Sight systems: check.
Air circulators: check.
Communication channels: check.
Sloan lifted her right arm into the air just the slightest bit, and with it moved a thousand pounds of complex machinery. Hundreds of red wires spanned over the first layer of metal, reinforced with silver-and-gold colored plates above each joint. Three redundant systems told each plate where to move with each small twitch of Sloan’s muscles.
“Agent Lӧwe?” Engelbert’s voice rang out over the PA, echoing a second later in the helmet microphone behind Sloan’s head. “Respond on the signal from Manolios for an audiovisual check.”
A red light flashed and Sloan responded with an “All-clear.” Less than a second later, her voice was amplified by speakers in the helmet. The repetition was all rather disorienting, but if this test model worked it would be worth any discomfort.
“Alright, Lӧwe, we’re going to activate the flight matrix. Keep calm and hold your arms and legs straight downward.”
Small rockets jetted out hot air at the feet of Sloan’s armor, where padding and insulation kept her from overheating. The overwhelming force shook the very ground beneath her with enough power that even with literal tons of metal armor, Sloan was still hovering two feet in the air.
“Now landing,” Sloan called, first with her voice and then through the speaker system.
With the gracefulness of a cat in a straitjacket, the heavy piece of machinery fell into the ground. Sloan was up to her ankles in reinforced concrete and every muscle in her body was crying out in pain. She tried to shift her leg, but through her skeleton came a reverberating snap.
She woke up some time later in a bed. Engelbert and Manolios were standing vigil while several doctors were poking and prodding at her legs.
“Good morning, Agent Lӧwe. You managed to break both of your ankles.” Engelbert was sipping coffee and behaving as if it was routine to break several bones.
“Not my fault,” Sloan slurred. Her mouth felt funny and dry, and she realized that she had been dosed with painkillers.
“No, definitely not.” Manolios was looking at Engelbert with sympathetic disapproval. “What Charles- ah, Mister Engelbert, meant to say was that we are suspending work on that particular piece of armor.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Engelbert was all business even in the face of failure. “No matter how much padding we install, such heavy armor can’t take a hit without transferring a lot of force to the user.”
“Right. We can’t have agents liquefying inside the suits.”
Sloan looked down at the doctors, who were now applying twin casts to her legs. Behind them was a computer monitor displaying x-rays of Sloan’s ankles, only most of the bone was replaced with metal prostheses.
“I guess if we’re going to use drone armor, we’ll have to depend on Sir Clarke to supply the occupants,” said Engelbert, idly swirling his half-empty cup.
“Sir Clarke?” Despite the anesthesia, Sloan had to physically resist the urge to sit up to participate in the conversation. “So the next step is-“
Manolios raised a hand to silence Sloan. “These doctors don’t have that level of clearance, Agent Lӧwe. We should keep this quiet, especially in the wake of, well…”
Sloan nodded. Nobody wanted to talk about the attacks so soon after their occurrence, but with the Redshirts so heavily involved, it wasn’t going to be long before the secret organization was forced into the light. The next battle was going to be one of politics.
“And I say you’re a fool, Ivo. Haven’t you heard the rumors? The humans will be going to war very soon, you mark my words.”
Olivia rubbed her eye, bumping the stem of her flower-nose and causing it to wobble back and forth. Ivo was a good man, but he was far too trusting. Barry had made the right decision.
“There were only two of them. How were they going to-“
Barry cut Ivo off. “News just came from Earth that very few people were actually key players in their recent incident. And thousands died there, in one of their biggest cities. We can’t risk that kind of damage here.”
Ivo shut up at this news, although it was still clear that he was uncomfortable with what had just happened. Instead of continuing in an argument, he gazed down through the hole where the guest’s room had been, down at the river below.
Barry’s hand was still on the final latch, even though it had been at least ten minutes since he’d detached the barrel. Despite his reasoning, he still looked uncomfortable with the decision.
“Barry,” Olivia put a hand on the cooper’s shoulder. “It really was the right thing to do. The Reds in the south have been recruiting, and rumor has it that some of their agents are object spirits.”
“Spirits? You mean-“
“Yes. There weren’t just two infiltrators.” Here Olivia turned to Ivo and gave her most confident look. “There were three. And one of them, the man who carried the spirit, held a sword. Who knows what other weapons they may have been carrying?”
She too turned toward the river, gently pushing Barry to do the same. He let go of the latch, finally, and stared into the deep, unknown darkness where the river left Barrelton and flowed to unknown depths.
“What will become of them?” Ivo’s eyes were closed, as if he didn’t want to be looking at what they had done to their guests.
“It is in Leviathan’s hands now,” said Olivia, and a shiver went down her spine.
Lee had not spoken to anybody in years. Or maybe months. He couldn’t be bothered to keep track.
If he went up one river, best to do when the plantkin were sleeping, he could play a little trick on them. Move a bit of water, do some meaningless property damage, that kind of thing. From what he could glean, the villagers called him Leviathan. Pretty badass, when he thought about it.
It was pretty fun, but it also required moving. Lee was not interested in moving today.
Still, the temple of water was so boring. Nobody could visit, because all the entrance mechanisms ran on water flowing from the inside. Lee had collected some magazines the last time he went out, but after a few thousand sittings reading about Rudolph Valentino’s death and out-of-date Grecian politics, Lee had been content to let the pages dissolve into the water.
Lee was just settling down for his first nap of the day when a great crash reverberated through the temple. He knew exactly where the sound must have come from. Only one river actually flowed into the shrine; most of the others on the island originated there.
In order to put the least amount of effort possible into walking, Lee relaxed and let his molecules relax. On a subatomic level, protons and electrons were shuffling to become the simpler elements of hydrogen and oxygen. Lee’s body turned to water so smoothly that an outside observer might think he was melting, but he had been doing the same transformation for so many centuries that it was not just painless, but effortless.
The water flowed down layers and through hallways until it arrived at the source of all the hullaballoo. Unfortunately, the detritus was the same kind of thing that usually washed in from Barrelton- rapidly cooling metal fresh from the smith, food waste, sewage. But there on its side was an enormous barrel, cracked and leaking, but mostly unharmed. And just as Lee started to rearrange his matter back into his human form, the barrel shifted slightly as a blade came stabbing out from inside.
Lee watched as the sword kept working its way down to create a larger hole, then as two or three figures- it was hard to tell how many there were by merely sensing their water content- started slamming themselves into the weak point.
A panel came loose and out was shoved a gasping, confused hamburger.
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