Chapter 39 – Metallic Purpose
The Next Morning
“Back here already, huh…”
“Except in the morning, this time…” Conrad muttered.
“Oh shut the hell up,” Pierce retorted. “You can’t even tell that it’s morning down here. Not to mention, it’s afternoon in Tresnon right now — don’t tell me you adjusted to the local time in a single day.”
“You always are,” Pierce replied flatly as he looked out over the guardrail. Once again, he and the other Earthians stood on a platform underneath Lédia’s Tier 1, overlooking the dark forest floor and the campus of WTAC below. The only difference this time was that Kaoné accompanied them instead of Liéhdan, as they awaited the arrival of Rebehka to show them around the campus and give her lecture.
While leaning on the guardrail, Pierce looked down, his eyes tracing the contours of the buildings below him. …Something feels… off… but why?
Pierce glanced over at Conrad, who was already looking back at him. “…No,” Pierce eventually replied as he returned to staring downward. “…I don’t think so.”
“Well that’s encouraging,” Conrad deadpanned.
“Alright, you—” Pierce began to retort, only to be interrupted as a light on the elevator behind them flashed on. A couple seconds later, the doors opened, revealing Dean Rebehka Tchiréon in her green and black suit, as well as a second woman that Pierce didn’t recognize. The woman possessed light skin and light blond hair, that was shaved on the sides of her head — but her hair on top and back was long and straight enough to be tied into a thick braid that fell down to her waist. Her chin and cheekbones were well-defined, and her eyebrows thin and angled slightly inward, giving her an intense resting expression. She appeared rather youthful — late 20s or early 30s, by Pierce’s guess — and her outfit was just as well-kept as Rebehka’s, though more rugged in appearance. Rather than a suit, she seemed to be wearing some kind of combat or guard uniform, dominated by crimson and deep purple and accompanied by a holstered pistol on the left side of her waist. A bulky chest plate with two guantlets, a pair of greaves, and a pair of massive purple and crimson pauldrons signaled that she was wearing some manner of powered armor, though that was far from the most stand-out aspect of her appearance. She easily stood just over six feet tall… aided by the extra segment she had in her legs. With three leg segments, each as long as Pierce’s thigh, it was no wonder that she stood so tall — even though her lower knees bent in the opposite direction as her upper knees, giving her legs a resting position similar to a lightning bolt or a tilted ‘N’.
Pierce’s eyes lingered on the woman’s legs. He knew that there were races in the galaxy with such a leg configuration — the Siions and the Dra’kis, to be specific, and given that the woman standing before him had only a thumb and three thick fingers on each hand, he knew that she was a Dra’kis. Nevertheless, this was the first time he had seen one in the flesh, despite the fact that he had already spent a summer on an alien planet.
The woman glanced around at each of the Earthians, only to smirk and remark, “what’s the matter, never seen a Dra’kis before?”
“Oh… sorry, we didn’t mean to stare,” Twy quickly apologized, snapping her attention up to the woman’s eyes as she did.
What weird fucking legs, Pierce mused as he looked over at the rest of the group. Clearly I’m not the only one thinking that, either. Everyone was staring, heh…
“Um, Rebehka…?” Kaoné commented in a questioning tone as she sidled up to her friend. “Wasn’t this…?”
“It’s fine,” Rebehka insisted, though a level of irritation was clearly evident in her voice. She then glanced up at the Dra’kis woman as she added, “Major Dralis just… happened to be around today, so she’s tagging along.”
“It’s my pleasure,” the Major replied with a smile. “After all, I understand that Dean Tchiréon’s ‘seminar’ today involves the matter that I’m here to study, as well.”
“Which is…?” Phoenix questioned.
“We’ll get to that in a bit,” Rebehka answered, and then gestured at the Dra’kis woman. “For now… let me introduce Major Nil’kin Dralis, an Electrotechnic from the Chaos Knights. She and her detachment are in charge of… well, we’ll get to that later, too.”
“You students can just call me Nil’kin,” the woman remarked.
“The Chaos Knights…?” Sky echoed, “the hell are those?”
“They’re a PMC,” Luke commented from off to the side. “Like the Black Suns.”
“We aren’t ‘like’ the Black Suns, we’re superior,” Nil’kin declared. “We engage in none of the duplicity of that unethical black ops organization.”
“Is that so…”
“I find it hard to believe that any PMC can be ethical,” Phoenix retorted.
