S1| Ep05: The Village of Ash (上)
February 2, 2011
An explosion on the main island. Intan tried to remember what major cities were located along the northwestern coast, but no names came to her. The bulk of the kingdom’s population lay to the east of the central mountains. All that remained in the decimated northwest were small mining towns, barely continuing to subsist alongside abandoned railways leading to nowhere.
She remembered, then, the Headmistress’s talk of dissidents.
“Shit,” said Eguzki, and steered the H-bird south.
“Now what are you doing?” demanded Kikue. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Where do you think I’m going?”
Kikue bit her lip. “But the military –”
“We are the military.”
Neither Intan nor Kikue bothered to point out that they were only cadets, and that proper procedure was to wait for further orders.
“Perhaps this is just part of the camp,” Kikue said. “Perhaps it is a test of some sort.”
Intan said, “How fast can we get there?”
“In seven,” replied Eguzki, and put on some speed.
After that, they fell to silence.
* * *
The cloud of smoke loomed closer and closer. Intan looked down through the windows of the H-bird; below lay a small village nestled at the foot of the central mountains. Soot clung to the streets. Villagers ran up and down the trails, swinging bucketfuls of water at their side, dodging frantic chickens and lumbering water buffalo.
The buildings closest to the mountains had caught fire. Smoke rose as well some distance up the slope, where Intan guessed the mines were located. Mine accidents were not uncommon even now, despite improved technology like the Minis. But this explosion had been far too big for it to be a mere accident. And yet what could dissidents possibly want with a place like this? There were more valuable mines and bigger factory towns further south.
There was no time to ponder the question further.
“A rogue!” said Kikue.
It had seen them. It was maskless, its face a blank sheen where there should have been bright paint and swirling designs.
It felt wrong.
The words slipped from Intan’s mouth before she could even think. “We can’t outfly it.”
“I know that!” growled Eguzki.
The Doll raised its arm, shooting at them. Eguzki swerved, but medic transports were not built to handle such maneuvers. Whirring blades snagged against stray branches. But Eguzki managed to recover, righting the bird once more as they flew lower and lower, taking cover behind the clump of trees until at last they landed, some distance away from the village.
Intan unstrapped herself from her seat and leaped out. She looked up at the sky. The Doll’s pilot seemed to have lost interest, or had been distracted by something else, and was now flying away in another direction.
“It’s going back?” asked Kikue, joining her. “Strange…”
Intan turned and noticed Eguzki already walking off at a brisk pace, leather medic bag in hand. She shared a glance with Kikue.
“Let’s go,” she suggested with a shrug.
* * *
Few paid them heed as they slipped through the streets. Intan wasn’t quite sure where Eguzki was headed, but he seemed to know what he was doing, so she followed. The best thing to do in most other circumstances would be to find the village head. The Doll was gone for now, but if it returned, even if it had run out of ammunition, there was no telling what might happen. They had to get the villagers to their shelters. Unless the Doll had been responsible for the explosion, and had just been trying to make a getaway? Yet it had not seemed to be in any hurry until its abrupt retreat. There were too many pieces that refused to slide into place, and Intan decided it was best not too think too hard about it.
“Intan? What are you doing here?”
Intan skidded to a stop and turned to see none other than Hadil, dressed in muddied tunic and shorts, buckets of water in her hands. Intan ran to her, Eguzki and Kikue following close behind.
“We saw the explosion! Where are the Elders?” Intan reached out and took one of the buckets.
Hadil’s mouth moved soundlessly for a moment before she seemed to find her voice again. “Chief was at the mines. No one knows what’s happened to him and Granny was with him too. I thought it was an accident at first but there’s no way that could have been one, could it? Our mines haven’t been a danger zone in ages and ages. And then someone said they saw a Doll, and –”
Eguzki interrupted. “How many injured?”
“I — I don’t know. It was a rest day, so I suppose it’s not as bad as it could have been, but –”
And he was off again.
This time Intan decided not to follow him. Instead, she patted Hadil’s shoulder. “Where’s your drum station? We did run into a Doll. Just now.”
Hadil blinked, eyes finally focusing on the drenched state of Intan’s uniform. “Wasn’t that Kaneshiro? And this is…”
Kikue looked distinctly uncomfortable, but as she made no move to introduce herself, Intan said, just a bit impatiently, “Kikue Sunagawa. Come on, we’ve got to let everyone know.”
“Sure,” replied Hadil, but she shook her head as if unaware of what she was saying. “Wait — you really ran into a Doll?”
Her gaze focused again, suddenly alert. “Then there’s no time! Almost everyone headed over there. They were worried that the fires would get out of control — at this rate no one’ll make it back in time — not if there really is a Doll involved –” Her eyes lit up. “Hey, you’re both in the piloting division. Do you know how to pilot Minis?”
Kikue nodded hesitantly.
“Of course!” said Intan, puzzled not only by Hadil’s sudden diversion, but by an equally sudden sense of unease she could not place. “I can handle them. But…”
“Okay, this is gonna sound crazy, but you see, I’ve got a modded Mini back over at my place. I know it’s not much, going up against a real Doll, but it’s all outfitted and everything…”
For the first time since their entry into the village, Kikue spoke up. “You are insane. Both of you. Do you seriously mean to suggest that one of us –”
“Both of you. If one of you goes out there and distracts the Doll for a bit, I think I can rig up my cousin’s Mini too.”
“Two Minis against a Doll? Do you realize how utterly preposterous that sounds?”
“It’s just to buy time. I’ll get someone to sound the drums, but unless we do something, the Doll will just come back and kill us all while we’re trying to make it to the shelters! There’s nothing else I can think of –”
“Let’s do it,” announced Intan.
Kikue looked at her askance. Intan grinned.
“Ugh. Fine! I suppose we don’t have much of a choice.”
“Hurry!” said Hadil, glancing uneasily at the sky.
Strange, thought Intan. How certain she was that it would return.
* * *
Hadil’s place was was a low, long building with slatted bamboo windows and a roof of ash-darkened straw, sheltered by tall trees near the center of the village. It looked much like the chief’s place back in Intan’s own village. But Intan did not ask. There would be time enough for that later.
Hadil waved them over to the shed leaning against the main building. Two Minis awaited them inside. Unlike the towering Dolls they’d been modeled after, Minis were not much larger than a particularly tall adult human. Nor could they actually lift off the ground for very long, not counting the occasional jump. Intan couldn’t help but wonder what exactly Hadil had meant by “modded” and “outfitted.”
“Who’s first?” asked Hadil, patting the arm of the one on the left.
Hadil cracked a smile. “Yeah, I thought so. Come on!”
Intan climbed up and let Hadil strap her in. Once she was done, she took a few steps, testing the controls. Almost immediately, she tripped and crashed.
“Oops,” she said from the ground.
Hadil leaned over, frowning. “Oh, no. The balance must be off. Here, let me…”
“I thought you said you could handle it,” muttered Kikue to no one in particular.
Intan tried moving again after Hadil finished making a few more adjustments she didn’t particularly understand. She managed to right herself before stumbling again. At least this time, she didn’t fall.
Hadil looked puzzled and more than a bit dismayed, but Intan grinned.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get the hang of it!”
“Well, you’d better make it quick,” said Kikue, who stood alone in the doorway, pointing upwards.
Intan stomped over and took a look.
The faceless Doll had indeed returned.