S1| Ep05: The Village of Ash (下)
February 9, 2011
Riding a Mini was truly a strange experience after the seamless freedom of the training Dolls earlier that day. Familiar, and yet distanced, like a long-forgotten memory.
Intan pulled on a helmet and fiddled with the controls as Hadil shouted instructions at her. She fired an awkward shot at the faceless Doll as it passed overhead. The Doll dodged it easily.
“Careful! I didn’t stock much ammo!”
Intan waved, acknowledging the warning, and attempted a few clumsy jumps. After a few bounces, she caught the rhythm, and whatever modifications Hadil had built into the machine kicked in. The Mini rose into a shaky, hovering flight. Intan couldn’t help but giggle, imagining the sight they must be making. If only the villagers back home could see this! A flying Mini!
“It probably won’t work quite like a real Doll,” Hadil had explained right before she set off. “I’ve tried to replicate the systems a bunch of times, but they just don’t seem to be very compatible with the Mini design.”
But so far, so good. Intan tried to nudge the Mini higher, or faster, but it seemed content to totter along midair, dipping back down to earth every now and then. A bit of a problem if she was going to chase down the enemy Doll, which was now ignoring her and heading in the direction of the mines again.
The mines were in smoking ruins already, which meant the Doll’s objectives did not stop at mere destruction. Perhaps whatever was inside, then? Intan surveyed her surroundings. She had to distract the Doll somehow, lead it away from the mines and the village.
An idea hit her. She grinned. Swept past the tallest tree she could reach, grabbed onto it, and pulled it back. The mangrove forest didn’t extend this far inland, but even these trees were springy enough for her purpose.
The tree creaked. Her machine groaned from the exertion.
She cut the power, and flew hurtling into the air. There was a moment of dizzy disorientation, but it soon passed. She flipped the power back on, and angled herself carefully into a tackle.
The resulting impact jarred her to the bone. But the Doll simply shrugged her off as if she were some annoying mosquito. The Mini wobbled as it fell; Intan caught hold of some branches and tried to launch herself again.
This time, the Doll dodged and turned, arm raised. Intan, tumbling past, fired another haphazard shot in its general direction as she tried to regain control.
To her surprise, the shot hit. The Doll staggered midair, then righted itself, raising its arm once more.
Intan cut her power again and dropped.
As she fell, she caught sight of the village lying nestled against the foot of the mountains, a dark blotch against scorched ground, and for a moment she panicked before realizing that the fires had not yet reached the village after all. The darkness was merely a trick of the light, or perhaps a memory of some long ago catastrophe.
And now she could hear the drums, which meant Hadil had fixing up the second Mini, and that the villagers would soon be heading to safety. But where was Kikue?
A stray shot missed her by a hair’s breadth. Again she switched the power on. This time she did not attempt another launch, but instead bobbed and weaved through the forest canopy. She whispered a quick apology to the trees for the broken branches she left in her wake.
When she judged the distance to be safe, she sank down under the cover of the trees and watched. The Doll paused, hovering, evidently confused.
Then she heard a strange whistling through the air. Squinted.
A rocket trailed through the sky and exploded. For a moment it seemed as if the whole world froze.
The Doll crumpled, headless, falling to the earth.
Intan was relieved when the rest of the Doll did not explode. And further relieved when just moments later, a military transport appeared on the horizon. Just in time, she thought then, and her relief dissipated, replaced by her earlier sense of unease, steadily creeping back as she watched.
Moments later, Kikue trudged to her side through the underbrush, lugging a huge rocket launcher behind her.
“You,” said the other girl, “are truly a terrible pilot.”
Intan shrugged away her doubts and laughed. Kikue looked quite cross at her response, but said nothing more.
* * *
They were met by Hadil as they stomped back through the village entrance.
“You did it! I can’t believe it! You really did it!”
Intan made her Mini kneel down so that Hadil could help her out. “Thanks to Kikue and your launcher! You’re a genius!”
Hadil blushed. Kikue harrumphed.
Their exchange was cut short, however, when a muddy little boy came barreling down the street.
“Siiiis! Chief and some scary lady are calling for you and your friends!”
Hadil turned immediately. “Grandfather’s okay?!”
“Come on, Sis,” he whined, shifting from foot to foot. “He’s gonna kick my butt if you don’t hurry up!”
“All right, all right, you little brat. We’re coming.”
Intan could tell Hadil wasn’t truly irritated, though. Not with that goofy grin on her face.
* * *
Hadil’s little brother led them back to the central building Hadil had referred to as her place. At the front door a pair of soldiers stood watch. The shed where Hadil had kept the Minis had also been sealed off by guards, though the doors remained open, and in fact looked as if they had been ripped down in a hurry to make more space. Intan tried to peek beyond them, but couldn’t make out much.
“Official business with the Chief,” declared Hadil’s brother. One of the soldiers fought back a smile, but the other solemnly made way for them.
Gathered by the woodstove in the corner were a handful of stern soldiers, an elderly man who reminded Intan of a walnut, and Headmistress Liow.
Intan immediately bowed, as did Kikue and Hadil.
“Here they are, Gramps!” announced Hadil’s brother before immediately scampering off.
Intan looked at the faces of the gathered adults. The Headmistress was leisurely lighting a cigar, but the others were all staring at them. It was hard not to squirm.
“Hadil, my girl,” said the old walnut man at last. “Why don’t you run along next door and help them out with repairs.”
“Yessir,” said Hadil and departed with slightly more dignity than her brother had.
The Headmistress blew out a puff of smoke. “Do you two have any idea how irresponsible your actions today were?”