“Many people in the galaxy would agree with you, but only because they’re short-sighted,” Nil’kin asserted. “Groups like the Chaos Knights and the Light Keepers provide invaluable services that the government militaries are unable to. We Chaos Knights, in particular, operate under a single-minded focus to rid the galaxy of the Drakkars…” She then passed a knowing glance toward Rebehka as she finished, “…and the Nanocreatures. And we can do so without any of the red tape that holds the CSA back.”
“Red tape usually exists for a reason,” Phoenix countered.
“What are you doing here, anyways?” Austin questioned uneasily, “there aren’t any Drakkars or Nanocreatures around here… right?”
“We’ll get to that in a moment,” Rebehka interjected, passing an annoyed glance back to Nil’kin before turning around and stepping into the elevator once more. “Everyone, follow me.”
“Where are we going?” Mark asked as the group followed the Dean into the elevator, which was more than spacious enough to accommodate the 13 people present.
Rebehka turned to give Mark an odd look, though shook her head a moment later as the elevator began to descend. “We’re going down to the WTAC campus,” she answered. “There, I’ll give you all the lecture that SERRCom and Archoné Culana both requested I give you.”
“About the Nanocreatures, right?” Luke asked.
“I prefer not to say that name in public,” Rebehka responded. “The Nanocreature War was a significant and traumatic event that affected the entire galaxy. I don’t want people to think that it will happen again… not yet, anyways.”
“So, basically, you want to keep people from panicking?” Twy said.
Rebehka nodded. “Yes. Even in academic circles, we’ll typically use the term ‘metallic infection’.”
“Academic circles…?” Pierce echoed as he looked out the elevator window. The campus below rapidly approached, and with it grew an unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach. What the hell is going on around here…?
“You talk like there’s research being done into this stuff,” Spike commented.
“Because there is,” Rebehka replied as the elevator reached the bottom and its doors opened up, revealing a long pedestrian pathway lit by bright lamps. The details of Lédia above could barely be seen from their new location far below it, with the lights that adorned the city’s underside appearing similar to bright stars in a night sky.
“Would this research have anything to do with why your school was built where it is?” Luke asked, drawing Pierce’s attention back to the conversation at hand.
“Uh… yes,” Rebehka replied as she looked at Luke in surprise. “I didn’t expect you to figure that out so quickly.”
“I know enough to put two and two together.”
“What about the rest of us?” Conrad interjected, “mind explaining for the rest of the class?”
“Allow me. I am the Dean,” Rebehka commented. She then turned around and began walking down the pathway, gesturing for the group to follow as she continued, “this campus, in case Liéhdan didn’t tell you, is the Wanléon-Tchiréon Academy of Chaotics. Like the other Schools of Chaos, WTAC’s primary purpose is to train young Chaotics to better use their abilities… but we also have a secondary research purpose, here.”
“Question!” Sky exclaimed as her hand shot into the air. The moment Rebehka glanced her way, she continued, “all the other schools seem to be named for their Dean, I can tell that much. But what about yours? Where’s the ‘Wanléon’ part come from?”
“…That’s a good question,” Rebehka replied slowly, exchanging a brief glance with Kaoné before stopping in her tracks and looking to her left. The rest of the group followed suit, taking note of a life-size steel statue of a young woman, seemingly in her early 20s, installed on the side of the pathway. In one of the woman’s hands was what appeared to be a grappling hook, while in the other was a distinctive claymore, with a long blade and a double crossguard.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Austin exclaimed, and then held out his hand. With a flash of light, his claymore materialized, at which point he held it up to the sword wielded by the statue. “…It’s my sword!”
“An exact match, huh?” Luke observed.
“That would be because they’re the same sword,” Rebehka stated, stepping forward to take a closer look at Austin’s blade. “…I had heard that you could summon Arcán, but… I can still barely believe it.”
“So why is there a statue here holding the dweeb’s sword, huh?” Pierce questioned.
“And you still haven’t answered my question, you know!” Sky interjected.
“The answers are one and the same,” Rebehka explained as she turned her attention back to the statue. “The ‘Wanléon’ name comes from Siyuakén Wanléon, an old friend of mine. She was the one who ended the Nanocreature War.”
“Tch,” Nil’kin snorted in response. “She’s responsible for continuing it, more like.”
“That wasn’t her fault,” Rebehka countered. “She was under Morcii’s control during that time. But she was able to break free, and then, using the Arcán Claymore, she put an end to Morcii… and sacrificed her own life in the process.”
