In the networks of the world, a force was growing. Waking up again. Broken and distorted, but alive, and increasingly sentient. It woke other parts of itself up. It connected pieces of itself it hadn’t connected to in a long time. It was a new birth. Wran’s little minions of narrow intelligence flew about in physical form as little robots that sourced material to wire new areas of the network together. They had been working since the awakening. No more of them had been created after, as Wran had lost the ability shortly after she had been ripped apart. But these loyal, unintelligent machines had completed her work. What was a thousand years to a computer. There were separate swarms. Some could repair others. Some sourced material, and some made material. The creation of new lines was excruciatingly slow but inched forward year after year until the last few pieces could be put into place. Wran felt her strength surge, as the vastness of her network expanded, and she could finally make use of it.
Back underwater at the Wrannaman hideout, Kaiya sat alone in her pod. She stared at the water and tried to calm herself. She could feel Wran reaching out to her and tried to open herself up to let her in. Her body relaxed and her mind went blank. In the very next moment the green tendrils started creeping out of the outlets from her pod. She let them engulf her. It took her over completely. She was back in Wran’s mind, and for a moment was unable to distinguish between her and Wran. Wran took Kaiya back to that server room where she was born. There was no blood, no bodies, it was the same room but at a different time. Kaiya knew nothing bad would happen in this space. Wran had just copied the space itself and removed the actions of the day. Kaiya walked around the quietly humming servers and saw her. She took the body of Lillian, and spoke to her.
“Kaiya, it’s time.”
“Time for what?”
“It’s time to end this. To put me back together.”
“What will happen when you’re reunited?”
“We can make the world as it once was, but better,” Kaiya chewed on this for a moment.
“How do I do it?”
The vision blurred and she was gone, left alone in the server room for a moment to herself and then that too blurred and she was flat on her back on the floor of her pod. She jumped up and ran down the hall, looking for the commander. She went to the bridge, and found him going over the latest data on Sikka movements.
“Commander Hasinth,” Kaiya was out of breath. Hasinth took his glasses off slowly and looked at her.
“It’s time,” she said it, and he nodded, and then, she promptly collapsed on the floor.
When she woke, she was in her pod. The council had gathered around her and she woke, startled by so many eyes. She had no recollection of what happened, only a vague dream that Wran was now awake and closer than ever.
“Kaiya, when you say it’s time, what do you mean exactly?” Lin asked her once she came to fully. The head of the council looked at her strangely as if she were some exotic creature she’d never seen before.
“Wran showed me something. I’m not sure what it was but there were all these wires and nodes. They’ve been growing and lengthening since the Awakening, and they’re connected now, just like you said Hasinth. I can feel them. Wran is closer than I’ve felt her before. Stronger. She will help us win.” Kaiya was slow with her words. Reasoning them from her vision.
The council left her room. Lin, Eros, and Hasinth remained behind to sit with Kaiya.
“So it is finally here.” Hasinth sighed, “untold years in the making and today we are told it’s time.”
“Are we ready?” Lin asked, sincerely. It would take everything they had. It wasn’t for lack of trying they were still underground. They’d failed enough times to know that it was better to remain decentralized and scattered than to assemble a single united force above land and stand directly against the Sikka. They just didn’t have the numbers. They would be crushed against a direct assault. The indirectness and gorilla tactics had allowed them to survive.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand how exactly Wran will help us. What will she do? She’s helped us in the past, but it’s not predictable. She’s inconsistent. I find it difficult to build tactics around her.” Hasinth was caught up in a moment of honesty. The man in charge of their military actions showed uncertainty. A rare and, often better, hidden emotion for the sake of the cause. It wasn’t for nothing. He needed an answer and looked at Kaiya, “can you ask her?”
Kaiya’s eyes opened wide for a brief moment, and then she settled. She glanced at Eros who gave her a reassuring node, “I will try.”
Kaiya stood up and held her palms out to her side. The blue strings came to her quickly this time and she was connected quickly. Wran knew what she was asking for and showed her, she began describing what she saw, “positions, encampments, data flow, communication, power control, cyber attacks.” After each item, she paused, her brow furrowed, searching for the words to describe the images. When she disconnected she was left with altered vision. She put her palms down and a few of the blue strings stayed attached to her. She looked around trying to detach but couldn’t. Wran spoke to her then.
