Steel And Stone
The locals gave Sari's group directions to the Wishing Stone, and even at night, in unfamiliar territory, Nevin's huntcraft was able to guide them right to it. It was obvious once they drew near, a fifteen-foot obelisk thrust into the sky out of the plain. Mercier lit a lantern, so they could better examine it.
"Could this be what Lune is after?" Marella wondered dubiously. Each side was marked with runelike designs, abstract patterns which distracted the eye. The central design of each pattern was identical, though: an eight-spoked wheel with an indentation in the hub. Mercier brushed his fingers against the carving.
"Doesn't remind you of Orakio's symbol?" he asked. Thinking of the sunburst design on the gates of Landen's castle, Sari had to agree.
"It could just be folk art, or some kind of shrine," the nobleman continued, "but it might not--and if it truly does date to Orakio's time..."
"Then it might be something important--a weapon perhaps!" Nevin said excitedly.
"It would also explain another mystery," Sari said. "If this dates back to the Devastation War, and Lune really is the one of legend, Laya's steel fist, then his knowledge could date back to that time. This could be some legacy from Orakio which we've since forgotten but Lune did not. He ordered the attacks on Dressos to capture or destroy this relic before we had the chance to discover it and bring it into play." She frowned sourly and added, "Presuming that this isn't just a pretty piece of rock carved a couple of centuries ago by the locals."
"Would the ancients have worked in stone, though?" Nevin wondered. "I'd have expected it to be cold steel and crackling electricity, like a cyborg."
"The gates of Satera and Landen's castles look like stone," Sari pointed out, "but it's only a facade--and the cave passage to Aquatica was sealed behind a stone wall until Rhys unlocked it with the Sapphire." Her gut twisted with the thought of the traitor, and she forced her mind back on the subject at hand. Wishing the past had been different wouldn't change it.
"It's too bad Lira isn't here; she might have been able to tell."
"Wait a minute, Marella. I'd like to try something."
It was thinking about the Landen-Aquatica passage and the Sapphire that had given rise to the idea. Lune's agent had tried to steal the Power Topaz, just as Lune's army had tried to conquer this location, so perhaps there was a connection. Sari plucked the stone from her buckle and pressed it into place in the indentation on the side nearest her. The stone was a perfect fit.
At once, the stone began to glow, a brilliant golden light shining forth from deep within. The carved symbols began to glow with an emerald-green light and a deep rumbling came from the hillside beneath their feet.
A large square block of the greensward suddenly seemed to withdraw into the ground, then split apart, each half sliding aside to reveal a yawning portal with stairs descending into the hillside. Sari retrieved the Power Topaz from the obelisk, half-expecting the door to close again, but it remained open.
"We have our answer," Mercier noted.
"Let's go," the queen said. "Be on your guard; we don't know what may be lurking in there."
Mercier extinguished the lantern as they descended into the passage. It wasn't needed; there were what looked like crystal rods set in the corners where the steel walls met the ceiling that cast a greenish-white light throughout the staircase. Next to the door was a handle, a metal bar affixed to a disk by each end. Sari gripped it and turned the disk ninety degrees. With a deep rumbling, the doors shut again. Turning the handle back made the passage open.
"Better to leave it closed," Marella advised. "That way, if there are any more monsters about, they can't follow us in."
"Since we know it will open again for us, you're right," Sari agreed, and shut the portal.
They went down the staircase, descending at least one hundred and fifty feet beneath the surface until they reached the floor. That floor, too, was made of metal, a grill of long, thin bars through which Sari could machinery, endless machinery. After about a hundred feet the passage ended in a metal door, two interlocking plates of steel or something harder. Perhaps they could be locked to seal out intruders, but they slid open as if by magic at Sari's approach. Beyond them was a gigantic chamber, as big as all the rooms in Landen Castle put together. Valves, pipes, and huge tanks ran through it, massive cranes hung from the ceiling, conveyor belts led to and from chambers fixed to the walls, and there seemed to be a second level at least thirty feet above their heads made of some clear, glasslike material.
"By Orakio!" Mercier exclaimed. "Do you realize what this place is, Sari?"
She did. There were ones like it, only on a far, far smaller scale in Landen, Yaata, and Iluk, and had been one in Satera.
"It's a cyborg factory."
"It's huge," the nobleman stated the obvious. "We could easily double or triple our cyborg production rates if we were able to make it work."
