Rashida plumped down on the luxurious bed with a sigh of relief and began stripping off her clothing, smiling a little at the thought of donning the leather again. One benefit I didn't expect was freedom. I won't go back, ever. I'd rather die. But I can send her there.
She wadded the glorious golden dress, now sadly tattered and stained, into a tight ball, pondered a moment, then laid it flat on the floor and rolled it up, finding the resulting bundle much more compact. It stashed quickly into the leather backpack, as her braided and beaded hair did under the leather cap. She slid into the rest of the outfit and tugged the boots on.
I'll be glad when tonight is over and I can get some rest, Rashida thought, as she trotted over to the window and slid it open, then stopped short with a sudden realization. I'm... I'm not really tired. I could go on for hours, I think, maybe longer! A slow smile spread across her face as she watched the parade below and the line of boats in the lake. Another benefit. This wasn't going to be so bad, after all.
Leaning forward until her hipbones rested uncomfortably on the windowsill, she surveyed the side of the building for a path down, blessing the occasional glare of fireworks for flashes of excellent lighting. The easiest would be the fire escape, tacked onto the side of the building several windows back. Perhaps the window ledges, if she could manage the drop. She tested her grip on the top of the window frame of her room, finding a good inch of solid material to hold with her fingers. Can I possibly make this climb? It's not like I've been trained. Maybe I can get to the fire escape from here. Oh well, not going to find out by standing here.
She ducked back into the room to look around and ensure that everything was packed or discarded.
"Penthouse," Rashida snaps at the clockwork man, who nods with a ratcheting motion and rotates his arm to close the folding gates of the elevator in the face of the breathless and flushed manager. "I need no help of yours tonight and will be off first thing in the morning," Rashida snaps to the hapless man as the elevator rises smoothly, carrying its irate passenger out of sight.
The dark woman watches the dials click up through the floor numbers until the floor before the anticipated 'P', then glances at her key. "Ah, I do not have the penthouse tonight. I am three floors down. Take me there, quickly."
The head-nodding rachet sounds again as the elevator halts only for a moment at the top floor, then descends without opening either the elevator car's gilded grate or the locked floor doors. Rashida steps out on the lower floor and makes for her rented room as an elderly couple steps onto the vacated floor. The hydraulic elevator attendant performs its function and directs the car to the lobby, uncaring about the vagaries and errors of humans.
Rashida storms into the lobby of the Grand Hotel alone, not bothering to hide the loss of her wrap nor the mess of her hair and makeup, which are both in slight disarray.
"Ah, Lady Massri, wel-..." the desk clerk begins, smartly tapping a nearby bell, but Rashida interrupts.
"I have returned from the Opera. But not in my carriage," she says to the hapless man, now stiffly friendly as his alarm begins to grow, "I exited the theater after the performance and what did I find? Do you know?" Her voice, though quiet is intense and rather ominous.
He shakes his head cautiously, the elaborate curls of his mustache fixed and unmoving.
"NOT. My CARRIAGE!" Rashida's fury is plain in her rising voice, though the clerk had no way of knowing that she had not exited the theater by the proper doors. He begins to stammer an apology when the manager appears at his side. Relieved, he steps back.
The manager's walrus-whiskers bristle, his blue eyes shining from between the twin thickets of brow and beard. "Madam, Lady Massri, there is no excuse for this outrage," he begins smoothly but is as interrupted as the poor clerk.
"You are absolutely correct. This is an outrage. Do you know what I had to do? DO YOU? I was forced to flag down public transportation like some sort of street urchin and ride here in it! Now just look at me!" A sweep of her slightly smudged hand emphasizes the lost wrap and the specks of dirt marring the hem of her gown.
"When I was at University here, I would look out of my window at the fireworks and envy those who had the time to attend all the festivities here. It seems they take any excuse to hold some sort of fête: Zeppelin's birthday, the King's ascension day, Van der Graff's birthday, the city's founding. But now..." her voice hardens "... I find it quite irritating."
The launch approaches the shore and slows, but there are no dock lights. "Here, Lord Ritter. Take the controls. I will return with aid."
With that, Rashida vaults the gunwale and splashes into the dark water. A moment later, a faint gleam of gold appears in the darkness on the shore. It rapidly dwindles and is gone.
