Dredge’s screen vibrated as he was coming in to work. A Sikka ship had discovered something below the water and they were about to open fire on it. He raced into the office and stepped into the war room to see what was going on. By the time he got there, the Sikka ship had been destroyed. The ship’s electronics were giving off some strange readings, so they were not sure there was anything below them but firing on it was an easy way to figure that out. When the ship was destroyed there was no mistaking they had come upon a Wrannaman hideout. He immediately dispatched soldiers to that location, though by the time they had gotten there, it would have been enough time to exit the area and get lost in either the ocean farther out to sea or on land. Moments after they had lost communication with the ship, they picked up an unusually large volume of signals crossing over the network. They saw mass messages going in all different directions. Every direction in fact. Even to various areas within Imperial City. They wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exact locations, but they put together a heat map of the data to show where in the city the messages went. The results showed the messages went everywhere. Was it a smoke screen, or was this real? If there were that many Wrannaman in the city, that was cause for much alarm. He doubted their numbers were that large, though he did call for the city to be locked down. There would be nobody in or out until further notice.
The first of the dispatch arrived on the scene to find nothing but a broken ship and thirsty soldiers drifting in the current. They picked up the survivors, and split their battalion, sending half farther out to sea, and the other half to the nearest coastline. If there were other underwater hideouts in the area, they’d find them. Further scans of the former battle zone showed there were no other underwater structures, but the amount of debris indicated they had destroyed a large base. Could it have been their base of operations? He smiled at the thought. We’re close then, closing in on them like rats. He’d find them, and kill this cancer once and for all. Though he paused and realized that he’d also have to face his brother in this. He knew his brother was a Wrannaman, and assumed too that his brother occupied a similar position and station as he did. There would be a confrontation. It saddened him to think of this sacrifice he’d make for the cause. It was at his upper limit. The only thought he could cling to that soothed his cognitive dissonance was that possibly, the battle between the Sikkas and the Wrannamen would end with him.
He waited patiently in the war room for updates from his operatives, and was transfixed on the live video feeds. He’d switch from the helicopter to the squad leader’s camera and back again. He’d take over particular sensors from the helicopter and pour over their outputs. Then a transmission came in. Some of the Wrannamen had been found, and a small group that escaped was pinned down. He redirected the incoming soldiers towards their location, and when he looked back up on the screen, he saw Kaiya come down from nowhere and stick her fist into the ground. Then there was a green flash and the feeds were all disconnected. He slammed his fist down on the table. ‘They’re heading for Imperial City,’ he yelled belligerent. They hadn’t put the entire city on lockdown but for a handful of times in Dredge’s career. He remembered the first one. The city nearly imploded from riots and unrest. They had to forcibly stop protestors and put a curfew in place, and even that barely helped. He remembered the outrage at the Emperor for killing peaceful protestors and that, naturally, sparked less peaceful protests, which caused more unrest. Finally the city-wide curfew was lifted and the Imperialists licked their wounds. They could only push their people so far.
By nightfall the curfew and barricades were in place. There would be nobody allowed in, and nobody out policy. The only vehicles that left the city were military trucks loaded with soldiers to patrol the vicinity. Dredge reasoned that it would take Kaiya and her crew a few days to get there, but when they did, they’d have a tough time getting in. He didn’t expect it to stop them completely, just slow them down.
