Okay, now we really had trouble. Our robot guide, who had been helping us figure out how to deal with all this and was the one who knew all the people in here, let alone how to get around the vault, was… off. I was going to hope he wasn’t permanently dead and instead just shut down somehow, but either way this was pretty bad. If he was down forever, could we even get out of this place? And regardless, without Sitter’s help, how were we supposed to do anything in here? Hell, he was the main reason any of the guests were even listening to us, and while I didn’t doubt that we could force the issue if we had to, I really didn’t want it to come to that. No, we had to be more diplomatic than that, or this whole situation would spiral completely out of control. Not to mention the fact that these people deserved better than that.
The three of us were all crouched around his fallen form, Dakota’s hand on his head. She looked at me, grimacing. “What do you think happened to him?”
“Maybe it was a trap inside the system,” I guessed, glancing to the spot where Sitter had been plugged in. “You know, like a virus or something. Whoever was responsible for this whole thing might’ve figured he would look through the system like that and left a little thing to shut him down. And uhh, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not exactly a robotics expert.” Not for the first time, I muttered, “I wish Avalon was here. Or Columbus. Or–” Shaking off all the thoughts of people it would be nice to have with us, I sighed. “I dunno, I think we’re on our own here unless we can find someone else in the vault who can do something with him. And even then–”
“Even then they might not be someone we can trust, or who will listen to us,” Dakota finished. “So what’re we supposed to do now? How do we um… do anything?” She glanced toward Denny. “If we talked to people and you used your power to find out if any of them could fix him, then–”
“No.” Denny quickly shook her head, blanching visibly. “I–I can’t, I’m sorry. I can’t use that power again, not like that. I don’t… like taking their free will–I don’t want t–I’m sorry.” She was visibly cringing, looking like she might be sick. “I know it’s not a big deal. I know, I know. But even doing it a little bit makes me think of all the times he did it. The memories, they get stronger in my head whenever I use that power and I can’t just–I can see the people he… I–” She cut herself off, folding her arms against her stomach while looking like she was desperately fighting back the urge to either cry or throw up. Or both.
Dakota shifted over, putting an arm around the other girl. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s okay,” she murmured. “We’ll find another way. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Don’t worry about it.”
“She’s right,” I quickly agreed, taking Denny’s hand and squeezing it. “We’ll just have to talk to people and find someone who can help. Then watch them. Or just do this without Sitter until we catch the person responsible. Or maybe it was Sitter and this is a trick, you know? I can’t be the only person who remembers how often the butler is responsible for the murders.” I offered a weak, hesitant smile before it faded. “I just mean–yeah.”
“Well, he was the one to freeze everyone else,” Denny hesitantly pointed out. “Plus, Valdean didn’t show him that note, remember? And if he disappears right now and leaves us like… without any help or whatever, he makes it harder for us to investigate. Maybe he has another body he jumped into, or maybe he’s just inside the computer system itself.” She shrugged uncertainly. “It uhh, it could just be paranoia, but we don’t know anything about him. Maybe he’s a robot who went bad. That’s a thing that happens in movies and stuff..”
My mouth opened, then shut as I considered. In the end, Dakota spoke up before I could. “Sure, uhh, yeah, maybe. But umm, you know, how would he, umm… how did he adjust everyone’s memory if that’s what happened? Robots can’t use magic.”
“But they can use technology,” Denny reminded her. “And a lot of Valdean’s tech stuff looks like magic or does magic-type stuff. Remember, like, this whole place, being in a pocket dimension, the time-freeze, it’s all technology-based, not magic. Maybe Valdean created a memory adjustment gizmo too? One that Sitter’s been using.”
“Okay, you have a point there,” I admitted. “But still, I don’t think we should lean too hard on ‘Sitter’s the evil one’ just because we can make that fit. He could just as easily be a victim. I…” Grimacing, I looked down at his still, silent, dark form. “If he really is hurt, we’ll feel like shit if we make him our prime suspect. I–we’ll look into it, just in case. But let’s keep an open mind.”
