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[Author’s Notes] Welcome to Narratess! “Collapse” is the first of several experimental short stories I’ve written (and plan to continue writing) as explorations of a world and as a way to play with new styles. I’ve had the picture of the world in my head for a while Further stories in the World-Machine will be posted here from time to time, so let me know what you think sometime. – Raven[/aesop_content]
“Miss Hannah, how’s my engine?” The audicrystal secured to the strap of Hannah’s goggles hummed with the sound of Captain Justine West’s voice. Her crisp, lightly accented tone easily cutting through the snarling, hissing, and clanking of the monstrous gears that propelled the URSW Saratora after her quarry.
The gleaming cogs, red hot from witchfire, hissed as Chief Technical Officer Hannah up ended the metal bucket of water over it, and she backed off as steam fogged her goggles and stung her olive skin. She waved her hand, trying to disperse the rising cloud of vapour as she leaned in to inspect the result of her efforts. A small, triumphant smile crept onto her face. The glowing rune had gone from flaming orange, so hot it was almost white, to a red that was rapidly growing more dull as she watched. Wiping the moisture from her forehead, she let out a sigh of relief. The rune had gone dormant, the witchfire was gone, and that particular threat, at least, had past.
The other threat was still looming on the horizon, crawling away across the slowly turning gears of the World Machine like the monstrous Old-Earth spider it resembled. At maybe six hundred metres from bow to stern, the Singaporean walker Mobius was almost half-again as large as the Saratora, but her crew was tired, worn out, low on ammunition. The Mobius’s last bout with United Royal Sovereignty forces had cost the Singaporeans dearly, but the juggernaut was not to be underestimated.
In the past months the Imperial Mechanised Forces Walker Mobius had been virtually unstoppable, outpacing pursuers and sustaining itself in combat longer than anyone had thought possible. Walker crews, always superstitious, had started telling ghost stories about her as if she were some Old Earth phantom.
But nothing and no-one could stay in the fight forever, and she was worn now, limping away in a desperate attempt to reach the border between the United Sovereignities and the neutral Free States. If she crossed that border, the Saratora would have no choice but to let her go for fear of starting an international incident. While Captain West was well known for her relentless determination in battle, everyone knew that such a flagrant disregard for the conventions that protected the Free States would be disastrous on a global scale.
Fortunately, the way things looked, Hannah felt catching the Mobius well before that was inevitable. Assuming she didn’t push the Saratora’s engine to meltdown.
“Miss Hannah.” The captain’s voice came again, laced with familiar, quiet authority. “Report.”
In the three years she’d served under her, Hannah had never known Captain Justine West to ever shout. The most that anyone, to Hannah’s knowledge, had ever heard from her was a slight hardening of her tone, a subtle but undeniably powerful insistence that could silence the most belligerent of deckhands.
“Squared away, sir.” Hannah replied into the crystal pinned to her lapel. “Witchfires are contained. Temperature is holding steady.”
“Good.” The captain said. “Push the gauge, give me more speed, then return to your post.”
“Sir, I should stay in engineering. She needs my attention.”
“Negative, chief. You are needed on the bridge.”
“Chief.” The word was quiet, and Hannah immediately shut up.
“Yes, sir.” She replied. “Pushing the gauge, then I’ll report to the bridge.” There was no reply, but then Hannah hadn’t really expected one, and she turned her attention to the task at hand. “Mister Boanne, five more points, but watch chambers six and eleven, if we have another witchfire leak I’m not sure the runes can take it.”
“Aye ma’am, we’ll keep an eye on ’em. Five more points on the gauge!” The red faced engineer bellowed, turning to his equally burly crew. The gears creaked, hissed, and increased their speed with a low whine. “Fellis, Carmickel, keep your eyes on chambers six and eleven. Buckets at the ready.”
“Mister Boanne, engineering is yours.” Hannah said. The man knuckled his forehead and went back to yelling at his crew. She nodded, satisfied, then hurried up the corrugated metal stairs and up onto the open walkways that flanked the walker’s enameled alloy body. Normally, she would have taken the time look out over the beauty of the World Machine – the endless fields of lazily turning gears, glowing brass and gold in the yellow glow of the nearby lumicrystal. It had never failed to capture her awe, never made her marvel at her own smallness in a world so beyond her understanding.
But her wonder was eclipsed, as always, by her fear of Captain West and at a crisp jog it took her less than ten minutes to reach the Saratora’s bridge of hard metal and harder officers.
