S1| Ep17: Maze of Dreams (上)
October 19, 2012
(A/N: Hey folks, this is a little late, but it’s a double update! i.e. both parts of the episode are up. Hope to get back on schedule next month… Be sure to check out 16.5 if you missed it earlier this month, and don’t forget to click over to the next half of 17 when you’re done with this post!)
The tunnels were damp and dark. Hadil took one step after another, shivering, right hand pressed against the rocky wall so that she wouldn’t lose her way.
Her brother was waiting for her. She had to hurry. She’d kick his ass once she found him though, the big fat jerk. What was he thinking, leaving her here like this?
Or maybe she’d tell on him to the aunties. They’d ground him for at least a month, for sure! Then he’d be stuck in the village, bored out of his mind, unable to go exploring in weird places like this. Would serve him right.
Then again, kicking his ass would be more fun, but he’d probably just laugh it off and kick her ass right back. “Big brother’s privilege,” he’d call it, before tackling her to the ground and tickling her mercilessly until she could no longer breathe.
Why’d he always have to pick on her, anyway? He seemed to think everyone got bored as easily as he did. Always forcing her to tag along with him whenever they were done with chores, even though they weren’t supposed to wander too far from home and the mountains were off-limits. But did he ever listen to her? Noooo. She couldn’t wait until the little ones were old enough for him to bother instead. She’d much rather tinker around with stuff at home with Ma. That was loads more interesting than his boring caves.
Because you’re my favorite sister.
She supposed that made sense.
I’m your only sister, she thought crossly, and wondered just how much longer she had to go.
Though come to think of it, just how long had she been in here? Seemed like ages. What had she been doing before?
Another, stranger thought trickled through her mind — something about some other girl? — but it was gone before she could grasp onto it.
Nothing to do but keep walking forward.
Something white flashed in the corner of her eye. She whirled around, hand still clenched against the wall. Glimpsed a patch of scales.
Just her imagination, probably.
And the wall hadn’t just moved under her hand, no way. Walls didn’t move. Except during earthquakes or typhoons. And then they didn’t move like that… All squishy and soft and stuff.
Why was she looking for her brother anyway? After all, he was…
A soft hiss echoed through the tunnel.
She opened her mouth. Hey, Ah-ni —
How odd. She seemed to have no voice. Or maybe she had no mouth? She touched her lips with her free hand. Or at least tried to. But she couldn’t seem to reach her face.
Then something skittered across the back of her other hand. She yelped. Snatched it away. Only to find herself falling, falling, falling, with furry things flitting against her skin and slimy walls closing in around her…
Light blinded her.
Sight returned. She saw a vast pulsing chamber: half-digested corpses strewn about the slick red floor, a mountain of grinning skulls piled neatly at the center. And legs. Tiny furry black legs marching through the empty spaces.
A single brown hand thrust out from the heaving mass, reaching for a single silvery thread dangling from above.
She knew how this story ended.
She could watch no longer.
* * *
Hadil woke with a lump in her throat, her eyes caked over, and her heart throbbing painfully in her chest. She sat up and wiped at her face.
She hadn’t had a nightmare like that in years. Not since the accident.
No helping it though. She knew very well how on edge she’d been ever since the new year. Maybe even since summer vacation.
Just what had she been thinking when she applied to the Academy? That even a silly child like her could protect her village? The choice had seemed so simple at the time.
But it was too late to regret now.
Intan and the others were due back later today. Just thinking about what they might have uncovered made her queasy. She didn’t like to think of herself as a coward, but the truth was, she was frightened out of her wits. It wasn’t anything to feel guilty about, rationally speaking, but as Grandfather and the aunties were always saying, there was nothing at all rational about love and hatred.
Fear, though. Fear made sense. In a primal, instinctive way. Fight or flight.
Five years ago, Hadil had chosen flight. But this time…
She still had a couple of hours before they got back. Even better, there were no classes today. Maybe she couldn’t pilot a Doll, but there were other ways to save, to protect. To atone.
After months of research, she was getting close. So close.
Hadil dressed quickly and slipped out of her dorm room without waking any of the other girls. She was lucky the girls in her year were all night owls. It had allowed her precious time to herself throughout the year, without the need for socialization or attempts at explaining what she was up to.
