S1| Ep12: Dragon Song (下)
May 15, 2012
(A/N: If you haven’t done so already, remember to check out the RECAP for episodes 1-11! The first half of episode 12 is not included in the recap, my apologies. If you don’t feel like rereading/need a refresher, it was mostly just some clarification re: the Eguzki/Morikawa business from Rusli’s POV. Hope you enjoy the second half of the episode — which is LONG, seriously [oops] — next update will be sometime around June 1st.)
If Hadil was surprised by the abrupt request, she wasn’t for long. Like a dam whose gates had finally been raised, she launched instantly into a torrent of analysis and speculation.
“There was a bunch of incidents about two years ago, wasn’t there? Right after the king confirmed his nephew as heir. I remember because I was super worried about the school maybe closing down, and if that happened, where would I go, you know? But none of the students died that time — a couple of young flight instructors I think — after they were investigated it turned out they’d been drunk, celebrated a little too much at the graduation party it seems…”
“I remember,” murmured Rusli. “Father didn’t tell me about it until after the entrance ceremonies. I believe he was concerned that it would distract me from my studies. He assured me that he had spoken to the school and that none of the instructors assigned to me would be so irresponsible. To be honest, I didn’t think much of it at the time.”
The Headmistress nodded, but said nothing.
Hadil continued, “So yeah, I asked around because I figured some of the seniors might know a little more about it. I mean even if they’d been drunk I had a hard time imagining them trying to pull off something that stupid, especially if they were well-trained. I mean sure, some of my aunties get really silly when they drink but they still maintain a certain sense of self-preservation, you know? I guess not much of one, but still. I thought those instructors probably at least had a basic idea of what they were doing. They had to have had some sort of backup plan in place. Even if it was a bad one.”
Kikue, who, as Intan noted, was definitely awake now, said, “Wait. Stop. What on earth are you trying to get at?”
“I’m getting there,” said Hadil. “Anyway, I asked around, but pretty much everyone who’d been around when it happened has already graduated. And the instructors I asked all told me the same thing: the pilots had one drink too many and decided to go for a fly in the middle of the night. And it backfired.”
“Well, see… finally I ran into someone, actually one of the Hibiscus kids in our year, who’d come from the same village as one of the deceased instructors. Apparently their families had been good friends for generations. And he told me that everyone back home knew there was something fishy about the whole deal, because you see, the guy who died — he didn’t drink.”
As Intan studied the others’ reactions to this piece of news, she said brightly, “Maybe one of his friends dared him?”
“Nah,” said Hadil, shaking her head. “I don’t think so. Because his uncle had been a real drunkard. Treated his wife and kids real bad and everything. The guy who died — he swore off alcohol before his ancestors’ graves before he left for the capital. Seems like he took it pretty seriously.”
“Anyone can be tempted,” said Rusli, but he sounded doubtful.
Intan was still watching the Headmistress. Third eye or not, surely the Headmistress must have known this already? After all, the young instructor must have once been one of her students. And then he had become one of her own faculty members. And the Headmistress, like her Granny, was not a woman who would be so careless as to overlook this sort of detail.
There must be something else she was trying to confirm.
“And the other interesting thing,” Hadil was saying, “was the Doll they piloted. It wasn’t identified in any of the official reports, but that guy from Hibiscus told me it was actually one of the Sakata models that had just been released at the time. And that they stopped producing that model soon after. I didn’t have a chance to check yet, but it makes a lot of sense.”
“Nothing you’re saying makes any sense,” grumbled Kikue.
Hadil shrugged. “I figured it was more likely that in that incident, at least, the fault lay with the Doll, not wih the pilots. So,” she said then, turning to the Headmistress, “was I right?”
Still the Headmistress did not respond, except to say, “Continue.”
“Well,” Hadil said slowly. “Five years ago, back when my Ma was still… I mean, I was still just a kid then, but even we heard all about it. That series of crashes down south. Ma wouldn’t shut up about it — it drove Ba crazy! I’d totally forgotten about it until recently though. She said they’d been trying new variations on the old Red Demon model. Trying to get them more efficient or something. I didn’t know what she meant back then, but apparently the Red Demon models were actually pretty good machines in terms of speed and firepower. The problem really was that even the best pilots had a tough time with them. They just weren’t responsive enough. Lots of issues with steering and lift and such. I guess they must’ve thought they’d managed to fix all that stuff at last. But they thought wrong.”
