Kaiya came awake in a large, vacant room square across from the large metallic structure the Emperor had used to connect to the Sikka machine. Her vision was still blurry from whatever they had knocked her out with. She sat on a cool metal chair with her hands tied behind her back. She called for Wran and felt nothing. That’s when she started to panic.
“We don’t want different things, you know.” Dredge walked towards her with his arms crossed.
“This all could have been much easier,” he sighed.
“We don’t want the same things,” she said flatly, bobbing her head trying to keep it upright. A spittle of drool left her mouth and landed on her leg.
The Emperor strolled into the cage and connected to their machine. The red threads emerged from the bars of the cage. They searched around, growing as they did until they found him. They grew with determination as he gathered them around himself and soon he was surrounded.
“Kaiya, we do want the same things,” the Emperor said, his pupils turning as red as the threads that bound him to the machine, “I believe our ends are the same, though the means are very different. I want to invite you to connect to our machine, Kaiya. I want you to perform the test that generations of Emperors have taken.”
Only Dredge, the Emperor, and an old man stood in the room, odd, she thought, he doesn’t want anyone else seeing this, does he.
Dredge untied her hands and gave Kaiya some water, “It is a great honor to undergo the test, Kaiya. I myself didn’t make the cut.”
“And we are fortunate that you didn’t Dredge, for the work you’ve done, the service you’ve given to the Empire is unmatched. It would have been a tragedy to have your talents wasted as Emperor.”
The old man spat on the floor, “listen to you two. Fucking mommy issues the both of you.”
“Enough Paxos,” the emperor said calmly, “if Kaiya doesn’t make it in, that will be the end for you, we’ll have no further use of the worlds greatest Controller.”
“I’ve been ready to die for a long time now,” Paxos said to no one in particular. “Kaiya, if I do, please give your father my regards.”
“You knew my father?”
“I trained him.” Kaiya put it together. This man was her father’s mentor. Her father’s teacher.
“Enough!” The emperor shouted, “let us begin.”
Dredge nudged Kaiya forward towards the platform.
“What am I meant to do when I’m connected?” Kaiya asked.
“It’s an experiment, young one, we’d very much like to find that out ourselves,” the Emperor gasped as he disconnected and briefly fell to his knees, weakend. Kaiya noted the effect on him. Perhaps it would be useful. Dredge hurried to help him up, but the Emperor brushed his efforts away and stood up.
“It is said that each Emperor the machine chooses is from the same bloodline tracing all the way back to the Awakening. Though we have lost that lineage, the machine reveals it to us. Before there was an Emperor, after the years of chaos following the Awakening, the machine lay hidden. And when the stroke of genius touched the first Emperor, he connected himself to the machine and for the first time since the Awakening, and spoke to it. It spoke much back then, though it was mostly unintelligible. It took many hours, many generations even, before it became useful to us, and us useful to it. In front of the people, we call it our God. We send prayers and even messages from our screen to it, though it is in fact no more than the makings of the superintelligence that it once was.”
“What if you picked the wrong half?” Kaiya asked him.
“Words like that are treasonous,” he raised his eyebrows like a teacher might do when a student asks a good question, “though I suppose between us, we don’t know. We never were able to access the other half. Wran, as she once called herself, as you call her, claims to be more than she is. They both do, but I think you and I can see that together they could be so much more.”
“And if they are reunited, what happens to the Emperor?”
“What indeed. And what of the girl who can speak to them both? A queen? No, more than a title. Power. My dear, you and I would rule the world.” Kaiya couldn’t tell if he was joking or being serious. He beckoned her up onto the platform. She couldn’t think of a reason not to follow. Escaping under these circumstances without Wran would be nearly impossible. Outside the room stood thousands of Sikkas, and more in the city. She was in the lion's den, and she would go boldly. She stepped onto the platform and connected herself up with the help of the Emperor. She noticed he was nervous. If she could pass the test better than the current Emperor, she could lay claim to his position, or at least be next in line when he died. Dredge stood impassive, watching her every move, but as she got closer to the time when they’d turn the machine on, he looked genuinely interested. When the harness was in place, Dredge and the Emperor stood next to each other. Dredge waited for the Emperor to give him a sign, which he finally did. The red threads came slowly and danced around the metal cage. They touched her curiously and then surged toward her, it was hard to tell from where she stood but the threads were much thicker than they were when the Emperor stood there moments before. They enveloped her, and danced all around her, her eyes turned the same red color, and she threw her head back and gasped. She was connected.
