Bee had hiked along the creek before. Her aunt and uncle weren’t particularly adventurous, but they took her hiking whenever they happened to go, and they didn’t mind if she went out on her own, as long as her homework was done.
They might have minded her hiking by the creek now, given that it was almost midnight on a moonless night, but the Remnant man only came to the creek on such nights, and she couldn’t afford to wait another month.
But he wouldn’t show himself. She’d already walked all the way to the falls and back. Bee didn’t think there was an incantation to summon him – besides, the way he’d been described, the Remnant was bored and wanted a job.
Well, Bee had a job, all right, and she’d even brought the puzzle he demanded in payment. “He’s craftier than the other Remnants,” Grandma Margaret had said. “But he’s good at what he does – when you’ve got a real complicated problem, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”
“Need something?” a voice grunted from the darkness. Bee froze.
“Wholenuther?” she asked timidly.
“That’s me. Expecting someone else out here?”
Bee stepped closer. The man was seated lounged against a tree. Her flashlight’s beam fell on his worn face, casting harsh white light on his hawkish silhouette. He wore a heavy wool coat and a cap that reminded her of Ireland.
“Which Conjunction are you from?” she asked.
He turned his head slightly, one wiry eyebrow raised. “They finally start teaching kids about us?”
“My parents taught me.” The flashlight wavered slightly and she gripped it tighter. “Answer my question.”
“Fifth,” he grunted, “when kids weren’t so rude. Who are your parents?”
Fifth. Her knees felt like water. That meant Wholenuther was over three thousand years old. “They study the Conjunctions.”
“And they let you wander the woods at night, looking for Remnant?”
“They’re missing. I need you to help me find them.”
He finally turned to face her. He looked weathered, but not like the wizened sage she’d imagined most Remnant resembling. Wholenuther looked eerily human.
“Sorry, kid,” he said finally. “I’m taking this century off.”
“This – century?”
“Sure. I’ve been real busy the last few hundred years.” He scratched under his cap. “Need some time off, understand?”
“An entire century? This’ll only take, like, a week, and then you can get back to…whatever you’re doing.”
Wholenuther stood and Bee took an involuntary step back, remembering on some instinctual level what this man really was and what he was capable of.
“I mean, I’m not sure – ”
“You brought payment, I assume?”
“Get him something to wear his brain out on, he’ll help find your parents.” Grandma’s advice. She stepped closer and held out a Rubik’s cube. To her embarrassment, her hand was still shaking. Wholenuther took the toy and studied it. Then, with an exasperated sigh, he sat down on a tree stump and began twisting the cube’s sides.
“Rusty,” he grunted.
“Me, not it! Used to be able to do these in – there we go.” He chucked the completed puzzle back to her. “Not good enough. Pay me more, or find someone else to – ”
“You didn’t finish.” Bee tucked the flashlight under her arm and pulled on the cube’s sides. It came apart in her hands. Within one half she’d hidden a tiny metal sphere, no bigger than a marble. Wholenuther sat up.
“What’s that? Smells Remnant.”
“It is. Fourth Conjunction.” She held it out, then pulled her hand back as he reached for it. “It’s your real payment – if you agree to help me.”
A grin spread across his whiskery face. “Gimme a look first. No tricks, I promise – clearly you’re too smart to be taken for a ride.”
She watched as he rolled the metal ball between his fingers. “The scans my parents did reveal at least two more spheres inside it,” she said, “but there aren’t any seams.”
“So how was it made,” Wholenuther murmured, his gaze fixed on the sphere, “and what does it do?”
“You get to figure that out.”
He studied the sphere for another few moments, then tucked it inside his coat. “What’s your name, kid?”
“The Carsons’ kid! Why didn’t you say so?”
“You know them?”
“Never met them, but all of us know who the Carsons are. Missing, eh?” He got to his feet and led the way back down the creek. “We’d better get started.”