“The ambulatory motion matrix is all out of alignment. She’ll list as badly as a rowing boat crewed by norn.” Flikk came crawling out of the golem’s innards with an oil-smeared frown, to wave a spanner in my direction. “Well don’t just stand there, Amber. Do something.”
I bit back the retort on my tongue and flicked a handful of switches on the hoist controls. Flikk jumped down as the golem lifted ponderously into the air.
“Put her down over there.” Flikk pointed to the worktable. I rolled my eyes. As if there was anywhere else to put the golem, in Flikk’s tumultuous workshop. The place looked like a skritt nest.
“I’ll get my tools,” I said, as the hoist squealed to a stop.
“You’ll do no such thing. I want a cup of lotus tea, and it’ll be exactly 62.25 degrees by the time it gets to my desk, or you’ll be making me another one.”
I stuck my tongue out at Flikk’s back, but went to make the tea anyway. It didn’t matter that my master had half a dozen golems who could perform the task, or that I had an IQ at least fifteen points higher than his own (16.5, to be exact) – I was the lab’s general dogsbody, maid, cleaner and, just occasionally, sounding board for ideas.
Flikk was in a contemplative mood when I got back, and didn’t even notice that his tea was three degrees hotter than he’d specified. “What exactly are we doing here, Amber? What great discovery are we making that will benefit asura-kind?”
“We’re creating a golem that’s virtually indestructible and has advanced telemetry systems,” I replied. “One that can map the most inaccessible parts of the world without an operator coming to harm, down to the inch level.” And not just any old inch: an asuran inch.
We’d had this conversation half a dozen times already, but Flikk still wasn’t satisfied. “That’s only the practical application,” he said, sweeping an armful of cogs and bolts off a table in frustration. “What use will it be?”
“Don’t you want to know what’s out there?” I asked, exasperated. “All those places we just can’t go – the Crystal Desert, the deepest depths of the ocean, the heart of an active volcano. Aren’t you curious?”
“Bah, curiosity.” Flikk spat on the floor, and I hastily side-stepped. For all this cantankerousness, he had a point. Unlike many of our people, my master didn’t believe in experiment for experiment’s sake – he had the grand ambition of furthering the intellectual journey of the asura, yet still with real, practical applications in his lifetime. I couldn’t count how many of his peers had told him it couldn’t be done, but I admired him for it all the same. Not that I’d ever admit that to him, of course.
“Your tea will have gone cold,” I said, with a sigh, knowing we’d get no more work done whilst Flikk was in this mood. “Let me make you a fresh one.”
Flikk only turned his back and leaned broodingly over the fragmented golem. He might want another lotus tea, but I was rapidly feeling the need for something stronger.
As I passed my dormitory door, I paused to peer inside. The few cleaning golems we had could be erratic at the best of times – I’d caught them folding away pillowcases whilst trying to stuff a pillow into my underwear on more than one occasion. Today though, all was quiet, and my gaze landed on the locked case at the foot of my bed. I’d caught the golems trying to get in there, too, and Flikk, but not even he could ferret out all its secrets. Flikk was convinced I was hiding important research from him; he’d be disappointed to learn it was only relics of my past I kept so carefully locked away. Two pistols, two daggers, a shortbow and sword, not one of them with a hint of forbidden technology or arcane research about them.
There was a clatter and a shout from the direction of the lab. Flikk had probably knocked his tea over – at least it had already gone cold.
I stepped out into the corridor and shouted, “I’m getting you another cup.” Only echoes of my voice answered, followed by a silence that sent chills down my spine. Old instincts returned to me in a heartbeat. Something was wrong.
I crept down the corridor, silent as only a thief – retired or otherwise – could be. A balcony opened before me, beyond which steps led down into the heart of the lab. I crouched, hoping the shadows would be enough to hide me. No use relying on the arts of my profession, now: I was too long out of practice for that.
There was movement below, darkly-robed figures coming and going. In their midst was Flikk, bound to a chair and gagged. No wonder I hadn’t heard anything.
One of the intruders separated itself from the rest and approached Flikk’s chair, pulling down her mask in the process. “Good evening Flikk. My name is Interrogator Zurra. I trust you’re sitting comfortably? I need to ask you a few questions.”
Flikk began mumbling something, audible even through the gag. His head swivelled wildly from side to side, eyes roving across the figures dismantling his lab. And it was quite clear that was what they were doing: golem parts were being packed into boxes, blueprints carefully rolled and stowed away, even tools and fixings collected.
