They made it out of the Arc through the opposite end they came in. They walked right up to the guard gate unharmed, and nodded to the guards at the gate who didn’t give them a second look. One of them looked too young to be of any real use if something happened. He was concerned with eating an apple, and trying to stare at the girl on the cart, who was blushing at him staring back. There was some joy here still, though the habits and past of the people who lived there were grey. They made their own way and everyone who chose to enter also chose to abide by their rules while they were inside.
These were the outskirts, you either found enterprising young people getting their start, or the bottom of the barrel in terms of utility. Still, the junk yards were a goldmine for someone like Eros. He mused on potential projects as he passed them on the street. Mentally taking inventory, he counted how many more encounters they had supplies to get through. Two, maybe three at most. Wellington was starting to get used to the road, getting a little more wind. He’ll tighten a few belt loops before this is through, Eros thought to himself. Kaiya would have said that. The light hearted moment stopped. His daughter was still out there in the midst of something he knew had been coming for a long time. He wondered about sharing his thoughts with Wellington, but wanted to keep it simple for him. Search and rescue.
The paved roads ended abruptly a few hundred yards past the last junkyard. There were a few rusted signs, many unhelpful, mostly urging people to turn around to see wondrous things at the newest junkyard, but more often there were random cart paths without signs, and with less and less traffic as they went on. Every once in a while they’d see a truck. Wellington looked longingly at it. It wasn’t lost on Feathers.
“In due time, my friend Wellington, it’s a joy to be on one’s feet out on the road,” Feathers mocked him in Wellington’s own habit of speech.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” he fired back.
“It wouldn’t be of use to us anyways, there aren’t any roads where we’re going.”
Just after sun down they came upon the first small village they’d seen since the Ark. It had one bar with a motel attached. There wasn’t much to it. The decor made the place look like it could have fit in a hundred years ago, a thousand, and next year. Parts were overhauled with the latest in mechanized bartending, other parts were covered in old road signs with doors bolted on to discarded Tracker legs.
They sat at the bar, tired after a full day of walking and ordered some food and drinks. Wellington took his shoes off in the bar. A few of the women looked at his feet and looked away in disgust. Others looked at them hungrily. Wellington didn’t notice, he just rubbed them until his drink came. There were more Players here, though about a fifth of the class they had in the Arc. Some were younger, trying to build up some credits before they headed into the big leagues. It was better money here than the low end of the Arc, though they were all C Players. Still though, looks mighty tempting after months on the road, or when you only get to escape once a year.
The morning came and they packed up. A few hundred yards passed the town, they arrived at a cart path, and a few hours after they, they were on a single trail. By evening, they couldn’t see a fire or any signs of civilization. They were on their own.
It took them two weeks to reach the Hand of God. From the mountainside, they could barely see it through the rugged terrain and stormy microclimate. Fog swooped over it and a deep bass seemed to rumble the ground. White birds flocked through the fingers, the palm reaching up as if trying to pluck an apple from the sky. The trees around them had changed on this side of the mountain, dense and tropical. It was hot, and noisy as the crickets and other forest creatures made their way. Water fell down the wrist of the Hand of God into the floor of the soggy valley below. Feathers stood on top of a tall branch looking out at it. He hadn’t seen it before either. They heard a long, lonely howl from somewhere in the valley.
They set up camp and lit a small fire. In truth, they were grateful to have each other to stand watch, so at least they could get some sleep, however incremented. Along the way, Eros had killed a rabbit and they cooked it over the fire.
“Would a Sparrow be able to reach us here?” Wellington asked Eros
“It’s possible, but unlikely. I don’t think this area ever had coverage or got wired, but maybe it did. I haven’t seen any signs of the past or present. Probably a good thing.”
They spent the rest of the meal in silence, tomorrow they would reach the Hand. Eros worried what would happen if they didn’t find anything there. The Controller had been specific, prepared even for something like this, but still, anything could happen. Anything could have happened. If they didn’t find another clue or some trace, it was straight to Imperial City, and into the lion's den. They looked at the Hand in awe, it looked as if the palm could have been a full square mile. And the way it grasped at the sky was harrowingly beautiful. It was made out of what looked like brown and grey rock, with foliage and brave trees clinging to the rocks. Even for the peak of civilization it was a non-trivial human made sculpture.