Kikue was determinedly looking somewhere off to the side. Intan cleared her throat. “Sorry, ma’am. We won’t do it again.”
In response, the Headmistress raised an eyebrow. “Really.”
Intan knew better than to respond.
“I should have expected Sunagawa, at least, to have known better. But never mind that. I had not expected the rebels to make their move so swiftly, either.”
Kikue looked up in disbelief. “Headmistress, you don’t mean –”
“I mean precisely what I said.”
“Does that mean we’re not in trouble?” asked Intan, busily connecting dots in her mind.
The Headmistress did not reply. “After the senseless destruction of the last war,” she said instead, “the people remain wary of open military involvement. Nor do the Clans desire to see a minor conflict escalate due to a simple misunderstanding. No one wishes to see the island rip itself apart in another civil war. It was suggested instead that the Academy train promising students to take care of situations before they erupted.” She gave Intan a pointed look. “Quietly.”
Intan, who had been listening to all of this with polite curiosity, broke into grin. She hadn’t been the one with the rocket launcher, after all.
“So, no, Aghavni. You are not in trouble. Given the circumstances, the two of you chose the appropriate path of action.”
Hadil’s grandfather guffawed. “Flawed only in execution, eh?”
“Such errors can be easily rectified,” replied the Headmistress. “One can only hope they will learn from their mistakes in the future.”
Kikue flushed and looked down at her feet. Meanwhile, Intan tried to puzzle out the Headmistress’s tone. She sounded… almost amused?
The Headmistress continued. “Though the program has been successful thus far, it is also true that there has been little chance for anyone to organize any kind of full-scale movement in the aftermath of the Great War.”
Hadil’s grandfather rocked back and forth in his seat, nodding in agreement. “Yet there are those with patience as wide and vast as the sea. And now, after all these years…”
“But why this village?” asked Intan, thinking now of the Doll’s strange behavior. “What do they want?” And what about the attack on the school?
Hadil’s grandfather eyed her, as if considering what to say.
“It is Ghost Day, after all,” one of the soldiers joked weakly.
“I believe we are about to learn their true purposes,” Hadil’s grandfather began, when from the front door strode in none other than Eguzki, sleeves rolled back, hair drenched in sweat.
“No casualties,” he said.
The Headmistress’s gaze focused on him. “And the pilot?”
He hesitated. “There was none.”
Silence. Everyone stiffened. The Headmistress alone remained impassive.
“What do you mean, ‘there was none’?” demanded the soldier who had joked about Ghost Day. “You mean the pilot managed to escape?”
“But no one saw him eject!” said another.
Eguzki looked the first soldier in the eye. “I mean exactly what I said.” (Intan bit back a twitch of a smile.) “There was no evidence of anyone in the cockpit.”
The soldier opened his mouth as if to respond, but could not seem to find his voice.
To Intan’s surprise, Kikue spoke up instead. “Headmistress, what are your orders?”
“Camp is canceled. We’ll head back at once with the others.” She stood and nodded at Eguzki, who seemed to take that as a cue to leave.
“No,” interrupted the chief, standing as well. “It’s been a long day for everyone. Why don’t you stay here overnight?” He turned to Intan and Kikue. “My granddaughter will show you around once she’s finished with her work.”
“Very well,” replied the Headmistress. “But I am afraid I, at least, must decline. I have urgent business at the capital.”
Intan hesitated, wondering if the invitation had extended to Eguzki as well. But she and Kikue were unceremoniously waved out while the Headmistress made her arrangements, and the thought slipped away like a handful of sand.
* * *
They emerged into the burnt gold of dusk. Not only was everything caked in layers of mud, ash had mixed into the rainwater, emitting a peculiar acrid smell Intan noticed now for the first time. Eguzki was nowhere to be seen.
As they waited for Hadil to finish up with her duties, Intan caught sight of a flying squirrel scampering across the rooftops, toward the safety of the trees. On its final leap, it misjudged the distance, and glided awkwardly to the ground. Intan ran over to it, leaving grumpy Kikue behind to doze on her feet.
Intan stretched out a hand. The squirrel eyed her suspiciously. Then bit her.
The squirrel bolted. Intan heard tittering in the distance and looked up.
On top of the tree sat a plump, hairy sprite, stubby legs swinging in the breeze.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Intan called out.
“What wasn’t very nice?”
Intan whirled around. It was Hadil, clothes now stained with grease as well as mud.
“Err,” she began, but the other girl shook her head, distracted.
“Your Dolls,” said Hadil. “They look like they were tampered with.”
Off to the side, Kikue stirred from her stupor and frowned. “What? Impossible.”
“Are you sure?” asked Intan. “Nobody should have had access to them except the instructors. And, um, us.”
It would certainly explain their Dolls’ sudden malfunction during the storm, though.
“Well, unless you guys messed with the systems…”
“Of course we didn’t,” snapped Kikue.
Hadil held up her hands in a placating gesture. “I guess I’d better report to Chief and the Headmistress then. I’ll be right back!”
The wind whistled through the leaves, but this time Intan ignored it, pretending to be peeved, though in truth she was struggling not to giggle out loud. She was glad they weren’t mad at her.
Soon enough, Hadil came back out, once more in a cheerful mood.
“Grandfather says we’ll be staying with the aunties. Come on!”
Kikue, half-asleep again, plodded over automatically in her general direction. After a discreet wave at the tree, Intan followed them.
Hadil’s aunties greeted them with dinner and a warm bath and much fussing, for which Intan was grateful. When all was said and done, she lay down on her pallet and fell asleep instantly, dreaming of a giant pale serpent writhing through murky waters.