I’d genuinely thought, after months spent at her side, that nothing could truly surprise Spark. She was unflappable, unassailable, even more stoic than the average charr. She’d clearly never once considered that she might be challenged by Weir, though, and when that moment came, she had no idea what to do.
I wasn’t ready to gloat just yet, even as Weir took a step towards his commander. Spark still had Souleater in her hands, for one thing, and whilst I didn’t think she’d consciously harm Weir, desperation might lead to accidents. Regrets weren’t much use if someone had already ended up dead.
“Put it down,” Weir repeated, gesturing to Souleater with his mace. “You don’t want to do this.”
Spark’s mouth was hanging open, all her teeth showing. She didn’t seem to know what to do, and neither did I. Intervene now, and Spark might react out of instinct, putting us all in danger – or Weir might change his mind.
“Zurra,” Spark finally said, the only thing she seemed capable of saying. I knew what she meant, though. Souleater gave us a chance to defeat Zurra, effortlessly and bloodlessly. Trouble was, it would cause a lot more devastation along the way. I didn’t want that on Spark’s conscience any more than I wanted it on mine.
Weir stepped forward again, close enough to put a hand on Souleater and push its muzzle to the ground. “This makes you just like her,” he said, nodding towards the colossus. “You don’t want that. Besides, this isn’t your kill.”
That, finally, got through to Spark. She grunted, wrenching Souleater out of Weir’s grip, but only so she could deposit it back in its box. I didn’t realise I was holding my breath until Spark slammed the case closed, snapping its catches shut.
“I don’t understand you two,” she grumbled, but I could see she was shaken. This was, perhaps, the first time Weir had ever disobeyed her order – and with him doing so, she’d realised how much she valued his opinion. Certainly more than mine, anyway.
“I think Souleater has had its day,” I said, a little unevenly. “And Weir’s right: this is my kill. I’ll decide what happens to Zurra.”
That was all bravado. After all these months, and having come back to Rata Sum, the fire of vengeance seemed to have burned out of my heart. I wasn’t sure whether, in the end, I was going to be able to kill Zurra after all. Still, that didn’t mean I was going to let Spark do it for me. Whatever my decision, the consequences would be on my own head.
There was a rattling on the stairs behind us, and we all turned in time to see Darr come shooting out onto the balcony. He’d obviously been in the thick of the fighting; a bruise was already forming across his temple, and one of his pauldrons had been ripped off.
“Status?” Spark asked brusquely, as though nothing had happened.
Darr paused, mouth hanging open. He could see he’d walked into something, even if it wasn’t clear what. “What’s going on up here?”
I shook my head, a warning not to interfere. “Do you need more soldiers down there?”
“It’s not down there I’m worried about,” Darr replied, cutting off the rest of my questions with a wave of his hand. “We’re holding our position. The Inquest haven’t managed to advance, but we can’t push them back to the gates, either. They’ve got some serious firepower.”
“At least we’ve got two norn,” I said, only half joking, but Darr’s forehead creased into a frown. “What is it?”
Darr was no longer looking at me, nor at the charr. His gaze was fixed over my shoulder, at the looming bulk of the colossus. Its sleek black sides, I suddenly realised, were now lined with light, flashing sequences of blue and green forming patterns up what I supposed was its torso.
“We started picking up energy signals down below,” Darr said. “Massive readings, both of them. One started a minute after the other.”
Two signals? “Both from the golem?” I suggested, but a sinking feeling had started in my gut. Why did I have a horrible suspicion I already knew what was going on?
“Only one matched the reading we were already getting from the golem,” Darr said. “The other…”
We turned, to where Spark was staring down at Souleater’s case. It was with considerable effort, panic already rising in my chest, that I asked, “What did you do?”
Spark shrugged, the very picture of nonchalance. “Souleater takes time to power up. I was getting her ready.”
The thought that Souleater might be a ‘her’ made me feel a little bit sick, but at least the weapon was back in its case. Too late, though, if what Darr implied was true – that Zurra had detected Souleater’s energy signature, and begun powering up her golem in response.
“I think,” Spark said, still casual, “we should move.”
I glanced up at the colossus, expecting to see it lurching towards us, preparing to attack before Souleater could. Instead, it was raising one of its massive arms, revealing a burning white globe of fire, very much like the muzzle of a gun. Zurra’s golem, it seemed, didn’t need to tear Rata Sum out of the sky. In fact, it didn’t need to get close at all.
“We should definitely move,” Spark said.
“No.” The word snapped out of me before I could stop it. Everyone turned to look at me, dubious, but I didn’t have any explanation to give them. I didn’t have a plan against Zurra, either, but I wasn’t about to retreat. I’d just have to hope I thought of something before Zurra did.
“We don’t have anything that can take that thing down,” Darr said, but possibilities were already coalescing in my head. We might not be able to destroy the colossus, but we could slow it down – if we could get it into range, first.
I had already discounted luring Zurra closer. She knew T.A.F.D.A.’s limits, clearly, and with a weapon of that magnitude, she wouldn’t need to advance. What if, though, we could make her?
“I need to get a signal to that golem,” I said, already hunting around for a console. There was one tucked into a corner of the balcony, apparently designed for activating maintenance golems, to carry out repairs on Rata Sum’s exterior. I almost laughed when I saw it. What could have been more perfect for fixing T.A.F.D.A. without actually leaving the city ourselves? Well, it was too late for that now, but I had a use for the console all the same.
Darr followed me to the console, looking all the while like he was getting ready to flee. I couldn’t blame him; the golem’s weaponry was making me jumpy, too. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“Talk to Zurra,” I said, already tapping out commands on the console. If I sent a message, would she answer?
“You can’t reason with her,” Spark said. She had Souleater’s case tucked under her arm. I didn’t point out that if I could reason with charr, I could reason with anyone. Besides, I didn’t really care what Zurra said. If she’d been prepared to talk, she’d have done it before the colossus even got close.
“I don’t need to reason with her,” I replied. “All she needs to do is listen.”
A tiny speaker on the console crackled to life, and the attached microphone whined. It wasn’t really designed for sending signals over such a distance, but I was fairly certain that the colossus’ communications system – the very same Zurra had used to send her ultimatum – would be the best of its type. Zurra never did anything by halves.
“Commander Zurra, of the Tyrian Development Syndicate.” Best to suck up to her, I decided, if I wanted her to listen. “I have a message from the defenders of Rata Sum.”
There was no reply, except what I thought might have been an indrawn breath – and then silence. Wary, expectant silence. Zurra really was listening; that was all I needed.
I jammed my hand on the console, hastily sending the signal I’d constructed. It was crude, but it only needed to accomplish two very simple things: to overload the golem’s systems, making it impossible to control, just for a few heartbeats – and to make it take a single step.
And it worked. There was a shout of dismay before the communications link cut off, someone on the colossus realising what I’d used it for. Next came a screech of servos jerking into life, loud enough to make my head ring. Finally, juddering as though it had been kicked by a massive foot, the colossus lurched forwards, just one step, before coming to a halt in a rushing release of steam. One step, but it was enough.
Below us, and all across the side of Rata Sum, T.A.F.D.A. roared into action.
I had to give Motti credit: it was an extraordinary thing, even half-finished. The colossus was suddenly enveloped in a cloud of smoke, missiles and energy blasts exploding against its sides. Nothing could stop that golem, but we could definitely slow it down.
“Now it’s time to move,” I said, already making for the stairs. Much as I wanted to stay and watch the colossus taking such a barrage, I knew better than to get cocky. This was only a temporary set-back for Zurra, after all, and it was only a matter of time before she responded in kind.