Kikue frowned. “That was the research my father helped fund. You do realize that they found nothing wrong with the new models even after they’d checked and double-checked? And that they’d already been on the fifth round of testing by then anyway? The conditions were unfavorable, that’s all. They got unlucky. It was raining, and one of the pilots didn’t realize she was running a fever. It’s not like any of them died. And there hasn’t been any trouble with that line of models since then.”
“Yeah, but don’t you see?” said Hadil, sounding a little frustrated. “It’s a pattern. Dolls keep crashing for no good reason, even when they should be working perfectly fine. They keep acting inconsistently. Don’t you think it’s weird?”
“I think you’re just reading too much into everything.”
“Maybe this is why the rebels are using the old models,” suggested Rusli with a placating smile. “Difficult as they are, the old models are safe. The rebels can’t afford to risk a malfunction they don’t understand and cannot fix. What about you, Aghavni? What do you think?”
Intan, who had long since lost track of the flow of conversation, stared at him. She wondered if he, too, were still thinking of Morikawa, or if he had already set the matter aside.
“I think the Dolls are unhappy,” she said, quite seriously.
It was the others’ turn to stare.
Then the Headmistress spoke, breaking the silence. “I see. Thank you for your information, Cadet Wong.”
Hadil fidgeted for a moment, then bobbed her head. “Um, Headmistress, ma’am… do you have any idea what this all means?”
To Intan’s surprise, the Headmistress turned, gaze skimming across Hadil and the others before settling on her, and smiled. It was not at all a pleasant smile.
“It means,” said the Headmistress, “my old friend Mok is in over his damn head.”
* * *
With that, the Headmistress gave them their next orders. Rusli was to join the small contingent of soldiers who had already been sent to flush out any rebels still lurking in the campus’s vicinity. Intan and Kikue were posted to guard duty at the palace, to make sure the four attendants remained safe and sound. Hadil, too, was sent with them, whether to to keep her nose out of trouble or to serve as a replacement for the missing Dragons, Intan could not be sure. She was quite pleased at the assignment, however. Perhaps she would have a chance to confer with Eguzki after all.
Unfortunately, upon their arrival, they were told that the attendants had been forbidden to interact with any outsiders, as part of the purification process.
So they did nothing but keep watch at the palace over the next few days, Intan and Kikue and Hadil. Kikue complained quite a bit to no one in particular about being saddled with Intan and a Bamboo girl who wasn’t even an official Dragon, until Hadil said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “Hey Sunagawa, what was that you were saying that time back at my village again? I seem to recall…”
Kikue immediately shut up, though not without a final wary glare at Hadil.
Intan was left wondering what she had missed.
The palace itself was a most peculiar building; the base was constructed in the traditional style, like many of the abandoned or half-destroyed structures on campus, but from the second story onward it towered into the sky like the ubiquitous smokestacks of the nearby capital. And the halls were eerily empty, free from all the bustle and gossip Intan had expected after the long hours she had spent lolling about Chief Granny’s longhouse back at the village. Though the Dragons were confined to the same area as the attendants in a section of the eastern wing, none of the palace staff had been appointed to guard the guards, so to speak. And the other soldiers who had been assigned to attendant-watching duty were all older veterans who seemed to resent the Dragons’ presence, even if they were too well-disciplined to let it show too openly — and indeed preferred to keep interaction to a minimum.
Kikue declared that it would have been quite an insult to the Dragons and the Academy had the palace chosen to assign extra guards, and that in turn the Dragons were expected to fulfill their duty with the honor and thoroughness that such a great responsiblity warranted. Hadil, on the other hand, mused that perhaps the need for secrecy was so great that even the servants had been forbidden to speak to any who were involved.
The reasons didn’t really matter to Intan, who considered this a most excellent opportunity to explore in lieu of talking to Eguzki. (Kikue scolded her the first time she wandered off, but gave up soon enough, apparently deciding that bickering with Hadil was far more productive or entertaining.) The creaking wooden floors and brightly painted ceilings reminded her of home, and some of the stranger accoutrements fascinated her: the tiny mechanical serving puppets who brought them their meals (and which Kikue had to keep Hadil from taking apart), the wind-powered generators that decorated the outsides of the walls, the wired drums at the end of every passageway.