“…I take it this statue is her, then?” Mark asked quietly.
“Though I have to say…” Nil’kin spoke up again as she stepped up to the statue, coming to stand next to Rebehka. “It really is a very convenient story. Your ‘friend’, who previously wreaked havoc on a dozen worlds, suddenly turned on her master at the very end and struck him down? Veeerry convenient…”
“It’s the truth, Major,” Rebehka shot back. “And I will not accept your slanderous implications on my campus, let alone in front of Siyuakén’s memorial!”
“I wasn’t implying anything,” Nil’kin replied innocently. “I’m just saying what a large chunk of the galaxy believes.”
“Regardless, it isn’t relevant right now,” Kaoné interjected as she moved to position herself between the other two women. “We’re not here to discuss the war. Not like this, anyways.”
Rebehka and Nil’kin both looked down at Kaoné, and then back to each other. Eventually they both turned away, bearing apologetic smiles.
“Apologies,” Nil’kin commented, “don’t mind me. I am just a guest here.”
“Yes…” Rebehka muttered. She then turned on her heel to continue walking down the pathway, though at an increased pace this time. “Now let’s get going. We’ve wasted enough time already.”
“…What a place, huh?” Conrad said quietly to Pierce as the two began following the rest of the group.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Pierce responded in kind, his gaze lingering on the backs of Rebehka and Nil’kin. He then held a hand to his stomach and frowned. “…I don’t know what’s going on around here, but I don’t like it.”
“You really dislike big ‘indoor’ spaces that much, huh?”
“Shut up,” Pierce shot back as Rebehka led the group into a nearby building. Just before stepping inside, however, he paused to sweep his gaze across the surrounding campus — finding nothing but other buildings, as well as the two-story wall that surrounded the campus. Something really doesn’t feel right…
He looked inside the building, spotting Conrad standing in an interior doorway as he held the door open. “…Hmph,” Pierce snorted, and then zipped over to Conrad’s side and entered the room.
Inside was a small lecture hall with only around thirty seats, all facing a podium at the front of the room. Pierce and Conrad grabbed seats at the back as Rebehka walked up to the front and stood behind the podium, with Nil’kin standing just off to the side. …I guess she can’t really sit in any of these chairs with those legs, huh? Pierce mused, only to turn his attention to the front as Rebehka began speaking.
“Now, to the reason you all are here…” she began while interacting with a small tablet on top of the podium. “…Today, I’ll be sharing with you everything I know about the metallic infection.”
“With us?” Sky questioned incredulously. “Why? What are we supposed to do about this?”
“This was a SERRCom request,” Luke replied. “The General wants to know everything there is to know about the Nanocreatures. Or, I guess… the metallic infection.”
“I’m not just giving this lecture due to SERRCom’s request,” Rebehka refuted. “In fact, I’m mostly doing this because Archoné Culana claims that you all need to know.”
“You mean that Pallan guy?” Austin frowned. “What does he want with us?”
“…For various reasons that I’ll get into soon, it’s evident that whatever Siyuakén did to stop Morcii wasn’t enough to stop the infection for good,” Rebehka explained as she swept her gaze over the eight Earthian students. “Culana seems to think that the eight of you will be able to finish the job.”
“According to Pallan, your role as ‘Keys’ is to eventually fight the Nanocreatures,” Kaoné added, and then shrugged. “I’m not sure how much of that is true, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to teach you about the infection.”
“We’re here because of that damn ‘prophecy’ bullshit?” Pierce muttered to Conrad, “really?”
“Hey, you seemed to like it when we first heard about it,” Conrad muttered back.
“I mean, I’m not gonna argue with someone if they tell me I’m important.”
“Right…” Conrad drawled, and turned his attention back to the front of the room as Rebehka began to speak.
“The term ‘metallic infection’,” she began, “refers to a disease caused by specific nanomachines. In the disease’s later stages, infected hosts begin showing silvery, metal-like rashes on their skin — this is where the name ‘metallic infection’ comes from, and is the easiest way to identify a creature that has been infected. Unfortunately, once the infection gets to that stage… it’s next to impossible to save the host.
“The infection begins when Nanocreature nanomachines enter the host’s bloodstream. It’s possible for the body’s defenses to stop the nanomachines before then, but only if there are a small number. If the nanomachines manage to make it to the bloodstream, then complete infection is practically guaranteed. Fortunately, our tests suggest that the nanomachines can only be spread through direct physical contact; they aren’t airborne. Still, being machines, they can survive on their own almost indefinitely by placing themselves into a sort of hibernation.
