I talk with the kids a bit longer, but time catches up with the pair and they fall asleep on my lap. It makes sense, their bedtime was so long ago that I think we’re in the next day. I’m used to staying up late though, I’m basically in my element. Besides, if I feel myself nodding off, I just glance to Sopa. The sight of my daughter cuddling her pink, childhood blankie is like a burst of adrenaline.
It doesn’t help my nerves to think that I’m exactly the sort of person the gurant would want to hunt. The entire reason they attacked Monsoo was to destroy our ship making capabilities, and I’m a renowned shipbuilder. Does this mean the empire is keeping tabs on my whereabouts and have a ‘kill on sight’ order? Probably not, to be honest, but I can’t get the thought out of my head. I keep my shotgun ready regardless.
Eventually, Surat climbs onto the scaffolding above us. “Attention everyone! Attention!” He projects his voice well and waves his arms to grab our attention, I look straight up to see his boots in the gaps of the metal platform. “Just as promised, my brother has brought a few dozen boats we can all climb on, and we’re ready to go. Please proceed to the west side of the room and follow him through the sewers to the exit platform. There’s enough room for everyone, but please leave bulkier items here.”
Commotion erupts in the room as everyone starts coordinating with their little groups of family and friends. I hear a lot of cheer and relief in their voices.
“Sopa, Tanawat,” I gently shake their shoulders, “it’s time to go.”
“I-it is?” Sopa rubs her eyes, “to the boats?”
“Yes, to the boats. We’re getting out of here,” I can hardly contain my delight.
It takes the pair a minute to fully wake up, but there’s so many people evacuating that it’ll be a while until it’s our time to board. They stretch their backs, roll their jaws, yawn, I’ve never been with Sopa or Chalerm as they got ready for school, so her morning routine is alien to me.
When it’s all done, I grab them by the hands and lead them through the camp towards the western wall. I’m amazed how much luggage people have, when did they find time to pack? Maybe some of them are tourists, in which case they picked a great time to come to Mae Hiarin. Maybe some of them locked themselves in their homes and only came out when Surat went looking for people.
“E-everyone!” A man shouts. I sigh, then turn around. He’s on the scaffolding on the eastern wall, wearing a maintenance worker uniform. “If you’re an adult man with a gun, could you please come this way? It’s a bit serious so please hurry. B-but everyone else can continue in a normal, calm and orderly fashion!”
I grab the kids and move us off to the side of the room. Everyone starts rushing and pushing past each other, shoving to get through the bulkhead door heading west.
“The gurant found us?” I hear someone ask.
“They must have!”
“We gotta get out of here, no way I’m dying after all this.”
“Yeah, go… I did bring my rifle, and I guess I know what Surat’s buddy wants. I love you all.”
I can’t even get mad at this point. Of course the gurant won’t let us leave in peace.
Sopa clings to my arm, “Daddy, what’s going on?”
I rub her head and force my most reassuring smile. “A bit of trouble, but nothing your old man can’t handle.”
By walking along the walls of the room, I carry Sopa and Tanawat back to the eastern side. There’s about 20 men here, each with their guns. The oldest guy looks to be pushing 60, and, seeing as everyone can figure out what this is about, their families came with them.
Surat and the maintenance worker stand before us.
“I’m sure you’re all a bit worried, but it’s not that serious! There’re just a couple imperial soldiers coming this way, and they’ll be here before we can get everyone on the boats.”
One man folds his arms, “that sounds pretty serious.”
“I, well… so, what I’m asking for you guys is not to kill yourselves, or to kill all the soldiers, but just to buy everyone enough time to get out of here. We’ll have the last boat waiting for you, and I’ll even come back to yell when it’s time for you to leave. Make sense?”
“How long do you need?” Another man asks.
Surat thinks for a moment. “No longer than five minutes, I think. Five minutes from when the soldiers first arrive, it should be enough time.” Surat turns to one of the small doors on the eastern wall. “It’s a bit complicated how we figured this out, but basically, we know they’ll only be coming through this door here. You don’t need to watch any other entrance.”
We all look to each other. Just delay the empire for five minutes and then run away. Another man, a little younger than me, speaks up. “Is it just the soldiers or is there an actual gurant coming?”
Surat smiles, “a gurant can’t even fit in the sewers.”
That doorway is a big chokepoint so… it’s not impossible. Even if we can’t continually fire for five minutes straight, there’s only so much the empire will be able to do to get past us. Surat might be right, this isn’t necessarily a suicide mission.
I take a deep breath, “I’ll do it.” I look at Surat, then set Sopa and Tanawat down. “But you need to make sure they get on the boat, and that they find my wife, Natcha, if I don’t make it.”
“Of course!” Surat says, “anything you guys need. Now, they’ll be here in a few minutes, I’ll hurry everyone out of this room, so do whatever you need to.” He pauses, then clears his throat. “If you want to, just in case, you should have time to say goodbye.” We’re not stupid. Even if it’s not a suicide mission, any or all of us could still die.
Sopa grips my pant leg as everyone turns to their loved ones. “Daddy, what’s he saying? You’re leaving again?” Behind her, Tanawat looks mortified, his eyes on the verge of tears.
I sigh, then bend to one knee. “Just for a little while, yes. There’s a lot of bad people coming here and I need to make sure they don’t reach you.”
“But… but there so many other people here, can’t they deal with the bad guys and you stay with us?”
“What if they all think the same and nobody stays behind? Then the bad guys will get everyone.”
Tears well up in Sopa’s eyes, then she lunges forward to hug me. “I love you, daddy.”
I wrap my arm around her, “I love you too.”
“You’ll beat them up and get back to us, right?”
“Of course! Nobody can beat your old man.” I get the sense that she doesn’t believe me, but she nods anyway. I turn to Tanawat. “And you, son-in-law. I’m trusting you to keep her safe while I’m away. Can you do that?” I reach out a hand.
He grabs my hand and squeezes as hard as he can. “Yes sir.”
With that, Surat takes the kids out for me.
“I’ll be waiting for you!” Sopa cries out.
All I can do is keep a brave face, and smile.
I’m not going into this ready to die. I will keep the empire at bay, and I will get back to them.
Sopa, Tanawat, and Surat disappear behind the many blankets and boxes and pipes. Once again, I’m alone.
Looking around, there’s a father telling his teenage son that he needs to look after his sister and mother. There’s a woman kissing her man goodbye. The 60-year-old man is joking around with his son as they’ll be fighting together, and they’re saying goodbye to his grandson, who’s too young to fight alongside us. Slowly, the numbers of the crowd dwindle until it’s just around 20 of us. 20 men to cover a single door as our families escape.
We’re all in the same boat here. We all have people behind us that we need to protect.
Personally, I’m sick of the gurant getting their way.
They bomb our city, they hijack our radio, they butcher people in the streets, they captured the bridges, they landed their entire force on these islands and took them over. It’s been a nonstop string of victories for them, and I’m eager to give them at least one small loss.
They won’t get past us. I’ll make sure of it.