I doubt I’ll ever be accused of being smart again!
The kids feel heavier than when I first started running, my lungs are on fire, and I hear soldiers screaming and running around every corner. This side street is apparently the only place in the damn city where nothing’s on fire, so I keep tripping on every bit of rubble in my way.
“It’ll be okay, don’t worry! Uncle Gamon is here.” I’m speaking more to reassure myself.
I stop in someone’s backyard, I can just barely see over the fence. There’s men approaching from the north, and behind me to the south west, their flashlights are waving as they running, shakily illuminating the tops of trees and houses. I don’t see anything to the east, so I continue that way.
“Don’t worry,” my words are interrupted by me sucking down air, “about a thing.” I run towards the next main street, but slide to a halt before I run out into the open. “I’ve got everything… under control.”
The street seems clear at a glance, and there are plenty of abandoned cars on the road. I’ll continue north along this road. How long can I really expect them to follow me anyway? This is a big city with so many turns, it shouldn’t be too much longer before they give up.
As I run down the middle of the street, swerving around cars, my way is illuminated by a few distant fires.
Then, in the middle of the road, a manhole cover stirs.
My eyes round as my boots skid to a halt on the pavement. My body is frozen. I can’t just drop the kids and grab my gun, but what can I do? There’re so many options, but none sticks out in my mind.
The manhole is pushed to the side, and a monsoorai’s head pops out. “Ah! Are you the one they’re looking for? Oh,” he raises a hand, showing off a box, “I got my radio tuned to their frequency, that’s how I know about you. Come on down here! They haven’t dealt with the sewers yet, you’ll be safe for a time.” He climbs out of the hole and gestures for me to get inside.
The smell hits me immediately, and the kids groan too, but it’s better than getting shot. I hand him the kid on my right arm, then carefully kneel down, putting both feet on the rungs of the latter, then gripping the cold metal with my right hand. I hurry down, making room for the man to follow behind me. After dipping his head below the street level, he uses one hand to slide the manhole back into place. I hope those soldier waste their whole night looking for us.
The sewers are pitch black, it smells like sewage, and it’s cold. I slowly move just one limb at a time as I climb down, then my left foot suddenly hits the ground. Carefully, I step off the ladder and back away from it. I don’t know the dimensions of the sewers, so I don’t want to bash my head on anything.
“Don’t worry pal, your eyes’ll get used to the dark eventually. The power’s out around the city, but there’s still a faint bit of light in the sewers thanks to the emergency generators.”
My voice is nasally as I try to block the back of my throat. “I’m more worried about my nose. Still, thanks. You probably saved our lives. I’m Gamon.”
“Surat, nice to meet ya.” He pauses for a second, “I have my hand out to shake yours.”
I fumble in the darkness for a moment before he grabs me. His hands are calloused and grimy, just what I’d expect from a fellow blue-collar worker.
Surat pulls two flashlights from his back pocket, then hands one off to me. They light the sewers well enough, and I can finally put the kid down. Surat does the same with the kid he’s carrying, and they rush to hug each other. I’m glad they can stand on their own, but they’re crying messes.
I get down on one knee, then angle the flashlight up so they can see my face. “Don’t worry, it’s-“
Surat whistles, “hey, don’t hold the light below you, what are you doing? Light your face from the top down, that’s more natural.”
I glance at him with an eyebrow raised. He quickly lights his own face from the bottom up, and it makes his face look creepy. Then he lights his face from the top down, and he looks natural.
I nod and do as he says. “Uh, yeah. Don’t worry, we’re safe now, nobody’ll hurt you.” I slowly move a hand out to affectionately pat their heads, “what are you names?”
Surat speaks up, “you don’t know?”
“I only met them maybe ten minutes ago. The empire was trying to take them.”
The oldest girl, through the tears and snot, finally speaks. “D-do you know where mommy is?”
My hearts sinks, “a-ah… I’m sorry, kid. With everything that’s going on, your mother’s probably-“
Surat smacks the top of my head, then speaks in a loud whisper. “What do you think you’re telling a 7-year-old?” He says through clenched teeth, “it’s way too early to explain that.” He scoops the kids up, “your mommy’s fine. We need to get you and your sister out of the city first though, okay? You need to be strong for a little while longer.”
The oldest girl manages to nod, while her sister continues to cry her little heart out. Surat holds them tight as he walks down the sewer system. My kids will cry like that too if I keep putting myself in danger. I need to stop, no matter what.
Or will they? Will Chalerm and Sopa even care? What if I die and their only reaction is that the guy they occasionally eat dinner with won’t be showing up anymore? Maybe I’ve been so absent that they won’t even notice a difference once I’m gone for good…
“Gamon! You coming?”
Surat perks me awake, I’ve let him get pretty far away and his voice echoes for another few seconds. “Y-yeah, I’ll be right there.”
With a sigh, I follow after him.
The sewers are made of stone, every surface is damp and glistening, it smells bad, and there’s hardly any room. The roof is curved like a dome, and if I put my arms out I can easily touch both walls. There are so many pipes running along the walls and ceiling, with valves and glass sections to see what’s inside. Some send clean water into building, other pipes deal with rainwater, and some send sewage to the treatment center on the west side of the island.
“Pretty smart,” I say, “traveling by the sewers. I wouldn’t have thought of it.”