Kit and Piper had received the message along with every Wrannaman in the city. Years ago, before they’d been posted here together, they’d been with Hasinth for a few years and decided together they’d go underground in Imperial City. It was what the Wrannamen needed most, and they volunteered. For Piper, it was impossible for her not to be recognized as either a Viper or a former Viper anywhere outside of Imperial City. That meant it would be difficult to gain trust outside of this city. She’d be exotic anywhere but at least there were other ex Vipers in Imperial City. Their loyalties were never questioned. After she’d been discharged, she met up with other ex Vipers and had made friends with them. Despite the bloodlust that was trained into them, the Sikkas took care of this elite group after their usefulness waned or a new batch was initiated. Each of them could now vouch for her as a good Imperialist. As Wrannamen inside the city, they’d be the eyes and ears on the ground, or at least one pair. There were already many spies in the city, but even Kit and Piper didn’t know exactly how many, or who they were. That was the point. It was harder to kill something as decentralized as this, and even if they were captured, and tortured, they couldn’t give up info they didn’t have. But they’d been prepared for this moment. They were going to orchestrate protests. Once they got the message they discretely printed out thousands of copies of anti-Sikka rhetoric, calling for an end to the Emperor’s tyrannical rule. The message would resonate with the city’s middle class, who historically, compared to any other middle class in history, was no middle class at all. They were the dispensable workers, the grunts. The trashmen, and the civil servants performing administrative supporting roles to the government. They hadn’t had a real wage increase in a generation. The message would resonate with those whose jobs that had long been targets of mechanization before the Awakening, and the disdain for having to pay them for work a machine could do never quite sat right with business owners. It was a long standing cultural contempt.
Carefully, just before dawn, Kit and Piper would leave stashes of these pamphlets at certain locations around the city. As soon as the light hit, they’d be gone, taken by other Wrannamen, who had also trained for this moment. The posters, pamphlets, and other contraband were disseminated throughout the city. Every light pole had one, every building had a poster, and every alley was painted with activist messages. In a few short days the city was in turmoil. The riots began. People openly gathered around ambitious youths yelling through a loudspeaker, delivering the message of inequality and injustice. There were fires burning in the streets. It would be a lot for any city to handle, and Sikka soldiers were on every street corner, until they were pushed out by residents or protests. A lone Sikka soldier was a target in this environment, and stories of several direct attacks on the soldiers had already made their way around the population.
When the truck carrying Kaiya, her friends, and the surviving Wrannamen came into view of the city, they could see the red of fire in dots across the vast Imperial City. It had begun, and by the looks of it, those on the inside had done their part well in amplifying the unrest. The Sikka would be distracted with managing their own people, let alone preparing to take on Hasinth, Kaiya, and the rest of the Wrannamen. They’d ditch the truck here. Feathers and Eros wired it up to set on fire in a few hours time, that is if the Trackers didn’t find it first. They’d set out on foot and enter the city through one of the several tunnels built by the Wrannamen over the years. The Sikka were aware that some tunnels existed. They had found several. But each time they shut one down, two more would pop up. Their entrance was like swiss cheese, and they knew it, though it was extremely difficult to get to them all. They decided they wouldn’t and each time they found one, they would simply wire it up with sensors, cameras, and anything that would give them an indication that someone visited the tunnel, who they were and with that, dispatch some soldiers to the area to grab whomever they caught on tape. Though most often they were just local kids snooping around.
The group trudged on foot along a path towards the city. There were only a few suburbs near Imperial City, you were either inside of the wall or you lived in the next town over, though increasingly people chose, almost as a form of defiance, to live outside the wall. They could afford larger, mostly hand-built homes, with a small garden to grow their own food. Though when any trouble came to town, they’d often suffer first. As the canaries, they’d be the warning sign before anything approached the wall. If an enemy were to approach the city from any other direction, it was likely that the patrolling Trackers would find them. They did rotations so long as their batteries lasted. A constant twenty four hour monitoring system that reported directly to the Imperial headquarters like clockwork.
Hasinth thought about their approach and glanced at Kaiya. She caught his eye,
“It’s going to be fine, the Trackers won’t be able to get close enough.”
Kaiya held her hands out to the ground and thin green threads rose up from the ground. She closed her eyes briefly and then snapped her wrist screen towards her face. She flicked her screen and Hasinth looked at the message. It was the location of every tracker patrolling the city wall.
“And you can disable them before we trip an alarm?”
“Wran says she can see every networked device around the perimeter of the wall, and most of them within a one hundred yard radius around the Imperial Buildings.”
They could smell the smoke from the fires within the city. The people were burning tires, and thick plumes of black smoke rose like ominous columns from the city. They’d be there by nightfall, and cross into the city then, likely meeting up with Kit and Piper who had the honor of hosting and the responsibility of helping them navigate the city safely. Though Kaiya could help disable many of the networked things in the city, she wouldn’t be able to do much about being spotted.