“Chief Technical Officer Hannah reporting to the bridge, captain.”
Captain Justine Aubrey West’s long white coat rippled as the Saratora picked up speed with a sudden lurch, her ivory gloved hands clasped behind her back and black, tasseled epaulets stirring slightly. Her dark eyes, set in smooth skin of deep ebony, were fixed on the Mobius though the glassteel windows that ringed the Saratora’s bridge, and when Hannah announced herself the captain didn’t take her eyes off her prey.
“To your station, TO.” West said, putting two fingers against the small, smooth crystal at her collar. “All hands, this is the captain speaking.” Her voice echoed through the walker, thrumming from the audicrystals arranged throughout the Saratora – larger versions of the yellow stones every officer aboard wore. “We are an hour from contact with the Mobius. They are out maneuvered and have lost any chance of escape. They have been in action for the last thirteen weeks and their spirits are as low as their ammunition. They are tired and they are hungry, but do not underestimate the cornered foe.
They have almost twice our numbers and half again our guns, and if it comes to action they will not sell their lives cheaply.
Remember: our objective is to take her as a prize. Disable her main guns and clear the upper decks, but steer your fire away from her engines, her main legs, or her bridge. We need her mobile.
We will have them port side, so only bow and port gunners will be active in this engagement. Stern and starboard gun crews will remain on standby. Focus on her weaponry first – the Saratora has enough scratches for me to explain to the coin counters already.” There were more than a few tight grins on the bridge now. “I want this quick, clean, and with a butcher’s bill I can count on one hand.
That is all. Let’s get this done.”
Hannah shifted her focus from the captain as the bridge’s techmages funneled power through the crystals at her console and presented her with a flickering series of images displaying status of the walker’s various sections.
“Miss Hannah, are we ready?”
“All levels stable, captain.” Hannah reported. “Batteries are holding, engineering reports no problems with the increased strain.”
“Good. Mister Jall?”
“Cannon batteries are at 11% and charging at 1.8% per minute. We’ll be more than ready before contact.” First Gunnery Mage Jall answered from his post, his weathered skin gleaming with sweat. “Shield coteries are prepared. No problems.”
“Good.” Justine turned to the dark skinned man standing rail stiff against the corner wall. “Lieutenant West, are your troops prepared?”
“Aye, Captain.” The soldier stepped forward. “I’ll take my squads across at your word.”
“Your objective is the bridge.” She said. “Chief Matherton will provide defence in case of counter-attack.”
“We’ll see it done.” He said, saluting and turning to leave.
“Oh, and Patrick?” Captain Justine’s voice called her younger brother back. “I have no interest in low-ranking prisoners. Thin the herd, would you?”
“Aye, captain.” The lieutenant responded mechanically, as though he’d just been asked to fetch her a drink. His expression had been utterly blank, and Hannah couldn’t help but shudder.
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The gun-metal URSW Saratora was closing the gap, slowly, six fifteen-metre thick legs navigating easily across the surface of city-sized gears. Its lumbering feet, padded with enormous cushions of rubber like the paws of a cat that flattened and gripped at the invulnerable, ancient brass of the World Machine as the walker drew closer and closer to her limping prey. She picked up speed as gun ports slid open and witchfire cannons, already glowing a dull red, slid into view. The Mobius, belching smoke, was undergoing similar preparations, and the World Machine, ineffable and uncaring, spun lazily on beneath.
“All crews, prepare for combat.” Captain Justine ordered, her words flowing through the audicrystals of her walker, through steam-shrouded engineering, bustling gun decks where cannons now glowed with white-hot incandescence, to the infirmaries where the doctors and healers braced themselves, pouring grit onto the floor in anticipation of the coming blood. It sounded across the upper decks where the bloodthirsty crew, backed by the gaunt Lieutenant West and his grey uniformed soldiers waited impatiently, going over their weapons for the last time. It passed through the air of the metal cubes wherein techmages sat, cross legged and muttering mantras to themselves as they fed power into the walker’s crystal batteries.
“This is Captain Zhu Davis of the IMFW Mobius.” A voice suddenly boomed from the now much closer Singaporean walker, heavily accented but still easily understood. “URSW Saratora, cease your pursuit or we will be forced to engage you.” It hummed through the crystals on the bridge, and a small, tight smile appeared on Captain West’s face.