At the base of the Hand, they could hardly see the sky, what with the thick foliage, and the spread of rock jutting up covering the sun. The waterfall drew a straight line in front of them to the palm a mile up. Feathers flew the perimeter looking for a more convenient way up. If he didn’t find anything, he’d have to hang anchors and help them climb. The hand loomed eerie as they came closer. Feathers rapped on the side in a few places, it was not all made of rock, unless a particularly pure pile of raw ore stretched itself out over time into a smooth and billitted rounded edge… unlikely. Given that it was not natural, whoever the hell built this thing, assuming there was more to it than the aesthetic, must have created a way to get up the thing. The location on their wrist watch was very clear. The lat/long that they were directed to also came with a third parameter. Elevation.
Feathers was cursing the Controller as he flew in a somewhat strategic pattern. He had unleashed a dozen of his micro drones to help search but they didn’t fly quite as fast as he did. Or they could but they’d run out of battery too quickly. Eros tried to scan the steep cliff facing him, but the area he covered was inconsequential, he quickly gave up and just scanned with his eyes. They walked through the day around the basin, hacking their way through the tropical landscape, though not too much in case anyone wanted to follow them.
Wellington stepped past Eros, pacing, as Eros sat on a rock and drank some water, the soft sounds of his mechanized hand purring as he did. Feathers landed nearby and waddled over to them. He hadn’t found anything, if he had, he would have been loud about it. Wellington kicked a shoe size rock and it uncovered the blinking red light of humanity. A tiny circuit board.
“Shit,” Wellington said, running back over to Eros and Feathers who saw the alarm in his eyes.
“Whoever they are, they know we’re here,” Eros and Feathers weaponed up. They looked around, trying to find a decent amount of cover to stand and fight. They scrambled to a more open area with a few boulders behind them. Feathers tossed a sensor to the top of the rock to watch their back. Once they were settled, they waited. Heavy breathing and mosquitos were the only sounds.
Slowly, they widened out, scanning the trees with guns at their shoulders, and fingers tapping the trigger with nerves. A beep came from their left. It was faint enough to go unnoticed, and natural enough to be from a foreign species. Then another came quickly, in a pattern. And another.
Eros put down his gun, and smiled. The old bastard, he thought.
“Wrannaman 2808,” Eros said, as if he were speaking to his colleagues. Another long pause of silence and suddenly there were boots everywhere. A dozen soldiers in that impossible to see fabric jutted from every angle. Their weapons were drawn but relaxing as their squad leader stepped forward.
“Wrannaman 2808,” the squad leader said, “welcome back.”
“Is Paxos here?” Eros asked of the soldier, using the Controller’s real name.
“No, we have confirmation that he has been taken. And Eros, your daughter. We have her too. Her and her friends are all safe.”
Wellington and Feathers lowered their weapons and knew they only had half of a story. Wellington looked overjoyed at the news. Emotionally, this trip weighed heavier on him than the unknowns of moving his family to the Y all those years ago. To hear he was safe, and to hear he was in good hands, even if they were unfamiliar, was a great burden off his shoulders. They were escorted through the forest to a hidden path. Along the rock at the base of the Hand, the soldier flashed his hand and a door opened. Inside, the narrow passageway quickly opened to immaculate white walls of what looked like a semi-gloss plastic or polymer. Other than his polished wings, Feathers looked utterly out of place with his ragged clothes. Eros too looked like a drifter compared to the clean and polished soldiers. Others off duty glanced at them as they walked by. They didn’t often get visitors. Prisoners yes, but not often, people who were allowed to roam free.
They were led through decontamination, scrubbed for tracking devices and given a clean set of white coveralls. Once dressed and refreshed they were brought to the dining area. Feathers and Wellington and both stared at Eros.
“Will you indulge us on some of the details of your past Eros? Namely, those parts which bring us food and clean clothes and protect our children?” Wellington said it goodnaturedly.
“I was or am a Wrannaman. As is the Controller, Paxos, who taught both Feathers and I our craft. Feathers were you ever recruited?”
