My daughter’s stomach rumbles, and she pulls away from the group hug. “Daaaaaddyyyyyy, I’m hungry. And thirsty. Can you get us something to eat?” She sways back and forth with her hands clasped together.
…at least she’s not traumatized. “Fine, fine, you two stay here. I’ll head into the kitchen and fix you up a snack, alright? But you have to stay here, and we have to head out right after, okay?”
Sopa cocks her head, “we can’t come with you?”
“No!” I say with more urgency than I intend, causing Tanawat to jolt. “I mean, it’s my treat. Just wait here.” I look around the room and quickly pull some toys from a nearby shelf and hand them off to the pair, “just play until I get back.”
Tanawat finally speaks up. “Di-…did you see mom and dad? They told us to hide in the closet and that they’d be back to get us, but… they never got us. Are they okay?”
My heart breaks for the poor kid. “I’ve… seen a lot of people today. Maybe I saw them somewhere.” That’s technically not a lie. Even though his shoulders droop and his spirit fades, this is the best for now. I learned my lesson last time and won’t try to explain death to a nine-year-old again. This has to be handled delicately, and I’m not qualified to do it.
Sopa smiles, “Tanny kept wanting to go out and check, but I stopped him! I knew you’d come to save us and I was right. I knew it in my heart.” She stands there with her hands on her hips, beaming and clearly expecting praise. It sounds like she had the same feeling I did, and I’m glad we were both smart enough to follow our guts.
I pat Sopa on the head, ruffling her hair. “Good job. Now remember, don’t come into the kitchen.”
They nod, and I head out, silently closing the door behind me. The first order of business is to grab a few towels and respectfully lay them over Tanawat’s parents. They’re on the other side of the kitchen island so, with how dark it is, he shouldn’t notice them when we leave. Maybe he would prefer to say goodbye to them now, maybe he’ll grow up and regret that I denied him that, but I don’t know. I can’t have him crying when we’re heading back to the sewers.
Scavenging through the cupboards and fridge, I grab everything that can be eaten straight away and put them on a large plate. Fruits, crackers, fish bites, cheese, the power may have gone out hours ago, but nothing smells expired. As I arrange the platter, I need to make sure they don’t leave the bedroom, that nothing is rotten, and that no looter or gurant is hanging around outside. Plus, I left the flashlight with them, so I’m fumbling in the darkness. I just want to grab them and go, but there’s no telling how long it’ll be until our next meal. Hopefully Surat will have more snacks down in the sewers.
Twice I hear something outside and dive to the floor in a panic, shotgun at the ready. It ends up being nothing both times. But I finally have Sopa, I won’t take any chances.
When the plate’s ready, I hurry back to the room and carefully open the door as not to scare them. They’re sitting on the bed, kicking their feet and playing with toy warships. Or, rather, Sopa is playing with a toy warship while Tanawat is holding the flashlight like his life depends on it.
“See?” Sopa wrapped her arms around Tanawat for a quick hug, “I told you daddy’d be back soon.”
Tanawat’s forehead glistens with sweat, and he nods weakly. Of course he’s terrified they’ll be left alone again… I sigh, then sit and hold the plate out in front of them.
Sopa greedily starts tearing through the fish bites without a care in the world. I remember she loves fish, but I guess that isn’t unique for a monsoorai. Tanawat doesn’t eat, his face is crumpled in discomfort. He can’t rest his eyes anywhere, but he does keep the flashlight on the food so Sopa can see.
“Something wrong?” I ask.
“I’m not hungry.” He wraps both arms tight around his stomach.
“We have a long way to go and I don’t know when we’ll have a chance to eat after this.” I grab an apple and hold it out for him. “You’ve done a great job thus far, you really did. But you need to keep your strength up. Even if you don’t want to, you should force yourself to eat something.”
Sopa nods, her cheeks full of food, “uh-huh! Daddy’s smart, so you can trust him on this kinda stuff.”
Does she really have that much faith in me? That’s… really reassuring.
Tanawat thinks for a moment, then slowly grabs the apple before taking a few measured bites. He doesn’t seem to hate it, and continues eating. I notice he begins to take bigger bites before long.
“Oh, daddy,” Sopa takes a small pause from the food, “where are we going? Do you have a trip planned for us?”
They don’t know what’s going on out there. How much could a child possibly understand? “Yes, a trip. I’m not sure how long we’ll be gone, but we’ll be leaving the city for a while. There’s… a lot of bad people in the city now, so it’s very dangerous for us. Okay?”
“Oh no!” Sopa’s eyes go wide, “is Natcha and Chal coming with us?”
