We clear out the space around the eastern wall so the soldiers will have nothing to hide behind, then we open the bulkhead door. If we lock the door, they could probably just blow it open anyway, so we might as well force them down a long hallway with no cover. We’ve got men on the catwalks, I’m with a few guys further back with rifles. I gave my shotgun to that 60-year-old man, and he’s standing a few feet to the side of the door so he can ambush the soldiers as they try to enter. We’ve got every angle covered, and I’m happy with our chances.
In the hallway, we taped a few flashlights onto the walls and ceiling. No detail will be lost in shadow, we’ll see them coming.
By the time we finish setting up, everyone has escaped into the sewers. Our families should be piling on the boats right now, we’re all that’s standing in the empire’s way. There’s a soft rumbling from the few boilers, and water droplets occasionally plink onto hot metal and quickly sizzle into steam. The room still has plenty of hanging blankets and leftover boxes, but nothing breaks our line of sight.
“Just remember,” a man behind a box on the catwalks says, “we just need to stall them. Don’t do anything stupid, and don’t die.”
I yell out, “but if you do die, take one or two of them down with you!” It gets a few nervous laughs.
It’s not much later that flashlights start to brighten the walls on the far end of the hallway. Out there is a T intersection, and the soldiers are coming from the left. Very similar to about an hour ago, but no earthquake will save me this time. Granted, I’m in a much better position, and I’m not alone. We can do this.
I see a soldier poke his head around the corner. According to Surat, the timer starts now.
We fire shots down range and the spread is insane. Some bullets land on the ground 30 feet before the soldier, some hit the wall behind him, one bullet doesn’t even make it through the door and instead lands right near that poor old man’s head. He nearly jumps out of his skin in shock, then glares back at us to see who did it. We stop firing, and the soldier moves back behind cover, no worse for wear.
“Sorry!” A man to my right calls out, “the sights were off a little! Won’t happen again.”
The old man who was nearly shot takes a deep breath and waves back.
…maybe victory isn’t as assured as I thought.
The soldier peeks around the corner again, but pulls back before we can fire, so our bullets rip through empty space and do nothing but kick up dust or clink off pipes. The next time he pokes out, he returns fire at hits a metal box somewhere behind me. I jump at the sound and fail to pull the trigger. Nobody else hits him either.
This is good, in a way. Low danger, the soldiers are stuck behind the corner, and only one of them can fire at a time. We can last five minutes like this, I’m sure of it.
A black shadow moves in from the left. We shoot at it, of course, and sparks go flying, but nothing else happens. It continues to move until it’s in the center of the distant intersection.
“What is that?”
A man by me calls out, “the gurant have access to some strange demon magics, you know. Does anyone know a hymn we can use to smite it?”
It’s probably not a demon… but I have no evidence to disprove him. After the day I’ve had, I’ll believe anything if it’s said with enough conviction.
“I left my prayer beads at home, do we keep shooting it?”
“It wasn’t getting hurt, maybe we shouldn’t waste ammo. Besides, it’s stopped now.”
The black shadow starts moving closer. We shoot at it again, hot lead blasting against it repeatedly, but once more, it’s ineffective. I can’t figure out what it is, but then light glimmers off it just right.
“It’s a shield!” I yell. “A bullet proof shield!” There’s a small glass window by the face, and two back-angled wings on the sides to give the user a wider range of protection. But what kind of material can deflect rifle shots and is light enough to carry? The technology of the gurant is terrifying. But the shield isn’t scraping along the floor. If he wants to get closer, the soldier has to raise it just enough to walk. “Aim for his feet, the bottom of the shield!”
We all start firing but, in spite of my advice, it doesn’t work. We keep missing, it’s not even close. The strip of empty space is just too narrow and none of us are good shots.
The shield stops just before the door and we halt our shots. That old man is pressed against the wall, waiting to ambush them with my shotgun. The soldiers aren’t walking in though. They might suspect he’s there, and if so he’s in a lot of danger. He’s a lot braver than I, volunteering to stay out there.
Actually, the shield looks too wide to even fit through the door, I can’t see around it. They might be stuck! If they drop that shield they’ll be met with a hail of gunfire!
A hand flashes by on the left side of the shield, and a small white tube with a black cap is tossed onto the wide-open ground in front of the door. Is that a grenade? What a weak toss, it’s not even close-
Pure white stains my vision, and there’s a blast that resonates in my ears like a million small bells. “-!” I think I scream as I fall to the ground, but there’s a high-pitched ring that dominates my hearing. My eyes water uncontrollably, my face burns.