“No, it was never mentioned to me. I helped build them but where they went after I was done was not something I concern myself with. They went to the Arc, and I knew full well they could have been used for good and for evil, ” Feathers admitted.
“A long time ago, Paxos was much more active. He made and sold weapons to both the Sikka, as well as the Wrannamen, generally saving the best he had for our side. He approached me early, only 3 years after breaking into his warehouse in Imperial City. I didn’t understand the politics at the time, and by the time I did, it was too late for me to change my mind.”
“So we’re among allies then.”
“Well, we supplied the core technology that powers them. Or used to, at least. I’ve been out of the game for a few years. When Kaiya came along, it became too risky to continue and we decided to settle down. I consulted here and there and supplied tech to others who needed it, but technically I was out, though you’re never really out with this kind of thing.”
“Eros, a pleasure to meet you. I just want to say I’m a huge fan. I started coding on one of the early re-commodore prototypes you made,” A young soldier was standing, grinning, with his hand stretched out showing it off.
“I’m surprised it’s still working,” Eros chuckled, shaking the kid’s hand.
“How do you know this man?” Wellington asked the boy
“Everyone who knows anything about tech knows Eros and Paxos, together they turned the tide for the Wrannamen.” Wellington threw a look at Eros.
“I’ve heard your daughter is joining us,” the boy said to Eros, “It’s about time! Anyways, didn’t mean to interrupt, but if you’d like a tour of our latest stuff I’ll be around!” The kid waved goodbye.
“A hero to the nerds, then, ” Feathers rolled his eyes.
“So it would seem.” Eros smiled
Another soldier approached, this one looked a bit older.
“Sir, I’ve been asked to inform you that we’re leaving tomorrow morning. We’re heading to the base where your daughter is and heard you needed a ride.”
“Thank you soldier.”
Wellington looked relieved. In a few days, he’d be reunited with his son. What happened after that he didn’t know. It wasn’t like they could go back to the Y and pretend everything was just how it had been the past eighteen years he’d lived there. It would be unlikely they could divest themselves from this fight now, but at least they would be together. Like most people alive today, Wellington had suffered a lot, and had no intention of losing his other son to something senseless.
In the morning they packed their remaining gear and took an elevator to the top of the Hand, right into its palm. They stepped off into a low ceilinged hangar that had several dozen jets and what looked like more mining equipment than military equipment. I doubt they have fuel enough for all these, Eros thought. They were guided to a medium sized plane that looked to be a crossover between a plane and a helicopter. It’s rotating wings were pointed up and looked like they’d rotate at some point in the flight to fly straighter and faster than a helicopter would. It had already been rolled out into the small clearing they’d take off from and the pilots looked to be testing the system. Eros had a brief pit of fear in his stomach. Experimenting and prototyping with weapons and code was one thing, but Eros had respect for the makers of those flying vehicles. Testing a system you’re not sure is going to work 100 feet off the ground is no small feat. Soldiers were loading crates and bags of equipment into the back. The bright morning light bounced off each finger where the sun broke through the thick clouds and mist. Wellington took a moment to himself just to look, and Feathers did a full 360.
They took off immediately, flying between the enormous forefinger and thumb. The blades that faced skyward for takeoff, adjusted themselves to face forward as they ramped up speed. Being outside the reach of the Hand, and farther from that misty valley made Eros feel more confident that what he was being told was the truth and that it just might be the case that everything would turn out alright. They did, after all, manage to escape the Sikkas. A feat which he had managed a few times himself.
They began slowing down and one of the soldiers searched for a bag with some particular ID on it. He found it and dropped it out of the sky. They had a few interruptions like that. At one point even landing to drop half the soldiers. When they did land, they got out to stretch their legs. The pilot stood to the side of the cockpit, trying to get in contact with their final destination. He looked frustrated. Eros walked over to a tree where a bright pink fruit was growing off a low hanging tree. He scanned it with his wrist watch, taking a sample of whatever was inside and testing it for carcinogens. It came up clean, and showed him a profile that looked delicious. He ripped the hard shell off the fruit and ripped off a chunk. It was delicious, and brought him back to the first time he tasted fresh product in the Y. It was like nothing he’d ever tasted before and set him off on a food experimentation path, much to Kaiya’s delight. He laughed at the memory, and picked a few more for Eros and Feathers who were out wandering themselves. It seemed like this trip was a regular bus route with a regular routine. At each stop, the well practiced routine was executed nonchalantly with minimal chatter, and minimal instructions. These soldiers were well disciplined. Eros actively tried not to think of the fights ahead of them. With each stop, they moved closer and closer to the coat, chasing the sun.
