CHAPTER ONE

part VI

The familiar sense of skepticism came over Roe, as she dropped her plate in the kitchen sink and overheard the chatter coming from the living room.

She had gingerly examined the sealed gash above her brow in the garage’s tiny bathroom, and the wound was already healing quickly despite the yellow-green bruise that had spread below to her right eye. She lightly poked the skin’s sickly patina and shrugged. The idea of looking a bit rough in front of whoever this visitor was amused her. Was it the most mature thing to get a kick out of? No, but screw it, she decided, before heading inside.

She had never been great with strangers. Never trusted them much, and, even when she did, small talk was almost always painful. Her grandmother possessed this sweet, disarming quality that Roe secretly admired but knew she’d never possess herself, so, ever since she was young, she preferred to be in the garage fixing something or tinkering with some odd modification or upgrade for W0RM. Dealing with things had always come easy. It was people who were difficult.

Alright, she thought, let’s just get this over with, before entering the room.

Sitting on the couch was a young woman around Roe’s age with dark braided hair, a golden ear cuff on one ear, and a huge smile across her lightly freckled face. She was beaming, enrapt with Bell who was sitting in the chair across from her. W0RM, the glut, was sitting in her lap, reveling in attention, as she pet him with her left hand. Her right was gloved and lay still at her side. And, surprise, surprise, Roe thought, she was a Haematite. She recognized her clothes as some kind of pared-down version of the Church’s traditional garb. That is if you could call anything from a 65-year-old religion “traditional.”

But Roe was surprised. When Bell had said the visitor was a friend of her grandfather’s she had just assumed it would be someone equally as ancient. What was he now? 115? 120? Regardless, maybe she was some kind of courier or one of those door-to-door acolytes selling “the salvation of our markers” or whatever. Roe couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something... different about this girl.

“Roe,” Bell said, as she stepped into the room, “This is Ari, and I’m sorry, dear, what was your last name again?”

Ari stood, gently placing W0RM on the cushion beside her, and extended her left hand, “Oh don’t be, it’s Kasun. Ari Kasun. It’s great to finally meet you.”

Roe shook her hand, noting an eagerness in its grip, “Hi.”

“I’m so sorry to hear about last night. Are you--?” Ari looked to Roe’s forehead, concerned.

“--I’m fine. And we’ll get it back.” Roe said curtly.

Ari nodded sat back down, and Bell flashed Roe a stern look which Roe had anticipated and, in turn, ignored. Ari giggled as W0RM flapped his long tail feathers and hopped back into her lap. Roe had to stop herself from rolling her eyes. “And this little guy, he’s amazing,” Ari said. “Doctor Redrick said you’ve had him 20 years?”

Bell interjected, “Ari, please, I haven’t used my doctorate in a very long time, so, please, call me Bell.”

“Oh, okay, of course,” Ari replied before turning expectantly to Roe.

“Umm,” she cleared her throat, “Yeah. It’s been a long time.”

“That’s wonderful. There aren’t a lot of robotics in the Temple or even Coelum, so it’s always a treat when I get an opportunity to interact with them in person.”

“Mm-hmm,” Roe murmured, as she wondered why the hell her grandfather lived with these moon-brained morons.

“And he’s so sweet.”

Roe half-glared at her traitorous pet, “Yeah, I think his pleasure settings need some adjusting,” to which W0RM turned and brattled in Roe’s direction, sending Ari into a fit of laughter.

Roe looked to Bell with a petulant shrug.

Bell sighed through her smile and spoke to the metal bird, “Alright, W0RM, go relax, Ari didn’t come all this way just to pet you.” He chirped and nuzzled Ari’s hand one more time before fluttering up to the couch-back to lay down.

“Yes, of course,” Ari said, gathering herself. “It’s a little strange finally being here and meeting you. Carter’s talked so much about you both.”

Carter?” Roe questioned, not making the slightest attempt to hide her disparaging tone.

“Yes,” Ari affirmed, her disposition unwavering, “I’ve been his cataloging assistant for the past three years at a couple of the Church’s new dig sites.”

“New dig sites?” Bell wondered.

“Yes, umm...” Ari considered her words, “I’m not allowed to share much, unfortunately. But he’s been a wonderful mentor and become a good friend.”

“Wow, sounds nice,” Roe snidely interjected.

Bell cut her off sharply, “--Zero.”

“What?” Roe played dumb.

Ari considered Roe’s reaction and gave a small, understanding smile to Bell before responding, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to... everybody’s family is--complicated. And always more than it seems. Believe me, my family’s no exception.”

Bell nodded and offered a sympathetic smile, while Roe stared at Ari stone-faced and unamused.

“But, yes. I am here for a reason. A couple of months ago, Carter and I and a couple of our… associates, we--,” Ari’s tone shifted, a sense of gravity underscoring her words, “--Uncovered something.” Her eyes moved to the floor in an effort to mask an anxiety. “And umm... this might sound crazy but...” She gathered herself and looked directly at Roe who didn’t know how to react to the sudden seriousness and weight in Ari’s voice. “Roe, I need you to come with me. Back to the Temple. Today. There’s something... coming. Something bad. And you’re the key to saving us all.”


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