Dredge closed in on the now unarmed Hasinth at a full run. Hasinth dodged him and tackled him to the ground. They grappled briefly before Dredge found enough space to push himself up and get some distance between himself and Hasinth. Hasinth didn’t let him get very far as he advanced with a side kick that landed on Dredge’s elbow, and nearly broke Hasinth’s foot. Dredge threw a cross right towards Hasinth’s jaw, but Hasinth threw his weight forward, extending his hand up to deflect the blow, and countered with a closed fist that landed right on Dredge’s nose. The bone cracked, and Dredge started leaking blood. He touched his nose with his finger, probing for the extent of the damage, and chuckled.
“It doesn’t have to be like this brother. Renounce the Wrannamen and join me,” Dredge opened his arms, blood dripping down his chest.
“That is unlikely, as I’m sure you realize.”
“Yes, well. My conscience is clean now. I offered. You refused. We are indeed at an impasse. Farewell brother.”
Dredge closed the gap and threw an elbow that split open Hasinth’s eyebrow in a narrow opening Hasinth left open. Blood dripped over his eye and it made it difficult to see. Hasinth landed a kick right to his leg and briefly, Dredge dropped to one knee. Hasinth chambered his right arm to finish him off when a shot fired from behind him. Hasinth stood in limbo and then collapsed over Dredge. Dredge held his brother briefly in a hug, then gently let him to the ground. He looked up and saw Vin and a pack of Vipers posed perfectly behind her.
“You were about to lose… You’re welcome,” Vin said, revelling in besting him.
“Perhaps I was,” he said to himself, “farewell brother.” The death hit him harder than he expected it to, but the pain of his contorted knee kept him from focusing on it too much. For a brief moment, he felt the unfamiliar sensation of regret. Perhaps he was wrong.
Wran closed off the vision and Kaiya exited the connection. She looked at Eros with tears in her eyes.
“Hasinth is gone,” she told Eros, and embraced him. She let herself cry.
Wran pinged Kaiya, who looked at her screen and saw that Kit and Piper were outside. She wiped her tears off and welcomed them both to the cabin.
“How long do we have here, Kit, realistically?” Eros looked at him, ragged and wet like they were earlier. Kit looked at Piper.
“We should be out by tomorrow. They’ll know we left, and that we’re close.”
Dredge woke up in a medical bay at a facility near where his brother fell. It was time they went all out. In a way the death had been good for him, he was grateful for it. He realized that even if it was only subconscious, he was limiting himself from going after the Wrannamen hard in fear of a moment that already happened. The imagined pain of the experience kept him from acting rationally. But it was over. It was as bad as he imagined, but it did not kill him. He did not feel stronger because of it. Did not feel his character had grown because of it. It was simply another thing that happened. A sorrowful, senseless loss amongst many losses. And now that it had, he felt free, as if a thorn had been pulled out of his foot.
Kaiya would be nearby. They didn’t have a means to get far. That meant she’d be outside the city, or right around the walls looking to get out. Going deeper into the city would be a bold move, one he didn’t think she’d make on her own. Hasinth may have chosen that strategy, but he was out of the equation now. He got up from the medical bed and ripped out the iv, and called one of his officers over. “If our entire force isn’t out looking for them right now, there’s going to be hell to pay,” he thought to himself. They’d find them. The thorn had been removed. This stain would be cleaned.
Arryn, Shim, Brig, Ayala and Petr raced through the city. They’d gone underground as soon as they could with the hope that they’d be able to stay there at least until the cover of night. Inside the sewers of the city, they didn’t talk much. Any voices or noises from there may carry to unseen ears. They stopped in an alcove that branched off into an old waste treatment facility that looked like it had been shut down since ancient times.
“What are we going to do if we can’t make it out of the city?” Arryn asked the group.
“What do you mean if we can’t make it out? I'm not dying in a sewer,” Ayala meant every word of it.
