And with clear reason.

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Around him, the square was crammed with pale creatures. Some as large as bulls, others no bigger than muscled calves. Sam recognized the sickly forms. These were the same beasts that had haunted the necropolis below. They circled the boy, sniffing, snuffling at his heels. Occasional fights broke out, sudden hissed screams and slashes of razored claws. They had yet to decide what to make of the boy.

But one thing was clear. They were hungry. Saliva drooled from almost all their lips. They looked near starved. All knobbed bones and skin.

One of the nearest creatures suddenly spun in their direction. It was one of the spindly-legged beasts. One of the pack’s scouts. Sam and Maggie barely slid back into hiding before being spotted.

Sam nudged Maggie back.

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The tattooed shaman looked just as confused and horrified. Clearly he had never suspected what his janan pacha had truly hidden. Before Sam could stop him, Kamapak stepped around the corner, arms raised. With tears in his eyes, the shaman lifted his voice in song, bright with religious fervor. Kamapak strode toward the pack of creatures.

The beasts on the square grew quiet.

Sam pulled Maggie farther back. He whispered in her ear. “We need to circle around. Take advantage of the shaman’s distraction. See if we can free Denal.”

She nodded, and the pair took off at a run, diving down a cross street that paralleled the plaza. They heard Kamapak’s song droning on. Sam tried to race as quietly as possible, avoiding bones and pottery.

“This way!” Maggie hissed and darted into an alley between two homes.

Sam followed and soon found himself crouched again before the square, but this time, Denal lay directly ahead of them. The boy had not noticed them; he had fallen to his knees, his eyes fixed on where the shaman stood.

The beasts had also been attracted by the singing. The monstrous throng had drifted away from the terrified boy and toward the new oddity. A path lay open.

If they were to rescue Denal, it was now or never.

Sam took a deep breath, then crept out, keeping low to the ground. Maggie followed, rifle at her shoulder.

Across the plaza, Sam spotted the shaman, now surrounded by the beasts. A few of the dwarfish members of the pack, the sexless drones, picked at the robe Kamapak wore. Others, the taller, more muscled hunters kept back warily, heads cocked, studying the newcomer, listening to the singing. But how long would his song keep the monsters cowed? Sam immediately had his answer. One of the hunters raced forward and clubbed the shaman to the stones of the plaza. Sam took a step toward Kamapak, but Maggie restrained him with a grip on his elbow.

Kamapak slowly pushed up and touched his bloody forehead. The pack stared as the shaman raised his red fingers. Then the beasts caught the scent of his blood and all else was forgotten. The pale forms surged and leaped forward, scrambling and swamping the shaman. Kamapak screamed in terror and pain. Screeches and howls accompanied the attack. Even from where he stood, Sam could hear bones snap and flesh rip.

Denal turned away from the horrible sight and finally spotted Sam. He struggled to his feet and ran toward the pair on wobbly legs. The boy’s eyes were puffy from tears, his face pale with terror. He opened his mouth to speak, but Sam raised a finger to his own lips. Denal clamped his mouth closed but could not stop a small whimper from escaping.

Sam and Maggie were soon at his side. As Sam pulled the boy to him, the growls and hisses began to die down across the plaza. Kamapak’s own screams had already been silenced.

“We need to get clear of here!” Maggie whispered.

Across the square, handfuls of the beasts had settled to the stones with their meals. Bits of torn robe were everywhere. Blood lay in a trampled pool on the stones. But Kamapak himself was gone, shredded apart and torn by the claws and teeth of the creatures. All that remained were bloody gob-bets being gnawed and fought over.

But, unfortunately, there was not enough of the thin shaman to go around. Several of the beasts now searched, sniffing, for another source of food. Their feral eyes fell back upon the boy. Their group was spotted.

“Damn it,” Sam muttered.

Screeches rose again from the remaining creatures. Even those with fresh meat raised bloody muzzles to see what else might be claimed.

“Denal, how’d you get down here?” Sam asked, retreating across the square, no longer needing to be quiet. “Is there another way out?”

The boy shook his head. “The guards took me to the temple. Made me lie down on the altar. Then I wake up… I here, dizzy, no clothes.” Denal’s voice cracked. “Th… then these things come!”

“What the hell are they?”

Denal stuttered. “Th… their gods.”

One of the nearest beasts lunged at them. Maggie eyed it through the rifle’s sight and fired. The creature flew back, half its skull blown away. “Well, these feckin’ gods bleed.”

The dead beast was set upon by some of its brethren. More meat for the feast. But it did not slow the others down; bloodlust and hunger had driven them into a near frenzy.