“Put me through.” She ordered. “Man deserves an answer.” She waited a moment till a communications officer nodded at her, the rest of the bridge falling silent. “IMFW Mobius, this is Captain Justine Aubrey West of the URSW Saratora. You are in violation of United Royal Sovereignty territory and have engaged in illegal combat with URS forces. Power down your guns, lower your shields, and surrender your walker or we will engage you.” The official statements done, Justine paused for a moment to take a breath, her tone becoming slightly less formal without losing any of its steel. “You’ve had an impressive run, Captain Davis, but your outdated walker is already damaged. Your crew is worn. Your ammunition expended. The Saratora is a Mark XII Sabre Class Walker. We are state of the art, fresh from repairs and well-rested. We have not seen combat in seven weeks and we have been chasing you for three, so understand that we are more than just willing to attack you – we are eager to do so.
On contact it would take me less than six minutes to cripple the Mobius. Thirteen to disable any batteries you could bring to bear, including your main guns, and turning your walker into a giant walking coffin. In twenty-two minutes I could turn your personnel quarters, bridge, and anyone on them into hot metal and charred flesh.
If you fight me, captain, I will annihilate you and your walker with a goddamn smile on my face.”
Hannah couldn’t help but shiver in the silence that followed and found herself staring at the no-longer distant bulk of the Mobius through the bridge’s glassteel windows. She could imagine what was happening on the bridge of the other walker, the frantic debate between the officers, the rising panic. As she always did, she prayed the enemy captain would be wise enough to know he was outclassed.
Justine lowered herself slowly into her seat, leaning back and drumming her fingernails against her armrests. Minutes passed, and the Mobius drew ever closer.
“Gun crews, mark your targets and prepare to fire.” She ordered into her audicrystal so suddenly it made Hannah start. “All hands, prepare for combat.” The captain nodded to the communications officer, and her voice boomed back out to the enemy walker. “Mobius, you have eighty seconds to power down your weapons and surrender your walker.” She gestured to Jall, who nodded and spoke into his own lapel.
“Long range bow cannons three through six, warning shots at 30%.” He ordered, and a few moments later a volley of three shots, bright as tiny suns, flew from the Saratora’s hull, crossing the distance between the two walkers in a heartbeat. There was a brilliant flash of light as they struck the Mobius’s shields, exploding several metres away from its hull on the shimmering, nigh invisible barrier.
“Mobius, that was 10% of three of my walker’s long range bow guns.” Justine said, now speaking to the walker’s crew as a whole. “Your mages and technical officers are now informing your captain that they can’t take many more of such hits. Surrender your vessel, or my next volley will be upwards of fifty such shots at ten times the intensity. You have one minute to comply.” She cut the signal and turned to her TO. “Miss Hannah, give me more speed. I think they need a little more incentive to make up their minds, one way or another.”
“Captain, if we push the gauge much higher we risk another witchfire venting.” Hannah protested. “The warding runes are taxed as it is, I don’t think they can take much more.” Justine’s lips tightened into a hard line of displeasure, and Hannah had to steel herself not to step back.
“How many more points can you give me?” The captain’s voice was calm, but there was a cold beneath it. Hannah thought hard, chewing on her lip.
“One more.” She said at last. “Two would be asking too much. We’d risk total engine failure.” Justine was silent for a moment, then nodded.
“Very well.” She said. “One more point. Master Jall, power guns to full, prepare to volley.”
“Saratora,” the voice of Captain Davis sounded again. “If I surrender my walker to you, do you guarantee the safety of my crew?”
“Power down your guns, halt your movement and surrender.” Justine repeated. “I have no interest in your crew.”
“I need your word, Captain West.” Davis replied, and Justine frowned.
“Mobius, this is not a discussion –- you have two options. Surrender or be taken.” The captain’s voice was hard, cold. “Your walker and everything on it are now property of the United Royal Sovereignty Military Forces. I repeat: your crew are of no interest to me. They will taken as prisoners if they do not resist and thus be protected by the Conventions of War.” There was silence, then Justine shook her head as the Mobius came into range. “Time’s up. Master Jall?”
“Aye captain.” He spoke into his lapel. “Gun crews, open fire on my mark.”
“Saratora!” There was a clear note of panic in Captain Davis’s voice. “Hold your fire!”
“Surrender your walker, now.”
“The Mobius is yours, Captain West.” Davis replied a moment later, and there was a slight grimace of disappointment at the corner of Justine’s mouth that Hannah only barely caught. “We surrender.” The captain let out a slow breath, then nodded to Jall.
“Gun crews hold your fire.” The techmage ordered into his lapel crystal. “Stay on target, but hold your fire.”
