There’s nothing quite like a feeling of impending doom to mobilise even the most reluctant of heroes. There was a general sense across the whole Commons, in fact, that this was our last stand, and that’s less melodramatic than it might appear. The Syndicate had swarmed across the plaza like bees released from a hive, and our army of mercenaries and ordinary citizens was looking increasingly worse for wear. We needed to finish this, and fast.
And if we didn’t, the colossus was about to tear Rata Sum out of the sky, anyway. There’s always something to look forward to in this line of work.
I watched as Ivar threw himself back into the fight, then almost buckled at the knees as a familiar hand clapped me on the shoulder.
“We can win this,” Erin declared, with a confidence that should have sounded false, but didn’t, coming from her. “But that…”
She nodded towards the towering shape of the colossus, now visible like a new mountain peak over Rata Sum. That, Erin implied, was my concern, because no-one else had the faintest idea what to do with it. How reassuring.
I rubbed my hands together, trying to look as though I’d formulated a plan. In truth, I had, although it wasn’t much of one. We needed to hold the colossus back, at least temporarily, and so far, T.A.F.D.A. had been the only thing capable of doing anything of the sort.
“Leave it to me,” I said, with false confidence, and shadowstepped away.
The bowels of Rata Sum were quiet, and though I knew a good portion of its inhabitants had to be hiding somewhere, whatever noise they made was eclipsed by the thundering of feet and weapons overhead. From here, it was impossible to tell which side was winning, but that didn’t make the situation sound any less desperate. The fact that the fighting was still so fierce, after so many hours, made it clear that neither side had gained an advantage. Good for us, for now, but it also meant we weren’t about to win.
I found Motti’s cupboard of a workshop locked, but a light shone from beneath the door, and when I hammered on it, there was a clattering inside.
“Go away!” That was a fairly typical asura greeting, it had to be said, but I didn’t have time for cantankerous krewe leaders too absorbed in their own research.
I banged on the door again. “Motti, open up. I need to speak with you.”
There was a moment’s silence, and I was beginning to wonder if even Motti’s tiny lab had a back door through which she might escape, when the door finally cracked open, issuing a smell of hot metal and oil. She stared at me a moment, whilst I surreptitiously stuck my foot in the door to stop her closing it again.
“I need your help with T.A.F.D.A.,” I began, wincing as, true to form, Motti tried to slam the door closed. “I wouldn’t be here if there was any other way.”
Motti stared at me suspiciously for a moment, then when it became clear I wasn’t about to leave, finally relented. “I can’t help you,” she grumbled, even as she allowed me through the door. “T.A.F.D.A. is out of my hands. Besides, we’ve been through this. It never worked.”
“It works perfectly,” I said. “It works magnificently. Haven’t you been paying attention?”
Motti’s suspicion was unwavering. “What are you talking about?”
I gaped at her, unable to believe she really hadn’t looked beyond her tiny lab, despite all the commotion. “What do you think is happening out there?”
Nothing much, it appeared the answer was. Motti watched in increasing disbelief as I explained that Rata Sum was under siege, by a massive golem, no less – and that T.A.F.D.A. had been instrumental in our protection.
“High Councillor Flax is an ass,” I finished, folding my arms decisively. “Worse, a stupid ass. He was wrong about T.A.F.D.A. – and he was wrong about you.”
Motti actually winced, perhaps wishing I hadn’t reminded her about that particular situation from her past, but her dismay was short-lived. I could see that, for all her curmudgeonliness, she was desperate to believe that her invention had been of use, that she’d created something not only useful, but vital.
“I need your help,” I repeated, seeing that I was finally getting through to her. “T.A.F.D.A. was holding the colossus back, but Zurra must have found a way to disable it.”
Motti shook her head, and I could see her thoughts were leaping ahead of mine. “She can’t have done, not without someone on the inside. T.A.F.D.A. is a closed system, or you wouldn’t have needed to go outside the city to activate it in the first place. It can’t be accessed remotely.”
She paused, tapping her chin with a finger thoughtfully. “T.A.F.D.A. is untested, though, outside of simulations. There could have been a malfunction, or…”
“Or?” I pressed.
