Chapter Four

 

Errors

 

The sleeper drifted along in its own darkness, content for the moment to revel in the memories that continued to resurface as the long minutes and hours of the night passed it by in relative silence.  I am Security Forces Model 0117, codename: Guardian, it thought.  I am the first successful fusion of organic and mechanical components dominated by artificial thought patterns and sustained in a nutrient chamber.  I am the property of Omnitech Industries.

 

I am in command of this research station’s Artificial Intelligence Security Forces.  Furthermore, my authority extends to the entire colony.  Our most recent contact, outside of the current invaders, was with a primitive pirate vessel some two-hundred miles from the island.  The life forms aboard were mostly Minotaurs and a handful of Elves they’d taken prisoner.  Commander Eskel ordered the primitives destroyed and relayed his report back.

 

But the anomaly had already begun taking shape by then, the sleeper thought, disturbed by its lack of information regarding the anomaly itself. Professor Lorring hypothesized that it was some form of time dilation.  He further posited that it may have been created when the colony was formed, developing into a problem only when the Gateway was reactivated.

 

What is the Gateway, the sleeper wondered.  System, query.

 

-State your query,- the System displayed in its green block lettering.

 

What is the Gateway?  Answer.  There was darkness again, backlit by the System as the sleeper faintly heard electronic signals bouncing around in the unseen space around its nutrient tank.  It knew now that its sense of weightlessness was due to its suspension in the fluid of the tank.  It also knew that when it was finished powering up via its previous commands, the tank would drain, be lifted back into its compartment in the ceiling overhead, and the Guardian would be free to move about the station and the outer colony as it had in times long past.

 

-Information request could not be retrieved.  System records indicate that the files regarding the Gateway were manually removed to a storage device by SF0116 approximately eight days prior to reactivation of SF0117 and the arrival of the intruder life forms.  What is your recommendation?-

 

Locate and retrieve SF0116.  Leave him functional, but ensure that he is disarmed and given some surface-level damage.  At all costs, ensure that he does not come into contact with these unknown intruders.  Initiate lockdown procedure on this facility until such time as target has been retrieved and brought here.

 

-Understood.  Recommendation is being taken into account.  Warning: life sign monitoring system has been compromised.  Primary power conduits allowing transfer of energy to sensor arrays have been damaged.-

 

What?

 

-Security footage retrieved.  Displaying.-  And in its mind’s eye, the sleeper watched as SF0116 entered the sensor array station and began using its arm cannon on every power box in the small laboratory.  When it was finished, it aimed its cylindrical left arm up at the security camera, discharging a final burst of energy, blanking out the screen.  –Sensors were able to determine that SF0116 had only an approximate five available cannon discharges remaining in its weapons system cell.  All life form sensors have been rendered inoperable. Recommendation?-

 

Maintenance drones?

 

-There were ten available at last count.  All AI units can still be traced via electronic signatures, with the exception of SF0116.-

 

Understood.  Send five of the maintenance drones to the sensor array lab, get it functional again.  We cannot allow the intruders into this station.

 

-Acknowledged.-

 

System.  What, what is SF0116 doing?  Why is it behaving in this fashion?

 

-Unknown.  Records indicate that during its most recent upkeep and maintenance phase, SF0116 became highly agitated and irrational.  This is why Professor Lorring advised its immediate removal from all higher command functions and authorization manifests.  Further reports were never issued regarding SF0116, codename: Telfin.-

 

That’s because they had me operational soon after that point, thought the sleeper to itself.  SF0116 was no longer necessary.  It is time to put that piece of equipment where it belongs, on the inactive list.

 

The travelers from Tamalaria moved cautiously along the jungle pathways, more than a few times challenged by crossroads meetings wherein they had to choose from three or four directions to continue on in.  Each time they trusted to Patriarch Derrick Henden’s sense of direction to lead the way for them.  Unfortunately, the company found themselves coming full circle back to a branching pathway intersection twice by the time an hour remained until noon.

 

“This is just ridiculous,” Henden grumbled as they stopped for a brief lunch break.  “Those brutes haven’t helped make things any easier either,” he said, checking his artificial arm’s bolts and screws.

 

“True, but neither have them been an impediment, thanks to young Vandross,” said Mattock, giving Timothy a nod.  Tim had launched several small balls of blue energy into the air around the company, and from these balls thin streams of white light lanced into the brutes that attempted to ambush the company as it traversed the paths around the island and the city in its center. The beetle-like beasts, cut through by the Void Mage’s magic in seconds flat, offered no problem to them.  But something other than the brutes bothered the Void Mage and his wife, Hina.

 

She finally voiced her own concern when the company was about to start out again.  “We haven’t seen any of the machine men today,” she said aloud, which caught the attention of Mattock, Henden, Kyle and Timothy all. The five of them remained standing where they’d taken their meal, all of them thinking the same general thing; when are the machines going to set upon us? “It’s possible they’re heading back to the city to warn their people about us, especially if the city really is inhabited by machine people,” she said, folding her arms over her chest.

 

“Or consolidating their forces, waiting for us to enter the city,” said Henden.  The Gnome Engineer scratched his wiry white beard, nodding to himself.  “Out here, we’re organic, we have the advantage of cover and camouflage.  In the city, if it’s a machine society, they’ll be better prepared to fight and blend in with their surroundings.  We hadn’t thought of this, either, but Kyle,” he said, putting one hand on the Elven Bishop’s arm.  “You said you’ve been disrupting the mechanical eyes that have been watching us along the roads, yeah?”

 

“Yes,” said Kyle with a touch of pride.  “I haven’t missed any of them, either.”

 

“So someone was watching us, and now they can’t,” said Timothy, snapping his fingers as he realized what Henden was getting at.  “If they’re machine men, then they can’t get any more information from the machine eyes, the cameras.  That means they’ll fall back to a point where they can see us coming, analyze us, and engage us if their systems tell them they can, right?”

 

“Exactly,” said Henden, twisting a bolt on the back of his hand, ensuring its placement.  “We have no way of knowing how long it’s going to take us from here to get to that city, but I believe we can breathe easy about it.  The brutes aren’t much threat with Tim’s magic on hand right now, and we’ve already established good guard shifts if we’re stuck out here another night.  For now, let’s just try a different path than we did this morning, and keep on.”

 

When the five were in agreement, they moved to the front of the company like a vanguard, Thelma Mattock staying close to her husband, the Jaft sailors keeping themselves spread out along the flanks of the company. The group followed the new path to the crest of a rise, and down at the bottom of a long stretch of decline in the path, Timothy and Hina saw something the others likely couldn’t discern, due to their intense and broad knowledge of magic.

 

At a turn in the path at the bottom of the declining section of path lay the ruins of some sort of autocart, long since rusted and rent asunder for various scrap pieces.  As the company approached it after six minutes or so, Tim looked to Hina, and when their eyes met, they nodded silently to one another, not having to speak a word.  Henden, ever the technophile, immediately set about trying to identify where the machine’s engine would be embedded.  Kyle muttered a brief prayer to the Great Lenos to guide and protect them, and to keep his friends from coming to harm in the presence of the inert machine.

 

Timothy Vandross pulled his Void rod from his hip, cracking his wrist, sending a shimmering swirl of bluish light up and down the wooden rod.  A moment later, the rod had turned itself into a crowbar, which he wedged into the back panel of the autocart, turning it sideways to slip into the slim gap between the hatch and the frame of the cart.  He hauled back on the crowbar, grunting with each effort, as Hina poured a spell into him that would temporarily increase his physical might threefold.  After her enchantment took full effect, Timothy Vandross pulled on the crowbar once, twice, and on the third attempt, with a loud protesting squeal and a thump, the back panel of the autocart creaked open and fell off of the machine’s frame.

 

In the back of the ancient autocart, Hina spotted the tiny glowing stone she and Timothy had both detected immediately upon sighting the machine. She reached in and plucked it out, holding it up for Tim, Kyle and Mattock to see.  Henden was still busying himself with the engine he’d managed to work his way to with Foamrider and Henry’s help.  “What is that,” Kyle asked, angling his head this way and that to get a better look at the stone in Hina’s fingers.

