The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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The secret life of Automata

Twilight in Aramantine was a hot and sticky affair. The air was damp and cloying and steam rose from the piles of rubbish in the gutters. They had spent the day napping and the early evening washing and re-dressing their various wounds before Aeneas had returned, firmly in his Andras guise, and passed over two passes to the fourth circle under cover of wishing them the blessings of Dalmund. He also handed over a large, floppy brimmed hat and heavy pair of gloves to Fantel. The disguise, such as it was, did little to actually help her blend in and only really added to her sense of discomfort. The amused sideways glances Rashari kept throwing her way every now and then did not help either.

“I am not inconspicuous.” She pointed out as they approached the fourth wall, the stone veined thickly with bright green.

“No you are not,” Rashari agreed easily. “But you don’t look like a Chimera either.” His lips twitched. “You look like a scarecrow.” Fantel shot him a decidedly less than amused look under the brim of her hat.

Two Aramantine city guards, dressed in tan coloured uniforms, manned the gate. More guards patrolled the top of the wall, marching up and down the battlements with rifles shouldered. Beyond the wall lay the fourth circle, the first of the exclusively human districts. Over the top of the crenulated battlements Fantel could just make out the bright lights of blocky towers. Dozens of brightly lit windows, winking rainbow phantom lights, glittered in the gloom. Power cables ran like a network of tightropes between buildings. The highest buildings were adored with leering faces, fang-toothed grimaces warning unwelcome visitors away.

“Would you prefer to stay here and avoid the checkpoint altogether,” Rashari asked.

“No.” Fantel ducked her head, tucking her chin into the upturned collar of her coat. She hung back a step as Rashari showed their papers to one of the guards. She kept her eyes on the ground but felt the guard’s interested gaze on her. The guard murmured something to Rashari, who said a few brief words back. Fantel half expected him to reach into the satchel for another bribe, but he didn’t and after an interminable few minutes the guard handed back their papers and sent the order through his radio to let them through. Fantel held her breath as they passed under the gate. There was a space between the first gate and the second, which remained closed. Fantel rolled her shoulders and tried not to appear unduly nervous. A trio of automatons swooped down from a hole in the wall. Their green sensor beams bright as phosphor torches in the gloom.

“Whiiiiirrrrrrr.” The first of the automatons veered to the far right, bright green eyebeam twisting in a figure of eight pattern as it tracked over them head to foot.

“Bleeeee.” The second automaton swept to the left and slightly behind them, scanning them as well.

“Bloooop.” Smith did not look anything like the security drones but evidently no one else seemed to have noticed.

Whhhhiiiiiii – irrrrrrrr.” The first automaton zoomed in on Fantel. She tensed. “Whir, whir, whirrrr.” Its eyebeam swirled up and down her whole body, spinning angrily. The second automaton lost interest in Rashari and zipped over to join the first.

“Bloop.” Smith buzzed over to the two security automatons, drifting into place between Fantel and the scanning beams. “Blooop.” Smith’s eyebeam flashed deep purple, so bright Fantel turned her face away. Purple light washed over the small space, painting the walls and the carapaces of the two drones. “Bloop. Bloop. Bloop.” Smith intoned very firmly, almost as if he was arguing a point with the drones. The sensor beams on both security automatons seemed to blink on and off, almost too quickly to catch.

“Whiiiirrrrr?” The first automaton wobbled in the air, canting to the right before correcting its orbit.

“Bleeeee?” The second automaton rotated a full turn while hovering on the spot. Fantel could swear both seemed drunk.

“Bloop.” The drones juddered in the air for a second and then zoomed up to each corner of the ceiling and the control panels mounted there. There were two simultaneous flashes of green light and the gate started to lift. Rashari and Fantel walked through. Smith stayed behind. Fantel shot Rashari a questioning look under her hat.

He shrugged infinitesimally. “It would look suspicious if he followed us. He’ll slip away when the coast is clear.”

“What did he do to those drones?”

Rashari smiled slightly. “Smith can be very persuasive.”

“That is not an explanation.”

Rashari shot her an aggrieved look. “Smith is not a normal automaton, as you know. He can exert a form of temporary control on another automaton’s basic control functions.”

“Control functions?”

“Automatons are built to serve a purpose. Security drones like the ones at the gate are designed to guard the gate and make sure no non-humans gain entry to the inner circles. However their purpose is also to open the gate. The more sophisticated the automaton the more autonomy they can exert upon how they fulfil their primary function. Smith simply persuaded the two security drones that opening the gate was a higher priority than completing the scan on you.”

Fantel stopped in the middle of the gas-lit street. “How?”

