The ruse was up. Arryn sat bound to a chair, sweat pouring down his face. He had fought back when the guards strapped him to the chair and bound him. It earned him a cracked and bloody smile. There was a leak from somewhere in the holding cell, and the only sound was that of Arryn breathing and alternating drops of blood and water hitting the floor. Once the Emperor had left, Dredge asked for permission to stay behind and talk to the prisoners. When he re-entered the room, Dredge struck him out of frustration without saying a word. Arryn smiled at him. Unafraid to die anymore. The adventure had ripped his youth from him and when it burned away he found a strength he had never known. He would not help this man, he decided. And he would die protecting Kaiya and what she stood for, what he now stood for. He sat in this chair as countless had before him trying to bring down this empire of tyranny. Even if nobody saw what took place there that day, he would die there with peace in his heart.
Dredge stared at him after he struck. He didn’t say anything. Dredge was measuring him, and what he saw he recognized in himself. There was a strength that Dredge acknowledged. Envied even. He wished his soldiers had as much grit as this kid did under the circumstances. He wouldn’t get useful information out of him. It was likely too the kid didn’t know anything further. They had been questioned vigorously during their holding period, and all the intel pointed to the fact that they didn’t know any more than the Sikkas did about the Wrannaman bases and strongholds. In fact he believed them when they said they’d never even met one. Outside of Kaiya of course, who it seemed had also not been told what she was yet. Though Dredge knew that the Zealots had likely told her, though that was after the group had been separated. Damn Wrannaman, Dredge thought. If only he could talk with them and show them why they were on the wrong side of history, then all of humanity could move forward and they could get back to a time before all this. Back to the golden age of humanity.
Ayala, Petr and Brig waited impatiently in their holding cell. Some of them paced, some of them yelled explicatives randomly, but all of them were thinking the same thing. Was Arryn dead? Would they know if he had been killed or merely taken? It was agonizing not knowing. They had made a big gamble, or rather Ayala had made the gamble and they all backed it up. It had worked enough to get Kaiya out of being captured. They hoped she was okay, they hoped Shim was okay. And most of all they longed to get back to their simple lives before all this started. How soft they had been. How quick to complain. How caught up in small things that would be forgotten in a week, if not a day.
The door rattled and a guard threw Arryn back into the holding cell. His arms were bound and he crashed to the floor awkwardly, unable to get his hands up in front of him quickly enough. His face was inches from the ground when Brig grabbed him and broke his fall. He was lifted back onto his feed, that bloody smile still consuming his face. He looked as if his mind had been broken and the last emotion he felt was joy, stuck there in a permanent countenance. Ayala took him in her arms and cried softly. Brig and Petr hugged them both. They lived on the edge between fierce strength and crippling fear. When any of them got taken for questioning, it pushed them over the edge.
Outside the building, down the winding hill to the city center, where shadows and crooks filled the streets, two pairs of bright eyes looked down on the street from the top of an abandoned weapons factory. A mile away the annual imperial festival was beginning. A government sanctioned street party to celebrate the Emperor. The noise was low though, as the festival wouldn’t start in earnest for another hour or so. Light from that part of the city lit up the night sky with bright colors and the occasional firework. Everyone in the city who wasn’t working would be making their way to the city center for the parade. The two were waiting for something, and laid on their stomachs as still as unmoving water. Minutes passed and still the two had not moved. Their binoculars both pointed in the same direction, towards a Sikka warehouse. Finally a pair of headlights appeared winding down the hill towards them. Once it got close enough for them to get confirmation, they put the binoculars away in a black duffel filled with waterproof cases. The woman crouched and threw the bag over her shoulder.
“Go time in three, …” she cut him off
“God it turns me on when you say that,” she winked at him and he rolled his eyes.
“... two… one,” the man continued. The woman hit a button on her screen and a firework a few hundred feet shot high into the sky. Just as it exploded, the man fired a gun with a cable attached to it, masking the sound. It connected to the building next door. He anchored it nearby and attached a wheeled handle to the cable.
“After you, my love,” he gestured grandly to his partner.
Piper put her hands on the attachment and dove off the side of the building, gaining momentum with the cable’s slight downward slope. Kit was right behind her and the two of them were like arrows wisping through the night.