The ringing passes quickly, probably thanks to that foam from back when I was in the hospital, and I hear gunshots. Rubbing my eyes barely brings my vision back, but I need to hurry and help! We need to flood that doorway with bullets.
I can’t see without squinting though the bright white blotch in the center of my vision. My cheeks are wet with tears, and every source of light hurts. Still, I peak my head over the metal box I’m hiding behind, and I bring my rifle up.
I see… the old man is dead. Shot against the wall and slid down to a seating position, with a bloodstain smeared down the brick behind him. The soldiers ran in instantly, making perfect use of how disoriented we were to get a foothold in the room. I see two more men dead on the catwalks, but at least one more is still alive.
What was that thing they threw? It caught us completely off guard and now they’re in here! My vision is almost normal again, and I find the first soldier I can shoot at. He’s far away, standing behind a stack of wooden boxes, but half his torso is hanging out of cover so he can shoot. I make sure a bullet is chambered, then I line up the shot with his armored vest. I pull the trigger and, while the recoil smashes against my shoulder, the bullet blasts him in the chest and knocks him to the floor.
This is a military rifle, it has more than enough power to shatter a ribcage even if it doesn’t go through his vest. I grab the bolt and slide it back, ejecting the smoking, spent case. When I push the handle forward, a new bullet is sent into the chamber and my rifle is ready to fire once more.
Good. So long as I can shoot a few of them here and there, we should be in good shape! I hear a few of my comrades return fire with pistols and shotguns and rifles. The empire may have swept into the room, and we may have lost that initial advantage, but they’ll have to fight and bleed for every inch from here on out. No way we’ll retreat when our families are behind us!
I scramble back to get a little more space between me and those soldiers. When I settle behind a blanket-tent, I see another soldier run through the doorway. I send a bullet his way, but I miss and hit the wall next to him. He ducks his head, but continues running undeterred. “Tch,” how frustrating. When I get out of here, I need to be more active in my kids’ lives, be more religious, and I can add learning how to shoot on that list.
In the gaps between the tents, I see a soldier pinned down by one of my comrades. He’s hiding behind a metal barrel, and while I technically have a clear shot at him, the gap I can see is so small that I know I’ll never hit him. Instead, I aim for the pipe above him. The military-grade bullet bursts open a large, gaping hole that showers the soldier in scalding hot steam! He’s forced to run back, but manages to find a new spot without getting shot.
What great thinking! Let’s do it again. The roof is covered with crisscrossing pipes, though I don’t know what any of them do. I shoot randomly at a few, and they burst open every time I manage to hit. Raw sewage spews forth, steam erupts in a high-pitched whistle, clean water showers their side of the room. If nothing else, the chaos and smell should distract them just a little.
The seventh time I eject the spent casing, there’s no more bullets in the magazine. I lower myself behind the tent. There’s gunshots, screaming, comrades barking insults at the other side, but I can hardly make any if it out. I press the button that ejects the magazine, then I dig through my pouch for a replacement. My hands are shaking, but the gun is solid and doesn’t rattle as I try to slot the thing into place.
“Come on, come on. How much longer we have to do here? We’ve got to nearly be done, right?” It’s hard to focus with everything going on. The magazine gets stuck and I try to force it through, but it won’t go. “Agh! What’s wrong with this stupid thing?!” I rip it out and quickly realize it was facing the wrong way.
With my gun reloaded, I retreat back further into the room, jumping over boxes and maneuvering around the tents until I’m nearly at the back wall. There a few pipes arranged perfectly for me to climb atop and use them as cover, like a staircase with barely any space between them. All the pipes are cool to the touch, so I climb up and lay my rifle on the top for stability.
I see most of the room from here, though the steam and tents block some line of sight. Everyone on the catwalks is dead, the only people still fighting are those hidden amongst the shelters. Since I’m so far back, I feel a bit safer than before, it’ll be harder for them to hit me, I think.
I fire whenever I see a soldier. Accuracy doesn’t matter, I have a lot of bullets and my only goal is to get shots down range and make them hesitant to move up. Every time I hit a soldier in the side, or graze their leg, my heart beats faster from the pure joy of it! After everything I’ve been through, sitting back and shooting is just the catharsis I need. I get faster at chambering the next bullet, it quickly becomes second nature to me.
Whenever I finish a magazine, I toss it to the side and forget about it. When I see a friend out there, I look over them and fire in the direction they’re shooting. These bullets will easily rip through a tarp or a blanket, so who knows? Maybe I end up hitting a few soldiers out there.
