Jhor raced through the room, faster than Lapis anticipated, Sanna with him, though her head remained pointed in the fight's direction. That he had the strength to haul the reluctant khentauree behind him surprised her, but the intense need to keep her from joining Ghost rode him.
Fallen machine heads swiveled with their passage, limbs feebly reaching. She swallowed a lump in her throat; she could not stop her pity for them, an aching sadness at their unwanted state. Anquerette did this to them? Why? If they could not fix them, why not send them to silence?
Jhor reached a ramp, dropped Sanna’s hand, and slammed his palm onto a square shiny object that had faint traces of horizontal white lines. White light burst from it and the wall in front of him slid open. Lapis squinted and covered her eyes with her forearm as a warm yellow filled the space, illuminating the dinged, damaged, shredded bodies of the khentauree that lay nearby. Dozens had their sphere punctured, while more awaited that irrevocable act.
“Anquerette doesn’t know about this lab,” Jhor told them as he moved from the doorway and ushered them inside. “They never managed access, so it’s safe.” He lifted his lip. “That’s why they put the broken khentauree here. They had no other use for the place.” He said another word, under his breath, his tone nasty.
“I will let them in,” Sanna said. He nodded and slid his hand down her arm before hastening further inside, shedding his trench. His clothing dribbled with sweat; why wear the heavy coat when all it caused was discomfort? He pulled at the plain blue, short-sleeved shirt, which stuck to his muscular torso like a second skin. Wincing, he tossed the leather item at a thickly padded, grungy couch settled against a wall; it promptly slid to the floor with a snaky hiss.
Lapis followed him, not certain what else to do. The room, though brightly lit, had nothing of interest in it other than the couch; no other furniture, no wall hangings, no coatrack or rug. The dull grey sheen to the place made it feel homey, and she wondered if Jhor had created the atmosphere on purpose, or whether age had more of a role.
He walked to the right, and another door slid open, a shock to Lapis because she thought the wall solid metal. Trailing the man, she looked into the slit that it fled into, then belatedly at the room.
The jumble of tech dazzled her. Blinking lights in steel casings, screens displaying images and text, fans whirring, wires and long, dinged pipes everywhere. Glass and metal and ceramic items littering stout tables lining the walls, unfamiliar tools scattered among them.
The room fell away as she noted a mechanical arm settled on a table—an arm like those she uneasily stared at while Patch received his first mod. Her stomach had cramped and she clenched her fingers together so tightly, she produced unnatural wrinkles in the skin that took a day to fade. Her worry, coupled with the dread of seeing an item that would lead to her death if one of Gall’s men happened into the surgery while she sat there . . .
“You’re a modder.”
He glanced at her as he grabbed an opaque bottle from a cardboard box settled next to a desk with a wide table sporting multiple screens three levels tall, each attached to a thin stand, and a padded, patched chair. “Yeah. How did you guess?” He flumped down and pressed a switch; the screens burst into colorful life.
He followed her gaze while taking a drink, then shrugged. “When I was in the Dentherion army, they trained me to mod the soldiers. It made me sick, to maim them afterwards. When they finished service, the Lord’s Council demanded they remove all tech.” He took a deep breath. “I blinded people. I took their arms and legs. They modded for the glory of the empire, and the empire fucked them after they weren’t useful anymore.” He turned back to the screens. “I decided I wanted to help them, rebuild what Dentheria took. I’ve been researching better mechanisms.” He half-laughed. “That’s what drew me to Ambercaast. I thought to look at old machines, see if I could understand how they functioned.” He motioned to the box. “Do you want some water?”
“That’s how you met Sanna?” Lapis asked, feeling wary as he typed lines of text using a large, blue-glowing keyboard. If he worked for the Dentherion army, even the act of taking water could prove deadly.
Cassa happily destroyed her distrust as she snagged a bottle and bolted the drink, then pulled out an oat and berry bar from her pack. Dinnertime? Why not; they may not find any other restful places to eat.
“Yeah . . .” He trailed off. Several rectangular windows popped up on the screens, each with a different image of tunnels and caverns, though most displayed black and white fuzz.
Linz stopped next to her and stared at one screen that showed a humongous cavern lit by flickering tech lights. Curve-topped metal buildings had rips and holes and dents. Cloth lay in tattered ruins, a mixture of black and greens and blues with the odd, bright white clump. Wires and poles littered the ground among burnt crates and crushed metal boxes. Blackened vehicles smoked, some overturned. Huge chips in the pavement highlighted areas that tech weapons had damaged; larger holes marked the place explosives landed.