Intan wondered if the palace’s guardian spirits found the place as curious as she did. But none of them made an appearance during her wanderings.
Whereas before she might have assumed they were just shy or wary, their absence now made her fret. Unlike the Four, the palace guardians were said to be loyal to the royal family itself. Unlike the gods, they would never abandon their masters. For generations upon generations they had personally served the king and his family. Even the bad kings, a fact that had always made Intan sad.
She wondered again if the current king were a bad man. Nobody knew much about him, since he had never really ventured out of his palace before this year, not even when he declared his heir. Granny and the other villagers had never spoken ill of him. Nor had she heard much vitriol against him since coming to the Academy, aside from Tuyet’s remark that he was not a terribly popular liege. But the one who had instigated the war was his father. And that had been long ago. Since before Intan was born. Was it truly the current king’s fault, then — all the death his father’s war had brought upon the kingdom?
It made her head hurt.
And more importantly, it explained nothing about why one of the Four was in such a state. They who were bound to the land — who were the land itself.
By the end of the third day, the novelty of exploration had worn off, and Intan hadn’t gotten any further at all in figuring out how they could possibly save the Guardian. If there were some sacrifice or offering to be made… But she did not think it would be so easy. Even if the royal family had neglected the rites for years, the people had not forgotten. The Guardians had watched kings rise and kings fall. Dynasties flourish and decay. Yet through it all, they had remained.
No. There had to be something actively hurting it. Something weakening it, something eating away at it, transforming it.
She was wandering down a side passage she didn’t recognize, thinking that it would help a great deal if only she could ask Eguzki for his opinions, when she caught sight of him strolling down the main hallway. Instead of his uniform or his suspenders, he was dressed in a simple white robe.
Intan couldn’t read his expression, but he didn’t seem particularly unhappy. Only tense.
She was about to call out when she caught sight of another, similarly dressed figure approaching, and shrank back into the shadows instead.
It was Rusli’s tall friend, whose name she could never quite remember. Both boys seemed surprised to run into each other. Eguzki scowled and moved to squeeze past.
But Rusli’s friend grabbed hold of his shoulder.
Eguzki stiffened. Intan saw him lower a clenched fist with obvious effort as he glared up at the taller boy.
For some time, neither of them spoke.
“You…” said Rusli’s friend at last, frowning.
“What?” Eguzki snapped.
Another beat passed. The other boy let go of him and turned away. “My apologies. I was mistaken.”
At first Eguzki looked confused. Then, as the other boy’s words sank in, he grew visibly shaken. “What do you –”
Before he could say anything else, another voice interrupted.
“Guys, is that you?”
The Bamboo girl poked her head around the corner, braid swinging.
“There you are!” she said with a relieved smile. “We’re supposed to go get dinner! You know we won’t be able to eat anything at all tomorrow!”
And that was when the drums began to beat.
* * *
Intan clattered back through the passage she had come from, no longer caring if she were seen, hoping she still remembered the way back to her station.
“Where have you been?” demanded one of the soldiers she slammed past, but she ignored him, having already spotted Kikue and Hadil.
“Intan!” said Hadil. “Over here!”
The drums had been beating out a general alert, and had not yet updated with further information.
“We don’t know either.” Hadil looked nervously from Intan to Kikue. “We just have to make sure our schoolmates stay safe, right?”
With a frown, Kikue said, “Palace security would not have sounded the drums for intruders. It must be an attack from the outside.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” said Intan, who was anxious to head outside after three days of confinement.
“Do you have any idea how well-guarded this place is? Our orders were to stay put! We’ll just get in the way!”
“But aren’t we Dragons?”
“Even if we’re Dragons, we are still cadets! And if something happens to the attendants, they’ll blame it all on us! Besides, whoever’s orchestrating this attack must be insane if they think they can get past –”
Hadil interrupted. “I’ll stay.”
Kikue turned her glare onto her new target. “Not you, too! You’re not even a Dragon!”
“Exactly!” said Hadil. “And I’m an engineer, not a pilot! I may be able to fight, but out there, there’s nothing I can do. But you two can! Think about it — if this is the rebels making their move, they have Dolls! If you don’t stop them in time, there won’t be anything left to protect!”