The day passed without incident. They became used to spotting offline Trackers curled up in their sleeping position as they walked by them, then after they were well out of its range, the Tracker would boot up again and walk around disoriented. After it re-calibrated, it continued on its patrol as if nothing happened.
They approached the outskirts near a village surrounding the river that winded around the city. They couldn’t go straight through the village and risk being spotted. As the village came into view, the natural palette of browns and greens stood in stark contrast to the looming, azure buildings. Even the wall material looked supernatural, enhanced. As night fell the wall lit up with soft red lights, perfectly spaced. They skirted around the village, sticking to the trees and brush where they could. Trackers might be anywhere in these woods. They even roamed through the village streets to surveil the people there. They didn’t speak, and walked single file through the trees, down the cliff side that led to the river. At the river’s edge, Hasinth asked Brig and Arryn to go steal a skiff from the village docks. In a short time, they were back. They boarded the skiff and silently crossed the river, hoping a drone swarm wouldn’t come this way. There was a soft mist, thin but helpful, that shielded them from being utterly visible. Once they reached the far side of the river, they picked a section that looked climbable and scaled the wall. They stopped more than halfway up and entered into a drainage tunnel that poured tainted water from the city into the river. It was large enough for Hasinth to stand at full height, and three of them across. Once inside the tunnel, they followed maps provided by the Wrannamen into a tunnel created off the sewer line. They shook the concealed door loose and one by one climbed the ladder down. The tunnels smelled musty and earthy. The tunnels were simple squares with wood and other materials to reinforce the structure. Kaiya led the way with Wran’s glowing threads providing just enough light to see. They passed cameras, and other sensors that were offline for the duration of their passing. Each sensor’s downtime was relatively quick. It would be a difficult task for the Sikkas to understand what was going on fast enough to send people down to intercept them. They had stations all throughout the city, but still, a two minute gap would be all they needed to get away from the tunnel entrance into the city and disappear into the streets.
Dredge was sitting in the ops room watching over every single sensor and tracker in their system around the City. It wasn’t uncommon for Trackers and sensors to go offline, and either completely fail or just reboot. Skilled engineers and technicians were a rare commodity. They were difficult to train and there just wasn’t enough of them. With the past several missions most of them had been working on repairs and new systems. The Trackers, and other sensors across the city often fell on the bottom of the priority list. Something caught his eye. He had just come in with a fresh cup of coffee and found that staring at the dashboards cleared his mind. He found the technology comforting, and with the quiet hum of servers, it was almost like meditation for him. Something snapped him awake and he asked to see one particular area up close. It was a known tunnel. There was a commonality to the sensor failures there.
“Tunnel 109-A please begin active manual monitoring,” he said calmly. A pasty looking soldier in uniform nearby him took the action and set up his screens accordingly. After a few moments of watching Dredge stepped closer to the screen.
“Does that look like normal failure activity?” He asked the young tech.
“No sir, our reports are showing anomalous activity there,” the young man admitted.
“Dispatch officers to that area immediately, we have someone entering our city.”
The officers were dispatched. The several cars that responded spent most of their day responding to false alarms. They rarely caught anyone in the act of entering the city, and even if they did, they were usually people from out of town who couldn’t come in legally, and so set out to make their way in the best they could. Refugees. The sick. The helpless. It was unsettling work dragging women and children to jail for trying to find a better life. They were strict because they had to be. If they let everyone in, the city would be unsafe. Still, they knew Dredge was watching their every move and so picked up the pace from their typically casual response time. Kit and Piper picked up the call on their screens tuned to the local channels. When they realized where they were headed, the pair sprinted to the projected location the officers would intercept the incoming party. They raced into the tunnels, totally disregarding the sensors and cameras present. With their faces covered, they’d still be able to conceal their identity, they hoped.
They saw Kaiya’s faint green glow before they were able to see the rest of her. They paused for a moment as they approached.