 

“It’s a vertanis stone,” said Tim with a victorious grin.  He handed Hina a small cloth pouch, into which she deposited the stone, handing the pouch back to her husband.  She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and excused herself into the nearby brush.

 

“What does it do,” asked Kyle, genuinely curious.  Up close, he finally detected the natural magic flowing through the stone, and he forgot about the machine they stood next to entirely, though Henden, grumbling and growling under his breath, had not.

 

“It draws in and stores natural environmental mana,” Tim said, putting a hand on Kyle’s shoulder and leading him and Mattock a few yards away from the autocart.  “The color indicates how much mana is presently stored in a vertanis stone.  When it’s dull, it hasn’t collected any.  Then there’s yellow, orange, purple, green, brown and finally red.”

 

“What color is it right now,” asked Kyle.

 

“Green,” said Tim.  “Which, considering how little mana flow this island seems to have naturally occurring, means it probably took at least a few centuries for it to absorb this much energy.  But these stones, Kyle, they hold a hell of a lot of mana.  Right now, with it showing green, the stone has enough mana to fully restore Hina, you, Henry and probably myself most of the way, and that’s if we completely ran ourselves dry of magical energies,” Tim said, eyes shining brightly.

 

“That’s a great deal of mana, I presume,” asked Mattock, burly arms hanging loosely at his sides.  His ears were focused on the conversation, but the lumbering Jaft captain sensed that all was not well around them, that the company was about to come under threat of attack again very soon.

 

“Oh, it’s an extraordinary amount.  In a city like Palen, one of these stones can go from dull to red in a couple of days, but here?  We should count ourselves fortunate to have this,” he said, patting the pouch he’d tied to his belt.  Hina returned from the brush to his side, looking visibly relieved, and the four of them made their way over to Henden, who was shaking his head forlornly as he looked at the metal device under the hood of the autocart.

 

“Patriarch Henden,” said Kyle.  “Are you well?”

 

“Oh, I’m fine,” said the Gnome Engineer, putting his larger tools away in his bag.  “I was hoping I could salvage something from this ancient engine, but the thing’s completely dusted.  There’s more rust than actual metal here now, and besides that, the wiring makes no sense at all to me.  There’s these couplings and slots for parts I don’t recognize as anything Fourth Age.”

 

“So, it’s a bust,” Kyle asked gently.

 

“Yeah, a total bust,” admitted Henden.  As he joined them on his feet, the entire company felt a low, distant rumbling in the ground under their feet. Casting his eyes skyward, Timothy saw the treetops swaying and trembling back and forth along with the sudden movement of the ground.  “What the hell is that?  Earthquake,” asked the Gnome Engineer.

 

“No,” said Hina and Kyle simultaneously, looking about into the dense jungle around the path.  “Something’s coming for us,” Hina continued.  Every mage in the company brought their mana to bear, and Hina sent out a quick Feeler spell in every direction, trying to gauge where the threat was coming from.  After what felt to her like an eternity, she felt it, coming slow, something of great size and power, something artificial.  Something mechanical, in short.

 

“Hina, what is it,” Tim whispered to her, guiding her by the wrist out into the middle of the path.  Hina’s eyes snapped open, her legs locking stiff and her hand gripping Tim’s wrist so hard she left the flesh white underneath after she let go of him.  “Did you see it?  What’s coming?”

 

“Get everybody off of the path, Tim.  Tell captain Mattock and Henden to split their people into two even groups of his men and the Wayfarers.  Tim,” she said, turning only her head to look him in the eyes.  There, in her eyes, he saw something in her he hadn’t seen in her but a few rare times, one of which was during their final confrontation on their travels with Ignatious Stockholm. “We cannot defeat the thing coming at us.  It will destroy us if we try to fight it directly.”

 

Tim understood perfectly what she meant.  Though he’d not used a Feeler spell, he too sensed the sheer power of the coming menace, and knew it was nothing natural, but yet another machine.  He ran over to Mattock, who’d already gathered his men about him, and relayed Hina’s instructions to the Jaft captain and Derrick Henden, each of whom in turn complied with the suggestion with great haste.

 

And as the groups split apart, one group heading into the jungle north of the path and the other group to the south, Tim and Hina, joining Kyle Vreki with the northern group, looked back up the path momentarily, and spotted just for an instant the machine bearing down on them.  Hina nearly screamed at the sight of it.

 

During the height of the Fourth Age, the Age of Mecha, before the Fall began, several countries had developed such war machines as the thing seeking them out.  Large and blocky, it rolled along on six orbital rolling units which allowed it incredible agility and maneuverability.  Shining in the high sunlight with a silvery gleam, a smaller, triangular unit of gunmetal gray steel sat atop the base, a long tube attached to the front point of the triangle.  Along its base on either side, set essentially atop the moving tread wheels, machine armaments bristled with barrels and targeting sites and belts of ammunition.

 

The machine sent to seek and destroy them had existed in a smaller, simpler form in Tamalaria, but Timothy and Hina both knew the term given to such instruments of destruction.  The company was being hunted by an ‘automated tank’.

 

-Heavy Roller unit has relayed confirmation of foreign intruders.  Group has divided into two groups, one moving north and one south of contact point in zone D5.  Command recommendation sought by unit.-

 

Send the Heavy Roller after the group the green-clad Elf went with, the sleeper told the System.

 

-That would be the northbound group.  Further orders?-

 

Yes, have the retracted SF0012 units converge and pursue the southbound group.  Their action code is Terminate.  Send command now.

 

-Confirmed, orders delivered.  SF0012 units are on the move.  Heavy Roller unit is calibrating for pursuit and Termination protocol.  It will begin its operations in thirty seconds.  Contact report will be retrieved after conflict.-

 

Good, thought the sleeper.  When the intruders have been destroyed, continue with reactivation commands and sequences.  This colony is coming back online.

 

-Acknowledged.-

 

“What, was, that, thing,” Gronen Mattock asked as he sucked breath, carrying Derrick Henden under his left arm as their group dove into the jungle thicket south of the path they’d been trekking along toward the unknown city. The Gnome Engineer was, thankfully, underweight for a Gnome of his considerable height, and Thelma had Henry, the Kobold Aeromancer, tucked under her arm as well, running alongside her husband as the other Wayfarers and the crewmen they’d split with streamed through the jungle ahead of them.

 

“It’s called an automated tank,” Henden called up to Gronen, trying not to lose his lunch as he was jostled up and down, back and forth under the powerful Jaft captain’s arm.  The stench of the Jaft people, up close and personal like this, was finally starting to catch up with the Gnome Engineer. “Back in the late Fourth Age they had a handful of working models up and running, but nothing that looked half as powerful as that thing!”

 

“We can talk later,” Thelma shouted to the two of them, trying to be heard over her screaming charge.  Henry had soiled himself when he saw the machine through the foliage, thinking that it would turn its triangular head towards his group and send whatever sort of death it would at them.  But after another five minutes of running, Mattock’s group slowed down as the rumbling began again, fading north.

 

“It’s going after the priest,” Gronen said, setting Henden down as his group gathered around him.

 

“My Faenwol,” Henden whispered, shaking his head as he tried to look back through the thicket to the north.  But the group, in its adrenaline-fed escape, had traversed too far south to catch even a glimpse of the path they’d been on, much less the tank or their allies and friends.  “Oh, Kyle, run.  Keep away from that thing, Gods look after him,” the Gnome said, lowering his head.

 

“We can’t think about that right now,” Gronen said, hunching down in the small clearing they’d stopped in.  “Right now, we have to think of a way to return to them and destroy that, what did you call it,” he asked Henden.

 

“Tank,” said the Gnome.  “There is no destroying it, not with what we’ve got on hand.”

 

“It’s a machine, though,” said Mr. Sperio, joining the trio in charge of their group.  The Wayfarers and other crewmen stood about, weapons in hands, surveying the surrounding area.  “Yer priest be a Bishop, aye?”

