“The Empire broke through the pass at Jone’s Shield!”
Tala jerked her head up and slammed it into one of the brass pipes forming the guts of the steam truck she was working on. For a moment she clutched at her head with one hand and moaned as the pain made a spike in her brain. Then she extracted herself from the undercarriage of the machine, careful to keep her wings from getting stuck between any of the pipes, and rolled out from under it on a mechanic’s dolly. She looked for the messenger and found him near the door. One of the younger mechanic’s. Mathi.
“What do you mean, Mathi?”
He looked at her, wide eyed.
“The palace just sent the message out to the wall commanders. I heard while I was up putting in a parts request. The Empire is on the way here.”
“Kai help us,” Tala whispered.
Thoughts ran through her mind, settling on Ean.
Was he alright?
No, stop that.
Her engineers! She had mechanics out there overseeing the new weapons.
Oh Kai. Oh Kai.
Were her people dead?
And was she going to join them now?
Were they all going to join them?
She stared at Mathi, frozen, as the questions chased each other around in her mind faster and faster. One stood out above all the rest.
Why was this happening? What had they done?
Was Ean right?
Ean was dead.
No. Stop. Don’t think that.
Had Kai abandoned them because of Ember?
It was her fault.
No, it couldn’t be that. Ember had left because she saw the best choice, right? Tala had just…
No. It couldn’t.
Of course not.
Tala realized she was breathing fast. She closed her eyes and focused on taking deep breaths and calming down.
It was not her fault that Ember had left. She had told Ember what would be best for them, but Ember had decided. No one had driven her out.
Just keep telling yourself that. Kai has abandoned you, and it IS all your fault.
What? What was that?
Tala opened her eyes and for a moment saw a smiling face staring into hers from inches away, pitch black with slitted yellow eyes and long white teeth. Not teeth. Fangs.
She shrieked, and stumbled back.
Nothing was there.
Tala looked around.
All she saw was Mathis, staring at her like she was crazy. Another one of her engineers peered around the divider between her workspace and the one next to it.
“I saw something,” she said to him and Mathis.
The other engineer, Pelo, nodded.
“Lot’s of people have been seeing things lately. I’ve had nightmares myself. Elders say they’ve never seen anything like it. Just have to pray and keep going.”
This was no time to panic or start having nightmares. Or give in to them.
The Empire was coming. What should she do?
Kai, help me. Attah.
Die. She should die.
They were ALL going to die.
“Tala? Are you alright?”
Tala realized she was staring at the floor with a blank look on her face. She looked up at Mathis.
“I’ll be alright. Go get me a progress report on the wall. I need to know how the weapon installations are doing. Hurry.”
Mathis nodded, still looking worried, and ran out.
Pelo was still watching her.
“You’re not alright,” he said.
Tala shook her head.
“I’m good enough. The homeguard needs these trucks working. More than ever, now. When you finish on yours come help me on this one. I’m having trouble with re-routing the piping around the flywheel. Trucks aren’t my focus.”
Pelo nodded and vanished back around the divider.
Tala pushed away the nagging feeling that they were all going to die and did stretches to relax. Wings out, up, back. Bend down, touch toes while holding wings all the way back. Up, lean to the side. The other side. Deep breath.
It wasn’t her fault.
She turned and looked at the big truck sitting in her workspace, bulky and ugly with all the kren-composite armor that had been bolted onto it in a hurry. A six-wheel design, with four in the back for the bed and two up front for steering. Power in the back wheels, but the steam plant was up front under the hood like most trucks. It was a modified flatbed, after all. One of KarTallek’s latest, donated to the war effort.
The big lightning strike ballista mounted in the bed looked intimidating on it. Also strange and ungainly, with it’s five-bolt hopper sticking up above the forward-pointing limbs.
Would it work?
Would it matter even if it did?
If it didn’t…
No. Stop. Stop thinking like that.
She had to get it working. And after that, get the Tixerie squads fitted with the new electrical armor.
Yes. So much to do.
She pushed the despair a little further away, then looked around for her toolbox.
She knew she had set it… but it was gone. Had she moved it?
Tala began looking under things, on tables, in drawers.
In the back of her mind, something chuckled.
A shiver ran down her spine.
Oh Kai, what did we do? What do we do?