“Can I can rely on you not to scream, Flikk?” Zurra asked. “Your defence golems have been deactivated, and your lab is isolated, to say the least. Trying to attract outside attention would be futile, not to say potentially injurious to your health.”
Flikk gave a curt nod. I shuffled closer to the edge of the balcony, straining to hear his words, but when Zurra removed his gag, I realised how unnecessary that had been. “What, by every blinking light in the Eternal Alchemy, do you think you’re doing?” Flikk bellowed.
Zurra took a step back. “Why, raiding your lab, of course.”
I thought, for a moment, that Flikk might explode with sheer indignation. He spluttered something unintelligible, then said, “It’s my golems you want, is it? Hasn’t the Inquest got enough of its own?”
Inquest? That made me rock back on my heels. But of course. It had been remarkably un-asuran – that is to say, stupid – of me not to have seen it.
“We have golems,” Zurra confirmed. “…but nothing quite as spectacular as this one.” She waved towards Flikk’s latest creation. Spectacular? I supposed it was, though I’d been too close to the work for too long to really see it.
“Well you can’t have it!” Flikk began to struggle, his chair rocking from side to side. Zurra steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m afraid you have no choice. The Inquest do not like, to put it bluntly, stealing the work of other krewes, but we will do so gladly when that work will advance our cause. There is nothing you can do to stop us, but you do have a choice.”
“I would never join you,” Flikk spat.
“I’m well aware of that.” Zurra put her hands behind her back and began to pace. “But we still need some information from you. Supply it willingly, and you will live to rebuild your lab. Resist, and measures will be taken. I told you my title, did I not?”
“Interrogator?” Flikk put as much derision into his voice as when I’d made my first, and only, mathematical error – on a simple cube root – whilst working in his krewe. “Do your worst, Inquest scum. No-one who has to resort to stealing their research could ever break me.”
He sounded so certain, but I was far from it. There was a manic gleam in Zurra’s eye, and a dagger in her hand that dripped a black ichor. I knew poisons, and had no doubt the interrogator had chosen one that would keep Flikk alive as long as possible, whilst maintaining the highest level of pain.
Zurra lowered the blade to Flikk’s neck. “Let’s just see about that, shall we?”
“No!” The word escaped me in a shout. I leapt to my feet, yanking a screwdriver from my pocket and flinging it across the lab. Its heavy handle threw my aim, as did Zurra’s sudden turn – instead of hitting her squarely in the side of the head, my missile knocked the dagger from her hand.
Inquest lackeys were after me before Zurra had even recovered her voice. I scrambled for the doorway, Flikk shouting rare words of encouragement after me, including, “Run!” No chance. I was getting him out of there, if it was the last thing I did.
I sprinted to my dormitory, flinging open the chest – it took only a press of three key rivets to unlock it, something too simple for Flikk to ever work out. The pistols were unloaded, but I snatched up two daggers, spinning to meet the Inquest piling into my room.
I met them in a flurry of blows, old techniques flowing back into my limbs. One, two, three of them fell, their bodies slumping in the doorway. I leapt over them, engaging with two more lackeys, whose blades clanged off my own. I ducked under the guard of one, whipped past another, and was free and clear, running for the balcony, just as an Inquest golem lumbered to the top of the stairs.
I jumped, reaching for the wires in the crevice around its head, but the golem was quicker than I’d anticipated – or time and lack of practice had made me slower. Its arm caught me in the stomach, flinging me back against the wall with near bone-cracking force. The air went out of me and I slid to the floor, only just managing to roll aside as the golem’s heavy foot came down.
I took a deep breath and was back on my feet, behind the golem now. A single leap and I was on its broad shoulders. Both daggers plunged down, sinking into the mass of circuitry behind its head. The golem clearly hadn’t been built for combat: my single strike hit something vital and, with a whine, its lights went out, its knees buckling. I bounced clear as it dropped with a thunderous crash of metal, and a single, sorry flurry of beeps.
I ran for the balcony’s edge, shadow stepping into nothingness. I was definitely out of practice, though – I landed badly, knees giving way before I managed to roll back to my feet. Even as I did so, the daggers dropped from my hands, clattering away from me. Zurra was gone, the Inquest were gone, and Flikk was still slumped in his overturned chair, surrounded by a rapidly spreading pool of blood.