Intan grinned and grabbed Kikue’s sleeve before she could voice any further protests. “Come on, let’s go!”
“You don’t even know where you’re going, do you?” grumbled a resigned Kikue, several corners later.
“Nope!” said Intan, though now that she stopped to think about it, she kind of did. After three days, the halls no longer seemed so strange and unfamiliar.
And she had a pretty good idea where the palace Dolls were kept.
Sure enough, a few more turns, and they burst into a vast underground room, dimly lit. It was a room Intan had passed near several times during her explorations, but each time the entrance had been guarded by armed men and women she did not recognize and who wore no uniform, though no one was around now. Technically, it was outside of the boundaries the Dragons and the other soldiers had been limited to. Intan had been just about dying to find out what was inside.
In this, she was not disappointed.
The walls were lined with massive glittering terminals and holey metallic plates she could neither recognize nor understand. In the center of the room crouched three shadowed rows of Dolls, numbering nine in all. Their grinning masks were painted in the uniform oranges and blues of the royal family.
“What the… Where is everyone?” Kikue was muttering.
“Hmm,” said Intan.
“Is this what you’ve been up to all this time? Sneaking into restricted areas? Wait, what are you — Hello? Access codes? Are these even working models?”
“No problem!” said Intan, as she skipped down the stairs and over to the closest Doll. She leaned her cheek against its chest with a happy grin that matched the Doll’s expression.
Kikue rolled her eyes, but this time, said nothing.
Intan patted the Doll, humming, “Good boy! Good boy!”
Sure enough, the cockpit flared to life, as did the Doll’s eyes. Kikue jumped back with a little squeak.
“What did you –”
“Come on!” said Intan, already moving on to the next Doll. Moments later, she was strapped into her seat, headset snugly clamped over her ears as she coaxed her Doll to a standing position. The ceiling loomed precariously close.
“Ugh,” said Kikue across the wireless. “This is nice and all, but now how are you planning to get us out of here? Don’t tell me you’re…”
Intan looked around for an exit. Unless these Dolls had been sealed underground on purpose, there must be some way to reach the surface without breaking down the entire building. She didn’t want to strain the Dolls too much, after all.
There was no immediate exit that she could see, but the room did empty into a passageway at the other end. She carefully made her way over, followed by a much more doubtful Kikue.
Intan could no longer hear the drums. Her heart raced, but she felt more at peace than she had in days.
The Doll rumbled beneath her as if in response to her joy, and she smiled.
* * *
The passage wound and twisted before finally reaching a dead end — or rather, it was blocked off by a sliding plate door similar to the ones used at the dormitories.
“What now?” demanded Kikue. “Are you going to punch through or something?”
Intan giggled; if she wasn’t mistaken, the other girl sounded awfully eager to do so. But she did not bother answering, and instead stopped to study their surroundings.
Soon enough, she made out a raised etching at the center of the door. She poked at it with a stubby Doll finger, then recognized it as one of the simple child’s puzzles her Granny had kept her entertained with during particularly long meetings.
Doll hands were not built for such delicate maneuvers, and it took her a few tries at twisting and squeezing the various panels before the solution clicked into place. The plate door slid open with a slow creak, revealing a starry sky above.
Intan launched her Doll into flight, hovering nearby to wait for Kikue.
As the other girl emerged from the tunnel, the control screen beeped. Several green lights blinked into view and raced across the screen, mirrored by bulky shadows on the horizon, heading swiftly in their direction.
A familiar voice sounded over the wireless. “Identify yourselves!”
“Cadets Sunagawa and Aghavni, reporting for…” Kikue was evidently at a loss for what to say.
“Hello, sir!” said Intan instead, as the Dolls came into view, their similarly painted patterns clear enough even in the darkness.
“You two!” said Rusli. “Weren’t you supposed to be… Ah, never mind. You have excellent timing, both of you.”
Kikue harrumphed. “What’s the situation?”
“The scouts reported three to five enemy Dolls approaching. They were shot down before they could confirm, however.”
“So it is the rebels after all,” muttered Kikue. “But now, of all times? When they must know security is at its height?”
“Yes,” Rusli said grimly. “They must be desperate. Or perhaps they only intend to wreak as much havoc as they can before they’re caught, just as they did in the capital. But this time, we’re prepared.”
