I round the corner to where the raised bridge connects to the island. It’s a mess. There’s dozens of roundabouts and curved roads, there’s streets signs and signal lights scattered all over the place in a massive plaza allowing eight different roads to merge on and off the bridge. I have no idea how it all fits together as I always took a bus or a boat to work. I don’t remember any traffic problems though, so I guess it did its job.
Where the streets begin to rise so it can connect to the bridge, there’s a military checkpoint. Bulky jeeps with heavy machine guns on the top, and a line of police officers with riot shield keeping a large crowd of at least a thousand civilians at bay.
The plaza is packed with people, only divided by cars or large, concrete barriers. There’s a roar from the crowd that’s even overpowering the PA system. Expletives, pleas, screaming, they want onto the bridge but the peldaks won’t let them.
One peldak dressed in a fancy military dress is standing on a car with a megaphone. He speaks with a disinterested tone, he seems to feel no urgency that the civilians will break through his blockade. “Back away from the barrier. The bridges are not safe. All you will accomplish is giving the gurant a bit of target practice. Return to the safe houses. Head into the subway. Get to the harbors. Ships cannot dock here, they will not come save you.”
That’s… really unfortunate. The empire owns the bridge? How am I supposed to get past? If the bridge is as dangerous as he says, no way will I try to cross it. I’ll have to find some other way. But there’s a lot of factors I don’t know, maybe he’s lying to try and calm down the crowd. If nothing else, I’ll pass the note along to see if he can help.
I look out to the water and there’s still a fair few boats. A lot less than the vast sea of multicolored flags I saw before, but that means each ship can move faster without knocking into anything.
I make my way through the crowd. Despite the number, there’s enough room between each person that I don’t have to push or shove. As I pass, I make out small bits of conversation between people.
“The gurant have to be closing in, should we double back and try for a harbor? Or do we not have enough time?”
“We got out of that hospital for this?! I thought the peldaks would have evacuations here. or something…”
“This means the empire owns all four islands… how the hell did the Protectorate let this happen?”
“C’mon guys, we’re not staying here and we’re certainly not waiting in a safehouse. The struts of those bridges have ladders to the top, we’ll swim out there then climb up past this barricade. They’re just lying about the gurant owning the bridge so they can keep a better handle on us!”
I get to the rising street leading to the Protectorate checkpoint. It’s a subtle incline and I’m at the point where my feet are level with the heads of those on the plaza. The crowd is more densely packed here, and I can no longer make out individual voices through jumbled mess of screaming. From what I understand, they want to cross the bridge to get away from the gurant.
A cloud parts overhead and the hot Monsoo sun beats down on us. I turn towards the city and cup a hand above my eyes so I don’t have to squint as much. Everyone looks so desperate, a lot of them look mad.
…But there’s a couple guys out in the plaza. Two are sitting on a concrete barricade, and the other two are standing, they all have rifles. I have a rifle too, so it’s not exactly illegal, but it looks like they’re just… chatting away. Based on how they’re laughing, they’re cracking a few jokes. Again, not illegal, but how are they so relaxed?
I can’t stop looking, I don’t know why my eyes are drawn to those four. Something isn’t right but I don’t know if I’m just paranoid. I’m probably not, I’ve seen imperial forces wearing plain clothes before, could they be planning something?
There doesn’t seem to be any more than just those four, at least from what I can tell. They might be monsoorai, but it’s hard to tell from this distance.
The checkpoint is only a few dozen feet away. All I’d have to do is walk up to the line and deliver the letter to pass. But the empire fires on civilians all the time, and there’s a lot of civilians here. Something wrong is going to happen, I think. I don’t like the way they look, I don’t like their rifles, I don’t like how I’m getting tunnel vision.
It’s too busy here. I push my way to the side of the ramp and hop over the barrier onto a narrow ledge. Because this ramp is so elevated, I’ll have a perfect shot over the heads of the crowd if they try anything.
A warm gust of wind brushes by and the sun retreats behind another cloud. The crowd, the distant gunfire, the peldak’s megaphone, they all become a faint white noise compared to the thumping of my heart. Staring at these guys, the distant, blurry figures, I feel nauseous. They have to be 100, 150 feet away or so, and I don’t have the eyesight of a cirathan. Could I be misreading things? Maybe I’m wasting my time.