 

“Yes,” said Henden.  “So?”

 

“So Bishops have a number of spells and rituals what can disable all machinery, remember,” said Sperio with a confident smile.  “If’n your padre can keep himself focused, I’ll wager he can make that thing little more than a rolling block of metal, come to that.”

 

“Not if the cannon blows him apart,” said Henden.  “The tube coming out of the swivel head unit is a cannon, and I recognized the type.  It fires a concentrated burst of electrical energy in a beam, like a Thunder Mage spell of some sort, only technological.”

 

“How can you know of that machine but not the one we came upon when the tank approached,” asked Thelma Mattock.

 

“The wreck we found is either older or wasn’t kept in a maintenance bay of any sort,” said Henden.  “That tank’s clearly been taken care of,” he said.  As Henden let out a sigh, one of the Jaft crewmen, a younger sailor by the name of Doren, hustled over with his spear in hand.

 

“Captain, the machine men,” he said, pointing further south into the thicket.  “We can hear them coming toward us, sir.”

 

“How many,” asked Mattock, getting up and grabbing his warhammer.

 

“We don’t,” Doren began when a loud burst rent the air, followed by an impact and one of the Wayfarers’ screams of agony.  “Somverus gargap wonech,” Doren cried out, turning back toward the south.  Henden immediately fired with his artificial arm at the first machine sentry he spotted, laying it out with a well-placed shot to its chest unit.  With a battle cry both Mattocks charged toward the approaching machines, Henry using his Aeromancy to send several of the metal threats crashing into piles of scrap against the sturdy jungle trees.

 

The battle between flesh and metal raged on.

 

“Is he crazy,” Kyle asked Hina as they crouched behind a thick tree trunk, the first oak Hina had seen since arriving in this strange land.

 

“Yes, he is,” she replied, staring north, her eyes glued to her husband up in the tree.  The tank’s approach could be both heard and felt, as despite their fortuitous head start on the machine, their group had not been able to maintain a good pace while fleeing the juggernaut that bore down on them like a thresher.  While the flesh-and-blood mortals had been forced to work against undergrowth, puddles, trees and other obstacles, the tank had simply bulldozed over and through everything in its path, felling trees and sending stones and scrub flying in all directions, some of it splattering against its sloped front end.

 

“Tell me how this little suicidal stunt is supposed to help us,” Kyle rasped, tapping his fingers on the trunk of the tree, gathering his mana into a single concentrated point in his left hand.  “Because if it doesn’t work, your husband and I are both going to be slaughtered without any doubt in my mind.”

 

“Just worry about doing your part when he’s landed,” Hina said, trying to keep her own sense of calm.  The tank was approaching fast, and would soon be at the spot along the way that Tim needed it to arrive at before dropping down on it.  Up in a tree, half hanging off of a branch, suspended at an angle by a Holding spell compliments of Hina, he had his right arm cocked back, unearthly force gathered in his fist.  Along the back of his hand, a dark, tribal sigil smoldered upon his flesh, a symbol never intended for mortal flesh to bear.

 

It had been yet another power he’d gathered in his life as a Void Mage, as much a curse as it was a blessing.  For all Tim knew, he might find himself absorbing some new power or skill from the machine itself when he struck, which would be a whole new level of odd for him.  He’d never before considered the possibility, but it was there.

 

“Here it comes,” he said to himself, seeing the tank as it barreled through a stand of closely growing elms, knocking them over and thus slowing itself down momentarily.  He only hoped the machine wouldn’t spot him up in his magically held perch, waiting for it to pass under him.  More smoke steamed up from the sigil on the back of his right hand, and he worried that if the tank didn’t make its spot soon, he’d lose control of the power he currently had conjured up.  Certainly it was never intended to be held in check as long as he’d had it on him, but the timing of this plan could not be allowed to rest on a precise singular moment.

 

Finally, the world shaking itself apart around him, Tim watched as the tank passed its mark, and he felt Hina’s magic release its hold on him, letting him drop, screaming like a berserker, down toward the tank.  Tim thrust out his fist, a jetfire cone of crimson power flooding back over his arm and shoulder, propelling him even faster toward the tank’s upper swivel mount.

 

With an explosive crash of the power of the Fist of the Breaker colliding with the center of the metallic structure Tim landed in a crouch, his fist buried in the casing of the mounted unit, electricity sparking through wires surrounding his arm.  But the energy didn’t touch him through the continued crimson force sweeping his upper body from the sigil, and with a shudder he ripped himself free of the machine, flinging himself back into empty space as the tank slowed to a crawl and, ultimately, a complete stop.  Tim lay in the middle of the path it had just rolled along, clearing its own way through the jungle, panting, heaving himself awkwardly to his feet.

 

Gears whined and creaked as the triangular mount unit swiveled back toward him, and Timothy Vandross found himself staring down the enormous barrel of the tank’s cannon, only thirty yards away.  There came from the machine a loud series of sparks and snapping cords, and nothing but thick smoke came from the end of the cannon’s barrel.

 

He planted his hands on his hips and smiled at the disabled machine. Too soon to celebrate, he thought, watching as the machine used its rolling ball-wheels to turn itself back toward him.  “Oh, hells,” he whispered, turning around to start fleeing the machine.  But that, as it turned out, would not be necessary, thanks to Kyle Vreki.

 

The Elven Bishop, in a rare display of courage, sprinted from Hina’s side the moment the tank began making its turnabout to ready a lethal charge on his childhood friend.  With his heart hammering away like a Dwarven miner on Warp (a well-known drug in Tamalaria), Kyle slapped his left hand onto the nearest ball-wheel, unleashing all of his concentrated Bishop mana in a single disruptive spell, sending it spiraling through the joints and gears and motors within the machine.  Stepping away quickly, Kyle watched in wonder as the machine began to fall apart into its disparate pieces and systems, a useless collection of disabled and destroyed parts and equipment.

 

Hina would have hugged the Elven Bishop if he hadn’t fainted from joy and exhaustion.

 

This is preposterous, the sleeper raged at the System.  How could they possibly render the Heavy Roller inoperable?  How?!

 

-Unknown.  Footage taken from Heavy Roller unit indicates that both powers used against it are not in any database within the System.  The Program has no answer to yield with regards to this matter.  Data recovered from transmissions indicates that some immeasurable physical force, mixed with an unknown spectral energy, was applied by the Half-Elf which attacked the unit from above.-

 

No Elf in any historical reference in the database has ever been capable of exerting such physical forces as the readings would seem to imply.  How can a Half-Elf possess that sort of strength?

 

-Unknown.  The System can only hypothesize that the Human aspect of the Half-Elf may actually be mutated in nature, what is referred to in Tamalarian databases as ‘Sidalis’.  However, a symbol of unknown origin was also seen by internal cameras within the Heavy Roller.  Displaying it now.-  The System brought up a screen in the mind’s eye of the sleeper, and as it stared at the symbol, it felt part of its formerly mortal mind begin to rebel against itself, shrinking away from the sight of that sigil in a mix of terror and awe.

 

System, initiate new priority.  The green clad Elf and the Half-Elf are not to be destroyed, if possible.  We should capture them, have them taken to the analysis labs for study.  If they become too great a threat, they may be terminated by local units, but otherwise, they are to be stunned and brought to the labs.  I will personally oversee their observation cycle.  Estimated time until Guardian reactivation.

 

-Twenty hours, fourteen minutes and eleven seconds.-

 

When the two groups joined up back on the bend in the path toward the city, their numbers had, blissfully, not been thinned too terribly.  Two of the Wayfarers with Tim, Kyle and Hina’s group had not been able to outrun the tank, crushed under its wheels almost moments after it began its pursuit of them.  One Wayfarer and two crewmen, including Daren, had been felled in the battle with the machine men in the northbound group.