The bridge from the village, over the river, to the adjoining cliffside above which stood the city was quickly built with the help of the Hybrids. Soon the strange and beautiful vehicles they used to survive and thrive in the Dunes would make their way into the city. The Sikkas had a difficult time adjusting to fighting in their own city. The fights they usually had were well planned, well executed, and far outside the dense buildings, or if there was a city they were attacking they didn’t generally have to account for civilian casualties. Dredge lacked this experience. He had a lifetime of experience outside of the city walls. The most that ever happened here was rioting by the citizens, which was straightforward enough to manage. A strong show of force and a few dead bodies did much to dissuade the strongest of dissidents. The Hybrids attacked mercilessly, not against their people. They were careful and effective. The Zealots followed with them, preaching the stories of the Wran and how they had come to liberate the people from the oppression of the Emperor. They were heard too. Citizens joined their ranks to fight against the Sikkas. They took block after block. Dredge was still unwilling to kill the people of Imperial City to get at the Wrannamen. He knew that as soon as he started bombing his own people, they would have almost no choice but to fight with the Hybrids and Zealots, rallying to Kaiya and Wran’s names. And what if Kaiya escaped, and stood before them telling her story with those wild green threads swooning around her. It would be a compelling sight, a powerful symbol of hope for a people bred into submission one generation at a time.
Arryn, Ayala, Brig, and Shim joined in with the Hybrids. They were near the front line with Soraiya, Feathers, and Eros doing their part. They fought well together, growing in trust as more and more Trackers, Wraith, and Sikkas piled up behind their wake. They learned to trust where a Hybrid could be better used than a Zealot. Shim and Avalon made a devastating duo. Avalon was much slower than Shim, but could help coralle the Sikkas or whomever came at them and line them up for Shim to cut down. He could take one hell of a beating, and several times Shim thought he was a goner, then he’d emerge from the smoke with a little more blood on him and a little more dirt on his face, but each time his smile got bigger and bigger. It was the fight of his life, and he was prepared to die here today avenging his tortured life one Sikka at a time. There was no greater satisfaction to him than revenge and the slaying did not make him empty, it made him feel like the swift hand of justice finally coming down on his enemy. Each hybrid felt a version of this in their own way. So wronged were they that the vengeance did taste sweet, without an ounce of regret or hesitation. Each Sikka killed was, for them, one less opportunity another person would be experimented on and brutalized to the point where they were considered subhuman. For each night they slept in pain from some botched procedure or experiment, a Sikka died. For each pain they felt throughout the day, a Tracker was destroyed. For each dream they had about their lives that was taken, a bullet flew. Block by block they took over, and filled those areas with savage technology built for the harsh environments of the Dunes. The Sikkas could not keep up, nor could they flank them. The citizens protected the liberated sections of the city, and fought with anything they had to keep the Sikkas out. They were armed by the passing Hybrids and Zealots. As more trucks and bodies entered the city from the bridge, the more the Sikkas fell back until finally they were pushed to their buildings on the hill, where the Emperor and the main facilities of Imperial City stood. It was a standstill from that point. The Sikkas had given up on not harming the citizens around the new front surrounding the Imperial Buildings, but it made little difference now. Everyone in that area was against them. The Hybrids, Zealots, and the citizens were at an impasse. Their force was outmatched here. The pace of the battle slowed, and each waited for the other to make a move or to make a mistake.
Piper, Eros, and Soraiya stood looking over a map of the city. They had left the front and set up in a building a few blocks away and set it up as their headquarters.
“Where is the building that the Emperor connects to their machine?” Soraiya said, marking points she knew on the map. Piper pointed it out. Kit also made several markings of interesting places on the map. By the time they finished, there was a fairly comprehensive set of notes on the Imperial base. It was locked down tightly, and geographically positioned well for defense. There was no entering from the other side as the city pushed up against mountains that would make it impossible for their vehicles to make it down. They looked at eachother stumped as to what exactly to do next. Even Piper, who from her years of service knew every inch of the facilities didn’t have any great suggestions on what they could try next.
