With the kids in my arms, I head out. They’re 60 or 70 pounds each, but thankfully I’ve worked a physically intensive job for the past decade. It’s not that bad.
“Remember,” I saw calmly as we approach the main room of the apartment, “it’ll all be okay. Just stay calm, and keep your eyes and ears covered.”
The two subtly nod, their faces buried in my body armor.
I run past the kitchen and think a small prayer to Tanawat’s parents, about my promise to get their son out of this city. When we reach outside, the music and stomping of the nearby parade comes through even clearer. It’s so loud, I’m sure the other islands can hear what’s going on too. Or maybe there are similar parades there as well.
I don’t hear gunfire anymore, but I don’t know if that’s because the parade is drowning it out, or if the Protectorate is finally done. As I make my way down the stairs, stepping around corpses, Sopa mumbles a few things about how nice the music is. No point shushing her, her voice is too low for anyone else to hear.
Once we’re done with the stairs, I hurry across the communal space without issue. Tanawat probably knows a lot of the people here, but his eyes stay shut and he has no idea. It’s a bit awkward to open the outside gate, but now we’re out of the apartment complex, heading through the side streets.
“You can open your eyes again.” My voice is slightly strained from the running, but I can handle it. No way I’ll slow down now.
The pair open their eyes, Tanawat more hesitant than Sopa, and they look around the side streets. Around us are chest-high stone fences, lawns, and parked cars on the side. No fires in the neighborhood, but the glow of the infernos around the city are bouncing off the low-hanging clouds, allowing me see. The empire must be so occupied with the parade that they haven’t bothered sending any soldiers into these neighborhoods. I’m free to run to my hearts content, the warm wind blowing in my face.
“So, how do we get in the sewers?” Sopa asks.
“Ah, well…” I stop at a four-way intersection and look around. There’s a parked on the side of the street, a bit of trash here and there, and a fallen tree had landed on someone’s house. “We have to go in through a manhole, but those are only on the main streets, which isn’t safe. So…” my voice trails off as I think.
I spot a storm drain down the street, then rush over. It’s only blocked by a grate, which doesn’t look all that heavy. If I lift it, maybe we could get into the sewers? Setting the kids down, I kneel and grab the flashlight to see what’s down there. It’s a small drop, then a drainage tube on the west wall.
Grabbing Surat’s map from my pouch and unfurling it, Sopa looks over my shoulder. It’s a detailed map, but I don’t see any mention of storm drains. During my limited time in the sewers, there was no standing water, just pipes along the walls. I don’t know if storm drains even lead to the sewers, and if they do, I’m sure it would just lead to the pipes. There’s probably no point in trying to go down there.
It looks like the manholes will be our only way. I shove the map back under my armor, then scoop the kids up before running south.
The empire may be on the main street, but there’s only one parade, isn’t there? This collection of side streets is surrounded by main ones, so all I need to do is bring Sopa and Tanawat to a different main road than the one the empire is on. They came from the north, and are heading down the main street to the west of us. If we head to the southeast, we should be out of their line of sight.
I navigate my way through the neighborhood, huffing and puffing as I run, until we reach the street that connects to the main road. It’s south of the neighborhood, going east to west, while the parade is on the road on the west side, going from north to south. The sounds echo through the streets, like they’re coming from everywhere, but I don’t see anyone on the road yet. Slowly, I move forward until we’re on the sidewalk, then I peek around the right side of the building.
The front of the parade comes out from around the corner, but then they split up. Some keep straight, some turn to the right, and some start heading our way!
My eyes round and a shot of panic flies through my veins. I jump away from the main road and run back into the neighborhood, getting as far away as I can.
Crap! Why did they split up? Why’d they continue straight, or turn away? Are there more parades across the island? Will they start heading down side streets? If they want everyone to know they’ve won, splitting up the parade to cover more ground would be best… but how annoying!
I make my way east as fast as possible. My best, and only, idea is to reach that main road before the parade, and flee down a manhole as fast as possible. If they decide to move into the neighborhoods, it’ll be impossible to hide. We need to get out of here.
Following the side roads to the east, we make it to the new road, and I peek out. To the south, the parade hasn’t hit that intersection yet. To the north, I see a group of soldiers heading this way, but they’re still far in the distance. The soldiers are marching in a loose square, bending and shifting around abandoned cars and piles of rubble. They’re putting extra sway in their arms, and their rifles are slung behind their backs. Their helmet flashlights are brightening the road ahead.
But there, glistening like a miracle, right in front of us, I see a manhole cover. There’s a car sat between the cover and the parade, with just enough space underneath for their lights to bounce under it.
The group is still decently far down the road… I need to take this chance and go now!
I don’t know how long the parade will last, I don’t know how long Surat and his brothers will wait, I don’t know if they’ll swarm this neighborhood. This is our best chance, I’m going to take it.
“Keep quiet, don’t make a sound,” I whisper to both of them. I take a deep breath, then kiss Sopa on the forehead for luck.