Rashari shrugged, glancing incuriously up and down the dark street. “Humans believe that keeping non-humans out should be a security drone’s first priority. That doesn’t mean the drones agree. It just so happens that those two we met at the gate are friendly chaps. They like opening the gate and letting people through, and today has apparently been a slow day. It didn’t take much to persuade them to let you go, especially if it meant they could open the gate.”

“They like opening the gate?” Fantel was, to the say the least, highly sceptical.

“It’s not that strange, y’know.” Rashari protested. “There is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s vocation in life.” He studied her curiously. “Surely there is something you enjoy doing Madame Chimera; something to give life meaning?”

Fantel felt her face fall into flat lines. “No.” She started off down the street. She dreaded any questions, and was certain Rashari would seize upon her awkwardness to pry. Yet to her surprise he said nothing. They walked through dark cobbled streets under dancing gas lamps, in silence.

“We’re looking for an old building with red painted boards over the windows.” Rashari told her after they wound their way through a serpentine knot of tangled alleyways. The houses here were squat two storey buildings with slanted roofs and black-green shingles. The stubby chimney stacks and rickety guttering combined with the homely quality of the houses might have given the fourth circle a quaint and almost picturesque quality in any other city. The shadow of the looming tower blocks rising like a thicket of knives close to the third circle wall, and the grime blackening the surrounding buildings, spoiled the illusion. Many of the houses had barred grates over windows and heavy dark shutters; every property looked as if it had been boarded up against an invasion. The streets were empty and silent except for the occasional skitter-squeak of a scurrying rat. Fantel scanned the street up and down for the building Rashari had described.

“Over there, at the end of that alley,” she pointed out a ramshackle building that looked close to collapse. The roof sagged alarmingly in the middle. The chimney stack had fallen in and a thick carpet of moss covered the shingle. The windows were boarded over with red wooden boards and more boards had been hammered over the front door. The building looked derelict.

“Typical,” Rashari scoffed. “He’d be less bloody obvious if he bought himself a pent house on top of one of the First Circle towers.” He strode down the dead end alley to the red-boarded house. Fantel drifted after him, curious to see what happened next. The old house had a small patch of what once had been a garden out the front, suggesting that the house predated the alley and had once been a rather nice little cottage. The dilapidated remnant of a chicken coop caught her eye as she and Rashari picked their way through a forest of briar and nettle bushes until they reached the front of the house. Rashari ignored the front door and started pacing around the side of the house until he came to the swing doors of a root cellar. He stamped on the doors with his booted foot, scowling.

After several minutes of irate stamping, during which time Fantel thought he might put his foot through the doors they bucked open and the muzzle of a gun poked out “Oi, quit it. You want to wake the whole street?” An annoyed female voice issued from behind the cracked open doors and the handgun swivelled around until it was pointed upward straight at Rashari. Ignoring the gun completely Rashari dropped into a squat in front of the cellar doors and wrenched them open, absently swatting the gun out of the girl’s hand.

“Hey!” The girl yelped. In the gloom the girl’s face was almost invisible, the wet gleam of the whites of her eyes just visible in the moon glow. Fantel came closer as Rashari reached down into the hole and started to pull the girl out.

“Yvette. What a surprise.” He said sounding anything but surprised.

The girl, now perched on the edge of the hole with her legs dangling into the darkness, reached out to brush back her fat plaited pig-tails as she scowled at Rashari. Her skin was very dark, making the whites of her wide eyes very white in contrast. She was all of fifteen years old. “That was rude.” She said jerking her skinny arm out of Rashari’s grasp. She had a soft messonyan accent which granted the Imperial tongue she spoke a pleasant lyrical twang.

“So was pointing a gun at a visitor.” Rashari pointed out, unrepentant, but he did hand the gun back.

“Hmph,” Yvette tucked the gun into a custom holster under her left arm with every sign of long practice. “You’re not a visitor. You’re trouble.” She flashed white teeth in a big, pleased grin. “The Old Man said I could shoot you in the knees if you tried any funny business.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Rashari murmured drily. “But somehow I think what he really wants is for you to bring my partner and I to the meeting place – which will be considerably easier if my knees stay intact.”

The girl flashed another broad grin. “You know I can do it.” She said proudly. “I knew it was you earlier so I wasn’t really trying – but I could shoot you dead before you could get the gun off me, if I was really trying. You know I could.”

“Believe me, Yvette, I’m very well aware of how good a shot you are. I was there in Galivese. What was your final tally in the end? Three dead Dushku Salakands and a crate full of monkeys?”

“Four,” Yvette tilted her chin proudly. “The fourth one got crushed under the monkey crate when I shot out the support struts.”

“Hmm,” Rashari nodded, while Fantel eyed the human girl warily. “So you came here with Aeneas then; interesting.”