Perhaps a quarter of an hour later, as the boats circle before the city's shoreline and fireworks dot the skies, a half-dozen bobbing lamps appear in the distance and grow rapidly larger. "Here. Over here. For heaven's sake, can't you see?" Rashida sounds impatient as she directs the crewmen to the launch. "Throw a rope and warp them in, then bring them to the ship. You two, take the young man on the stretcher. The rest can walk, I think."
The crewmen hurry to obey, relief and curiosity warring in their voices as they greet the wayward nobles and aid them ashore. By the time they are all back on dry land, Rashida is nowhere to be seen.
"Never mind them. We can go around... bah. They've blocked off the main docks. I'll take us out to the shore near the airfield. Unless you care to attend the festivities?" Rashida urges the boat to a darker area of the lake, towards the twinkling spires of the airship docks.
Rashida steers toward the lights of Friederichshafen, scattered along the shore like odd, flickering insects. In the utter darkness, it is impossible to tell water from land from sky, making it feel like the boat is traveling through a great, black void - a disconcerting feeling. The chugging of the motivator slows as the driver suddenly eases off the throttle.
"Do you see that?" Those who follow the line of her dimly-seen arm outstretched towards the approaching shore, seeming to float oddly in the darkness of the lake, may notice that dark shapes eclipse the lights - many of them, moving at different speeds. "What are those, do you think?" Uncertainty tinges her voice as she tugs the throttle lever even farther back.
Rashida's eyes gleam in the dim running lights of the deck as she looks back to the injured and weary nobles. "Should we go a different..."
Garish light floods the boat for an instant, just before the concussion of a huge aerial explosion thuds through the night air. Rashida ducks involuntarily and yanks the rudder lever hard to one side, bringing the little launch into a hard-heeling turn.
Above, sparkling lights leap high into the sky and flutter down, winking out before they reach the water as a huge, distant cheer rises from the shore. As if it were a signal, dozens of lights spring up across the water between the nobles and the shore as a flotilla comes to life, each boat fantastically decorated. One beats colorful butterfly wings as its eyes glow red. Another snorts brightly-lit colored steam from gaping, toothed jaws, plumes of feathers adorning its gunwales. Gouts of flame leap from yet another, drawing screams from a few onlookers until it becomes obvious that the craft is in no danger.
"Oh. A party. Lovely," the Egyptian woman breathes, voice weak with relief.
"I'm certain with Mittens' brains and my brawn, we can subdue any unsavory types on the Phantom," Rashida says, leaning on the throttle until the launch slips free of the freezing cloud, the warm humidity of the Bodensee suddenly flooding around the battered nobles. The lights of the city glisten on the shore, surprisingly distant.
"Out of the cold," Rashida says, glancing at the shivering Cassie, though the cold doesn't seem to bother her as she wheels the launch and heads it out away from the island. "I'm not sure what direction to go except 'away'. I hope it will warm up once we leave this mist." She holds the course steady on one compass heading until they clear the freezing cloud, standing to stay clear of the icing windshield.
"Me, I vote for taking the Phantom back."
Rashida rushes to help Cassie open the door. Her eyes narrow as the cold air registers. "But this cold makes no sense," she objects, "This lake has a Mediterranean climate. Why would it be so very cold on this island, unless it is artificial - something to generate the mists?"
She trots to the little launch and transfers the snoozing helmetcat from her arms to a softly cushioned seat, then begins checking the systems. "This should not be too much different from a 'thopter, right? Propulsion and direction?" Her long fingers play gracefully over the control panel.
"Ysillith is lost? What about that scientist? Maybe he took her." Rashida looks flustered but tries to speak and move gently so as not to awaken the snoozing feline cradled in her arms. "Is there a way out of this place besides back through the tunnel? Though I think the Duchess here made the theater more secure for us. We should be able to get through without attack, as long as the assassin is still held. He's strong, though, and won't be a captive forever."
"Couldn't somebody carry the poor boy? After all, this is not the safest place. We are already carrying the cats. What's one more?" Rashida queries, looking nervously around the facility, "The captain could probably handle him easily. Where is Ysillith, anyway?"
Rashida listens for a moment. Besides the chatting of her own party, she can hear nothing: no sounds of metal clashing on metal, no booming declarations of defiance, intent, or gloating from evil madmen, no groans of the injured. "It's quiet. Too quiet," she murmurs to herself and the snoozing duchess, then makes a snap decision.