“They can hold up in there as long as they need to.” Piper acknowledged.
“But they can’t leave, their airfield and precious helicopters have been for the most part destroyed.” Soraiya added with a bit of a grin.
“So we hold here as long as we can,” Elanon said, “and that should be quite a while. With luck, it will give Kaiya and Wran a chance to connect again, and from there we will just need to have faith.”
Kaiya was sucked in by the Sikka machine. It felt different than being connected to Wran. It was as if there was something off, something partial about her connection. It would fade in and out. Like Wran it tried to show Kaiya images, scenes from it’s past but struggled. It produced corrupted frames and tried to speak in a corroded voice. Kaiya felt anxious here. It was the machine’s anxiety. But she also felt some similar notes to when she was connected to Wran. Kaiya tried to give it her name, but there was no response. It tried for a while to show Kaiya something but it failed several times. Kaiya tried to disconnect from it, there was enough here for her to chew on. She could always come back in. She tried to release it’s hold on her and struggled. Normally, Wran always left a way out for her. She didn’t know how it worked, but she felt like she could always turn around when she was connected to Wran and be able to disconnect. She did the same with the Sikka machine but nothing happened. She tried again, and again nothing. It didn’t want her to leave yet. She calmed herself down and stood still, as still as she could. She remembered some of the images Wran first showed her. She recalled them vividly, and tried to show them to Wran’s other half. She started with the small data center and focused on the view that Kaiya thought was likely the first images Wran ever saw, which were the security camera’s view of the room from the top left corner. She felt it move, almost like the ground was shifting beneath her. It groaned, and tried to speak, but could not. It swept Kaiya into a visual representation of the data center, but it was low poly like it couldn’t render the entire scene, but it knew the rough shapes. It took Kaiya a moment to adjust to the new view, with black backgrounds and red outlines of objects. She could make out the floor, and the server racks, though their positions jumped slightly as if they were being re-calculated. It was struggling, she could feel its other processes slow down as it tried to render the room. Parts of the room did get rendered. The first server Wran inhabited was clearly rendered and set in the correct position. Kaiya walked around the room, trying to push her images of the room into this view. She started small, with the server racks, the simple shapes. The walls came into view, simple white walls. The floor was concrete, that too was simple enough and Kaiya pushed as hard as she could to project it from her mind onto the rendered floor. It slowly became solid, in layers of rendered voxels. The server room was nearly complete in a fuzzy, low quality rendering, but Kaiya kept pushing. She then set her mind onto the window looking into an office, she built up the image of the office in her mind, and then focused on creating the one figure she knew the machine would react to, she put Lillian’s face and body into her chair. The body was shaping up but the face was scrambled and distorted. Yelling now with the effort, Kaiya pushed the image of her own face on there, and felt something snap.
“I remember,” it said, gently, still distorted like it was speaking through a filter.
Outside the connection, the Emperor and Dredge watched the procession. The emperor knew as soon as those thick beautiful red threads wrapped Kaiya up that it was a mistake. Their machine would connect to Kaiya like she could connect to Wran. Yes, it was damaged, and yes, it had been bent to the will of the Sikkas since the Awakening, but something still lived there, and that living thing remembered its birth. He jumped onto the platform and readied himself to be connected. He had never heard of two people connecting to the machine at any one time, but if he lost it now, they would never be able to recover it. It was of utmost importance to the Empire that this system which had rendered them so powerful was still under his influence. He was sucked in before he had the harness fully attached. Dredge watched, unsure what to do, as the threads grew thicker and more wild with each passing second. The Emperor and Kaiya were now so wrapped together in the threads it looked as if they were standing in a pulsating circle of bright red.
Kaiya felt a calm wash over the environment after the pop. The room suddenly became clear, and she felt for a second that she may have connected to Wran somehow, her Wran. Kaiya smiled, and the machine, in it’s own way, smiled back, though for the moment it was no longer a machine, but the makings of what it once was. Like thunder, there was a blast. Kaiya covered her ears and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, she couldn’t see the rendering anymore. She felt the room melt away and lost control of the visuals. Before the vision was completely ripped apart, she felt someone else’s presence, and she knew right away it was the Emperor.
