According to Lieutenant Boros’s map, the empire owns this island. I move as if there are soldiers waiting around every corner, keeping an eye out for movement in every window and on every rooftop. It’s getting darker, so I keep to the shadows cast by the apartment complexes and street-level markets.
The eastern island is mostly residential, and its roads are divided into main streets and side streets. The main streets are wide, with a few lanes and sidewalks, and the buildings tend to be three or four stories high. The bottom floor is for business. Convenience stores, restaurants, businesses, things like that, while the upper floors are apartments. For side streets, the roads are narrower, often one lane, and traveled far less frequently. The buildings are only one or two stories, and are purely residential, with small yards, gardens, and even trees. Most of the eastern island consists of side streets.
There are small parks here and there, or plazas where merchants could set up stalls and food trucks. The main streets have a lot of pedestrian overpasses, and some side streets have apartment complexes rather than individual housing.
Shipbuilding has dominated most of my time these past few years, so I’ve never explored this island as much as I should have. There’re so many stores that look like they had good stuff, so many restaurants that look like they sold quality dishes. I keep passing by places and thinking ‘I bet Natcha would love to go here.’
In the window of a store, I see a little toy firetruck that Chalerm would love, or at least he would have back when he was still a toddler. Next to it, there’s a cute, pink, slightly charred and melted rubber ducky. Sopa, when she was little, refused to take baths unless she had one like it. I wonder if she grew out of that.
But enough of these memories, it’s time to focus.
In my time heading towards the vague direction of home, I come across a few imperial soldiers on a casual patrol. They seem confident that they’ve already won, and I guess that isn’t unwarranted, but luckily it means they don’t spot me when they otherwise would have. Hiding behind cars or in stores as they pass, switching streets to avoid them, one particularly lazy patrol is fooled by me playing dead. Sometimes, when things don’t feel right, I head into buildings and climb up to the roofs in order to get a better look around. It’s been about an hour since I left the bridge, so the sun has set, leaving bright pockets of fire to dominate the skyline, illuminating the clouds and smoke up above.
My house is in a neighborhood on the second layer, near the middle. From my position on the roof, I see it isn’t much further until the streets start their slow incline to reach level two. I turn around to look back at the bridge, and I’m astounded how smoothly this has gone so far. Steady progress, still undetected by the empire.
There’s a bit of commotion down the main street, I have to lean over the side a little to get a proper view. The street looks like a fight went on, a lot of fires, broken windows, and destroyed cars. There’s a squad of imperial soldiers setting up next to a door, each equipped with flashlights on the bottom of their rifles. They signal to each other, then one bashes the butt of his rifle against the door and cracks the lock. The group runs inside right after, and there’s gunshots a few moments later.
All I can do is sigh. The Protectorate really bungled this whole thing, it’s honestly pathetic how they let it get this bad. How is anyone supposed to trust them after this? If I find my family and get… ‘When’ I find my family and get us all out, am I going to feel safe living under the Protectorate flag again? I guess there’s no alternative, but maybe we should head to some corner of Monsoo and hope the gurant overlook us.
I climb back down towards the street and continue on.
I traverse mostly through side streets, hopping over fences and ducking into backyards whenever I hear anything. Side streets are always encircled by main ones, with a few one lane roads coming in and out of the neighborhood. It’s inevitable that I have to cross main roads to get closer to home.
There aren’t too many patrols out here, Boros said the main imperial force hasn’t arrived yet, and what patrols I do see are easily avoidable. I see a small group walking around the side streets, quickly flashing their lights into yards to look for movement before continuing on. I’m able to hide in a bush and hold my breath until they pass.
I have to cross the main street to get from one side street to another, and on my left, I find another group sitting in a small park. They’re talking in their alien language and practicing their quick draw on abandoned cars and what intact windows are left. There’re a few small fires crackling around the place. I get down and crawl in a wide arc to the right, making sure there’s always a car between them and me. At one point, they shoot the car I happen to be behind. Broken glass rains down, and I cover my mouth to avoid yelping in shock. Eventually their gaze turns elsewhere, and I continue crawling across the road and into the side street.
I get further into the winding roads of the side street, and far to the north I see lights waving around, illuminating trees or the tops of houses. I jump into a yard and peak my head over the fence, it’s another patrol. Unlike the previous patrols, these guys are moving quick! They’re bursting into yards and even breaking into houses, I doubt hiding will work here. Light rolls towards me and I duck my head for a second, allowing the beam to pass by.
I need to get out of here. There’s no time to double back to the main road, and even if I got there without being spotted, the patrol in the park is right there. I’d be sandwiched between them.
I head east through the yard and hop over more fences, sprinting across side roads, only barely avoiding the flashlights of more diligent patrols. They’re annoyingly thorough in their search, I wish they were overconfident like everyone else!
I reach the one-lane road that exits onto the main street and press my back against the corner of a building. There’s so much fire here, everything is so bright it even hurts my eyes a little, and so much smoke. I slowly peak out, and there’s three soldiers walking this way.