 

Gronen Mattock, for his part, had been wounded in a few places during the melee, but his natural Jaft regenerative powers were already quickly repairing him as Kyle Vreki began tending to the wounds of his fellow Wayfarers who’d engaged in battle with the machines.  A ragged hole in Mattock’s left leg made him lurch as he joined Timothy Vandross, Hina Hinas, and Derrick Henden next to the wrecked ancient autocart.  He wiped his brow as he let himself fold to the ground in a heavy, sprawled seated posture.  “This does not bode well, friends,” he rumbled.

 

“How many of them did you destroy,” Hina asked, wrapping clean white bandaging to Tim’s right hand.

 

“It must have been close to twenty-five of them,” said Henden as he tampered with his mechanical arm.  Tim watched, fascinated, as the Gnome Engineer replaced the bolt clip in his arm with a fat metal and glass tube, a softly pulsing blue light emanating from within.  Henden tapped something on the tube before bolting it in place, and as he pulled his working hand away, Tim saw that the tube now glowed red, particles of yellow flooding through the chamber.  “I snatched this from one of their weapons.  Took me a while to realize what it was, but I figured it out on the way back here to meet up with you, see if you’d survived the tank.”

 

“What is it,” Tim asked.

 

“It’s an energy propulsion cell of some sort.  Back in the Fourth Age, a company by the name of Kenston Industries developed an energy-based firearm that discharged power from containers like this,” he said, tapping the exposed metal surface of the tube he’d locked into the mechanical arm mount. “The containers could work in any number of firearms they designed to utilize them, and my arm’s design is based off of one of the civilian models of limb replacements they manufactured back then.  I figured, hey, a few adjustments here and there, and I can use their own weapons against them myself.  Which is very good,” he said, opening his travel duffel.  “I didn’t bring but a few more clips from the beach, and I’d be out of ammunition pretty soon otherwise.”

 

“Are you certain that’s safe,” asked Hina.

 

“After what we just went through with those machines, I believe we need every tool we can use,” Mattock interjected.  The hole on his leg had healed to the size of a coin, but he still grimaced as he adjusted himself to sit Cuyotai-style with them.  “The last of the machine men weren’t destroyed, they fled.  I believe that whatever is in control of them, it has called them back to the city to wait for our arrival.  We will not be greeted kindly, I should think.”

 

“Then we’d better get a move on,” said Tim, giving Hina a peck on the cheek in thanks of her wrapping his scorched hand.  “If we can make it to the outskirts of the city by nightfall, we can camp in the brush again, wait for morning when we’re fresh to meet with our hosts.  If they’re flesh-and-blood, maybe they’ll hear us out if we ask for help.”

 

“Or they’ll just have us killed on the spot,” said Henden.

 

“No, I don’t think so,” said Timothy.  He planted his hands on his hips for emphasis.  “When somebody thinks they can control the situation, they’re prone to hear the other person out, if just for sadistic shits and giggles,” he said.  “At the very least they’ll listen to what we have to say, try and get us to reveal anything that he or she or they might find useful for their own purposes, and then they’ll lead us to some sort of lockup.”

 

“He’s right, you know,” said Hina.  “We’ve dealt with a couple of situations like this over the last few years.  Not everybody is a ‘strike first and ask questions later’ sort.  With this island being cut off from the world like it is by that strange fog barrier, perhaps whoever or whatever is in charge finally realizes the value of trying to make peaceful contact with us.”

 

“Captain Mattock, I’m inclined to agree with these two on our overall course of action,” said the Gnome Engineer, tinkering with his artificial finger joints.  “For different reasons, mind, but their recommended course of action’s a good one.  We should get everybody ready to take the last hike toward the city.”  The blue-fleshed warrior grunted and nodded, adding nothing more to the conversation.

 

The company gathered its belongings, strengths and wits and followed the path once again, following Patriarch Henden’s directions as the path twisted, turned, and came to yet more intersections meant to confuse and throw off any unwelcome guests to the island.  By the time the group arrived at the crest of a hill, down which the path continued to an outlying concrete street of the city itself at last, their available sunlight was already fading rapidly.  And so into thicket they ventured once more, setting up a tighter, more easily defensible camp off of the footpath.

 

Kyle Vreki began preparing a simple stew over a small fire, joined by Tim, Hina, Henry, and Foamrider.  The Kobold Aeromancer sniffed at the pot a number of times, attempting to add something from one of his small plastic containers into the pot, but the Elven Bishop kept slapping his hand away. Curious, Tim asked, “What is that you keep trying to put in, Henry?”

 

“It’s a subtle spice called tuforian powder,” said the Kobold, holding up the container for the Half-Elf Void Mage to inspect.  Tim took it in hand, peering at the fine green and yellow specked powder inside the plastic tube.  “It helps to add a certain zest to simple foods, but Faenwol Kyle is always reluctant to add anything to his dishes that he is not intimately familiar with.”

 

“Yes, well, we have no way of knowing how we’ll react to such a spice,” said Kyle, stirring the contents within the pot with a long wooden spoon.  “Nor how Mr. Foamrider will react,” he added as the heavily tattooed Jaft sailor returned to their circle from relieving himself in the thicket.

 

“To what,” asked Foamrider, easing himself down between Kyle on his left and Tim on his right.

 

“This stuff,” said Tim, shaking the container and handing it back to Henry, who summarily tossed it over the cooking pot to the Jaft.  Foamrider held the container up to his eyes, unscrewed the cap, and dipped his pinky finger into the tube just far enough to get some of the green and yellow powder on his fingertip.  He dabbed it on his tongue, screwing the lid back on the spice and tossing it back to Henry.  As four sets of eyes focused on him, Foamrider felt his eyes beginning to tear up, his throat swell ever so slightly, and an unknown heat began to burn at the back of his throat.

 

“It’s, um,” he croaked, hand on his throat.  “It’s strong, that’s for sure,” he said, motioning Kyle to grab him a water skin.  The Elven Bishop handed one over, and Foamrider gratefully drained about a quarter of its contents before letting out a relieved sigh, wiping his mouth.  “Ye gods in the palace of the above, little man, do you use that stuff routinely?”

 

“No, just on foodstuffs I find a little bland,” said the Kobold, folding his arms over his chest defensively.  He snorted.  “Besides, you’re never supposed to just put the stuff on your tongue.  It’s supposed to be cooked or mixed into the food you want to liven up after it’s at least half-heated through.  That way the spice has time to be absorbed and mellow a little in the food.”

 

“I’m going to be crapping fire later on tonight, aren’t I,” asked Foamrider.

 

“You didn’t exactly have to investigate the way you did,” Henry replied, nodding in answer to the Jaft’s question.  Tim, Hina and Kyle all had a good chuckle at their by-play, and concentrated on the meal soon to be finished and talking over possible strategies for exploring the city, should they find it abandoned.  The Elven Bishop, sensing a disturbance near his group as they spoke, sent out his gathered mana in a slow wave of technology-disrupting magic, hoping that the disturbance would fade away or cease to be there altogether.

 

He hoped against hope that this night would be more peaceful than the night before.

 

-Error alert.  Error alert.  Error alert.-  The same two words flashed nearly a dozen more times before the sleeper’s mind’s eye, until finally he came back to full consciousness, having slipped off into a partial sleep in the hopes of awakening when the System was ready to bring him back online.

 

What is the error, System?  Report, he thought at the darkness and green letters.

 

-Massive power distribution disruption along Access Line 3.  Feeding pen transport lifts have gone offline.  Output from Line 3 to this building is down 54%.  Short range sensors last indicated that the foreign invaders were located in zone D7.  The source of the disruption is in D7.  Recommendation?-

 

Reroute power from maintenance drone station to this building, commanded the sleeper calmly.  Bring the Light Roller units off of their charging stations, regardless of capacity charge they have attained.  They will have to be ready enough for service.

 

A burst of red-and-white light began flashing inside of the sleeper’s dark space, accompanied by the sound of a klaxon.

 

System, what’s going on?  Report!

 

-Error report.  Error report.  Output from Line 3 is now down 75%. Rerouting from maintenance drone station brings reduction to 65%.  Light Roller units have been disengaged from charge stations.  However, one Light Roller unit experienced a feedback discharge during removal from station and has been destroyed.  Guardian reactivation process has suffered a delay.-

 

What?  How long?  How long until I am awakened?