Why does call her mother..? Nevermind, I can find that out later. I smile and pat her head. “They went ahead first, we’ll be catching up with them.” I turn to Tanawat, then reach out to lift his chin. “Cheer up, we might see your parents there too.”
He brightens up slightly, but it does little to ease my conscience. Actually, I feel like a bigger piece of trash for lying straight to his face.
“The faster you eat, the faster we can be on our way.” Sopa returns to eating as she was, and Tanawat finishes the apple before taking a few fish bites as well. I’m finally given a moment to collect myself. It’s unbelievable I’ve actually gotten this far, or how much good fortune was required to get here. I hand the plate to Sopa and lean back against a desk, taking slow, deep breaths.
Then I hear something. It’s faint at first, distant. A repeated bumping noise, coming from the broken window to the side of Tanawat’s bed. Light begins to filter in, and my heart nearly stops. Something is wrong outside.
“Shh!” I yank the flashlight from Tanawat and turn it off. “Don’t talk, don’t breathe, don’t get up!” It’s percussion music, coming from the north. I crawl over and peek outside, only the top of my head peering over the windowsill.
Through the main street, from the north, marches an army of the Gurant Empire. I see tanks, transport vehicles, and thousands upon thousands of soldiers marching in lockstep. Unlike the soldiers I’ve been seeing in plain clothes all day, this army is dressed head to toe in professional body armor, all standardized, with flashlights attached to the helmets. Some soldiers carry rifles, a few are carrying large flags, and others have drums or trumpets as they blare their victory music onto the empty streets.
In the front of the parade, and spaced periodically throughout, are actual gurant. Massive, dangerous, equipped in their ornate power armor that cracks the asphalt with every stomp. Hizan of Mahidi only fought one and ended up losing, but I see at least 30 of the things out there, and the parade is nowhere near finished! Their unified steps and the rumbling of their war machines shake the apartment as they march along the nearby streets.
Cutting through the music are men screaming through megaphones.
“We’ve won! The Gurant Empire stands victorious, while the peldaks have turned tail and fled! Your broken Protectorate has left you to your fate! This city, its people, and all the resources left inside are now the sole property of the great gurant Magistrate, Hegogoblek the Magnificent!”
Just as the name is said, I spot a gurant sitting on a large throne. The throne is resting atop the chassis of a large tank, with his seat built where the turret should be. It’s so grand and spectacular, with a wide staircase reaching up to his platform, and a large, ritualistic bonfire at his feet so he remains perfectly illuminated. His armor is just as polished and decorative as everyone else’s, maybe more so. So he’s in charge of the army which had been bombarding the city for months, and he planned this invasion. How many people died because of him?
I gulp. It’s not a trick this time. They’re speaking the truth. It’s over, they won.
“Whoaaaa, is that a parade?” Sopa whispers as she pokes the side of her head around the corner of the window, “what are they celebrating?” Tanawat is at the foot of the bed, curled up into a ball, covering his ears and trembling.
“Those… are the bad people. They’re why we have to leave. If they catch us, then… it won’t go well, okay? We need to be silent.”
Sopa narrows her brow and we pull back from the window. My heart’s racing, my body’s shaking. They’re in the main streets right now, and the main streets are where the manhole covers are. How do we get back into the sewers?
Amid my thinking, I remember a small detail. “Ah,” I reach into my pouch and retrieve Sopa’s pink baby blanket. “Sorry, I forgot. Here.”
Her eyes light up for moment, but she quickly glances to Tanawat. “Pfft, really dad? I mean, come on. I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t need a blankie.” She’s glancing at it, clearly wanting me to hand it over, but also not wanting to embarrass herself in front of her little boyfriend.
Adorable as that is, “we don’t have time for this.” I toss it to her and it lands on her head. “Just hold it for now, it’s cold in the sewers.”
“Oh, well, heheh, if I gotta hold it then fine!” She wraps the blanket around her shoulders and smiles to Tanawat.
Tanawat ignores her and looks up to me. It takes him a moment to steady himself enough to speak, “w-we-we’re going to the sewers?”
I grab my rifle from the sling on my back, adjusting it to make room for my shotgun. “It’s the best way to avoid the monsters out there.” I kneel down and grab them both, holding them against my chest. “Just stay calm, cover your ears, and we’ll be out of here before you know it.”
Sopa diligently closes her eyes tight before moving her hands to her ears. Tanawat follows her lead. He’s shaking, but putting on a brave face, while Sopa doesn’t seem worried in the slightest.
I can’t use a gun like this, but it’s irrelevant anyway. If we’re discovered, we die.