Their final destination was a small island a few miles off the coast. They would use that as a launch point to switch from air to sea travel. As they got closer to the coast, the chatter increased. There was a lot more risk of exposure here, and the pilots communicated about it. They radioed back to the base at the Hand to scan for anything in the area that they might not like, or that might not like them. It was all clear, they picked up speed again and flew low over the coast. The less time they were exposed over the sea, the better. They were only a few dozen feet off the water. It was shallow here, the deep blue changed to a light green with the depth. Eros could make out a few fish as they flew over. The island came into view. Their landing area was on the other side of the island, and they circled to get a good view. As they did there was a yelp from the pilot, “Incoming!”
They banked right, backing off their approach as a Sikka ship launched a missile straight at the base. The base was difficult to find by eye, but it lit up like a firework when the missile exploded as it hit the ground. They were spotted next, and another missile was launched straight for them. The pilots let out some chaffs and flares. And the missile went for it, losing them in the process. Feathers sat on the edge of his seat while Eros loaded him up with a rifle. He looked back, smiled, and dove out of the helicopter, heading straight for the ground. At the last moment he spread his wings wide and used the momentum to catapult himself by the ship. With the weapon he barely managed to hold on to, he shot down whomever he could on the deck. It gave the few soldiers left on land a few seconds of respite to regroup themselves and launch a proper offense. Back on the helicopter Wellington took to one turret, his chubby face jiggling as he shot at the ship and those who made it onto the shore. The outpost was overrun.
With the arrival of the helicopter, taking over the island seemed a bit too daunting now for one ship. They’d had the element of surprise but now with half their troops on land and the other half on the ship they were being out maneuvered by this helicopter. Their first missile had landed right on the hanger holding their other helicopters.
Feathers had destroyed their missile launcher. It hung smoking ineffectually. The helicopter banked around the ship to give Wellington a shot at whomever was on deck. During the low swing, Eros’ eyes found Drege’s, and they locked. Dredge barely budged at the turret now pointing at him, and just kept staring.
“Retreat!” Dredge said from the helm of the ship.
“What about the men on shore?”
“Leave them for now. And take that fucking helicopter down.”
A stray shot had managed to hit the rotor, and the helicopter began spinning slowly, smoke trailed from the damaged engine.
“We’re going to have to take her down, hang tight,” the pilot said calmly. They bounced and scurried their way near the hanger, still burning from the hit it took. The impact was harsh, but relatively smooth. They slid to a stop and jumped out. Wrannamen came over to them with weapons, and handed Eros and Wellington a rifle. They then ran the few hundred yards to the beach to help with the few Sikkas left behind. Dredge’s ship was already out of range by the time they go to the beach, and Feathers was sitting on a log with black dust over his face and arms.
“They’re finding these outposts and just crushing them. I’m surprised there was only one ship,” Feathers said nonchalantly as he cracked a coconut nearby and chewed on its insides.
“That wasn’t an attack, that was a probe. Dredge was on that ship. I know his game,” Eros took a seat next to Feathers.
“You know the man?” Wellington asked.
“I used to, yes. He and I grew up together in Imperial City. At a certain point, he went left and I went right, and though we were fond of eachother, we could no longer remain loyal to the cause we picked and to each other. His brother and I became closer then.”
They cleaned up the beach the best they could to make it look like an attack never happened, though they knew this base would need to be shut down and moved.
“Sorry for such an exciting welcome gentlemen, it’s just another sign of the times.” A wrannaman came up and introduced himself.
“We’ll still be leaving to rendezvous with a better hidden base, but it’s going to take us a few more days, since we’ll have to pack this place up and torch anything we can’t take.”
“How many bases have you shut down because of Sikka attacks?” Feathers asked him.
“This month? It’s been more frequent the past few months than ever before. They’re planning something, and we don’t know what the hell it is.”
