Nectra jumped from branch to branch, using her wings and her staff to balance as she spiraled over the obstacles of the jungle floor. Zack, following along, was getting mud in his shoes and manually pushing the thick vines and reeds of the terrain out of his way where he could while slowly climbing over or moving around the trees, fallen logs, and boulders where he couldn’t. Nectra would often vanish while moving ahead, but would always either turn back or wait for Zack to catch up.
“Nectra, you’ve gotta stop moving so fast.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking down. “We’re almost there. I don’t want him to suspect anything.”
“I doubt he will at first. Nectra, do you-”
“Wait… someone’s there, but it’s not him.”
Without another word, Nectra jumped from the branch, opened her wings, and left Zack’s field of vision. Zack waited a moment, sighed, and resumed wading through a tangled mesh of reeds. Soon he pushed through and saw a comparatively open patch of jungle. Nectra perched on a branch above, gesturing down quietly at a human who stood with a bow and arrow.
She turned and looked in Zack’s direction. She smiled, but looked anxious.
“Hello, Zack. I’m sorry, I’ve ruined your trial, I think. Or made it worse.”
“What? What do you mean? How?”
“When you arranged the ploy to find Nectra, you thought this Phantom Matador would be nearby. I decided to find him myself while you were still waiting for her to find you. I circled a lot… but really there are only a few places in this area that someone might comfortably wait. I found him.”
“Why did you do that?” he said.
“From everything they said about him, I guessed that he’d taken something from my forge. And he did. Only it’s not the stockpiled Virellium like I’d hoped, it was… he stole something else.”
“What was it?” asked Nectra.
Chala shouted, pulled her bow up, and shot an arrow straight toward Nectra. Nectra screamed and fell backwards, avoiding the arrow but dropping off her branch. She turned in the air and opened her wings, but not quickly enough to avoid slamming into the peaty soil.
Zack ran to Nectra, but the shangmere was already pushing herself up. She looked at Zack and Chala, smiling sheepishly. Chala, unprepared for the sudden appearance of shangmerian physiology, winced.
“Nectra, are you okay?”
“Sure, Zack,” she said. “Just scraped. Thanks, though. I forget that humans don’t think in three dimensions most of the time. Sorry!”
“Chala, this is Nectra.”
“Good meeting you?” she said. “So I guess your hunter isn’t out to kill you, then?”
“She’s out to clear her name,” said Zack. “And right now, she was helping me to find the Phantom Matador.”
“He was right here,” said Chala. “He left when I shot an arrow at him. Or… he didn’t leave so much as he faded.”
“He did that to you, too?” said Nectra. “I thought it was just me starting to lose it.”
“I think he has a rare psychic ability that lets him cloud people’s minds,” said Zack. “I’m not sure exactly what the extent of the ability is, but he’s had a lot of practice learning when and where to use it. He might not’ve even been in the clearing when you shot the arrow at him, for all we know. I think we need the answer to Nectra’s question, though.”
“Sure,” said Chala. “Sorry about that arrow.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” said Nectra. “What was it that he stole?”
“It was a Fact.”
“A fact?” said Nectra. “Like… a true concept?”
“No, a machine. They’re called Facts.”
“Oh,” said Zack. “Oh! Oh, I see… One of those… one of those things.”
“So, what is it?” asked Nectra. “I’m afraid I still don’t know.”
“It’s short for Artifact,” said Zack. “Bit of an ironic name to give something brand new. I think that was their name when they were new, but that was a century or two ago I think. They didn’t come from the Angelor Republic, though, right? I was never really a history student.”
“No, you’re right,” said Chala. “They came from a rare period of trade and information exchange between Glorien space and the Angelor Republic. They were allegedly brand new devices. We didn’t have any eyes or ears in Glorien space to let us know if they were legitimately new or not, but we had no reason to doubt it.”
“Then why call them Artifacts?” said Nectra. “Doesn’t the word mean something left over or… evidence of something that used to be around?”
“I think the emphasis was more on the word Fact than Artifact,” said Zack. “Artifact might’ve been a nod to them leaving the things around for us before they left and vanished into their own region of space again, though.”
“Right,” said Chala. “In addition to being shorthand for Artifact, the Facts were items that did one definite, specific thing, and did them well.”
“That’s what I never got about it, honestly,” said Zack. “We’ve got all sorts of things that only do one thing.”