“No it’s not. It’s boring.” Yvette retorted. “I miss our ship. I miss when we used to go on raids. Now it’s just waiting; waiting; waiting.”

“This girl is a raider?” Fantel demanded. She wasn’t sure why she was shocked exactly. All the raiders she’d met so far were decidedly odd. This bloody thirsty child was, not, in an objective sense anymore peculiar than Rashari himself.

Rashari turned back to her and inclined his head. “Ahh, forgive my rudeness. Madame Chimera, allow me to introduce you to Yvette, Aeneas’ first mate, right hand girl, and partner in crime. Yvette this is Madame Chimera. She has kindly agreed to complete an errand with me.” Rashari paused, a slanted smile curving his lips as he glanced back at Yvette. “I saw her slice open a man’s throat with her claws and bite a hole in the neck of a Dha-hali.”

“Cor,” Yvette’s eyes widened excitedly and she looked at Fantel with every indication that she was impressed. “You have claws? Can I see?”

Fantel arched an eyebrow at Rashari, who grinned, bright and sudden. “Go on show her.”

“Yeah, go on. Show me.” Yvette bounced a little where she sat, her legs swinging and hitting something metal down in the gloom of the cellar.

Casting an askance look Rashari’s way Fantel tugged off her left glove, held up her hand and let her claws extend. “Cor-blimey,” Yvette scrambled up and over to Fantel. “I bet you can cut through anything with them.” She breathed dreamily.

“They serve me well enough.” Fantel stared down at the girl in bemusement.

“Ahem,” Rashari cleared his throat politely. “Shouldn’t you be leading us to the meeting place?” He asked Yvette, who still seemed mesmerised by Fantel’s claws.

“I s’pose so,” she scurried back to the hatch. “We’ve got to go through the cellar. We built a tunnel from this dump right through to the real hideout; nifty, huh?” She swung her body down into the hole and started down the rung ladder.

“Nifty is not the word I’d use,” Rashari muttered waiting until Yvette had disappeared from view before he started down the ladder after her. Fantel, wondering what she had gotten herself into, started to clamber down after him.

The root cellar was as Fantel expected, a roughly square cavity carved out of the ground with a packed dirt floor. Boxes had been stacked against the walls and a single phantasma lantern hung from a loop of rope attached to the ceiling at just the right height for Yvette to reach up with a hooked pole and detach it. Rashari drifted over to investigate the boxes. “Dushku pressed parchment? Tabrian gilt edged velum?” He turned to Yvette with a knowing look. “The Old Man planning to do some printing, is he?”

Yvette scowled, her bottom lip sticking out in pout. “It’s this way.” She pulled a piece of ply wood away from a four foot hole burrowed out of the wall and slipped into the tunnel beyond. “Hurry up. If you’re slow I’ll leave you behind and the rats will eat your face.”

Rashari sighed and eyed the tunnel in distaste. “This is going to be hell on my shoulder.” He crawled into the tunnel. After a moment Fantel followed; the thick heavy scent of loam and soil filling her senses like a pleasant memory.

The tunnel was narrow and her shoulders brushed the sides for the first several feet, but after about fifty feet the burrow spilled out into a properly excavated tunnel with support struts and reinforced walls. The tunnel opened up into a wide network of separate shafts all going in different directions. Fantel hadn’t known there were any mines in Aramantine. She looked around her curiously and noticed that Rashari was doing the same.

“This is part of the Aramantine emergency tunnel network.” He frowned at Yvette. “The underground is supposed to be Aramantine’s last line of defence during an invasion. It should be crawling with Aramite guardsmen. How did the Old Man manage to hack into the network without anyone knowing?”

“Dunno,” Yvette shrugged, clearly uninterested in the answer. She started off toward the right hand shaft. “We’ve been using these tunnels for ages. No one else comes down here.” The light from her lantern bounced over the carved walls; rainbow shadows raced ahead of her around a bend in the tunnel. Fantel glanced at Rashari. He was frowning as he looked around at the various shafts. “This is big.” He murmured to her. “The amount of money in bribes needed to arrange all this boggles the mind. The Old Man must be planning something huge.” He shook his head, a fleeting look of concern crossing his face.

“What is it?” Fantel demanded. What more could go wrong?

He met her eyes. “You remember I told you LePortail dealt in information; secrets?” Fantel nodded. “Well, he doesn’t just trade in secrets. He keeps them as well. This – bringing us through here to meet him – is him revealing a secret I can’t imagine he reveals to just anyone. So either LePortail expects me to pay him back in kind or…” Rashari stopped, lips pursing into a thin line.

“Or?” Fantel prompted when he said nothing more.

Or” Rashari dragged out the single syllable, “he’s not worried we’ll reveal his secret because he’s not planning on letting either of us leave alive.”

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