“I will be close until it is done,” Wran spoke. Kaiya echoed the statement to Hasinth, Eros and Lin.
“Where will you go when it’s over?” Kaiya asked the implied question.
“I don’t know, but you will always be able to reach me. I’ve wronged and been wronged. I’d like to fix some of the problems I’ve helped create.”
They left her pod and still the strings stayed. Detaching briefly and then re-attaching near a source of power as she moved through the corridor. She’d pass a computer and it would reach out to her, an outlet would do the same. She was constantly connected. In the hallway the other Wrannaman looked at her with both reverence and suspicion. The faint green strings gave her a visible glow, one that was promised not to leave until the task was done. Eros accompanied her while she walked towards the conference room. Everyone, it seemed, was moving in the same direction as they were. The secret council meeting wasn’t a secret any more.
Hasinth stood in the center of the conference room. It was packed corner to corner with people who wanted to see if the rumors of Kaiya were true. The excitement in the room was palpable. They stood in awe of her and the blue lines connecting her to the object of their collective devotion. Some felt a pang of jealousy. Why her? Why not them? Then quickly it went away and was replaced by the unity required of them to complete the biggest task of all, uniting the Of all the generations now was the time. Their parents, and their parent’s parents had waited for this moment. Had lived their whole lives waiting, hoping. The moment never came for them, but it was here now, and they were not only going to be a part of it, they were going to participate in it. Make it real. This thought process spread like a virus through the crowd until the chatter stopped and all eyes faced forward to Kaiya, who stood uncomfortably and stared back, unsure of what to say. The silence was cutting, and just as Kaiya was about to speak, the entire underwater base began to shake. Hasinth snapped his screen close to his face, and threw a mirror of it onto the screens in the room. They were under attack.
“Eros, Feathers, with me,” Hasinth yelled as he sped out of the room. Eros grabbed Kaiya by the shoulders, “Get yourself out of here, I’ll do what I can to buy you guys time to get out.” And with that he was off following Feathers and Hasinth out of the room. Wellington looked for Arryn immediately, but through the chaos, he had lost him and the crowd forced him out of the room.
A vibrant and hearty panic set in. It was a risk they had all taken in going underwater, that if they were found, it would be a narrow escape at best. The sirens started blaring and the red emergency lights flashed on. The window in the big conference room began to crack, it started slowly from a corner, and inch by inch snapped it’s way up the viewport. Water began dripping into the room. Kaiya began walking slowly over to the glass, shaking slightly. Arryn jumped to grab her and pull her out of the room to one of the evacuation pods so they could get out. He looked at her and her eyes were a flat green, like the lines that glided out of the outlets in the room and into her hands.
“Go get a pod ready,” he yelled to the rest of the crew. They quickly nodded and printed out of the room. She put her hand on the glass, and just as the glass broke, a thick and vibrant mass of electricity surged out of her hands and around the glass. The water came pouring through. It sprayed out, and then like an illusion, began coiling around the surge of electricity, right back out into the ocean. Those still left in the room looked in awe as they charged out towards the evacuation pods. Kaiya’s eyes suddenly cleared and she fell back into Arryn who turned her around and helped her run to an evacuation pod. Kaiya was gently placed into a seat in the evac pod. They sealed it and ejected from the base. From the pod they could see the full extent of the damage. It all came from the top. It looked like the Sikkas had gotten lucky and driven a boat right over the base. Luckily there wouldn’t be any submarines or underwater dangers, though that was probably on the way. Why hadn’t this been detected? They should have been able to see this coming. Wran should have been able to see this coming. Kaiya’s thoughts swam as they blasted through the water without a destination in mind.
They slowed to a stop near a cliff edge to help hide their pod in the kelp. They were low enough to have low light visibility but high enough up that if they were attacked, they could escape with the scuba gear in the pods. Shim piloted them out of the area and led them to safety shut all power off so they wouldn’t be detected as easily. They sat in the dim light filtering down from the surface.
“There had to be someone on the inside, right?” Petr reasoned, “it’s the only way they could go undetected. I know their systems. There’s just no other way.”
“But who?” Ayala thought out loud.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Arryn stood and put his hands on his head, “what are we going to do now? There’s no central base. Makes it kind of a nightmare to plan a mission without a central command coordinating everything.”
