Ayala, Brig, and Arryn flew into Imperial City. It was beautiful from the sky. The river coiled around the south of the city where massive drain pipes emptied the redirected water from the surrounding mountains to the north. The system quenched the city’s need for water, and dumped the rest into the river that would carry it to the sea. It made Imperial City look vaulted off the ground, like the earth was formed just for it to exist there. A massive wall surrounded the perimeter, with notched triangles jutting out for use as platforms to defend itself. The financial district had peaked skyscrapers of blue glass. Each was similar to the next, tall and lean, square structures that curved into the sky, narrowing as they did. Each skyscraper had lush walkways between the four corners filled with trees and lounging nooks. It was wildly lavish. None of them had seen a city equaling it’s engineering and design. Ayala was born there and hadn’t been back since she left. She had never seen it from the sky, though she remembered it being smaller than it was. From that height, the city sprawled as far as the eye could see up to the mountains that hugged the Imperial buildings. She traced the river that flowed through the city with her eyes and remembered her childhood fondly. Ayala’s family worked for the government. They were part of an ever thinning middle class. They were never lacking for anything but they were not nobility by any means. It was always her mother and father’s dream to be a part of that nobility. In fact, that was the reason they had to flee. When she was a teenager, her father had been arrested on charges of fraud. It was a different time, and her father was always looking for an angle. Ayala’s mother had known it, encouraged it even, and Ayala herself had suspicions of it as well. Her parents were so desperate to climb up the social ladder they took risks. For all of her life up to that point, they had been rewarded for these risks. But this time he got caught. She never knew what he did, he was killed while in prison. Out of fear, her mother and her fled to the Y and started over. They rarely spoke of what had happened. To this day, she doubted her mother even knew the full truth. Likely something straightforward. He had access to valuables and sold that access. She’d never know.
All of this came flooding back as the helicopter twisted lower over a large government building near the edge of the city where the rocks and mountain met the urban and landed. They were escorted to a cell with little natural light. Thankfully, they were all kept together and so far they had been treated well. A little rough at times but overall they got some medical attention for some wounds when they were taken and they were fed bland but filling meals. Arryn figured they intended to keep them alive, why else would they treat wounds and feed them. He thought it likely that they would be kept as bargaining chips to help get what they needed out of Kaiya. It was deceitful really. They thought they had Kaiya in their hands, as well as people she cared about. It would be an easy thing to get what they needed out of her by leveraging her friends. They didn’t get any visitors. The guards didn’t speak to them. Twice a day food would be inserted for them into a thin metal opening in the solid metal door. The days passed quickly. They could hardly tell day from night nor could they tell exactly how long they’d been there for.
“What are they waiting for?” Arryn asked, frustratedly.
“They’re planning something,” Brig added
“Truly, very helpful Brig,” Petr said without looking up.
“Ok, well we know we have a time limit on this rus-” Ayala started and Arry cut her off.
“Shh, they’re listening. They’ve got eyes and ears into this cell.” Arryn looked at Ayala as if to say she should know better. And she should have.
“Ok, so we can’t really communicate…” Petr said thinking.
Brig leaned in to the group, drawing them close together. “I’ll make static sounds with my voice and you guys can talk for real.” They looked at eachother, and after immediately dismissing it because of its source, it dawned on them that it would be helpful.
“Brig, this might be the most important idea you’ve ever had,” Ayala said, only half joking.
“Fuck you, I’m serioius, it’ll work.”
Brig began walking in circles around the group making loud static sounding noises as they huddle together in the corner of the cell. From the security camera it probably looked and sounded absurd, but Brig was right, it would work.
“At some point that fuck Dredge is going to poke his scaly ass in here and figure out I’m not Kaiya. He knows what she looks like, ” Ayala laid out the facts as if she was speaking to herself, “and when that happens what are we going to do?”
“Or what are they going to do with us,” Petr added.
“There’s really not a lot of options. I haven’t seen a single thing in here we can use to try and get out.” Arryn was losing hope, and patience.
“So we’re fucked,” Ayala looked at Arryn, pissed off. Not pissed at him, but at the situation.