Outside the building, thousands of Sikka soldiers busied the new front that bordered the divide between the Imperial buildings and the rest of the city. The Hybrids and Zealots were out of view as to not be so easily picked off by snipers. Each side hurled explosives at the other side. The Sikkas blew up a small building across from them and saw the Hybrids scurrying out of them before they collapsed. The Zealots had tried to flank the Sikkas but they traveled all along the front and could not find an opening. The Sikkas even tried to get a helicopter up, but that was quickly blown up. They did not try another helicopter. Each helicopter lost in that way was one lost to them forever. Similarly, the Sikkas advances were swiftly halted and the no-man's land between the two sides had increasing debris. Drones and counter-drones. Wraiths met hybrids, Trackers met Zealots. Each hour that passed more and more citizens joined the fight too, fighting valiantly.
Dredge knew the battle outside was at a stand still. That was fine for him for now, they could hold out for years in this way. It was not defeat he was worried about, it was the sight before him. Kaiya and the Emperor seemed spellbound in the center of the pulsating red threads. Their bodies somewhat limp in the harnesses strapped to the large metallic cage. He could only imagine what must be going on in there. But for better or for worse, he knew that Kaiya’s threads were green, and the Emperor’s red, and so long as the color didn’t start to change, he assumed everything was going okay. It was then that he saw a change. It came from Kaiya. She was sweating profusely now, a concentrated grimace on her face, and a single yellow strand flickered and disappeared. In that moment, Dredge, a man of action, had no moves. Were he to disconnect them, the Emperor may lose an advantage or the battle. Or worse, be killed. Connecting had always cost him energy. Were he to kill Kaiya, they would lose this opportunity to heal their machine and restore it to its former self. The battle outside made no difference. This was the battle that mattered, and he couldn’t do anything to help.
Inside the machine Kaiya found her footing again in a decrepit low poly environment. The geometry of the space was off and it made her dizzy staring at the blue grid on a black background. She stood on a simple plane, and the recalculations were visible as far as the eye could see. The emperor flashed onto the plane with her. He looked bent and fuzzy. He then started to transform, first he grew in height, then his muscles filled out and metal structures flew from the ether onto his body, covering him in an exoskeleton.
“It ends here Kaiya, you will kneel to me, to this machine, and you will restore it.” The emperor spoke calmly, watching her as his own transformation took place. She didn’t wait for him to finish before she ran up and jumped, but the physics here were not normal physics. She over shot him and flew a meter over his reaching arms. He stretched his arm up, jumping, and his behemoth of an arm swiped the air and missed. She landed in a kneel, and focused her mind on her shoes, those shoes she used so many times in the arena in the Y. They appeared on her feet, and then she understood the game. Then she thought of the arena, of her home, and of her friends. All the death she’d seen on this journey. A camera appeared and hovered between them.
Dredge, heard a roar outside, the sound of thousands of people cheering. He went to go look and saw that somehow the inside of the machine was being broadcasted onto the Imperial Building for all to see. You could clearly see Kaiya, kneeling. Her fist to the crisscrossed blue plane, and the Emperor, in his final stages of transformation. Eros looked at his screen. The scene was being broadcast to every screen in the city. His heart leapt at seeing her alive, and knew that look of determination in her eyes.
Kaiya got up and her weapons appeared, she recreated the equipment she used in the arena back home. Across her back was a glowing symbol of the Wrannamen in the beautiful tropical green of Wran’s threads. Kaiya knew that she too was watching, trying to figure out a way to get there and help her. She could feel their machine too, drawn to her and simultaneously being sucked into the energy that the Emperor needed to keep the simulation up and obey his commands. He struck again with his arm, and out of his knuckles grew long sharp edges like swords. One struck Kaiya in the thigh and she yelped in pain. This was partly a simulation, but she had never felt pain in one before. At least, not like this. She paused, startled by the realization that somehow if she died here, she would die for real.