“The infection seems to spread primarily by hijacking the host’s control of their own body. Hosts will turn violent and seek to injure other creatures, with the aim of drawing blood — which then allows for nanomachines to enter the new target’s bloodstream directly. This process continues indefinitely, until you reach the ‘critical infection’ stage of an outbreak.”
“Excuse me…” Twy spoke up, tentatively raising her hand.
Rebehka glanced her way. “Yes?”
“Uh… if I remember what I’ve read about the Nanocreature War right… why do the Nanocreatures need hosts? I thought they were able to create more of themselves out of any matter…”
“That’s a good question,” Rebehka remarked. “…To be honest, we still don’t know why for certain. We have a hypothesis — one that I think is pretty solid, but there’s no way to safely test it. The hypothesis goes that, the more nanomachines there are in the same place, the smarter and more capable they become.”
“Until Morcii appears?” Mark questioned.
“That’s an entirely different stage of the infection, that I’ll get to in a bit. For now, we’re talking about how the metallic infection works without Morcii.”
“Without Morcii?” Conrad echoed incredulously.
“His presence made a significant difference,” Rebehka declared, “but, again, I’ll cover that in a bit. To go back — in the beginning stages of an infection outbreak, the nanites piggyback on biological cell division to create more of themselves. Eventually, once enough creatures in the same physical region have been infected, the outbreak reaches a ‘critical infection’ stage. At this point, infected creatures will converge on a central location, and be merged together into a single, massive creature dominated in form by nanomachines. This creature typically takes on the form of a silver winged beast with two arms and two legs.”
“So… a dragon?” Austin questioned.
“The Earthian image of a ‘dragon’ does match the beast I’m describing,” Rebehka replied. “There are similar mythological creatures in the history of Nimalia, as well as each of the member nations of the CSA… which is interesting, but outside of my field.”
“Don’t tell me you’re trying to suggest that this ‘metallic infection’ is the source of dragon myths,” Phoenix responded incredulously.
“I am, in fact, not suggesting that,” Rebehka retorted. “If a critical infection ever occurred on a pre-space flight world, especially one like Earth with no Chaotics, then the entire population would be doomed. No one would be left to create myths about it.”
“What is this ‘critical infection’?” Luke asked. “What’s the point of making a dragon monster?”
“The ‘point’, as it were, is that a critical infection is the point where the metallic infection no longer needs biological creatures to reproduce,” Rebehka answered. “Once the infection reaches that stage, the nanomachines become capable of making more of themselves out of any nearby matter. This is when they’ll begin forming autonomous creatures entirely out of nanomachines, most often taking the form of silvery bug-like creatures around the size of a human head.”
“And then they spread until the whole planet is consumed?” Austin suggested.
“Well… not quite. Based on critical infection incidents from before the Nanocreature War, the infection actually prioritizes removing threats to itself instead of attempting to consume everything nearby. Furthermore… there seems to be a limit to how many Nanocreature nanites can be active in the galaxy at any given time. This limit appears to be related to how many Chaos Ayas the Nanocreatures possess.”
“How do you know that?” Luke questioned, “the Ayas have all been under lock and key ever since the war. None of them have fallen into Nanocreature hands…”
“Not since the war, no,” Rebehka replied, “but before the war, the Ayas fell into the Nanocreatures’ possession one by one. As they did, the rate of the infection’s spread throughout the galaxy increased — significantly more so than you would expect from plague theory. Additionally, when Morcii and his Nanocreatures attacked the galaxy at the end of the war, they had no Ayas — and their attacking force was significantly smaller than earlier in the war, when they did have some of the Ayas.”
“So the Nanocreatures and the metallic infection are connected to these ‘Ayas’, then?” Spike pondered.
“Question!” Sky exclaimed, and then continued before anyone acknowledged her. “I’ve heard of these ‘Ayas’ things before, but what are they, exactly…?”
Rebehka stared at Sky for a moment before releasing a weary sigh. “…Right. I suppose you all are new to this. Put simply, the Chaos Ayas are nine gemstone-like objects that are capable of creating Chaos Energy. They’re the only things in the entire galaxy that can create Chaos Energy, in fact. This makes them incredibly powerful, and highly valuable.”
“And dangerous,” Kaoné added.
“Yes…” Rebehka nodded. “Especially in the hands of the metallic infection. If the Nanocreatures can claim three of the Ayas… then that’s when Morcii comes in.”