Arryn took it to heart. He felt like the leader of this group and in a way he had been. That was until Kaiya became what she became, but even then, Kaiya didn’t always have her feet underneath her and he’d been there to guide the group through the tough journey.
The group looked at each other and then stopped talking. They took a few deep breaths and retreated to get a little space from each other to think. They each looked around to see what items were available to them in the cell, but there were none. Even if they could get out of the cell it was another matter entirely to get out of the building, let alone the city.
Dredge was impatient for his clearance to interrogate their new captives, but upon his return to Imperial City, he was immediately dispatched to a new site that purportedly held vital Wrannamen intelligence. Dredge was one of the few amongst the high ranking officers that had long held to the idea that the Hybrids were a dangerous group that would ultimately prove to be a force to be reckoned with if they ever united under one leader and decided they wanted independence. They were so looked down upon that his idea was laughed at. The idea that these broken, half-people would unite and fight against them and win was laughable. Admittedly it was theoretical. There hadn’t been a Hybrid uprising like this one as far as he had heard. There must have been others that were simply scratched from the records. Imperial record keeping was accurate but very one-sided. History to the victors.
The intel that had spirited him away was bad. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, nor was it the last time. They camped and waited for activity but only found a minimal amount. This wasn’t the large operation they had hoped it would be. They captured and tortured a few Wrannamen but they didn’t know anything more than what the Sikkas already knew. While they were cleaning up on site, trying to comb through any network links back to other facilities, Dredge got word on his screen that he still did not have clearance to visit Kaiya and her friends. It would be soon though. His own campaign was a disappointment but at least he had something to look forward to when he got back home. It was tiring business, this game of cat and mouse. And finally the one with the mark was in their custody. If they could finally speak to their own God, maybe things would change. Maybe the world could be recreated like it was before all this happened. Dredge fancied himself a history buff. A connoisseur of the dreams of nations past and a global view of humanity. The less stratified society. Commercial air travel. Ubiquitously cheap metal and plastic contraptions that did all sorts of small but useful things. He was an amateur expert on the ancient world and thought of it as his personal mission to restore life to the way it was before the awakening. Whatever evil he did, it was for that cause, because as he saw it, if humanity in its low numbers continued down this path, they would all be destroyed. And what then? Revert to a nomadic life, like some had. He read much of the tribes across the globe, and what their scholars had discovered was a pleasant and ignorant life. Some of the elders in the tribes had great knowledge of the world and still they chose their lifestyle. They looked at the conditions of the poor in Imperial City and decided they’d be much happier, and much more free on their own. Dredge was sympathetic to this argument. Being poor in Imperial City was a dangerous lifestyle. The Emperor treated them like cattle, and they were by and large a drag on the resources of the city. Though occasionally they too would try to unite and rise, but the centralized power was too strong, and assassinations of freedom leaders in the city were daily operations for Dredge’s direct reports. They called it domestic pruning. This too Dredge rationalized as a necessary evil to unlock the secrets left to them from the Awakening and perhaps re-unite the world under a single nation.
Still at the Wrannaman base, he found a soldier, a young man propped up against a nearby tree. He had a gunshot wound to the belly. It was leaking all over the forest floor. The young man’s face was ghostly white and he could hardly hold eye contact with Dredge.
“How many are you here?” Dredge asked the kid. The young man barely registered that a question was addressed to him. He tried to mouth words and some blood and spit dripped from his bottom lip onto his chest. Again the young man tried to form words and force air over his vocal chords. He couldn’t be certain, but Dredge though there was an 80% chance this dying boy was telling him to fuck off. Dredge allowed one more attempt. Finally, the boy did manage to let out a decently pronunciated “fuck”, and a raspy “you”. Dredge admired the boy’s resolve, then shot him in the head while mulling over what they’d be having for dinner. He carried on in a weird path along the perimeter of the single building they’d found just to see if they missed something. If they did miss something, then they’d have to have a small personnel change. If they didn’t miss anything and it was truly bad intel, then the Wrannamen had figured out that small slice of their cyber game and that angle would need to change.
