The furnaces along the far wall were roaring, opened doors throwing skittering shadows across the huge foundry floor. Gouts of sparks flew as Rris with shriveled fur and decked out in heavy leather protective suits tipped crucibles of molten pig iron into clay molds. Steam whistled through vents as the last of the moisture was forcibly expelled from the molds. Across the other side of the hall the test models of the converters were still in use, bellows being used to force air through the pig-iron, burning off impurities in a spectacular flare of liquid metal. A trio of Rris metalworkers used long handles to tip the waist-high crucible and pour the steel off into ingots.
As yet the full-scale one was untested; still waiting upon the engine for the compressor. There was no other way to generate enough pressure to pump air through 5 tons of molten metal. After that would come the open-hearth furnaces, but they'd require a better supply of pig iron and a new building in which to build them.
"Later this week, you think." The grizzled Rris with his face fur singed back into a curled stubble growled. "Burn you, Mikah. We heard that last week."
"You're hearing it again," I told him. "I can't make wheels turn any faster."
Khieschi snorted and scratched at himself under the leather apron. "A. I've told them you need more time here."
"I don't have more time," I sighed.
"I've noticed," His tail lashed and he waved a hand at the approaching guards. I glanced wearily at my watch. 10:00, and about time too. "Suppuration! We need longer," Khieschi appealed.
"My apologies sir," the guard said stiffly. "But we've got our orders."
The foreman snarled something, then turned away. "Get it out of here then."
The guards glanced at me and I shrugged, slung my jacket over my shoulder and followed them. As soon as I stepped into the gloom of the street outside the cool night wind blowing in across the city from the lake hit me, feeling like an arctic blast after the metal-tinged heat of the foundry. I took a deep breath, looking up at a solitary wispy cloud doing its best to obscure the full moon. A clear night, with the vault of the dark sky smeared with the glow of the Milky Way, a jagged skyline of steep rooftops and crooked chimneypots silhouetted against the stars. The carriages were waiting with oil lamps mounted in sconces above the cabs casting feeble glows that did little to help illuminate the area. Armed escorts were mounted on their souped-up llamas, weapons cradled across the saddles as their muzzles turned from side to side, scanning the streets and windows like turrets.
The carriage rocked on its springs as I climbed in and the green upholstery sighed when I sat. My two guards took their accustomed places opposite. At least now, aside from a few cursory glances, they no longer stared at me. As the carriage started of with a clatter of hooves and the protests of animals I leaned my head against the padded wall and dozed fitfully. Tired, visions of liquid metal and flame tangling with snow and gentle amber behind my eyes.
I never heard the first explosion. The window to my left bowed inwards, then imploded in a spray of bottle-green glass and the carriage jerked violently to the side under me, slamming me into the upholstered wall. The world spun and I found I was lying on the floor with a dazed guard sprawled across my legs, the whole cab tilting over to the left at a crazy angle. Smoke poured in through the broken window, along with a volley of dull retorts I recognized as gunfire and the vocal-chord tearing yowls of Rris screams. Another explosion sounded and my guards grabbed me and pressed me back down again while the carriage rocked and more shots sounded outside. Flames were licking at the upper window as one of the guards snarled something. I looked up as the other raised its head to look out the window, a double-barreled pistol in its hand. Barely got its head over the sill when it was kicked back with a peculiar yip and a crossbow quarrel buried up to the fletching in its muzzle. The other guard yowled in fury as the spasming body sprawled back and another volley of gunshots sounded; the carriage rocked again while splinters of wood and curls of upholstery stuffing flew from the wall beside the window and reddish firelight streamed through the jagged perforations. I tried to make myself one with the cramped floor, then winced when the guard dug claws in.
"When I say run, you run," the Rris snarled in my ear over the howls and gunshots and now the sounds of metal clashing from outside. "Understand?"
"Yes," I choked out, the terror beginning to seep in over the confusion. A few seconds since the routine had been so drastically interrupted.
The guard rolled off me and I caught a glimpse as he... she? Yanked cords from a pair of small globes, one after the other, and hurled them through the window. Explosions like percussion caps in a dumpster and a pattering like hail on a tin roof against the side of the carriage.
"Go!" The guard screamed, forcing the door open, raising pistol and cutting loose with both barrels at something I couldn't see. "Go!" as claws pulled at my jacket.