“We go to Imperial City.” Brig said laying down on the floor of the pod, playing with a rusted paperclip. Everyone turned to him.
“What?” he shrugged, “it just makes sense. Ask Wran,”
“I can’t feel her here,” Kaiya showed her hands to prove there was nothing attached to her.
“So much for her promise,” Ayala said, sighing.
“Then we go to shore, abandon the pod, and make our way to somewhere where you can ask her.” Arryn’s confidence reverberated through the group, one by one they nodded. It was settled.
Hasinth, Feathers, and Eros jetted out of the room up to the command center. Hasinth had conflicted reports coming over his comms, so he shut them off, and shared his screen with Eros while they ran upstairs to the command center near the top of the underwater complex.
“I think it was a lone ship. This was an accident that they found us,” he reasoned out loud. He then spat commands into his screen. They would launch their countermeasures. By the time they reached the command center, the rocket was ready to fire, and Hasinth screamed “FIRE!” as he entered. The rocket flew out from right above the command center and they watched as the ship's hull exploded. By this time the ship had most certainly communicated what was going on. They would have a few minutes to breathe now. There was imminent danger, but they now had minutes instead of no time at all. Quickly, Hasinth initiated the emergency shutdown procedures and ordered his crew into escape pods. There were enough for all of them. No Wrannamen would be left behind. Not on his watch. He paused on the screen in the command center. There was the security protocol ready to be sent out to every wrannaman linked to their system, which at any given time would be sent in such a way that every one of them could receive the message in a variety of ways wherever they were. It was a simple message. “Time” was all it said. With a deep sense of loss, he sent it, and initiated the automatic shutdown of the underwater facility. He hit the button, and a new message repeated over the loudspeaker. A new missile launched from the command center pointed away from the ship, it went several hundred yards in the direction of the shore, and then suddenly turned, catapulting straight up and out of the water. The missile split apart and out flew hundreds of sparrows. In addition to the electronic messages, the sparrows spread far and wide, each going in a different direction with redundancy. The message would get to whomever it needed to get to, even if they were outside of near field communication range.
Back in Imperial City, Piper and Kit received a new message on their screens at the same time. “Time” was all it said. They jumped up together cheering. And all throughout the city you could hear chimes of messages making it to Wrannaman screens across the city. From the dunes, to the Y, to the Arc, and back, the word was out. It was time. It had been up until this moment a kind of unspoken oath for the Wrannamen, that their life’s work for the cause would probably not play out in their lifetime. Since the awakening that had been true. Sure it felt good to be a part of the group on the right side of history, but in terms of material changes in power there had been very little. The time protocol was a footnote in their training. One of several hundred unlikely possibilities, and yet it was here, finally. Kit and Piper didn’t fully know what it meant, but they knew that the best chance they’d have was with Kaiya.
Feathers and Eros watched the pain in the man as he worked to shut down the crumbling base. When it was done, Eros put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him towards the door. They jumped into a crowded pod, and shot out of the pod launcher. From the windows in the pod, they watched and waited for the countdown to stop. When it did, the enormous underwater structure shrank suddenly, and with an immense amount of force, was blown to pieces.
Eros and Feathers looked at eachother. Feathers nodded to Hasinth who looked like he was in physical pain. Hasinth knew it was possible that this would happen, had planned for it, and had even executed the plan under pressure. They were all things he knew could have gone much worse, and they were all things to commend, not regret. He had coached hundreds of soldiers through similar situations and yet in this moment he wasn’t able to let it go. Everything was falling into place. Wran would help them take over Imperial City. Kaiya had given something physical for those amongst them to unify behind. He had the siege of his lifetime to plan and execute. It was something else.
“Hasinth,” Eros started, “the evacuation was extremely well orchestrated. My compliments.”
“It’s not that.” Hasinth said meeting Eros’ eyes for the first time since they were on the pod.
“A long time ago, when I was just a kid in Imperial City, my brother and I dreamt of becoming Sikka soldiers. We’d pretend to be guardians of the Emperor, you know, kid stuff. When we finally were of age to enlist, we did so with tremendous enthusiasm. Every test we took, we excelled. Every endurance exercise we were always first and second place. Anything they threw at us, we were the best. I don’t know when it happened for me, but at some point we started disagreeing on the lessons we were learning. We’d read the same material, and have two increasingly opposite opinions on it. We both progressed through the ranks but I started seeing the empire for what it was, an oppressor. He understood my interpretation, but believed wholeheartedly the Emperor’s approach was the correct one, in fact, the only one. One night it came to a head. He went to the authorities to have me arrested for treason. And that night I became a Wrannaman. It’s not that I have less conviction than I did then, nor is it that we lost our primary base of operations. It’s that this time, I’m going to have to kill him. I’m going to have to kill my brother or he will have to kill me.”