But I don’t feel like I am. This sense of impending doom, is it the same as why I feel my family is in danger? Maybe both are wrong. Maybe I’m defective or just worried. It’s natural to be worried when your city is engulfed in battle, after all.
I stand here, for a time. With an arm propped up on the barrier I watch them go about their business. The crowd around them slowly dissipates as people realize the peldaks won’t let them pass, and things get somewhat violent as the crowd impotently tries to push past the checkpoint once or twice. No matter what happens, that group doesn’t move or do anything. It’s been a while, I guess I was mistaken-
One of them men puts a finger to his ear, then gestures to his three companions. The two who’re sitting on the barrier hop off, and they look ready to fight.
Unshouldering my rifle and taking aim, I only just realize that I have no idea what the range is on this gun. But whatever! It’s too late to do any tests.
The men start firing into the crowd, the shots piercing through the shouting and arguing before subsequently being silenced by the panics and screams. Men and women duck down to avoid being shot, and I see people whip their heads around to see where the fire is coming from. The peldaks need a moment to react. I don’t know why I noticed these men, but I was the only one who did.
A second after the shooting starts, I squeeze the trigger and the recoil kicks the pad into my shoulder. It’s enough force that I lose my balance slightly, my heart gives me a jolt as I hurriedly grab the barrier to avoid being knocked off the bridge.
When I gain my bearings, I see the men take cover, but it doesn’t look like I hit anyone. Damnit, them standing out in the open was my best chance! I pull the bolt and the bullet is let out of the chamber, pushing it forward brings the new bullet in from the magazine.
Taking aim once more, I’m ready for the knockback and don’t risk falling off the bridge. The bullet lands far to the right and lower than I was expecting. I lock eyes with one of the men, he points towards me and shouts something.
The crowd has disbursed, they’re all running this way and that, and the imperial agents are more focused on me then firing into the mass of bodies. I awkwardly crouch behind the wall as there isn’t enough of a ledge to be comfortable, and my body shakes as I feel their bullets impact the concrete barrier. My hands tremble as I pull the slide once more. Surely, I don’t have to get out of cover again, right? The peldaks should see them well enough and I don’t have to poke my head out anymore. I did my civic duty, they can-
Something presses against the side of my head. I turn slightly, just enough so I can look up. It’s a peldak with a pistol held against my temple.
“Watch it, buddy.” He’s that peldak in the fancy military uniform, the one who stood on a car with the megaphone. His voice is calm and professional, and his cold, steely eyes bear down on me. “Why don’t you hand over that gun, so I don’t have to blow your head off?”
My stomach retches and I move slowly, just as he wants. No sudden movements, hands off the grip, I don’t try to get up, I simply move my arms closer to him.
He grabs the rifle out of my hand and tosses it onto the street. Next, he grabs me by the strap of my bullet proof vest and effortlessly hoists me over the barrier. Another peldak removes the pouch from my hip, then heads off to collect the rifle. Two soldiers hold my arms, but they’re both so much taller than me that I’m sure one would be enough.
I look over at the four imperial agents. The peldaks are chasing them down. A peldak is shot in the chest, though his armor probably saved his life, and two of the agents are gunned down. The other two are tackled to the street and kicked in the stomach and face a few times before the peldaks hoist them up and haul them back. Can’t say I feel bad for them.
I force down a gulp as the peldaks walk me up to the checkpoint.
“I don’t know where you got that vest from,” one of the soldiers says, “or this rifle, but we intend to find out. Something ain’t right here.”
“I’m not with the empire,” I say, my voice not sounded as confident as I intend. They walk me past a barricade, then open the back of a jeep.
“Sure. Maybe. You’ll wait here until we’re certain of that.”
“I-I have a letter from one of your commanders! One from the hospital. I met a sayran and he had the guy write it.”
“That’s interesting.” I’m not sure if he doesn’t care, doesn’t believe me, or if he wants to deal with the agents first.
Gently, I’m let into the back of the jeep. I sit on one of the seats on the right side of the small cabin, and since I’m not as tall as a peldak, I don’t have to hunch forward to avoid hitting my head.
“We’ll have guards outside, don’t try anything stupid until I get back.”
I nod quickly, and he closes the thick metal hatch.