Keeping low to the ground, I run out. There are no fires around here, and it’s hazy. Their helmets are bright, but they’re still far away. Maybe they’re too happy to be paying attention? It’s about all I can hope for.
Ducking behind the abandoned car, I set the kids down, then slide my fingers into the opening on the side of the manhole cover. It’s heavy, and my biceps are burning, but I slowly bring one side up-
A gunshot smashes through the parade music and hits the car next to us, shattering one of the windows and raining shards of broken glass onto the concrete. My body jolts and the kids cling to me, causing my hands to slip. The heavy disk falls and hits the ground with a reverberating clang.
I hear shouting from the other side of the car, like orders being barked out. My heart aches, my stomach churns, they saw us! But that’s fine! They’re still on the other side of the car, it’ll take some time before they circle around. All we need to do is get to the sewers, I have a map and they don’t.
With all the strength in my arms, I hoist the cover up and hold it, one side leaning on the edge. “Go!” I yell to the kids, “climb down, and be careful!”
I dig into my pocket and pull out the flashlight before giving it to Sopa. She nods, sits on the edge, and carefully puts her feet on the bars of the ladder. Then she grabs the top rung, and slowly makes her way down. The flashlight has a small cloth handle attached to it, and she’s biting down on that. As the flashlight hangs down, she can see where to put her feet.
It’s at least twelve feet down down to the sewers, and I know the group is getting closer. They’re not shooting, do they want us alive? Was the first shot a mistake? I glance south and see the parade far off in the intersection. If the soldiers miss us, they’ll hit their own men. Good.
“Go on, boy!”
The kid’s shaking, he’s looking down into the near pitch-black hole with tears in his eyes. Why’d I give the flashlight to Sopa!? I should have made sure he could see, what have I done? Can I throw him down? No, a twelve-foot drop would probably kill him. Do I try to carry him down?
Just as I reach out to grab him, Sopa shines the light up, illuminating each bar on the ladder, and the manhole cover. I panic for just a moment, before remembering the soldiers already know we’re here.
“C’mon, Tanny! Daddy said to hurry! Get down here!”
The young man grits his teeth, clenches his fists, and even if he looks scared, he moves forward and plants his feet on the first bar. The light helps draw his eyes, and he continues downwards. Great assist, Sopa! You’re certainly my wife’s daughter.
The second there’s enough room, I slip into the manhole as well. I hear stomping and look to the side of the car. There’s an imperial soldier. Black armor with a facemask, his hands gripped around his rifle, two lights on the sides of his helmet.
I see him raise his rifle, and in that split second of pure reflex, I drop lower and let the manhole cover slam shut. The clang is loud, it echoes through the small tube leading to the sewers. Just after the cover lands, the sound of gunfire comes in muffled. Dozens of bullets, one after another, firing faster than my Protectorate rifle can shoot. The bullets smash against the cover and harmlessly bounce off.
I breathe a sigh of relief, then lean away from the ladder until my back hits the curved wall. We’re safe.
Sopa calls up and flashes a light on me, “daddy? Tanny’s down here, you okay?”
“I’m fine, I’ll be down in a moment.”
The manhole cover creaks, a few fingers poke through the hole on the side. What am I getting relaxed for?! Of course they’ll just move the cover! I quickly smash my fist up into his fingers, crunching them against the thick metal. There’s shouting on the other side, then the hand is yanked back.
We’re in a stalemate. So long as I’m here, they can’t open the cover. But that means I’m stuck here, waiting for them to get explosives, or maybe a gurant who could punch it open. Time is on their side. I need to escape with Sopa and Tanawat, the soldiers have no such urgency.
With this in mind, I clench my teeth, bringing my family shotgun around and holding it tight. With one hand on the manhole cover, I push it open just enough to stick the barrel through the gap, then I pull the trigger! The recoil kicks the shotgun out of my hand, and the stock hits the other side of the wall before falling and being caught by the strap. The blast in this enclosed space would have hurt my ears if not for the ear foam I got at the hospital, but Sopa and Tanawat shriek.
I don’t know how the soldiers above reacted. Did I hit anyone? Blow a leg off? Hopefully, but I don’t know. I let the cover drop, then hurry down the ladder as fast as I can. With any luck, they’ll think I’m still there and they won’t try to open it again until we’re a comfortable distance into the sewers.
When I reach the bottom few steps on the ladder, I jump off and land with a bad crack on my right ankle and knee.
“G-God…! Bless it!” I shout through clenched teeth, careful not to swear.
“Daddy?!” Sopa runs forward and clings to my leg, “are you-“
From up above, I hear the manhole cover open, and there’s shouting. Already? They opened it already!? Give us a little more time at least!
I scoop up the kids and dash forward, “I-I’m fine, we’ll talk later!” My leg hurts from such a stupid mistake, but I won’t let that be the death of us. I can’t let it be the death of us. I bite hard on my bottom lip, and we head west.
The soldiers are climbing down the ladder, it seems they’re going to chase us. Fine. Once I lose them, we’ll be free to head back to Surat and leave this nightmare!