S1| Ep19: Back to the Mines (下)
December 18, 2012
(A/N: Long update ahead. As I was saying on Twitter, this was an incredibly difficult part to write for various reasons that I think will become obvious. Anyway. Happy holidays everyone — thanks for reading, and for your patience over the last few months. See you again next year!)
“Wait, Tuyet!” shouted Rusli as they all clattered down the hall and the stairs. The whole palace seemed to have come alive at once, bristling with soldiers and servants and officials suddenly roused from mourning or shock at the king’s sudden passing.
Or so Intan would have assumed, had she not begun to suspect that few if any of them had truly been concerned about their liege and lord.
“No time for that!” Tuyet snapped back.
“Listen. Can I trust you to take care of this?”
“Bowing out of your duties again?”
“No. I mean to go see my father as planned. Alone. I must find out what’s going on!”
“Wei,” said Rusli’s friend tightly.
“You go with them, Yusaku! I’ll be fine on my own!”
Tuyet didn’t even turn. “Do as you please.”
Rusli and his friend exchanged a glance. Rusli shook his head, then turned. Intan paused, torn, but in the end her concern for the Dolls won out. The spirits surely would not begrudge her this much, at least.
Tuyet, in the meantime, seemed to know exactly where she was heading. Intan was surprised that the older girl seemed so familiar with the palace. Of course she had been here more frequently due to her selection as an attendant at the new year. But Intan doubted she’d had much time to explore, then.
This level of familiarity in fact seemed to imply that Tuyet was a regular visitor to the palace. On official Dragon duties, perhaps? It did seem the sort of thing a Dragon might be asked to do.
Speaking of which, the older girl still hadn’t explained what she had been doing at the palace here today. Intan considered asking, but suspected she wouldn’t get any better of an answer than Rusli had received.
Not that there was any chance to ask, even if she wanted to. They were somehow already at a hangar filled with Dolls. It was not the one Intan had stumbled into back before the new year; these facilities looked newer, cleaner. And the Dolls, despite their similar coloring, were painted in a subtly different design. New models from the same line, it seemed.
A soldier immediately ran up to meet them.
“Has anyone been hurt?” demanded Eguzki, before anyone else could say anything.
“No. Other than the stolen machine, no injuries or damage have been reported so far.”
Tuyet crossed her arms. “Then how did the thief get away?”
“We — we’re not sure. No one noticed a thing until the Doll was detected on the sensors –”
Tuyet shoved past the soldier. “We’re going after it.”
“Just wait a minute –”
“Why hasn’t anyone been sent already?” Tuyet paused midstep and looked back pointedly. “Or was this little incident staged?”
“That’s not –”
Another soldier stepped up and whispered something in the first one’s ear, then nodded at Tuyet. “Four Dolls, then. One for each of you?”
“What?” burst out Eguzki.
Everyone turned to look at him.
For a moment Intan was afraid he would punch the lights out of the soldiers and run off on his own. But then he took a deep breath, as if to calm himself.
When he next spoke, his voice was steady. “I am no Dragon. I’m not even authorized to pilot anything other than transports. I’m a student in the medic division, and if there is no further need of my skills here, I will be returning to the campus immediately.”
“Nuh-uh,” said Tuyet. “I don’t think so. You’re coming too, Kaneshiro. I don’t care if only one Doll’s gone rogue this time. We’re not taking any chances.”
Eguzki backed away. “No.”
“That’s an order from your senior.” Tuyet raised an eyebrow, then said in a soft, dangerous tone, “Or have you already forgotten your… skills?”
“What’s wrong?” whispered Intan, confused by this exchange. “They won’t hurt you. Not if you trust them.”
“I don’t,” he replied softly. “I can’t.”
“Never pegged you as a coward, Kaneshiro,” continued Tuyet, ignoring them. Intan had never seen her eyes so cold.
Eguzki clenched his fists, but refused to respond.
To Intan’s surprise, it was Rusli’s friend who spoke then. “I am no Dragon either.”
Tuyet raised an eyebrow. “But you are a pilot.”
The tall boy shrugged.
Intan considered this, frowning, and whispered to Eguzki as their seniors continued to stare each other down. “Will it be all right as long as you don’t pilot, then?”
He looked at her, startled.
Intan took this as a yes.
“I’ll take him along in mine!” she announced to the rest of them. “That should be okay, won’t it?”
Tuyet turned her cold gaze to Intan. Her expression softened, almost imperceptibly. “It’s not his skills as a healer that I want, Aghavni.”
It was very odd indeed to hear the older girl call her by that name, but Intan said only, “I know!”
Puzzlement crept into Tuyet’s gaze. Then, almost instantly, wiped blank. “Very well. But you, Wystan. No excuses.” She turned on her heel, and walked toward the Dolls, conferring once more with the soldiers.
Rusli’s friend paused, glancing briefly back at Intan and Eguzki, face unreadable as ever. Then he followed without a single word of protest.
“I… shouldn’t go,” Eguzki muttered to Intan at last.
She studied his face. The sadness in his eyes. The confusion. The wariness of his posture. The lingering traces of anger.
