It’s a mixed bag, being in this jeep.
On one hand, these things can take a lot of firepower, and it’s in the middle of a Protectorate checkpoint. This might be one of the safest places in Mae Hiarin at the moment. On the other hand, the peldaks might see me as an enemy, thus meaning I’m trapped in a jeep, in a checkpoint staffed with Protectorate soldiers.
I bounce my legs against the hard metal floor and tap my fingers against the firm seat padding. I turn my head to look outside one of the small windows, but what if the peldaks think looking outside is shifty? I whip my head back and sit straight up.
My stomach is in a knot, but it isn’t long before the back hatch opens.
Light pours in, unfiltered by the shaded windows, and I have to close my eyes tight until a man walks in and closes the door with a heavy clang behind him.
The officer from before sits on the other side of the cabin and leans forward slightly to avoid hitting the back of his head on the ceiling. He’s wearing a blue uniform with dozens of ribbons pinned to his chest, and a red half-cape behind his right shoulder. There’s an insignia on the left shoulder that I think means he’s a lieutenant. Beneath the jacket of his uniform sits a bulletproof vest, and on his hip is a pistol. Like all peldaks, he’s immortal. He doesn’t look any older than 24 or 25, but he’s no doubt hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old.
What does he think of me? He’s wearing a bored expression, but his pointed ears are back and alert, and his knuckles are busted up. Was he beating those agents? Is he going to start beating me?
“I-I didn’t do anything!” I cry. “I mean, maybe I shot one of them, it’s hard to tell, and I did shoot over the crowd, but I wasn’t trying to do anything illegal! I’ve seen those soldiers wearing normal clothes when fighting you peldaks, so I was thinking they must be trying to shoot into the crowd, and I was right!”
The officer, who’s name tag reads Rodenski, stares at me, his sharp eyes unimpressed. “How do I know you’re not just saying that to get out of trouble? You could be an imperial soldier yourself.”
“I-I can’t be an imperial, you see, I’ve been working down at an assembly yard for years! I’m a manager there, r-right? Besides, I’m a monsoorai. I’m loyal to the Protectorate!”
“Oh, I don’t know about all that. There’s plenty of monsoorai who’re still mad about us annexing your ‘Heaven’s Tree Empire’, and plenty of your kind have thrown your lot in with the gurant over the years. I’m sure that help is how they keep moving from island to island. Also, not sure if you’re aware of this, but it’s not like I can easily walk over to the yard and find out if you’re legit. I have to take your word for it, and I’m not inclined to do so.”
“H-Heaven’s Tree Empire? I majored in shipbuilding, sir… not history.”
He frowns, “it’s not history, it only happened a century ago.”
“…ah.” I wait for a second, but Lieutenant Rodenski says nothing. The silence makes my skin crawl. “So, have any peldaks joined the gurant?”
“No.” Instantly shot down.
Maybe a joke? “Ha, so what? You peldaks are just better than us or something?”
“Yes.” He says without a hint of emotion or doubt.
I hate talking with peldaks.
I grip the bottom of the seat. Wait, what am I doing? I have a letter from his boss! “Right, sorry.” I raise my right hand, but quickly realize that it’s probably a bad idea to start digging around in my pockets while in front of a soldier who thinks I’m a traitor. “I have a letter from some commander, he’s in charge of the defense at the hospital. I met a sayran, Hizan of Mahidi, who saved my life, and he got the commander to write it. The letter is in my shirt pocket, beneath the body armor, if I can grab it.”
“Go ahead, it’s not like you’re a threat to me in here.” His words and tone clearly imply that he could beat me to death no matter what weapon I tried to grab, which is probably true.
I fiddle with the bulletproof vest until I pull it open enough to dig inside and grab the letter, then I hand the envelope to Lieutenant Rodenski. He takes it and tears open the envelope, then reads aloud.
“Duh duh duh… to be let over the bridge… escort if needed… good friend of the Mahidi estate…” He sighs, then looks up to me. “This is mostly worthless.”
My blood runs cold.
“Not only do I outrank this commander so he can’t give me orders, but he’s a monsoorai in the Asean military, while I’m a peldak in the Legions. He has no jurisdiction over me.”
“I see… but you said it’s only ‘mostly’ worthless?”
He leans back, crossing his arms. “I know the guy who wrote it, and I recognize the handwriting. Fine, you’re not with the empire, not like I expected you were in the first place. But there’s no way in hell I’m letting you across that bridge. There’re a dozen imperials on it, shooting everything that crosses. You may be proud of your dinky little vest and rifle, but you’ll be slaughtered if you go across.”
