WARNING: below is an excerpt of Dragonseers and Automatons, the sequel to Dragonseers and Bloodlines. This contains spoilers to the earlier books in the series, so I don’t recommend reading this before reading them.
You can pick up a copy of Dragonseer, the first in the series, here.
Dragonseers and Automatons
The spider automaton swivelled its turret towards me and let out a shot. I forward rolled out of the way.
“Dragonheats,” I muttered under my breath, and I pulled the Pattersoni Rifle off my shoulder. How had it got here so fast? Faso had undoubtedly worked some of his magic into these things, but I knew this magic was pure unadulterated science.
Taka, my eleven-year-old surrogate son, stood next to me with a smaller custom build rifle in his hands. He turned towards the automaton and let out a shot. The automaton bucked over on its eight legs, let out a sputtering sound, and collapsed to the floor.
“Did you see that, Auntie?” he said. “That’s Taka fifteen, Auntie Pontopa, zero.”
I clenched my teeth. I was meant to be training the boy today, and he seemed to be better at the task at me. How he’d become so skilled at sharpshooting so quickly, I hadn’t the faintest.
We were hunting these spider automatons in the secicao jungle. I was trying to train Taka how to fight against automatons in general, but he seemed to have it under control. Like me, he wore wellies, for protection against the secicao resin. We also both wore gas masks to guard against the brown acidic secicao clouds all around us, which would suffocate us if we took them off. The clamminess of the clouds stung at my skin, adding to the sweat of moving so fast.
And my medicine caused a lot of that sweat as well. Although I didn’t want to tell Taka about that.
I heard a whirring sound, ever so faint in the distance. Another spider automaton. Then I caught sight of it, glaring at me with its red infernal glowing eyes. This is the one thing about automatons that never changed. Those same red eyes as their dragon-killing war automaton fathers of a generation past.
The spider automaton turned to me, spotted me and swung its turret around to target me. It was perhaps thirty yards away, sandwiched between two thick secicao branches. I raised my rifle and sighted the automaton down the scope. But I was too slow.
A sharp pain lanced in my shoulder and, around the same time, I saw a flash of light from the automaton’s underpowered stun-cannon. A soft flanging sound followed.
“Dragonheats,” I said. And I clutched my hand to my shoulder. “Did Faso program these things to fire on me alone?”
Taka laughed. “I don’t think its the automatons, Auntie. You have to be stealthy see,” and he entered into a crouch. “Get down low so they can’t see you.”
I shook my head. “Who’s meant to be the teacher here?”
“Gerhaun said experience is the best teacher of them all.”
“And you have a long way to go until I happily call you experienced.”
All of a sudden, a wave of dizziness washed over me. I clutched my hands to my head. It felt like wool, but such a feeling was better than letting Finesia in. If I didn’t take the medication, she’d take control of my mind, and no one wanted that. I had to stay in control.
“Time to for Phase Two,” Faso’s voice came from a talkie at my hip. He was somewhere nearby, surveying the scene from an airship. But the clouds were so thick I couldn’t see his position through the murk. “Are you ready?”
I took hold of the talkie and spoke into it. “Ready as can be. You keeping track of the score?”
“Of course,” Faso said. “And I can see Taka is winning hands down. What happened to you, Pontopa?”
“The boy’s good,” I said, and I looked down at him. In all honesty, if it weren’t for the medication, I would have been a lot sharper, a lot faster on my feet, a lot quicker to react.
“Okay, so I’m calling them in,” Faso said. And the talkie cackled and then cut out.
This time, Faso would be calling the spider automatons in in droves. And so, taking them down wasn’t a job for rifles. There was no way that Taka or I, even augmented, could bring down hundreds of these things with just a few rifle shots before they swarmed on us.
I waited for a moment for a sound, wondering exactly when the things would attack. Like the most recent addition to war-automatons, these spider automatons could now bury themselves in the soil and jump out and ambush us. For all we knew, they could be finding their way to our location right under our feet.