Sam, Denal, and Maggie continued to retreat until new growls arose behind them. Sam swung around. More of the creatures shambled and crept into the back of the square, late-comers to the party, drawn by the fresh blood and screams. From the rooftops all around, other pale beasts clambered and howled their hunger.

“I think the dinner bell’s just been rung,” Sam said dourly.

Joan worked in her cell. She had spent the morning poring over various journal articles, abstracts, and typed notes on the theory of nanotechnology supplied to her by the earnest young monk. She was especially intrigued by the paper on the theory of biomimetic systems, the idea of constructing microscopic machines by imitating already existing biological models, such as mitochondria and viruses. The article by a Dr. Eric Drexler proposed using proteins and nucleic acids as the building components of a micromachine, or nanobot. The article expounded on how present-day biology could inspire the generation of “synthetic, nonbiological structures.”

Joan leaned back, picturing the microscopic octagonal units that composed Substance Z. Their shape had struck her as familiar, almost an imitation of viral phages. Were these units actual examples of biomimetic constructs?

Reaching to the tabletop, Joan rifled through her papers until she came across a printout from the scanning probe microscopy analysis. It broke down the component parts of the strange unit.

Assay 134B12

SPM analysis: utilizing phase imaging, force modulation, pulsed forced microscopy (results cross referenced with mass spectrograph analysis #134B8)

Initial findings:

Shell architecture: macromolecules of Si (silicon) and H (hydrogen), specifically cubosiloxane (H8Si8O12) plus tectosilicates

Articulated arms: Si (silicon) nanotubes interfaced with Au (gold)

Joan tapped at the sheet of paper. So the arms of the nanoparticle contained gold, hence the hue of Substance Z. But what intrigued her more was the shell composition. It was mostly silicon. In nature, almost all biologic building blocks were based on hydrocarbons—molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. But here was a construct that replaced carbon with silicon.

“Hydrosilicons,” she mumbled, naming this new class of molecule. Though hydrocarbons made up most of biology, in geology, it was silicon that made up the dominant element in the earth’s crust. Could this structure be some link between biology and geology? Or as the young monk had proposed, was this the first inorganic nanobot to be discovered?

Lastly, her eyes rested on the last line of the report. The composition of the core. Unable to analyze. Here was the crux of the mystery. The exterior was known and quantifiable, but the inner workings were still an enigma. This brought her back to the ultimate question raised by the young monk in his own personal papers: What is the purpose of this microscopic machine? And who had programmed it?

Before Joan could ponder the mysteries any deeper, she heard the scrape of heel on stone from down the hall. She glanced to her watch and furrowed her brow. It was much too early for anyone to be fetching her lunch. She bit her lower lip. Whoever approached probably had nothing to do with her, but she could not take that risk.

Joan hurriedly straightened up the contents of her desktop. She shifted the research papers into a neat pile, then folded the worn sheet of legal paper with Friar de Almagro’s code and stuffed it in a pocket. Next she slid the single book allowed in her room, a King James Bible, over the ragged hole she had blown through the oak desktop, hiding the result of her experimentation last night.

Finally, she rolled the cigarette she had bummed from Friar Carlos off the desk and tucked it into her breast pocket. She surveyed her handiwork, satisfied that no sign of her secret experiment with Substance Z had been discovered.

And luckily she did. The footsteps stopped right outside her door. Joan tensed. A key was fitted into the lock and turned.

She swung around as the door was pulled open. It was Friar Carlos with his 9mm Glock. She stood, brows raised in question. “What is it?”

“Out,” he said brusquely, waving his pistol. “Come with me.”

Joan hesitated; fear that she had been caught iced her blood.

“Now!” Carlos barked.

Nodding, Joan stepped forward and through the door. One hand fingered the collar of her blouse. On the underside of the removable plastic stay of her collar were the two teardrop-sized pearls of Substance Z. She could not risk leaving the samples in her cell. The room might be searched, or she might be reassigned to a new cell. So she had devised this way to keep the golden drops hidden and in her possession.

Carlos nodded her forward. She followed his directions. She expected him to lead her down to the labs, but instead he herded her to a new section of the Abbey. She frowned at the unfamiliar surroundings. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see when you get there.”

The friar, never a warm fellow, was even more tight-lipped today. His tense attitude heightened her nervousness. What was going on? This wing of the Abbey was spartan. Plain stone floors with a string of bare bulbs illuminated the way. There were no lines of small doors opening into tiny domiciles. Joan glanced up and down the long hall. They had not passed a single of the Abbey’s denizens since entering this wing.

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