Gathering what intel they found at the base, they loaded up their transport and bounded out of the little nowhere of a place. Dredge did a quick scan using their transport’s equipment to try and look for any packet transmissions emanating from the base. There was nothing. More than a little disappointed, he went back to his notes on Kaiya. A warmth filled him knowing she was already in custody and just waiting for him. He never thought of himself as an evil man, just a man who got shit done under whatever circumstances appeared. Though that wasn’t completely true, he wasn’t a stoic. The thought of seeing Kaiya’s face when he walked into the interrogation room pleased him immensely.
When he arrived back in Imperial City, he was refreshed. He had absolved himself of the mediocre outcome of the mission. The meeting debrief to his superiors was quick and relatively painless. It was a break from the politics and stifling bureaucracy. There was even agreement on his main point, that this particular angle of their cyber strategy needed to change. There was enough circumstantial evidence to assume the Wrannamen could now also feed them bad data, much like they had been doing to them recently. Dredge had dug up an old history book on the early network of computers. The first network of computers. How for a time it was a trusted, unifying thing that overall did much more good than harm. Comparing that kind of egalitarianism to the networks of the day, he found it difficult to imagine. In his world, every image was suspect, every message from a citizen might be coded. Every video could be faked. Every audio clip, signal, satellite image. Every packet they looked at was circumspect, even if they originated or appeared to originate from their own data centers. Even their own god had struggled with it’s sentience and caused them to view it’s output as suspect. A short time after the Awakening, when that band of do-gooders stole, and broke apart the sentient computer, their copy had begun spitting out incomprehensible algorithms and programs. It took them a long time to understand what they did, and even longer to guide it to create something they needed. Over time, they had culled the best of these algorithms and put them to use against the Wrannamen. Still, it mostly output nonsense, and an untold amount of man hours were wasted investigating something useless. That much was true of all societies so far as he could tell.
With his paperwork done and his meeting adjourned, it was finally time for him to come down to the holding cell where Kaiya and her friends were detained. It was a short ride for him on his motorcycle. He donned his riding gear and welcomed the fresh air, weaving in and out of haggard vehicles, toxic fumes, horses, and all kinds of home-made personal transportation devices. Outside the facility, a blockade had been erected two blocks out in all directions from the building. An armed guard signalled for him to stop. Dredge rolled up to the guard gate.
“Identification please,” the soldier asked.
“Do you know who I am?” Dredge asked calmly
“I have seen your photo during cadet training.”
“As a ….”
“As a general, sir?” The soldier shifted his feat and adjusted his resting hands that lay calmly on his weapon.
“Yes, that’s correct.” Dredge waited for him.
“It’s the Emperor, sir. He’s here. Please, if you could let me scan your badge. I’m not to let anyone in that’s not on the approved list.”
Dredge begrudgingly handed the young man his credentials and was waived through. There were two layers to the blockade. It was set up well. And it was a good thing that the soldier asked for his credentials otherwise Dredge would have seen to it that his next assignment was devoid of glamor.
Dredge had met the Emperor in person on only a handful of occasions, though he had spoken to the Emperor many times over a screen. He rarely met anyone in person, preferring to be secluded and manage his empire through his carefully selected executive team. He passed through three more checkpoints and was finally led through the door to where the Emperor stood, his hands folded across his waist. The Emperor nodded to Dredge as he entered. He was thin, short, and well aged. Not an imposing figure by any means. But he could command a room, and Dredge knelt with respect.
“It’s been my life’s work trying to get our god to be whole again. My life's work, and all those that came before me. I am told this girl is the key.”
“I believe she is, Emperor.”
“Then let us speak with her.”
They entered the cell together, a few armed guards were escorting them, with guns pointed at the captives.
Brig, Petr, Arryn, and Ayala perked up at the sound of feet coming towards them. The guards yelled for their hands to be above their heads. They complied. The group had seen better days, they looked ragged and tired. The Emperor glided into the cell, careful his long coat didn’t touch the ground.
“Which one of you is Kaiya?” The Emperor asked. Bravely, Ayala stepped forward.
“I am.” Ayala said firmly. The Emperor smiled and stepped further into the cell. Dredge stood in horror.
“Guards, are there any other captives?” Dredge asked, holding back his alarm.
“No sir,” one of the guards asserted.
Dredge sighed audibly. “Emperor, this is not Kaiya. She’s not here.”