Rashari lay sprawled against the wall, his long legs stretched out in front of him, chin lolling against his chest. Fantel blinked down at him. This was not helpful. Tucked under her right arm Smith quivered a little. “Blup?” He sounded plaintive. The light from his weakened eyebeam fell on Rashari’s inert form like a mournful shroud. Fantel sighed and crouched down on the cold ground in front of the fallen human, carefully setting Smith down. Her body ached and she could feel fresh bruises blossoming under her skin. Chimeri were resilient but she was fast reaching her limits. The inside of her coat sleeve was slick with cold, sticky fluid. Rolling up the fabric she saw that the fresh bandages she had applied to the cut on her arm before their visit to LePortail were now saturated with blood. At some point during the night’s activities the cut had torn open anew. Fatigue clawed at the edges of her reason, dragging at her thoughts. The bright lights above stung her dry, tired eyes. It felt like an age since she had slept, when in reality it had been some ten hours ago. She supposed it was no small wonder that Rashari had collapsed. In the last few days he had been shot, beaten, drugged and survived crash landing an air-ship.
“Rashari,” She reached out to shake his shoulder gently. His body was completely limp. His mouth had fallen into a soft, relaxed line. He looked disarmingly young, and far more innocent when insensate than he had ever managed while awake. Fantel huffed in annoyance and snagged his lolling chin between her thumb and first finger, lifting his head. His skin was clammy under her fingers, his eye sockets shadowed by purple-black shadows. Blood, dark and gritty, had dried in runnels down the left side of his face. She used her free hand to rap him lightly across the cheek. “Wake up, human.”
“Ugn,” He twitched, eyes screwing more tightly closed. He turned his face away, but Fantel pulled his chin around. “Wake up.” She said again, in a clear firm voice, tapping his right cheek with her blunted claws. He blinked his eyes open, infinitesimally, and lifted a somnambulant hand up toward where she clasped his chin, clumsy fingers tangling with her own as he tried, ineffectually, to bat her hand away. Fantel took his hand in hers and squeezed it just hard enough to get his attention. “You must get up Rashari. We are not safe here.”
Finally he opened his eyes fully. They were reassuringly the same very dark shade of brown Fantel was familiar with and no hint of deathly blue light lit his pupils. He blinked a few times, gaze flicking to where their hands were joined before rising slowly to meet her eyes. “What happened?” He asked, swallowing painfully around a dry throat.
“You collapsed.” She told him arching an eyebrow. “You were telling me how well your plan had worked when you saw fit to pass out on the floor.”
“Oh.” He blinked once and then twice. “That...may not have been part of my plan.”
“I should hope not.”
He made an effort to push himself up but froze, breath catching in pain, before he had done more than twitch his limbs. He blanched white as watered milk and his eyes widened, his body going rigid before he slumped back against the wall with a stifled groan. Fantel reached for him, catching him by the shoulders.
“What is it? Where are you hurt?” It was a foolish question, as she was sure the answer for him, as for her, would be everywhere.
He looked up at her, expression eloquent. “Too much; It’s...I used it too much.” He sucked in a sharp breath. “I don’t think I can stand.” Movements awkward, as if he was struggling to command the use of his own limbs, Rashari pulled his right hand free of her grip so he could clasp his left wrist. He tucked his hands into his lap and hunched his shoulders. His body language was defensive.
Fantel caught his left wrist and pushed his fingers down so she could see into his palm. The piece of shattered scion stone embedded in his flesh was now a pale, glittering green colour. The skin of his palm riddled with metal filaments and mutilated as it was, appeared very white and almost waxy. “You have used up all the power you stole from Tomah and his men.” She guessed.
He shook his head roughly, skull rolling against the wall at his back. “I used that up pulling Smith back together.” He said shortly. “I can convert energy but I can’t store it,” He bit his lip. “I’ve used up all my energy.” He said, emphatically. “I’ve been trading on the scorpion’s power.” He sighed, not looking at her. “The scorpion needs me alive - well, my body anyway –so sometimes the bastard will help me out – but it always costs me in the end.”