They dropped from the attachment and circled around the second level of the building. They jumped from the second floor to the ground, rolling. Piper tossed the bag away nonchalantly. They landed right in front of a group of Sikka guards who had thought this routine drop off to the storehouse wasn’t worth paying close attention to. They were, after all, in their own city at one of their own facilities. It would be a suicide mission to try and attack here. But that is just what happened. Piper kicked and sliced the first two guards before they even put their hand on the trigger. Kit was right behind her and disarmed the other two. They moved like ghosts inside the open door and secured the two others moving palettes from the truck to a shelf in the storehouse. They dropped the guards expertly and secured them, then brought them out of the warehouse into the truck the Sikkas had ready. Once all the soldiers were in the back of the truck, each one of them was given an injection to make certain they wouldn’t wake up at an inopportune time. Once unconscious, Kit and Piper disrobed two of the soldiers they had scouted beforehand. They looked similar enough to pass once in uniform, and would then have the same level of access to the facility they needed access to.
Kit and Piper met up with an unmarked civilian truck and unloaded the bodies. They’d wake up in a few days thirsty as hell but otherwise unharmed. It did more psychological damage to beat them like this and let them return to their superiors than killing did. Truthfully that was only sometimes true. Other times it was more effective just to kill them. Rumors would spread about soldiers being taken by the Wrannamen. Fear was good for them. They couldn’t easily mount a physical campaign but psychological warfare was effective too. Being from Imperial City, and Piper, being a former Viper herself, had a lot of sympathy for the intricacies of living under Imperial rule. Many of these soldiers really didn’t have a choice to leave. They were born into it or forced into it by necessity. Piper herself, like all the Vipers, were born into it. They shouldn’t be killed for a choice they didn’t make. Having ditched the soldiers to the other crew, the two doubled back and headed straight up the hill towards a dismal looking concrete building on the lower section of Imperial Hill, where all the Imperial buildings loomed over the city like a fog.
They wound back up the road the vehicle had come down just minutes earlier. They were right on schedule. They knew the routine of everyone on this shift. They knew their families, their history, their behavior. They knew that once they arrived they would be waived in without much fuss and they knew that once inside that first line of defense, they would be able to park and continue on with their mission.
It happened as they expected. The truck pulled up and the gate. The guards looked at their badges, matched the license plate, and nodded at their paperwork. They were in. Piper drove the truck through the barricade and even threw in a polite wave. The graveyard shift blew, and all those who were on it knew it. There was a comradery to the shared grueling experience. They drove the van around the road that bordered the large fence and barricade to prevent unauthorized people from entering. Drone swarms patrolled here, and every so often one would leave its course over the wall and check the number on their truck. That too was expected and it didn’t cause them any alarm. They puckered a little as the drone buzzing became audible over their truck, and then in a few moments it was gone. A few minutes drive from where they entered, they turned deeper into enemy territory until they found the parking lot below a dismal looking concrete building. The architect had been stingy with windows, and the few windows that did exist were small, with metal bars zigging across them.
Piper parked the truck and Kit hopped into the back, unzipping their duffel and throwing open the case.
“Can you mark it, Piper?” Kit asked, throwing a device over his forearm and turning it on.
Piper lifted a device from her belt and began scanning the building. In seconds she found what she was looking for.
“Marked, do you see it?” Piper asked Kit, who looked on his wrist screen.
“Got it, launching now. Start timer. Thirteen minutes.”
“Thirteen minutes,” she echoed. That’s how long they had before a drone swarm would pass this way again. Though the drone’s patterns were random, they had hacked into the drone system and replaced the random number generator with one that would generate pseudo random numbers. Numbers they could predict, and thus avoid the hack being detected. Kit threw open the rear door of the truck and tossed the drone into the air. It stabilized instantly. He did the same to the other three drones, and they slowly but surely carried their payload to the marked position on the building. The drones attached something to the walls and flew backwards and waited. One of them stayed behind and drilled a hole into the side of the building.
Petr heard it first.
“What’s that whining sound, do you guys hear that?” Petr asked whomever was still awake.
“Yeah I hear it, it’s getting louder,” Arryn was up and on his feet now, inspecting the wall.
Something poked through and dropped a piece of paper on the ground through a barrel.
“Hold on!” The message read. Arryn read it out loud and they stepped to the far end of the cell away from the wall.
Back outside the drones floated. It was time.
“Ready for the show,” Kit winked at Piper as he said it. She shook her head at him with a smile.
“Go time in three, two, one…” Piper laughed maniacally.