“What do we do next?” Dakota asked. “I mean, while we’re keeping open minds, how do we actually find any answers? So far we haven’t been doing a very bang-up job, and that was while we had help. Now that he’s… umm… not helping for whatever reason, what’re we supposed to do?”
“We need to talk to Sesh and Marina,” I pointed out. “First to tell them what happened, and also to find out if they got anything out of talking to the guests.” My expression twisted into one of uncertainty, as I sighed. “Yeah, I know it’s not very likely, but we still need to get on the same page. I just–wish we had anything useful on any of these pages.” My last words came out as a grumble, while I squinted around the room at all the computer stuff.
Denny raised a hand, tentatively pointing out, “We did find that USB thing in the location tracking computer. They’ve gotta be using that to hide where they are, right?” Her expression fell then. “Too bad we can’t ask Sitter to figure out what areas it’s being used to mask right now.”
“Yeah, that would be useful,” I agreed, “but I guess we’re going to have to do this the hard way.” Then I looked at Dakota. “Hang on, you found that instruction manual for this thing. Maybe we could use that to figure out what rooms are being given air and light and all that.”
The girl looked down at the thick binder she had set on the floor nearby. “Um, maybe. It kinda looks like he wanted people to be able to understand it if anything umm… went wrong. But it’s still pretty complicated. We need Sesh and Marina to look at it too.”
I nodded, looking back at the dark mouth-lights of Sitter before quietly murmuring, “Yeah, like I said, we need to exchange notes with them. But on the other hand, I’m a little afraid to leave this place. What if there’s information in here and one of the three missing people comes in while we’re gone and erases it? I–hang on.” For a brief moment, I considered the emergency alert spell, but I didn’t want Marina and Sesh to think that we were in immediate danger. Especially while they were talking to the other guests. Freaking those people out even more than they already were was probably a bad idea. We had to keep everyone as calm as possible if we were going to maintain any semblance of order and not let the vault devolve into total chaos.
So, instead of doing anything with that, I rose from the floor and moved over to the doorway leading into this place. Once there, I plucked a stone from my pocket. Holding the thing in the palm of my hand, I used my image inscription power to mark the thing with a spell that I’d learned from Shyel. “There,” I announced after triggering it and setting the stone down on the floor just out of sight from someone coming through. Then I waited for a second to see if the orichalcum walls would drain the thing. But apparently as long as I wasn’t putting the spell directly on the walls themselves, it was safe. Probably because Valdean hadn’t wanted to stop people from using magic entirely.
Once I was assured that my spell looked as though it would stay, I nodded firmly. “Right then. Now, as soon as we leave, the next person to come in here will set off an alert on this coin that I’ll keep with me.” Holding that up as well as well so they could see it, I added, “There shouldn’t be anyone else coming into this place except for us. So if that alert goes off and we’re not the ones coming in here–”
“It’s probably the bad guy,” Dakota finished. “Or bad guys. Why do you think there’s three missing people?”
My head shook. “I’m not sure, but we’ll be sure to ask them as soon as we figure out where they are.” Walking over, I bent down and picked up Sitter’s body. No way was I going to leave him here. If he really was the murderer in all this, leaving his body lying around for him to use again was a bad idea anyway. And even if he wasn’t, letting one of the actual bad guys find it and do whatever with him was a bad idea too. So no, he was coming with us. Luckily, I had enough strength boosts that hoisting him into my arms and carrying the deadweight robot figure wasn’t that hard.
Once we were actually back on the elevator, Denny abruptly made a sound of confusion deep in her throat. “Um, how are we supposed to move this thing? Do uhh, do we have any idea which of these buttons takes us back to the auditorium?” As she asked that, the girl was studying the control panel in front of her with clear bewilderment.
“I do,” I confirmed. As the other two looked at me, I propped Sitter’s body up in the corner before turning back that way. “I was watching the buttons he was pressing every time we got in this thing. Figured it might be a good idea just in case things went wrong or we had to do it ourselves. Uh, hang on, I think I’ve got the right idea, anyway.” Now that I’d claimed that, I really hoped I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself. So, I exhaled before closing my eyes briefly to focus on what I’d seen our robot companion do. First, I raised one finger to touch the button with what looked like two squiggly lines sort of pointing toward one another. The moment I hit it, the door of the elevator slid shut. Right, so far I was one for one. That was a good record.