“What does that mean,” Fantel demanded. She did not profess to fully understand the relationship between Rashari and the scorpion but she did not relish the idea of Rashari losing control to the scorpion right now. “Are you in danger?” She asked, but what she meant was am I?
“No, if all it took for me to lose control was a little chronic fatigue we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.” He shifted a little against the wall, still not able to stand. “I honestly thought I’d have enough power to animate these drones.” He glanced up at her and lifted his right hand from his lap just enough to gesture limply toward the silent automatons in the room around them. “I had planned to use them as a distraction while we escaped. There’s got to be three hundred of the buggers in here; more than enough to get us out of the city.”
Fantel glanced over her shoulder to look at the serried rows of automatons hanging from the ceiling or locked up inside metal lockers. She had to admit having a battalion of security drones on their side would certainly improve their odds of making it out of here alive. “Is there no way to use the drones without your power?” She asked him. “How do the Aramite guard control them? Can you not use your technomancy to circumvent their controls without first stealing energy?”
“I could if I could stand up.” Rashari nodded. “I was able to fry the external security systems, locking us in here and the guard out there. We have perhaps fifteen minutes at the most before they figure out how to break in, but even if I could get my legs to work that is not enough time to get around even half these drones to manually override their core processors.”
“Smith...” Fantel began. Smith had co-opted the three security drones at the Fourth gate earlier this very day.
“Has no more energy to spare than I,” Rashari shook his head cutting her off. “And we still have to find the Heart.” He frowned, thinking. “This is the main storage unit for all the drones working the fourth circle. The maintenance bay should be close by – probably connected to this building. The engineers need to be able to remote control all the drones so they can order them back in for maintenance or reset their core commands. If I could find the maintenance area I might be able to hack the system that way.”
“To find this maintenance area you still need to be able to move,” Fantel pointed out, “which you cannot at present.”
“Quite,” Rashari growled a touch acerbically, but as it was his own overzealousness that had landed him in this position to begin with Fantel had little patience for his pique.
“Very well,” she said briskly rising to the feet and tucking Smith under her arm once more. “I will take Smith and search out the Heart. You concentrate on becoming ambulatory once more.” She gave him a stern look. “I would not ordinarily counsel a human as foolish as you to run before he can walk, but under the circumstances...”
“Very drool, Madame Chimera.” A tiny smile twitched Rashari’s lips. “I’m glad my misfortune amuses you.”
“Amusement is not quite how I would describe it,” she shot back before turning from him to walk deeper into the chamber. Five minutes later Fantel was very much not amused. The air inside the storage unit contained an odd chill that was not present outside and the sound of her boots clanking over the metal walkway seemed inordinately loud. Fantel could not communicate with Smith as Rashari did and so she had to intuit his meaning from every quiver or mechanised burble of sound. Smith seemed to want her to travel deeper toward the back of the long room. Overhead inert automatons hung like anvils and every passing second increased her anxiety.
To the Chimeri all automatons were abominations. They were a physical demonstration of humanity’s blasphemy against Mother Aldlis. The strange admixture of magic and technology that gave automatons their “life” was in direct opposition to the fundamental principle that the Chimeri lived by: that only Mother Aldlis could grant sentience and true life. Fantel had been disturbed at first to discover that Smith was not just alive to the limited degree that a normal automaton lived but instead truly alive as she herself was alive, but that feeling had soon faded. She wasn’t quite sure where her acceptance came from, precisely, except that she had not forgotten that Smith had come to her aid several times in their brief acquaintance and Fantel was in no position to cling to prejudice given those circumstances.
