Illusion 1, Chapter VIII

by Mallard

The obvious first thing was to try all the doors leading from the chamber: three more besides the ones to the sewer and the university. I did this, racing from one to the other across that vast room, shucking off my coat as I ran.

I said earlier that the automat walked slowly, awkwardly. But now, with time against me, it seemed to be moving all too fast, racing forward at unnatural speeds so that I would glance away and it would have halved the distance to the door.

Robert took some prodding, but I got him to check the last door while I was examining the second. He seemed dull and almost lethargic, as if he had been poorly fed or hadn’t slept in the four days since his capture.

Which was probably not far from the truth.

Sometime in all this, I retrieved my pistol from where the kidnapper had thrown it. He had left it loaded, and I think he honestly hoped I would use it to give Robert a quicker passing.

I hardly ever use the weapon, but I felt better for having it back. It was a special-issue pistol for the Republic, designed for spies. It holds only two shots, in two side-by-side barrels, with an ivory grip embossed with the shield of the Republic. It’s not high-caliber, and hasn’t the range of most handhelds, but it fits anywhere. And as with all guns, it only takes one well-placed shot to do the job.

Though, there was no way I was going to shoot a nine-year-old kid. Even to save him. Was that selfish? I guess it doesn’t matter; I don’t think I could have pulled the trigger.

The exits were all locked, of course. More than locked; the combination dials to open them had been welded in place, so that one could enter or leave the chamber only by two doors: one to the sewers, and the other to the university. You’d think they would have remembered that when chasing my phantom, but maybe they thought I could just magic my way through it.

I checked in with the automat again and found that it was a scant dozen steps from the door to the university. Robert had slumped against a far wall and may have passed out, or just resigned himself to imminent death. Which phrase, when applied to a nine-year-old kid, is pretty disturbing.

I spun around, trying to take in the whole chamber at once, to see if I had missed anything. The doors, all impassable. The gas lamps could help detonate the automat sooner, perhaps, but would hardly help me. The automat itself…

There are times when I realize that I’m an idiot. The automat was heavily armored, and covered in high explosives. My mind had naturally shied away from it, from touching or getting anywhere near the thing. But that was the exact opposite of what I should have been doing. Armored though it might be, those who had built it were men, like myself. If it could be started by a solitary person, it could surely be halted by one.

I didn’t have time for more than a cursory inspection. The explosives were all attached carefully to the harness, with a common fuse attached to each, so that some internal mechanism could detonate the explosives at the right time. They didn’t seem the sort that would detonate on impact though, given the jarring steps the automat took. So I was only slightly apprehensive as I reached out to tug on the blast panels.

They didn’t budge, of course. The internal hydraulics held them tightly closed, waiting patiently until the moment they would deploy. I wished I’d paid more attention when the machine had been activated, but I had been too focused on not making any noise, and had not seen how it had been done. Probably there was a simple switch somewhere, but for the life of me I could not find it.

For the life of me. What an apt phrase.

“How in winter’s deepest hell do I stop you?” I muttered, tugging futilely on the panels yet again.

(It is a creature of fire,) a familiar musical tone caressed my ears.

“Kristopher!” I looked around wildly. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed the salamander’s constant presence until he was there, circling slowly above the automat.

“Er, don’t touch it, please,” I added a moment later, suddenly nervous. I was happy Kristopher had found his way back to me, but if he got too near the wrong part of the automat–the fuse, as an entirely random first example–I wouldn’t be happy much longer.

It took me a moment longer to remember that he had said something. “And what do you mean, a creature of fire?” I asked.

(It is a being of fire, like myself. Water harms me, therefore…)

I shook my head in frustration. As I’ve said before, Kristopher interprets and senses things differently than we do. To a human, an automat is clearly a non-sentient object, a machine and no more alive than a rock. To Kristopher, however, the automat was something that moved under its own power, that had a purpose and, in the loosest sense, a desire to fulfill that purpose. This made it as alive as any other creature to him. And since it ran on steam power, it was a “creature of fire,” no different from him.

But that wouldn’t help me. A glass of drinking water will just about do Kristopher in. The automat would just laugh it off.

Or would it?

It ran on steam, but to Kristopher, that would make it a creature of water. Its boiler, though, was powered by fire. And that was another story entirely.

The automat had reached the door by now, and I was momentarily distracted as it thumped into the steel panels, struggled for a few seconds, then was suddenly still. It stood motionless for a moment, then its left side rattled and the oddly-mounted drill began to extend, wobbling and creaking forward on a rusted steel truss. The drill bit spun up into a high-pitched whine, which turned into a sudden scream as it bit into the locking mechanism of the door to KAMA.

Upstairs, I knew, a dozen and one alarms would be going off. Faculty and students would be rushing every which way to figure out what was going on, who was breaking in where, or whether a student had just opened the wrong door. By the time they knew where to look, the automat would have fulfilled its purpose of hamstringing the university. And I wouldn’t be around to regret it.

“Quickly, where can I get enough water to drown it?” I asked Kristopher, who was still circling lazily above the automat. He didn’t respond right away, beyond taking on a slight wobble in his path, which could have been worry at my mention of water, or just his way of frowning in thought. I don’t think he understood my urgency. The automat had not yet done anything, after all, and as I mentioned before, salamanders are not very good with the concept of time. He might understand my distress right after the bombs detonated, but that would of course be too late.

He carried on above the machine for a few seconds, as the drill slowly penetrated the heavy steel door, then he shot up toward the ceiling.

A thick series of pipes flowed along the roof of the chamber, coming in from every which way like a bizarre fungal growth, converging in a sudden orderly conduit that penetrated the wall to the university some feet above the door.

