The malfunctioning homunculus was proving difficult to find. After a lap of the camp, empty-handed, she returned to her chair and sat down heavily.
He poked his head out of one of the lab tents and glared at her. “What?”
“You know you told me to go find the broken homunculus whatsit and work out why its tracker isn’t working?”
“Where is it?”
He sighed. “Give me a second.” He retreated back into his tent, presumably to rifle through the massive stacks of papers he kept on his desk.
Eve sighed, and cracked her knuckles with a series of pops, clicks and creaking noises that would have raised alarm if they arose from a different person’s joints. She leaned back on her chair, and watched the dark ceiling, far overhead, where the flickering lights of enormous bioluminescent moths formed strange and shifting constellations of words as they charted their migration through this section of the Whilderness.
“It was with Sigma-three-A,” said Tarquin, emerging from his cocoon of unnecessary paperwork.
“No, it’s not there.” She leaned further back, balancing the folding chair on its two back legs. “I checked.”
“I have written here,” he said, with an air of offended consternation, “that Sigma-three-A reported via the haematic interface that three of their number were missing, but when I counted them, there were eight, so they were only down two.”
“And I’m telling you,” she replied, “that I looked them over, and there’s nothing wrong with all seven of them. You must have counted wrong.”
She tuned the Steward out as he started to ramble about how that was all impossible, that he’d made a note at the time, it was right here on this clipboard or something, and how he’d go and find the defective one immediately since she obviously was losing her eyesight.
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” she replied, vaguely, as he stomped off, “I must be getting old or something.”
Shifting slightly in her balanced chair, she leaned it over to the side, reaching out slowly, carefully, and snagged a book from the pile she’d made earlier. She rocked back onto two legs of the chair, opened the romance novel at her bookmark, and resumed reading.
A couple minutes back into this particular story, Eve was distracted from her exasperation at the quality of love interests available to the protagonist by a sleek form moving into her peripheral vision. Glancing over, she saw the Hunter, Orion, stalking across the carpeted clearing, with that oddly smooth gait of hers, more of the predator in her than the primate.
She grunted in reply.
“You’re back early.”
She fixed Eve with a withering glare.
“Uh-huh. I’m sure Tarquin’ll have something else for you to do soonish.”
Orion stalked off, parting a tent flap and ducking inside. Eve returned to her book.
“Oh come on, Damien. I know you’ve shared some meaningful glances with Ryan, and nearly touched hands with Samantha that one time, but they’re both hopeless, and I’m honestly wondering why you didn’t just elope with Craig last book, when you had the chance.”
“Lady Gone,” someone said.
“And don’t get me started about this annoyingly-meta sidekick. I’m genuinely surprised that, as a group, you’re functional enough to fight your way through the forces of—”
“Oh.” She leaned her head back, looking at the upside-down Tarquin, who was glaring at her. “Tarkie! How’s tricks?”
“I couldn’t find the extra homunculus.”
“What did you do to it?”
“Hey now,” she said, “I didn’t do anything! That was the problem, even!”
His eyebrows shifted between various different arrangements of ‘disappointed’, like a pair of shuffling hirsute caterpillars.
“There are only seven homunculi with Sigma-three-A,” he said, finally.
“So I was right?”
He sighed. “Yes, you were right.”
“Well, I was there too, and there were eight of them then, so I’m not sure what to think. Maybe they wandered off?”
“Hmm. Unlikely. I wouldn’t think any of them have enough motivation to actually travel anywhere.”
“Do they just drop dead if they’re not connected to the network?”
He shrugged beneath his tweed jacket. “You’d think there’d be a body, then.”
“The others ate it?”
“They don’t have mouths.”
“I’m a surgeon, not a detective, Tarquin, and I haven’t done anything to this mystery missing bod.”
He nodded, slowly. “Yes, hmm.” He looked up, past Eve. “Ah, Lady Orion. You’re back from your expedition?”
“Yep,” the Hunter replied from out of Eve’s sight. “Do you want the report immediately, now I’m back, or am I allowed to have a rest first?”
“Well, I—” Tarquin began, but Eve held up a hand, still leaning back on her chair.
“Hey wait, Ori, didn’t you get back half an hour ago?”
“She did? Why didn’t you report in?”
“Because I wasn’t here, you pompous—”
“Huh,” said Eve, before they could start arguing again. “So that wasn’t you, Ori. That’s very strange, because I could have sworn it was.”
“I have just arrived from Tarquin’s latest idiocy.”
“Well then.” Eve shifted, tipping her chair the final inches over until it started to fall backwards, flipped her legs over her head, and landed on her feet.
Orion raised an eyebrow. “Well what?”
“Oh, that. We’ve got some kind of infiltrator, illusions or shapeshifting, if that genuinely wasn’t you.”
Tarquin looked startled, but Orion was already moving, her form rippling as the beast moved beneath her skin.
She sniffed the air. “Nothing unusual,” she said, voice rendered to a low growl by the partial transformation’s effects on her vocal chords.
“Surely the wards would have kept anything away from the c—”
“Yeah, well,” said Eve, “I saw what I saw. Wards and guards aren’t foolproof.”
“It’s not fools I’m worried about,” Tarquin replied, glancing nervously around, at the lone and level shelves, stretching far away.
The ominous silence was broken by Orion, who had more practical things on her mind. “Which way did you say they went?”
Eve pointed. “That tent. I didn’t see them leave.”
The Hunter crossed to the tent, in a movement so silent and sudden that it barely looked like she actually travelled through the intervening space.
She reached out, flexing her fingers to let the long claws slide free of their sheathes, and twitched the edge of the tent flap aside.
“… Huh,” she growled, after a pause.
“What is it?” Tarquin hissed.
He’d at least had the presence of mind, Eve noted, to start quietly pulling and loading one of his weird syringe-guns.
“Nothing,” said Orion, straightening up, bestial features fading from the edges of her face as she released the tension in her shoulders.
“There’s nothing in there now,” she replied, “but something did come through this way, and I’ve not been in there today.”
Tarquin fumbled in one of his other pockets. “I’ll, er, I’ll put the homunculi on alert.”
“Didn’t you say,” she replied, looking around slowly, warily, “that there was an extra one of the flesh-men?”
“I did,” he said, then paused for a second as the realisation hit him. “I did. Oh no.”