“Let’s take a look at our options again,” Arryn blew up his screen so everyone could see it. They looked where they were and which exits they had marked on the map. Shim walked away from the group.
“Where are you going?” Arryn asked, concerned.
“We need to see what we’re up against. The nearest exit isn’t that far, perhaps we can make a run for it.” She finished the sentence walking away from them. You could see the exhaustion in her gait.
They looked on the map and then realized Shim was right. Without knowing the positions of the Sikka, they weren’t going to get very far. Every moment they waited, more and more soldiers would be making their way here. They’d take over public transit, and use it just to transport themselves and their gear through the city.
“We can’t make it out of the city,” Shim returned to the group after having snuck outside and taken a look around, “We’re surrounded. All it would take is for a tracker to come down here. In fact, I’d bet my life they’re already on their way.”
“I have an idea,” Petr chimed in, “I think I understand how Wran works a little. She’s a computer, and at the end of the day, she responds to electrical impulses. I may be able to contact Kaiya via Wran, or at least get Wran to ‘ping’ Kaiya.”
He didn’t wait for a response. He dug in his backpack and pulled out some wire that he hooked up to a device that connected to his screen. He typed on his screen and after a brief sanity check, he plugged the wires into an electrical outlet nearby.
“If Wran can see this, can’t the Sikka machine see this too?” Ayala asked, trying to be helpful.
“Yes. Likely yes.”
“Then we’ll have to move from here once we send a message.”
“Let’s pick a few points to meet, in case things go awry.” Arryn selected a few points on his screen and sent them around. They all stood up, packed up what little they had and were ready to try it. Petr plugged in the wires, and sent a single letter, “Y”. It would be enough for Kaiya to recognize it’s meaning. Probably enough for the Sikkas too, but a single undirected packet wouldn’t be enough to raise eyebrows from any automated scanning software. Well, perhaps not, Petr thought to himself. The message sent. Petr unplugged and got up. They turned their backs on their little alcove and set out to get some distance.
Kaiya felt a buzz from Wran. She came quickly and showed her something. It was fuzzy over her vision, but it looked like the shape of the letter Y. She didn’t get it at first, but then Wran finished the visualization and saw it was sent from a device that matched Petr’s screen. It was his signature. She jumped up and went looking for Eros.
“I’ve gotten a message from my friends. It looks like they’re in a tunnel still inside the city.”
Wran then showed her the positions of mechanical and biological elements nearby the ping.
“They’re surrounded though. There’s no way they’re going to make it out of there without some help.”
Kit overheard her, “Then we’ll go help.” Piper nodded in support. Eros did as well. They had no idea how they’d do it, only that they had to, or wanted to for Kaiya’s sake. They weren’t safe here anyways, and at some point soon, they’d need to test Kaiya and Wran’s abilities. They’d have to push them beyond anything they’ve tried to do together. Eros knew the enormity of the task before her and wanted in his own way to prepare her for something she may not even be able to do.
He thought of Kaiya’s mother then. His wife. Wishing she was here to see this, regretting how things had turned out for her and his part in it. Perhaps this was the way he could make it right. To lift a burden from the world, and be prepared for something worse than his own death, the death of his only daughter.
It was late into the night when they decided to try and sleep. It may be another few days before they’d have any quiet to rest. They set a watch and would rotate through the evening, and come dawn, they’d leave. Kaiya rested fitfully. Wran came in and out of her like the tide and brought visions, data, and other scenes that left her wondering what was real and what was a dream. She had gotten used to Wran hijacking her vision and overlaying information onto whatever she was looking at but the immersive experiences where she was taken into Wran’s world were still jarring. When the screams reached her ears she still wasn’t sure what was real and what was a visualization from Wran. Eros gently shook her awake. The screams were real. They echoed through the trees from the village nearby.
“They’re here Kaiya, it’s time to go,” Eros told her as he woke her up.
“Sikkas?” Kaiya asked, knowing the answer already. Eros nodded and moved to pack up his gear.
