Sopa is held in my right arm, holding the flashlight and lighting our way. Tanawat is on my left, holding the map I’m using to navigate. My rifle and shotgun are kept to my bag with straps, and keep clanking against each other.
The sewers are cold, damp, and smell like crap. Poor Sopa and Tanawat’s faces are scrunched up, and they’re trying not to breathe. The footsteps of what sounds like a hundred men bounce against the sewer walls, interrupted only by foreign screams. They sound mad, hopefully that means I did shoot one!
But they can stew in their anger, they won’t catch us. The sewers are a mess of turns, intersections, side rooms, they don’t even follow the main roads. There are signs and labels everywhere, like ‘Pump 37-B’, but the imperials will have no idea what that means. Surat was a godsend, giving such a detailed map with precise instructions on where to turn.
My lungs may be on fire, my leg may ache, and my biceps may burn, but the sweet taste of victory is so close it’s overpowering the sewer’s stench! I don’t care if I destroy my muscles in the process, I won’t stop running until we’re back.
However, it doesn’t seem to end.
We get about halfway to the safe room. I’m sucking down air and my shoes are soaked from stepping in the occasional puddle. It’s been so long, but I still hear our pursuers. They’re distant, to be sure, but they’re still down here. They’ve neither gotten lost nor given up.
What’s wrong with them? Leave us alone already! I won! I saved my daughter and her friend, now back off already.
But they don’t.
How do I get out of this? Will I end up leading them right to the safe house? Am I going to put the other refugees in danger?
I take a wrong turn intentionally. The map has enough details that I’ll be able to find my way back on track. I need to lose these guys first.
As I continue, my pace begins to slog. It’s harder to pick up my legs, my head is pounding, and I keep needing to readjust my hold on Sopa and Tanawat. The soldiers are catching up.
“Daddy, are you okay?” She looks up at me, her eyes full of strain and worry.
“Never… better,” I say while gasping for breath. “Just you lighting our way is more than enough!”
Tanawat speaks, “you can set us down and we can walk, if you want.”
“Nonsense, haaaa,” I try to laugh but it doesn’t come out right, “I’m not that old… yet! Having you two close is what keeps me going!”
Despite my words, I’m on the verge of collapse. It’s like my shoes are made of lead, my arms and chest have long since gone numb, I’m drenched in sweat.
I turn a corner and continue my glorified power walk. My vision has gone blurry, I should have eaten more than just a snack from Surat, or ate something at Tanawat’s house.
“-addy? Daddy!” Sopa grabs my shirt and shakes me.
“Huh? What?” I look down at her as she accidentally points the light in my face. I close my eyes tight as a prominent green sun flare stains my vision.
She points ahead, “this is a dead end.”
I look forward and give my eyes a second to focus.
In the middle of the sewer is a large, rusted metal gate. There’s no door or lock, just bars running vertically and horizontally. On the other side is a faint orange light, casting a long shadow the way we came. This is what I was hoping would happen to the soldiers chasing us, since they didn’t have Surat’s map.
“Ah. Sorry…” I turn around, but I hear it loud and clear. The footsteps of the approaching soldiers overpower everything else. What’s more, I see the beams of their helmet’s flashlights streaking across the T intersection we just came from.
I messed up.
I’ve killed us.
I can’t get through this grate, I can’t double back, I can’t fight them off.
…There’s a divot in the wall to the left. A small inlet where a power box hangs on the wall, the perfect size for children to snuggle inside of.
I set the two down against the divot, then step in front of them. My back is pressed against the wall in front of the divot to lessen my silhouette, with my head and arms turned so my shotgun is trained down the hallway. I’m far enough to the side that the orange light behind us doesn’t cast a noticeable shadow on the distant intersection. I suck down stale sewer air to try and steady my heart and aim.
“Shh,” I keep my voice low, “it’ll be okay, Sopa.”
The soldiers know I’m down here, but they don’t know I have children with me. I’ll… fight to my last breath, make the empire really work for it. I gulp and grit my teeth, my arms quaking. I don’t want to die, but I should have made better choices. I could have avoided this a lot of different ways. If I knew where Tanawat lived, for example, I could have made it to his house, found them, then retreated to the sewers long before the parade even started.