"CASSANDRA! YSILLITH! SQUIRREL! WHERE ARE YOU?" Her voice echoes through the cavernous facility, surprisingly loud and penetrating through the machinery's gentle hum.
Shaking her head impatiently, Rashida strides forward imperiously, storming past Alyce into the lab proper. "I told you, everything here in the entry was destroyed. We must find them..." Her eye is drawn by the pools of colorsteam condensed and puddled on the floor. "I woudl avoid those. They look unwholesome."
She dances through the scattering of brass limbs and bodies which previously made up the spider automata and patters up the stairway opposite the door, carrying the unconscious furry Duchess with her.
Rashida's beaded braids fly as she jerks her head in a quick negative shake at Drake's offer. "I am not nearly so tired as the rest of you, having done nothing yet, to speak of. Come, let us get to the lab quickly!" And she hastens down the underwater tunnel, heedless of its odd beauty, until the watertight doors at the far end blossom into view.
"The doors are much like the other end, then there were the mechanical men and spiders," she explains, "But Ysillith and Cassie and Squirrel took care of those things, then started upstairs. I do not know if they found the scientists or lab technicians. Can some of you crank those doors open?"
Rashida looks down at the sleeping helmetcat, finding herself oddly reluctant to relinquish the warm weight. "I am useless for much besides carrying her, while you can both fight and heal, Doctor. You need your hands for that. Who knows what we will find ahead?"
"Mittens, can you tell if your mother is well? She had a strenuous evening. And where will we go if the ship is under attack?" Rashida ponders a moment. "Did you ask when we are now or did I mishear? It is the night of the opera. We just came aboard the Phantom today. The opera is over and all have fled. We're in an underwater tunnel to some facility in the lake." She gives the young helmetcat a puzzled look. "Does that help?"
Rashida tries to wrench open the dogged-down doors, which is difficult while she holds the helmetcat. Alyce darts forward to help, and they get the first door open.
"I do not know, Lord Ritter. There is a laboratory of some sort under the waters of the lake, through this glass tunnel. The building rises, so it may also be above water, but I returned here while the rest ascended, once the clockwork creatures were defeated."
"That, I cannot tell, but I have misplaced him," Rashida says sorrowfully, "The Duchess is very weak. We should find the others and get her to a safe place, quickly. I can take you to the tunnel. The Duchess may have put Richard and Inspector Clousuk's name into the theater's mind as employees, as she did ours, so they may be quite safe and able to depart in peace. We can only hope. I fear to tarry here longer, with Cassie's group at the lab."
Rashida patters through the understage and backstage area, still carrying Kittington, whom she checks worriedly from time to time, until she reaches the doors to the tunnel. "Look, everything is fixed. Are not Serv-Bots a wonder?"
"Oh!" Rashida recoils in surprise, clasping Kittington to her chest protectively, as Ritter drops to the floor next to Drake.
"The Duchess made it think we are all staff, with her magical helmet and fabulous brain. Cassie, Squirrel, and Ysillith all went through a tunnel to the lab under the lake. Er, because there is one. I don't know where Richard or Clousuk got to, do you?"
Rasida calls periodically, the dazed helmetcat warm in her arms. Finally there is an answer, and she is relieved to see Drake and Alyce slipping hand-in-hand through the basement to join them.
"Ah, you're well! The assassin is trapped for the moment, but we must get out of here. Ysillith, Squirrel, and Cassie are down a long tunnel under the lake. We need to get back there quickly! Where's Vorian Ritter?" She peers around to see if the injured nobleman is nearby.
Once Vorian's done, I figure Meows can send a MeowMail to the group and get the theater people together so we can come to the lab. Unless maybe she's too weak to do that.
Rashida has every intention of heading to the lab, where she left Ysillith, Ralph, and Cassie.
If Peebo is dropping, Ysillith could have been greatly affected by the rift technology at the lab, or captured as part of their program.
The helmetcat's affectionate nuzzling brings Rashida to a halt for a moment, then she relaxes slightly, the grip of her hands loosening somewhat as Kittington gains her balance. The fingers of one hand slip through the helmetcat's fur in a tentative caress.