Bodies were everywhere, some in black uniforms, some in dark green, smoke billowing from them. Some lay on their backs, as if picked up and slammed down on their spines, while others draped over random debris. Had someone used a tech cannon, killing everyone?
But she did not see shredded flesh and little blood. The bodies looked charred, not ripped to shreds.
“What happened?” Linz breathed, leaning over the back of the chair, their brows knit.
“I don’t know.” Jhor sounded troubled. “When Sanna and I left, the mercs and Anquerette were enthusiastically shooting one another. The mercs had explosives, but I didn’t think they had anything that big.”
“Where are the impacts?” Linz asked. “There should be enormous holes in the ground or in the buildings.”
“Let’s see what the recording tells us.” Jhor continued to type. “Sanna logged me into the cameras. It makes avoiding detection when we go for walks simpler. The markweza’s paranoid, so the scientists keep them functional, sometimes at a cost to their research.”
Did that explain the numerous birds in one tunnel? That seemed overkill to Lapis.
A white box popped up and flashed. His eyes narrowed and he slowly shook his head. “The recording’s corrupted.” He pressed another series of keys, and a new box appeared on the screen in front of him, saying the same thing. He skimmed through several before finding one to view. It showed the cavern, with fighters taking pot shots with tech weapons and ducking behind cover, and others racing from the confrontation, some appearing beyond sense.
The image blanked, then fuzz took its place.
“I don’t think Sanna can recover that,” he said heavily.
“Was it filmed by a mini-Swift?” Cassa asked, studiously observing the images, the bar in her hand forgotten.
“Yeah. I think whatever explosion took out the fighters took the ones in the cavern out, too. They kept their recordings at the Central One computer bank, which would explain why I can’t access them.” He scanned several lines of text in a pop-up window. “None of them are working anymore. This,” and he tapped at the screen image of the aftermath, “is from a security camera that the Anquerette put up when they realized the mercs were a problem. It’s shielded, so whatever happened didn’t touch it.”
“How were they a problem?” Lapis asked.
“Moving in on their territory,” he muttered. “It was a stupid disagreement, but Gredy isn’t a negotiator and Bov Caardinva isn’t a suave commander, in any sense. They escalated things because both had to one-up the other.”
“Gredy knew Anquerette was down here?” Should that surprise her?
“Yeah. I thought everyone did, after what happened outside Jiy on Crandleberry.” He rubbed at his face and smoothed his hair back. “A tech battle in the capital outskirts? Hard to miss.”
Crandleberry. Lapis almost winced; the farmers had told her the skyshroud bullies wanted information concerning an Anquerette spy’s location because the new syndicate was a nasty sort. Too bad, she had not remembered that earlier. “Why were they fighting the skyshroud soldiers?”
“The ‘shroud started it.” He waved a hand in dismissal. “Why? I have no idea, but they’re searching for what everyone else up here from Jiy is searching for—aquatheerdaal.”
“Because of the shortage.” Cassa blew her breath through her teeth and she pressed her nose to the screen. She tapped against the surface. “Can you get a closer look at that?”
“Sure.” The image swiveled and focused on the spot.
“What is that?” she asked. As far as Lapis could tell, it was a lump of black.
“It looks like a melted launcher. But it’s not large enough to destroy Central One like this. The mercs would need several.”
“And whoever used it would still be alive,” Linz said. “But I don’t see any signs that they are.”
The camera pulled back, and scanned slowly about the cavern. Nothing moved in the thickening smoke rising from growing fires in a myriad of tech vehicles and equipment. A shower of pink liquid over random buildings attempted to rain out the flames, but the split pipes poured most of it into glowing pools, doing no good. The camera focused on a couple of birds; the casings had shattered, wires sparking under the billow of grey clouds. It swiveled to the largest building; the darkness inside prevented them from attaining much information. Did survivors hide inside? Had fighters taken cover there, living through whatever destroyed the encampment?
“There are no khentauree,” Sanna said abruptly as she halted next to Lapis, her attention on the screens. “Many should be there.”
“And where is Ghost?” Jhor asked, though, by his undertone, he directed it to himself. He brought up several more cameras; a couple showed terrified people hiding in rooms filled with tech, but no Anquerette fighters. Most flashed and displayed static.