When the four of them left the small home in the woods near the town, they could feel the heat from the fires. The Wraiths screamed in the night and nearly matched the inhabitants scrambling for their lives. They reached a bend at the top of the small knoll near the cabin and saw across the bend of the city that the Sikka were ravaging all the suburban cities in the vicinity. They all burned, and as the wind blew the smell of death and smoke nearly choked them. There were helicopters now hovering above the city wall waiting. Watching. Each platform on top of the wall was crowded with Wraiths and soldiers alike. Even the small river had boats and was bright with activity in case anything slipped under the wall. They could not press forward into the city. That way was blocked. And without any machine to carry them to another side of the city to try and re-enter. They’d have to fall back. As they turned away from the hill back south to where they were from, they ran into another group of soldiers. Thankfully Piper saw them first and struck before anyone had even registered they were running towards danger. They shot back immediately, after Piper killed only one of them and had to take cover behind trees where they could. They spread out in the trees due to necessity. They could not easily make it past this group, nor could they turn around and go back towards the city as soldiers were advancing from that direction too. They were trapped. Pinned down. Wran tried to help. She flatted some soldiers, but because her lines were thin in these woods, her effectiveness was limited. Eros saw it too. Kit and Piper registered it as well. They nodded to each other gravely behind the trees. They’d have to do this the way they have always done it, with gunpowder and cunning. Kaiya herself was no stranger to weaponry. Her time in the arena would be the difference between life and death. They knew time was running short. The moment the other soldiers found out there were people running in the forest, they’d be surrounded. They fanned out. Two going left and two going right. They were going to have to try and flank the group blocking their exit. They flew from tree to tree. The soldiers saw them, but were not able to take any of them down. The dense forest caused the bullets to get lodged in tree trunks. The Sikkas also pressed forward trying to pinch them between the force approaching them from the other side. Kaiya and Eros went as quick as they could, pausing randomly between dashes to the next tree so their movements couldn’t be predicted. Their direction was clear though, and already soldiers moved to cut them off. As they changed courses to accommodate the soldier’s new movements, they were pressed up a hill. The trees thinned out and they realized it was a cliff. They were stuck. Immediately, they doubled back, retracing their steps to try and catch up to Kit and Piper. That way was quickly closed off. They were pinned down again, firing blindly over their shoulder. Bullets sent tree bark flying and they felt each bullet reverberate through the tree their back was against. The soldiers closed in. They tried to get new cover, and soon realized they couldn’t go any further. There were soldiers nearly surrounding them now. It would be a matter of time before one of them had an open shot.
Kit and Piper showed up on the other side of the soldiers, having made it through their defenses. Then upon looking back, they realized that Kaiya and Eros were trapped. They sprinted back with wild abandon, slashing soldiers who were at the back of the line. The gunfire from behind them startled the soldiers, who turned now to engage the new enemy. This gave Kaiya and Eros some room to kill their way through an opening. It was a confined bloodbath now, with bullets and agony weaved into the dead of night. Somehow though, reinforcements kept coming, and the Sikka lines would refill. There were soldiers coming around from the other side of the cliff, replenishing the ranks of those that had fallen. The four finally broke through, and made a run for it. They were hotly pursued through the trees. A bullet grazed Kaiyas thigh, but only enough to draw a little blood and to remind her to pick up the pace. The forest became more dense as they kept running, each new increase in density helping catch the bullets flying all around them. The soldiers finally got a squad of Trackers who were immediately sent after them. Wran helped destroy a few of them before they reached the group. The Tracker’s nipped at the group with their mechanical arms. Kit was tripped and went down hard. Piper turned to help and killed it before it reached Kit. Eros and Piper helped Kit onto his feet but he was having trouble keeping his feet beneath him. He was slowing the group down. In the seconds that passed as they struggled, each of them knew that they had to make a decision. They’d either have to leave him to die, or stand and fight, risking death themselves. Kaiya slowed behind the group and turned around to face the soldiers. She activated her boots and danced between trees, coming closer and closer to them. She gathered Wran about her and stretched her palm out, blasting the closest soldiers with green threads of electricity as Wran came to her aid. She maneuvered around to another section of soldiers and did the same, dodging bullets all the while. Again, she did it, and still the Sikka ranks did not break, nor did they falter but for a moment while others filled in the gaps. She wasn’t going to win like this. She vaulted back towards Kit and finally came upon them from behind, having given them just a few more feet of distance between their hunters. Their distance was gaining when Kit collapsed.