“Good thing too. The uninitiated like yourself have no hope of traversing this labyrinth. You most certainly would have fallen prey to its many and terrifying horrors.”
“What kind of horrors?”
“Spiders, mostly. And getting lost, there’s a lot of dead ends and locked doors around here. It’s kept them monsters on the streets from getting any funny ideas though, so that’s nice.”
“Spiders? Okay,” a sudden crawling sensation appears all over my body. “Spiders are better than getting shot, at least.”
“Eeeh, not if the southern-red slash spider bites you. Trust me pal, you’d wish you got shot instead! Haha.”
I feel my hair stand on ends. “A-anyway, where are we going?”
“I got a hideout not far from here. Steam room, it keeps the water and sludge pumps working all over the district. Once the fighting started, us workers that were on duty started scooping people up and bringing ‘em down here. Kinda like a refugee camp or something.”
“How noble of you. Thanks for saving us, again.”
“Oh, pish posh, you saved these two here yourself.” He puts on a sweeter voice, “and once help arrives, you two’ll be out of here and back to your mommy in a jiffy, okay?” The two girls nod.
I can’t say I know enough about parenting to say if lying to them like this is okay.
He leads us for a while, and I use the time to take the spare bullets from my pouch and slot them in the half-used magazine. We arrive at a door, a large iron slab with a thick turning wheel on the front. Surat gestures for me to open it. I grab the rusted wheel and try to force it, but the thing is heavy and stuck, it only slowly grinds open with a high-pitched creak.
“Come on, Gamon! You can do it.”
The veins in my arms and neck bulge as the wheel takes everything I’ve got. The wheel unsticks, jerking open a few inches, and the rest of the way is much easier. “Sorry… I haven’t eaten since lunch.” I try to steady my breath, which is hard when the nasty sewer air is like poison in my throat. “I didn’t realize how hungry I was.”
“I can get you something from our stash.”
He heads through the door and I follow, closing the door behind us.
The camp Surat and his friends set up is in a large, two-story room, the door opens to scaffolding on the second floor, so we have to walk downstairs. The well-lit room has a faint red hue to it from the lights, and there are large, metallic cylinders that stand tall along the outer walls. It’s hot, like a typical summer day. Spread around the room is maybe a hundred people, with belongings stored all over, and blankets draped up to form makeshift tents and walls. There are wooden boxes here and there too, and pipes crisscrossing the main floor.
“Nice place you got here.”
“Thank you, make yourself at home,” he sets the girls down on a box. “We’ll be here for another few hours at least.”
I raise an eyebrow, “what do you mean?”
He turns to me with a smile, “we’ve got a plan for getting off this island.” He raises a finger, signaling me to wait, then disappears into the camp. He returns a moment later with a woman, then quickly explains how the two girls parents are ‘missing’, and asks if she could take care of them for now. She agrees, then she heads over to console them as Surat leads me away.
There’s a small voice behind me, “u-um… excuse me, Mr. Gamon?” I turn around to find the older sister standing there, gripping the middle of her long skirt. “Thank you for… for rescuing us.” She then gives the cutest, most polite curtsy I’ve ever seen.
My heart melts at the slight fumbles and imperfections of it, and I wave her goodbye. I can only hope that Sopa doesn’t do something similar when I rescue her, I don’t think my heart would be able to take it!
Huh. I thought ‘when’ I rescue her, not ‘if’. I guess I’m feeling a bit more confident!
Nevertheless, I follow Surat to a table by one of the large cylinders. It has a radio and four maps, one for each island that makes up Mae Hiarin. Surat taps the table, “we’re gonna get everyone out of here. So my brother, right? He works in the Monsoo coast guard. By the grace of God, we were out having lunch when the bombs fell, so we went into the sewers together. Pretty normal, it happens all the time. But then the empire invaded! So, he works with the coast guard and out that way,” he points to the north-western side of the room, “there’s a large output tube that drains clean water out into the ocean. So we get this great plan going! He heads out and gets a few boats, cause he’s in the coast guard, and I get a bunch of people, cause I know the sewer layout, and then we escape tonight via that drain. It’ll be dark, gurant can’t see us ‘cause we have direct access to the sea, we get everyone out.” He leans back against the table, confident and smiling. “Brilliant or what?”
Hope fills my chest but I have to calm down. “I’ve been on the surface, it’s bad. No offense, but… what if your bother dies before the appointed time and can’t bring a boat?”
Surat waves off my concern, “nah, he’s not even going on the street. See, back when it started, everybody was escaping to ships, the ocean was full of them, far as the eye could see. We waved one down, he got on, then he told me he’d find some like-minded ship owners for the rescue operation. Nibun’s a brilliant, charismatic guy, so my only worry is that I haven’t brought enough people to fit all the ships he’ll bring, haha!”
I look down at the map and try not to smile, “I see, I see.” This was the answer. Surat and his brother Nibun were it! I’ll find my family no matter what it takes, then I’ll get them out through these two fantastic men! I find my neighborhood, then point to it. “Let’s say my family is here and I need to rescue them. You think I could, using these sewers, get there and back before your brother arrives?”
Surat smiles a toothy grin, “I’ll draw you directions and you can be back long before the first ship arrives.”
I pat him on the back and can’t contain my excitement!
I’m gonna do it. Natcha, Chalerm, Sopa. I’ll be there before you know it.