“Why are they all down?” Sanna said, troubled. Lapis glanced at the rest of them; even the terrons fit, though barely, between the tables. All eyes focused on the screens.
“I don’t know. I can’t bring the ones in the hallways or the labs up, so I’m betting Ghost went that way.”
“Yes,” she said. Despite the even tone, Lapis detected sadness. “He would see them as evil. He would destroy them.”
“I wonder if he’s following the markweza,” Jhor muttered. “There aren’t that many places to hide in the center proper, and I don’t see any of his personal guard uniforms among the fallen. They may have gone to the labs.”
“He likes the springs,” Sanna said.
“True. He might well think above ground is safer.” Jhor leaned back and tapped at a few keys, and the screens changed, mostly to reveal more static. “Do you think Ghost can get past the double doors at the labs?”
“Yes. He could before, but he did not want to enter such places. I retrieved what he needed from them. Chiddle retrieved what he needed from them.”
Jhor ran a hand over his mouth, then brought up a screen with a bunch of words and symbols differentiating them. Linz watched, fascinated, as the camera images flickered and showed another cavern. It contained the sagging ruin of cranes and boxcars and carts and numerous other rusting items Lapis had no name for. To one side, in front of a wide, well-lit tunnel, stood men in black—the mercs?—confronting another group, the men in dull blue and dark green uniforms protecting a middle-aged man in a dusty black suit, chest puffed out, waving his hand about in agitation.
Gredy burst forward and pointed imperiously at the man, so her initial assumption proved correct. His face glowed so red, she did not have to imagine the temper behind it.
“I know him!” Cassa said suddenly, tapping at the suit. “He’s that royal neck-deep in the aquatheerdaal mine scandal.”
Jhor laughed without humor. “Yeah. I looked it up because I had a hard time believing a Meergevenis markweza traveled to Theyndora for the weather. His family’s waiting for the scandal to die down, and told him to scram until it did.”
“What mine scandal?” Lapis asked.
“It happened around the time Tovi and I moved here,” Cassa said. “Some high-ranking government officials bought up depleted aquatheerdaal mines, and scrounge around for more to harvest. They used some nasty chemicals to discover more, and poisoned several communities. Meergevenis turned a blind eye to it because of the wealth of those backing it, but he,” and she pointed at the blustery man, “delved into mines in other countries. The rest of Siindernorth isn’t as enamored of Gevi royals, and he was arrested in Tovachten for murder. His family had to make some concessions for his return without a trial, and what they supposedly gave up pissed off elected officials. I didn’t pay much attention. The government is pretty corrupt, and this just seemed like more of it.”
“He is sloppy shit,” Sanna told her. “He raised the khentauree. He gave some of us as gifts to the mercs, he said they were peace offerings. We are not owned by him. We are not his to give.”
Lapis appreciated that she did not hold back her opinions or her interesting word choices. “So why did you hook up with him?”
“I didn’t.” Jhor sighed and rubbed at his eyes. “I came here to study ancient khentauree, looking for ways to improve mods by exploring tech with a biological underpinning. I met Sanna, Ghost, Chiddle, some of those still active. I worked within their rules. Five years later, Markweza Eldekaarsen came, dragging all this,” and he flipped a hand at the screens, “behind him. His people realized I was here, and conscripted me to help them.”
“They said they would ram their weapons up your ass if you did not comply,” Sanna corrected.
He cast her a dirty look as he continued. “You see, it’s not the aquatheerdaal he’s interested in, but ancient khentauree, and not for medical purposes. He wants to build an army of them, and his research into the topic led him to the mines on Siindernorth, then to Ambercaast. The military examples are long gone, and his researchers guessed the only viable remains might be in mines. They don’t much care about morals and ethics in excavating the information they want. What they’ve done to the khentauree . . .”
“But why?” Cassa asked. “With aquatheerdaal underlying the designs, upkeep would be too expensive, even for a markweza. And an army? They would need to develop an alternative energy source, and considering how poorly that research is going throughout the aquatheerdaal-using world . . .”
The scientist said more, but the room faded away for Lapis. She leaned into one of the screens. At the edge of the camera view, khentauree dutifully used picks on the rock they faced, chunks falling down and rolling off the mound at the bottom. The mechanical beings did not seem to care about the piles, or that, perhaps, they should move the debris. They stood within the tumble of stone, chipping away at the wall—but their heads focused on Rin and Tovi.