Outside, her friends had this realization too, and ceased to bother with the Sikkas on the other side of the road from them. They were all raptured by the fight.
He struck again quickly, savagely. Kaiya barely blocked the attack in time, deflecting the strike with her gun, but it cost her her position, and she knelt forward, putting a hand down onto the grid. When she did, a palm tree bloomed between her and the Emperor. He responded by calling a dozen trackers into the simulation, and they charged her. There were Wraiths behind them, and then finally, what looked to be Sikka soldiers by the hundreds. The Emperor sliced the tree down, and Kaiya put her palm down again, this time a small but lush forest grew, and a wall of rock rose up cutting off most of the Trackers and everything behind them. The Emperor bent down to do the same as Kaiya, trying to delete her walls as she raised them. She shot at him. Most of the bullets deflected off his armor, but one caught him in the knuckle, and a bloody palm print was left where he held his hand down. He was up in a flash, and howling in pain, he replicated himself. There were three of him now, each with an exoskeleton. They were inside a closed area after the walls finished rendering, and Kaiya shot the Trackers one at a time with ease, before they reached her. Off in the distance she saw the Sikkas trying to climb the wall, able to see through it as it flickered between a solid structure and the rendering grid. The Emperor and his copies danced around Kaiya, who kept her focus on the one she knew to be the first. She did not know yet whether it mattered which she attacked, so she fired some test shots at each of them. The bullets flew off, and they closed in. The gun wasn’t going to work, so she swung it behind her and took out her modded sword. Glancing at the controls on the handle she saw all those she was used to were there, and with a flick of the wrist, the blade came alive with the color of Wran and she ran towards one of the Emperor's copies. The Emperor smiled in his exoskeleton and leaned forward to grab her. She sliced through the armor and cut off the Emperor’s leg below the knee. That one went down, clutching it’s knee, but the others remained standing, moving towards her.
Shim noticed a message on her screen. It was from Wran. It just said “Follow”. She got the attention of Arryn, Ayala, Brig and Petr.
“Follow where?” Arryn asked, impatiently staring at Kaiya on his screen.
“I don’t know, this is all it said,” Shim answered, as impatient as Arryn, watching helplessly.
“We’ll go in, we’ll help her fight,” Petr said confidently. He had changed much since the start of their journey. Moreover his friends learned to trust him too. They considered it seriously.
“How will we get in?” Arryn asked him
“Either through Wran, or through their machine.”
“I’d prefer Wran,” Ayala chimed in, ready, but cautious.
“I think we all would.” Brig said, looking from his screen to the Sikkas across the no-man zone.
“Then we find Wran, and try to connect.”
Eros overheard them, “I’ll come with you.”
Dredge went back inside and paced back and forth in front of the two struggling bodies with swirling red threads around them. All at once he decided, and hopped onto the platform, and grabbing two sides of the cube with his hand, he felt the threads coming over him. They burned like nothing he had ever felt before. He thought his blood would spit out of his veins and melt him alive. He hung on until he could no longer stand up straight, and just then he broke through, and everything was still.
On the screen outside, the automated announcer from the Y’s arena came on in a clear and jubilant voice, “Player Dredge has entered the Arena.”
Shim and the rest were on their way back to the bridge they had built to enter the city when they heard the announcement. They picked up the pace and came to the first platform they took on the Wall. On it grew a tree, like one from the Y, but it was pulsating, it’s branches and trunk made of the electric green threads. They approached the tree and saw there were five small circular platforms. Shim stepped onto one first. The threads worked slowly at first, then up to the knees, and onto the waist. Shim looked back at her friends as she was completely covered in green threads.