At the mark, the wall of the building exploded, dust clouded the view immediately, and the drones flew in tossing something inside. They had also rigged the alarm system for the building to not go off for thirty seconds. Intermittent shouting could be heard and lights flicked on in various parts of the building. The dust began to settle, and 4 young men and women stood shocked on the edge of the exposed building.
“It’s a fucking rope ladder. Climb down,” Kit spoke into his watch and it came out through one of the drones. The kids scrambled, finally getting it and attached one part to their cell and threw the other part out the window. One by one they slid down and onto the ground below. It took a little while for them all to be clear, but once they were, they hopped into the truck one by one. Arryn went last. By this time, the guards had heard the explosion and found it’s source. Three guards were fumbling with the keys to open the cell. Brig really sucked at climbing down and was taking way too long. Arryn wasn’t sure the rope would hold with two on there. Arryn found a second rope left by one of the drones. He tied one end of the rope to his waste, through a bar in the cell, and held on to the other end. Just as the guards unlocked the door, he started walking himself down the side of the building. The rope burned in his hands and he didn’t realize how much effort it would take to hold his own weight in this way. Finally he looped the other end of the rope around himself as well to take some pressure off his arms. As he was starting to get the hang of it, the guards grabbed the rope in an effort to pull him back up. Without thinking, Arryn let go of the rope, and then re-gripped it with all his strength. Skin ripped from his hands and he screamed through gritted teeth. The guards stumbled back as the ropes weight was released. Two of the three let go to keep from falling, and the poor sap who kept his grip jettisoned him from the edge of the jail cell over Arryn and Brig and landed with a dull, hollow sound. Arryn fell the last dozen feet partially losing speed from the guards above, and landed right on Brig, who had turned to break Arryn’s fall from the ground. It didn’t work well, and they both pancaked onto the asphalt. Kit and Piper helped them into the van, grabbing them by the hair, shirt, and whatever else they could and floored it. Three minutes left on the time, though the guards had likely called the event in already. Still, the site wide alarm system wasn’t going off yet. They still had a chance to get out clean. Piper was nearly feeling optimistic when the blaring alarm sounded. Red lights flashed, and a humming of a drone swarm headed their way.
They screeched down the winding path, down around the bend at the bottom of the hill and turned back on the road with the wall to the side. As they approached the gate they originally went down, they could see more activity than they would have liked.
“Fuck, we’re going to have to call an audible,” Kit said.
“Like what?” Piper yelled from the driver seat. Petr, Brig, Arryn and Ayala were still in shock at the explosion, and couldn’t hear all that well still. They looked around the van for options.
“I’ve got an idea, one of you boys help me on top of the roof,” Kit said
“While it’s moving?” Petr asked, incredulous. Kit ignored him and flung open the door on the back of the truck. Brig got up and helped him get to the side of the truck where the ladder was, lifting him so he’d be able to reach it.
“Pass me that drone!” Kit yelled as he grabbed hold of the ladder. Brig handed him the drone and noticed the small explosive attached to it. He showed it to his friends for a brief moment and stuck his tongue out at them. He passed it out the truck to Kit. Kit made his way up to the top of the truck and punched a few quick commands into his screen. As they approached the exit, they saw a barricade erected and a number of soldiers with weapons drawn. Then Kit waited. The group inside listened intently as they came closer and closer to the gate.
“Now would be a good time love!” Piper yelled from the driver’s seat banging on the roof above her with one had.
“Patience, Viper,” Kit mumbled to himself, never taking his eyes off the guards. As soon as Kit heard the first bullet whip past him, he catapulted the drone into the air, it caught some drag and lost speed, but quickly made it up again, soon passing the truck. It was heading straight for the barricade. Petr and Ayala started a yell that turned into a crescendo as the bomb exploded, moments before they arrived at the gate. The barrier blew apart and soldiers dove out of the way to avoid being hit. The truck caught air as the road sloped steeply downward. On the roof, Kit was holding on for dear life, having stabbed the truck with a knife in each hand for grip.
Behind them, they could see other vehicles starting down the hill after them. Kit turned and began firing away at them, finally catching a tire. The damaged car swerved radically along the narrow road and crashed horizontally, preventing the other cars behind it from getting to them. In what felt like seconds they were out of there, and Kit returned to the truck.
