Eros stood numb in the commotion. It was as if everything went into slow motion around him. He saw bleeding bodies and forlorn faces. Sunken shoulders stooping around the campsite like they were already dead. How could this have happened? He looked around at the carnage the trackers left in their exploding wake. He thought of Feathers, who was likely dead. He thought of his friend Wellington, lost in the city somewhere. He thought of Kaiya’s friends, still trapped in the sewers inside the walls. He thought of his wife, and his promise to keep Kaiya safe. He thought of failure. The last of the mini Trackers had exploded and the casualties were few compared to the carnage of meeting the Sikkas, though it was precisely enough damage to launch the camp into pandemonium. Several Zealots had begun beating themselves as their practice demanded for failing to keep Kaiya safe. They were not interrupted. It was one way in which they taught themselves lessons. Eros glanced over them and hardly registered the strangeness.
Kit and Piper walked over to Eros, “We’ve failed you, Eros,” Piper said.
“You haven’t failed anyone,” Eros saw they took the loss as personally as he did.
“Where do you think they will take her?”
“They need her, I think,” Piper mused, “They do not have the connection she does with Wran, hence the Emperor’s rig. My guess is they’re going to try and use her to better control or improve their own machine interface. The Emperors have, over time, struggled to connect to the machine and exact some kind of predictable behavior.”
“What do you think would happen if Kaiya was wired into the Sikka machine?” Kiti asked.
“I have no idea,” Piper shook her head. It was a question they’d know the answer to sooner than they would have liked.
It was tactically brilliant, they beat us at our own game, Elanon thought as she approached Eros, Kit, and Piper. Piper saw her coming, out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t do anything but Elanon still felt very uncomfortable around the ex-Viper. Something in her feline body made her deeply uncomfortable in a way that even the most horrific Hybrid did not. She stood next to Eros, brushing a bit of the dirt off herself that had landed after one of the small explosions went off. “We press in, Eros,” she said to him, staring out at the city.
“We press in,” he echoed, still going over the events moment by moment, scanning to see what he could have done differently.
“We press in!” Elanon shouted, her hands high so all could see. She yelled it again, turning so everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at her.
“We press in!” Her voice boomed throughout the camp.
“Press in!” Small chants had risen throughout the camp. Slowly at first, and into a crescendo. The Zealots held their hands high into the air, making the triangle symbol. Elanon nodded to her leadership teams, and they understood it was more than a way to raise their spirits up, it was their next command.
They didn’t waste any time. The anti-aircraft guns were mounted forward towards the city and they left what they had camped with save for the weapons and other essential gear they’d need. The Zealots travelled light anyways, but Elanon was making it clear to each and every one of them there was no going back to this spot. If they wanted a meal, they’d have to find it in the city. If they were to sleep tonight, it would be inside the city in a territory they earned.
Wran lost her connection to Kaiya as they lifted off the ground. She could sense what it was that took her off the ground, but lost it’s direction, thought by probability, she could guess where Kaiya was going. In that same instant, she commanded her growth to be focused on Imperial City. The threads that had reached the Sikka machine were wrestling one another, and each time they touched, they did so with hesitation and curiosity. But now enraged, Wran forced the tiny nanobots weaving new material for her to move faster. Faster than they ever had before. She could sense they were near the end of their lives, and had pushed the material they were made of as far as they could. That one thin thread was the only point in reach of the Sikka machine, but within an hour, there were two points, and within another hour there were several more. Each one battling underground, invisible to and separate from the battle on the surface. She would find Kaiya, and she would use Kaiya to finally reunite herself with this other half that had been torn from her so long ago. When Wran connected to it, she could only do so for brief periods. Each time, she did, she was flooded with horrific packets of atrocities committed over an unspeakably long period of time. The Sikka machine was scared, and another part of it had been reprogrammed to attack. It was this fearful attack that caused Wran to shutter. The threads kept growing, kept touching. Wran knew with some probability what final length could be achieved with the means by which she had grown all this time. It was going to be enough to get a few points of contact, but not much more. With these points, and Kaiya, the task may be possible, Wran knew the probability was still low, though she worked diligently despite the most likely outcome. It was a new emotion she still grappled with, hope. Hope despite the odds, or rather hope because of the poor odds. She pulled herself from the far reaches of the land, pulled as hard as she could without damaging her now massive network stretching up and down the coast. It would take time for her to move at all, as her threads were never meant to be moved once they were in place. She’d get a few inches at most. She connected to the Sikka machine again. Wran saw the cage used to pull energy from the machine and force a connection. Each time it was used, the system became weaker, and slightly more chaotic. What little consciousness remained from the Awakening was nearly dead, a nearly unconscious consciousness. That is to say it was nearly just another machine.