“TO, are they lying to me?” West said.
“No captain, they’re powering down their batteries.” Hannah confirmed, fingers dancing over her display. “Guns lowering as well, at least the ones facing us. Shields are still up though.”
“Mobius, adjust your facing by twenty degrees portwards and hold position.” Justine ordered. “Power down your shields, lower your walker and assemble your crew on the upper deck. If I do not see your command crew and yourself there I will open fire. If I do not see that you have disarmed yourselves I will open fire. If you do not have it done in the next thirty minutes I will open fire. Saratora out.”
“Miss Hannah?” The captain asked, propping one of her elbows on the rest of her chair and tucking her chin into her palm as she looked at her technical officer. “Lower the gauge.” There was an air of almost lackadaisical dejection to her tone, the tired acceptance of someone who’d just realised that it wasn’t quite Friday yet. “Bring us in.”
“Captain.” Hannah acknowledged, lowering the power as the team of pilots steered the Saratora closer to her prey
“Lieutenant West.” Justine said to her lapel. “The Mobius has surrendered. Prepare a team to escort Captain Davis and his command crew aboard the Saratora.” There was a brief pause as she listened to the lieutenant’s reply, and again there was that slight hardening in the line of her mouth. “You have your orders.” She cut the signal, rising to her feet. “Master Jall, keep us combat ready. The conn is yours.”
“Sir.” Jall rose to his feet and saluted sharply.
“Sir.” Hannah followed as Justine left the bridge, the captain’s coat tails flapping with the speed of her gait.
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Captain Davis was a bear of a man, all hardened muscles and heavy bones moving beneath tanned skin. A thick mane of dark hair hung down to his shoulders, and a long scar -– a burn, Hannah suspected – ran down his cheek and cut a line into his black beard. He wore what might have been considered a military uniform had it not been a dirty, ragged mess, but there was a degree of pride in the way he carried himself, even as he was escorted up the Saratora’s gangplank. He was flanked by various members of his command crew, Patrick West, and a squad of URS soldiers with gleaming rifles at the ready.
He stood in stark contrast to the immaculate Justine, stood at the top of the the ramp, hands clasped behind her back. On seeing her something that might have been anger came and went on Davis’s face, but Justine simply gave him small, icy smile as he drew closer. That was the captain’s way, Hannah knew. There had been plenty of times when the captain had sounded or indeed had been angry or offended, but her crew knew that she never acted on emotion. Like the Saratora herself, everything about Justine Aubrey West was carefully controlled – a monster of calculated and meticulously regulated devastation, reined in by the unyielding grip of a disciplined, collected mind.
“Captain Zhu Davis of the Mobius, by the authority vested in me by the United Royal Sovereignities Military and in the name of The Majesties Leizabeth and Sharma, I place you, your walker and your crew under my arrest.” He bowed his head in supplication, and Lieutenant West stepped forward and held out a finely crafted, if somewhat worn sabre that Davis’s empty scabbard betrayed as his. Justine reached forward, ceremoniously wrapping her fingers around the hilt and raising it for inspection. “Do you accept my authority over you, captain?”
“I do, captain.”
“Then I accept your surrender, and swear that you and your crew will be treated in accordance with the Conventions of War.” Justine said. “Place him in irons, secure him in the brig.” Soldiers stepped forward, and Davis extended his hands. They clicked the manacles around his thick wrists and, taking him by his arms, began to lead him away.
“Chief Technical Officer?” Justine spoke again, and Hannah looked away from the dejected figure of Davis and took a deep breath, stepping forward.
“Present.” She said as clearly as she could manage, turning her eyes to the command crew of the Mobius. “I am Chief Technical Officer Hannah Cris of the URSW Saratora. Which of you is my counterpart?”
“I am.” A small, wiry man in his late fifties with greasy, silvery hair came forward, the movement ruffling his too-large and oil-stained overalls. “I am Chief Technical Officer Periot Lee of the IMFW Mobius.”
“You will lead me to your walker’s Core?”
“I will.” He bowing his head formally.
“Lieutenant?” Hannah asked, and the lean figure nodded.
“Starc, Pol, Krinna; escort Chief Hannah.” He ordered, and the three soldiers stepped up, snapping salutes.
“Alright, Chief Lee.” Hannah said. “Lead the way.”
“Of course.” Lee began down the ramp, and Hannah fell into step beside him, West’s troops shadowing her as the remainder of the command crew was shackled and escorted into the hungry depths of the victorious Saratora.