There were at least ten or twelve pipes in that bundle, each of which could carry one of many chemicals. One would certainly be gas, to power the stoves and lamps and the hundreds of boilers inside the university. Some probably carried dangerous chemicals for experiments, while others might contain nothing but clean air, cycled down to the basements to keep the atmosphere fresh. But at least one of them carried water. Hot, cold, purified or not, it didn’t matter much to me.

But which one? It would have to be one of the wider ones, carrying the absolute essentials to the university. As I peered upward, trying to spot a label or symbol on the pipes, a droplet of water fell onto my forehead. I jumped, and then I smiled. Condensation, dampening one of the pipes, causing the surface to drip and reflect the light from the gas lamps, so that the pipe almost seemed to glow. That must be the cold water pipe. And it was indeed quite large.

A crash distracted me, and I pulled by gaze back down to see the automat’s rear disappearing through the door. The drill bit remained behind, skewered through the door where the lock had once sat, like a bee’s sting left as a memento of the insect’s final act in life. Like a bee, the automat would soon expire. It was up to me to determine whether it died on its terms, or on mine.

The door opened into another enormous chamber, a storage room of some sort. Boxes lined the walls, and stacks of wooden shelves held beakers and jars, some full of curious, luminescent powders or liquids, others empty and coated in dust.

The automat ignored the shelves utterly, and I winced a little as it crashed through them, the sudden breaking of glass echoing from the distant walls. The room was dark, but the gaslight from behind us illuminated a wide column at the back of the room. One of the foundation pillars of the university.

The pipes ran in a straight line along the center of the chamber, the occasional branch springing into existence to rush some important resource off to another part of the university. The water pipe branched several times, but the main trunk of it kept straight along the automat’s path. Perfect.

I pulled my pistol from my pocket and hefted its small weight in my hands. It felt familiar to have it in my grip again, like an old friend. Or an old enemy that you can’t get rid of.

The automat must have sensed that it was near its destination–perhaps a pace counter somewhere among its innards–and its skin rippled suddenly as blast panels rose up and locked into place. The automat was primed and ready, and less than a minute from its goal. Near as I was to it, I could feel the heat from the boiler within as it struggled to move the enormous bulk of the machine. A dose of cold water would do it a world of hurt.

It would make for a rather more dramatic story if I missed with my first shot, and had to sweat and worry over the final bullet. But the range to the pipe was laughable, and without bragging, I am a very good shot.

I had expected the pipe to spring a leak when my bullet struck it, pouring a steady stream into the automat’s innards. Instead, it exploded violently and showered its contents over the automat’s back. I jumped back as a wave of sudden cold enveloped me, and a few droplets splashed up and struck my arm and face.

The liquid burned like fire and I raised my pistol in a reflexive action, though there was nothing to defend against. The temperature in the room continued to drop, and as the automat took another step, one of its spindly legs snapped clean off, the broken ends encrusted with frost. It took another step, and something cracked loudly within. A third step, and a muffled boom sounded as its boiler exploded, enveloping the automat in a sudden cloud of hot steam. The cloud expanded, filling the room with a dense and rapidly cooling fog, so that I could not see more than an arm’s length in any direction. I felt a sudden stab of worry.

“Kristopher!” I shouted. Steam is far less dangerous to him than water, but so much of it, in such an enclosed space…

He didn’t respond, and though I scanned the misty darkness for his telltale orange glow, I couldn’t see him. I gritted my teeth. No time. Was the automat truly stopped?

I held up my hand, and forced my mind away from my missing friend. It took a second of concentration, and a cold blue flame flickered into being in my palm, cutting through the fog just a little. The flood of liquid nitrogen had slowed to a trickle as some control valve up the pipe noted the drop in pressure and shut off the flow.

In the aftermath, the automat stood motionless and lilted to one side, unbalanced by the missing drill bit and its broken legs. The armor plates had bulged outward from within, stretching and stressing the chains that held the bombs in place. No glow of fire shown from inside, and my light revealed the jagged edges of a thick cylinder that had once been the boiler. Below it, the fire pan had shattered under the thermal stresses, strewing dark coals everywhere. Not a single spark remained. The automat was dead.

I backed out of the room, shivering, and looked back from the doorway. The fallen machine looked like nothing so much as the carcass of an impossibly large beetle, found in the early morning in some dark forest, shrouded in mist and cold. It had been a beautiful machine, really. I rather think those mechanics could have made something of themselves, if they were able to take such a haphazard collection of parts and create this monstrosity that had yet functioned so well. That it would have succeeded in pulling down the university, I had no doubt now. I turned and left it to its grave, to be dealt with by someone else.

“Kristopher!” I called, blinking as I stepped back out into the light. “Kristopher!”

I couldn’t see him anywhere in the chamber, but a tiny voice from the far wall said, “Here,” and Robert held out his hands, encasing a warm orange glow.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Of course. Kristopher was attracted to pain; it was what had led him to finding Robert in the first place. Naturally he would gravitate toward the boy. And Robert could use the comfort, small as it was.

I staggered over to Robert, retrieving my coat from where I had dropped it earlier. I was suddenly exhausted, as if I had run a marathon, drained physically and emotionally after the excitement. I dropped next to Robert and leaned back against the wall, throwing an arm around the kid and pulling my coat over us like a blanket. He leaned into me as if it was perfectly natural, the salamander still cupped warmly in his hands.

Robert soon fell into a gentle sleep, and it was like this that Jedediah Millston found us half an hour later, storming out of the destroyed storage room with eyes ablaze, the fury of a thousand hells upon his heels.

* * * * * * * *
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