That was good then. A relief.
“If the rogue Doll hurts anyone, you’ll want to help, won’t you?”
“Just what are you plotting now?” he asked, not quite smiling, not quite frowning.
“Never mind,” he said, with a sigh. “… You’re right.”
* * *
Kikue stared and stared before finally sputtering, “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
“Top secret, remember?” replied Hadil, who found herself oddly relieved at the other girl’s reaction. “Do the math. I was born three years after the surrender. Like you, I assume. I don’t know any more about what went on during the war than you do. I didn’t even have a clue about AUSOS until… until my brother…”
“Your brother?” Kikue narrowed her eyes. “That boy we met last time?”
“No, no. That was my kid brother. I… I had an older brother, too. Once. But he…”
Kikue said nothing.
“It was five years ago. We’d run off to play in the mines, like we always did.”
“Five years ago,” muttered Kikue. “That series of accidents you were talking about.”
“You still remember that? And here I thought you didn’t want to hear what I had to say.”
“It was rather difficult not to, considering your refusal to stop babbling at me.”
“But those were down south,” Kikue continued, relentlessly. “Nowhere near here.”
“Right. This was a few months after. My parents — they’d started arguing a lot. We didn’t understand why. I guess we were too young. Anyway my brother’d always loved exploring, loved dragging me along too. Whenever it got really bad, we’d stay with an auntie or with our grandfather, but my brother would always get restless, always try sneaking off. I didn’t always go with him. But that day…” She trailed off, seeing that they had at last reached the outskirts of the village. Nobody’d noticed them yet, which was good. But they’d have to be extra careful now.
Kikue gave her a look. “Keep going.”
“Sorry,” Hadil said sheepishly, as she pulled Kikue into a thicket of trees. “It’s hard to — and the truth is, I blocked out so much of what happened –”
“I don’t need to know everything, Wong.”
“Oh yeah?” Hadil shot back, suddenly angry. “Is that what you think? My brother — my parents — our village — everything — all these years I’ve been trying to understand, trying to piece everything together –”
That was when a familiar voice interrupted them.
“Hadil?” The wrinkled brown face of Hadil’s grandfather peered at them from beyond the trees. “What are you doing here, child? Should you not be at the capital?”
“Uh-oh,” Hadil muttered. Just her luck. She glanced over at Kikue. “Come on, let’s scram!”
“Scram?” hissed Kikue. “Where?”
Hadil grabbed her sleeve. “Just come on!”
“Hadil! Just where do you think you’re going, young lady?”
“Sorry sorry sorry,” she chanted under her breath. She was really going to get it after this was all over. If they were still around by then — though she really, really didn’t want to think about that right now.
At least Grandfather couldn’t run as fast as he used to.
* * *
“Rogue spotted,” crackled the wireless in a deep monotone.
“It’s heading west,” murmured Eguzki, strapped into a temporary seat behind Intan. A tight fit, but he didn’t seem to mind, and the Doll flew just as smoothly as ever despite the extra weight (which wasn’t much, anyway).
The stolen Doll was speeding smoothly through the skies as well. It was impossible to tell if its pilot had noticed the pursuit hovering just out of detection range. Either way, the Doll had not chosen to engage.
Instead, it soared higher and higher, taking cover behind the clouds as it passed over the capital nestled in the mountains.
The three unstolen Dolls chased its skimming shadow from below.
Tuyet’s voice came as a sharp command over the wireless. “Hold fire for now. Let’s see where the thief is heading.”
“Okay!” said Intan.
“Understood,” said the other pilot.
For a long time there was silence.
“This could be a trap,” said Eguzki at last, keeping his voice down so that he could not be overheard.
“Hmm,” replied Intan, equally quiet. She closed her eyes. Sensed no hostility from the fleeing Doll.
Only a sad, reckless despair, painfully familiar.
“Sita,” she whispered, sharing in its grief.
Behind her, Eguzki stiffened. “That’s the girl who…”
“Sita, Sita, Sita,” she sang, and from her mouth welled forth a fisherman’s dirge, a sending off for a young soul, lost at sea.
“Aghavni?” said Tuyet. “What’s wrong? Agha –”
Eguzki loomed over Intan’s shoulder. Slammed his hand into the controls.
“Don’t tell me — the pilot is –”
The rogue Doll dove back down through the cloud layer. Intan’s eyes fluttered open again. She looked out at the panorama below.
And recognized just where the Doll had led them.
* * *
Hadil didn’t stop running until they had reached one of the secret entrances to the mines that her brother had uncovered all those years ago. She peeked back, checking to make sure that her grandfather had not caught up.
“Come on!” she said again once she’d reassured herself. “Get in!”
“You’d better have a damn good reason for this,” said Kikue, squeezing irritably through the dark crack. “Other than avoiding that old geezer.”
“I was planning to come here from the start,” replied Hadil, squeezing in after her with a bit more trouble. It occurred to her that she’d been a lot younger the last time she came here. A lot smaller. But infinitely braver.