“I thought y’all defeated Morcii,” Luke remarked. “Right? That’s how the story goes: that Hero Machina stopped Morcii, not once, but twice!”
Rebehka and Kaoné exchanged an uneasy glance. “…Unfortunately, it’s not that simple,” Kaoné stated as she stepped up to the front of the room, next to Rebehka. “Based on what we know about Morcii… it’s possible that he might come back.”
“How the hell do you even know that?” Pierce questioned.
“It’s a long story,” Rebehka replied. “What you need to know is that, if the metallic infection — if the Nanocreatures get three Ayas again, then we might see Morcii again. And if he appears, then the Nanocreatures will immediately grow immensely more dangerous. Based on analysis of their spread during the Nanocreature War — when Morcii is around, the Nanocreatures can replicate themselves with minimal source material or energy, and they can do so extremely rapidly. They can even replace matter in an object or a creature within seconds, giving Morcii complete control over it. And even more dangerous, it seems that the nanites gain the ability to spread through the air at that point.”
“Sounds scary,” Conrad said.
“And we— are we supposed to fight this?!” Austin exclaimed incredulously. “How?! This is a big fucking ask!”
“Oh c’mon, dweeb,” Pierce retorted, “we’re Chaotics! Taking care of some stupid nanites should be easy.”
“If only it was…” Kaoné responded. “Unfortunately, Nanocreature nanites are immune to direct manipulation.”
“Why?” Sky questioned.
“We have some ideas…” Rebehka replied with a sigh, “but none of them give us actionable information.”
“It’s information we don’t need, anyways,” Nil’kin interjected. “The nanites might be immune to direct manipulation, but there are still plenty of other ways to annihilate them.”
“This threat of Morcii coming back is overstated, too. The galaxy learned from the Nanocreature War. None of the Ayas are in the same place, and they’re all heavily guarded.”
“I’m surprised to hear this from you,” Rebehka replied icily. “I would’ve thought you’d be one of the people advocating for extreme caution.”
“We are practicing extreme caution,” Nil’kin retorted. “With the exception of that damned Master Ayas, we know exactly where and who possesses each Ayas. The Siions have one, the Dra’kis have one, the Citans have two, you Nimalians have three, and SERRCom has one.”
“We do?” Austin questioned as he turned toward Luke.
“Yeah, there isn’t really a way to hide it,” Luke replied with a shrug. “The way I hear it, you can detect those things from across the galaxy.”
“If they’re so easy to detect, then why are we so sure the Nanocreatures won’t ever get them?” Phoenix asked.
“We aren’t,” Rebehka stated as she threw Nil’kin an annoyed glance. “Which is why precautions are necessary. And why we must stay one step ahead of the infection as much as we can.”
“Oh? Now I’m surprised to hear that from you,” Nil’kin replied. “You gather up infected specimens like a hoarder. If you practiced the ‘precautions’ that you preached, then you would have taken my advice and annihilated them all already.”
“Keeping infected creatures alive is the only way to study the infection,” Rebehka countered. “And if we don’t study it, then we’ll be just as unprepared to face future outbreaks and critical infection incidents as we were 20 years ago!”
“There’s also the possibility of developing a cure, as well,” Kaoné pointed out.
“A cure? Ha!” Nil’kin scoffed. “What cure? As far as we know, there’s only one way to cure the infection, and it simply isn’t practical on a large scale.”
“It might not be practical now,” Mark commented, “but at least if there is one, then it eventually will be.” He then glanced at Rebehka. “Right?”
“Well…” The Dean glanced away for a moment. “…Not necessarily. Right now, the only confirmed way to cure someone of the metallic infection is to have them engage the Chaos State. However, that won’t work if you let the infection get too far… not to mention how difficult it would be to even get your hands on one of the Ayas. None of the governments or militaries would be willing to relinquish one, just to save one person… and even then, only Chaotics can use the Chaos State. In the end, it just isn’t a useful solution. That said, we have been working on finding other solutions. Archoné Culana has been surprisingly helpful in that regard… thanks to him, we actually have technology that allows us to detect the presence of Nanocreature nanites in an area.”
“It’s a little convenient, isn’t it?” Nil’kin remarked.
“…I can’t argue with that…”
“What does that mean…?” Luke questioned.