“This is new,” Piper said suspiciously. The group approached Kit and as soon as they were within earshot he yelled out to them, “There’s a dispatch on the way, we have maybe two minutes before they’re here. Follow us.” And then he turned back around and sprinted the way they just came. Kaiya and her crew picked up the pace, Wellington was the farthest behind. His aged girth prevented him from moving too quickly.
They were outside in a long minute, their hearts pounding rounding every corner in fear they would turn and suddenly be facing guns. Feathers flew as discreetly as he could on top of the nearest building and spotted the cars, sending their locations to everyone’s screen. Then he flew back down to run with them. There weren’t a lot of flying Hybrids in Imperial City. He’d be a dead giveaway if he kept it up. He could also hear a loud gathering of people chanting on the other side of the city. The riots had begun when the sun went down. It wasn’t a coincidence. They were planned, invigorated and supported by the Wrannamen who rallied and stoked the passions of the local communities against the Imperialists. When the dispatch arrived at the first car stopped and got out, finding the entrance and then running into the tunnel, with their weapons drawn. The second two cars continued on. They knew they were likely too late, but they knew whomever had just arrived would be close. The two officers' cars split off, scanning the streets in pursuit of the group on foot. They launched several drones which zig zagged above them in a grid, searching each and every area for bodies. There were many, though most were local citizens who lived nearby. They could swing low to scan their faces but that would take too much time. After several precious minutes of uninteresting results from the drone scanners, they found a group of protestors, far too large to be composed only of the group that just entered. That was it, they were gone, there would be no way to effectively look through all the protestors, and with such a small squad, going in there was a death wish. Cops had died trying to deal with protestors.
Kit and Piper passed around small tokens of protest and split the group in two. They slid into the protest for a few minutes, making sure nobody had spotted them. They saw a squad car keep a healthy distance. Piper confirmed it was one from the dispatch. The officers inside sat watching for a bit, scanning the crowd. It was then they decided to slowly turn a corner, shielding them from the eyes of the cops. The squad car launched some drones to also do some face scanning on the crowd, but those were shot down out of the sky by the protestors as soon as they were seen. Over the next hour, the two groups slithered through alleys in a predetermined path back to Kit and Pipers hideout in a poor residential area of the city. A place where everyone looked shady, and thus few questions were asked, and odd behavior was tolerated. When everyone made it safely inside, they opened a bottle of champagne and made a toast.
“To a moment in time, millenia in the making,” Hasinth raised his glass.
“To a moment in time where we’re all still together,” Wellington added. It became a game.
“To a democratic future,” Eros chimed in.
They clinked glasses and drank, making a great effort not to be too loud, but to also blow off a little steam. Hasinth went back to work straight away. He put himself in a corner, and requested Petr’s help. The two of them sat next to each other working on communicating with every Wrannaman they could to coordinate the next steps. There would be Wrannamen people flooding the city over the next few weeks. And at some point the Imperialists would know what was happening. They’d already put the city on lock down, but when they realize everyone they want killed or jailed is already in the city, they might start some more drastic measures. Curfews were already in place, though that didn’t stop the protests from continuing. Every so often the wind would change directions and bring with it a new burning smell. It jolted the senses and brought one’s mind back to the daunting present. The beginning of the most important task of their generation. Decimating the Sikka, and overthrowing the Emperor.
Dredge threw down his headset after confirming with the dispatched officers they had not been able to intercept the intruders. They were in the city. And most frustrating of all, Dredge didn’t know if Kaiya was in the city or not. He thought the most prudent approach was to assume that she was already here and behave accordingly. In one sense, it brought him clarity, he could claw back all explorations and search and destroy brigades out in the field. They’d all be back in the city for as long as it took to find her, and the others, and neutralize them. On the other hand, the report from the fallen group that intercepted her the last time had disturbingly reported about her green glow originating from the ground itself. He had watched the Tracker feeds dozens of times, assembled for him to see what happened from every available angle. Each time he watched, he was less sure what he was seeing. He had gotten word to the Emperor, who held back comment, suggesting he too hadn’t ever seen anything like this. This troubled him greatly. It was a new unknown. It was better they were aware of it now, though that didn’t comfort him when it came to accommodating or even predicting what Kaiya’s capabilities now were. The next confrontation would be illuminating. He hoped for another small encounter with her so she could show him more of what exactly she is capable of. That’s what he would try next. A forced encounter with minimal Sikka losses. Without any kind of certainty that she was in the city, he’d try to draw her out. Force her hand. But how, he thought.