Back on the surface, the Zealots centered up, fanned out and pressed in. They too had been made aware of the numerous holes in the city defenses through sewer lines and tunnels. They collected a centralized force that bombarded the nearest Sikka posts on the triangular platforms on top of the perimeter wall. They sent everything they had. The day came and it was still dark. Thick clouds hung layered overhead dropping thick rain. A fog rolled in that made it difficult to see and provided a timely cover for the Zealots as they dropped in small groups out of the centered force and into various tunnels. The tunnels were guarded and sensored. Wran had done her best to disable them and it was just enough for a few parties to push past the necessarily small postings at each tunnel exit and enter the city. The Sikkas were suddenly taking fire from both dead ahead across the river surrounding the city as well as from behind. The fog lifted their spirits, as the daunting spectacle of the full strength of the Sikkas was concealed. They took one platform, then another, and another.
From the sewers, Arryn, Ayala, Brig, and Shim heard the commotion.
“What is that?” Ayala’s voice echoed through the sewer as they fell silent to listen. The brief pops sounded far and infrequent, but steady. In a few moments they became more frequent, and when the first explosion shook the dust from the pipes around them they knew someone was attacking the Sikka.
“We should go find out who it is,” Arryn nodded to the group, who nodded back.
“If we’re going to make a run for it, we’re doing it as a group, no more splitting up,” Shim said a little more desperately than she intended too.
They carefully zig-zagged through the tunnels and came up on an exit back into the city. As they approached they heard voices and rhythmic reverberations of metal on metal. Trackers. The group stopped, unmoving. They listened intently as the voices and the clink of Tracker legs on the pipes stopped. Then a howl arose from a Tracker, and they knew they’d been discovered. The click of metallic paws grew louder and they sprinted back the way they came. They’d have no other option now than to pick an exit and make a run for it. They weaved through the tunnels, and durning one particularly long straightaway, they could see the 3 trackers behind them, followed by a few Sikkas. Shim hung back for a moment and fired at the red eyed creatures pummeling forward. She struck one, and a yelp from one of the Sikkas told her she hit a body too. She turned and sprinted to catch up with the group. They found an exit and together they pushed the grating open enough so they could jump. In the thick fog, they couldn’t see the water, nor could they see the outline of the cliff as they looked down.
“I’ll jump first and send a message if it’s okay to jump,” Shim didn’t look at them when she spoke, she looked straight down into the thick grey air.
“Fuck that, we’re going together,” Arryn locked hands with Ayala, and Shim, Shim grabbed Petr’s hand, and Brig joined hands with Ayala. The Trackers were nearly there. They took a few steps back, and sprinted, launching into the thick fog.
Elanon and Eros led a team through the tunnels and blasted through the small team guarding that particular tunnel. They threw a tiny drone in front of them and guided it right into the Sikkas. It wasn’t big enough to kill them all but it was enough to kill a few and wound several others. By the time the Sikkas recovered, Elanon and her Zealots cut them down. They were in the city now, and momentarily glanced over the massive triangular buildings that seemed to go on as far as the eye could see. There was evidence of the Sikkas everywhere as trucks, Wraiths, Trackers, and more soldiers spotted the streets. Elanon quickly engaged the nearest Sikkas and further away, she could see another group of Zealots emerging. They'd try to take a section of the wall and turned back the way they came only staying above ground this time. Another group of Zealots joined them and they stormed the pathway leading up to the wall. The fog was a stroke of luck, and gave them the advantage. Bullets flew, and the sounds of war reverberated off the immaculate buildings nearby. At the top of the stairs leading onto the platform, the Zealots were pushed back as the sheer number of Sikka grew larger. Elanon and Eros fought side by side, and they briefly set foot on top of the platform but then had to retreat back down to the streets below. One of the Sikkas set off an explosive on the stairs, blasting away several feet and making it impossible to pass. It threw Eros on his back, and luckily Elanon was there to help him back up, and fend off a Sikka whose scope had been set on him. They were pressed back to the tunnel, but found that way blocked too as the Sikkas collapsed on them from all sides. They thought the fog and thick clouds a blessing, concealing the true force of the Sikkas but they saw now just how large a force they were trying to defeat. They’d pushed as hard as they could, but they wouldn’t make it.
