Strin was looking at something behind Fred. Fred spun, prepared for anything, and nearly fell as his foot hit the base of a stalagmite. But he caught himself on the same stalagmite—all was well(1)» . The glass was smooth against his skin, and slick.
Looking up, he saw a wavering illusion that dominated the center of the cavern. The shimmering image of a face hung in the air, stretching from floor to ceiling, a face of flesh and wire, of tissue and gear. Bits of discolored synth-flesh speckled the face; it covered the mechanisms of a jaw, the machinery of an ear. One of the hard eyes swiveled in its socket. It was almost lifelike—Fred glimpsed a brain behind, and metal.
Fred looked back at Strin. “What’s that thing?”
“A real one?” Fred turned to study the face.
“In a way.” Strin whispered the words to himself; Fred was too far gone to hear them.
The Eomites were an isolated people. Even in stories and legends, they rarely appeared. They were phantoms in the pages of history. Most citizens of the Kingdom discounted them as fantastic inventions of imagination, wisps of whimsy.
It was not their existence that surprised Strin, however; it was that they had summoned him and Fred. This cavern must be part of the Eomites’ dwelling, though none could say where their dwelling was located. Eomites were not known because they did not wish to be known. Perhaps, thought Strin, in being inseparably fused together—mind and metal, steel and skin— they no longer felt a part of the living world.
Strin addressed the image. “We are honored to be here.” The image remained silent. One eye looked him over slowly. The other examined Fred. “Can you tell us why we’re here?” There was no answer. “What do you wish from us?”
The words came before the mouth moved. They echoed oddly in the fabricated cavern. “Ans-s-swers later! T-t-test first-t-t!”
Then, as quickly and as silently as the face had appeared, it vanished.
“What was that?” Fred motioned angrily at empty space. “He didn’t say anything! He just hung there and stuttered. And that’s an Eomite? I’m freakin’ impressed!”(3)»
“The Eomites are a secretive lot. I’m surprised he even talked to us.”
“But he didn’t say anything!”
“He did, Fred.”
As Fred looked to Strin to discover what answer he hid behind his calm face, they heard a faint humming. Strin’s eyes turned to the line he had labeled a door. It was growing thicker and blacker. Two panels slid carefully into the wall, revealing darkness. Fred took a few steps toward it, then stopped.
“Oh, great,” he muttered.
In the darkness beyond, four blazing orange eyes stared at them.(4)»