"That's... that's good news, except about the apprentice, and the theater may catch him, too. At least we have a chance to get out of here, and there's no point in sneaking around anymore, is there?" The sentence is ended by a sob which shakes the woman's body beneath Kittington's paws. Rashida suddenly resumes her rapid walk, swallowing hard. "I'm going to call for the others, so watch your ears. Helmetcat mail is wonderful for some things, but simple sonic location can be very efficient, too."
She calls the party's names from time to time as she goes, omitting Cassie, Ysillith, and Ralph. "I think they are still in that lab. We need to get back there. I hope... hope nothing has happened to them, Duchess. It will be my fault if it has."
You are very welcome, my friend. I bide. The voice in the noble cat's head subsides, though the feeling of presence remains.
Lean, hard hands grip the helmetcat firmly around the ribs, just behind her forelegs, and whisk her into the air.
"Hello, Duchess," Rashida whispers into Kittington's ear, "The things down here stopped attacking and seem to think I am some sort of maid. I presume that is your work?"
She holds the helmetcat to her shoulder and trots along below the stage, perfectly retracing her path there. "I do not know where the rest are, but we should leave quickly. Do you have any way of finding them? Do you know where the alien is?"
Duchess, I am with you still, but how can we possibly confront him? Can you use the theater itself? I know he is immortal, but perhaps he can be trapped. Waves of worry wash through the empathic link. Must you face him? Where is everyone else? They can help if you can bring them here.
Rashida tries to relax and keep both Kittingtons in tune as the helmetcat's nimble form dances through the cluttered utility ways of the great clockwork theater.
Don't be ridiculous. You can still feel the presence of the Duchess... both presences. Naturally there is no cord. She died. The cord was severed for that part of her.. and yet, it is not severed. Though I cannot see the cord in this reality, I can feel her spirit, her soul. She is still here.
As Rashida calms and becomes accustomed to the strange situation, the awareness of both Kittingtons grows, both potentially present though not exactly whole. The embodied Kittington is slipping daintily through the understage, ducking and dodging, without much difficulty. Rashida relaxes and simply tries to hold both presences in her mind without interfering with their actions, watching them both simultaneously.
The wall against which Rashida leans lurches and rumbles into a new position, and the blare of klaxon, siren, and loudspeaker seeps into her awareness. She rises shakily to her feet, wire still in hand. Several clockwork mechanisms swivel to face her, ocular units having picked up the movement of the bright gold dress. As they advance, her eyes darken with rage.
"I am done being used! I! Have! Had it!" Darting to the lead mech, she ducks swiftly inside its scything blow, loops the wire around the stem of its sensory pod, and jerks the wire taut. The tough wire severs the stem, blinding the mech as its sensory pod skitters away across the floor. Dodging away before it can grab her, she kicks at its leg, spinning it around, then boots it into another pair of oncoming assailants, pincers waving wildly as the three collide and struggle.
Huh. This isn't that tough, is it. Ignoring the blood dripping from where the wire has cut into her hands, she turns to face the rest.
"ANTIDRAGON MEASURES IN EFFECT. BREATH WEAPON DETERRENCE PROCEDURES INITIATING."
I wonder what those are?
Rahsida hears the muscular alien stagger down a different corridor, away from where she waits with the wire. Damn him! She slips through the maze of vents and pipes and corridors in an attempt to keep up with his hammering footsteps, which are beginning to sound a bit irregular now. At times, she catches glimpses of blue in the dimness below- and backstage, but he does not seem to be stopping to render bodily harm to any felines just yet. Satisfied, she tries to keep up but not interfere.
Rashida feels a wash of relief that the helmetcat is forgiving of mistakes in this still-new form of communication. Combining the empathic link with MeowMail is proving quite powerful. She fears they will need all the bolstering they can get during Duchess Meowselsworth's effort, whatever that may be.
The sudden rending as Kittington separates her two lifelines (or her lifeline from her life/deathline) is a terrible shock. She can feel part of Kittington's very essence being forcibly pulled from her body as if it were happening to her, the searing, soul-deep pain rocking her not just of its own accord, but because it was so very familiar.
This is how it feels to have your soul pulled apart. This is not imaging. This is loss. They lied to me. They lied!!