Inside the small apartment now crowded with sleeping bodies, a buzzing sound woke Shim. She peeked out the closed blinds and saw the cause. The largest swarm of drones she had ever seen was spaced 2 feet apart from one another, creating a massive black mesh in the sky. They were canvassing the entire city. So long as they remained doing this, their group would have a hell of a time maneuvering around the city. Shim gently shook Kaiya awake, who groaned and finally opened her eyes.
“What’s up Shim?”
“There’s something you need to see,” she showed Kaiya who took one look and understood.
“We’ve got to get rid of them.”
“Do you think Wran will help?”
“Yes I’m just not sure how yet,” they moved into the kitchen and saw Hasinth drinking coffee, contemplating the same thing they were.
“If we destroy the ones right near us, we will have effectively told them where we are,” he nodded to the girls.
“But if we disable some of them a little farther away, we could see what the Sikkas have planned in terms of a response,” Hasinth nodded at Kaiya. Shim did so as well. It was an invitation to try and contact Wran and see what could be done. She took a swig of coffee and put the cup down, centering herself. If she made a wrong move, she’d give them all away in an instant. They’d lose the safe house and likely compromise Kit and Piper, if not the entire crew. She reached out to Wran as gently as she could, and the green fibers came just as gently. Kaiya’s mind swam for a moment, as if she was underwater, and then the vision in her mind snapped into clarity. She could somehow see the drones overhead, she could feel the cars as a kind of weight on her body across the city. With her eyes still closed, she reached out and touched one of the drones. Shim peeked out the window and saw a drone several hundred yards away drop from the sky. Shim raised her eyebrow at Hasinth, who returned with a small tightening of the cheeks, something that could be interpreted as satisfaction. She did it again, and another dropped. Slowly she ramped up the quantity. They dropped in twos, then fours, until a massive patch of sky was clear on the other side of the city. Hasinth put his hand on her shoulder and she detached from Wran gently. Kaiya looked behind her and somehow everyone was awake now watching the procession take place. They were all still in awe of what was happening right in front of their eyes. For generations, stories and myths spoke of this day, this time, and yet for it to be happening right before their eyes was overwhelming. As a father, Eros didn’t quite know what to make of it. He knew he had to support Kaiya, but at the same time, he didn’t want to get in her way. He knew that for her to do what they all knew she needed to, he’d have to let her go. It was one of the hardest things he’d ever do, that moment to moment decision not to intervene, or interject, or give unsolicited advice, but to watch her become whomever she would become and wordlessly offer support, and as best he could, a net below her if she ever fell.
Within minutes they were able to see the massive barrage of trucks, police, and even a helicopter over the patch of sky that was now clear. On the streets, Sikkas flooded the area, dozens of Trackers were set loose and Wraiths so numerous the street shook a little as they walked. The citizens of the area cried out as the doors to their homes burst open. Within the hour, a massive protest began. It was an outright war between the citizens of Imperial City and the Sikkas whose rule hung over them like a thick fog. In broad daylight, police cars were set on fire. The Sikkas responded by shooting its own citizens, which escalated the protestors to take even more drastic actions. Dredge looked down from the helicopter at the unseemly deluge of bodies and blood below and called them off. As powerful as the Sikkas were, it would not be helpful to be fighting a war on two fronts. They may have already pushed their citizens past the breaking point. The Sikkas slowly withdrew from the area and went back up to their looming hill to continue keeping watch. The area was still crowded with those in need of help, and those who would risk themselves to provide it. The drones overhead withdrew too. Dredge knew they’d have to find another way.
Hasinth stood in the center of the cramped living room.
“We’re going to have to gnaw away at them. It’s going to take time. We’ll do it methodically and mercilessly until their infrastructure is crippled. Wran is our secret weapon. They don’t know what she’s capable of. In truth, we don’t know what she’s capable of.” Hasinth checked back in with the group looking at him, and cleared his throat.
