Iliara, Gloria, and I were the only ones brave enough to try the steamed bananas. Nikko insisted we were crazy, to which we responded good-naturedly, "You hadn't noticed that already?"
Iris was exhausted from our adventures, so she plopped down on a couch in the basement and drifted off to sleep. Iliara, Gloria, and Ilayne were busy in the kitchen concocting some sort of fancy desert. Meanwhile, Aislinn, Nikko, and I began discussing the recent Slipstreamer attack.
When I suggested that maybe the Slipstreamers had been upgraded, Aislinn said, "We need to investigate the site of the explosion for clues."
I stared at her. "But the automatons in No Man's Landing will be doing the same thing."
Nikko tapped his chin thoughtfully. "They will report the explosion to an Autofficer and wait for orders; it's standard procedure. That will take them quite a while, so we still have time."
"Not enough time," I muttered.
"C'mon Ari. We'll be fine," Aislinn said, starting up the steps.
"Wait! Shouldn't we tell the others where we're going?"
She considered this for a moment. "I guess so. They may want to come."
We walked into the kitchen to find the three girls up to their elbows in flour. They were arguing about whether to use spelt or amaranth flour in their dough and barely nodded when Aislinn announced our plan to them.
Just before we went out the door, Iliara said, "You're going where to do what-now?!"
"To Bootleg Pass to look for clues about the Slipstreamers," Aislinn replied.
A brief silence followed, then all three of them bolted out of the kitchen, rubbing their hands clean on their aprons.
"You're not going anywhere without us," Gloria declared. They quickly prepared to leave. Since I didn't want to wake Iris, I wrote her a note telling her where we were going and placed it on the table next to her.
Several minutes later, we trooped out of the Beacon and toward Bootleg Pass. Ilayne, Iliara, and Gloria resumed their discussion about spelt and amaranth flour. I spotted a shadow at the edge of my vision and spun around to look, afraid that it was an automaton. A flash of red caught my eye before it disappeared around the corner of a building.
"Are you coming, Ariella?" Ilayne called out. I nodded and hurried after them. A knot of uneasiness formed in the pit of my stomach, but I hardly knew why.
We made it to Bootleg Pass without incident. The crater was just as we'd left it, but the smoke had cleared from the air. I bent down to look at a broken Slipstreamer armor plate and tapped it with my fingernail. It made a faint ringing sound.
"What do you think these are made of?" I wondered aloud. Nikko started to answer but was cut off by a shriek. It sounded like Aislinn! The last I'd seen of her, she'd been poking around near the crashed airship. Now she was nowhere in sight.
"Aislinn?" I cried out, looking around frantically. The others repeated her name in varying tones of worry. Nikko started forward, taking a riveter pistol from its holster.
In another moment, Aislinn ran out of the forest behind the airship, shouting something about a Slipstreamer. Behind her was one of the little black automatons. Its armor was broken in several places, and I decided that it must have survived the earlier explosion.
The Slipstreamer was gaining on Aislinn, its tentacles whipping at her heels. We were all too far away to help her, and Nikko couldn't shoot his pistol for fear of hitting Aislinn.
Suddenly, a low, wolf-like snarl split the air and a ball of light brown fur bounded out of the shadows. It landed directly on top of the Slipstreamer, the snarl growing in volume. The creature's claws slashed the automaton to ribbons, and in the next instant the ball of fur became a recognizable shape. A wolf with a cat-like tail stood on its hind legs before us, grinning a wide, toothy grin.