Chapter Eight The Desert Palace

Chapter Eight
“The Desert Palace”

Not even riding in a powerful modsuit could make the trip to Bedourie anything other than what it was- a long trek across the same barren landscape for four hours. For the first hour or so, Lilavati had watched and winced as Isha squirmed behind her, contorting around so he could peek out over the headrest at the monitors and their insistence on showing nothing but endless flat orange arid plains, dotted up by stubborn white-barked ghost gums and scraggly little trees. As time went on, these excursions of his happened with lesser frequency, until finally he resigned himself to his little clamshell of a space.

“How’re you holding up, Isha?” Asked Lilavati kindly after awhile of silence.

“I’m ok, Ms. Lilavati.” Said Isha; much of the enthusiasm had bled out of his voice over the hour. “How about yourself?”

“I’m fine.” She said with a chuckle. “I’m used to long trips… Usually as the passenger though, not as the pilot.”

“So you’ve been to a lot of places, then, Ms. Lilavati?” Asked Isha.

“Oh, yes.” Said Lilavati. “And if all goes well, I’ll travel to many more in the future too.”

“I’m kind of jealous.” Said Isha warmly. “Birdville’s my home, and it’s a great place, but my dad used to tell me stories of where he’d gone, things he’d seen. Places totally different to Diamantina, places covered in grass and trees, where it rains every week instead of once a year… He told me about seeing the ocean. Just… Water, everywhere like the desert is here.” Said Isha. “I bet you’ve seen the ocean plenty of times, Ms. Lilavati.”

Lilavati nodded and smiled, although Isha couldn’t see it. “You bet right. It’s- a beautiful sight. There’s nothing quite like it to help me feel connected to the world.”

“Hmm.” Murmured Isha. “That sounds… Good. I don’t really understand it, though.”

“Maybe you will, one day.” Said Lilavati. “You’ll almost certainly see the ocean at some point, sooner rather than later I think. Maybe I’ll have the chance to hear what you feel about it.”

“Maybe.” Said Isha. “It’s still kind of sinking in what… All this means, honestly.”

“I can imagine.” Said Lilavati. “Already things are changing- quickly- for you, and you’ll keep finding more of that as you go. How’re you feeling about it?”

“Haha, there’s a question.” Said Isha with a dry chuckle. “Nervous. Excited. More nervous, now that I think on it. I…” Lilavati felt him shift uncomfortably behind her. “The idea of being a knight, of having my own suit, of being able to travel and not have to worry about money problems, all of that… That makes me feel good. But it’s a big, big world I’m going into, Ms. Lilavati. It’s easy to, I dunno… Get lost, I guess.”

“Mmm, that’s a pretty sensible way of looking at it.” Said Lilavati.

“Thanks.” Said Isha; she could hear the nerves in his voice now, a little rawer than they had been. “Ugh, I shouldn’t focus on it. Need to take my mind off… You said you travel a lot, yeah? What do you do to, y’know, distract yourself?”

“A few things, almost none of which you can do back there.” Said Lilavati regretfully. “I read, though.”

“Read? Yeah, that seems smart.” Said Isha. “I brought my datapad, it’s in my activity suit’s little pocket thing, but I’ve read everything on it…”

“Oh really?” Said Lilavati. “If you like, you can hand it to me and I’ll add some new things to it.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to be a burden.” Said Isha quietly.

“It’s no hassle.” Said Lilavati; she pulled her left arm free of the control sleeve and held it up over the back of the chair.

“… Okay. If you’re sure, then.” Said Isha. A few seconds of squirming later, he raised the datapad into her hand. Lilavati took it and balanced it on her lap. She furtively glanced back at him before tugging the padded glove off her hand. She held her thumb- covered only by the black bodysheath- over the pad’s data port. The screen flashed once, then went black. Lilavati put on her glove and quickly returned the datapad. “All done.”

“Thank you, Ms. Lilavati.” Said Isha sincerely as he took it.

There was a moment’s pause, then- “Holy fuck! Did you add a whole library to my pad!?”

“Maybe.” Said Lilavati. “Is that ok?”

“Yeah, that’s- wow, there has to be thousands of books in here. I’ve never seen so many in my entire life.” Murmured Isha, his voice tinged with awe. “There’s books on modsuit mechanisms, weapons, on sciences… Physics, psychology… History… Fall of the Commonwealth? The Shattered Crusade? And there’s other stuff I’ve never even heard of before.” He paused. “Am I even allowed to read these?”

“Soon you’ll be a Lord.” Said Lilavati lightly. “And then no one can stop you from reading whatever you want.”

“I… Didn’t even think of that.” Isha let out a disbelieving chuckle.

“More of that big world, hm?” Said Lilavati.

“Yeah, no kidding. Thank you, Ms. Lilavati. I really appreciate it.” Said Isha sincerely.

“You’re welcome. If you need any help with it, let me know.” She said warmly.

“Well… Perhaps hints on where to start?” Said Isha. “What’s your favourite of these?”

Lilavati laughed. “There’s a collection of poems from a man named Du Fu. Old Chinese poet. I provided some translations, but it might be best to start with something else. Just look through it until you find something that catches your eye.”