Despite the warning, my shoulders relax. “Wait, you never thought I was with the gurant?”
I sigh in relief from hearing I’m not suspected of being a traitor. “Wait, you never thought I was?”
“You shot at men firing into a crowd, why would I think you’re on the same team? Besides, you don’t even look like a soldier, or a mercenary. That was the first time you ever held a rifle, wasn’t it?”
I grit my teeth, “well, lead with that next time…” I shake my head, it doesn’t matter anymore. “Sir, I have to ask, do you know what’s going on on the east island? That’s where I have to go. I figured it’s either safe because the military base is there, or the gurant hit it the hardest.” I hold my breath and tighten my fists, awaiting his answer.
“We have no idea what’s going on beyond this bridge. The Protectorate owns this bridge exit, the exit on the east island, and the exit on the mainland. Before reading your letter, I didn’t even know we still owned that hospital. The east island is reporting heavy fighting in the streets, but nothing more than that. The Protectorate could be winning, the gurant could be, it could be looters fighting against armed citizens. We just don’t know.”
More ambiguity. It’s almost worse than if I knew for certain that everyone is dead!
“How did the radios get destroyed everywhere!? What’s going on with that?”
“The gurant have more advanced tech than we do. We’ve tried developing countermeasures, but it doesn’t always work. We also had wired communication for the first few hours, but it was a simple matter of cutting the cords.”
“Right, the only advantage we have is in space… You’re welcome for that, by the way.”
He gets a small chuckle out of that. I’m glad he remembered that I work at an assembly yard, or my little joke wouldn’t have landed.
“Wait, but if the radios are out and the lines are cut, how do you know the state of the other side of the bridges?”
“We have to use couriers. At first, sending people on bikes was enough, but then they kept getting shot.” He bangs his fist against the inside of the jeep sending heavy thinks through the cabin, “sending these back and forth does the trick. The soldiers on the bridges don’t have anything heavy enough to punch through.”
My eyes light up. No matter what, I must convince him to let me on one of those courier runs and get over to the eastern island!
The Lieutenant’s brow narrows, he seems to have realized what information he accidentally let out. “I’m not letting you in a jeep.”
I smile, “I’m already in one. You just need to put someone in the driver’s seat and tell them to hit the gas.”
“No.” I get the sense he’s not an unreasonable man, I think I can convince him.
He grips the bridge of his nose and takes a deep breath, then leans forward. “Listen, I’m not stupid. I realize how many lives you saved by shooting at those imperial soldiers, and I realize how you single handedly saved the reputation of this unit. You stuck your neck out, and you have to be rewarded for that. Your reward is that I’m not letting you cross this bridge or head into a warzone. You want me to send some men to escort you down to a port? Fine. I’ll send an entire squad, just for you.”
“That doesn’t help me because I need-“ wait, he doesn’t know why I’m doing this, I never explained it. “Listen. I have a wife and two kids, they’re on that island. I don’t know if they’re safe, I don’t know where they are, I don’t know what they were planning to do today, but I’m gonna find out. I’m going to that island, even if I have to swim.”
“But-“ he looks to the side, his teeth clenched, and his face twisted in pain, “what are you gonna do when you get there? Scour every street and building for them? They probably evacuated like everyone else, you’ll just be wandering through a violence-ridden city.”
“I don’t like ‘probably’, I need to know for myself.” I fold my arms and keep my back straight. “You said you’d reward me for saving lives out there. All I want is to get across this bridge.” Peldaks have their honor, he won’t refuse me. Not only does he owe me, apperently, but I can see it on his face, he knows I’m in the right.
Lieutenant Rodenski’s ears droop, and he sighs. “I can’t convince you to evacuate, can I?” I don’t respond. “Fair enough. But don’t blame me when the gurant shoot you dead in a ditch, or you somehow manage to search the entire island, only to realize you wasted your time!” He gets up, unlatches the door, then hops out. “I’ll get your rifle. A snack too, you don’t look so great.”
“Thank you, sir. Do you have children?”
“No. Not yet, at least.”
I raise my chin and look down at him with a smile. “You’ll understand when you do, kid.”
His ears flare up and his cheeks turn red. “I’m the product of the peldak war machine, trained to fight and kill without hesitation, having put my skills to use in thousands of battles these last 400 years.” He points to me, the veins on his hand bulging, “you’re just a shipwright. If I had children who were in danger, I’d have torn half this city apart already.” He slams the door shut before I can say another word, and the jeep rocks back and forth.
Ha! Peldaks get feisty when you try to act better than them, they always need to be the top dog. He deserves it for not immediately telling me I wasn’t in trouble, and I don’t feel bad for getting him angry.