From the corner of my eye as I squinted at the buttons, I saw Denny and Dakota take each other’s hands. Even with the door properly shut as it was supposed to be, it seemed like they weren’t exactly one hundred percent confident in my ability to work this elevator for some reason. Which, well, that was fair. Considering this thing moved like the Willy Wonka elevator, moving forwards and backwards and sideways and–yeah. I could see why this situation might make them a little nervous. I was pretty nervous too, but I had to pretend that I knew exactly what I was doing.
Which once again led me back to that same question from before. Was that what my mom and the other adults were doing all the time? Were they just pretending to know what was going on or how to handle everything? Was all of adulthood just faking your way through things and hoping the entire situation didn’t blow up in a way you couldn’t deal with? Because I had really been looking forward to the moment in my life where I would officially feel like an adult who knew what was going on and could teach others. The idea that might not actually happen, that the entire world–no, the entire universe was just an assortment of people who had lived long enough to sufficiently pretend that they knew what was going on was just… terrifying, really.
Realizing the other two were starting to get even more nervous as they watched me just stand there, I shook off those thoughts, gave them a smile that was as encouraging as I could manage, and focused on the buttons once more. After watching Sitter work this thing a few times, I had a general idea of how it worked. At least I hoped I did. First, there were four arrow-type buttons. The up arrow meant ‘go up one level’, the down meant to go down a level, the left button directed the elevator to go left one track, and the right button–well, obviously made it go right one track. You were supposed to hit those in the exact order to get to the track you wanted to go to from where you were. For example, if the specific track you wanted was three tracks right, one track up, then one track left, you hit right three times, then up once, then left once. From there, you were supposed to hit the number buttons to get to the exact right room that you wanted on that specific track.
Thinking intently, I tried to remember the sequence that Sitter had hit on our way down here from the auditorium. All I had to do was reverse that. Hit right where he had hit left, up where he had hit down, and so on.
I was also trying hard not to think about how screwed it seemed like we were if the simple act of using the elevator was such a big deal. Seriously, how were we supposed to handle this situation when I was considering simply closing the doors of this thing such a triumph? We were in trouble, there was no doubt about it. We didn’t have Sitter helping anymore, and we were completely cut off from any outside assistance. All we had was a bunch of freaked out guests who we couldn’t be absolutely sure were trustworthy, and each other. Marina, Dakota, Denny, Fathsteth’s daughter whom I had only barely met, and me. Yeah, this whole situation could spiral out of control very quickly.
But hey, at least I remembered the right buttons. At least, I was pretty sure I did. Squaring my shoulders, I just reached out to hit them in what I believed was the right sequence. First each of the opposite arrow buttons from what Sitter had hit to bring us down here, then the same number that I remembered him hitting when he’d taken us to the auditorium to begin with.
The doors shut, and we were on our way. I crossed my fingers, looking at the other two before coughing once as I saw that they were both doing the same. “I uhh, see, easy-peasy.” I hoped the juxtaposition of me saying that while openly holding up my hands so they could see my crossed fingers was more amusing than terrifying.
Thankfully, in the end I turned out to be right. The elevator took us through several floors and different tracks, before the doors opened in front of the entrance to the auditorium. Seeing that in front of us, I let out a breath of relief and barely resisted the urge to sag sideways. “And that’s how we do it. We’re here. You uhh, yeah, you guys stay right here with him. Shout if anything happens, I’m gonna go get the others.” I definitely didn’t want to carry his limp and dark body into that room in front of all the guests. Something told me they probably wouldn’t react that well.
So, leaving the other two there to watch over him, I stepped out. The small hallway was shaped like a U, with the elevator at the bottom of that letter. Moving to the left side led to the audience entrances, while moving to the right led to the backstage area. I moved right, heading through those back rooms and over the stage itself until I could see the main auditorium. The guests were all out there, whispering together in small groups throughout the room about what was going on, what was going to happen to them now that Valdean was gone, and so on.