“Or an issue with overheating.” Motti began to pace. “In thirty-two percent of the simulations I ran, the entire weapons system overheated after prolonged use. At the time, I couldn’t find suitable power crystals to sustain it, but I know a krewe that’s been working on something that might work. In fact, I’ve got some of them here–”
I cut her off with a wave of my hand. “Can you fix it?”
“Yes. Absolutely.” Motti nodded firmly.
“And can T.A.F.D.A. repel the colossus a second time? It’s much closer to the city, now.”
Motti paused a moment, and I recalled that she still hadn’t actually seen the golem. I knew asura could absorb themselves in their work to the exclusion of all else, but Motti was single-minded in a whole new way.
“Perhaps,” she said slowly, “simply repelling the colossus isn’t the answer.”
Now it was my turn to be wary. “What are you thinking?”
“T.A.F.D.A. has general defensive capabilities, but I also programmed it with offensive functions. It’s not automatic, though – it has to have something to target. Something specific.”
“Like the colossus?”
Motti snorted derisively. “I said specific, didn’t I? You’ve just said it’s as big as the city. Every golem has weak points, though. Shoulder joints, leg joints, that sort of thing.”
That the colossus might have anything as ordinary as a weakness seemed unlikely, but I knew Motti had as much experience with golems as I did, and more recently. Perhaps she might see something in the colossus that I’d missed.
“There’s still the issue of targeting,” she said, biting her lip. “I have the appropriate module, but…”
I didn’t like the way Motti was looking at me, not one bit. “But what?”
Motti spoke in a rush. “But the targeting module has to be attached to the area on the golem that you want to attack, and by that I mean physically attached.”
“Physically attached – as in, someone has to take it to the golem?”
“Precisely. And by someone…”
“You mean me.” Of course I had to somehow reach the colossus so that Motti could attempt to pummel it into the ground. Why would I have expected anything else?
“I can get you there,” Motti said hurriedly, already clattering around on her desk, searching for something amid the detritus. “At least, I know someone who can. Look, here’s the module. All you have to do is attach it to a weak point on the colossus, say a leg joint, and then–”
“Get out of there before T.A.F.D.A. blows me up, too?” I’d run out of energy for protests, no matter how ludicrous this sounded. “Fine.”
“Excellent.” Motti clapped her hands together in sheer delight, which was more alarming than the rest of her enthusiasm put together. “Now we just have to get you over there…”
This, I discovered, wasn’t going to be as difficult as I’d anticipated, though that didn’t make it any less perilous. Motti was acquainted with someone from a krewe that had been working on a device that was, at its core, a miniaturised asura gate, but one that, crucially, only needed one portal to function.
“It has a targeting system,” the technician explained to me, with the same unnerving glee that Motti had developed. He, too, had barely noticed the existence of the colossus, although the rest of his lab was empty. “It’s completely untested, but don’t worry about that. We just need to get up somewhere high, where we can see the golem and–”
He made a gesture with his hand that looked suspiciously like someone being fired out of a cannon, but I didn’t argue. If I was honest, despite the hare-brained nature of everything Motti proposed, and the fact that my life might well be in imminent danger if I agreed to this, I was almost… excited, or certainly filled with anticipation. If this worked, after all, I would finally get close to the colossus – and, by extension, to Zurra.
Not only would I be able to get my hands on her, but this was an approach she’d never see coming.
I climbed up through the inner tunnels of Rata Sum with Motti and her technician friend – who I thought was called Lumm, but who was too excitable to introduce himself properly – until we arrived on an upper balcony, one I recognised all too well. I suddenly found myself wishing I was here with Spark again, trying to dissuade her from using Souleater; anything seemed preferable to being the test subject for a portable gate gun and a targeting system that might blow me to smithereens. I realised, too, that I hadn’t told Erin where I was going, hadn’t even seen Spark, hadn’t explained to either of the charr what had happened to Caolinn. I was going to my doom and they didn’t even know it.
No, not to my doom – I would make sure of that, even if Lumm’s insistence on my wearing goggles wasn’t reassuring. I would reach the colossus. I would bring it down, and the Syndicate with it. And before it fell, I’d get my hands on Zurra, and finally bring her to justice.