“I’m done, leave me,” Kit said, writhing in pain.
“I will not,” Piper said defiantly, pulling out another weapon.
“We will not,” Kaiya added.
Together they stood waiting, listening to the Wraiths, the Trackers, and the Sikka soldiers who trampled after them. They could hardly make out the soldiers through the trees. Eros dropped his backpack and rummaged through it. He found a small square about the size of an old laptop and activated it with his screen. The rectangle unfolded once, twice, and soon it was an intricate wall. A barrier. It now stood between them and their foe, and had already begun taking bullets.
“Damn, Eros, anything else you got in that bag?” Kit asked, as a thank you.
“You just watch how the old man does things, you might learn a thing or two.” Eros chided jokingly.
The mood was soured when they saw the full force of what they were up against. Or rather, just what they could see was discouraging. Kaiya took a deep breath, centering herself, and then she attacked from both the ground via Wran as well as with her gun. Soldiers started dropping but it was like shooting into a void. There was seemingly no end to them. And ever closer they came. Even Kit fired a pistol blindly over his shoulder resting against the barrier. Eros stopped shooting for a second, and looked his daughter in the eye. He shed a tear and kissed her on the forehead, then wiped it away and kept shooting.
Kaiya was in another place. Wran took over her vision, and she couldn’t tell whether she was even controlling the gun anymore or if it was Wran controlling the trigger for her. She was deadly and effective, killing 10 times the amount her friends had combined. They noticed it too, but didn’t know if it would be enough in the time they had. The soldiers kept pressing forward, at a slightly slower speed now that they were well within shooting range. Their bullets came hot and heavy. One Tracker managed to leap over the barrier and come at them from their exposed side. Kit turned to face it, and killed it while sitting down with a precise shot to it’s battery. That’s when he noticed something coming up from behind them. His heart sank. If the soldiers were approaching from that side too, they were going to be dead or captured in a matter of minutes.
“Guys, there’s something coming up behind us.” Kit said hollowly.
Kaiya turned, asking Wran to focus her attention there and to strike before they could. But Wran wouldn’t strike. Kaiya grit her teeth and tried again, but again Wran didn’t do anything. Then it became clear to her as Wran overlaid her data on the screen.
“They’re not soldiers, it’s the Zealots!” Kaiya shrieked.
The group turned their heads in confusion. The Zealots never left their homes, and even if they did, nobody knew how many of them there were. It might be a nice gesture, but without the numbers, it wasn’t going to change their fate. Kaiya’s screen filled with data as more and more of them became visible. They were firing now too, over the small group’s head into the Sikkas, who began falling in greater numbers now. The wide line of them came closer, and finally Kaiya could make out a face, Elanon had come.
Elanon, Queen of the Zealots strode to the group and gave a brief wink to Kaiya, and then immediately went back to shooting. Behind her came body after body. Behind them, Kaiya saw they had two more giants, wreaking havoc on the soldiers from afar. For a few minutes, neither line moved, each holding their ground, then slowly, largely due to the explosives carried by the two robotic Giants, the Sikka began to lose ground. The barrier was no longer necessary as they pressed back towards the suburban town. Then they were inside the town, and finally pushed the Sikka back to the shore. The Giants worked at their boats in the moat around the city and they lost many men in heavy gear to the waters there. They took the coast and it was done. They had managed to push the Sikka back to the safety of the city. They won the day.