“Depots, trucks, facilities, drones, systems, each one we’ll go after and each one we will cripple in some way. We may be few in number in this room, but there are a few more of us spread throughout the city, though if we do this right, it will feel like we’re everywhere.”
They started small at first, cautiously. Eros and Feathers procured material for them to make small bombs and other such devices that would help them. They’d go out in twos or threes in the dead of night. Kaiya always went. She was careful not to call Wran at an inopportune time as to be easily detected. They took out a storage facility first. Eros, Kaiya and Feathers set up small explosives around the building. When they were a safe distance away, Kaiya could remotely set the fuse on them using Wran. They also wired some to their wrist screens. Each time a building was destroyed, the Sikka would rush to the scene only to come away empty handed. Finding and stopping these guerilla attacks was like punching underwater.
They bombed a drone factory. They destroyed one of the few chip making facilities. Feathers even managed to fly up to the Imperial buildings on the hill and graffiti the side of the building just to show the Sikkas they could be reached anywhere any time. Meanwhile the city was still a hellfire of protests and unrest. They started to pick up steam and gain confidence. They started to think they could actually win.
Dredge sat in a conference room stoically. He was bombarded with insults and unsavory remarks. He was failing and he knew it. His mind was elsewhere. Scanning his memories of books from the great historians. What would one of his heros do if they were here today? Would they just bomb the city, overwhelming the enemy with their strength? Should they do nothing? His handling of this event, the Wrannaman invasion, would be written about for centuries to come. Though if they lost, unthinkable, but possible, then the interpretation would be presented from the side of the Wrannamen. He would be vilified. Demonized. Still, they’d write about it. In a way he longed to get his hands on that book to be written and pour through it like he does with the military history books. The sight of the Emperor on screen snapped him back to the present and the room went silent.
“I see you all have failed to subdue the Wrannamen,” the Emperor looked despondent.
“I will handle this myself. It is time once again for that girl to witness the power of our Empire. The power of our God. The unification is near, our God can sense it, and knows it is here. It grows restless.”
With that the Emperor cut the broadcast. The silent room disbursed. Dredge would continue thinking of the optimal plan, and of course assist the Emperor in any way he could. He was pinged on his screen, and told to go to the Emperors palace.
When he arrived the palace was buzzing with activity. Clearly orders had been given and each and every person in that building had a task to do. Including himself. He was led to the doors behind which stood the emperor. The escorts left him.
“Enter, Dredge,” the Emperor said faintly behind the door. When he pushed them open there was a heat to the room, and immediately he saw its source. Red tendrils were bursting from the Emperor’s hands and body. Thin threads of pulsating red emanated from the floor and the contraption the Emperor stood in. It juxtaposed the glamorous marble and impeccably decorated room. The device was twice the height of a man. It was made of a dark grey metal. The red threads originated out of the metal bars of the cube and went into the Emperor’s body.
“It’s been years since anyone has seen me like this. This is the way in which our machine and I communicate. This is the way in which I use it and it uses me.” The Emperor’s voice was charged. It seemed the man looked 10 years younger, and a few inches taller. Dredge couldn’t help but to think of what it would be like to step into the cube and speak with the sentient entity they called a God. It was never a God to him though he understood and accepted other’s use of the phrase.
“What will you have me do Emperor,” Dredge said respectfully, almost bowing his head.
“I will have you accompany me with this device outside the palace, you will guard me and this device with your life, while our machine out the Wrannamen who you let invade this city. We will show the world what you’re witnessing now, and it will make them afraid, and proud to be a Sikka.”
The Emperor and the cube were wheeled out on a platform being pulled by Wraiths. Outside of the Wraiths stood Dredge’s best men surrounding the Emperor ten soldiers deep on all sides. Beyond that layer were dozens of trackers, each sniffing the air, and set to engage any threat. Their eyes were as red as the Emperor’s tendrils still surrounding him in the cube. Thousands of Sikka soldiers stood outside the palace gates, and cheered violently upon seeing the procession. Loyal citizens stood proud and in awe at the show of strength.