My lungs are giving out and I finally stop running, leaning against a wall and sucking down oxygen. I think I got turned around, where did I end up?
Let’s see. The buildings are tall, but nothing higher than 10 stories. The first five floors are colored a sand-like tan, while the rest are a soft blue. From top the bottom, the outside walls feature wavy protrusions, like the waves. The streets are wide, three lanes in both directions, with a large sidewalk in the center, and raised passenger walkways built every few blocks, but some are broken and nothing but rubble now. There’s also a few empty lots with small parks planted inside, but otherwise, the buildings connect side-by-side, forming long, unbroken chains for dozens of blocks.
I… somehow, in my panic, I made it all the way downtown.
I carefully edge my way out of the alley, checking both ways to make sure there’s no soldiers.
There’s plenty of fires, but I can’t even hear the crackling. The air is dominated by the sounds of battle: gunshots, explosions, whistles, screams, glass breaking, and the discouraging propaganda I’ve grown so accustomed to. Most of it echoes from the west, but a bit of it rings out from the north too, between me and the bridge. It was a mistake to run this far, but I’m glad I didn’t go further west and reach the heart of the city. If I skirt a little east as I head north, I might be able to avoid the worst of it.
There are burned husks of ripped apart cars all over the place… lot of dead people too. Shattered glass lines the streets from where they broke several stories up, and there’s blood everywhere. Some people were shot, others left only charred corpses, and there’s… scattered chunks. From the artillery barrage, maybe.
What… what if Natcha decided to go shopping? What if she brought Chalerm or Sopa downtown when the attack started? I could have already seen my family and not even realized.
…I can’t let myself think about that.
I carefully sneak through the ruined streams of Mae Hiarin, on the watch for imperial soldiers. I don’t see any, so I distract myself from the blood and death by reminiscing on the past.
I was born some 30 years ago, on an island far from here. All my family owned was a shack, and a wooden boat my grandfather built. Every day we’d go out fishing, or dig in the wet sand for clams, then sell our haul in a nearby town. It was a simple life, not nearly as chaotic as living in a big city.
The best part was that we happened to live near an updraft, so every so often I saw a gigantic, hulking spaceship either descend from the heavens, or rise up into space.
I’m not sure about the scientific explanation, but space is full of something called ‘cosmic energy’, or ‘vaalige’, as it’s known to the sayran. It moves between the stars like great tides, and constantly washes over planets like ours. It doesn’t interact well with biological material though, like how water doesn’t mix with oil, so that cosmic energy is pushed across the world, then sent back to space via mighty updrafts.
We monsoorai were the first to detect the existence of these updrafts, and we figured out how to ride them up and out of Monsoo’s atmosphere. Thanks to that, we were early to explore the stars. Out of the original six planets that formed the Protectorate, Monsoo was the first to greet their peers as fellow explorers. The people of Sayar may have been able to control this cosmic energy directly, and they may have been the ones to uplift the peldaks, but the monsoorai developed independently.
Because I grew up near one of these updrafts, I was fascinated by the mechanical beasts that disappeared above the clouds. I knew early in life that I wanted something to do with them, either how they were made or how they were operated.
As the Gurant War was in full swing by the time I was a teenager, Monsoo was looking for fresh blood to learn the art of ship-making. I left home when I was about 15 and traveled to the capital of the region. I applied for schooling, and the Protectorate was so desperate for ships that they gave out scholarships to anyone mentally capable. They gave me food and housing, and in return I’d give them at least ten years at a shipyard, applying my craft.
I met Natcha in that school, the woman who would eventually become my wife.
She was great, I loved her immediately. I was this nervous kid from the sticks who didn’t know anything about the city, but she latched onto me the first day we met and showed me around.
I’m smart, but Natcha’s a genius. I went to that school to become a world class engineer. Natcha went to that school because she wanted to marry a world class engineer. She was awful in class, couldn’t study or take tests to save her life, but she was excellent at pushing me to do better.
I fondly remember all the times she showed up at my dorm late at night. She’d wake me up, tell me she was concerned about my grades, then take me through an entire lesson plan she made herself. I never failed a test thanks to her, I was always at the top of our grade. She was eventually kicked out due to her poor performance, but we already knew we’d get together after I graduated. She moved into my dorm room, and that was that.