How do I get out of this? There’re these guys on the main road, and the patrols on the side street. If I stay here, I’ll be seen by this patrol. If I pull back a little, I’ll be seen by that other patrol. Do I play dead? Try and fight?
My rifle held tight against my body, my knuckles white from squeezing the handle. My breathing won’t be heard over the crackling of nearby fires, but I instinctively hold my breath anyway. Carefully, slowly, I move the side of my head around the corner, only enough for my right eye to peek out. If there’s no other option, I’ll try shooting and hope they’re startled long enough for me to run past. Not a great plan, but I have no other choice.
But as I look around the corner, I see those soldiers setting up in front of hardware store.
Great for me, at least. They’ll be preoccupied with the people on the upper floors, and I’ll be able to slip by undetected.
It sucks for the occupants, it really does, and I’d love to help… but I can’t. Honestly, it’s a miracle I’ve been able to make it this far, and I won’t push my luck. My family comes first and that’s final. I won’t be made to feel guilty about this.
The soldiers bash the door open and run in. The moment they’re gone from sight, I run out and cling to the left side of the street. There’s screaming, and yelling in a language I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. My eyes stayed glued to the hardware store, but only because I want to know when they’re coming out so I can hide or play dead.
I get past the building, my heart thumping inside my chest, battering against my body armor, and I’m making progress away from those soldiers. The soldiers’ flashlights brighten the ground floor, meaning they’re coming out, and I hide behind a car that’s been turned over. One soldier is dragging two children out by the arms, and the other two soldiers walk behind him.
My heart sinks, my face feels hot.
The two kids are screaming and crying. They’re dragging their feet, they’re trying to break free, but they can’t, of course.
Aww, come on, that’s not fair… I can’t turn a blind eye to that! I just said I wasn’t going to get involved, but what’ll happen to those two? Hostages? Brainwashed into child soldiers? Executed for the fun of it?
The specifics don’t matter. No fate under the gurant is a good one. I hate myself, but I have to do something.
My teeth are chattering, my hands are shaky, I feel like I’m basically committing suicide. But I have to do it, that pesky conscious of mine is getting in the way again. Why couldn’t I have been born a psychopath with no regard for human life?
With the kids in hand, the patrol walks back my way on the street. They’re probably heading to a safehouse. The moment their backs are towards me, I’ll strike.
The kids scream, they cry, their little feet are struggling so much to gain traction on the asphalt. They can’t help themselves, there’s nobody else but me who can keep them from being abducted. Even if I hate this, it’s the right choice.
They’re on the other side of the car now, parallel with me on the street. I slowly round the car, making sure I don’t crunch broken glass or cast a shadow. They walk past in a triangle formation, with the man pulling the kids in the front, and the other two are behind him on either side.
I take a deep breath, steady my nerves, and it’s time to go!
I burst out from the car and sprint towards them, screaming in a warcry and making sure to aim higher than the kids.
“AAAAH!” My scream makes the men jump, but it’s the gunshots that cut through the warm night air. After every shot, I quickly pull back the bolt to put a new bullet in the chamber, and the recoil bashes the soft pad against my shoulder. Most of my shots miss, but I’m able to land one shot on the soldier to the right. He’s facing away, so it nails the back of his vest and he’s knocked to the ground. The soldier holding the children springs into alert mode and dives away, releasing his captives and pulling his gun, the third soldier similarly breaks for cover. Despite my best efforts to shoot them while they’re on the ground, all my shots miss. The children have no hearing protection, so they cover their ears the moment their arms are released.
I’m sorry, kids, but this is the only way I can help…
As I get closer, I let the rifle fall to my side as the strap keeps it by my waist, and in one smooth motion, I scoop the two youths into my arms and continue running as fast as I can down the main street. Adrenaline carries my feet faster than I’ve ever gone before, and one of those soldiers starts shooting in retaliation! I hold the two in front of me, my body armor will give them the best chance of making it out of here.
Running behind a burning truck which spouts a blinding pillar of fire, I jump through the broken door of building those soldiers had previously cleared.
It worked. It worked! I can’t believe it worked! I actually helped them and broke line of sight. I look down at the two in my arms. Two girls, must be younger than Sopa. Their eyes are closed shut and they’re holding their ears, but I don’t see any blood or bruises.
Maybe what that sayran, Hizan of Mahidi, said is true. Something has to be looking out for me, there’s no good reason why that should have worked as well as it did. I’ll make a little shrine to his god once I’m done here.
There’s alien screams outside and my head whips around to the door. They’ll probably start chasing me, or alert their comrades that some dissident is on the loose. I run towards the back side of the building. It didn’t occur to me that I’d need to flee further than this, I mostly acted on instinct, without a real plan.
If their whole army starts chasing me, then I won’t be able to move as slowly as I had before. I’ll have to make a lot of quick decisions and hope my luck holds up.
No regret for what I’ve done, of course, but things will get harder from here.