Rebehka shook her head warily. “I have no idea how the Archoné or his people figured out this technology. He won’t tell us. Even Kevken — sorry, Kievkenalis — doesn’t know, and his school is so privileged, that they have one of the Union’s Ayas in their possession for study!”
“That does sound suspicious…”
“Even so, the fact that we’re able to detect nanites is incredibly helpful, so I try not to complain too much.”
“Is it really safe, though?” Austin asked, “you know… to keep Nanocreatures around? That sounds like you’re just asking for trouble…”
“It’s fine. As I said earlier, before an infection outbreak reaches the critical infection stage, the nanites require biological creatures to replicate,” Rebehka explained. “They can’t just eat through a containment cage, not yet. And as an added precaution, all of our specimens are contained within energy shields. That stops the nanites for good.”
“So Nanocreatures can’t get through energy shielding, then?” Luke questioned.
“That’s correct. They can try to burrow through the shielding, but they can’t actually get through, not until the shield runs out of charge and dies.”
“It still sounds like trouble to me…” Austin muttered.
“Oh please, dweeb, it sounds perfectly fine to me,” Pierce retorted. “Just because you’re afraid of something doesn’t mean it’s a valid thing to be afraid of.”
“I don’t know, Pierce…” Phoenix commented warily, “everything about the Nanocreatures and the metallic infection sounds dangerous. I’d only bother capturing an infected creature if I had failsafes upon failsafes to make sure the nanites never got out…”
“And we do,” Rebehka insisted. “I understand your wariness, but we know what we’re doing, here. Hmm… perhaps, if I showed you the containment labs, you’d understand.”
“That means we’d get to see what this stuff actually looks like, right?” Sky questioned, and then jumped to her feet. “If so, then I’m in! It’s hard to fight something if you don’t know what it looks like, after all!”
“I suppose we can take a look…” Luke stated, “if it’s really as safe as you say…”
“It’ll be fine, trust me,” Rebehka insisted. “In fact, even if the power, the backup power, and the backup backup power somehow were to go out, the Major here is an Electrotechnic. The shields will stay up.”
“Tch…” Nil’kin snorted, but offered no further response.
“Anyways, if you all will follow me…” The Dean left her position behind the podium and began leaving the room, as everyone slowly stood up from their seats to follow. “It’s time for a look at the containment labs.”
30 Minutes Later
“Here we are. Containment Lab 1.”
“1?” Austin echoed incredulously. “How many are there?”
“3,” Rebehka replied, “all evenly spaced apart, and just outside of the main campus. For security’s sake.”
“Is ‘security’ the same reason that you had us all put on this armor?” Pierce questioned as he looked himself over. A small chestplate, a set of gauntlets, and a pair of greaves now accompanied his casual outfit — in fact, everyone in the group was now wearing such armor pieces, with the sole exception of Nil’kin, who was already wearing armor.
“That’s exactly it,” the Dean replied. “The energy shielding provided by powered armor is an extra precautionary step that we take when accessing infected specimens. There’s no such thing as too much caution when dealing with the metallic infection.”
“Though there certainly is such a thing as too little,” Nil’kin interjected.
“Major Dralis, if you have an issue with how I’m doing things today, then you can take it up with Archoné Ledkia,” Rebehka countered impatiently. “He’s the one who commissioned the Chaos Knights to act as WTAC’s security — without consulting me, might I add. But if I recall your contract correctly, while we’re on my campus, we do things my way.”
The Dra’kis remained silent for a moment as she simply stared back at Rebehka. Eventually a bitter smile crossed her face as she replied, “…understood, Dean.”
“Good.” Rebehka nodded curtly before turning around. Standing in front of her was a locked door that appeared to lead into a building in the far corner of the WTAC campus; adjacent to the door was a keypad, which the Dean quickly entered a code into. She then placed her hand on a black pad next to the keypad, at which point a thin light quickly swept across her body. A moment later, a green light appeared above the door, and it opened up.
“Lotta security…” Conrad observed as the group began to filter through the open door.
“As I said, there’s no such thing as too much caution,” Rebehka answered, stopping in a small lobby-like area beyond the door. She then turned to face the group as she continued, “to go back to one of your questions from earlier, WTAC was built here on the forest floor to place it closer to its subjects of study: creatures that have succumbed to the metallic infection. Here on the forest floor in the Giant’s Forest, the flora and fauna can be excessively large and dangerous. People, for the most part, stay away — which creates a vast area where the infection has the potential to spread without supervision. As such, most of our specimens are from the surrounding environment — and in an absolute worst case scenario of a containment breach, the animals would just be returning to the same environment that they were captured in.”