"More than that, Ash," Marella chimed in. "The cyborg templates we have are nothing like the ones Orakio is said to have used in his battles. We've lost so much knowledge since then--but maybe here there would be some of those ancient templates. War robots that could stand up to Lune's monsters one-on-one, or better!"
"This place could change the entire course of the war," Nevin said. "Then again, that's why we've been trying so hard to keep you from reaching it."
They spun to face the hunter. He'd lagged back behind the others until he was a good twenty feet away, and in one of his hands he held a glass globe, perhaps four inches in diameter, that seemed to be filled with a churning red smoke. Nevin's usual expression seemed to have dropped away, to be replaced by a sharp, predatory look.
Belatedly, Sari realized something she should have understood in Carin: like cyborgs, Layan monsters needed a human leader to direct them. She'd been assuming that Lune simply ordered the monsters through the mountains to attack, but it couldn't have been that way, else they'd have gone after Rollo when he saw them as "shapes." Someone had had to order them to attack Carin, and now they knew whom.
"You spying little worm," Sari growled through clenched teeth. "You butchered those innocent people."
"Orakian dogs," the spy snapped back. "They knew of this place, therefore they had to die. Unfortunately, you proved able to defend them with...minimal losses, but this can be corrected, once I deal with you and this place."
"You'll 'deal' with us? I'm not surprised that not even Laya's Law means anything to you."
"Don't judge me by your standards, Orakian." He thrust his left hand out, chanting a quick phrase. A bolt of fire exploded from his palm and decimated the Whistlebot which had escaped the attack at Carin. Simultaneously, he hurled the sphere to the floor, where it shattered against the metal grill. The smoke boiled up out of it, swelling to a twisting cloud ten feet in height.
No, Sari realized, not a cloud. There was a face in the smoke, and what looked like misty, long-fingered arms.
"That Secundus should keep your attention," Nevin sneered. He made a quick gesture and his body was limned in sparkling blue lights. When he moved, his reactions seemed somehow faster and the motions themselves swifter. Some kind of technique to aid his escape, Sari assumed as the Layan ran off into the shadows.
There was no time to go after Nevin. Acting on orders no doubt delivered by the Layan's powers, the mist-monster floated towards the Orakians. It raised its long, clawed hands, mouth moving soundlessly, and a whirlwind seemed to explode from the ground, whipping at Sari, Marella, and Mercier with ripping, slashing winds. The Zan effect scoured armor, tore clothing and flesh, while simultaneously drawing oxygen from the air around them, sucking the breath from their lungs. Mercier was tumbled over and Marella knocked to her knees.
Sari managed to get her knives out and take two staggering steps towards the thing before a clawed hand lashed out. The blow was a feeble one, though, and she easily slashed out in response, though she had no idea how a sharp blade could hurt something seemingly made from wind. She was surprised, though; as her blade swept through the red mist she felt something fighting its passage, a kind of cohesive force. Wisps of crimson smoke were pulled out of its form by the knives' passage, vanishing into the air.
"It can be hurt!" Sari told the others. "There's something that keeps it from dissipating"--some Layan technique, no doubt--"and we can attack that."
Marella got to her feet and charged the monster, while the nobleman merely sat up and fired his needler from the ground. The stinging impacts caught it off guard, and the two women tore savagely into it with their blades. The Secundus's face twisted in a soundless scream, and its lips fluttered as once more it called forth Zan.
This attack was different from the first one. The wind whipped out in an arc, its leading edge of air molecules as keen as any sword. Sari didn't know the scientific explanation for what happened, but she felt the wind razor cut her chestplate in two, lightly slicing into the flesh beneath.
Marella wasn't so lucky. The golden-haired knight had been in an attack crouch when the Zan had hit, and the leading edge bit into her neck no more than an inch below her chin. Her head bounced once, then came to rest upright, her eyes staring macabrely at her killer.
Sari didn't see what had happened to Mercier; there was no time to worry about it yet. She pushed off her right foot and lunged, both knives outstretched before her like spearpoints. The blades penetrated full-length into the monster's smoky form; it was too big to be able to dodge easily. Then, she yanked the blades in opposite directions, tearing a huge rent in the Secundus. Red smoke billowed out in great clouds, stinging at Sari's eyes and blocking her vision, but then it cleared, dissolving away into seeming nothingness.