Everyone noticed me, of course. All the conversations stopped quickly when they saw that I was there, and I winced a little before focusing on where I could see Sesh and Marina. “Uh, sorry for the interruption, guys. We’ll have some more food brought in as soon as we can, I promise. And like I said before, you don’t have to worry about us. We’ll figure this out and those of you who want to stay, I’m sure Valdean would’ve wanted you to. Sitter can definitely help with that. But uhh, that’s all detail stuff. We’ll get to it. In the meantime, I need to borrow my friends there for just a minute, if you don’t mind.” I tried to keep my voice as calm and casual as possible. From some of the looks I was getting, it wasn’t a complete success. Still, at least no one was openly panicking just yet.
The other two excused themselves from the conversations they had been having, and came up to join me on the stage. Keeping my voice low, I asked if they had any idea, after spending more time with these people, who we should put in charge for the moment.
Exchanging a look with Sesh, Marina offered, “I think Jammi could probably do it. She volunteered to be possessed first, after all. And she’s sort of… mothering in a way?”
Sesh nodded. “Yeah, maybe her and that guy over there.” She nodded toward a short, gray-skinned figure with large red eyes and no visible mouth. “His name’s–”
“Isolin, I remember,” I confirmed. “He’s a Peusen.” It sounded a bit like ‘poison’ but more like ‘pwahson.’ “Yeah, I think you’re right, he was pretty level-headed when I was… possessing him. Okay, let’s leave them in charge.”
So, I called those two up and asked them to look after the others and keep everyone calm, promising that we would explain what was going on as soon as we could. The Guhlben woman seemed nervous about the whole situation, but readily agreed to help take care of her fellow guests. And Isolin, ‘speaking’ by making words appear holographically in the air, agreed as well. He could also make solid holographic shapes appear with that same power.
Hoping everyone would be okay in here for a few minutes, I took Sesh and Marina out to the elevator. On the way, I finally explained what we found, and what happened to Sitter.
“Wait, hold on, he just shut off after plugging into that system?” Sesh demanded. “That’s not–” She stopped as we reached the elevator itself so she could see the robot in question. “Uhh, that’s not good.”
“Tell us about it,” Dakota promptly piped up, her face flushing a little immediately afterward. “I mean, uhh, yeah. He still won’t wake up. And I’ve been looking through this manual for the computer system, but it’s really confusing.” She waved the binder helplessly.
“May I see that?” Marina asked curiously. When the other girl handed it to her, she flipped through it a bit, starting to shake her head. “You’re right, this is pretty–hang on.”
“What’d you find?” Sesh asked, turning away from where she had been squinting intently at Sitter’s face. “Please say it’s something useful.”
“The note,” Marina quickly replied, looking back to me. “Can I see the note that was in Mophse’s shoe?”
Unsure of where she was going with that, I obliged by taking out the folded paper and handing it over to her. “Sure, you think that can help translate whatever language this is?”
She was quiet for a moment, simply holding the note in one hand while ripping through the binder with the other. Then she shook her head, voice quiet. “It’s not a language.” Clearing her throat, she looked up at the rest of us and repeated, “It’s not a language. Look. The letters–I mean what we thought were letters. It’s actually wiring inside the computer system. See? Like this bit right here, it looks like that letter Q with the tail on both sides and the circle in the middle. It wasn’t a letter at all. None of them are. They’re all different shapes of the wiring inside that system. This note isn’t a sentence, it’s like… a series of diagrams of the computer interior.”
She was right, I realized after making a few other comparisons. “Wait, so Mophse was walking around with a piece of paper that had a bunch of different images of the wiring inside the computer system in his pocket, along with a date for two days after he was killed? I mean, no wonder Valdean didn’t need to ask Sitter what language it was. There was no language at all, just wiring specs. But why? Why would he have that at all?
“And more importantly, are those specs the reason someone killed him?”