“Taka,” I said. “Can you sense anything?”
“Negative Maam,” he said, with a slight undertone of sarcasm on the word Maam. He was eleven years old now, getting close to that sullen teen point of his life. Yet, something had seemed different about him for the last few months or so, almost as if he’d reached puberty early.
“Just keep an eye out. Always be vigilant Taka, you don’t know what lies in wait.”
He turned around to me, and I could faintly make out the traces of a smile at the sides of his mask, a tube leading from the glass to a tank on his back. We hadn’t brought any secicao with us on this little outing, or at least in his suit as we didn’t want him overusing it. His mother had taught me the value of training without secicao, so it affected you even more in battle.
“Oh yes, wise master”, Taka said in mock reply. “I’ll make sure to heed every word you say.”
“And you can stop that sarcasm immediately. It really is the lowest form of wit.” At the same time, I also wanted to call him a little squirt, but I decided to redact that part.
Taka put his hand to stop me and then turned his head slightly and cupped his hand to his ear. “There, Auntie. Can you hear it?” He pointed out into the distance. But I could see nothing beyond the thick secicao clouds.
“Ha, ha, made you look.”
“Taka, this isn’t a joke. You won’t have time to fool around like this in true combat situations. Give this one the respect it deserves.”
“But this isn’t a full combat situation, it’s a stupid training drill. And I’ll know when they’re close.”
Taka cut me off by raising a finger to where his lips would be if his mask wasn’t in the way. “This time… Really… Can you hear it?”
“Didn’t I just say this is no time for jokes?”
Taka ignored me, and this time turned slightly to the right and stretched out his arm and index finger towards the horizon. “Just a few hundred metres away…”
“How could you possibly?”
“The secicao… You can sense it too, right?”
I sighed as I wondered what the dragonheats the boy was talking about. Then I squinted, trying to make out the first sign of the automaton’s forms cutting through the secicao clouds. Soon enough, I noticed them, looking kind of spectral in the murk, scampering forward on eight spindly legs.
“Okay, it’s time,” I said. “Now, which dragonsong are you going to use in this situation, Taka?”
“Oh, there are so many to choose from.”
“So, pick the first one that seems relevant, and give it a try.”
“Hmm. How about the one where Varion the Great flies up into the sky and breathes fire on the whole automaton horde?”
“That’s not a dragonsong,” I replied. “And Varion never did that in your mother’s books.”
“But wouldn’t it be cool if he did?”
“Taka, you should never wish to become a dragon. Those beasts you saw in East Cadigan Island… They weren’t like dragons or humans. They weren’t even natural, but something else entirely. They aren’t things to admire.”
Taka huffed. “Fine,” he said. “So, I could sing, but I have a better idea. And he cocked his rifle.
The automatons were getting even closer now, and almost in shooting range. Our Pattersonis had a little extra range than their stun guns, so Taka might be able to take down one. But as for the rest of them…
“Taka, you couldn’t possibly bring them all down. We have dragons nearby. Use them.”
“But why should I waste their efforts, when I can take them all down myself.” He took a shot from his rifle, and the gunfire echoed through the jungle, the sound bouncing off the secicao trunks. One of the spider automatons sputtered and fell as its mechanical life was snuffed out of it.
“Pontopa,” Faso’s voice came from the talkie at my hip, sounding quite alarmed. “Pontopa, what the dragonheats are you up to? You were meant to call in the dragons…”
“Not my idea… Taka’s.”
Faso paused a moment, then he spoke a little louder. “Taka, they’ll take you down within seconds. You have no chance against a host of automatons with those kinds of tactics. If this were a real army…”
“But it isn’t and they won’t.” Taka snatched the talkie out of my hand. “Papo, it’s time to show you how cool your son has become while you were busy creating mechanical dragons. Are you watching?”