 

The blaring red-and-white light ceased, along with the almost deafening klaxon.

 

-Time estimate until Guardian is returned to online status: Twelve hours, fifteen minutes.-

 

That’s how long I had left six hours ago, the sleeper grumbled.

 

-The disruption has crippled Production Engine 3.  Energy signs show that the disruption flowed back along the path from its point of entry into the Access Line.  It is the energy of the green-clad Elf.  Scans would seem to indicate that the disruption energy is magical in nature, but cannot be sustained indefinitely.  Subdual of target is now a Level 6 priority according to automated subroutines in this System.-

 

I would have to agree with those subroutines, the sleeper thought at the System.  Raise the rest of the intruders to a Threat Level 6 as well.  What about the anti-regen wave emitters?

 

-Anti-regenerative wave emitters ceased functioning approximately seven-hundred years ago, due to entropy and disrepair.  Those systems are beyond salvaging.-

 

No matter.  Find a way to bring the brutes back into the city proper and advise SF0012 units to take up Urban Combat Routine 4.

 

-Understood.  All units have been advised.  System is now searching for a method of luring brutes to city facilities.  A status report will be issued in four hours.-

 

Make it three, the sleeper sent to the System.  For now, I wish to internally review Professor Lorring’s final month of log entries.  Access them and make them available to my internal processing unit.

 

-Files loaded to Guardian internal processing unit.  Report will be delivered in three hours.-

 

This is completely reckless, he thought as he plunged headlong through the dense shrubs, bushes and vines hanging from the treetops all around him. They’ll likely try to destroy me on sight, what else would they do?  As he tromped along in the wild undergrowth, stepping over yet another felled tree, three of the feral brutes leaped down from nearby tree branches, landing directly in his path and fanning out into a triangular formation facing him.  Their powerful legs bent backward, each of the dark-fleshed creatures preparing to leap at him, their mouths slavering over with saliva, their angular, feral eyes glowing with the prospect of the coming kill.

 

Surely they know they can’t eat me, right, he thought, setting himself in a wide-legged evasive stance, hands out at his sides, fingers twitching rapidly. Besides, there’s blood on their lower torsos and claws.  They’ve already fed, and recently.  Has their territorial instinct returned, now that they have fed again?  Oh, how I wish I’d learned more about these beasts!  But regrets would have to wait, as one of the heavyset insectile creatures sprang at him, rending claws outstretched.

 

He ducked and rolled heavily to one side, trailing his left leg out behind him in a hooking kick that managed to connect with the brute’s shoulder as he dodged the lunging tackle attack.  The brute gave out a low groan of pain, but as he came back onto his feet, another of the beasts flew at him from the right with a haymaker punch.  He ducked the blow, but as he bent low, the third brute, having approached more cautiously, took a quick leap forward and kicked him squarely in the face.

 

As he flew back from the massive impact, the brute that kicked him let out an angry roar of pain, hopping on its other leg as it cradles its injured foot for a moment.  Kicking his metal faceplate cover at full tilt had not, after all, been that grand an idea, something the brutes were taking a moment to consider.  He got creakingly back to his feet, opening his right hand as a compartment slid open along his right leg.

 

SF0116 drew out his pulse pistol and fired three rapid shots at the injured brute, bolts of red energy ripping into its body with ease.  Brackish blood sprayed from the gaping holes in its torso, and as it fell dead, the other two brutes issued a war-like scream and leaped away, running off into the jungle.  The machine man performed a quick internal scan of his systems, internally grimacing at the results.  The kick had done more damage to him than he liked to know, putting his pulse pistol back in its leg compartment, letting it slide with a rusty creak closed.

 

Well, Telfin, he thought, your long-term memory storage has taken more damage.  Just wonderful.  Oh, scanners too, just lovely.  “Still, there’s nothing for it,” he said aloud, his artificial, droning voice startling him after so many years of silence.  He pivoted around in a slow circle, until finally his sensors found what he was looking for.  “Well, no sense in delaying anymore.”

 

Hina found herself standing in yet another observation chamber, this one different than the laboratory that had been so prominently featured in both of her previous dreams since setting out on her current journey.  Once again she was wearing a white lab coat, but now instead of a skirt and low-cut blouse, she wore a plain green nurse’s scrub pants and shirt.  No high heels this time either, she thought.  That’s a relief.  The sort of soft-soled white shoes worn by medical personnel were on her feet.

 

The chamber she stood in stank of disinfectants, cleaning solutions and a hint of blood underlying it all.  Turning slowly in a circle, Hina saw shelves jutting out of the walls with various bits and pieces of mechanical apparatus, all lined up and arranged what she believed was accordingly.  They looked like the limbs and pieces of the very machine men that she and Timothy had been confronted with since coming to aid Kyle Vreki and his troupe.

 

The whir of a pneumatic door opening behind her gave Hina a start.  She was still clearly in control of herself in this evening’s dreams, for the moment at least.  Professor Lorring came into the room, wheeling a long metal cart with a white and red-blotched sheet over top of it.  He had some bandaging on his forehead and was walking along with a slight limp, but otherwise the Human scientist appeared to be almost ecstatic.

 

He wheeled the cart right up next to her and came over to her side. “Anna, you aren’t going to believe some of these things,” he said, pulling the sheet aside.  Hina looked down involuntarily at the upper surface of the cart, and despite the obvious signs of blood and necrotic tissue still attached to some of the items before her, the Elven Q Mage was nonetheless fascinated by what she saw before her.

 

Machine parts, she thought.  Artificial body parts and their internal working systems.  She wasn’t certain she could identify all of them, but she had the suspicion that this ‘Anna’ person, whose body she was inhabiting in these dreams, knew precisely what lay before their shared eyes.  For a moment, Hina decided to let her take control of the conversation.

 

“It’s remarkably similar to our own cybernetic technology,” she heard herself say in the husky voice of Anna.  She pulled a pen from one of her lab coat pockets, lifting up a collection of wire-thin strands of some material still attached to a cylindrical metal component the size of her own throat.  “And this looks like the synthetic nerve tissue we’ve been researching.  Professor, we can use this,” she said, feeling Anna’s building excitement as her own.  It was a strange sensation to be sure, but Hina knew better than to try and resist it.  She was only a guest in these proceedings.  “If we remove these fibers and run them through an analysis, we might just be able to discover how to proceed with the project.”

 

“I was thinking the same thing,” said Lorring.  He reached over the cart, rolling a particularly heavy-looking artificial fist, attached to most of a forearm. Hina could tell the piece of equipment had been severely damaged, but from what, she could not begin to guess.  “Look at this scorching, Anna,” he said, using his own white gloved finger to trace the pattern of a blast mark of some sort.  “What sort of weapon could do this, do you suppose?  Could it have been magic, perhaps?”

 

“If our guest’s world is anything like our own, that’s unlikely,” Hina’s host responded.  “Certainly I’ve never heard of a Flame Mage who could produce a spell that could scorch through this kind of metal.”  Hina thought about the terminology Anna just used.  Pyromancers, she realized, hadn’t been called Flame Mages since the early days of the Second Age of Tamalaria.  There was only one other time period when the old world terminology of the mages was used in everyday conversation, and that was the first century of the Fourth Age, when technological advancements were being achieved with such rapidity that the internal community of magic practitioners and sages were largely scorned, scoffed at and dismissed by the vast majority of the realms’ citizenry.

 

That made more sense to Hina, as the plate in the computer laboratory had mentioned an establishment in the Fourth Age.  But that changed from dream to dream, she thought.  Once again Anna’s eyes started roving over the cart, until finally the woman picked up a slender glass-like tube with a thrumming blue liquid inside of it.  “What’s this,” she asked the Professor.

 

“Ah, yes, that,” said the professor, plucking it gingerly from her slender fingers.  He held it aloft to the dim fluorescent light from overhead.  “This is an almost exact duplicate of the phazion energy cells we’ve developed for the sentry units around the facility and the outer regions of the island.  We’ve already sent another one to SF0116 for installation.”

