Notes: This is a mirrored version of my serial project (see profile for more information). Updates here will lag about a few weeks to a month behind the main site. That said, enjoy the read! :D


Episode 01: War Drums at Dusk (上)

The hollow beat of war drums unsettled the late afternoon dust. Intan yawned as one beat led to another, reverberating through the flimsy screen walls of the classroom. At the fifth beat, she looked up with a start.

"Rogue Doll on the grounds!" shouted the boy kneeling next to her.

Her other classmates leaped to their feet as they, too, deciphered the signal, and pushed toward the windows in a scrambling mass, each student straining for a view. Their professor shouted for order, to no avail.

Intan set down her writing brush and the bound text she had been pretending to follow along in. She stood, patting absently at the wrinkles in her uniform. Fished out a pair of cotton plugs from her pocket and stuffed them in her ears.

Then she strode over to the back of the room, picked up a mallet, and smacked the gong in the corner.

The gathered students jumped and turned. One of the girls actually shrieked before covering her mouth, blushing.

"Have you all forgotten proper protocol?" Intan said, serenely removing her earplugs once she felt the ringing of the gong fade.

In its place continued the drumming, a steady, unrelenting rhythm that rattled her very bones.

This is not a drill. Rogue Doll spotted in the first quarter. All students, return to dormitories immediately. This is not a drill --

The professor coughed. "Thank you, Cadet."

Intan ignored him and walked out the door.

o-o-o

Students poured out of the cluster of classroom buildings. They moved at a brisk but steady pace, heading toward the reinforced floating walkway that connected the main campus grounds to the dormitory complex on the lake. Instructors stationed themselves at waypoints, gesturing and barking out orders. All else was quiet but for the drums.

Proper protocol recommended marching together as a class, but Intan, still drowsy from the late afternoon lecture, let herself be swept away with the crowd.

"Just one Doll. Can't be that serious," muttered one of the upperclassmen walking ahead of her.

"I bet the Headmistress's already got everything under control," replied one of the girl's friends.

"Wonder what it's here for?" asked another.

"Test flight gone wrong, you think?"

Intan didn't think it likely for the staff to have sounded the war drums if the matter were so simple. A single Doll was no real threat, this was true, but it could still cause considerable damage if left unheeded. But she had seen no Dolls through the classroom window, could see nothing on the horizon even now. A few of the instructors seemed unusually tense, but Intan supposed that was just their natural state of being. She couldn't think of any good reason for such tension. Not when the island had been at peace for years.

She was still plodding methodically through the list of possibilities in her mind when someone screamed.

"Look!"

Intan and her fellow students halted in unison and glanced to the left, like a herd of startled deer poised in the moment before flight.

There, from beyond the wall, loomed the grotesque painted mask of a Doll.

"Keep moving!" yelled an instructor as the Doll rose and crashed into the western watchtower. Its smooth metal limbs jerked about unnaturally. For a moment it stopped, as if puzzled. Then it shrugged away the debris and started heading toward the neighboring engineering compound, from which students with the bamboo insignia emblazoned on their chests had been evacuating in orderly formations. They broke out of their formations now, scattering in a mad dash for the entrance of the walkway ahead.

Someone shouted, "What the hell is that pilot doing?"

"What the hell is security doing?"

"Wasn't it supposed to be in the first quarter?"

"A second Doll!"

Intan paid no heed. Students from her own division ran past her in a panicked mob, all training forgotten. But she stood for a moment longer and continued to watch the Doll in silence.

As the beat of the war drums changed to incorporate the new information, she turned on her heel and began to run in the opposite direction.

"Hey! You!"

Intan heard, but did not stop.

Two Dolls, she thought. One near the Headmistress's office. The other much too close to the dormitories for comfort.

And what strange sorrow in its unearthly dance.

o-o-o

There was a unguarded junkyard to the south of the classrooms, where retired training Dolls lay rusting. Intan had seen it on the campus tour, and she ran in its general direction now, humming a traditional fisherman's ditty from her village.

Her memory held true, much to her relief. Four old models lay there in a row, among piles and piles of scrap metal. The first two were so rusted over they looked like the skeletons of some strange sea monster. The third was missing an arm. The last, however, seemed more or less intact.

"Must have been retired recently," sang Intan under her breath.

She clambered up the Doll's torso, searching for the cockpit.

"O spirits of the island," she whispered. "O gods, o dragon lords of sky and sea. As the sun rises each morn, as moon and stars shine by night; as roots grow deep in the earth, as rocks stand firm against wind and age -- I beseech you: lend me such power as ye possess!"

The Doll's body began to thrum. The doors on its chest slid open, glowing faintly with light.

It was a real Doll after all, Intan thought fondly, though perhaps in need of a paint job. Not one of the miniature imitations the villagers sometimes used in the mines or in the fields, or out at sea with their fleets.

"Poor thing," she murmured. "Wonder why they abandoned you?"

She stepped into the cockpit and closed her eyes briefly, offering a silent prayer of thanks. When she opened her eyes again, the doors had closed, leaving her in darkness. She reached out, feeling for the controls. Much to her delight, the Doll whirred, strapping her into her seat, and the small space lit up once more, this time with a projected panoramic view of their surroundings. The controls were not so different from the Minis she'd piloted back home after all, she thought.

She pulled on the bulky headset. With a shift of her hand, the Doll rose unsteadily from its resting place.

They flew.