She even stayed up all night before graduation, helping me write my valedictorian speech.
Thanks to her help, every guild on the planet wanted me. After extensive research on cities across the planet, we fell in love with Mae Hiarin and decided it would be whatever guild was located here. An up-and-coming city right next to a recently formed updraft, with all kinds of tax incentives that Natcha said were attractive.
A year after we moved, my son Chalerm was born, and I became the manager of construction team A. The following year, Sopa was born, and I was promoted to the boss of a dock, the job I have now. I was even briefly put in charge of all seven docks at our assembly yard, though Natcha demanded I step down after just a few months. Apparently, I had only come home a few nights a week, and I looked like a ghost every time I did.
Haha! I still remember that day so clearly. I was heading off to work that morning and Natcha kept saying I was dragging my feet, I looked pale, and I needed to stay home. But I had so many meetings to go to, I couldn’t. She relented, or so I thought, but she actually took a bus to my job and went straight to my boss! She was saying this and that, about how I’ve been working too hard, and I was never at home. My boss didn’t relent, he said I alone was adding millions to the guild’s value, and micromanaging each yard to build ships at a record pace. That gave my ego a huge boost, of course, but Natcha didn’t care. She started screaming at the guy for like three hours, and I had never seen him so scared before! Though, she also started yelling at me for putting the guild before my own health and family. In the end, she forced us to comply. I had to step down. Not only that, but she also forced me to take a week off from work until I was rested.
Point is, life’s been busy, I’ve a lot of work to do for the betterment of the Protectorate and all its people. She’s still only 31 and brings up the idea of having a third and maybe fourth child, but now’s not a good time. Once things calm down with the invasion, we’ll talk about it again.
…well, my place of business has been destroyed and might be crawling with gurant right now. Now isn’t a good time, especially if the Protectorate loses this city and we’re forced to flee.
A repeated thump breaks my reminiscing. Just up the road there’s a curved intersection, where a side street will merge onto mine. The thumping is coming from up there. I’m heading north, that road merges from the west, from where the battle is. Behind the thumping, it sounds like a large parade marching in lockstep. Given the context, it’s probably the empire.
Quickly making my way into a building on the right, I take cover in the shadows of a looted store. I need to follow this road north, and luckily, I’m in a long row of buildings heading that way. When it comes to these rows, there are doors on the inside that connect each of them, so guilds can rent several and easily operate multiple stores. All I need to do is stay inside, move from room to room, and hopefully nobody will notice.
I get to the fifth floor before continuing north, carefully opening doors to pass from building to building. I see them now, down there on the streets. It’s a small horde of imperial soldiers, and an actual gurant.
The soldiers are wearing armor, unlike those men who opened fire on the crowd. Black jumpsuits covered in metallic pads, pouches, straps, and backpacks. They have helmets with face shields so I can’t make out any details, but they all have white paint across the armor on their right biceps.
As for the gurant itself… a towering monstrosity, eight feet tall with enough bulk to seem almost stout. His black armor, fashioned in the air of imperial regalia, includes capes and jewels and white, ornamental engravings all over the pristine black plates. Not a single part of his flesh is exposed, but I’ve heard the rumors. He’s a disgusting toad man with bumpy, wart covered, green skin. I hear their mouths are too wide for their faces, and they sport these soulless, solid black eyes. The armor makes his forearms thick compared to the rest of his body. Looks like his gauntlets have rotary cannons attached to the forearms, with tubes feeding ammunition from his armored backpack.
My experience in manufacturing tells me he’s more like a walking battleship, rather than a soldier. I dread to think what other weapons he has hidden out of view.
That’s the creature whose empire has warred with the Protectorate for decades. He specifically must have been responsible for hundreds of monsoorai deaths over the past few months. I never thought I’d see one with my own eyes.
I never wanted to see one with my own eyes.
I can’t let them see me, but… they’ve turned north as well. Are they heading to the bridge? That would make sense, controlling the quickest route between each island.
Wait! But if they capture the bridge, there’s no way I’ll be able to get past them! I know I should take a separate route and stay away from these guys, I should take it slow and avoid any danger possible… but I need to get to the bridge before them!
I’m five floors up and there’s still gunfire, explosions, and the PA system all around us. They won’t be able to hear me, even if I run.