“That’s far enough,” Nanette warned, “please and thank you.”
There were no ancient Greek words for I hate you, scary clown-woman, but I muttered a close approximation under my breath. I propped Meg against the wall. “Can you hear me?” I whispered.
Her lips were the color of blueberries. Her teeth chattered. Her eyes rolled back in her head, showing the bloodshot whites of her eyes.
“Meg, please,” I said. “I will distract the blemmyae, but you need to get out of here. Can you walk? Crawl? Anything?”
“Hum-um-um.” Meg shivered and gasped. “Shumma-shumma.”
This was no language that I knew, but I inferred that Meg would not be going anywhere on her own. I would have to do more than just distract the blemmyae.
“All righty, then!” Nanette said. “Please show us what you know, so we can bring down this cave on top of you!”
I forced a smile. “Of course. Now, let’s see….”
I knelt next to the device. It was sadly uncomplicated. There were, in fact, only two wires and two receptors, both color-coded blue and red.
I glanced up. “Ah. Quick question. I am aware that blemmyae are tone-deaf, but—”
“That’s not true!” The ranger looked offended. “I don’t even know what that means!”
The other two bowed emphatically—the blemmyae equivalent of nodding.
“I enjoy all tones,” Nanette agreed.
“Explosions,” the trooper said. “Gunshots. Car engines. All tones are good.”
“I stand corrected,” I said. “But my question was…could it be possible that your species is also color-blind?”
They looked dumbfounded. I examined Nanette’s makeup, dress, and shoes once again, and it became clear to me why so many blemmyae preferred to disguise themselves in mortal uniforms. Of course they were color-blind.
For the record, I am not implying that color blindness or tone deafness indicate any lack of creativity or intelligence. Far from it! Some of my favorite creative people, from Mark Twain to Mister Rogers to William Butler Yeats, had these conditions.
In blemmyae, however, sensory limitations and dull thinking seemed to be part of the same depressing package.
“Forget it,” I said. “Let’s get started. Nanette, would you please pick up the red wire?”
“Well, since you asked so nicely.” Nanette leaned in and picked the blue wire.
“The other red wire,” I advised.
“Of course. I knew that!”
She took the red wire.
“Now attach it to the red—to this receptor.” I pointed.
Nanette did as I instructed.
“There you are!” I said.
Clearly still perplexed, the blemmyae stared at the device.
The trooper said, “But there’s another wire.”
“Yes,” I said patiently. “It goes to the second receptor. However”—I grabbed Nanette’s hand before she could blow us all up—“once you connect it, you will most likely activate the bomb. Do you see this small screen here? I am no Hephaestus, but I assume this is the timer. Do you happen to know what the default countdown is?”
The trooper and ranger conferred in the guttural, monotone language of the blemmyae—which sounded like two busted power sanders speaking in Morse code. I glanced over at Meg, who was right where I’d left her, still shivering and muttering shumma-shumma under her breath.
The ranger smiled in a self-satisfied way. “Well, sir. Since I’m the only one who read the diagram, I’ve decided I can safely give you the answer. The default time is five seconds.”
“Ah.” A few phantom bees crawled up my throat. “So once you connect the wire, there will be virtually no time to exit the cave before the bomb goes off.”
“Exactly!” Nanette beamed. “The emperor was very clear. If Apollo and the child make it out of the Oracle chamber, kill them and bring down the cavern in a mighty explosion!”
The trooper frowned. “No, he said to kill them with the mighty explosion.”
“No, sirree,” said the ranger. “He said to use the mighty explosion only if we had to. We could kill these two if they appeared, but if they didn’t…” He scratched his shoulder hair. “I’m confused now. What was the bomb for?”
I said a silent prayer of thanks that Commodus had sent blemmyae and not Germani to do this job. Of course, that probably meant the Germani were fighting my friends at the Waystation right now, but I could only handle one earth-shattering crisis at a time.
“Friends,” I said. “Frenemies, blemmyae. My point is this: if you activate the bomb, the three of you will die, too. Are you prepared for that?”
Nanette’s smile melted. “Oh. Hmm…”
“I’ve got it!” The ranger wagged his finger at me enthusiastically. “Why don’t you connect the wire after the three of us leave?”
“Don’t be silly,” said the trooper. “He won’t kill himself and the girl just because we ask him to.” He gave me a cautiously hopeful glance. “Will you?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Nanette chided. “The emperor told us to kill Apollo and the girl. Not to have them do it themselves.”
The others mumbled agreement. Following orders to the letter was everything, of course.
“I have an idea!” I said, when in fact I did not.
I had been hoping to come up with some clever plan to overpower the blemmyae and get Meg out of there. So far, no clever plan had materialized. There was also the matter of my promise to Trophonius. I had sworn to destroy his Oracle. I preferred to do that without destroying myself.
The blemmyae waited politely for me to continue. I tried to channel some of Calypso’s bravado. (Oh, gods, please never tell her I drew on her for inspiration.)
“It’s true you have to kill us yourselves,” I began. “And I do understand! But I have a solution that will accomplish all your goals: a mighty explosion, destroying the Oracle, killing us, and getting out alive.”
Nanette nodded. “That last one is a bonus, for sure.”
“There’s an underwater tunnel just here….” I explained how Meg and I had swum through from Trophonius’s chamber. “To effectively destroy the Oracle room, you can’t set the bomb off here. Someone would have to swim with the device deep inside the tunnel, activate the timer, and swim back out. Now, I am not strong enough, but a blemmyae could do this easily.”
The trooper frowned. “But five seconds…is that enough time?”
“Ah,” I said, “but it’s a well-known fact that underwater, timers take twice as long, so you’d actually have ten seconds.”
Nanette blinked. “Are you sure about that?”
The ranger elbowed her. “He just said it was a well-known fact. Don’t be impolite!”
The trooper scratched his mustache with the barrel of his gun, which was probably against department safety protocols. “I’m still not sure why we have to destroy the Oracle. Why can’t we just kill you two, say…with this gun…and leave the Oracle alone?”
I sighed. “If only we could! But, my friend, it’s not safe. This girl and I got in and got out with our prophecy, didn’t we? That means other trespassers can, too. Surely that’s what the emperor meant about the mighty explosion. You don’t want to have to come back here with your bomb every time someone breaks in, do you?”