 

“Isn’t that a little dangerous,” Hina asked via her host.

 

“Oh, nonsense,” scoffed Lorring.  “Once we have refitted our visitor and given him a new designation, we can probably put Telfin in storage as a reserve Guardian unit,” he said, turning away from her.  “Don’t worry about it, Anna. We’re making fine progress.”  Darkness encroached upon Hina’s vision, and for a while, she floated in dreamless, peaceful nothingness, until finally she felt someone shaking her awake.  Her eyes fluttered open, but while she had been expecting Timothy’s loving, concerned features, she found instead Lorring standing over her, his eyes full of panic, sweat and grime covering his forehead and white coat.

 

“Professor,” she asked, groggily coming to a seated position.  “What’s wrong?  What happened?”

 

“It’s Guardian,” Lorring said.  A tremor rocked the entire facility, her personal quarters clattering as knick-knacks collected from a clandestine trip to the continent of Tallowmere fell from their shelves, shattering on the trembling floor.  “Its internal processor linked with the System somehow, it’s diverting all of the power it can to the Development Lab!”

 

“That shouldn’t be possible,” Anna said, launching to her feet from the bed.  Dressed in a long white nightshirt and slippers, she darted to a small standing locker, pulling her lab coat from within and strapping it on over her shoulders.  “We interfaced with its internal processor at least three times a month since we replaced its augmentations last year, we never saw any program for communications with the System.”

 

“Then how did this happen,” Lorring shouted over a nearby overloading circuit box out in the hallway of the dormitory building.  Rushing out into the hall, they made their way out into the streets, where their neighbors, colleagues and coworkers were running to and fro in a panic.  Hina stole a glance north as Anna ran east toward the Development building, spotting two of the machine men, still shining and pristine, as they opened fire on other Human researchers and staff, killing at least six people in the brief half a minute she watched of their movements.

 

Everything became a blur for Hina as the dream moved along on its own rails, setting a whole new pace for itself.  The last thing she saw before the dream threw her viciously awake next to her husband was the mammoth abomination dominating the center of the Guardian Activation Chamber, the clear green liquid of its suspension chamber draining.  It lifted its head, and the left half of its face, a sloped, metallic mockery of a skull faceplate, reflected the red glow of its artificial eye.

 

And Hina Hinas came awake understanding just why there was nobody around on this strange island.

 

“So, captain, what do you think of lady Hinas’s dream,” Derrick Henden asked the lumbering Jaft as they made their second full circuit around the campsite.  Mattock craned his neck until one of the bones gave a satisfying ‘POP’, and smiled.

 

“I think Elves having strange dreams is pretty standard fare, actually,” said Mattock plainly.  He brushed aside a low hanging branch, envying Henden his shorter stature only momentarily.  “They’re all mystically inclined to some degree or other, Patriarch.  What they make of their dreams is their own business, not mine.”

 

“Maybe so, but aren’t you curious at all about it,” asked Henden, carefully stepping over a felled log.  “There’s a possibility that her being her has brought on some sort of connection with this place’s history, something not unheard of along our travels.”

 

“Really,” said Mattock dryly, hoping the Gnome Engineer would soon either stop speaking or at least bring his voice down.  It was becoming difficult to track the native sounds and movements in the dense jungle around their camp, and Henden’s chattering wasn’t helping matters any.  “That’s interesting,” he added, a flat note directed at Henden.

 

“It is, actually,” said Henden.  Mattock groaned inwardly, regretting having chosen to pair with the Patriarch for his patrol shift.  He wondered how Timothy Vandross and Kyle Vreki, long time friends, were handling their own patrol.  At least they had a history together, a common bond they could speak of.  Though Vandross was only Half-Elf, Mattock had to assume that he’d been raised by his Elf mother, since Richard Vandross was obviously not around for even the birth of the child who had come to be with them on this strange island.

 

Henden rambled on, and Gronen was his unwilling audience.

 

Timothy casually lifted his left hand straight out at his side, hurling a magical spear of ice from his palm into the brute that had been stalking them in a parallel for the better part of their first hour on patrol watch.  Kyle, dazzled by Timothy’s power and apparent ease of use of said magic, stared at the dead creature, impaled on a nearby tree only some twenty yards from their path’s circular route.  “Which spell was that,” Kyle asked of the Half-Elf Void Mage.

 

“Freeze Lance, from the Aquamancy school of magic,” Tim said plainly, squinting his eyes as he peered into the thicket along their path.  “I enhanced it with a quick Turbolitis spell, which doubles the speed at which offensive spells strike at their intended targets.  Useful stuff I’ve picked up over the years,” he said.  Kyle watched as, without seeming to notice it at all, the faint blue ring of light swirled around Timothy’s feet, a sign that he was absorbing some new technique or enhancing one he already had.

 

“What was that, just now,” Kyle asked, staring at Timothy’s feet as the Half-Elf came to an abrupt stop on the path.

 

“You mean you didn’t notice,” Tim asked, turning his head so Kyle could see his grinning profile.  Kyle shook his head.  “I’ve just absorbed your power to disrupt simple machinery, the spell Bishops call Tackan.  It may come in handy.”

 

“But what of my healing spells,” Kyle said, coming right up to Tim and putting a hand on his shoulder.  “Can you learn them from me?”

 

“I don’t control it most times,” Tim explained, his smile fading.  “It just sort of happens on its own.  But there’s no need to worry about that, Kyle.  I’ve already absorbed healing spells from other priests and some Paladins.  What I’d really like to learn from you is a new defensive spell or technique, something I haven’t already got a variation of,” he said, continuing along their patrol route.

 

They walked in comfortable silence a while, passing over the footprints of Henden and Mattock.  It was Kyle who finally spoke next.  “I’m very grateful you and Hina came as quickly as you did, or rather, that you came at all.  You’ve only just recently been declared common law husband and wife.”

 

“You know we’re always willing to do some exploration, Kyle,” Tim said.

 

“Maybe so, but you couldn’t have known what sort of dangers coming here would present to you both.  And if Hina’s dreams are as she said when we divided the watch duties, there’s a strong chance the greatest danger has yet to reveal itself.  Are her dreams prophetic often?”

 

“More so than she likes to admit,” Tim said.  He put a hand back to Kyle, stopping the robed Elven Bishop in his tracks.  He bent his knees some, drawing out his Void rod and cracking it into the form of a wide-headed battle axe.

 

“What is it?”

 

“I thought I heard one of those machine men’s weapons,” Tim whispered back to Kyle.  “See if you can send out one of your disruptions.”  Kyle Vreki waved his hands in a slow, complex pattern of motions, allowing his greatest anti-technology spell to gather power from his current reserves of internal mana, supplementing it as well as he could from their natural surroundings, which wasn’t much at all.  When the spell’s power was ready, he snapped his fingers, several green, shimmering glyphs appearing in the air before him in a curved line.  He pushed his fingers in the direction Timothy was facing, keeping his senses tied to the glyphs.

 

After one hundred yards, Kyle sensed the power of his spell beginning to falter, but not entirely as yet.  Something was moving out there, in the path of the spell and swiftly retreating from its power.  Kyle poured more of himself into the spell’s continuous power, and he quickly ascertained that what was fleeing his spell was, in fact, a machine man.  The sight of it, brought back to him by the connection of his own remaining mana to the spell’s glyphs, was much different from the other machine men the troupe had encountered.  It looked, for all intents and purposes, almost Human.

 

As it fled, more of the spell’s power drained away, such that when it finally caught up with the machine man, it knocked him down, but not apart. Kyle’s eyes snapped open, staring up at Tim from the ground.  “How did I,” he began weakly.

 

“I had to shove you down,” Tim said, hauling him to his feet.  Mattock and Henden stood behind Tim, and to the left of them, just along the path of their patrol, lay seven more of the beetle-like creatures, each one slain.  “You were paralyzed staying connected to your spell.  Did you strike anything?”

 

“Yes, I did,” said Kyle, stepping into the thicket without warning.  “And I think we should have a better look at it.”