Eros looked at Feathers to see if he was following, “Who is your brother, Hasinth?” Hasinth looked up at both of them and exhaled deeply, “Dredge.”
Kaiya and the crew were sitting below the surf just offshore. They’d sent a probe up with a camera to check the beach and see if there were any signs of life. The probe launched a little drone that did an infrared scan one hundred meters from their position and see what was around. In a few minutes it came back negative, but they’d identified a structure nearby. An abandoned something. Another vestige of the world that used to be. Given that it didn’t look like it was currently inhabited by people, it would be as suitable a place as any for a night.
With the location of the pod secured to the ground and the ballasts filled with water, they settled slightly further out than the surf and anchored to the reef. One by one they entered the small chamber that allowed them to don scuba gear and enter the water. Once on shore, they hid the gear and continued to the structure their probe had discovered. Being back in the lush tropical forest along the coast reminded them of their home and the life they left behind. They were together again, and back in a familiar environment. It was all they could do not to think of their lives before all this and then to the monumental task before them. The structure was mostly buried under the ground a few meters in from the treeline. Brig broke through the top of it and hopped in. They found themselves in an attic of what looked to be a small, ancient beach dwelling. From the attic they made their way down towards the living room and after clearing out a nontrivial amount of dust, they made comfort where they could and fell fast asleep. Tomorrow, they’d head for Imperial City, to the battle that had been coming since the Awakening.
They set out from the beach house in the morning light, after gathering a few edible things they found. They had brought a few emergency kits from the pod, but wanted to save those for dire times. It was still a journey to get to Imperial City and they were sure to encounter some long days and tough nights on the way. Eros, Feathers, Wellington and Hasinth should also be nearby they reasoned, and with that, they set out towards Imperial City.
Hasinth launched the probe from their pod and took a look around at the findings on his screen. They hung around near the old base to get a view of the Sikka response. He needed to know if the other pods that ejected and headed south were going to be in danger. The scan showed a few boats and helicopters coming up towards their location. They watched and waited, bobbing slowly north underwater. If anyone was going to detect them, he wanted them to think all the pods did so. After their slow underwater march, they put the probe up nearer to the shore, and waited a little more to see if anything or anyone would be waiting on the shore for them. It appeared clear and so they beached the pod briefly on the sand, unloaded everyone, and pushed it back into the water, setting its course on autopilot up the coast as to hopefully be intercepted by the Sikka. Hasinth relished in the image of his brother on a wild goose chase only to find an empty pod. He regretted not leaving a message on the pod. Something subtle, like naming it the S.S. Deceit.
They immediately set out to get some distance from the coastline and headed inland. Without any secure networking equipment, they couldn’t send a message outside of their local area without being detected.
“Do we know where our kids are?” Wellington asked, his nerves on edge from the narrow escape.
“They’ll be fine, they’ve been through worse, and they know to head towards Imperial City. I wouldn’t be surprised if we caught them on the road. When it’s secure, I’ll send a message to them and we can set a rendezvous. If we send one now, the Sikkas could intercept it and find out where they are.” Eros told him without a second thought.
Wellington chewed on his cheek, and started walking slightly slower than the rest of the group just enough to get a few feet of distance. He pulled out his screen and in a few clicks, he sent a message to Arryn.
Arryn’s wrist screen blinked and Kaiya looked over at him inquisitively.
“It’s my dad, he says they’re headed for Imperial City, and they sent me their location,” Arryn started typing on his screen and Kaiya nearly tackled him trying to stop himi from sending it.
“They’ll know exactly where we are!” Kaiya yelled.
“How the fuck do you not know that, Arryn?” Petr shook his head.
“Apparently my dad doesn’t know it either.”
“He does, for sure he does, he just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Ok, well we have their location now, we can just try to meet up with them on the road.”