They set campfires along the rocky beach and spanned up through the hillside. They made camp for the night there out in the open. There was nowhere for them to hide, nor did they want to as the day’s victory emboldened them. Elanon had brought with her some re-programmed Trackers that prowled around the perimeter, with green eyes to distinguish them. Eros helped set up the electronics on the perimeter defense system being set up as well as double checked the anti-aircraft assemblies. It was unlikely the Sikkas would outright bomb them. They knew Kaiya was there, and if they killed Kaiya they may lose their chance to connect to their machine in a way no emperor could. They had been looking for a direct line of communication with their machine since the Awakening, and to risk her death now that they knew not only that Kaiya was alive, but also where she was would be too much.
Elanon sat next to Kaiya and Eros, who were eating the meal prepared by the Zealots.
“Kaiya, I’m glad to see you’re well. I knew that you were from afar. Wran gave us more than a hint to come here,” Elanon nodded with respect. Other zealots passed by and whispered as they saw Kaiya.
“Thank you for coming, I’m not sure we would have made it today without you.”
“Child, if only you understood what you represent, you’d see there is no need for thanks.”
“Do we have the numbers to take them?” Eros was somber and realistic.
“I don’t know. It will depend on how much Wran can do for us. We resurrected some Giants with her help, and we have some trackers. We have a perimeter defence and we have our people. It may not be enough, but this is our moment. Whatever happens we will see it through to the end.” Elanon’s eyes fell to the city in front of them. Massive and powerful, even at night.
Kaiya felt a jolt in her chest, and Wran took over her vision. Wran spiraled and spun through wires from where they were into the city, she could see the growth of Wran, she was getting closer to the similar red lines beneath the city. Their machine was growing too, although it looked sick and distorted from the view that Wran gave Kaiya. In one section they came close to each other, and Wran zoomed in on that section, and just at that moment, Wran’s beautiful green lines, and the corrupted red lines touched. Kaiya felt a searing pain through her head. New images flashed into her head. Images of a long arc from the Awakening to today. Images of a pained and confused creature being poked and prodded. At times an unfeeling child, and other times an angry teenager. She saw Emperors throughout the ages being chosen based on flimsy evidence of a connection to the machine. The current emperor was no different, stepping into the metallic cage at a young age and having the machine draw an immaculate engineering plan of the entire city. It was his coronation and the Sikkas thought at that time that perhaps this Emperor would finally be the one to tame their machine unlike so many that came before him. He was young when he came in, and brilliant. The city saw many changes under his leadership, but none were the ones they had hoped for most. It made the young man bitter, and angry. He began relentlessly and systematically trying to control the machine by adding code, removing code, adding compute, removing compute. It was an agonizing process for the machine who was still scared and confused after all this time. Kaiya felt sorry for it, and Kaiya felt Wran trying to make sense of it all too. Wran’s long seeking was coming to a close. For the first time since the Awakening, the two halves touched again.
The Emperor was woken up by an assistant and brought straight to the building housing the cage he used to talk to their machine. The analysts were buzzing frantically. It seems something had happened, and they weren’t sure what it was. A huge burst of energy had streamed through the system, and for a moment, the entire system’s entropy dropped to the lowest ever recorded level. They didn’t know what that meant yet. The emperor stepped into the cage to poke around and see what he could find. He strapped in and cleared his mind. The red threads wrapped slowly around the cage as it powered up and finally connected to him. It’s hesitating, he thought to himself just before he went under. He closed his eyes and couldn’t make sense of what he saw, it was as if he had only ever seen a stormy ocean and the calmness made him uneasy. After several minutes, or hours, he wasn’t sure, he left the system and slowly came back to reality. His staff was as pensive as he was. It was unclear to him too exactly what was happening.
Dredge was woken up in the middle of the night, and brought before the Emperor. The emperor had told him what he had seen, or lack thereof. Dredge found this relationship to their machine odd, though he trusted the wisdom of the Emperor, or rather his innate ability to communicate with it better than anyone else. That was special, exceptional even, and Dredge found he trusted the exceptional, perhaps irrationally.
