No building on the eastern island is higher than four stories, but there are three distinct ‘levels’ to the landscape. The raised bridge connects to the west side of the east island, and standing here, I’m about equal to the second level. The original island had so many hills and gentle inclines that, rather than flattening it all, the original founders of Mae Hiarin decided to incorporate it in the design. The island is shaped like an oval, with the second layer in the middle, and the third layer on the east side of the second layer. The military base is on the north side of the first level, built onto the water, so I can’t see it from here. It’s the smallest island of the four that make up this city, but it’s still a few miles in diameter.
The sun is beginning to set behind me, but the skyline is bright from the fires which still haven’t been put out. The gunfire is distant and muffled, and the PA system is off. We’re far enough from the southern island that I can’t hear the fighting over there anymore.
On this bridge is a large checkpoint with metal barricades, sandbags, and barbed wire hastily erected to defend from any attacks coming from the island. I see peldaks and monsoorai soldiers running about, making plans, welding more barricades together, and everything else that could get this place in order. The barricades seem to have been made from thick sheet metal that were ripped off abandoned cars. I don’t see to be any civilians around
Michalec and the other young soldiers escort me towards a rough metal structure hidden behind the barricades.
“Here’s Lieutenant Boros’s Field HQ,” Michalec says, his voice stoic and serious. He firmly knocks on the wall next to an opening, then all six of the soldiers line up on either side. Their backs are perfectly straight, their chins are up, there isn’t a hint of the playful, joking nature they all displayed in the jeep.
While I’m not in the military, this is no different from when our assembly yard is inspected every few months. I line up on the left side and keep quiet.
The lieutenant comes out and lets his eyes adjust for a moment. He’s a young-looking peldak, though they all look young, in the traditional blue and grey armor that everyone else wears. He has certain emblems and engravings that make it clear he’s in a position of authority. He takes a quick glance at all of us, his eyes resting on me for a moment longer than the others. “From the south bridge? Report.”
Michalec, who’s standing on the far right of the line, steps forward, salutes, “Lieutenant Boros!” He goes on to report a number of issues, most of which I don’t understand, though he does mention the two sayran. “Also, sir, we were told to deliver this man to you. The Protectorate owes him a favor and he wants to be let onto the island.”
Lieutenant Boros turns to me, “we have help lines for suicidal people, you know.”
I’ve dealt with military types before, negotiating contracts and all that. I’m not a cirathan, but I’ve picked up a thing or two in my time, and I can finally show off my skills now that I’m not at risk of being shot. “My plan isn’t to die pointlessly, sir. There are things on the island that, as a man, I cannot ignore. Even if I do perish, I have to make the effort.”
I emphasize that I have a duty to uphold, and that my honor as a man is on the line. Peldaks and military guys love that stuff. Pointing out that dying is possible proves I’m not naïve, but he’ll appreciate that I’m willing to put myself at risk.
“Sounds important. What is it?”
“My family, sir.” Always call officers sir when in official meetings or negotiations. “I happened to be on the phone with my wife before the lines were cut. She sounded frantic and there were explosions in the background, but before the line went dead, she said she’d take our children and hide, she couldn’t get out onto the streets. I need to find them, whether they’re still alive or not.” I keep my face grim and serious as I speak, no joking or amusement in my voice.
The greatest advice I ever heard when dealing with peldaks is to just lie.
They’re not good when dealing with ‘aliens’, they’re too trusting, and they’ll rarely call you out even if they do detect a lie. I said I was on the phone with my wife before the gurant cut the phone lines, and even though that’s impossible because the phone lines were dominated by official use at the time, he won’t notice that. Even the other soldiers have changed how they look at me, now their eyes are filled with sympathy.
“I see,” Boros says. “That certainly is a reason to risk life and limb.” He gestures his head into the small metal tent. “In here, I’ll give you a lay of the land.” He turns back to the soldiers who drove me. “Go about your duties.”
“Sir!” They salute, turn to the right, then filter out in a single file.
“Thank you!” I call out. Michalec, at the front of the line, raises his right fist. That’s the proper signal of acknowledgment when in formation.
Lieutenant Boros brings me inside and I’m greeted with a large map on a table. It’s the city, color coordinated with translucent sheets of red, green and blue film. There’re also a few models placed about, and two small stacks of paper. Are these military plans? It’s concerning how unsecure this is. One simple lie and he’s showing this off with no hesitation.
“If you can’t tell from the map, the empire owns everything from here to the military base.” He walks to the other side of the table. Most of the map is covered by the green sheets, with only the bridge, military base, and a few isolated pockets being blue and red. “Most of our information is old or unreliable, so don’t think you can walk to any of these points and find safe refuge.”
“Geeze…” Seeing so much green, my stomach turns into a knot. “They really took us by storm, didn’t they?”
