 

And then there was, of course, young Vandross, the Void Mage.  Gronen had only ever met one other Void Mage in his life, and that woman had been a self-absorbed egomaniac.  She’d hired the crew of the Steel Fist to take her along the rivers to Shipport, a major trading port town in the Freehold States territory, from Ankrel, a coastal village in the southeastern Elven Kingdom.  The ship had only made half of its journey before the entire crew was ready to kill the woman in her sleep for her arrogance and ill-mannered ways.  Instead of resorting to murder, however, Gronen had woken the woman in the middle of the night when they reached the half-way point of their trip.  He handed her a coin pouch with half of the money she’d paid for their services as ferry vessel.

 

“Half a trip is all you get,” he’d told her in the darkness of her rented quarters on the third deck.  “If my men had their way, they’d be in here to kill you right now.  I have something more peaceful in mind, but first, I have a question for you.  Can you swim?”  Carrying the woman kicking and screaming, trying to cast spells as he held her arms pinned at her sides, back pressed against his chest, he took her up to the main deck and dropped her over the port side into the river, Thelma tossing the woman’s traveling trunk over a few yards away with a splash.

 

Reminiscing, he gave a snorting chuckle.  Thelma put a hand on his shoulder from behind.  “Everything all right, dear,” she asked.

 

“Oh, just fine.  I was just remembering that woman we dropped in the Semikis River,” he said, at which Thelma and both of their men grinned broadly.  “Ah, yes, we have had some good times, haven’t we?”

 

“And will have many more, captain,” said Thelma Mattock, slinging an arm over his shoulders.  “Many more.”

 

Derrick Henden picked up yet another white cardboard box, the label for which he could barely make out the printing, much less understand the complicated words thereon.  He stood in what appeared to be a trashed pharmacy chamber of some kind in the medical facility as one of the Jaft sailors, Foamrider, stood guard for him at the doorway.  “Find anything interesting in there, Patriarch?”

 

“Nothing we could probably use,” said the Gnome Engineer, putting the box down and picking up a bottle with some sort of white and blue pills inside of it.  “There’s all sorts of chems in here, but I’ve no clue what they might be for.  Where the hell is that bucket of bolts right now,” he grumbled, thumbing a thin sheet of dust from several of the bottles as he looked them over.

 

“Patriarch, the others are coming back this way, along with the machine,” said Foamrider.

 

“Robot,” said Henden.

 

“What?”

 

“Telfin.  He’s what we would call a robot, Mr. Foamrider.  Is Mr. Sperio with them?”

 

“Yes,” said the Jaft sailor, stepping aside as Telfin swooped into the room with the Gnome Engineer.  Sperio followed right behind him, a fresh and ragged gash running the length of his left arm.

 

“Oi, what happened,” Derrick asked, stepping down off of the chair he’d been using to peruse the medical cabinet.

 

“A miscalculation on my part,” replied Telfin.  “My sensors are only presently capable of scanning for either mechanical or organic life signs, and we were ambushed by a pair of brutes in the surgical wing.  I am relieved however that nobody was seriously injured, Mr. Sperio’s arm notwithstanding.  However, as a Jaft, his restorative capabilities should allow the wound to completely heal over within a matter of an hour or less, if my records are accurate on the subject.”

 

“Which they bloody well aren’t,” shouted Sperio, holding his wounded arm.  “I’m an old man for a Jaft, you daft machine!  This is going to take hours probably, the better part of a day!  Unless I can get it stitched up,” he said to Henden more amiably, though not by much.

 

“Tell Sammy to patch you up, he’s the Lizardman wif the bright orange tee shirt,” said Henden absently, going back up on the chair and pulling two of the bottles out.  The first mate stalked out of the room, leaving Henden and Telfin alone.  The Gnome held up the bottles.  “What’re these, Telfin?”