They were alive. Bruised, but alive. Lapis clamped down on the rush of relief. Alive did not mean rescued, and she had much to do to reach them.
Rin picked at the irons about their legs—what in the non-existent gods? Irons? What kind of barbarians put irons on teens? He did so quietly enough, the merc with a tech weapon slung over his shoulder, who stood in front of them but remained intent on the altercation, did not realize his act.
She peeked at Gredy and the markweza, who had left their respective safe spaces behind and spit screams into each other’s faces. She counted over a dozen mercs scattered through the room, who paid more attention to the distraction than the khentauree working near them. Good. They would take long enough to react, and Rin and Tovi would successfully flee.
After the irons fell, Rin grabbed a couple of the rocks from the nearest pile—useful weapons in his hands—and he and Tovi crept away from their captor.
The khentauree turned their heads with their flight, though they continued to strike at the wall with the picks.
“Oh, no,” Cassa breathed. Lapis glanced at her; they caught her attention, too.
Jhor leaned forward, squinting. “What are their names again?” he asked.
“Rin and Tovi,” Lapis said, eyeing him suspiciously.
“I will tell them,” Sanna said. She bowed her head, her arms relaxing. The khentauree heads looked up, at the camera, then to the sneaking teens. One reached out to Rin, touched his arm, and pointed at something away from them, and not visible in the camera view. Lapis decided a quick conversation had occurred before Rin glanced at the distracted merc.
As one, the khentauree pivoted on their hind legs, picks raised, intent on the man as Rin and Tovi rushed off-camera. The rest of the mechanical beings in the cavern mimicked the act.
The view followed the younger two—not quickly enough to block the sight of the machines burying their picks into their captors.
“Sanna,” Jhor warned sharply.
“They want silence. Let the mercs silence them. It does not matter, who does it, only that it is done.” She raised her head, a fast jerk, and observed the fleeing teens. They scrambled into a dark shaft; dark meant no light, which meant no camera pictures from hovering birds.
Jhor looked at the khentauree.
“What?” Sanna asked.
“Where else should they go? The pool is safe.”
“Eldekaarsen excavated it looking for bodies, and the Jiy people know aquatheerdaal’s there. It’s not a safe haven.”
“It is Ghost’s territory.”
“And what will he do with the kids?”
Lapis froze. No. She sent them to Ghost?
“Nothing. They are children. He will not harm children.”
“Sanna, you can’t be sure of that.” Jhor surged to his feet, pulling the shirt over his head.
Damn, he had a fine physique. Lapis did not feel so out-of-place when she realized that Cassa and Linz also appreciated the view. The grim situation deserved a more serious response than her drooling, but a nice-looking man with nice-looking muscles made for a good distraction in dire circumstances.
He dropped the cloth on the floor and snagged another item from a pile of clothing haphazardly dumped into a chair and pulled the long-sleeved shirt on, then grabbed a dingy, torn pack from the couch next to it. “We need to get there before he does,” he said. “I’d agree, that before Meergevens touched him, he would have helped them. But we don’t know what they did to him. He isn’t the same.”
“He will not harm them,” Sanna insisted. “It does not matter if he is not the same. I am not the same, but—”
“You asked me to delete their extraneous code in you, and I did,” he reminded her. “Ghost still has it running through him.”
“He will not harm them.”
“Why did you bow to him, if you didn’t think him dangerous?”
“You can get us to the pool?” Tearlach asked, breaking the tenseness that surrounded them, serious enough Lapis’s unease triggered.
“Yeah. There are two ways. Neither is optimal. Anquerette guards the northwest tunnel that runs straight to Caast, and they’re going to be on high alert, especially since they can’t contact Central One. We can use side tunnels to get around the blockades, but it’ll take time. Now, there’s a series of passages the khentauree carved, and they will get us to the pool faster, but the Jiy people have set up in the rooms they intersect, and the mercs are disputing their claim. Some of those places don’t have alternate routes around them, and it will be dangerous to go through them. Sanna, can you contact the merc khentauree?”
She relaxed, then raised her head. “Only the nearest ones. The interference is too strong,” she said.
“The communications interference?” Cassa asked.
“Yeah. Anquerette’s running it from the labs. I’m sure you’ve guessed, they don’t have official permission from Dentheria to be here, so they’re hiding. If the workstation became aware of them, they would contact officials for the empire, and make life a bit hard on the dear markweza. Therefore, interference.” He sighed. “I’m not certain how they’re accomplishing it, either. Communications is outside my area of expertise.”