“Yeah, will do!” Said Isha excitedly. Lilavati found herself grinning- she had to admit to herself, Isha’s joy at something so simple was gratifying.

The comms crackled. “Lachlan to pins. We’ve run into some trouble,” came Lachlan’s voice.

Lilavati straightened up. Her grip on the controls tightened, and her smile fell from her face. “Trouble. Is it the pale cataphract?”

“Not sure.” Said Lachlan, his voice grim. “My brother Charlie was supposed to meet us here. His cataphract’s quirk is that it can morph into an airborne form, so he’s been trying to track the pale cataphract ever since the battle in Birdville. Last night he reported he’d picked up a trail, but he’d meet us here to provide us with an escort. But he’s not here.”

“Troubling.” Said Lilavati. “I take it Lord Charlie’s cataphract can fly much faster than we can run?”

“That’s right.” Said Lachlan. “So it’s not a case of him simply being late.”

“Perhaps he was called away.” Said Lilavati.

“Maybe, but then I would’ve been informed. No, my gut says he’s run into some real bad business.” Muttered Lachlan. “He might’ve been shot down or something…”

“Does his cataphract come with a tracker?” Asked Lilavati.

“No, not his. We use him for, ah… Special business. Business where it’d be better if we didn’t know where he was, so if it comes down to it we can say that honestly.” Said Lachlan.

“Plausible deniability.” Said Lilavati. “Sensible, but complicating our situation right now. What’s our plan from now on?”

“We press on to Bedourie.” Said Lachlan. “If he’s late- which I fuckin’ doubt- he can just track our path. Staying here slows us down, gives them more time to plan an ambush or something.”

Lilavati eyed the aggressively open landscape around her doubtfully, but nonetheless she nodded. “Agreed. Lead on, Lord Lachlan.”

“I hope Lord Lachlan’s brother is alright.” Said Isha quietly. “A flying cataphract sounds… Amazing, but that pale cataphract knew its way around a fight. Being shot down and crashing sounds… Bad.”

For a second, Lilavati’s thoughts were consumed with memories. The Wildcat’s plunging, furious descent, burning as it went, spraying its cargo… The shuddering forces slamming her around, threatening to pound her into dust… The spike, jutting through Serval’s head and chest, covering the cockpit with blood-

Lilavati shook her head firmly, and grasped the controls ever tighter. “Yes.” She said grimly. “It’s bad.”

There was silence for a long stretch after that. Isha was busy reading, or so Lilavati presumed. She herself was focused on her thoughts- not just the memories of poor Serval’s last heroic moments, but also on the pale cataphract. Isha has said simply what was true: the pale cataphract had been a beast in combat- fast, agile and cleanly brutal, the ability to leave decoys to distract opponents, and bearing armour of the highest quality… Lord Lachlan had been a match, but Lilavati quietly wondered who’d win in a duel between the two.

For his sake, Lilavati hoped it never came to that.

***

The atmosphere remained tense for much of the journey. Lilavati was watchful, keeping her focus on her surroundings, watching for signs of trouble- dust clouds, smoke plumes, the flash of teleforce… Yet the endless, open expanse yielded no threats. There was no sight of the pale cataphract’s murderous form, or signs of any Hoplites.

About an hour out from Bedourie, however, Lilavati caught sight of something in the distance- a group of modular suits bearing the colours of House Darumbal.

“Lord Lachlan, you’re seeing this?” Asked Lilavati. Behind her, she felt Isha shift in his cramped space; she glanced up to spot him peeking out over the top of her chair.

“Yep. Looks like the old fella sent out an escort to take us the rest of the way. Decent of him.” Said Lachlan.

Before long, the two groups met; Lilavati took the time to size up their escort. There were ten suits here, six of which were trusty Iconoclasts. There was also a bulkier modular suit here, bipedal like the Iconoclasts, but with a much more heavyset build. It had a slightly hunched back and long thick arms, giving it the appearance of a mighty gorilla; across its back was a colossal, ten metre-long cannon, its firing chamber a metre wide. Then there were two smaller modsuits, smaller even than the Iconoclasts, maybe about ten metres tall; they were bipedal as well, but conversely their forms were slimmer, more delicate. They possessed long ear-like fins on the sides of their heads, each about a metre long by themselves. This left the final modsuit, which was a cataphract.

It was difficult to tell exactly how tall the cataphract was, because it had no legs- instead its lower body was made up of a long, segmented snake-like tail. The tail seemed to compress itself slightly, then expand in a rhythmic fashion, giving it a length of anything between twelve and sixteen metres. The body itself was lithe and agile, with very long, slender arms that ended in long-fingered human hands. It was armoured in the same silky fabric that Mintji sported, and its head was rather triangular shaped, with all the corners smoothed out; it had three eyes: two on the side and a third large one atop the head. In its left hand it bore a large shield, the edges of which were covered in the same teeth as Mintji’s giant claw. In its right it sported a long, thin rifle, which Lilavati recognised as being a teleforce caster, albeit much smoother and compact than the one the invading Hoplite had carried in Birdsville.

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