Something on the far wall grabs my attention. It’s a bright light, shining right in my eyes, but it’s too bright and too distant to get a clear view of what’s causing it. I rise slightly to get a better look, then an intense pain rips into my chest. Like my ribs were hit with a sledgehammer, I’m knocked off my stack of pipes and land hard against the ground. Thankfully, my head was forward so the back of my skull didn’t crack against the floor.
I can’t breathe, every rise of my chest is agony, and I can only swallow small gasps of air. I sit up as best I can, but even just using the muscles feels like hell. Managing to look down, I see a scorch mark just to the left of my torso, right below the collar bone. “I waa-…” I lose my voice partway through.
I was shot?
This is what it feels like to be shot? No, I have a vest on, I can’t imagine the real thing. It’s like my whole ribcage is busted, my lungs aren’t working right. My back hurts too, but that’s probably from the fall.
Idiot! Why’d I stay up there for so long? Of course, they took notice of me and shot. But that light was in my eyes. If I didn’t stand up, he probably would have taken my whole head off!
Chalk up another bit of divine intervention… I should have died hours ago…
I lay on the ground for a moment before sluggishly ripping the straps of my vest so I can peel it off. Breathing is a little easier, but still painful, can I continue like this?
It takes all my strength and concentration to get up and grab the rifle once more. I move to the side of the pipes, press the rubber stock into my shoulder, and line it up with a running soldier. My strength is gone, it takes a bit more effort than normal to squeeze the trigger. Not only do I miss, but the recoil bashes the stock into my shoulder so hard that I want to vomit. It completely knocks the wind out of me, I drop to my knees and the rifle falls at my feet.
The burning shockwaves of pain across my body is more than enough evidence. I’m done. If I stay here then not only will I be of no help, but I’ll have lied to Sopa about returning to her. I turn and hobble to the western door, hopefully the others can make it out. I don’t bother bringing the rifle.
I stay low on my exhausting trek to the door, making sure the imperials can’t get a clear shot at me. My chest hurts more when I use my left arm, perhaps due to the tearing of my pecs, so I’m forced into this awkward crawl, using only my knees and right arm. Eventually, the pain subsides enough that I can crawl at a decent pace. Maybe my bones weren’t broken, just bruised or rattled?
“Everyone! Heeeey!” Surat screams. I move around a hanging tarp and see him in the doorway. “It’s time! Come back, we’re good to leave, you did it!”
Good, it’s done. Even if I get shot now, Sopa’s still safe on a boat in the middle of the sea.
I rise to my feet, using a metal box for support, then trudge to the door as Surat beckons me to hurry. When I step through the large bulkhead door, he slaps my back, “aagh!” and I collapse on the safe side of the door.
“O-oh, sorry! I left some lights on the floor, just follow them to the exit.
In spite of the pain in my spine, I force myself up. I don’t care how much it hurts, I bring myself to a sluggish run.
As I make it through the sewers, a few of my comrades run past me.
“You got it, man!” He says in support.
“I can’t believe we actually made it through that!” A huge smile plasters his face.
“We beat the gurant! We fought off the empire!” It’s hard not to share his enthusiasm.
“Let’s go, buddy! Those boats won’t stay forever!” He’s right, this is all pointless if we take too long.
“Are you the madman who covered that guy in shit? Dude, that was hilarious.” I can’t help but smile, I’m glad at least one if them saw a soldier get doused in raw sewage.
Spurred on by my comrades and their infectious energy, I grit through the pain and sprint to the exit with them. Surat catches up with us soon, picking up the lights as he passes. “Good news everyone,” he’s slightly winded and sucks down air after every few words, “the door is closed and locked, it’ll take them a minute to get through it.”
“Is this everyone?” One man asks. Of the 20 of us who stayed behind, only 12 are running through the sewers, not counting Surat.
“It’s… all who made it out, yes. I-I wanted to hold the door open longer, but they got close and they started sh-shooting!”
“It’s alright.” The guy whose dad was that 60-year-old man with my shotgun, says. “Everyone knew what could happen, and we all made peace with it.” His voice cracks slightly… I should send a letter to my dad the next opportunity I get. Haven’t spoken to him since the gurant landed.
“Is anyone hurt?” Surat asks as we round corner. He bends down to pick up another light as we run.
“Yeah,” I say, nearly out of breath, “it feels like… my chest… collapsed… vest… saved me!” I shouldn’t talk for the rest of the run.
