There’s a feeling of industry unique to asura settlements. Whilst a charr town might be full of the sounds of hammering metal, or a human one with merchants crying their wares, anywhere that contains a good number of asura will be rife with people… thinking. You might think such an activity would be completely silent, but that’s rarely the case, which meant as we descended into the lower levels of Rata Sum, the air was filled with muttering, conversing, and occasional wild shouts of exultation.
I’d missed this, I realised, the atmosphere created by a gathering of asura. We can never be said to have a common goal, but the desire to learn, to discover, to build, is almost universal, and that forges a shared sense of purpose all its own.
“Who were you talking to in the Council Level?” I asked Erin, as we descended one of the city’s many ramps.
She paused at the bottom, looking both ways, before choosing a direction. “An assistant to one of the smaller krewes. He was there to maintain the serving golems, but that isn’t what they used to work on.”
“So what was?”
I’d thought it impossible for a norn to look coy, but Erin was doing her very best. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
We came to a series of small workshops off Rata Sum’s lowest level. Erin chose one, seemingly at random, and knocked. There was a pause, before the door slid open.
“Come in!” a voice called, rising to a squeak of excitement.
I glanced at my companions, who seemed caught in a collective shrug, then stepped over the threshold.
The workshop beyond was one of the tiniest I’ve ever seen, little more than a wedge of space beneath one of Rata Sum’s supporting internal structures, rising to a point overhead. To make matters worse, it was also dark, dusty, and filled to the brim with miscellanea. In the middle of it all, beckoning us closer with wild gesticulations, was an equally tiny, wizened asura.
“How nice to see you all!” She scooted sideways, leaving just enough room for us all to cram through the door; Erin, Spark and Weir were forced to stand in a line along the back wall, the ceiling sloping too sharply to allow them headroom anywhere else.
I shuffled forwards, eyes raking over the cluttered benches and shelves. There was an extraordinary assortment of ‘stuff’ – that really was the only way to describe it. Most of it was junk, decrepit golem parts, cogs and gears, wires and smashed control panels. Occasionally, though, poking through the detritus, I thought I spied something more, leftovers from far more ambitious, abandoned projects, and other items I couldn’t identify at all. You come across these asura from time to time, the ones who hoard old parts, who scavenge without having a purpose in mind for their finds, who can never throw anything away; this particular workshop took the practice to new heights.
“I’m Motti,” our host squeaked. “Zekk told me you were coming. Sent down a message from one of the golems. Oh, it’s so nice to see you all! Can I offer you a drink?”
I took another careful look around the room, noting not a single edible item or clean drinking receptacle, and politely declined. Motti might act as though we were long-lost friends, but I wanted to get down to business.
“We were told you could help us,” I said, only to realise Erin had never specified how.
“In the defence of the city,” the norn added helpfully. I blinked at her in surprise. ‘The defence of the city’ and this ramshackle workshop didn’t exactly piece neatly together in my mind.
“Well.” For the first time, Motti looked uncomfortable. “I’m not so sure about that… We’re a golem maintenance krewe, that’s all.”
I glared at Erin more fiercely. What was going on here? We should be out tracking down High Councillor Flax, not wasting our time on work golems.
“You might be now,” Erin said, “but your assistant spoke of something you used to work on–”
Now Motti looked genuinely cross, though at least it was clear she knew what Erin was referring to. “Used to! Used to! What good is that now? T.A.F.D.A. was never even activated!”
“T.A.F.D.A.?” I repeated, curious.
Motti folded her arms. “The Automatic Forward Defence Array. It was designed to– Oh, what does it matter? Flax had it disabled before we even got chance to test it.”
“Flax? On first name terms, are you?”
Motti looked even stormier. “Used to be. I’m two years older than him, but we were in the same creche, then on one of the same work krewes. Snooty little brat had to get into politics, though, didn’t he? He wasn’t interested in proper, respectable research after that. And when I took T.A.F.D.A. to the Council, he made them turn it down before they even knew what it was capable of. Said Rata Sum’s position was protection enough.”
It had been, once, I supposed, but nowhere was safe with the likes of Zurra around. “And what did T.A.F.D.A. do?” I asked.
“Well, defend things, of course.” Motti shrugged. “Like I said, we never ran proper tests. All the old equipment’s still there, I suppose. Would have been broken up by other krewes and used elsewhere, except no-one wants to go outside if they can help it.”
I had a sinking feeling. “Outside?”
Motti shrugged again. “Can’t defend from exterior threats from inside the city, can you? Both the sensors and the weaponry’s all outside.” She paused, then began to rummage through the detritus on a high shelf, balancing precariously on a stool to do it. “There’s only one portable bit. Must be around here somewhere…”
As she searched, I cast a desperate glance at my companions. What were we going to do with a defunct, entirely untested defence mechanism, one that might not even still be there? Erin, Caolinn and Weir looked nonplussed, but Spark gave me a grin. Of course, she was an engineer. Wild escapades and wilder machines were in her nature.
Behind me, Motti cleared her throat. I turned to find her holding out a dusty cube. “You’ll need this.”
“You’re not going to help us?” I asked. I had the feeling this array had been Motti’s life’s work; surely she’d be thrilled to see it resurrected.
Instead, she only sighed. “You’re young – all of you are. You don’t know what disappointment’s like. You pour all your hopes and dreams into something, and then it withers away in your hands. You can’t just pick up the pieces and expect everything to be sunshine and roses again.”
Somewhat bewildered by Motti’s mixed metaphors, I felt my ears droop regardless. It was disheartening, to see what had once been youthful enthusiasm crushed by reality – or by Flax, in this case. I could almost imagine Motti as a progeny, joining her first krewe, scribbling grand ideas and schemes, only to find the world wasn’t interested in what she had to offer.
As if understanding my thoughts, she turned away, shoulders slumping. “I moved on from T.A.F.D.A. a long time ago. I stopped worrying about the big things. It’s the little people who get things done, you know. We’ll always need golems, and we’ll always need someone to maintain them.”
I didn’t quite know what to say. Motti didn’t seem bitter, just unutterably weary. In the end, all I could do was offer a sincere thank you, and make for the door.
My companions trooped out after me. “That,” Erin said, “was more depressing than I expected.”
I didn’t reply, instead looking down at the cube in my hands. My fingers had smudged the dust, revealing a gleaming surface of smoky black glass. It was simple, elegant, beautiful, the very pinnacle of asura design – and I hadn’t the slightest idea what it did.
“So what now?” Spark asked.
I tightened my grip on the cube, determined flooding through me. “Now, we find out whether T.A.F.D.A. still works. It could be our first defence against Zurra.”
And, more than anything, I found I wanted to bring Motti’s vision back to life. To prove to her, to everyone, that the deeds of the little people were every bit as important, whether history remembered them or not.