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Of all the tasks as chief technical officer aboard a warwalker, Rigging a captured Core was the worst Hannah’d ever had to perform. Not that the act itself was difficult – in fact it was far too easy for her liking – but to Rig a Core was to put the lives of everyone on board in her hands, and she didn’t like the idea that one day she might be forced take those lives. Still, she dutifully followed Chief Lee into the depths of the Mobius.
“You looked to be running heavy, even for a Tità.” She observed, more to distract herself than any real desire for conversation. “Leg damage?”
“Yes. Minor damage to L2 and R4.” Lee explained without turning to look at her. His Anglish was good, if somewhat accented. “Was not a lot, but enough to force to us reduce pressure. When we saw you we thought maybe it is better to take the risk if it meant outrunning you.” He spread his hands, shrugging. “That did not help.” Hannah considered this answer in silence, nodding to herself.
“Your walker is impressive. Truth be told I never thought I’d live to see a Sabre with my own eyes.” Lee offered, and there was something genuine in his tone, something sympathetic. Hannah stared at his back as they walked, and couldn’t help but ask the question that had burned in her mind.
“Have you ever triggered a Collapse?”
“I have Rigged eighteen cores in my life.” He said, speaking quickly, as if he’d expected the question. “Once, I have had to trigger a Collapse.” Hannah didn’t reply, regretting her inquiry. Enemy or not, this man was about to face what was likely years in a camp as a prisoner of war. What sort of monster was she that she’d probe him for such painful information now? “Seven years ago, we were chasing another Tità – The Giellian – a pirate. When we took her we did not have the crew to pilot her back to our berth or space to hold the crew as prisoners.” He went on. “We were both heavily damaged, so we Rigged their core and waited for reinforcements.”
“They tried to attack?”
“While we were undergoing field repairs they thought to take us, killing the troops we’d left on the Giellian and closing with us while we were repairing our guns.” Hannah nodded. The magnetic pulse unleashed during a Collapse had limited range, usually just enough to utterly crush the walker that housed the Rigged Core, but few captains would risk the possibility of their own craft being pulled in with it by triggering the Collapse while close by. The damage could be catastrophic, two walkers mashed into one another, metal crumpling over metal, and anything caught in between would be crushed into pulp. “We were too fast for them. Four hundred men and women.” He sighed. “I never learned exactly how many.”
“I’m sorry.” Hannah said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it is good that you do.” Lee replied. “We both know our responsibilities, and this is one that no other can understand. It is important that none of us forget what it means to have this power.”
Hannah understood what he meant. His life, along with the lives of everyone aboard the Mobius would be hers to take. Of course he wanted to make her think, and part of her wondered if she were not suspicious enough for service in the military. For all she knew Lee was purposefully trying to get into her head so that she would hesitate at some crucial moment. Perhaps even now the crew of the Mobius was preparing for a surprise attack on the Saratora.
“We’re here.” Lee said, interrupting her paranoia, passing through the yawning archway and into a large chamber of corrugated metal and slowly-spinning gears. The faint glow of runes gleamed, bathing the room in pulsing light, dim and red.
Hannah stepped into it she immediately felt uncomfortable, like an unwelcome guest. This was not her walker, this was the home – the domain – of another, and she was here uninvited.
She shook the all too familiar feeling away and stepped forward as Lee pressed his hands to a large metal door. Slowly, moved by a strength that should not have resided in his wiry frame, the doors opened, and shafts of fell red light pierced the darkness. Hannah put her goggles on, dulling the brightness as the Mobius’s pulsing crystal heart was laid bare before her.
“Chief Technical Officer of the URSW Saratora.” Lee said formally, stepping aside. “I hereby surrender the Core of the IMFW Mobius.” Hannah could hear his voice crack a little as he spoke, and she could sympathize. The thought of ever giving up the Saratora’s horrified her. “Do what you have to do.”
Hannah took another long, deep breath, then stepped forward, drawing closer to the three metre core. Her crystal goggles darkened in response to the increased brightness, protecting her eyes. She pulled her gloves on and reached into her satchel bag, producing a small box of dark metal and systematically working her way through the various locks until it clicked open. Her hands shook.
The pebble-sized Trigger Crystal of milky green glinted in its casing of brass wire, and she gingerly lifted it out of the box and held it between two gloved fingers, studying it carefully as she tried to keep her breathing steady. She gritted her teeth, then reached out and pressed the deadly thing against the side of the Mobius’s crimson heart.