The other men talk about how they were just grazed, or a bullet ricocheted and got embedded in their thigh, or how one guy got shot in the bicep and his arm is hanging limp at his side. A few men were lucky and got out of there without even a scratch.
We finally exit the hallways and are let out into a wide irrigation tunnel. The ceiling is domed and made of brick, the center floor is a large trough where a river of fresh water is flowing. Flanking the river are damp platforms where people can walk. When I look left, I see light. Not daylight, but light from the massive fires engulfing one of the other islands. It’s the outside. We’re finally getting out of these disgusting sewers!
We hurry out and the warm sea air blows against my face. It feels like home, even if, based on the horizon, most of my home is ablaze.
The tunnel leaves the island about 20 or so feet above the ocean, with a beautifully clean waterfall rolling out of the sewers. Those two walkways on either side of the trough extend into a grated platform that the fresh water passes through on its way out, and on that platform is a ladder that extends down.
I count 14 ships down there, each tightly packed with dozens of refugees. The last ship floats by the ladder, waiting for us, while the others wait a bit further out.
“Really puts into context how many we saved, doesn’t it?” One man says as he looks at the boats.
“Wait, how do I get down this ladder?” The man with the blown-out bicep asks. He’s surprisingly calm, the adrenaline must be dulling the pain.
I turn to Surat, “how deep’s… the water… here..?”
“Decently so, why?”
I back up to get a running start, then sprint forward and jump as far as I can off the platform! This might be dangerous, but I’m feeling great about my chances, and I’m sick of the sewers. My gut sinks as I fall, but I control my decent well enough, and my feet smash into the water with a great big splash. The water is cold thanks to the waterfall, but it’s refreshing, not salty at all.
My ankles sting, but what’s another injury? Glass in my skin, broken eardrums, shattered sternum, bruised ankles and knees, it’s been a rough day.
I breach the surface of the water and wipe my eyes just in time to see my fellows jump in after me. I’m doused in water and have to wipe my eyes again, but it’s fine.
My face brightens upon hearing Sopa’s beautiful voice. Beneath the ladder is a large wooden platform that bobs along with the waves. Sopa’s standing there, holding her blankie tight. Tanawat is standing between her and the waterfall, his back soaked.
“What are you doing… there?” Swimming hurts a lot more than I expected… “I thought you… were gonna… get on the ship.”
“I wanted to wait for you…”
The maintenance worker driving the boat calls out. “Stubborn girl, wouldn’t get on no matter what I did.”
The fact she waited for me makes me smile. “Well get on now!” I begin awkwardly paddling over, and one of the uninjured guys swims over to help me. “No telling how… long it’ll take… those bad men to get here.”
We all climb aboard the nearest boat, some of us needing a hand to do so. Once the last man is out of the water, the engine revs and we’re off. Sopa wraps her arms around me and won’t let go, even if she’s crushing my ribs. Tanawat is sitting with his back to me, leaning against my arm.
“It’s finally over…” I sigh. “Hey! Where’re we… headed?”
Surat yells over the engine, “an island not far from here, to the northeast. It’s a naval base, my brother said ‘alotta people went there when everything kicked off.”
We’re on the north-western side of the east island, so we head further into the water first before circling around and heading northeast. The city is still bright with flames, but I don’t hear gunfire anymore. I don’t hear parade music either. The gurant really did win, they own everything.
I rub Sopa’s head, only to realize she’s fast asleep. Glancing to Tanawat, he’s snoring too. They deserve to rest. We all do.
I look back to the eastern island, and I see the glimmer of flashlights in the sewer tunnel. The soldiers must have finally arrived. I’m not worried, we’re too far out and going way too fast for them to hit us. As such, the flashlight stops shining a moment later as they head back.
The danger, at last, is gone. Despite the chest injury, I can finally breathe easy for the first time in hours.
We get farther out and I start to nod off, but I turn and see the bridge connecting the southern island to the east island. The whole first section is broken, everything’s on fire, and the two tall support struts have fallen onto the city.
“Ahh, right. That peldak, Lieutenant Boros, said they’d blow it up. That must have been what caused the earthquake in the sewers.” I can’t help but smile and look to the sky and thank God for letting it happen at just the right time. I want to see the stars, but all I see is a haze of smoke, illuminated from below by the fires. I wonder if any of the ships I built are up there, hundreds of lightyears away.
The thought… doesn’t fill me with the same confidence and security that it used to.