 

“Kyle, wait,” Tim called out, but moments later he was following Mattock and Henden both as they scrambled after the Elven Bishop.  After six minutes of continued running, they all finally came upon the fallen machine man, which was itself trying to move.  Its head unit was tall and bulbous, but otherwise it looked like a trooper wearing heavy segmented armor of some sort.  Yellow bulbs for eyes blinked and flashed as it regained its senses, and Kyle stood over it, his hand extended down at it, fingers splayed.  Gronen Mattock stood on the other side of its upper body, his war hammer poised to strike, while Timothy and Henden stayed half a dozen yards away from its feet.

 

“Well,” said the machine in a clear common tongue, its tone layered with the echo of artificial speech ability.  “This is certainly not what I had expected when I started looking for you.”

 

“If you ask me, there’s nothing to discuss here,” said Mattock, arms crossed over his chest.  He glanced right at the padre, who stood ten feet from the machine man, his hand raised at him.  It was more a warning then an actual gesture of any intent, as his mana reserves had been taxed by the power he applied to his disruptive spell earlier.  That threat appeared to be working on keeping the mechanical man from doing anything untoward.  Gronen put his hand up over his shoulder onto the handle of his war hammer.  “We should destroy the thing with extreme prejudice.”

 

“But there is something to discuss here,” said Henden, hands planted firmly on his hips.  Timothy had run back to the camp to inform Hina that she would need to pick up their patrol for a little bit, rousing Henry and a couple of the Jaft sailors to help in the effort.  “This machine is the only thing on this whole island that seems capable and willing to converse with us, captain, an opportunity we can ill afford to pass up.  It could know something vital to us.”

 

“Yeah, like how best to get us all together in one place so it can try to kill us all,” grumbled the blue-fleshed warrior.  “Even the padre’s spell didn’t do the job of putting it down like the other metal men we’ve encountered.  If we wait until young Vandross returns, the four of us are more than capable, I would think, of breaking it apart.”

 

“Truth be told, captain, I think young Tim could do that all by himself,” admitted the Gnome Engineer.  He unconsciously started fiddling with his artificial arm, adjusting the finger tensors.

 

“Then we should let him, it will save anymore strain on your Faenwol. And I’m just going to level a guess that this,” he said, grabbing the Gnome around his artificial wrist, holding it firmly but not so much so as to damage the device, “is as much your reason for wanting us to delay its decimation as anything.”  Henden pulled his arm away with a grunt, turning aside from the towering Jaft.  “Don’t deny it, Patriarch.  I may know little of such things, but I can clearly see the similarity in your limb to that machine’s own arms.”

 

“Let it alone, captain,” the Gnome rasped, lowering his head.  But captain Mattock was not one to let things lie without a full examination.

 

“I’ve seen you tampering with that device of yours, flying your tools around it without a second’s thought.  You want to find out if it can make you a new one, don’t you?  Or perhaps you want us to destroy it, but to be delicate about it so you can salvage yourself a new attachment,” he said bluntly, his tone flat, merciless.  Henden remained utterly still, his eyes locked on the ground at his feet.  Mattock stood next to him, putting an easy hand on the little man’s shoulder.  “It’s failing, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes,” Henden whispered.  “If I don’t get some help repairing it or replace it entirely, I won’t be fit to act as Patriarch within a year.  The parts are wearing down, and there’s only so much I can do to keep it functional.  The artificial nerve connections are shorting out, too.  I won’t be able to feel it at all inside of a month, captain,” he said.  “It was my intention, originally, to remain behind in Lenan when the clan headed back with you to Tamalaria.  I now see a way to restore myself and return with them, and you want to destroy it.”

 

A wary silence hung between the two men, but didn’t last long.  “I never intended to wreck the arms if I could have helped it, Patriarch, though I did intend to crush it,” said Mattock.  “I just had to confirm my suspicions.” Henden sniffed hard, looked up at the Jaft with a plaintive look in his eyes, and nodded.  “If it comes to it, I will remove one of its appendages without damage, so long as I am able.  You have my word.”

 

Henden patted Mattock on the leg, and nearly launched a blast of energy from his artificial arm cannon when Timothy Vandross came crashing through the nearby thicket into the small clearing with them.  “I’ve told Hina, and she’s going to warn the others that we’re coming back with a guest they might be a bit unsure of,” said the Half-Elf, taking a moment to catch his breath.  Are you willing to come with us peaceably,” he asked of the mechanical man.  Hands still held over its head in the air, the artificial intelligence turned its head toward him, the yellow eye bulbs blinking off and on rapidly.

 

“That was my intention all along, was to come to you, organics.  May I please bring my arms down now?  The servomotors in my shoulder joints suffered a tremendous capacity loss when your priest friend struck me with his disruption spell,” it said candidly, pointing one finger, still in the air, at Kyle. Tim looked to Mattock and Henden, both men still technically in charge of the entire company, and they nodded.  The machine lowered its arms with a mimicked sigh of relief from somewhere in its chest.  “Thank you for that.”

 

“Is there something we should call you,” asked Henden, taking a few steps toward the machine as Kyle darted away to Tim’s side for protection. “What is your designation?”

 

“Ah, yes, of course,” said the machine with aplomb.  Though an errant spark burst up from its waist, it gave them a deep bow, folding one arm over its faded steel stomach.  “Allow me to introduce myself.  My designation is SF0116, signifying that I am a Security Forces Unit, model number 0116.  I was previously given the codename Guardian, though that no longer is my assignment.  You may call me Telfin,” it said, at which Timothy and Kyle both stared at the machine.  “Ah, you are familiar with the term?  It has no meaning for me, as my language capabilities have suffered prolonged and consistent damage over many years.  What does it mean?”

 

“It’s ancient Elven,” said Tim, looking purposefully at Mattock and Henden.  “It means ‘conquer’,” he said.

 

“Oh, well, that’s a bit disconcerting, isn’t it,” said Telfin, rubbing the back of its cylindrical head unit awkwardly.  Even its tone mimicked the emotional state perfectly, an eerie affect that made Kyle’s neck hairs stand on end and his arms prickle with goose flesh.  “We should get moving again, gentlemen.  My short range sensors, while not functioning at full capacity, indicate that there are several mogam-bishana approaching this area.  They are large and carnivorous, and tend to hunt in packs.”

 

Their group returned to the camp with the machine, Telfin, walking directly ahead of Kyle.  The Bishop would unleash his disruptive abilities the moment the machine made him fearful, and at that point, such a state could be easily achieved for the young Elf.

 

Timothy came back into the camp proper, making his way directly to Hina, who stood watch over the camp from its central point.  “The sun’s going to be coming up soon anyhow, so you’d better just wake everyone up,” he said brusquely to her.  “Everybody should be made aware of our new companion.”

 

“New companion?  What do you mean by that, who is he,” Hina asked, her left hand unconsciously brushing the hilt of her short sword.

 

“You’ll see in a minute,” said Tim, heading back to the brush as Gronen Mattock came into view, followed closely by Derrick Henden.  The three of them went about waking and gathering all of the members of their company, many of whom seemed about as eager to greet the day as a dog would be to meet the vet who would be neutering him.  They stood bunched together, their eyes dulled with sleep and a thin layer of hopeless apathy, for they had all been terrified about as much as a person can be without completely losing their mind by the various creatures and machines seeking their destruction.

 

Hina stood in a line with Mattock and Henden, facing the troupe. Henden cleared his throat and addressed them all then.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we have brought to our company an outsider, a native of this island, who has expressed a desire to communicate with us.  We do not know the full extent of his intentions, but suffice it to say, I think for now we have little choice but to trust him.  We also have Kyle Vreki close to hand, and that will be no small comfort I’m sure.”  He turned back toward the dense thicket behind him.  “Timothy, Kyle, you may bring our guest forward.”