 

“Ah, let me see,” said the machine, plucking the bottles nimbly from Henden’s hands.  “This is risperdal, a powerful anti-psychotic medication.  It appears it was prescribed to James Helfstead.  Records indicate he was error,” said Telfin, his head twitching rapidly to one side with a jarring shake, his joints rattling in his metallic neck.  “Hmm.  I can’t seem to access his records.  And this,” he said, holding up the other bottle for inspection.  “This is a neo-natal supplement prescribed to Judith Sangor.  Records indicate she was an assistant programmer in charge of aligning the targeting and combat protocol systems of the SF0012 units, as well as having done some work on the mobility systems of the Light Roller units.”

 

“Light Roller,” asked Henden, eyebrow cocked.  “What’s that?”

 

“Well, I believe your group encountered one of the few remaining Heavy Roller units in the jungle,” said Telfin.

 

“You mean the tank?”

 

“Language database confirms this is a fitting synonym.  A Light Roller is approximately 25% of the size of a Heavy Roller, and has no ballistic cannon mounted for assault and defense, but rather two fully rotational turret guns capable of firing at a rate of eight rounds per second.  They are smaller and swifter than Heavy Rollers, but their armor plating is also graded to be only 10% as effective as that of their larger counterparts.”

 

“I’m assuming they don’t need the protection because of speed and maneuverability,” said Henden, trying to keep his calm while his heart tapped a rapid staccato dance in his chest.

 

“That was the original projection of the data, yes.  But entropy and disrepair will have taken their toll, master Henden.  We shouldn’t have much to worry about from the Light Rollers.”  As the machine made its way out of the room, Henden suddenly wished Kyle were with him, that he might use his disruptive magic to stop Telfin from delivering any more bad news.

 

Tim, Hina and their group shuffled quickly and quietly up to a chest-high counter in the lobby of a building that for reasons she only vaguely comprehended, Hina believed they had to get into.  Directing Timothy’s attention to it, the group had sprinted behind the Half-Elf Void Mage as he made his way from the remains of Triana’s destructive fireball spell from earlier to the open doors of the building.

 

The moment Tim and Hina entered the building, fluorescent lights came on in square notches in the ceiling overhead.  The light revealed a marble floored lobby area, replete with waiting chairs, some kind of check-in desk in front of which they all crouched at the moment, and behind the desk, an elevator’s gleaming steel doors.  Two marble staircases twisted up into the building off to the right and left of the elevator, and as the group stood silently taking in the glamorous appearance of the lobby, Tim just barely detected the sound of something metal descending one of the staircases.

 

The moment he heard it, he put a finger to his lips to warn the others to remain silent and crouch-darted to the front desk, planting his back against it, weapon in hand.  Taking up a position on by the right-front corner of the long marble counter, he listened intently, picking out the subtle ‘clack-clack’ of light metal steps on the stairs, still descending.  He looked over at Hina, who was at that moment drawing out a small metal tube and putting it up to her eye, an angled viewer with small mirrors inside of its structure to allow her to look over the counter and behind her, towards the stairs.  When she pulled the tube away slowly, she nodded to him.

 

Hina put up two fingers to her eyes, then pushed them toward Tim to indicate she saw two hostile presences descending toward their group.  Tim put his mouth to her ear and whispered, “Are they both on the same stairs?”  She shook her head slightly.  “I’ll get the right, you take the left.”  Hina made no sign but instead started duck-walking around the other members of their group toward the left end of the counter.  When she was there and Tim felt the pull of her mana building, he stood and turned around, left hand punching out. “Flaugus,” he invoked, projecting a copy of his fist in golden light which streaked at the mechanical sentry coming down the right staircase, expanding as it flew.  To his left, he heard Hina perform her own invocation, and heard matching sounds of metal flying apart and dropping away harmlessly upon the steps.

 

When the smoke cleared, both machines had been destroyed.  “Okay folks, it’s clear,” Tim said.  He cracked his void rod twice, once to return it to its original form, and again to shape it into a long, hooked steelerang.  “Left or right,” he called over to Hina.