A shudder went through the frame of the Singaporean walker, a groan of metal against metal, and Hannah stepped back, closing the box to watching in revulsion as her green crystal slowly embedded itself in the Core, hissing and smoking as it wormed its way inwards. It vanished from sight in the red glow.
“It’s done.” She said, wiping her mouth as she stepped back, nausea roiling in her gut. “I’m sorry.”
The last slipped out, an involuntary whisper, and she looked to the floor before glancing up at Lee. The man’s eyes were watery, but he nodded and offered her a smile.
“Thank you.” He said heavily. “For your understanding.” She looked away with a grimace, trying not to think that it would take just a few moments with the sister crystal that sat tucked safely in its casing back on the Saratora to crush the Mobius. Everyone inside would be reduced to pulp as the walker literally collapsed in on itself.
She didn’t think there was such a thing as a good way to die, but death by Core Collapse struck her as one of the worst. She’d had nightmares about it and woken up with a terrible fear that the walls of her home were turning against her, closing in to crush her to pulp.
The success of the Saratora and her captain had put Hannah in this position of unwanted power all too often, and every time she was in it she spent her days in a sleepless haze, terrified of the possibility that maybe this time would be the time that she’d be ordered to act. She loved her captain, but she knew that Justine West wouldn’t hesitate to order a Collapse if she decided it was the best course of action.
There was a reason besides her aptitude results that Hannah Cris had opted to fulfill her service to the Sovereignities as an engineer and not a soldier, but it had also made her the only one on the Saratora who had the necessary training to Rig a Core.
Wanting nothing more than to flee, Hannah pushed her discomfort aside and turned to leave, but the glint of something alien caught her eye. She stopped, studying it carefully where it sat, quiet and unassuming, tucked away – a round hatch of burnished metal, sloppily welded on.
If it was one thing she knew, it was what the interior of walkers were supposed to look like and, like her, this did not belong in Mobius. Titàs had been popular for the last hundred years or so, and though Hannah had never officially served on one they’d been used for plenty of training missions and she knew something like this was out of place. Modifications were made to walkers all the time, but absolutely never in the geometrically specific core chamber. There was too much risk of destabilising the delicate balance of energies that played around a walker’s heart.
The hatch was circuluar, maybe a metre across and tucked in behind the heavy pipes that fed coolant into the Core’s main casing. It gleamed faintly with the shine of new metal, newer at least than the corrugated iron walls that surrounded it, and Hannah narrowed her eyes as she slipped off her goggles.
“What is that?” She asked, her tone hard as she turned to Lee and pointed an accusing finger at the hatch. The Singaporean chief’s face flashed with fear that he failed to conceal beneath a weak smile.
“Nothing, just additional storage for some spare parts we wanted closer at hand.” He said, but whatever talents he had been graced with it was obvious that lying was not one of them. Hannah looked at one of her soldiers.
“Go ahead. Open it up.” Pol nodded, stepping forward and putting his hands on the panel’s wheel. His shoulders strained, but after a long moment the wheel began to turn with a small whine of protest and the clicking of locks.
“We had to!” Lee blurted out before the hatch opened. “We had no choice! Your new walkers were too powerful, too many! We couldn’t compete!” Hannah ignored him, her eyes fixed on the hatch. “We had no choice!”
She stepped forward and stared into the silently turning gears of the forbidden bronze-gold hue found only in the cogs of the World Machine. “What have you done?” She whispered, unable to turn away from the spectacle, the beautifully crafted workings of tiny gears and whirling crystals. The weight of the Mobius’s heresy settled on her shoulders, and she let out a long breath. “What have you done?”
“We had to!” Lee said again, his voice a strained whisper. “We found a heat processor, isolated, hidden under an Eight-Gear! We cut it out, moved the entire unit into the cargo hold and added funnels to harvest the energy. It took weeks, but we did it! I did it.” There was something else in Lee’s voice that made Hannah shake her head in disbelief – pride.
“You can’t steal from the World Machine!” She said, her voice growing from a quiet whisper to a shrill cry as she watched the clockwork of the stolen, ancient technology working.
“We had no choice!” There was a pleading edge to Lee’s voice, and as Hannah turned to face him fully she realised he was quailing in terror before the imposing figures of Starc and Krinna who had stepped forward to loom over him. “Please, you have to understand! We had no choice! We’re hunted like animals by your walkers! You hunt us, the world ignores us! What are we supposed to-”
Balling her fist, the TO pushed past her escorts and punched Lee as hard as she could in the jaw. Years of working in the engine room had layered her arms with tight, corded muscles, and the blow sent him down, clutching his mouth.