“Bloop.” Smith quivered under her arm and Fantel stopped. She had reached the back of the chamber. There was a door set into the wall at the end of the walkway. Smith’s eyebeam was focused on the door. Fantel frowned, glancing back the way she had come. The storage unit was quiet. If Rashari was mobile he was making impressively little sound. Fantel approached the door. There was no handle set into the metal but there was a large green button protruding from the wall next to the door; the mechanism did not appear to be alarmed. After a moment’s hesitation Fantel pressed the button. There was an audible click and the door opened when she pushed it. The light from Smith’s eyebeam illuminated a small room, no larger really than a walk-in closet. A metal workbench filled most of the space and metal bracketed cubby-holes lined the walls. Automaton parts filled the cubbies and gleaming metal tools, the names and purpose of which Fantel could only guess at, hung from hooks above the workstation. Fantel slipped inside, letting the door shut behind only after she had located the door release switch on the inside wall.
‘Bloop.” Smith buzzed under her arm again and his eyebeam seemed to fix on a small square hole cut into the back wall. Fantel thought at first the hole was some sort of air vent until she realised it had no cover. The hole and the shadowed connecting passage through the wall must be used by the automatons as a means of travelling in and out of this room from inside the Fourth Wall. There were probably other such passageways opening out into the storage unit as well. The hole and passageway was far too small to be of use as an escape route, however. She was about to ask Smith why he had brought her in here when green light blossomed inside the drone passage.
Fantel hit the floor instantly as an energy beam scythed through the air where she had been standing. The beam hit the wall at her back sending a multitude of unidentifiable automaton parts spilling to the ground in flames. Gobbets of flame dribbled from the smouldering cubbyholes down the wall, licking over the paintwork and racing toward the floor. Fantel rolled Smith under the workbench and jumped swiftly to her feet just as the security drone popped out of the passage into the room. Clearly Rashari’s estimate of fifteen minutes reprieve had been woefully optimistic. The drone swung around in mid-air, green eyebeam scoring over the room. Fantel ducked another energy bolt, wedging herself in between the workbench and a metal filing cabinet. The automaton made a whirring-clicking noise as it powered up for another shot at her. The room was beginning to fill with smoke and the hot, stinging reek of burning metal. Fantel reached up blindly behind her for one of the tools hanging from the wall. Her hand closed around the handle of a long cylindrical tool that looked a screwdriver, except the end did not taper into a point but instead had an opening, as if to allow liquid, perhaps machine oil, to run through it. There was a slide-switch at the opposite end near the handle. Fantel flicked the switch with her thumb and almost dropped the tool when a current of electricity danced along the length and arced out of the end. She recognised then what she had found; this tool was similar to the one Tomah had used on Smith to incapacitate him.
Fantel lunged, angling her body forward following the line of her outstretched arm. She struck at the security drone just as it came level with the gap between the workbench and the cabinet. White light sparked as she thrust the tip of the tool into the drone’s eyebeam. Her entire arm went numb, the shock of the charge rebounding back through the length of her forearm. She dropped the tool, numb fingers unable to keep hold. The automaton made a noise, disturbingly akin to a cry of pain, and crashed to the ground, eyebeam blinking erratically. Fantel stared down at it for a moment and then she seized the tool in her good hand and sent another biting electrical charge through the automaton, gritting her teeth against the pain. She didn’t stop until the light of the drone’s eyebeam went dark.
Outside she could hear the high whirring bleeps and wails of more automatons. Fumbling with stinging, aching fingers Fantel retrieved Smith from under the workbench and lurched to her feet. She kicked the downed security drone out of the way with her foot and reached for the door release switch.
“Bloop, bloop, blooop,” Smith burbled urgently, vibrating under her arm with enough energy she almost dropped him. His eyebeam was focused on the pile of metal pieces and indeterminate odds and ends lying on the floor near the destroyed cubbyholes. The Heart of Anoush lay nestled in the middle of the detritus, hidden under the loose length of a fan belt and surrounded by shiny ball bearings. Fantel seized the Heart, the smooth glassy surface feeling just ever so slightly warm against her palm. She shoved the accursed stone into one of the interior pockets of her coat and dashed out of the door.