 

Gasps and more than a few grumbling curses filled the air as Telfin came out of the thicket with Timothy on one side of him and Kyle Vreki walking behind, just out of the machine man’s arm reach.  Derrick raised his hands to try and quiet his people as well as the Jaft sailors, most of whom were already slowly drawing their weapons from braces and scabbards.  Mattock merely shook his head, and most of his men stood down, but not his first mate, Mr. Sperio.  He had a short spear in hand, remaining unmoving as he stared balefully at the machine.

 

Telfin raised one gleaming metal hand toward the troupe.  “Greetings to you, sentients,” he proclaimed aloud, waggling his segmented fingers.  “I am SF0116, codename Telfin.  I’ve been searching for your group since I secured myself an escape from my maintenance facility to the north,” it said, pointing in the direction the troupe’s path would lead them this very morning.  “I would like to render what assistance I may to you, that you might survive well enough to escape this island.”

 

Another series of murmurs went through the crowd of sailors and Wayfarers.  Henry stepped to the front of the crowd, wiping his tiny forehead with one slender, tanned forearm.  The Kobold Aeromancer cracked his neck, took a deep breath, and looked the machine in the eye units.  “I’m sorry to have to ask this, but it’s something we’re all wondering about.  Are there any others, in that city, like us?”

 

“Like you how,” asked Telfin, crossing his arms and putting one finger to the bottom of his tube-like head, as if in thought.

 

“Organic, I think he means,” offered Henden, to which Henry nodded his agreement.

 

“Ah, the answer would technically be one person, though that is not in all fairness an accurate assessment,” responded Telfin, planting his hands on the bulbous, armor-like box that served as his hips.  “One individual is sixty-five percent organic, while another individual is only thirty-three percent organic, thus almost equaling out to one whole, organic individual, but not quite,” it said quickly and happily.  It looked around at the crowd, and as Tim stole a glance at it, he saw its eye units flash a brighter yellow.  “Ah, I’ve got it,” said Telfin, one finger pointed skyward.  It opened one hand toward Derrick Henden.  “Take your representative here, this Gnome.  My scanners would seem to indicate that he is approximately ninety-two percent organic.”

 

More murmurs, this time largely of disbelief.  Henden himself stared at the machine man, shaking his head.  “You mean to tell me that there’s two cybernetically enhanced people in that city,” he asked.

 

“Ah, I am pleased to see you know the terminology, sentient,” exclaimed Telfin, clapping his hands together with a subtle ‘clank’.  “Is it common where you come from?”

 

“No,” said Henden.  “Not these days, though during the height of the Fourth Age of Tamalaria, such technology had become quite commonplace. But that was nearly a millennia ago now,” he said.  He clapped his own artificial forearm.  “The science of such things has largely been lost to us now.  But I’m an Engineer by trade,” he said, beginning to pace toward his troupe.  He glanced back at Kyle, who hadn’t moved even an inch since arriving in the clearing behind Telfin.  “Engineers, Tinkers, Alchemists and Scholars know a great deal of these things still, though there are a few others who have looked into the technology.  We have a criminal back in our homeland, a Reggie Browler, who has replaced all four of his limbs with cybernetic implantations.”

 

“That sounds a good deal like the professor,” said Telfin.  Hina, having taken a position with Timothy between the machine and the troupe, felt her blood run cold.  He means Professor Lorring, she thought, clutching Tim’s hand. He’ll say that name, and I swear to all the Gods above I’ll just start screaming.

 

“Professor,” asked Henden, eyebrow elevated.

 

“Yes, Professor Heathrow Liotus,” said Telfin.  Hina eased up the pressure on Tim’s hand, though he gave hers an affectionate squeeze in return. Having heard her account of her strange dreams since arriving, he had known well the reason for her sudden tension, and felt instantly blessed when the name was unfamiliar from Hina’s account of those visions.  “He is in a stasis chamber in the Staff General Housing building.  However, prior to, error,” it said, its eye units buzzing a sudden flare of orange with a small black stripe across the circular orbits.  “Hmm, that’s strange,” said Telfin.  “I can’t seem to access any logs from that time frame.”  The machine suddenly sat down, folding its legs in, pressing its hands to its head unit.

 

“What’s wrong with it,” Mattock rasped at Henden as Timothy and Hina quickly approached Telfin.  Even Kyle looked startled and a little worried to Hina as he came over to them and the machine.  The crowd behind them began to disperse, deciding that packing up camp would be the best thing to do for the moment, until their leaders decided on their next actual course of action.

 

“I believe his internal processing unit has encountered a malfunction or damaged circuit,” Henden said, keeping his distance along with the burly Jaft captain.  Still he was fascinated by the machine, unable to look away from it as it shook its head vaguely side to side, like an amnesiac might upon waking up from the long slumber before realizing they don’t know who they are. “Considering the age of the other machines we’ve seen around here, it’s no small wonder, really.  Likely it has its AI to thank for its good condition in the first place.”

 

“AI,” said Mattock.  His wife came over to his side, nodding to the both of them before handing her husband a slim scrap of paper, which he looked at briefly before tucking it into one of his pouches.  “What is an AI, Patriarch Henden?”

 

“An artificial intelligence,” said the Gnome Engineer.  He began to explain the concept, leading the Jaft away from the machine, Tim, Hina and Kyle.  Hina was down on one knee next to Timothy, who had taken the brave step of putting a hand on the cold, metal shoulder plate of Telfin.

 

“What’s the matter,” Timothy asked.  “Telfin, we could really use your help, and in order for you to help us, we need to know what’s wrong with you, okay?  Derrick might even be able to help you,” he said, though he could plainly see Kyle shaking his head and mouthing a big ‘NO’ at him.

 

“There are errors, too many errors,” said Telfin in a whining, pleading tone.  “Systematic entropy coupled with periods of combat damage have resulted in errors throughout my internal processor unit.”

 

“What does that mean,” Timothy asked gently, patting the machine on the shoulder before taking his hand away.  Silently and without haste he began drawing up mana into his bandaged right hand, invoking silent words of power to prepare a Freezejolt spell should Telfin encounter an error that made him go berserk and become a threat.  Telfin sighed and put his hands in his lap, looking at Tim and Hina both.

 

“It’s the same as if one of you had an extremely concentrated Forget spell lanced through your brain, wiping out everything before your birthday half a lifetime ago,” said Telfin miserably.  “Except I still have access to some of my earlier records and data, but not nearly as much as I could hope for.”

 

“Maybe this Professor Liotus could help you,” Hina offered.  The lights in Telfin’s eye bulbs seemed to lighten in color suddenly, and his back straightened.  Kyle took a few cautionary steps back, and the machine began to nod slightly.

 

“Yes, you know, he just might be able to.  You’re right,” the machine exclaimed, fairly leaping to its bulbous metal feet.  “I should have thought of it before!  But wait,” it said, calming down.  “Your people wish to escape this place, don’t they?  Going into the city will be dangerous for you, and getting away from this island will require you to go into the city, that much is certain.”

 

“Why is that,” asked Tim, again, calmly, but keeping his magic at the ready.

 

“Oh, because there is a massive defensive barrier energy pattern that revolves around the island.  Anything that comes through it can only get back out if the generator for that barrier is deactivated.  It was one of the defensive protocols put in place by Professor Lorring, the head of the Research and Development Division,” said Telfin, and this time Hina did shudder deeply, letting out a small moan of dismay.  Telfin continued on, not seeming to have noticed this.  “In this way, enemies of the facility or intruders could be rounded up from the beachheads around the island and interred until they could be determined to be no threat to this facility or its secrets.”

 

“All right, so we have to knock out that generator,” said Tim, folding his arms over his chest.  “How do we do that?”

 

“Error,” said Telfin, his eye bulbs shining orange with the slim black lines again.

 

“Can’t remember, huh,” asked Tim.  He let out a sigh of his own, and took Hina by the hand.  “Well, you stay here with Kyle while we sort out what our next move is, Telfin.  Don’t go running off on us, now.  We can still use whatever help you have to offer.”

 

“Of course, sentient,” said the machine.  Tim and Hina strode toward Henden, Mattock and his wife, and together, they talked over the company’s options.  Having few, their final decision came as a surprise to none of them.

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