I like to sleep. I like to sleep because I like to dream. Dreaming reminds me that I’m still alive.
Last night, I dreamt I was back in the village of Iron, working in the cold and damp of the mines. The air was filled with the rhythmic ching-ching of pick striking stone. Spherus Magna was generous that day and we emerged from the dark with loads of iron. I stood upon a peak and saw the Rock Agori in the distance scrambling to and fro like spider beetles. Then they stopped and turned as one to stare at our village. I turned to see what they might be looking at, and that was when I saw the first Iron Agori vanish. One moment he was unloading an ore cart, the next he was gone. In the next few moments, more disappeared, and then more. I knew that something terrible was happening.
I had to stop it. I ran through the village in search of the woman I loved. When I found her, I took her in my arms and held her tight, and an instant later, my arms held only empty air.
Help. We needed help. I rushed down the mountain toward the Rock Agori, I shouted for them to aid us, but no one paid any attention. I screamed, I pleaded, to no avail. I moved to strike one of the villagers down just to get their attention. And then I looked down and saw nothing. I had disappeared.
I woke up in a sweat. I had camped not far from the Skrall River. I took off my armor and knelt on the bank, trying to wash away my nightmare. In the moonlight, I could see something massive in the distance. When I took a better look, I saw it was the Skopio vehicle Telluris had built, now sprawled out on the sand like the carcass of a dead animal. The owner himself was crouched beside it. I hitched up the Spikit to my wagon and rode to Telluris. He seemed to be in mourning.
“What happened?” I asked.
“They ruined it,” my tribesman answered. “The Glatorian, they sabotaged it. It won’t work anymore.”
I always thought the Skopio was a gaudy waste of time and materials. No matter how big your weapon, someone else can always build a bigger one. You don’t conquer your enemies with something they can see coming ten miles away. You do it by working your way inside like the larva of a Spiked Worm, making yourself a part of their society, and then blotting them out from the inside. The Skopio was Telluris’ crutch, his way of throwing an armed and armored tantrum at the world.
“You can’t fix it?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t have the parts.”
I looked at him. In a couple days, maybe, he would think to stop missing his machine and get out of the sun. By then he would be in no condition to be of use to anyone. But unstable as he was, he was still Iron Tribe, one of the few left – so I owed him.
“Maybe we can find what you need,” I offered. “I’m headed north. Come with me.”
Telluris glanced up at me, then gestured to the dead Skopio. “I can’t just leave it.”
“It’s not going anywhere,” I answered. “And when we come back, we’ll rebuild it, bigger and better than before.”
Telluris got up and climbed in the wagon. I yanked on the reins, and the Spikit started plodding north. I wasn’t sure exactly where we were going, but I had an idea. If the death of my tribesmen wasn’t an accident, then it was murder. And if it was murder, someone had to benefit from it. Whoever that someone was, I was going to make them pay for every dead Iron Agori. I couldn’t return to the scene of the crime because Bota Magna had split off a hundred thousand years ago, and wasn’t coming back. All I could do was go north and hope I learned something, preferably before the two robots slugging it out overhead wrecked what was left of Bara Magna.
We had been traveling for a few hours when the Spikit suddenly reared up, both of its heads arching in panic. Telluris jumped off the wagon. He pointed to something, shouted, but I had already seen it myself. A long, gray serpent was coiled in the sand up ahead, a serpent with blue eyes – and there was madness in those eyes.
“Kill it!” I said to Telluris.
My tribesman grabbed a blade from the wagon and advanced on the snake cautiously. It was some kind of a viper, poisonous to the extreme, and it was of no use alive. Dead, it would at least be dinner. Telluris raised the weapon and was about to bring it down when the snake reared up, as if it were going to strike – but instead of attacking, it spoke.
“Go ahead,” it said, “kill me. I can’t take this anymore.”
Telluris looked to me to see if he had gone crazy. I nodded to let him know I heard it too. I was reminded of some wild tale I had heard from a few Rock Agori. They were fleeing Roxtus after losing a battle to the other villages, and claimed an Ice Agori named Metus had been turned into a snake. Sounded to me like they had been eating too many rotten Thornax, but now… Well, there were plenty of weird things in the Bara Magna desert, but talking snakes isn’t one of them.
“You’re… Metus?” I asked the serpent.
It hissed in response.
“They said you were vowing revenge for what happened to you,” I said. “Give up on that, did you?”
“I still want revenge,” Metus replied. “Being turned into this monster couldn’t stop me, being turned into an insect wouldn’t stop me, I would still find a way somehow if it weren’t for…” He stopped.
I waited. When he didn’t continue, I said, “Except for what?”
The serpent slithered through the sand and looked up at me with pleading in its ice blue eyes. “I’ve stopped dreaming,” it whispered.
Suddenly, the desert seemed to grow very quiet and still, and all I could hear was my own voice saying “It’s starting again.”