S1| Ep01: War Drums at Dusk (下)
December 8, 2010
Intan laughed as they flew. The Doll, old and rusting as it was, moved with more than twice the speed and precision of the machines from her village. But when the smoldering ruins of the engineering division came into sight, she sobered.
A beep on the control screen alerted her to the presence of the rogue Doll. She twirled around to see it hovering over the shore beyond the wall, shooting haphazardly at the walkway and the dorms before crashing into the ground. It flailed around, sending clouds of sand into the air. After a while it stopped twitching and managed to stand. It proceeded to plod down the shore in the direction of the walkway before halting again, this time towering over a pair of straggling students and an injured instructor.
Intan shifted the control stick, raising the right arm of her own Doll. She pressed the trigger. Nothing happened. She remembered then that it was a training Doll, its guns loaded only with paintballs even at the height of its career.
Without a second thought, she barreled forward, tackling the other Doll into the lake. The impact jolted her head. For a moment she blacked out. When she came to again, she was locked with the other Doll in a stranglehold as they skimmed across the surface of the water, just barely avoiding the dormitory complex as it began to submerge.
She found herself relieved. Enemy or not, it was clear to Intan that the pilot of the rogue Doll was utterly inexperienced, and likely dealing with a malfunction. Without firepower it would be more difficult to disable her opponent, but Intan was glad. Without firepower, she would not risk the pilot’s death.
Intan switched on the wireless.
“Hello? Can you hear me?”
No response. The other pilot had closed off communications.
The rogue Doll kicked and struggled in Intan’s grasp. One of its blows connected with the head of Intan’s Doll. The projected image of their surroundings wavered and blinked out. Intan released her hold in shock. Winced, as the rogue Doll rammed into her again.
She recovered swiftly and rolled away, but the cockpit remained immersed in darkness. Panic swept over her. Even the Minis she’d piloted back home had been installed with backup visual systems, and their heads were not so fragile as this one apparently was. But no windows opened. No new mechanisms whirred into action. She took a deep breath, then another. Closed her eyes. Held still, waiting for the next hit.
Behind. She gritted her teeth at the impact and steered in the direction of the shot, lashing out with her Doll’s arms.
Contact. She grabbed. Held on and dragged downwards, angled and at full speed. Hit the expected resistance of water, then land.
“Come on, don’t fail me now,” she whispered.
As if in response to her voice, the view flickered, then faded. But it was enough. She punched at the rogue Doll’s leering face with all the force her own Doll could muster. Again the image flickered. This time it held. Intan grabbed the head and twisted and twisted until at last it ripped off, plopping into the water some distance away. When she let go, the rogue Doll fell to its knees in the sand, successfully incapacitated.
Intan heaved a sigh of relief as the other pilot ejected, white parachute ballooning against the darkening sky.
She had only had enough time to wonder what was taking the school security forces so long to arrive when the headless Doll exploded.
* * *
Flames lit up the surface of the lake.
Intan powered off her Doll and leaped out of the cockpit. She ran. Half-melted shrapnel lay scattered across the shore, hissing with steam. The war drums, still beating out their solemn message, sounded far and distant. By the time Intan reached the fallen pilot, she could no longer hear the drums over the pounding of her own heart.
She recognized the pretty brown-skinned girl lying there as one of her fellow first years, though not from her division.
“Hey!” she said. “Are you okay?”
The girl turned to her with some effort, eyes dark and glassy. Intan recoiled as she realized the girl’s face was covered in severe burns. Her body was tangled in her parachute; blood stained the silk dark and continued to pool around her chest.
The girl shifted her hand, as if to speak. Intan was struck again by the strange sense of sorrow in the girl’s gesture, which seemed to echo the earlier, stilted movements of her Doll.
“Wait,” said Intan. “Don’t move. Don’t say anything.”
She ran again toward the lake, scouring through her rudimentary knowledge of first aid. Accidents happened often back home. But never anything quite so serious as this.
Water first, she thought. She scooped up as much as her trembling hands would hold. Ran back, splashed it over the girl’s face. Better to move her to the lake, but with the girl losing blood so quickly, Intan dared not take that risk.
There was a familiar loud humming in the sky. Intan looked up to see one of the hummingbird medic transports hovering nearby. A sandy-haired man opened the door and jumped out.
“It’s going to be all right,” Intan told the girl. “Help’s here.”
But when she looked again she realized that it was no man, but rather a boy about their own age, dressed in the lotus-marked uniform of a student medic.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouted, shoving Intan aside without a second glance. He knelt down by the injured girl. Took out a curved knife and cut the tangled silk free. Then turned very, very still.
“Fuck.” He stood, knife forgotten. Spun around, grabbed Intan’s shoulders. “Do you even understand what you’ve just done? What the fuck were you thinking? Trying to play the damn hero?”
Intan stiffened, but did not look away from the twisted, desperate anger in his face. She said, quietly, “Because she looked so sad…”
For a moment he looked like he was going to hit her, or throw her to the ground. But he let go.
“You fool,” he spat. “There’s a fucking reason the protocol exists.”
“Then why hasn’t security arrived yet?” They should have come long ago, she thought. Even if they had been held up with the other Doll — Only then did she realize that the war drums’ beat had changed once more.
The other Doll had escaped.
The boy clenched his fist. Dropped it, as if coming to the same realization. He swore again.
A soft voice interrupted. “Please.”
Intan and the boy both turned.
“Please,” the injured girl repeated hoarsely.
“Shut up!” snapped the boy. “You’re only going to make yourself worse!”
The girl’s lips quirked into a shadowed smile.
Intan crouched down at her side. In the distance she could hear the screech of arriving ground transports, but she did not move away. The boy stood at her shoulder, silent but taut.
With some effort, the injured girl lifted her hand, as if pointing toward the heavens above.
“Ausos… must not be awakened.”
A few shuddering breaths later, she was dead.