“They’re here!” exclaimed one of the other soldiers who had accompanied him.
Over the mountains to the north of the palace glowed the outlines of five flying figures. As if announcing their arrival, the one at the head of the formation raised an arm. The nearby trees went up in flame, barely missing the older wooden structures of the palace complex.
In the burst of light, Intan saw that these new Dolls’ faces were not red, but flowered in whites and blacks. No demons of vengeance these, but harbingers of righteousness and impartiality.
Kikue’s voice crackled from the headset. “They had more?”
Rusli said, “Black Butterflies!”
“Another retired model…”
“How can they be moving so fast?”
Intan ignored the chatter and sped forward to meet the enemy Dolls.
She didn’t turn off the wireless — that would have been quite irresponsible, as their instructors had told them time and time again.
But she found herself angry. Angry in a way she had not been for many years.
How dare these pilots present themselves as righteous, when they did not even stop to think of the effects of their actions?
Little wonder the sprites had been so upset all these months. Forgotten, neglected, disrespected… And yet they had nowhere else to go. No homes to go back to, now.
A part of her knew that this could not be the only reason the sprites had been upset. These careless intruders had not shown their faces here before now. Nor was this the first time senseless destruction had taken place — whether historically or in recent times. Quite the contrary, in fact.
But in her heart surged an overwhelming pity and grief for the five Butterfly Dolls and for the panicked sprites who must even now be fleeing for safety. This sorrow blinded her suddenly to all else.
The enemy Dolls widened their formation, preparing to form a net around her. She could hear voices yelling at her in the background, but none of their words registered. She felt no fear, no doubt, no hesitation whatsoever. The Dolls opened fire at her, but she danced and twirled away, barreling straight into the leader. Moments later, they crashed into the mountainside, sending a flock of bats winging into the night. The enemy Doll kicked and struggled, but Intan did not let go. More bullets came flying past; her control screen screamed warnings at her. But she ignored it all. She punched again and again at the other Doll’s head as they tumbled and rolled to the ground, whispering a stream of apologies through her tears.
A large boom startled her back into the present. The enemy Doll collapsed and simply stopped moving. She realized that the pilot had ejected and was now fleeing through the woods. She left him. Checked her screen for damage. Was relieved to find nothing major.
Another large boom. She looked up and saw Kikue’s Doll posed primly against the slopes for support as she sniped at the enemy. And another Doll heading toward Intan. She raised her arm to fire, then realized that it was one of the palace Dolls.
“Whoa there,” said Rusli over the wireless. “Your enthusiasm is commended, Aghavni, but don’t get ahead of yourself now.”
“Yes, sir,” murmured Intan, subdued.
Kikue’s aim was excellent, but the enemy Dolls were moving too quickly for her. Intan could hear the other girl’s cursing getting more and more immoderate.
“I didn’t think this kind of speed was even possible,” Rusli was saying.
One of their fellow soldiers suddenly screamed as his Doll’s arm was ripped off and his machine hurtled through the air, imbalanced. The enemy Doll pursued.
Intan dried her tears and launched back into the sky. Rusli joined her.
Three enemy Dolls remained. Intan wondered who had downed the other and when. Why, despite their initial shots, the enemy was not attacking the palace, after all, though with their speed they were surely not incapable of it…
Kikue finally managed to land a shot on one of the remaining Dolls: it crashed and went up in flames. Intan noticed new Dolls approaching on her screen from the lake — military reinforcements. Back on the ground, she saw uniformed foot soldiers spreading through forest as well.
Oddly enough, the two remaining Black Butterflies did not flee. Nor did they continue fighting or attempt to launch a final desperate attack on the palace.
Instead, they sank to the earth and knelt, bowing in a gesture of surrender.
* * *
Hadil was waiting when they landed their Dolls in one of the eastern courtyards. As Intan jumped down from the cockpit, she ran over with a giddy smile. “Everyone’s all right! I saw the fighting! Are you okay?”
Intan nodded and returned her smile, though she wasn’t sure she felt nearly as cheerful as Hadil seemed.
Kikue and Rusli followed close behind. “All five Butterflies have been accounted for. Their pilots have been taken into custody.”
Hadil whooped and slapped Kikue and Intan on their backs.
Rusli smiled, then shook his head and looked away.
“But Mok himself is still…” he murmured.