I went, out the door and into a confusion of acrid, reeking smoke and shadows turned to dancing blackness by the flaming wreck of the other carriage that was tipped on its side. Lamp oil had spilled, leaving blazing rivulets trickling across the cobbles and woodwork. Smoke billowed, stinking of gunpowder and making my eyes water and roiling around the panicking and downed animals and Rris guards lying in the street amongst rubble and spilled timbers from a shattered wall. Run? Run where? Another series of gunshots crashed, the sound echoing off the walls of the buildings and I ducked into a doorway, just about tripped over the body of a guard and something spanged! off the stone above my head. High, I realised when I saw a tongue of fire spit from a window, lancing down into the street. Down the street there was a pair of answering gunshots, then a scream as another weapon fired from high up. I knelt and grabbed up the weapon from the dead trooper's hand: a heavy bulky thing like a sawed-off shotgun with four barrels and a wooden grip enveloping the lower two barrels. I didn't know how to use it, I didn't even know if the damn thing was loaded. The hammers were down, so it'd probably been fired. I hefted it by the barrel, finding the weight somewhat reassuring: at least it'd make a satisfactory club. Rris yowled in the darkness and I ran again, ducking into the first alley to find a flimsy gate blocking it. Locked. I stepped back and kicked as hard as I could and something splintered and it slammed open.
A clawed hand grabbed my arm and I spun, bringing the gun up at the face of the panting black powder-streaked Guard. "Sir! Rot it! I thought... !"
Howls rang out and through the swirling murk dark figures moved. The Guard took one look and yanked on my arm. "Run!"
I did, stumbling and tripping in the darkness with claws scrabbling on my jacket and the guard urgently hissing to 'hurry up'. I couldn't. Even in armor and near-pitch blackness Rris were faster than me. Another corner into a side street where the moonlight glittered on small barred windows and big wooden doors. My boots thumped against cobbles and breath rasped in my lungs as the guard tried one door, then another. Locked. A cry from behind and a Rris figure appeared in the street. The guard raised his gun and fired: a flare of fire and smoke and the distinctive ssspang! of a musket. Whoever that had been cried out and staggered even as we ran again.
The side street opened onto a view across the river: a dockside on the riverside, the northern side a wall of blank-faced boatsheds and warehouses. A few crates littered the wharf, a couple of frames with tangles of fishing net strung out to dry catching a latticework of moonlight and shadow. Further along the dock to the west a fishing boat was high and dry, its inverted hull resembling a beached sea leviathan. Beyond it lay another street: the only other way out of there.
"Come on!" The guard spat, tail bristling and fired his second barrel back the way we'd come, stuffed the spent pistol into his belt on the run and drew another, then yowled in dismay.
I'd seen them too; the dark and fast shapes that darted out onto the docks fifty meters ahead of us and raised what could only be weapons and those years of television violence paid off: I hit the ground at the same time as the guard while a sputter of gunfire rang out and shots whined past. I didn't even have time to thank god for the inaccuracy of those guns before the guard's hands were clutching at me again, his claws skidding on the puncture-proof synthetics of my jacket as he urged me toward the dubious protection offered by nets hanging out to dry.
We dropped panting behind the folds of draped hemp, the river on one side and rolls of netting on the other. They reeked of fish and lakebeds, water and wet hemp, the cobbles of the dock were hard under my butt as I tried to find a place where rolled nets offered a bit more protection. To our southern flank the wharf dropped off to the dark lapping water of the river, and there wasn't a damned boat handy. The guard poked his head up and I winced, remembering my guard in the carriage. A shot rang out and he raised his pistol, returned fire with a gout of acrid smoke and ducked down again. "Sir? Are you all right?" Hard to understand him. He was panting hard, gasping air.
"Okay... yes," I said. "I..." another Rris appeared, in a dark outfit I didn't recognize. The gun in the hand was coming around and my arm was up and pulling the trigger before I realised what I was doing.
The gun was loaded, it was cocked.
A hammer snapped back, a split hesitation then a blaze of light and smoke and flame, a recoil that kicked my arm up and back and made the muscle in my shoulder burn in complaint and when the metallic smoke cleared there just wasn't a Rris there at all and my arm felt as if someone had put an electrical jolt through it. A damn shotgun.
"Not bad," the guard was staring at me, then hastily turned attention to where it was needed. "Surprised you didn't break your wrist."
With that recoil... a Rris' wrist wasn't as strong as mine, there was a good chance it would. "Last of our worries," I coughed, tasting sulfur and copper smoke. They were behind us and in front. "Doesn't look too good," I panted, a bit lightheaded, surprised at how calm I was feeling. Shock, I guessed.
The guard's ears flattened. "I can keep them occupied. You can run..."
"I can't outrun Rris," I told him. "Not even close."