“Oh?” said Kikue, strutting off through the darkness in the wrong direction before Hadil pulled her back and nudged her gently in the right way.
Hadil took a lighter from her pocket, hands shaking badly. After a few tries, she struck up a flame. “It’s those maps.”
“Yes, yes, the maps of our glorious campus. And?”
“I realized something when I was looking at them. Those underground routes they showed — they resemble the tunnel system of our mines here.”
At that Kikue stopped and turned. “What?! Are you sure?”
“I told you my brother and I spent a lot of time exploring here, didn’t I?”
“But these mines are still in operation. Why… How…”
“Not all of it. There are huge areas out of commission.”
Kikue collected herself. “Surely such a resemblance implies little more than a shared engineer or architect.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
Kikue turned away again. “… There’s something hidden here. Something related to that project. AUSOS.”
“I think so,” whispered Hadil.
“You and your brother stumbled across this secret, whatever it was, five years ago.”
“No. I don’t know. I can’t remember.” Her voice cracked. “I don’t know.”
For a moment Hadil expected Kikue to press her further, but the other girl said nothing.
“There was…” Hadil began. Shook her head. Caught up beside her. “Last summer wasn’t the first.”
Still the girl remained silent.
“There was an attack that day too. All hushed up afterwards, of course. A lot of people died. Even more were injured — my Ma and Ba among them. But nobody important, really. Not in the big picture.”
The tunnel reached a fork. Kikue paused. Hadil strode to the right.
“I didn’t know about it though. Not until later. Since we were in the mines, you see? They couldn’t find us. Everyone thought we’d died. That the Doll had gotten us too. When I came back — it was a miracle. Everyone was so happy, so relieved, even as they grieved for my brother, for everyone else — how could I tell them? How could I tell them the truth? When I wasn’t even sure of it myself? It was all just… one big jumble. Ba dead of an infection they couldn’t catch in time. Kids I’d grown up with all my life — all dead. So many. One day there, the next day gone. Just like that.”
Another fork. This time, Hadil chose the second path from the left.
“But I think… somehow… Ma must have suspected. Must have known.”
Kikue’s continued silence was strangely comforting.
“Three months later, Ma died of her wounds too. But not before she told me… something strange. During the war, she said. One of the Clans came to them. Offered them more money than they’d ever seen in their lives to buy off a section of the mines. And to buy their talent.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Bet you’re gonna want to ask which Clan, huh? Well, I don’t know. She didn’t say. Maybe she felt she had a duty to them. Or maybe she was trying to protect me. Make sure I didn’t get involved. I don’t know. I don’t know why. I just know that even at the end, she wouldn’t betray them.
“They were losing the war, she told me. Everyone was getting desperate. Even with the Dolls, things were real bad. It wasn’t just the fighting. People were starving. So many had lost their homes, their livelihoods. They were beginning to think that even if we defeated the enemy, it would be as if we hadn’t won at all.
“And so the Clans came up with a plan. A secret project. To create a weapon even more powerful than the Dolls. They placed all their hopes in this project. In AUSOS. And everyone… we’ve always been good with tinkering in these parts. Maybe because we work with machinery all day long, all throughout the year. So of course everyone helped out. They were excited, real excited. Hoping maybe things would work out after all. That they could make a difference.”
Another fork. Then another. And another. Hadil passed through them all.
“But in the end, they failed. AUSOS failed. The plans were scrapped, never to be spoken of again.”
Forgive me, Ma had said, over and over and over again, in those final hours.
Don’t leave me, Hadil had cried. Please, don’t leave me too!
This is our divine punishment. I can’t keep running away. Not anymore.
Please, Ma. Please…
Forgive me. Forgive me, my son. Forgive me.
One final fork. Hadil and Kikue stepped forth into a vast, musty chamber, filled with rows of rusted tables.
Strange. Hadil didn’t seem to remember this place. And yet she had remembered the directions here all too clearly.
“They failed…” murmured Kikue. “Could it be… my father and the others… trying to resurrect the project? But why now? Why now, of all times?”
But Hadil wasn’t listening anymore. At the far end of the chamber was a wooden door. She headed toward it. Pressed her palms against it.
The door swung open.
The room beyond was smaller. Lined with metal and strange wires streaking down the walls, but otherwise empty.
Behind her, Kikue approached. “Ugh. What on earth is that smell?”
No. Not empty.
Something was pulsing in the shadows beyond the flame of her lighter. Hadil stepped closer and lifted her arm.
In a basin against the wall sat a sphere of putrescent patchwork flesh, spotted all over with leaking boils.
A strange sound was emanating from it.
Despite herself, Hadil stepped forward again, fighting the urge to gag.
Something was buried beneath all those lumps.
“Wong,” said Kikue in a very small voice. “Don’t.”
But she had to know. She had to see. Had to confirm what she had already long suspected, deep within her heart.
She had come all this way, after all. Couldn’t stop now.
The sound changed.
She could hear. She could understand.
“Miiisssed…. yoouu….” said the face in the boils. “Miiiissss…. iiiiiissss…. ssssiiiiiii….”