“You know what you could have done, don’t you? You know you could have destroyed everything – there’s a reason why stealing from the World Machine is forbidden!” She snarled, shaking out her aching fist. “You could have broken something that keeps the winds blowing, or the ration dust flowing or the lumicrystals from burning us all to ash.”
“Shut up!” Hannah shouted him down, rubbing at her forehead as she tried to wrap her mind around the enormity of the madness.
The World Machine was sarcosanct – every people every where for a thousand years had adhered to this one law. Conventions rose and fell. Nations grew, became empires, and then collapsed into dust as they had since the days of Old Earth, but that one law had always survived. No matter what wars were waged or battles fought, the World Machine was kept out of it.
“Krinna, Pol; lock him up somewhere and keep him isolated. Starc, you’re with me. None of you are to discuss any of what you’ve seen here.”
“I need to talk to the captain.”
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“And you’re sure?” Justine asked, standing tall with her hands clasped behind her back, long coattails rippling in the slight caress of the breeze that drifted along the Saratora’s upper deck. She stood silhouetted against the distant glow of the blue-white lumicrystal that sank slowly beneath the uneven, endlessly moving horizon.
“I’m sure, sir.” Hannah answered, still standing rigidly to attention. “I’ve seen it.”
“Who knows about this?”
“Myself, three of Lieutenant West’s men. I assume most of the Mobius, seeing as they apparently spent weeks on the project and it would have taken a lot of manpower.” She said. “I’ve ordered our men to silence and isolated the Mobius’s TO.”
“Good. You did the right thing.” The captain was silent for a moment, and with her back to Hannah, the TO didn’t dare guess at what she was thinking. “What did this heat processor do for them, exactly?”
“It’s what kept the Mobius going for the last eight months. All those battles she won? Probably due to the fact that she had the heat processor to keep the witchfire problem in check. They could push their gauge higher for longer.” She explained. “Couldn’t stave off the structural damage though, which is probably the only reason we caught them.”
“Are they alone in this?” Justine asked, and Hannah could see her hands tighten in their gloves. This was, she understood, the important question. “Is this military policy or the actions of a desperate rogue?” Hannah took a deep breath.
“I don’t know.” She said. “I came straight to you. We’d have to go through the logs, talk to the officers.”
“Leave the talking to me.” The captain answered, turning to Hannah. “Can you extract the heat processor? Could it be returned to the World Machine?”
“No.” She shook her head. “The fact that they managed to take it out at all was a miracle, but it’s tainted now. There’s no way we could safely reinstall it.” Justine nodded, her expression resigned.
“Then we have to keep it from anyone else.” She said, sweeping past Hannah and gesturing for her to follow.
“How, sir? It’s too tough to destroy, and if we managed to extract it without taking the whole walker apart we’d still have the unit. What did you want to do with it, sir?”
“The Mobius’s crew are our prisoners. Engineers to officers, they’re all our prisoners.” The captain explained over her shoulder as she walked along the deck, back towards the stairs. “And you said the stolen processor is at the Core?”
“Then we’ll wrap the processor in a few hundred tons of Mobius and tow the wreck to the Molten Sea.” She said. “That’ll deal with the crew as well.”
“Sir?” Horror seeped into Hannah’s gut as she realised what her captain was suggesting. “Sir… I…”
“Is there a problem?” Justine stopped, and Hannah noted her voice was suprisingly quiet. “This has to be buried.” There was something real behind the captain’s voice, something Hannah had never heard from her. “Once we’re done interrogating the officers…” She trailed off meaningfully, her shoulders lifting in a slight shrug.
“Sir, we can get a team of Scrappers to us in a few weeks, maybe hide the heat processor somewhere where no-one can ever find it when they dismantle the Mobius. We… we could lock the crew up. Bring them back to base.”
“For what, interrogation? Trial? As prisoners of war?” Justine shook her head. “No, Miss Hannah, if this is an isolated incident then we can’t let anyone know it’s even possible. No-one.” The implications were clear, and Hannah wondered just how far her captain’s trust of the government went. It was a disturbing line of thinking.
“And if it’s not an isolated incident?” She asked. “Then there’d be no point to hiding it, right? Everyone would know.”
