Location: underground, by the lake
Health: on the mend
Additional effects - badger-bloodware transplant, enhanced nature-vision
The shuffling footsteps of the frog, as huge as a mountain, shake the ground and devastate the forest.
Looking at this destruction, I must remind myself several times that the flood released from the icy dam, the giant trees splintering into kindling and the rattling of the earth are just a distant memory.
The badger sage seems to read my thoughts - well, actually, he does.
“Yes, this memory is a hundred generations old,” the sage explains. “But now the warmth of the earth is eating the ice once more. Soon it will force the frog to move again.”
“But when will that happen?” I carefully inquire.
“There’s still time,” one old badger replies. “Enough for the shadow of the mother tree on the coast to pass over the giant crack in the ice tens of times.”
“About time to gather supplies from the surface,” replied another.
“Supplies?” I wonder. “You think the den will survive when this colossus steps on it?”
The joint consciousness erupts once more into polyphonic badger laughter. And our mind’s eye moves from the lakeshore back into the depths of the earth, rushing through the badger city’s passages, deeper and deeper.
Where a different sort of darkness rules under the hills, much deeper than the bottom of the lake.
This time, the badgers’ thoughts don’t rush back to the surface, but trudge through the dark until a pale glow greets us.
A metal disk glints in the light of the tunnel shrooms, surrounded by various mechanisms. Levers creak, wheels turn, chains rattle and the disk
moves forward, screeching. The devices seem ancient.
This must be the great hatch the badgers spoke of!
“Great hatch, great hatch,” the polyphonic mental hum confirms. “During the before-time, we emerged from the great hatch onto the surface and we will hide behind the great hatch when danger looms!”
“It’s so deep,” I wonder. “How can you breathe there?”
“Old air pipes lead up to the surface,” the sage explains. “And fresh air rises up through the deeper passages. There’s a lot living down there…”
I want to ask more, but the thread of our consciousness unravels and the badger voices in my head go quiet one after another.
Only the badger sage, Oilskin, stays with me. “Enough for now,” he says. “We have things to do.”
I nod with a sigh. I learned so much so quickly, but found a lot of new questions. I’m about to let go of the sage’s hand when I hear his voice in my mind once more.
“Rest a while. We’ll talk again.”
The sage scurries into the darkness and I’m left alone with my thoughts.
After some time, two young female badgers step into the vaulted cavern, their snouts adorned with the same signs as the sage. They nudge me higher through the winding passages until we reach a cool, separate chamber. A hollow, lined with flat stones, lies in the middle, spring water trickling into it. The chamber smells of fresh grass - vines, stems, stalks and buds are piled on the floor, mixed with moss and acorns.
Oilskin, the badger sage, arrives, carrying vessels full of a strange substance under his arm. The sage lays the pots next to the piles of plants and extends
his hand for the mental bridge.
“Eat a few bulbs,” he instructs me. “You’ll need a lot of forest power.”
“Why? Are you showing me more memories?”
“No.” The sage shakes his head, whiskers quivering. “To thank you for the warnings, we’ll share foremother New Moon’s bloodware with you. It will make you healthier… But the sharing is not pleasant…”
I suspect the badgers don’t share their healing power only as thanks - they want me to do something. Of course - the shape of the giant spruce is clear in the sage’s thoughts.
“You want me to climb the spruce again?” I ask directly.
“That too.” The sage shakes his whiskers again. “But more importantly: if we should have trouble with the humans, two allies are better than one.”
Meanwhile, the sage’s helpers have spread the pile of grass into the hollow and are crushing them with rocks. They pass me a large stone as well and the four of us get to work thudding on the pile.
Once the plants have become a squelching porridge, the sage pours the sticky substance on top.
“What is that?” I ask aloud.
One of the female badgers barks in response.
The other one grabs my hand over the pond and a swarm of slimy frogs springs into my mind.
“Frog slime,” the badger mom confirms in my thoughts. “We mix it with mighty plants to empower the bloodware.”
A realisation dawns. “Bioenergy - like the seaweed lanterns.”
“Something like that.” The female badger twiddles with the goo. “But much more powerful.”
“And you think it will load my tiny machines?”
“Exactly so,” the badger confirms. “Climb in, rub it all over your body.”
I climb in, then. I take off my clothes and slide carefully into the hollow in the floor. The glowing mixture makes the skin tingle as I spread it around.
But how does the energy get inside me so the healing bots can use it? The frog goo mixture may be powerful, but there is no connecting interface.
Meanwhile, Oilskin the badger sage has unwrapped a long roll of bark. It reveals a badger-sized thighbone, sharpened on one end, and a thin, glassy knife.
With a quick jump, the sage is next to me and the sharp blade flashes in his hand.
I don’t even have time to be startled as warm blood rushes into the glowing goo… My blood!
The sage has cut deep slashes into my skin.
What does it mean?
Is it a trap?
But the badgers don’t seem malicious. All three of them squat around the pool, observing me calmly.
The young female takes my hand again and I don’t sense a whiff of hostility in her thoughts.
“Don’t be afraid,” she says. “It has begun.”
The potion fizzes more and more and I can feel the familiar surge of healing bots in my body. Even the wrist computer’s display flashes briefly, then fades.
I burst out laughing in great relief. What a connecting interface!
But the sage isn’t done yet. He takes the sharpened thighbone from the roll of bark and sticks it into the energy goo.
“Don’t be afraid,” the female repeats. “The hardest part will soon be over.”
From the corner of my eye, I see the sage raise the thigh bone for a blow.
I scream as the sharp bone pierces my back.
Reason flees, leaving only darkened doors.
Then I can hear my own breathing from far away, and I feel the tingle of the nanobots again, much stronger than before.
Little by little, the cave comes into view, along with the bubbling bio-goo and three badgers marked with a crescent moon. I feel all three of them in my thoughts.
“Tiny machines.” I try to form my thoughts into a question. “Tiny machines in the bone?”
“It is so,” the sage’s mental voice booms in my mind. “Our bloodware.”
“This is foremother New Moon’s thigh bone,” adds one of the females. “We can grow more bloodware from its stores.”
“Long-long ago, when our kind was growing under the ground, we all had many tiny machines inside of us,” the sage explains.
“They made us strong, but they had to be charged. Over time, we got used to a different life. We only let the bloodware heal us in times of great trouble. Not all of the newer generations have enough bloodware in them when they are born, so we must plant more tiny machines,” the sage concludes.
The tingle of the energy goo relents slowly and the glow dissipates. The bright green mixture turns yellow, then brown. The interior of the landing pod comes to mind, drained of the last of its energy to charge the nanobots. I suddenly feel terribly tired.
On the ship, our nanobots were programmed to never use the body’s energy supplies. But does the badgers’ bloodware have similar limitations?
“I must ask them,” is my last thought before I fall asleep.