 

“Left,” she called back, making her way to the staircase on the left side of the elevator.  Tim and the rest of the group began making its way to her position when a small wooden door set in the wall to the left of the staircase burst apart, and one of the island’s brutes, it’s hardened carapace gleaming inky black, charged screaming out at the Elven Q Mage.  Caught off guard, Hina was only able to put up a quick defensive barrier that served to keep the powerful blow she received to the side of her head from killing her.  She was sent sprawling aside, sliding grotesquely across the smooth marble floor before coming to a crashing stop against a white column support.

 

Unlike the handful of other beetle-like predators on the island Tim had seen thus far, this one was darker in shell tone, much more muscular, and appeared to be well-fed.  It was also faster than its smaller, undernourished counterparts.  In the closet behind where it now stood panting at him and the group accompanying he and Hina, the Half-Elf Void Mage could just spot the rent remains of several of the mosquito-like raek.  Has it been eating them, he wondered.  More than likely.  It’s healthy, so it’s dangerous.

 

The beast loosed a roar from the gaping maw mounted on its upper torso, charging directly at Tim.  The others scattered behind him except for one of the Jaft sailors, and as Tim tucked and rolled out of the approaching beast’s path, the sailor brought his warhammer down on top of the creature’s shoulders, knocking it flat to the floor with a wretched groan of surprise and pain.  But this specimen was more resilient than the others had been out in the jungle, and it quickly lashed out with its hooked claws, swiping a bloody chunk out of the Jaft’s right leg.  The blue fleshed warrior cried out, but maintained his composure, backing away and bringing his hammer down again, missing the beast only by inches as it rolled aside and sprang back to its feet.

 

The brute’s fortune ran out there, however, for the moment it stood up, another of the sailors from captain Mattock’s crew ran his scimitar through the creature’s back all the way to the hilt, its tip and wide blade splitting the creature’s face cruelly in half at a diagonal.  With a quick series of death spasms it went limp, and the sailor kick-pushed it off of his blade.  Tim ran over to Hina, who was starting to finally sit up, rubbing her pounding head.

 

“Are you okay, Hina?  Is it serious?  How many fingers am I holding up,” Tim rattled, trembling.

 

“I’m fine, dear, I’m fine.  Just going to have a bitch of a headache, that’s all,” Hina muttered.  She grabbed her jaw and forced it back into place with a loud ‘click’ that made Tim wince.  “It could have been worse.”

 

“Agreed, but let’s not tempt fate, shall we,” said Tim, helping his wife to her feet.

 

“One good thing, though,” she said.  “That blow to the head knocked loose something.  I remember why this building is important,” she said.

 

“Really?  Why?”

 

“This is the building my dreams started in,” she said, staring at the marble staircase.  “This is the Gateway Facility.”

 

The sleeper heard a faint humming in the middle distance.  The letters of green on black fields came into view once again.

 

-Reactivation process nearing completion.  Calibration tests commencing.  O2 concentration flood initialized.  Nervous actuators coming online.-  The moment this last line appeared, the sleeper began to feel the moisture all around his body, the fluids of the stasis containment chamber it had been imprisoned inside of for so many years.  The sensation was dull at first, but soon it felt the harness running along its spine, the clamps fitted over its oversized hands.  It could feel the device fitted over his head, his soaked hair providing minimal padding between the artificial dermis of his head and the helmet device itself.

 

The sleeper realized now just what its body felt like now, which had not apparently changed much since it had been forced into the stasis chamber. Memory synapses previously locked down from a combination of apathy and the stasis process fired again, memories held in the organic components of his brain matter.  The System was then speaking to him again.

 

-Weapons systems registered, reading full energy charge for cannon. Defensive field projection unit could not be fully repaired, unit will only be operable at 40% capacity.  Recommend Guardian unit locates and destroys SF0116, codename Telfin, in order to harvest its projection unit for integration replacement into internal system.  Maintenance facility is presently capable of handling the necessary operations.

 

-Stasis chamber will begin fluid drainage in approximately twenty minutes.  The System will contact Guardian unit again at that time.-

 

Excellent, thought the Guardian.  The time has come at long last to serve my function again.  I shall begin with the meddler who tricked me into this chamber.  I shall begin with Heathrow Liotus.

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