A shriek tears itself from Rashida's throat as she slams unseeing into a wall. Fists balled beside her head, she slides down the wall to curl up at its base, gold dress gleaming in the dimness.
Kittington, she thinks desperately, I must hold on for her sake. Pushing back the pain and despair, she seeks the thread binding Kittington's roaming soul to her body.
But there is nothing there.
There is a sense in Kittington's mind as if somebody else had stepped silently into an otherwise empty room with her, a sense of presence wafting in like a desert zephyr.
Oh, I can speak to you still, Rashida notes with a feeling of surprise. Please forgive any mistakes. I am not too experienced with this.
Control check 1 from Discussion.
Insert PM Part 1 here.
Oh dear. You didn't see that, did you? I am sorry. Don't think of a camel, don't think of a camel...
Kittington has a vague visual of a dromedary sauntering across sand dunes, along with...
Control check 2 from Discussion
PM Part 2
Ah, better. Don't fret about time, dear Duchess, this happens at the speed of thought. I am with you... how confusing. Four paws and a tail is so different. If I must try to control your body, it may be difficult. But your mind is so tidy. So many doors.. you have walled off things nicely. Or perhaps I did that? Why is that one guarded by a flaming sword?
Control check 3 from Discussion
PM Part 3
There's a mental shrug. No matter, we all have our secrets.
Control check 4 from Discussion
PM Part 4
The Goddess guards the safety of my body. I prefer not to ask her to help here unless it is necessary, for I do not know what she might do. Now, how may I help, Duchess?
Duchess, I saw Vorian Ritter in one box and heard his voice down here. Cassie was in another, along with the alien, Ysillith. Cassie had that Drake fellow with her, and the man called Squirrel, as well as a girl who looked like her. Does she have a sister? There is also a man named Richard who was here looking for an Inspector Clousuk, both from the League of Aristocrats. I believe they are friendly and they may still be here in the theater.
Rashida's mental voice hesitates.
As for the other thing, I do not know. I may be able to distract Wowbagger, but...
Somehow, Rashida interrupts Rashida, calling for patience.
A moment later: I believe I can help, but you must allow me access, Duchess. This is a new thing for me. It may be rather... intimate. Mentally, I mean. Spiritually. The thing is unavoidable. Will you permit my presence?
"...for forgiveness or face your sins."
The mechanical tones of the helmetcat-driven radios echoed through the understage and backstage areas as Rashida pelted towards the sound of battle. The speech covered the sounds of her bare feet slapping on the hard floor. She skidded around a corner only to see a cloud of thick smoke at the end of a short corridor. A gigantic, menacing figure was vaguely outlined in the shadows, a huge chunk of pipe in its upraised hand.
She hefted a length of machined brass in one hand, formerly the thigh-strut of a clockwork soldier, but hesitated to rush the gigantic alien. I don't know who else is around to help - or hurt. Maybe I can level the battlefield a little.
Tucking the strut under an arm, she untied a little pouch and tossed it gently towards the feet of the behemoth. It struck with a little clack and spilled, dozens of large steely ball bearings rolling along the floor.
She backed around the corner she had just rounded and unspooled part of a substantial coil of braided wire, her strong, nimble fingers twisting the very end into a knot to form a noose. Pressed up against the wall, she waited, listening.
"Lord..." Rashida's call trails away as the noises begin. First there are faint voices, almost indistinct. Then her hearing focuses in and she can make out the words, along with the tearing of metal and the clanging as it met the wall, along with thuds as it encountered something softer on its flight.
He's HERE! I would have sworn he fled under the lake!
Unslinging the pouch from her hip, she spills its contents onto the floor, then selects a few items and dashes barefoot into the dim corridors, towards the sources of all the noise.
"Yes, it is I! Over here!" Rashida calls back, desperately hoping that the clockwork creations cannot imitate voices, "Hurry! They have pursued that Wowbagger thing to a lab and they are not stopping!"
Her bare foot slaps softly on the floor as she taps a toe impatiently.
The tunnel is dark and cold except for the glow of the spirit-lamps which almost magically ignite as she draws near and fade into blackness as she passes. Rashida picks up the pace, growing more anxious at the thought of her friends exploring the laboratory with Wowbagger on the loose, and her other friends still in the clutches of the devilish opera house.