“Yes, but most can be programmed to do more,” said Chala.
“Oh!” said Nectra. “So, it’s a hardware issue instead of a software one? Brilliant!”
“What is?” said Zack.
“Well, most devices are multi-purpose, even if they don’t look like it,” said Nectra. “Almost anything with a computer chip, really. Most things humans make use software, and that software can be upgraded or changed so that the computers can do different things, or do the same thing but better. Software takes time and memory, though, and uses resources to load, read, and enact. If something’s all hardware, it just does it automatically without any need to update anything. My Virellium tracker is like that, actually.”
“It’s usually more expensive,” said Chala. “To suit everyone’s needs, it’s easier to make generic computers that can have software instead of making very specific computer components that only do things one way. Plus the obvious problem of being hardware focused is that if a product has a flaw, you can’t just fix it with a software upgrade. If you come up with a better way of doing something, you can’t improve to the latest model without buying an all new system. Still, fans of hardware have a lot of speed and ease of resource management going for them. Glorien space allegedly had more of a hardware base, but generally as an artisanal practice rather than an industrial one.”
“So, what were you doing with one?” said Zack.
Chala took a breath.
“It’s what brought me to Mandrake. I’d learned that one might have been in the possession of an industrialist who came here quite some time ago. His ship never made it off the planet alive, though. I found it in his old ship, but it was broken. I’ve been trying to repair it ever since, and using the Virellium I’ve been gathering to power it whenever I think I’ve got another component working.”
“What’s it look like?” asked Zack.
“The base is like the lower end of an hourglass,” she said. “The glass curves in on itself, though, and isn’t what I’d call… orientable, apart from the copper base beneath it. Above the pinch, it sort of divides into two helically rising planes of glass surrounded by occasional copper plates. All the electronic components connect to the copper. I think the glass is there for conducting.”
“Glass doesn’t conduct electricity, though,” said Zack.
“It’ll conduct vibrations well enough, I bet,” said Nectra.
“Right… so, you’ve never been able to figure out what it does?”
“I’ve got some guesses,” said Chala. “Nothing I’d feel safe publishing and staking a career in anthropology on, even with a stockpile of Virellium to take home.”
“How dense is the Virellium, by the way?” asked Nectra. “I didn’t stop to check it out once I realized Zack was there.”
“You didn’t take any for yourself?” asked Zack.
“No, why would I?” asked Nectra. “Finding you’s always been the important thing here.”
“It’s not purified, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Chala. “It’s mostly tiny amounts bundled up in other substances or intermingled with other energies. I’d say there’s enough for me to retire on, though. It’d probably power a planet for a few weeks.”
“Incredible,” said Zack. “So… this story time’s great, but it doesn’t get us any closer to finding The Phantom Matador. We should pick up the trail again.”
“How?” said Chala. “He could be anywhere by now.”
“We’ll track him down,” said Zack. “Nectra knows where they’ve been crashing. Between my skills and her knowledge and skills, I think we should be fine.”
Nectra smiled, her mouth stretching wide enough to make her teeth apparent to anyone watching. Chala nodded.
“Okay,” Chala said. “Okay, good plan. I’ll pitch in, too. You’re going to need my knowledge of the terrain.”
“Can we take it, though” asked Nectra. “You live with these snake people, right? And Zack couldn’t take their help before, when he and I came here. It’s part of his trial or something, right?”
Zack rolled his eyes.
“I think catching the Phantom Matador before he causes more harm trumps that, Nectra,” he said.
“Actually… no, she’s right,” said Chala.
“Seriously, Zack,” said Chala. “If you were a fellow Sthenite, I could probably help you to at least track him down without anyone caring much. But the Suzerain’s going to have to explain you very well to the other tribal leaders who don’t like us. Two humans helping each other on trials breaks too many rules for her to smooth over without ordering your execution. You’ll be fine without me.”
Zack cupped his hand over his face and thought. Nectra curiously stepped in front of him to take a look before she looked to Chala questioningly.
“You’re right,” he said, finally. “Which way’s your forge from here?”
“Northwest,” said Chala, pointing.
Zack looked up and followed Chala’s finger. He nodded.
“Come on, Nectra. Wish us luck, Chala.”
He turned to move through the jungle again, and Nectra spread her wings to leap into the trees. Chala waved to the departing shangmere and human as they vanished from view.
“Good luck, Tzak,” she said.