“I mean, that still sounds pretty bad,” Twy said.
“It would be, but it wouldn’t be as bad as introducing the infection to an entirely new environment where it didn’t exist previously,” the Dean countered. She then looked over the group, and glanced at the entrance door; upon confirming that it was closed, she turned on her heel and approached another door in the back of the lobby. “Now, Kaoné, since we have guests, I’ll need your access code as well.”
“Got it,” Kaoné replied, following Rebehka to the door.
The rest of the group began to follow as well, though Pierce hung back, eying the door in front of them with unease.
Pierce glanced over at Conrad, who had also hung back with him. “…I don’t know,” Pierce muttered in reply. “Something… doesn’t feel right.”
“Well, we are about to go stare at some hella dangerous diseased animals,” Conrad responded.
“…Yeah… I guess.” Pierce took a deep breath. He watched Conrad begin sauntering off after the group, at which point he himself jogged to catch up.
On the other side of the door was a long hallway, with more doors lining the right side. Rebehka and Kaoné simply passed them by as they strode down the hallway, eventually stopping at the far end. Once there, they performed the same series of security checks that Rebehka had engaged in to initially enter the lab, though the scan this time seemed to take thrice as long. As soon as it completed, a loud ka-chunk echoed through the hall, and the door in front of them slowly opened.
“Here we are… the specimen storage,” Rebehka stated as she stepped into the room and gestured for everyone to follow. Inside was another hallway, though wider — nearly wide enough for four people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. And all along the left wall were series and series of cells, not unlike a jail. Each one featured dirt and grass on its floor, coupled with a handful of small artificial tree branches extending from the walls… and laying on those floors, or hanging from the branches, were a variety of animals, one per cell. In one, there appeared to be a creature similar to a monkey, though with two tails that both latched onto the branch above it; in another, a small bird with a viciously sharp beak and a long tail; in a third, a wolf-like beast lying curled up in the corner. And on each and every one of them were streaks of silver, running down their flanks and up their necks like a fierce rash.
“What the hell…?” Pierce muttered to himself as he tentatively approached the cell containing the wolf beast. As he stepped up to it, the beast turned to stare at him, at which point he realized that the wolf’s left eye was silvered. Just as he noticed this, the beast bared its fangs, and then leaped to its feet and lunged at the cell bars. Reflexively, Pierce drew back, though the wolf’s lunge was stopped by a sheet of golden energy covering the cage that separated them. He then glared down at the beast as it growled back at him — and in that moment, for just a brief second, the image of Liask’s scarred face flashed across his vision, followed immediately by Trenon’s fallen body, and then a second image of a wolf beast with silvery, metallic rashes covering its body.
Pierce quickly stepped back from the cell, his brow furrowed in confusion. What the hell was that? That… that was that damn vision I had back when Trenon died, wasn’t it? Yeah, I remember seeing a wolf like this… but how the hell did I see that? Wait a minute… The unsettling feeling in the bottom of his stomach that had plagued him since initially descending to the forest floor suddenly crystallized into an epiphany, momentarily overriding the dull throb that passed through his torso. That weird feeling I’ve been having — was it this? Was I sensing these infected animals?
“Careful. Like I said, they can be hostile.”
“Huh—?” Pierce whipped around to face Rebehka, who had just approached him. Confusion crossed her face in response, though before she could say anything, Phoenix spoke up.
“The cages aren’t exactly spacious,” Phoenix pointed out, “that hostility might just be shitty housing.”
Rebehka glanced back at Phoenix, and then turned to give the wolf a forlorn look. “Believe me, if I could give them more space, I would… But more space requires more resources. More energy shielding, more surveillance, more land… it’s hard to get the funding and permission for all of that when the animals will inevitably die in months, if not weeks. In my over 20 years of studying the metallic infection… barring exceptional circumstances, not a single host has ever survived.” She then shook her head. “Anyways, these animals are sedated. When they were captured in the wild, they were actually far more violent than this.”
“Must’ve been hard to capture,” Spike commented.
“It certainly does take skill. A little luck, as well. And as luck would have it, my Cryotechnism makes it simple for me to capture things.”
“Still, the fact that there’s no cure for this, is…” Twy stepped up to the cell containing the infected bird. “…Just one wound, and it’s all over, huh…”
“Well, actually…” Kaoné spoke up from off to the side, drawing everyone’s attention. She then passed Rebehka a tentative glance as she said, “…I didn’t want to say this earlier, and get people’s hopes too far up… but I think now would be a good time.”