Finally, she reaches the door-like hatch at the end of the corridor and swings it open. She swiftly crosses the little antechamber to the next watertight door and opens it, too, peering towards where the hole in the front of the stage should be. But all is dark. Either the lights are out in the opera house or...
Wait a moment. Ysillith wedged these doors open. She welded at least one. Rashida inspects the two watertight doors to find them in perfect working order. How...? The arrow she had arranged pointing to the doors is gone, as is all other trace of debris. The light from the tunnel fails to show much beyond the second doorway, but her ears provide no evidence of anything hostile moving about beneath the stage.
"Vorian?" she calls softly. When there is no answer, she raises the volume of her summons. "Lord Ritter? Richard? This way!"
She pauses a moment, then calls again, reluctant to leave the doorway now that she has established a target for those who might possibly hear. To be prudent, she retreats to the opening of the glass tunnel so the visible antechamber is between her and anything approaching.
"Richard! Lord Ritter! It's Rashida! This way!"
She repeats the call every fifteen seconds, like clockwork.
Elbow-deep in gears and hydraulic mechanisms, Rashida stifles a sigh. Though there have been some useful components recovered from the clockwork men, her investigations are largely fruitless. Nothing indicates that these two models are anything more than mechanisms. Complicated mechanisms, yes, but no more than that.
She would frown, but years of instruction have taught her to keep her face placid. Expressions give away your thoughts and feelings and line your face. A goddess must be above everyday emotions of ordinary people. Your mind must be on higher things. Look beyond the horizon to the infinite, where your other half dwells. Yeah, right.
Tying her prizes into the tattered remnants of half of her gold scarf, she fashions the other half into a sling for the pouch and slips it over her head and one shoulder, the pouch bumping her hip with its heavy, rigid contents. Where are the others? She rises from her crouch and returns to the door to the glass corridor, opening it to peer down the length until darkness swallows her vision, then glancing back to the spiral staircase where the others had disappeared.
I'm not much use to them. Not alone. I will go back and find the others. Decided, she trots down the glass hallway back towards the theater, but quickly stops to slip off her shoes. Satisfied that her progress will be more silent, she resumes her jog, bare feet stinging on the cold metal floor while the pouch bangs against her hip painfully. Interesting.
Alone with the corpses of the mechanical men, Rashida avoids the still-twitching mech which seems disabled, examining the one in the most pieces first. Why didn't I study something useful like mechanical engineering?History and politics are so limited.
She strips off the covering of the face and limbs, finding it to be some sort of artificial material. There is nothing organic about it: no blood, no warmth, no life to it at all. Her brow crinkles delicately as she continues to probe, clearing away limb fragments to get the heart of the works and try to make some sense of the tangle of cogs, shafts, and tubes that comprise the mechanical men.
Glistening wet lines lace through the shattered works, originating at sturdy flexible tubes still dripping hydraulic fluid. Rashida traces the tubing back to several independent storage cylinders. She pries loose a couple which are dangling and shakes them, nodding with satisfaction at a tiny sloshing sound. Setting the unbreached canisters aside, she continues her exploration of the works, searching for the motive force and the seat of whatever intelligence the thing possessed before blasts of high-velocity metal tore it to shreds.
Cassie vanishes up the twisting steps, her latest conquest trotting behind. "Ysillith, you've cleared this area nicely and it should be safe. Keep an eye on those two, will you? I'm going to poke around down here for a minute to see if the others catch up. It's not like I can help much in a tussle."
Rashida pokes her head out the door to see if anybody else is visible down the long, dark glass tunnel, then swings the door to but does not dog it shut. She kneels by the remnants of the welcoming committee, carefully snaking slender hands past the jagged metal ringing the newest holes to probe carefully in their innards. Did you have souls? Did you feel? Where does the soul even live? she wonders quietly to herself, Von Ryuko must have found a way to store it somehow. I wish I knew what models these were. She sighs softly.
Rashida regards the humming, swirling interior of the facility with narrow eyes, tapping one long, golden fingernail against her lips as she prowls among the wreckage of the clockwork men.
"I think..." she says slowly, "...well, several things. If that Wowbagger personage expected to kill the partygoers tonight, he was doubtless surprised by the retinue that Cassie has collected. They are wild cards whose full capabilities have yet to be seen... if they stay with us."