Lord Mercier, Sari saw, was still alive; the windblade had slashed deeply into his arm but caused no serious damage. He gulped down a Monomate, which closed the freely-bleeding wound.
"I can't believe that Nevin was a Layan traitor," he said. "He was part of Landen's army!"
"It wouldn't be too hard," Sari said. "He'd just have to volunteer for the militia once the war broke out. Our mission was made up of volunteers, too, and he had the skills to make sure he'd be accepted."
"What if we hadn't chosen him?"
"I'm sure he'd have found another way to raise trouble, probably following us on his own." She looked up and around at the gigantic chamber. "We've got to catch him before he's able to do permanent damage. I'm not sure our maintenance cyborgs are programmed to repair something on this scale, and there are probably some things, like the central control, which we could never repair--and he knows it. We've got to stop him now."
"We should split up to cover more ground," Mercier told her, "but be careful."
"Yeah; who knows what other nasty little tricks he's got up his sleeves. Yell if you see him."
They took off in opposite directions, footsteps ringing eerily off the grillwork floor. The machinery turned the place into a maze of rooms, pathways, and catwalks, no doubt with an internal logic but not one Sari understood. The only thing in her favor was that Nevin had the same problem. While Lune might have remembered the location of this place from a thousand years ago, he could hardly have known the interior layout, so he would not have been able to give that information to his lackey.
He can't just randomly smash stuff, either, because it would lead us right to him, she reasoned. He has to wait until he finds something critical, like the main control room. Sari stopped running and tried to think. If she could beat Nevin to the control room, his head start wouldn't matter.
So, if I were building this, where would I put that room?
Sari didn't know what the archaic technology might demand by way of architecture, but if she were in command she would want a position where she could look down at the entire operation, possibly able to see troubles beginning and act to avert them or minimize the damage.
She raised her gaze, and found a likely location, a rectangular box mounted high on the wall above the second level. A window of what looked like smoked glass ran the length of it. Sari didn't see any way to reach it or any doors on the box's sides, but thanks to the transparent upper floor she did see a door on the second level directly below the box. It might lead to stairs. At the least, it was worth a chance.
Sari moved quickly but cautiously, mentally cursing the way her hard-soled boots rang off the metal floor. More than once her search for a stairway to the upper level left her facing a dead end. The factory really was a maze, and she wondered if it had been built that way to confuse possible invaders. After all, it was a relic of the Devastation War.
At last Sari reached the second level. The floor, she found, wasn't glass but some kind of clear, artificial substance, the kind used in cyborgs together with metal. Her footsteps were more quiet there, clicking softly instead of ringing against metal. It was only a short walk to the doors beneath the chamber she assumed--hoped--was the control room. Above the doors a red light burned dully.
"Now, how do I get this open?" she mused aloud. There was no handle, no lever, but there was a panel next to the door which glowed a soft green. Since it was at least distinctive, Sari touched it and was rewarded for her troubles when the light over the doors also turned green and the doors themselves slid open.
Sari slipped through the doors. Inside, there was not the staircase she had been expecting but only a small cubicle, an empty one. She wondered what it was for; the cubicle served no useful purpose that she could see. There was no furniture, and the walls were bare metal. The only thing that looked even remotely promising was a panel on the wall to the right of the door. It featured two lighted arrows, one pointing up in green and one pointing down in red.
Since touching a green light had opened the doors, and since she wanted to go up, Sari touched the upward-pointing arrow. The doors slid shut, and there was a sudden lurch as the queen's stomach told her she was ascending rapidly. In a moment, a soft chime rang, the arrows switched colors, and the doors slid open to reveal another room.
Sari stepped out of the transport cubicle. Her hunch had obviously been right. The side walls of the room were covered in display screens, while the wall opposite the doors was pierced by the long window she'd seen from below. A quick look confirmed that she was in fact in the same place she'd seen from the floor, though oddly enough the window seemed clearer, much easier to see through from this side.
Below the window was a long bank of controls--screens, touch panels, switches, dials. Sari found herself wishing dearly that Lira was there. While the Landen-folk had lost much of the technological knowledge their ancestors had possessed, technicians like Lira at least were able to operate the kingdom's cyborg factories. Although much smaller in scale, the methods of operation had to be somewhat analogous, whereas Sari was completely at sea. She looked around the room, hoping to find something that she could understand.