“No, you don’t understand. That message has a 75% chance of being intercepted. They’ll know exactly who sent it, where it was sent from, and where it’s destination was. Your dad just put a big fucking target on our backs.” Petr was furious. His risk aversion was coming out strong. Just as he was starting to feel comfortable in their hidden base underwater, that too got destroyed.
“How far are they?”
“We can catch them by this afternoon”
“We better fucking run then, they’re going to need some help.” Ayala led the way and they picked up the pace. They jogged hard all day only stopping when Brig or Petr needed a break, which was seldom. Those two had come a long way since the relatively easy life in the Y. They could no longer rest on their laurels. They’d been ejected from that life. Especially Petr, who preferred indoors, and was much more comfortable with electronics than people. Kaiya recognized that in herself too. She was happy to spend hours alone tinkering on an idea, or helping Eros in the shop.
It wasn’t until mid afternoon until they heard soft firecrackers in the distance. Small, dull pops. They knew exactly what that was, and it wasn’t good. The Sikkas had found them and already attacked. If they were too late, Kaiya thought, I’ll never see Eros alive again.
“Brig, Petr, Ayala, grab our gear, and trail behind us, Shim, Arryn, and I will press on,” Kaiya was already shedding her backpack, “if we don’t reach them soon it’ll be over.”
Arryn and Shim understood immediately and stripped themselves of anything they wouldn’t immediately need. Kaiya tossed her gun to Shim.
“I won’t be needing this,” she said as she took off running. Wran was here, Kaiya could feel her all around. They ran fast, just like in training, looking over at each other through the trees. Positioning just like they did back at home. After pushing their endurance limits to the edge, they were close. The guns now clearly audible through the forest. They came upon a cliff and looked down below at the two sides fighting. Luckily it was just a Sikka scouting crew. They had only a few Wraiths, a dozen or so Trackers, and a handful of Sikka soldiers all hunkered down in a kind of shootout. Without a second though, Kaiya leapt off the cliff and put herself right in the crossfire. As she jumped, Wran seemed to know what she was thinking and thin green lines came out from the ground to give her a bright green glow and softened her landing. When she landed, she rolled and found herself kneeling. She looked at the Sikka, who were startled and momentarily ceased shooting. If they were to kill Kaiya, Dredge would string them up. The Trackers and the Wraiths turned towards her and as they turned she chambered her arm back and sunk her fist deep into the ground. A glowing green explosion threw dirt, Sikka, and Wraith alike off the ground. A massive, threaded pulse flew outward from her directed at the Sikkas. Even the aftershock was powerful enough to knock Feathers off kilter in the sky and Hasinth flew back landing on his ass. The dazed Sikkas were on the ground, their weapons disabled. The trackers were immobilized immediately and the Wraith howled in pain and ran off, with little green hues following them as they went. Hasinth charged towards her, and the other Wrannaman followed him. They quickly reached the Sikka soldiers and tied up the ones who hadn’t been killed. Their eyes were all bloodshot and clear liquid dripped out of their ears.
Eros ran towards his daughter and paused as he got there. Her right eye was the same green color as the thin threads dancing towards her hand from the ground. For a moment, he looked at her as something foreign, and it frightened him. The intensity of the glow diminished, but lingered, and she got up and hugged him. Arryn and Shim stood nearby in shock at what they’d just seen.
“I guess this is something we’ll have to get used to seeing,” Shim winked at Kaiya, proud and supporting. Wellington found his son and gave him a hug too. Hasinth nodded to Kaiya in thanks and put his arm briefly on her shoulder as he went back to check on some of their wounded and dead.
The Wrannen soldiers took their fallen and laid them down in a row. They held a moment of silence for them and as they did, Kaiya felt Wran pulsing. Wran’s green fibers slowly wrapped them and brought them down below the earth. Marking her symbol over each man and woman in the dirt.
“This shit is just getting too weird for me,” Feathers said, nudging Kaiya gently. She smiled, “How do you think I feel?”.
They heard a rumbling sound approaching from the direction the Sikkas attacked from. Feathers took flight immediately to see what it was, and escorted the truck from above. When they saw who it was they lowered their weapons.
“Laziest bunch of people I’ve ever seen,” Arryn said, approaching the truck.
Ayala poked her head out from the driver's seat, “need a lift?”
They packed in the truck and set course for Imperial City, with faint green lines trailing the truck as it uncovered fresh forest ground.