She paces a few more steps. "If he expected to kill us at the opera tonight, then this place was planned as an escape - a retreat - not a trap. That doesn't mean it is safe, of course, but it may not be as deadly as you expect."
"Thirdly, that entire theater is exceedingly dangerous. We all saw the patrons cut down, did we not? Why? What is it for? Why is it allowed to operate here, among so many important people? Its purpose is doubtless connected to this facility's. And I must admit, I am highly curious about this place."
She sighs. "Fourth, Wowbagger's use of this route may not be voluntary. He and his associates may have forcibly occupied it. Which means people here might need help." Rashida's nose wrinkles in distaste. "I'm not terribly inclined to help those associated with the slaughter in the theater, but there may be innocents among them, or those who could give us information or aid in our quest to solve Von Ryuko's mystery."
She smiles grimly and laughs humorlessly. "That's a long-winded way of voting that we move forward, figure out what this place is, and try to catch the assassins -- if they're not already long gone. I'd prefer to wait for the others, but we have no idea if they are going to join us."
The door swings away from the wall and Rashida sees a pair of worried brown eyes along with an extended hand.
"Y'a'right dere, Cleo?"
Rashida finally took a careful breath and stood for a moment conducting inventory. She was certain she'd felt something crack when the wheel's edge hit her midsection, but wasn't sure. There was a lot of squashy pain, that was certain.
This is stupid. I'm not even in combat and I'm getting hurt.
With a nod at Ralph, Rashida takes his hand and pulls away from the wall, moving carefully. "Thank you, 'Squirrel'. I'm fine. I'll follow you in."
She steps gingerly through the doorway after Ralph, to where Cassie and Ysillith stand at the bottom of an enormous cylindrical room several stories high, eerily lit by varicolored steam flowing through sections of clear glass tubing with occasional spirit-lamps attached to the grid of beams running through the space, supporting both the colorsteam piping and panels of shimmering metallic mesh stretched in all different directions, areas of the mesh seeming to fade in and out of reality at random intervals. The effect was hypnotic, so much so that they barely noticed the half-dozen clockwork guard racheting forward in lockstep, closing in menacingly with pincers and rotating knives.
Rashida watched the warriors advance and her mind went *click click click*, flashing through calculations in a microsecond.
If they crack or outright break the glass, the lake will rush in. The watertight door is closed. We'll never be able to open it against water pressure. The constructs won't care. They may have been ordered to do that very thing to stop us. We'll have to try to make it to the surface of the lake, or drown. If that door stays closed, we're in terrible danger. I don't even know if the others can swim.
She watched the fighters, noted their relative velocities and positions, figured the likely consequences of their actions, and picked her course.
In a blur of gold, she danced among the combatants, zipping, halting, whirling, changing direction, ducking to avoid weapons. Suddenly, even before Ysillith's horns contacted her foe, Rashida was at the door and spinning the wheel, stomach sinking at the thought it might not move, that it would be dogged down from the other side.
But the wheel spun and the seals hissed as the air pressure on either side of the door equalized. As she breathed a sigh of relief, she remembered Ysillith's charge. Hurling herself backwards, she carried the door with her, opening it just as the amazon carried the bulk of the construct through and into the next room. She slammed back violently and the massive door flew open wide, smashing her against the wall with the force of its momentum.
"Careful!" Rashida hisses at Cassie and Ysillith, "Make sure nothing hits the glass walls! Who knows if they will stop a projectile, or one of those green ray things?"
She moves up behind Cassie and Ysillith, but not too close, surveying the area behind the eerie constructs. They're on guard about twenty feet beyond another of the airlock-style doors, which is closed.
Rashida's inscrutable black eyes regard Cassie evenly for a moment, then she nods slightly. "When we get back to the ship?"
"In the meantime, I think Ysillith and you or 'Squirrel' should take the lead. I'm not much use in a fight, really." She gently shoves the group into formation and urges them onward, glancing back to see if anyone was catching up. "Let's go!"
Rashida looks at the orb for a moment, then begins to smile, then laugh. "I've grown so accustomed to wondrous items that a simple light baffles me. Well done! At least those who follow will be able to find our way. Thank you." She turns to proceed, still chuckling, then suddenly stops to jab a finger at the scientist.
"You! What are we heading into, with the Mark I's? Do they have any weaknesses?"