Luckily, her eyes fell upon a display which read, "Emergency Power Accessed. Insert Keystone in Main Panel to Confirm Full System Initialization." She didn't quite understand all the words, but she thought she'd gotten the gist of it. When Sari had inserted the Power Topaz in the Wishing Stone, she'd activated "emergency power"--doors, lights, and so on. However, she had to do something more to completely activate the factory and make it work.
It was fairly obvious what the "keystone" was--or at least she hoped so; it could have been a second jewel--so Sari searched for a place to insert it. On the panel beneath the window, she discovered it, a shallow indentation lined with circuitry set in a silvery metal plate. The Power Topaz fit exactly.
The change was astounding. Lights came on all over the room, black panels suddenly proven to be display screens scrolling text and displaying graphs and meters. All throughout the factory below, similar screens blazed into life as did certain of the structures, the net effect doubling the light level in the main room. Sari removed the stone; once again, this did not affect what she had awakened. Probably I'd have to use it to shut things down again, she deduced.
Reactivating the plant would have to get Nevin's attention, Sari thought, which should draw him to find her. She doubted she'd have long to wait. She turned to the window, hoping to catch sight of the spy.
Instead, she saw the fiery detonation of a Foi technique from halfway across the room. Klaxons began to sound and red lights flashed. The display Sari had been reading previously read, "Impact Detected Near Power Core. Security Screens Activated." The power core! The factory would demand energy to make itself function, and cutting off that supply would be as effective as destroying the control room.
Even though she could see the detonations as Nevin wielded his techniques against the column studded with blue lights that was apparently the power core, Sari had no idea if she could get through the maze to him in time. It wasn't likely.
Maybe, though, there was something else she could do. Frantically, she looked through the various displays and controls for something resembling a cyborg command link. After a minute's searching, she found what looked like one. She pressed the button and spoke into the audio pickup, "Destroy the intruder attacking the power core!"
The screen next to the link flashed a message: "Unable To Comply With Instructions--No Robot Identification Code Given."
"I don't know what cyborgs there are," Sari growled. "Don't you have a list of codes?"
Dutifully, the screen changed. "Robots Currently Active: Code AZN6, Code AZN7, Code BLG3, Code..."
"Robot AZN6," Sari commanded, rethinking her orders as she did so that the cyborg would not accidentally treat Mercier as an enemy, "defend the power core from attack."
She quickly repeated the order to several other robots, since the first she'd picked might be on the far side of the factory or too weak to stop the Layan.
As it turned out, that didn't prove to be much of a worry.
* * * * *
Nevin cursed under his breath. The metal shields that had descended to protect the power core were proving stubbornly resistant to his techniques. He'd even tried the Orakian needler he'd forced himself to learn as a part of his cover, but it had been equally ineffective. Still, some of the shields were starting to crumple and break. Sooner or later, he was sure he'd get through. He only hoped he could do so before the Orakians reached him.
They did get to him, but not in the way he expected. The first robot was a two-legged orb with a mass of gangly, pincer-tipped arms. A second orb circled its upper "body," and a spark of light flashed from that orb, detonating at Nevin's feet and knocking him sprawling. Another robot, one that looked vaguely like a human with excessively bulky chest armor and a low, flat head, struck him a heavy blow with its fist. Tiny silver drill-shaped robots with what looked like large square fins tried to spear him with their rapidly spinning, pointed tips. Red-and-silver spiders attacked him with some kind of sonic vibration wave, a Gra variation, and then struck with bladed forelegs.
The spy tried to fight back, but it was utterly useless. The cyborgs tore him apart with relentless, mechanical efficiency.
* * * * *
Revenge, Sari decided, was a sour dish. The pleasure in watching the butcher of the innocents of Carin be destroyed on her orders was a bitter one. She couldn't help but think that there was no difference between using the cyborgs to kill and using a knife. Either way she'd made the decision to end the life of a human being. Would Orakio damn her for breaking the spirit if not the letter of his final command?
Either way, she decided, it didn't matter. She would fight on, take the step of bringing these ever-more-deadly war machines into the world. She was the queen, and she had a people to protect from the Layans. They'd forced the fight on the Landen-folk, restarted a cycle of violence that should have been gone forever; Sari would not let them have their way.
And if revenge for her mother, for Satera, for the people of Carin, for Marella and all the comrades who'd died or would die at her side was the only reward she would receive, then she would eat her fill of it.