In fact, it was early enough that the domed walls of the dorm had not been drawn down for the day yet, and few others walked down the halls. Hadil pretended to be heading to the mess hall like the other early risers, but instead took a detour towards the records center. At the door, she looked around quickly to make sure no one had seen her, then fished out a key from her pocket. She’d stolen the original from a professor’s office a while back and gotten one of her friends at the factory to make a copy of it. Nobody seemed to have noticed yet. Well, maybe the Headmistress (Hadil wasn’t really sure), but she hadn’t said anything about it, so Hadil assumed it was okay. Still, no sense in risking anyone else finding out.
Not until she was inside, among the shelves of thick books and piles of old scrolls, did she let out a big sigh of relief.
She’d been spending all her spare time in these dusty archives lately. It had become more of a home to her than the actual dormitories.
Hadil skipped past the administrative records (which she’d already flipped through) and the collection of Doll designs (which she’d been really tempted to filch) and headed straight for the old newspapers she’d been in the middle of reading through during her last visit.
The official papers didn’t have much that she didn’t already know. But the school had kept copies of several underground publications during the war. And that was where she had received her first lead.
She’d been so certain there was a pattern to the Doll malfunctions over the years. At first she’d assumed the problem was limited to the newer models. After all, there’d been no issues with the old models, as far as she knew. Intan had even managed to get that retired one working just fine…
But the further back she’d sifted, the stranger the available data had gotten. Tales of Dolls behaving in ways that should have been physically impossible — tales that were suppressed rather than debunked by official sources. Dolls whose capabilities should have been able to end the war within weeks if not days, rather than the four years it took in reality (not to mention the four years of scattered skirmishes after the main rebel forces surrendered) — if the reports of said capabilities were accurate.
They might very well not be. Not a lot of people understood how Dolls worked. Even with all the research that had been done over the decades since, there were still plenty of mysteries left unanswered. And in place of solid fact, a bunch of crazy stories had arisen among the general populace.
Hadil wasn’t ready to give those stories much credit just yet. Suppressed or not, there were simply too many inconsistencies to account for.
But their very existence did seem to indicate that she was on the right track. And that in itself was encouraging.
Then she’d come across a brief mention of a bad crash in the third year of Enduring Militancy.
The third year of the war. Way before any of the more recent malfunctions.
The pilot had miraculously survived. He’d claimed that his Doll just suddenly stopped working in midair. The army wrote it off as an isolated incident.
And maybe it was. According to her Ma, there were tons of accidents back in the day, so something like this wouldn’t have been that unusual in the bigger picture. Which made sense, of course, since again, they hadn’t been using the Dolls all that long at that point and they weren’t totally sure how to operate them yet. There must have been a lot of trial and error involved.
The weird thing about this particular anecdote, though, was that it been no simple crash. The Doll stopped working, the pilot ejected, the machine dropped through the sky like a giant bomb. But — or so the pilot swore — right before it landed, it seemed to come alive again. “It just went berserk,” the article quoted him saying, though what exactly he meant by “berserk,” he either refused to elaborate on, the journalist had not thought to ask, or the paper’s editor had decided to keep the story ambiguous for reasons of her own.
At any rate, the Doll had crashed right into the mountainside, destroying a couple of nearby villages, and no amount of fixing or maintenance had been able to get it running again afterward. Like so many others, it was simply scrapped, its parts used to manufacture newer, better models.
Hadil hadn’t been able to find further references to the incident. But the article, in conjuction with some of the stuff her Ma had told her before she passed, had given Hadil an idea.
She’d started tracking down other publications by the same journalist. He or she used the pen name “Foolish Wanderer”, and had been particularly prolific during the first couple years of the war before disappearing without a trace shortly before the surrender. After a lengthy, meticulous search, Hadil had finally managed to locate every single article the Wanderer had ever penned.
All but for the very last one.
Very suspicious, if you asked her.
There were plenty of reasons the Wanderer could have disappeared, of course. He or she could have died. Or been arrested. Or simply got tired of writing and wandering.
But the Wanderer was supposed to have published a really important exposé before said disappearance. Hadil had found several oblique references to it already.
Just no actual article.
Still, she hadn’t exhausted all her possible avenues of research just yet. And she was determined to do just that today.
Only the door suddenly creaked open.
Hadil scrambled to her feet, papers scattering from her arms, and found herself face to face with a most unexpected figure.