I’m going to die here, I think. But… since the T intersection is so far away, maybe they won’t notice Sopa and Tanawat. The two should mostly be hidden, it’s not far fetched to believe it’ll work.
As for what happens after… I’m sorry, Sopa. I really failed you. Can she read the map and find her way out? Maybe Surat will happen to come across them as he explores the sewers one last time. If nothing else, I can hope whatever’s been guiding me can help her next.
The imperial soldiers come ever closer. I guess it’s not so bad, to die like this… but one thing gnaws at my mind.
“Hey, Sopa.” I’m careful to keep my voice low.
“Yes?” Her voice is strained, and she’s whispering too. She knows that bad men are chasing us, and she knows something is wrong.
“You know I love you, right?”
She sniffs to stop her runny nose, and nods her head frantically, her hands gripping my hip. “Yeah! I know. Mama tells Chal and I all the time, ‘daddy would be here if he could, but he has to stay and work ‘cause he loves all of us’. So I know!” She wipes her arm with her sleeve.
“Ah, good. Thank you.” It’s hard not to cry. Of course Natcha covered for me and kept my kids from despising me or forgetting me. There are still so many things I should have done better, but maybe I was too hard on myself. When the chips were down, I’m going to die, and kill, for my daughter. I can be proud of that, at least. “Sopa, Tanawat. Close your eyes and cover your ears. Don’t open them no matter what.”
I hear nothing. When I look back, I see them diligently complying.
With a deep breath, I turn back around to face the hallway. They’re almost here. Not much longer until-
The sewers begin to rumble, great quakes that would knock me off my feet were I not leaning against the wall. The bricks clatter, the metal grate rattles, dust falls from the ceiling and droplets of water are shaken off pipes. The dim orange lightbulb behind us shatters, plinking shards of glass to the floor as darkness washes over the sewers, save for the flashlights the soldiers carry. The quaking subsides just as soon as it came.
The hell was that?
There’s screaming beyond the intersection, back and forth like an argument. There’s a pause… then the screaming starts back up. Their flashlights turn away from the intersection, and their footsteps slowly fade into the distance.
Before long, I can’t hear them over a nearby pipe that’s slowly leaking water into a small puddle.
…They’re gone? No, this has to be some kind of trick. I wait for what feels like a minute, but nothing happens.
They really did just walk away.
I slide down the wall and collapse to my butt. My heart won’t stop pounding, I can’t catch my breath. That probably shaved ten years off my life.
It must have been that sudden shaking. Something happened on the surface, and they were recalled to deal with it. But what could shake even the sewers enough to break a lightbulb?
“A-are you okay, daddy?” Sopa shifts in place, pawing around to grab my shoulder, “it’s dark…”
“Haaa,” I sigh with a smile before turning on our flashlight, “I’m great. We’re all great. Everything is great.” Sopa taps Tanawat, prompting him to open his eyes and lower his hands from his ears. “See kids? Just as I said.”
“What was that shaking?” Tanawat’s brow narrows. “Did you do that?”
I shake my hand to wave down his thought, “no way. That was solely the work of God. Divine intervention to help get us home safe!”
“Really?” His and Sopa’s eyes light up.
“Yeah! Well, probably. It’s at least thanks to God that everything shook exactly when we needed it to.” I put my hand on the ground and try to force myself up, but my legs wobble. My ankle and knee still hurt too. The kids rush over and try to help me up. “Thanks…” They don’t do much, but I appreciate the thought.
When I’m finally standing, Sopa wraps her tiny hands around mine. “You don’t need to carry us anymore,” her face is stern, her brow narrow. “Nobody is chasing us, so we can walk together.”
She looks exactly like a shrunken version of her mother. Was Natcha this adorable as a kid? “Haha, fine, fine. I don’t need to carry you.”
With a proud smile etched across her face, Sopa removes one hand and grabs Tanawat’s, forming the middle link of the chain. “Let us be off you two, don’t get lost.” I clench my jaw to suppress a smile, this is worse for my heart than running all day.
With Surat’s map, it shouldn’t be too hard to find our way back.