S1| Ep23: Ultimatum (下)
January 6, 2016
Tuyet had passed out and had yet to reawaken. Hadil wasn’t sure how long it had been. They’d been locked up in a cold, miserable shack somewhere in the middle of nowhere. At least, that was what it felt like. She knew very well that they were close to the school campus again, most likely somewhere in the surrounding mountains. She’d heard the din of battle earlier. But all was silent now.
It made Hadil feel ill. At least the rebels hadn’t been cruel enough to kill them outright. But without medical attention, Tuyet was doomed to the same fate Hadil’s father had suffered.
Yet perhaps the older girl was stronger than Hadil feared. Just as Hadil was beginning to work herself into another panic session, Tuyet sat up with a groan.
Kikue turned to her at once with a glare.
“You owe us an explanation,” Kikue said flatly. “Now.”
“Not now,” protested Hadil, hurrying over. “She’s hurt…”
“That’s exactly why now.”
Helpless anger flared in her. “No! What’s more important right now is figuring out a way to escape!”
“And just where do you think we can escape to?”
“It’s not like you’re going to be able to do anything with any information you learn here unless we do!”
“If I am to meet my end in this pisshole,” replied Kikue with a chilly, grandiose formality despite her choice of vocabulary, “I intend to face it with full awareness rather than in ignorance and desperation.”
At that Tuyet laughed, startling them both. The older girl looked amused despite her evident pain.
“You’re not a thing like your father, are you?” she said, addressing Kikue. “Good for you.”
Kikue looked as if she weren’t sure whether to be insulted or pleased.
“I’ll tell you what I know,” said Tuyet. “But it’s not much.”
“That is acceptable.”
“This all started back when I was a little girl, I guess. My folks — whole village pretty much — up and died in the plague, so I ran off to the capital. Learned to fend for myself. A bit of swindling here, a bit of thieving there. Tough life, but all in all not bad.” Traces of her street accent slipped into her voice as she spoke. “Me and my kids was doing well. On the up and up. I meant to challenge the snakeheads someday, and we coulda pulled it off too. Just a few more years. Just a pinch more time.” For a moment her eyes lit up with a fierceness that convinced Hadil that the older girl wasn’t just talk, but the moment passed and they glazed over again.
“About three — no, four years ago now — some shady rich types approached us for a job. Shouldn’t have taken it. But I was never one to back down from a challenge.
“Pulled off the job no problem. Just as promised. But gods, no price could ever… Getting everyone involved in that mess — my responsibility. Unforgivable. I shouldn’t have. Biggest mistake of my life. I tried to… fix things. Make amends. But it was too much for me. It was big. Way bigger than any one of us. And I couldn’t find any path forward. Until…”
“What kind of job was it?”
Tuyet choked on her laughter. “That fucking stone. You saw it too, didn’t you. Knew it wasn’t just some damn piece of jewelry. I wasn’t the first one to steal it, after all. But that bastard was right. I had no clue, really. Absolutely no clue. Thought I knew everything. Thought I had it all figured it out. Should’ve learned better by now. Should’ve realized…”
The door to the shack flung open, streaming in light from outside.
“I see you girls are getting along quite well here.”
It was the rebel leader Mok.
* * *
To Hadil’s shock the ex-captain’s visage was a far cry from the tall, confident leader she had witnessed mere hours before. His back was bent, his face haggard and gray; his right eye twitched, unfocused; and his left leg dragged behind him in an unsteady lope. He seemed not only to have aged twenty years in a matter of hours, but in that time also suffered the injuries and ailments of a hundred men in a single body.
What could have possibly done this to him?
That giant Doll. The monster sealed beneath the school.
But it had done nothing. Simply broke through to the surface and then settled down on the shore, as if waiting.
Waiting — for something? Or for whom?
Intan had to be rubbing off on her. Dolls were machines. They could not wait, could not feel.
“The Headmistress won’t let you get away with this!” Hadil said, more bravely than she felt, but needing to do something, anything.
But Mok’s only reaction was to laugh. “Oh, yes. Old Liow turned her back on us all a long time ago. More of a traitor than all of us combined. Coldest bitch I’ve ever known. Doesn’t possess a single bone capable of love.”
To Hadil’s surprise, it was Tuyet who spoke next.
“She is devoted to the Academy.”
“Heaven knows why.” Mok snorted. He shook his head. “Now, what am I supposed to do with you poor fools?”
“I advise that you let them go,” said Kikue, and Hadil glanced at her in confused disbelief.
Mok seemed almost amused beneath his haggard countenance. “Do you, now?”
“I am the daughter of the head of Clan Sunagawa. I may be of some value to you in negotiations, but the other two are worthless.”
“True. None of you have anything to do with this. Not anymore.”
Kikue frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I have what I need. All there is left to do now is wait. Wait for the king to make his move.” He shook his head again. “I pray for your sakes that he will make the right choice.”
“Then let us all go!” cried Hadil. “If you don’t want to hurt us, then why —”
“I cannot. I cannot. Do you think you will be safer in the arms of that heartless woman? How many have already died in her embrace…” His words slurred.
“You’re nuts,” snapped Kikue, and Hadil winced, fearing their captor’s reaction. “Do you really expect us to wait here like good little girls while you enact your mad plans?”
But Mok only laughed again. “Mad? Perhaps. After all, it has always been one of the great ambitions of mankind to harness the powers of the gods. A fool’s dream, but nonetheless an enduring one. Why, when we found the first of the Dolls, it seemed as if our prayers had been answered at long last!
“Ah. But you are too young to understand such things. This was before the war, you see. Before the old king died. Before the unrest. We studied them. Learned to pilot them, to use them as aids in our various industries, whether at sea or in the mountains or on the fields — and even how to build more.
“Then, twenty years ago, we learned the bitter truth: there are no gods in this world. There never have been.”
“Then what was that beast at the spring during the new year’s rites?” demanded Kikue.
“Nothing but a mere beast, possessed of great power — but in the end as mortal as you or I.” He slammed his hand against the wall. It trembled at the impact, and he glanced at his hand as if mildly startled before continuing, “The war changed everything. We began to realize the true potential of the Dolls. Potential that we had failed to exploit. And yet we needed suitable vessels. Pilots capable of syncing properly with these machines. Pilots capable of bringing them under control.
“At first it was just a handful of volunteers. Mercs like us. Regular recruits. Progress was promising at first. Slow. But day by day, we were beginning to grasp the true nature of these artifacts. Then it all went wrong…
“For years we thought the project dead. Buried for good. That they had learned their lessons the first time. But no. Instead, they continued their studies in secret.
“They thought they might have a higher success rate with children. Children are pure, after all. Untainted by the evils of the world. Was that not why they had failed the first time around? Because the results had been tainted? That was what they thought. But they were wrong. Wrong. It was never a failure to begin with. Why could they not see that?”
His eyes glowed red.
“It’s time to end this. End it all. If the king will not give himself up, then we shall have no choice but to force him out.”