“From what I heard, the empire probably smuggled personnel and equipment into the city for months. It’s not odd to see civilians walking around with firearms these days,” he glances to the rifle slung over my shoulder, “so nobody knew what was going on until embedded agents started opening fire all at once.”
“Ahh, so that’s what the deal with those were. I’ve seen a lot of guys like that today, in plain clothes with guns.”
He folds his arms. “After the initial chaos was achieved, they knew exactly where to go to shut off power, phone lines, radio signals, it was a well-planned attack and they pulled it off without flaw. Even though some of my peers decided to meet the empire in open battle, I made the right call in consolidating our forces here on this bridge.” He points to the blue dots, “they underestimated the sheer number of enemies out there and were swiftly surrounded. I don’t know what’s left of them, but I still hear shooting out there, so that’s hopeful.”
“What does the red mean?” The red sheets only cover specific buildings in the city, never more than one in a neighborhood.
“Field hospitals and command posts, we think. They’re crawling with gurant and their soldiers, but the roofs are packed with tied-up civilians as a signal to us. Sorry pal, but we’ve seen the imperials go door to door, collecting hostages and storing them in these locations as human shields.”
I feel my shoulders sink forward.
Boros’s eyes soften, “as a father myself, I understand why you want to go. It’s possible your family wasn’t brought to one of these posts, there’s no way the empire could have captured the entire population of the island. If they are there, however, I must officially discourage you from trying to sneak inside. It won’t work, and they could execute civilians in retaliation.”
“Yeah, I get it…” I sigh, “I’m heading home first and there’s no red or blue in my neighborhood. Maybe I’ll get lucky and the empire is focused elsewhere?”
Lieutenant Boros looks to the door, we’re in the shade of the bridge and there’s only a little bit of light coming through. “You should wait until it gets darker. The gurant will shoot anybody they see walking around, and the streetlights shouldn’t be working. It’ll be easier to get past them at night.”
I look down at the map, running through the streets in my mind’s eye. I’ve lived here long enough that I can find my way home. “Thank you, sir. I’ll do that.”
“Good. One last thing,” he leans forward on the table. “When you find your family, what’s your plan to get out of the city?”
“…Get out of the city? Ah, right.”
He folds his arms and leans back against the far wall, “did you intend to swim?”
“I guess… I didn’t think that far. I still don’t even know if they’re alive, so just wanting to confirm it had been enough for me.” I grab my chin and tap my foot. “If it’s still the dead of night, I can’t imagine the gurant would attack you. I guess I’ll bring them back here?”
“Hmm…” He looks me up and down, his brow narrow. He mumbles to himself ‘what could the harm be?’ then speaks up. “Don’t return to this bridge. This city is lost and the Protectorate needs to start planning how we can reconquer it. In light of that, I intend to carve a path from this outpost towards the base and regroup there, then make my official recommendation to pull out. The barricades are to distract the empire from my plan, and my sappers are setting explosives to collapse this bridge as we speak. You risking life and limb to return to a crater, or being caught up in the blast, would be unfortunate.”
“What? You’ve lost the city? But the fighting just started! It hasn’t even been a day.”
“I don’t expect you to understand. The empire set up in the jungle, shelled the city, and baited our response force into an attack. While the bulk of our army sallied out, the gurant sprung their trap and took over large swathes of each island.”
“I figured that out already.”
He raises an eyebrow, “did you now? Then did you think about what’s going to happen when the gurant’s main force arrives? Most of their army is still in the jungle, protecting their artillery. Eventually they’ll slip around our army, which maybe isn’t even aware of the fighting due to the radio jamming, then land in Mae Hiarin and crush whatever opposition is left. I don’t intend for my men to be here when that happens, and I suggest you aren’t either.”
“…I hadn’t thought about that. But wait, our army should be pursuing them, right? How would the empire get around them?”
“Probably with the same method they’ve used to slip through blockades for months. Even though we’ve had total naval superiority ever since they landed on Monsoo, the empire has nevertheless hopped from island to island for a year now. Why wouldn’t they be able to use the same strategy to get their soldiers into the city?” He leans forward on the table. “I don’t mean to discourage you, but from what I can tell, you’re on a strict time limit. If the Protectorate isn’t off these islands by the time the real army arrives, they’ll kick us out and turn this city into a fortress. You need to find your family and get out before the streets are locked down.”
My mind goes blank for a moment as the consequences of what he said hit me. I need to hurry. I can’t waste time on anything, I need to get home. My skin is cold, but I feel alert. “Th-thank you for your time and your concern, sir.” I give him a nod and rush out of the metal tent, though I bash my shoulder against the side of the doorway as I stumble out. I head down the road into the plaza, then rush towards the end of the camp.
Lieutenant Boros calls out to me. “Watch yourself out there! And think about how to escape before you start panicking later.”
Without turning, I raise my right fist to signal that I heard him.
Waiting until it gets darker is out of the question. I head into the city now.