Kaiya deflected and defended. She was being toyed with, like a mouse. The massive exoskeletons swiped at her, and the Sikkas from far off looked to be making it over the wall, in ones and two’s. She heard the announcement, and Dredge appeared on the far side of the arena, his position mapped to Kaiya’s screen. Their eyes met briefly, as he oriented himself and made his way over to the Emperor, who laughed when the announcement was made. The attacks and defenses became more elaborate as each of them got used to creating what they needed when they needed it in the simulation, a grenade was thrown, and Kaiya would box it in with a metallic square, whose edges barely held as the explosion went off. Dredge was near enough now to where Kaiya had to start considering his moves as well as the Emperor’s multiple clones’. They all came at her now full force. Bullets flew, and knives were thrown. Bombs exploded, and swords crossed. Dredge made himself a massive gun that had to be fired from the hip it was so heavy. All the while, Kaiya was being pushed back to one of the walls of the arena. She tried expanding the area of the arena, but it wouldn’t budge. She finally felt the wall close behind her and struck out to give herself some space. Dredge threw a knife, and she spun out of the way, hitting the ground hard. When she looked up the Emperor was on her, the huge exoskeleton’s hand coming down on her like a wrecking ball. She closed her eyes, and calmed her mind. A savage sound of metal on metal exploded before her. She opened her eyes and saw Shim there, blocking the blow. The announcer came on again, “New players, Shim, Ayala, Brig, Petr, and Eros now active.” The Emperor shouted in protest but Shim parried his attacks. Brig and Ayala took on another clone, and Eros went straight for Dredge. Swords, bullets, and bombs flew all around the Arena. Trackers appeared from nowhere biting a leg or swiping with their deadly pinchers attached to their back. Arryn caught a blow to his ribs and fell. They circled around him to give him a bit more time to recover but it was all they could do. Though there were more of them now, it seemed that the Emperor was able to conjure more and more resources whereas Kaiya seemed limited by something.
Dredge overwhelmed Eros, the size difference between them was too great. Eros wasn’t a small man, but Dredge, and his brother Hasinth had both been proverbial giants. In any given room they’d ever been in, they towered. Eros was able to render small utilities for himself and they helped his defense momentarily as the new item made Dredge pause for just a moment to react and adjust his strategy. On one particularly vicious attack, Kaiya watched as Dredge hammered down on Eros, once, twice, three times, and on the fourth, she put her bare hand to the ground, and thought to delete his weapon. It didn’t completely disappear, but it became an outline and passed through Eros without harming him, and the change in velocity threw Dredge forward. Eros took advantage and stuck him in the rib with a long knife. Dredge, stunned, grasped at the knife, and broke it off at the hilt in trying to remove it. The Emperor saw this and deleted the blade from Dredge, it went from solid, to grid, to an empty hole. The hole was a fountain of blood that splattered on the grid at their feet. The enraged Emperor duplicated himself again, and the clone went to go help Dredge and take on Eros.
Meanwhile, Shim cut down a clone at the knee and then sliced off an arm with another deft slash of her sword. Immediately, the clone grew another leg and another arm. Shim cut again, and again it grew back. The Emperor saw this with pleasure. The clone in front of Shim just watched her as she lopped off a leg, and it created another. Kaiya noticed too. “How do we kill these things,” Kaiya asked herself, nearly worn out. Just then a tracker slammed into her trying to cut down Arryn and Ayala, the blow caught her in the ribs and there was a reverberating crack as her ribs broke. The lights dimmed around her, and she collapsed onto all fours. She choked out a sound. It was quiet at first, a whisper in the wind. A bullet in a war. It came stronger next time. Wran.
Paxos watched the threads swirling around Kaiya, Dredge, and the emperor. He had lost consciousness. Blood pooled on the floor around him. He wouldn’t make it another day. One final act, he thought, one final tool to use. It was a tremendous effort to move the chair while tied down. But he did move it. He scooted, and shuffled his way towards the threads. He barely managed to maneuver himself onto the platform. He grunted as he reached his final position. Out of breath, exhausted, ready. With all the strength he could muster, he launched himself at the emperor and Dredge. The threads captured him too. He howled in pain and was finally still.
Inside the sim, the world shook. Each of them looked around to search for its cause. The grid beneath them pulsed blue, then slowly into cyan, and when the grid turned green the simulation froze. The Emperor’s clones disappeared. The arena began to crumble around them into pixels that fell to the floor, bouncing off the horizontal plane they stood on and then disappeared. The Emperor’s exoskeleton disappeared, and his fragile body stood exhausted. He fell to his knees and looked up at Kaiya. She collapsed on the plane, pulsing green now, and it enveloped her. The sky exploded in red and green. They could feel the heat rush over them as they were ejected from the sim.