“Taka… I’ve spent hours preparing these automatons for this session. If you think I’m going to let such blatant stupidity off so easy, then you’ve got another thing coming.”
The talkie crackled out, and Taka shrugged and threw it on the floor. I made a mental note to have a word with Faso when he came back to Fortress Gerhaun. He didn’t seem to care whether Taka won or not. Nor about Taka learning valuable lessons. He just wanted to prove how good his technology was.
There came a screeching sound from a nearby spider automaton, and it scurried into life. This time, it turned its turret on Taka. So, it seemed that Faso had programmed the automatons to target me after all. Another thing I’d have to have a word about with him about. Even if the shots were non-lethal, they still bloody hurt.
“Think you can punish me Papo, with your stupid automatons,” Taka shot the automaton down before it even had a chance to fire. Up there, Faso was controlling the whole battlefield like it was a game of chess. And Taka seemed to be winning.
Two more automatons came forward to try and take Taka down. One shot, that was what Faso was probably thinking, one non-lethal shot in the chest to teach the boy the value of obedience and following orders.
But Taka raised his nose to the air and regarded both automatons from the bottom of his eyes as they swung their turrets to target him in unison and then fired. Before the shots could even connect, he cartwheeled out of the way with lightning speed and drop-kicked one of the automatons on its bulbous head. His foot connected with such force that the spider automaton’s legs snapped, and it collapsed under its own weight.
“I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t augment Taka,” I said. “Where did you get the secicao from?”
“I didn’t take secicao, Auntie Pontopa. It’s just I’m awesome. See how awesome I am? I can take them all out. There’s only a hundred of them.”
“Fine,” Faso’s voice came from the talkie, now on the ground. Naturally, he sounded quite annoyed. “If you’re going to practice insolence Taka, then I’ll send the whole force against you. All remaining ninety-seven of them.”
And with those words, the entire army of automatons sprang to life. They started sidling around us, while ten of them pushed forward with their turrets trained on Taka. The boy watched them with discernment, waiting for the shots to come.
Soon enough, the legs bucked underneath the bodies of the first ten automatons, as they fired. Taka forward rolled underneath the shots and he emerged from the roll with the rifle against his chest. He shot one automaton, and smacked another with the butt of his gun, downing both before I could even gasp. He then vaulted over two automatons and did a backflip to dodge another barrage of shots.
He spun around and left off another shot. Somehow, he’d reloaded when he was in the air. The automatons continued to shoot at him, and he continued to see every one of the shots coming, cartwheeling and pinwheeling and somersaulting and returning fire. I even saw him let off a few shots in mid-air, my mouth agape behind my mask.
Around ten minutes later, there remained one boy and a whole field of downed automatons. Taka smiled, regarded his discarded prey and then walked back over to me. He’d been more remarkable than his mother, Sukina, had been and that was saying something. And he’d managed to do all this without augmenting. It was impossible. I really had to get to the bottom of what was going on here.
What I really should have done, was to sing a dragonsong to call the dragons in and show him how he should have behaved in this situation. Stolen away his thunder. But really, I’d been completely mesmerised with the way he moved, that I’d forgotten myself. His movements reminded me of his mother. If I could cry, I’m sure it would have brought a tear to my eye.
Taka dusted off his hands. “See, Auntie. Who needs dragons in a situation like this? If there were a thousand of them, then perhaps I would have sung a song. But these things aren’t war automatons, but stupid little toys.”
I shook my head. “Taka, you’re missing the point here. This was meant to be an exercise in dragonsongs, not in showing off your martial art abilities.” I didn’t want him to be proud of his admittedly awesome effort, as I didn’t want his cockiness to develop into a habit.
“Then you’ll have to select a more suitable challenge, Maam,” and he gave that mock salute again.
Dragonseers and Automatons is the third book in the Secicao Blight steampunk fantasy saga.
It will be released on the 15th March 2020 on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.