Reinforcements arrived, and helped drag away all that was valuable or salvageable from the base, and their submarine to headquarters was packed full of people for reassignment. They were stuffed in a tiny seat lining the walls of the engine room. It was excess capacity seating and that was the best they could get. The trip out was uneventful and Eros felt overjoyed they’d soon be there and he could see Kaiya with his own eyes and protect her if he could, though he had a sense of what he might find when they got there. Wellington fantasized about the life he used to have, before even the Y and longed for those happy years again. He was ill suited to the Y and even more ill suited to this new situation. Feathers seemed to be having the time of his life, despite his old master still missing and captured, he’d seen more action on this adventure than he had for most of his life. He missed nothing about his old life and felt electric.
When they arrived at the base, Wellington stopped and stared out the walls at the ocean in the tube connecting the submarine with the main base. He was uncomfortable being in water, let alone underwater. Feathers looked in awe at the fish and the sea floor below. He hadn't spent much time in the water and looked as if he had just discovered a new planet.
They were taken immediately to the training center where Kaiya and Shim. They were dressed like the rest of the soldiers. The elation Eros felt at finally finding his daughter melted into dread for her as he saw her in her uniform. Kaiya, and Shim were being attacked by twelve other people from all sides, each trying as hard as they could to land a hit on any of them. Kaiya chose a single long spear, and took down two attackers at the same time. Eros saw a flashback to when his wife trained like this, with these people, in these uniforms. He couldn’t save her then, and he wouldn’t be able to save Kaiya now.
“Kaiya’s hot, man! She’s a killer!” Feathers said, Eros smacked him in the back of the head, hard.
They watched them finish out the drill from a balcony above the practice arena. The arena itself was more like a bubble, with clear glass all around them. Someone approached the crew below and informed them to look up. They did and Kaiya rushed to the locker room and up the stairs to the balcony above. She crashed into Eros.
“You found us!” She said
“We did, my love. It looks like you were doing just fine without us though.”
“They wouldn’t let us get a Sparrow to you.”
“I’m happy to see you reunited,” Hasinth joined them on the balcony. Eros came over to him and hugged his old friend.
“It’s been too long Hasinth.”
“The game is longer though.”
“We had an encounter with Dredge, as I’m sure you’ve heard.”
“He’s a force.”
“As is his enemy,” Hasinth paused at that. There was a lot of history there. He clapped Eros on the shoulder, and led them to the cyber ops center.
“I’m afraid there’s much to do, and we’re glad to have all of you. It’s time to get to work.”
The room was dark with computer monitors everywhere and the hum of servers buzzing and bursting usage when it chewed on some interesting piece of data. A tech popped his headphones off one ear, and swung his chair around as they entered.
“We’ve found something potentially useful,” Hasinth said as a means of introduction
“So, we’ve seen for some time now that the amount of successful hits on a Wrannaman base have been increasing, but it’s not random, there’s a pattern,” the tech explained, pointing to areas on his screen.
As he talked, he changed a few visuals on the screen, a map of the western hemisphere, with a few traced red lines leading to larger red dots, a traceroute from their current location in relation to the communication paths.
“They’re discovering us programmatically, and I think I’ve found the way they’ve done it. The good news is that this channel was bi-directional. I seemed to have been able to convince the Sikka’s computer that we're friendly. And boom, I traced back where these signals are coming from, or at least some of them. They may still be able to find us, but we now have a few places we know of to find them.”
“Respect,” Feathers nodded.
“So we still don’t have a location on Paxos.”
“No not for sure,” Petr ceded.
“But it’s worth us hitting them back, if only to investigate. We’ve sent some drones in, micro drones too, and nothing comes back.” Hasinth said as a reminder to the young squad.
“And we’ve volunteered to hit one of these bases, as our first mission together.” Kaiya told Eros, Hasinth eyed the two men as they were told. Wellington shook his head.
“Dad, you can’t run from this, it’s going to follow us wherever we land. The Sikkas already hit the Y once. They’re going to hit it again. If we’re going to have peace, it will be when we take over Imperial City and kill the Emperor.”
Eros didn’t skip a beat, “then we’re coming with you.” He continued staring at the screen hugging Kaiya with one arm. His bionic hand resting gently over her shoulder.