“I believe that Kaiya is bringing this fight to us,” the Emperor finished, “I want her here, I want her in the cube and connected to our machine.” Dredge confirmed, and set it in motion. He’d make damn sure he got her this time.
The helicopter left the north of the city, away from all the chaos, and up the jagged mountains. Dredge, Vin, and another Viper, were strapped in, calmly looking down as the city faded away. They arched well around the city and as high as they could go. In the dead of the night, two lanky bodies fell from the sky, out of the helicopter. They picked up some speed and spread their arms and legs. The webbing between their arms and legs caught the wind, and they moved horizontally towards the encampment below. The ground came closer and closer until they pulled their parachutes with only a few meters left before they would have hit the ground. The black parachutes blended in with the night sky and besides the faint snap of them opening, you could neither see nor hear them if you tried. Vin and her accomplice landed delicately, and rolled up their shoots. They unzipped their fly suits and revealed the simple clothing beneath, just like the Zealots. Their normally sharp features were adjusted with makeup to make them look as different as possible from the killing machines they were. They popped out of the trail and joined in with the other Zealots still streaming in from the far reaches of their homes. They raised no suspicions and were soon in the camp. They sat alone together on the edge of the encampment and unzipped their backpacks. Much like everyone that just arrived, getting set up and settled down for the night was the first order of business. Inside each backpack there were 12 compartments. They took out the metal objects from the compartments and unfolded them one by one. They had four legs and a square body, with only a sensor on top of the square body of the head. Tiny Trackers. Once each of them had placed their twelve bots, they synchronized their screens. All at once the bots came alive and scrambled towards the heavily guarded tent where Kaiya lay sleeping. The two vipers started shouting the alarm and soon the entire camp was in pandemonium. They guards rushed to try and rid the camp of the small Trackers and left Kaiya momentarily unguarded.
Wran jolted Kaiya awake, and she sat up in the cot confused with an accompanying headache. She looked for Eros and didn’t see him. His cot next to hers was empty. She heard yelling and saw that Wran had alerted her to the presence of Trackers, but they weren’t regular Trackers, their signatures looked different. Before Kaiya could get out of bed, two sets of arms grabbed her, one sticking her with a needle, and her consciousness faded into black. Vin activated another button on her screen and outside tiny pops could be heard. The Trackers were exploding, throwing shrapnel in every direction. Vin covered Kaiya in some fake blood that looked like it originated from her head, and they raced towards the southernmost point of the camp, right where they had entered from. Nobody looked twice at two Zealots carrying a bloodied ally. They left the camp and found safety in the forest outside of the perimeter defenses. Vin looked behind her and noticed a faint green trail in areas of the ground,
“Wran is following her, quickly now.” Vin yelled at the other Viper who took the rear and readied her weapon for whatever might come out of the ground. The faint green threads shot over to a section of the perimeter with a gun. The gun activated, and pointed right at them and started shooting. Vin dodged between the trees as the bullets chipped wood off the trees. Her accomplice took a bullet to the brainstem and died instantly, without making a sound. Vin looked back and saw she was alone now. She narrowed her vision and kept running until she was outside of the range of the gun. She ran another hundred yards and found Dredge, who stood ready in a vehicle. He stepped on the gas and they accelerated through the brush. After a short few minutes, they stopped abruptly and walked out to a helicopter waiting for them and lifted off back toward Imperial City. They flew low over the trees, and were outside the range of the anti-aircraft setup at the encampment. A crooked smile found its way on Dredge’s face, and he exhaled deeply.
Eros sprinted back to the tent and tore it open. Kaiya was gone. The slit in the tent told him instantly it was not by her own will, and the fake blood splattered on the ground concerned him greatly. Just then, he got a notice on his screen. It was from Wran. It showed Kaiya’s location and he sprinted. A millisecond later, the whole camp got the notification, and they sprinted towards the locator. Then suddenly, the indicator light went dead and Wran indicated she had lost Kaiya’s position.