“They hamper themselves,” Sanna told them. “Sometimes they can talk to their machines. Sometimes they cannot.”
Was that good, or bad, news?
“Is the second route much faster?” Tearlach asked.
“Yes, but I’d advise the first,” Jhor said. “It’ll be easier for the terrons, and the bypasses are simpler to navigate.”
Vali rumbled and signed.
“The tunnels are smaller,” Sanna said. “Terrons cannot easily fit. We would need to go through the camps, to go around. The camps are afraid of khentauree. Anquerette tried to use us to fight them. Most said no, but some attacked.” Her head bowed. “We who disobeyed are in the room.”
Enraged disgust grew in Lapis. The Meergevens purposefully left the machines in that state in revenge.
“Jhor helps,” she said. “Jhor knows what khentauree wish. He respects that wish.”
“And will you go to silence, once you’ve sent the others?” Lapis asked.
“Jhor. It is nice, to not have silence with him.”
That was an odd thing to mention, for a machine.
“And before you say anything, no, I didn’t program that in her,” Jhor said. “The machines Gedaavik coded don’t behave as you might expect a machine to behave.”
“We are all machines,” Sanna said.
“Not typical ones.”
“But we are machines.”
“You are machines, but you are more.”
“Ghost is more.”
“So are you and Chiddle and Amu and Reeds. How many other khentauree have names?”
“You say N351NP is not a name, but it is a name.”
“It’s a designation.”
“A designation is still a name.”
Lapis glanced at the others; Linz met her eye, a wide smile on their face. How true, Sanna did not behave as she might expect a mechanical being to act. Old tales from long before the Dentherion invasion spoke of machines, but they had no mind, and simply did as their creator told them. Sometimes the writers had them misunderstand the commands, but they still performed them. She had the feeling, Sanna did not do what Sanna did not want to do.
Jhor flumped back into the chair, annoyed. “We’ll discuss it later,” he muttered. He likely lost those arguments often—and that he continued them meant he enjoyed them, at some level. She did not know if khentauree experienced happiness or not, though Sanna seemed to understand the concepts, at least.
“They come,” Sanna said.
Jhor glanced at her and brought up a screen of the khentauree room.
People bustled through, lights whipping about as those holding them ran. They reflected off the machines, the silver bright enough to blind.
“We need to go,” Tearlach said.
“We do,” Jhor agreed. “That group is taking the way to the Caast tunnel. They need to clear out before we leave.”
“The way to the khentauree tunnels are here,” Sanna said. “We can take them.”
“Are you going to oil it so the terrons can fit?” he asked drily.
All eyes turned to Lapis.
“The quicker we get to the pool, the quicker we get to Rin and Tovi. We can split. If one group encounters problems, the others can make up for it.”
“Lanth,” Tearlach began, then gritted his teeth.
“We should go, before the black-clad ones and Anquerette follow the children,” Sanna said. “I and Lanth will go.”
“So will I,” Linz declared, determined.
“We’ll split,” Brander said. “I’ll go with Lanth, Linz and Sanna. With two groups, one of us should make the pool before Anquerette, the mercs or Hoyt’s people figure out Rin and Tovi are there.”
“The pool has a trail that leads above ground,” Jhor said. “There shouldn’t be anyone else using it. We should meet there, if we split.”
“What about Ghost?” Cassa asked.
“We’ll deal with him, if we see him,” Jhor said.
Sanna pivoted and gracefully glided to a table, then shoved it out of the way. The items on top toppled, some crashing to the ground. Glass shattered and blue liquid splattered the tiled floor.
“Sanna,” he sighed.
She pressed into the wall; a small round part popped out and swung open. Lapis did not think the khentauree would fit, but she bent down, her knees pointing out at an odd angle, like a crab, and flattened her body and torso horizontally. She scurried inside and disappeared into darkness.
Jhor pressed his lips together and touched Lapis’s arm. “If you meet with Ghost, get Sanna away from him. She still sees him as leader and friend—but I’m not certain he reciprocates anymore.”
“She didn’t look like she thought of him as a friend,” she said.
“She is as complicated and contradictory as any human,” he replied.
Lapis nodded, then, on impulse, hugged an extremely unhappy Tearlach. “Stay safe,” she whispered before scampering into the tunnel.