There are times in life when, after taking all the available evidence into account and possibly making a will, even asura have to be stupid. I hadn’t made a will (not that I had anything to leave, or anyone to leave my nothing to), and the evidence was reminding me I was trapped and alone inside an Inquest lab, only a few feet from my enemy, and only a few more from a whole complex full of guards and defence golems. And yet: stupidity. I knew I couldn’t just leave, sneaking out as I’d sneaked in, when Interrogator Zurra, Flikk’s murderer, was so very, very close.
I got to my feet and snapped out of invisibility, but I actually had to clear my throat before Zurra turned to me. She did so slowly, almost dreamily, as the full force of realising she wasn’t alone in the room she’d just locked herself into sank in. When it did, the cup of tea in her hand began to tilt, and after several seconds to sluice over the rim. She didn’t seem to notice.
“You.” Her tone was flat, belying the reams of frantic calculations she was surely making. How quickly would help get to the lab? Would they be able to stop me when they got here? Could she even reach a security alarm before I could plant a bullet between her eyes? To help her make a decision, I grinned, slowly and lazily, and pulled a pistol from its holster.
Just as deliberately, Zurra placed her empty tea cup on a worktable. “I take it you’re here for revenge.”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” I gestured, with my free hand, to the golem. “But really I just wanted to get in your way.”
Zurra’s gaze flicked to the golem, and the broken shards of data crystal on the floor. Her face visibly fell. She knew as well as I did there was no-one here, maybe no-one in the whole of Rata Sum, capable of recreating Flikk’s work.
“We have back-ups,” she said, but I could tell she was lying. Her ears even twitched.
I pointed to the revolving schematic between us. “Mount Maelstrom. What’s your interest in it?”
“Why would I tell you?”
I steadied my aim, making sure Zurra was looking directly down the pistol’s barrel. She shuddered, and shuffled slightly to one side, as if to see the schematic more clearly. “We have many interests in that particular location. There are power sources to be tapped, creatures to be studied.”
Neither of them safe, I’d warrant.
“It’s an uninhabited area,” Zurra went on. She continued to shuffle sideways, but raised her hands into view when I twitched the pistol. I didn’t want her setting off any alarms, or summoning help before I was done with her. “The advances we make there will be to the benefit of all asura-kind.”
I snorted. I’d heard that one before, but the Inquest were only ever out for themselves. “What do you really want from the volcano?”
Zurra only smiled. I looked again at the schematic, and at the other devices around the room. Temperature probes, heat-shielding, Flikk’s golem… It had to be the very heart of the Mount they were interested in. And at the heart… ‘Energy’ and ‘creatures’, Zurra had said. I went cold all over.
“What lives in the heart of a volcano?” I said faintly.
Zurra’s smile widened, showing all her teeth. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Her hands were still raised, but she abruptly stamped on a floor panel beside the workbench. It flared with crimson light, and a deafening siren went off. I fired my pistol almost without thinking, but Zurra had already ducked, and the bullet pinged off the wall to embed itself in a potted palm.
For a moment, I froze. Zurra had to be behind the bench, though I couldn’t see her. Two steps, maybe three, and I could shoot her right in the back of the head. But I could already hear running footsteps outside the lab, and if I waited only a few seconds more, I would be caught. If I was going to salvage even a fragment of Flikk’s research, I had to go. Now.
I yanked up a grille in the floor, throwing myself into it just as the lab door swished open. Asuran ventilation systems are slick, labyrinthine and impossible to climb, to ensure competing krewes can’t use them to sneak into labs (spying on your competitors being, unlike the Inquest’s outright theft, a bit of a grey area). As escape routes, though? They’re perfect.
I dropped into total darkness, wrapping my arms across my chest and closing my eyes, only to open them again when the sensation of plummeting to my doom made me feel sick. I wasn’t actually falling to my doom, but the twists and turns of the pipe were like the guts of a gigantic creature, and I hadn’t the slightest control over my descent. Several times, I bashed against a junction in the pipe; twice, I hit so hard I was spun into another channel, and went rocketing off in a different direction.
Finally, I reached a vent. Careening away from the side of the pipe, I dropped into empty air, arms and legs flailing. When I hit the ceiling grille, it burst open beneath me, spilling me another six feet to the floor.