“Then an example must be made to make it clear that this will not be tolerated.” Justine said, reaching up to touch her audicrystal. “Bridge, this is the Captain. Order all hands to return to the Saratora immediately, prep Captain Davis for interrogation.” She ordered, looking back to Hannah, who was beginning to feel tears blur her vision as she shook her head, silently pleading. “Then get us clear of the Mobius.” Justine lowered her hand, turning to look at her TO, who was openly sobbing now, shaking her head.
“Please don’t make me do this.” She whispered. “Please.”
For a moment, the captain seemed to hesitate, her implacable expression softening slightly.
“This has to be done, Miss Hannah.” She said, and her voice was almost gentle. “War is an ugly business, and this is uglier still, but if this isn’t buried right here and now we – and by that I mean everyone – could lose everything. What if the lights go out? What if they break something that we can’t live without? You understand this.”
“Yes, I… I do, it’s just that-”
“You don’t want blood on your hands.” Justine shook her head. “But this is a war walker, Miss Hannah. You may not be a soldier in the technical sense, but make no mistake; your duties aboard the Saratora are not peaceful ones. I understand your feelings, believe me I do, but I have no sympathy for your ignorance regarding your own profession, nor do I have patience for the hypocrisy of your understanding the situation and being unwilling to get your hands dirty to handle it. Make peace with the fact that you are here to make war or find another line of work.”
“I…” Hannah looked at her feet, breathing, no longer fighting the tears. “I’m not sure I can do this.”
“You’re a good engineer.” Justine said, her tone cool, matter of fact. “But losing you would not be a blow from which the Saratora could not recover.” Something sparked in Hannah, a tickle of anger, hot and sharp.
“You can’t trigger the Collapse without me.” She said quietly, almost under her breath.
It was true – with the Mobius’s Core now synchronised to the Trigger Crystals that were, in turn, synchronised to her, Hannah had complete control over the Rigged Core. No-one could trigger a Collapse without her.
“True.” If her little defiance bothered Justine at all the captain didn’t show it. “But neither can I allow you to return to headquarters and stand trial if you refuse.” The spark of rebellion was promptly smothered by the chill that ran through Hannah’s body. “Should you fail to obey me, I will have no choice but to execute you for insubordination, destroy the Mobius in more old fashioned methods – charges left throughout walker, followed by continuous bombardment, then fold her up with mag grapples after which we tow her to coast. It will take days, time we may not have this close to the border.” Her dark eyes settled on Hannah’s. “I do not want to take this course of action, chief, but I will do so if I must.” She said. “It will take us three, maybe four hours to strip the Mobius and conclude our business with the officers. Think on you options, Miss Hannah.”*
As she always did when she wanted to think, Hannah retreated to the Saratora’s core. It was a stark contrast to the distinct feeling of invasion she’d felt upon entering the Mobius’s core.
This was absolutely where she belonged, and as she’d climbed up to sit on the walkway above the encased heart of her walker she’d felt an overwhelming sense of relief. She’d always enjoyed the feeling of the Core’s humming as it traveled through the carefully arranged chamber of metal pipes and glowing crystals, shivering into her skin and vibrating through her bones.
There were times, such as now, when she wished the Saratora was as alive as she sometimes imagined it acted. She wished it could give her advice, comfort her as she did her best to comfort the war machine when it was hurt.
The Mobius and her crew were going to die. That was unavoidable. Captain West wasn’t a cruel woman, but Hannah knew that there was no way to change her mind. The engineer wasn’t sure she should even want to. Hadn’t she been just as vehement in her condemnation of Lee’s actions? Was she not being, as the captain had said, hypocritical? Cowardly for not taking the steps that needed to be taken to prevent this sort of madness from transpiring?
The World Machine couldn’t be damaged. It was utterly invulnerable. Everyone respected the law. No-one would dare try to steal from the World Machine. These were the so-called facts that were common knowledge in society.
The World Machine was all. It pumped out the ration dust, provided heat and light with the lumicrystals, stirred the winds with the great Sky Fans, spouted water from the great funnels. How it worked was a mystery, how it all played together was an enigma. That it was vital for survival was a fact.
What happened if she or someone like Lee – someone like her – started questioning these things? Started playing with the world itself? Could she risk the human race for the sake of her own unwillingness to take lives? Could she live with herself if she made either choice?
It was a stupid question, Hannah realised, and got to her feet, feeling her walker’s hum travel up her legs and into her spine.
“I think that sometimes things just have to be done.” She heard her voice crack as she spoke to the Saratora’s heart below her, blinking fresh tears free till they ran down her dirty cheeks. “Don’t you think, girl?”