"Rot it..." another shot, then a fusillade that knocked wood splinters flying and cracked a wooden spar in half, a net tumbling into a heap. I ducked up and this time held the blunderbuss with both hands when I fired another barrel past the guard who ducked aside with flattened ears and a curse. A weird trigger mechanism and when I fired the hammers jerked back, yanking a thick string that flared into smoke with a sharp hiss, then the gun fired with a booming blast and cloud of smoke and sparks. A Rris along the dock howled in what sounded like pain. Two barrels left.
"How long help come here?" I garbled my Rris, getting panicky. No phone or radio... no fast vehicles. I knew the answer even as I asked the question.
"Too long," the guard grunted, working to reload his pistols. I watched his hands, tipping measured amounts of powder from a pewter horn, tapping in a ball and wad with a short ramrod. Fast, but I took the opportunity to fire another blast in the direction we'd come from. Figures who'd started to work their way around the corner ducked back. One barrel left.
"You're supposed to be the one with ideas," the guard growled. "You have any now?"
I looked around. No boats in the water, damn it. Okay. "Out... Get out of your armor."
"Not swim with it on."
The eyes went wide. "I can't swim with it off. You can't be... nobody can swim that far."
The far side of the river... maybe two hundred meters, probably a bit more. "I can."
"Then get going!"
"Get out of that armor. I can't manage you with it on."
"You don't mean... Rot it! Go!"
I ducked down as more shots whined overhead. The guard produced one of those grenades, yanked the string violently and threw. There was a sharp bang and a few yelps. "GO!" the guard barked.
"I'm not leaving you."
"You have to!"
I sat down, making it quite obvious I wasn't moving. Two of my other guards were probably dead and I wasn't leaving this one to die. "Get that armor off."
Another fusillade of shots clipped nets and thumped into wood. A glass float shattered noisily and sent fragments tinkling across the cobbles. The Rris looked out at the darkness of the river, fired another unaimed shot at our assailants, then snarled something probably obscene and began yanking at the buckles of the armor.
I grinned and fired off the last round without any positive results then dropped the bulky gun and started stripping off my boots and socks, then my jacket and optimistically tucked them under a pile of rope, fervently hoping I'd be able to pick them up later. There was a clatter as armor and equipment hit the cobbles. Huhn, my guard was a he I saw, and he kept throwing glances at the river with ears flat against his skull. "Run and jump," I told him. "Don't breathe when your head is underwater, and watch your damned claws!"
Then I didn't have time to lose any more clothes. He fired his last round as the dark-armored assailants ran forward, then howled something. I grabbed his arm and propelled him toward the water.
A three meter running drop. I lost my grip on him when we hit and surfaced to find him floundering desperately. There were shouts from above and I grabbed the mass of sodden fur, winced when he grabbed back at me. "Breathe!" I growled and heard him gasp air before dragging him under with me.
A leaden, soaked sack of fur; that's what it felt like I was towing. One that grabbed back with needled claws and struggled desperately as he started to need air. Nowhere near my limit. I surfaced and gunshots raged, the line of the docks enveloped in a moonlit grayish haze speckled with winks of light. White gouts of water kicked up and a few pellets skipped by with burring whines. A breath, a chance for the Rris in my arms to gulp air, then under again.
I could understand why they weren't good swimmers: He was a natural sinker. Like a furry, two-legged brick. I towed him with one arm and swam as best I could, but I had to surface twice more before we were out of range. Again I was grateful their guns were so inaccurate, but we were well out into the blackness of the river and the bank was a darkness against the skyline before I felt safe enough. The breeze blowing up from the lake was cold, but it helped balance the sluggish river current as I hooked one hand under the guard's chin and started kicking steadily for the far shore where lights burned.
"What's your name anyway," I asked when my mouth was clear of the water.
"Blunt, sir" he coughed the words. I could feel his pulse pounding in his throat. His feet were trying to kick, as if he was searching for something solid, but doing damn little to propel him along. It's strange how well designed for swimming humans are: hairless oiled skin and what hair there is is streamlined, eyes can focus underwater, slight webbing on fingers and feet, a nose that wasn't much good for anything else but was angled to keep water out and a reflex that lowered the heart rate whenever the face was submerged. Rris - by comparison - are furry bricks. Maybe their four-legged ancestors had been fair swimmers, but somewhere they traded buoyancy for leg power. Their fur will hold air for a while, enough for a short dog-paddle, but beyond that their musculature just weighs them down.
"Blunt?" I shut my mouth against a slap of water and tried not to think about what might've been dumped into the river further upstream. "Name or nature?"