“Quickly now, lady and gentlemen, put these on.” Kit yelled to them. He ripped open the duffel and started throwing clothes at them. They disrobed and re-robed quickly. Kit did so himself and once he was done, he climbed behind Piper into the driver’s seat. Kit pinched her ass, and she slapped him playfully as she moved to the passenger’s seat. Piper made her way to the back to change her outfit as well.
“No peeking boys,” Piper said as she disrobed, Kit made a big gesture to adjust the mirror. The newly released convicts didn’t know what the hell to make of these two. They pulled over on the side of a road and abandoned the truck. A few more buttons pressed on Kit’s screen and the truck was set to explode in a few minutes. They sprinted through a long and dark concrete drain inlet. Behind them they saw the first patrol car pull up behind their abandoned truck and saw the soldiers get out and start sprinting after them. They turned a corner and watched Kit climb up a ladder, throwing the manhole cover off as he reached the top. Soon, they were all through and stood in an alleyway. On the street in front of them, hoards of people in masks and costumes were on the street. The festival was in full swing. With a smile on his face, Kit dropped his mask onto his face. The rest of them did so as well and melted into the crowd like water.
Dredge was out at the festival with his wife and kids when he received the news. He hadn’t had a day off in weeks, and the one day he’s gone this happens. He wasn’t angry when the urgent message flashed on his screen. His wife knew immediately what it meant. She had accepted it as part of the deal. She came from humble means and never complained about him having to be at the beck and call of his work. She had a good life, a much better life than her parents had, and her kids had a better life than her. It was trending in the correct direction.
When Dredge got back into his office, they had a full cyber team using every camera and sensor they had available to locate the escapees. Watching the attack on video was a textbook example of what not to do in a situation. Dredge chewed on the thought of adding this as a module to their course material for new recruits. He knew they wouldn’t catch them. They changed their sensor positions within the city relatively frequently, but more and more Dredge suspected there was someone on the inside feeding the Wrannamen information. Or perhaps a mole, a Wrannaman in their midst. That was also likely. They recruited from all of Imperial City and the surrounding areas. When they recruited cadets out of the villages miles from Imperial City, often the Emperor would order all men aged sixteen and up to join. Sixteen years is enough time for the Wrannamen to get at them, teach them, and let them be recruited. It would only take a few people to do serious damage to any organization. Dredge mused on that problem too for a moment before focusing back on the surveillance results, which were still unpromising.
Piper, Kit, and the newly crew were led through a dizzying maze of buildings, bodies, and alleys. They didn’t speak during the journey. They just followed Kit and Piper who would periodically turn around and encourage them to look more like participants in the festival than ones just passing through it. Kit and Piper stopped for a moment to dance. The exhausted crew took the hint and started dancing to the music too. They were stiff and awkward, their hearts having been frantic since they received the message in the cell. After a few minutes, they continued on. More dark alleys, and more curving pathways. They wound through the festival to the other side of town before finally resting in a Wrannaman hideout. It was an apartment, not a nice one, but a decent one, with the same furniture as the neighbors. Cheap shit. Nothing would have raised an eyebrow about it save for its occupants. They tore off their masks and Piper flopped onto the couch.
“Hey so, I’m Piper,” she laughed, half extending a hand, then turning it into an awkward wave instead.
“And I’m Kit.”
“Arryn, Ayala, Brig, Petr,” Arryn introduced them, “thanks for getting us out of there, but who are you guys? How did you know we were there?”
“Wrannamen have eyes and ears everywhere, ” Kit stood to go make some tea.
“Speaking of which, you look like one of the-” Petr started.
“Vipers? I was one.” Piper said, staring straight at Petr, who cringed under her gaze.
“Piper the Viper!” Brig broke the silence with his laughter.
“Like I’ve never heard that one before. Anyways, you’re Wrannamen now,” Piper shrugged, “we had to get you out of there.”
“We were also ordered to,” Kit added.
“Is Kaiya okay? You know where she is?” Arryn asked a little too eagerly. Ayala rolled her eyes.
“She’s had quite an adventure of her own. But yes, she’s fine so far as we know. You’ll be taken to her shortly, our ride should be here any moment.” Kit said as he walked over to the kitchen. They each had a hot shower, their first in a long time, and ate a little. They were still quiet and in shock from the events of the evening, and most of all, exhausted. It wasn’t long before each of them fell asleep where they sat. It had been a long, torturous road, and it wasn’t over yet.