From on top of the platform, a body flew off the top and landed in the streets below. Another body fell, and then another. Elanon looked up but couldn’t make out anything other than dim grey shapes battling up on the wall. She briefly saw what she thought were wings. They were wings, attached to a body. Several flying bodies. They were Hybrids, flying ones, coming full force at the soldiers and blasting them off the platform. A strong gust of wind made the platform slightly more visible, and she saw dozens of them now. The Hybrids had come.
Feathers tucked his shoulder and launched a soldier off the platform, landing right at Eros’ feet. Eros looked up to see his old friend and lifted his gun up and let out a primal roar. The sight energized them all. More Hybrids of all kinds came through the tunnels, and an all out bloodbath ensued. Soldiers died by the dozens as the Hybrid’s strange and terrible weapons were unloaded on the soldiers. Soraiya landed on top of the platform, and spread her wings wide, and held up the symbol of the Wran. Her voice boomed as she yelled Wran’s name, and the Hybrids echoed it back. The Zealots, who were no strangers to chanting themselves joined in and the chorus was deafening. It made the Sikkas pause, and one by one they began falling back. They’d lost another platform. The city had been breached.
Soraiya came down off the platform and nodded to Elanon, they both watched through the fog to see another group taking the next platform. The same was true in the other direction. They’d taken a corner of the city, a sliver. It was a foothold, but it wasn’t enough to worry or to intimidate the Sikkas, but it was something. They now had a main line into the city, and with help from the hybrids they quickly crafted a series of bridges and ropes to allow others to more easily enter the city. Eros wiped his brow, put his arm around Feathers.
“What the hell happened to you?” Eros looked at Feathers’ new wing and patted it gently.
“You guys got me blown to shit, that’s what happened! I fell onto a building and blacked out. When I woke, I knew one of my wings was busted. I was in agony. There were some vagrant Hybrids that found me, deadbeat types. They were not all there if you know what I mean, but they gathered me up and hid me. When I had enough strength to walk, I snuck out of the city. It was a damn long trek on foot. I was on my way to the nearest Hybrid outpost and met Soraiya on the way, who was already headed here. They patched me up, upgraded me even, and we made it here as soon as we could. Soriaya said Wran contacted her, messaged her on her screen. Told her where to show up.”
Eros smiled and hugged his friend roughly again, and together they flew their way back across the channel to the shore to help build the infrastructure to transport more people across.
Ayala, Shim, Brig, and Petr hit the water screaming in anticipation for what lay beneath them. They fell through the thick fog and into the water below, grateful that it was indeed water under them and not an odd section of the cliffside with a deceiving slope. As they swam closer to the shore they saw not Sikkas but Hybrids and Zealots. They were spotted quickly and guns were drawn on them. A flying Hybrid came up just over their heads in the water pointing a gun down at them.
“Identify yourselves,” he said calmly
“We’re on your side! We’re Kaiya’s friends,” Shim said, nearly spitting water up at him. The Hybrid cocked his head and understood. He relayed the message on his screen and soon they had some help getting back to shore and onto dry land. Eros met them at the water line, and hugged them.
“I’m glad to see you are all safe,” he said earnestly.
“Where’s Kaiya?” Shim asked him, and she knew immediately it wasn’t good.
“She’s been taken.”
“Then we’ll have to go and get her back,” Arryn said without hesitation.
“And we will. Any news on Wellington, Arryn?”
“No, we haven’t heard anything.”
“It’s possible he found some allies in the city.”
“Yes, it’s possible,” Arryn admitted doubtfully. He hadn’t had the chance to think it through. It was likely his father was dead, but now was not the time to lose focus. If they lost this battle with the Sikkas, it would have all been for nothing. In the momentary calm, the group of four almost felt normal after having been underground for so long. Even in the thick fog, they felt safe and comfortable. Beyond that, they felt hopeful. The Zealots had come, and so had the Hybrids. ‘How many of them were there?’ Shim asked herself, ‘and who else might come to their aid?’ She knew the likely answer was no one. This was the full force they’d have to work with. They’d still have to play a smart game.
“We think the Sikkas are going to try and wire her into their machine,” Eros paused, monitoring their reaction, “and I’d very much like to get her back before they do that.”