"Huhn? Huh, nature. Blunt claws."
"They don't feel it."
"When I was a cub," he sputtered. "How... did you learn this..."
"Water cub," I said.
"I was born in water." I don't know. Ask my mother: it was a fad at the time.
"That's... unusual," he said faintly. Then in a voice that was more of a low moan, "Ai, no. Rot me. No."
"A boat. They're following."
I stopped swimming and treaded water, Blunt's legs butting against mine as he tried to kick at the water. There was a shape back there: a darkness on the water, a rowboat with oars raising glitters of water and a Rris standing upright. "You sure?"
A flash of smoke and sparks under the moonlight and the sound of a gunshot rolled across the water. Yep, pretty sure.
"Swim," the guard barked, somewhat desperately. "Get out! Go!" He started trying to struggle out of my grasp.
"Hold on," I gasped. "Wait..."
Could I outswim them? I doubted it. They could get me without guns: just come close enough to whack me with the oars. Another gunshot kicked up a spout of water too close. I couldn't run... so...
"Here..." It took a couple of seconds to strip off my shirt. Made back home, its weave was a lot tighter than anything Rris made, so it held a bit of air. Hopefully, that bit would be enough. I bundled it into a sort of a float and pushed it into the guard's hands. "You'll have to try and keep yourself. Try float. Not long. I come back, yes?"
"I..." his sodden ears wilted. "Go. GO!" He floundered desperately when I let go, thrashing and tipping his head back. The makeshift float wasn't enough to hold his weight, but it helped: he was able to keep his head above water. There was another gunshot from the boat and I hyperventilated three times, ducked over and dived.
Black down there: a pale wavering disk above where the moonlight broke the surface but the rest was like swimming in cold ink, a bottomless vault of darkness below me. I dove, my jeans restricting my legs as I kicked in the direction of the boat. A muted thump ran through my body: another gunshot I realised as I twisted, rolled, trying to find the darker shape that was eclipsing the glow of the moon, leaving a water-bug trail of ripples as oars dipped in.
My lungs were starting to feel it, my heart racing as I kicked upwards as hard as I could, compensate for the distortion of the transition layer, hit the edge of the hull with my hands and pushed, feeling it yaw away as I surfaced. A slideshow of brief images and sensations: Night air was almost warm on my skin; my hands grabbing the side of the boat; a shocked Rris face turning my way with mouth opening; the Rris with a gun teetering as the boat tipped. The noises were cut like a film edit as I dove again, yanking the side of the boat with all my weight. It rocked back, tipped, hesitated a moment, then came all the way over. Heavy objects splashed into the water around me as I kicked away. A frantic something of metal and leather and fur brushed me and caught at me even as I twisted away: I almost inhaled water as a clawed hand caught my arm and claws raked across my skin, a Rris face flashed briefly in the murk: a horrific mask that was gone as soon as I'd seen it.
There were noises down there; muffled sounds I tried not to hear.
I wasn't exactly sure where I was when I surfaced. The inverted hull off the rowboat was a dark lump meters away, drifting downstream as it slowly settled beneath the water. Cries sounded out across the water, pleas sounding amid frantic thrashing and one by one they were cut off. There was a single figure clinging to the boat as it slowly sank and the panicked whimpers were audible from where I trod water.
"Blunt!" I yelled the name as best I could. And the sinking Rris started crying out, surrendering, begging, anything... and there wasn't anything I could do. I set my teeth against the pain in my arm and stroked away from the pleading, toward the sounds of distress a short distance in the other direction.
There were a pair of hands and a lot of thrashing and I caught him as he was literally going down for the third time, or he caught me. I cried out as claws sank into my skin and almost went under myself before I got my arm around his neck and hauled him to the surface. "Hey! Calm down! I... got you."
He coughed and sputtered and sucked air hungrily while I kicked out for shore again, doing my best to keep the two of us afloat. My left arm under his chin was aching badly where claws had gouged me and I knew I was losing blood. There wasn't a lot I could do about that. It was a minute later when the Blunt had his breath back again, he said. "What happened to them?"
"Hard to swim with armor," I panted and tried not to think about what I'd done. How many? And none of them could swim. They'd tried to kill me! They'd killed people around me! I tried to hold onto that thought and kindle some anger, but there was that Rris in my arms. In the water they'd been helpless. What I'd done...
I'd done what I had to. I tried to push the thought to the back of my mind and concentrated on swimming, but there was that image of a horrified face vanishing into those black depths. Ahead of us the lights of the far bank edged closer painfully slowly.