I was too dazed and disoriented to catch myself, and landed heavily on my back, limbs splayed and all the breath knocked out of me. It was only after several choking seconds that I managed to roll onto my side and heave in a lungful of air. I was lying only a few inches from the glowing tile that had earlier teleported me further into the complex. Good thing I hadn’t landed on it, or on the angular lump of the console in front of it. How many bones could you break in a single fall? Best not to think about it.
As I got to my feet, pain shot through my left ankle. I winced and hopped onto the other leg, before gingerly setting the left one down again. No, it still hurt. Possibly I had broken something, and I was still in the centre of the lab complex. I was going to need a means of slowing my pursuers – because they wouldn’t be far behind, no matter how much quieter the sirens were here – and of destroying as much of the lab as I could.
Stupidity: it was going to come down to that, once again. I knew how stupid my plan was, but after running through every possible permutation (and there were a lot – with an overall 43% change of a painful and hideous death), I knew it was the best I was going to get.
I rummaged through my pockets for tools, only to find they’d been emptied by my long drop. I cast around the room for an alternative, my gaze settling on a row of suspiciously bright-coloured metal canisters sitting on an upper shelf. Bright-coloured, because they were plastered in warning signs and someone had even gone to the trouble of erecting a glowing energy field around them.
Stupider and stupider, but I did it anyway. My first pistol shot took out the control panel, and the energy field fizzled away with a hiss and a snap. My second shot punched through a canister. There was a pause… And then: boom.
I was behind a table by the time the explosion went off, but the shockwave still lifted me off the floor, thumping me back down with ringing ears. I scrambled to my feet as black smoke billowed out. Already, flames were licking across the ceiling, and spilling down one corner of the room towards a pile of carelessly abandoned papers. Perfect.
The siren that blared out was so loud even my aching eardrums could hear it. Given all the substances one might find in a typical asuran lab, when fires start, we don’t hang around. Already, fire-fighting golems were clattering into the room, but I could see how futile their efforts would be. This was going to be one big fire, a proper conflagration. I should have felt guilty at destroying so much research and equipment; instead, I felt only a grim satisfaction.
I joined the mass evacuation of the complex. No-one stopped to question why I was filthy, limping and not in Inquest uniform – safety first, and all that. At the last minute I turned aside, slipping out of the stream of people and into a side passage. A separate door lay that way, smaller and still closed, but perfect for getting out of the lab unseen. The Inquest might be fleeing now, but it wouldn’t be long before they started asking questions, and I didn’t want to be stuck with them when they did.
The door rolled aside to reveal a perfect circle of emerald green forest. I pushed through the ring of leaves surrounding the doorway – and stepped on someone’s foot.
We both yelped and jumped back. I flailed for balance, catching myself on a trailing vine and managing to hold myself upright. I didn’t have a spare hand to draw a weapon and the asura in front of me, staring at me quite openly, was in Inquest uniform.
I stared back, trying not to look as if I was fleeing something more than the fire. I realised, after a moment, that I recognised the stranger. He’d been in the lab, surreptitiously poking around and running for it when he was interrupted.
“You,” I said, trying to get the upper hand. “You’re not Inquest.” And yet he wore the uniform so comfortably, and looked so confident in the way he casually held a sword towards my throat, that I wondered if I was mistaken.
He grinned. “Neither are you, Amber.”
I started, unable to conceal how surprised I was.
“Yes, I know who you are,” he went on. “I’ve been keeping an eye on you, and your progress.”
I peered closer at him. His skin was a darker grey than my own, and his eyes were the pale green of light shining through jade. He didn’t look the slightest bit familiar. “Who are you?” I demanded.
He shook his head. “You’ll have to work that one out for yourself. Suffice to say, appearances aside-” He gestured to his uniform, then to the sword, which was still levelled at me. “-I’m a friend.”
What was I supposed to make of that? Before I could decide, he took a step towards me, coming close enough for his sword’s tip to prick the collar of my jacket. “I’d be careful, if I were you, Amber. You’re starting to make a lot of enemies. One of these days you might get hurt.”
I was too shocked to do more than gape at him. “You mean the Inquest?”
“For a start. But that doesn’t matter, does it, when you’ve got friends, too?” He stepped back, gave me a cheery wave and shattered into a thousand glowing butterflies. I’d run out of surprise – I just stared blankly at the suddenly empty space. So, this stranger who knew my name was a mesmer… But whether he was friend or foe, I honestly couldn’t say.