"I just heard someone say something." Hao Ren exhaled and turned to look at the monitor in the car. The convoy had almost done the crossing. On the other side of the river, there was light shining in the distance. "The voice said something like; this world wouldn't last long…"
"Your dreams always seem bizarre. Don't take it lightly," the MDT said in an unusually serious tone of voice. "You seem to have the ability to communicate with other consciousness through dreams."
"I know, I know, but this time the 'connection' was too short, I couldn't grasp anything. But I have the feeling that we've come to the right place this time. This place must be the key to the planet. The sign always appears in the center of the incident, isn't it?"
The three armored vehicles crossed the solidified Gray River safely. What greeted the mercenaries was a more desolate world than the wasteland outside, and everything here was more bizarre than ever. Through the camera mounted on the front and both sides of the vehicle, Hao Ren saw the earth outside was glimmering with a silver-gray light, as if the entire world had turned into a piece of metal. There were no plants, no buildings, or even a stone of normal shape on this silvery gray land. There were only some weird bulges and round towers that as if had melted into the ground like a cheese. The smooth surfaces reflected the armored cars' light, which then was refracted among the metal structures, creating a bizarre sight.
Hao Ren tried to make sense of the scene. He finally figured it; it was a melted city.
Like casting a world in equal proportions with metal, then letting it melt and then cool down rapidly halfway. That was what it should become.
"A great plain of steel..." a young soldier drew his rifle close to himself and looked at the scene nervously. "Everything has turned into metal?"
"Not metal. The Nanomachine Swarm cannot change material properties. They just made things appear similar to themselves," Ulyanov said, hitting the armored deck behind him with his rifle. "Welcome to the Old Star Continent. You are now on the remains of 6.53 million citizens and two hundred thousand buildings, including my one leg, one arm, liver, and three-fourths of my lungs. I really can't identify them now."
A young soldier turned to look at him queerly. "Your joke has never been funny."
Ulyanov laughed with a loud voice. He was satisfied with his 'visceral joke.' Gazing at the scenery outside, Hao Ren could not help but a weird emotion. The silvery land outside was an aftermath of the Nanomachine Swarm disaster. It looked strange and beautiful, but it was a land of dead bodies and city ruins. Those big bulges and round towers that looked like melting ice cream should be once large buildings. Were there still traces of human-made structure inside if blowing it apart? Were there remains of the city's subways and pipelines underground if digging deep enough?
Perhaps there was nothing left. The Nanomachine Swarm might have penetrated the land long ago, turning the entire land starting from the underground in the north into its domain. But all these were just wild guesses. What had happened here was unknown. Buried deep underground in the silvery gray earth were fields that no humans could touch. Since sixty-five years ago, no one could know what the Nanomachine Swarm had done in this land.
Similar thinking was prevalent among the mercenaries. The boorish men who fought battles to make a living could not help feeling upset when faced with the ruins of the north. Because of fear and reverence, they became sensitive. But Nolan yawned and appeared uninterested in their reactions.
As the night fell, there were no stars and moon seen in the hazy sky. It was all dark. People on this planet had not seen the stars for decades. Instead of stopping, Nolan ordered the convoy to speed up. She said that when the Nanomachine Swarm was the least active at night, the horrific little devils still needed to rely on solar energy to provide part of their needs. Though they were still active at night, their response was much slower than during the day.
Nolan had calculated that if things went smoothly, they should be able to reach the Northern Ring Tower before sunrise, just in time before the window closed and the Nanomachine regained their level of activity.
The armored vehicles were passing between two towering silvery 'hills.' As strong lights shone on the metal 'hills' on both sides, it created circles of elusive glow. Ulyanov looked at the two symmetrical 'hills' and said with a low voice, "This must be the Rock Lyndon Twin Towers. They used to be the tallest buildings in the world. I had been here several times when the city was still here."
"Yes, the tallest building in the world. When the Nanomachine Swarm went amok, it set a world record for the largest number of deaths in the same building. But the record was surpassed in the fourth year by the big explosion of Sanctuary No. 3 in the Far East," said Nolan as she switched on the comm next to her. "All vehicles; turn off the lights and use echolocation. We're into a dangerous area; strong light may agitate some Nanomachines that are lightly dormant."
All the lights were off. The convoy now looked like stray souls wandering in a silent netherworld. In this cold, dead, bleak world, everything seemed to be small and fragile. The heavy armor plates of the vehicles did not help to give much sense of security. Nowhere else could make them feel they were far away from the livings more than this place. And the convoy was still heading deeper into the death.
During the boring and monotonous journey, Hao Ren had dozed off several times but never heard anything strange anymore. At last, he saw a glimmer of light outside as the convoy was passing through a vast silvery white barrier. The material of this barrier was different from that of the silvery-gray substance of the Nanomachine Swarm. Its uniformed surface was recognizably the work of humans. It was as high as tens of meters. It looked indestructible, but there was a massive hole in the lower part. High temperate seemed to have melted through the barrier and formed the crater.
The convoy passed through the hole under the barrier. Ulyanov patted Hao Ren's shoulders and said, "This was the first hole that the Nanomachine Swarm created when it got out of hand. They flew out from the container behind this barrier. Now the container was long gone, and there are no longer Nanomachine Swarms across the barrier. They have all gone to the Gray River on the outside. No one knows why."
After passing through the hole, Hao Ren finally saw natural rocks, soil, and plants that had mutated severely growing in the rock crevices. He knew he had arrived in the hinterland of the ruins in the north—an isolated island that was surrounded but not devoured by the Nanomachine Swarms.
Nolan raised her hand and pointed at the center of the monitor's screen. "That's the Northern Ring Tower."
In the hinterland of the northern ruins, the former walls of the sea of Nano had become a crater-shaped barrier, dividing the acidic soil outside from the natural land around the ring tower into two distinct regions. Northern Ring Tower was sitting right on top of a hill at more than 400 meters high, composed of three symmetrically arranged, conical spires. The three-tower building had a massive ring at the top and middle respectively—that was how the Ring Tower got its name.
The two large ring facilities were antennas. During the era when the Master Computers were still running, these antennas were used to release signals to control the surrounding Nanomachine Swarms.
The mercenaries let out a sigh of relief when they saw the Ring Tower. They had made it through the most dangerous part of the journey. They did not have to worry about being swallowed by the Nanomachine Swarms anymore, at least before they made the return trip. The armored vehicles drove all the way to the side of the hill and stopped. The road ahead had collapsed entirely and inaccessible to vehicles. But the entrance to the ring tower was within sight. Nolan ordered everyone to disembark and got to the building on foot.
Ulyanov got off the vehicle at the same time as Hao Ren. He looked up at the building that he last saw sixty-five years ago and took a deep breath.
Then he strode ahead.