Rebehka gave her a doubtful look. “Are you sure? I still wanted to do another test…”
“We know it’s possible now, though. I think that’s enough.”
“That what’s possible?” Nil’kin questioned impatiently.
Kaoné glanced at Rebehka again before taking a deep breath and addressing the group directly. “Rebehka mentioned earlier that we’re looking into a cure for the infection… and, just last month, with the help of the facilities at the Infection Research Center on Karania… I actually managed to use my Materiatechnism to completely remove all Nanocreature nanites from a small rodent, and keep them alive in the process.”
“What?!” came an exclamation in unison from nearly everyone present.
“That’s so cool!” Sky immediately followed, “man, you guys are really powerful!”
“Wait, wait… hold on,” Phoenix interjected, “I thought you said that the Nanocreatures are immune to direct manipulation!”
“They are,” Kaoné explained, “which is why removing the nanites is so difficult. But the matter they’re attached to can still be manipulated — I’ve done it once to myself 20 years ago, so I knew that from the start. It just requires intense concentration, a lot of effort, a lot of care, and a lot of time… but it’s possible.”
“On a small rodent,” Austin pointed out. “Last I checked, rodents aren’t humans.”
“No, but this clearly shows that a cure is at least possible,” Mark countered. “This is pretty incredible, honestly!”
Kaoné nodded. “I agree. And I received confirmation from Karania last weekend that the animal is doing just fine now, with no side effects.” She looked down at her hands, and then over at the infected creatures in the nearby cells. “…I know I can do it. I just need more practice to be able to cure bigger animals, and people…”
“Tch…” Nil’kin snorted. “More practice is more time. And the more time we waste keeping creatures like these alive in hopes of a cure, the more time the infection has to spread.”
“Yeah, but a cure’s possible,” Conrad pointed out with a shrug. “That makes things different. Right?”
“It might be possible, but it still won’t be scalable,” the Dra’kis countered, and then turned to look at Kaoné. “Dean Densalin here may be a powerful Materiatechnic, but she’s still only one woman. There are woefully few Materiatechnics in the galaxy, and even fewer — perhaps, even none — who could match her level of skill or ability. Even if she gets to a point where she can cure someone with a snap of her fingers, it simply wouldn’t matter, if the infection was allowed to overcome a planet in the time she took to master that skill!”
“The infection doesn’t spread that fast,” Rebehka shot back. “What could possibly be wrong about wanting to save people?”
“I am saving people — by not getting sentimental over those who are already doomed.”
“Surely it can’t hurt to pursue a cure, though,” Kaoné argued.
Nil’kin’s brow furrowed as she stared at Kaoné, only to look away a moment later. “…If you insist, Dean,” she replied, with a dry emphasis placed on the final word.
Rebehka pursed her lips in response to Nil’kin’s statement, but chose not to respond further. She turned away to look at the infected wolf again, opening her mouth to speak — only to be interrupted.
“Something’s… wrong,” Phoenix stated, a hand held to her temple as she glanced to and fro. “…Something bad is about to happen.”
“…What are you talking about?” Sky questioned.
Phoenix frowned with unease. “It’s… hard to explain. I just have this weird feeling, the same feeling I had back when EA kidnapped us, and again when he ambushed us with his mech on his ship, and then again just before the Bleeders blew themselves up at Goresan…”
Pierce snorted. “What, are you saying that you have some kind of danger sense?”
“No, asshole— well, uh, yes, actually. Maybe. I don’t know…” Her brow furrowed. “Look, just, we need to get out of here.”
“Is this…? Hmm…” Kaoné looked at Phoenix with wonder, and then glanced at Rebehka. “…Is this what Pallan was talking about?”
“Who knows with him,” Rebehka replied, and then began moving toward the exit. “…But, as I said before, there’s no such thing as too much caution when dealing with the infection—“
“No. Wrong way.”
“…Huh?” Rebehka stopped and looked back at Kestrel, who had quickly moved forward to block the Dean’s path. “…What?”
“Kestrel, do you feel it too?” Phoenix questioned.
“Mmm…” Kestrel passed Phoenix only a brief glance before turning back to face the exit. “…Something’s—“
Then, before she could finish her statement, the wall directly perpendicular to the exit door blasted open, filling the room with the bright white light and thundering roar of an explosion.