It was half past four in the afternoon, local time. Thick raindrops pelted off the shattered bulletproof glass, broken window panels lay strewn across the building’s floor, high above the smog and ruin down beneath. Drones and hovercraft zipped about below the skyscraper in the war-torn city basement, while men and soldiers shouted to one another and weaponry boomed in the distance. Every few minutes an explosion would interrupt the scene, the detonation causing the all the nearby buildings to rock on their foundations, as the concussive wave etched its signature into the world around it.
Laying prone amidst the rubble and debris was me, staring fixatedly into a periscope that peered over the edge of the broken window. From beneath my raised hood, I stared down into the smoggy depths. In my hands held my ‘Sound-Discriminator’, a rifle-like device innovated to zoom in on certain frequencies, such as the voice of a man or the cry of a creature, all the while filtering out all other ambient noise in the backdrop.
I stifled a yawn as I eyed the thermal sources flaring up from behind the cloud of ash in my periscope. Fourteen, maybe fifteen blurs, all ducking and running from various types of cover. A few of them were taking potshots from behind a thick metal-wall of some kind. The little geysers of colorful puffs of smoke that kept erupting around their hidden positions told me that they were under fire from unknown assailants. A plume of predominately red color sprouted from one of the men’s back. He collapsed face-forward and did not move again. White flashes stained the periscope’s infrared camera as two of the men shot back at their aggressors, while two others dragged their shot buddy out of harm’s way.
An energy weapon pulsated, and a corner of the defender’s wall disappeared as a sniper’s railgun cleanly sliced off the mangled metal barrier, barely missing the man’s head that ducked beneath it.
One of the soldiers waved his arms, pointing in some direction as a second, blueish snake streaked across the periscope’s screen, silently imploding itself into one of the men who had been trying to drag his wounded friend away, cleanly entering his back and exiting through his stomach.
Keeping the Sound-Discriminator on the men below, I shifted to change the periscope’s angle. Down the far end of the avenue were two figures hiding behind a vehicle. Above them, by the edge of a window frame to the far end of the street was a third thermal signature, barely noticeable, hidden behind a wall at the end of the road.
Looks like Mr. sniper had the same idea.
I noted as a third flash of light burst from somewhere behind the semi-broken glass wall, the slug whistling down the avenue, the audible grunt of a man breathing his last echoed quietly in my headset as I looked back to the remaining soldiers.
More bullets flew smacking the earth around the men as they resorted to cowering behind their defenses, flattening themselves onto their stomachs, as more and more slugs began to scrape their positions, the kinetic projectiles drawing lower with every shot…
Then suddenly, they, along with the bullets, stopped.
I watched the men below, confident that the second one of them tried to make a move, they would be ripped apart. Instead much to my surprise, they simultaneously stood up and began to scan the nearby area for any hostiles.
Confused I swung the periscope back to the attacker’s position. All that was left was a smoking two-meter circular hole and a large drone with red laser sights scanning the debris. Below that were half a dozen more, blinking silently to one another as they stalked the remaining victims. A thin beam ran over an overturned Eagle and one of the opposers leapt from his hiding place and tried to run. Several drones bleeped and their miniature weapons crackled. The man was dead before he had even made it two meters.
I let out a quiet sigh before turning my attention back to the men below.
The next few hours were spent watching the soldiers as they finished their inspection for any trace of hostiles. The rain had ceased, allowing for better visual range for the men on the ground. Confident that all targets had been neutralized, the survivors returned to their original positions from behind the metal blockades and set to work on their fallen comrades.
It was clear from the way they treated the two men that they were beyond a doubt dead. The first who had the misfortune of being shot by the sniper first seemed to be making somewhat of a recovery, and was able to sit up and take drinks of an unknown substance from a flask (I’m guessing it was water, based on the temperature reading from the thermal scan, but it could’ve easily had been some type of medical administrative). When the duo of suns began to sink in the dark-blue sky, the remaining men walked to the new clearing they had built, surrounding their wounded soldier in a makeshift squarish perimeter offset the street. Purposefully out of sight from the same window several blocks down where the sniper had been. Thankfully not out of my sight though, as I carefully re-orientated my body and tools to continue spying upon them.
Twilight arrived, the stars setting the land ablaze in echos of lights and dark purples and reds. With the orbs at the cusp of the world, I set about my task. A quick twist to the dial underneath the scope on the Sound-Discriminator, and the “ears” of the device focused on to the blurs. The rain that had so torturously forced me into acknowledging it’s presence, finally disappeared.
“-expected to receive shipment from Shinigami soon.”
One of the blobs, the larger one, muttered, his thick accented voice scratching through the transmitter.
“Is there going to be a shift change? I’ve been here on the frontlines for over a month now…”
The other whined.
“Frontlines? What line? This entire ‘rebellion’ that the senator talked all big and mighty to us was just a load of biowaste shit. To answer your question, probably not. You know the actual Empire doesn’t care about these squabbles in the independent systems, right? Unless it’s flowing with cash, then places like this aren’t worth very much to them. The only good thing here is the trade of minerals that have been flowing as of late, but even that is bare minimal."
"The only reason why we’re here, is for political reasons.”
“Is that who were fighting now? Just a bunch of redneck miners? No wonder they keep dying.”
The first, seemingly the in-charge-blob, spread his glowing arms wide. “They’re ex-militia Joan. Retired vets. They’ve been in civil wars for decades. They were already on their final resources by the time the fed’s swept in. Now they’re scrambling to make any kind of defense. You bitch about being out here for a month? I did a little bit of reading at base-”
The first made a strange gesture. It took me a moment to realize that he was flicking the other soldier off. “Very funny. These guys have been at war forever. You think you’re tired after a month plowing through meager defenses? These guys have been at it for years. Or, heh, what’s left of them anyways.”
“Seems almost a shame, taking back what they tried to steal from us. Once we finish up here, whoever’s left will mostly likely be sent to the Empire’s prison systems and integrated into slavery.”
“Truly a shame. Better them than us.”
The smallest one leaned back against an invisible wall. “So, when does shipment come in?”
“Tomorrow at 3 standard Imperial time. It’ll be in a dark red ship from what Master Yerfield told me, hopefully it-“
His voice was cut off as I sneezed the cloud of dust away that had been billowing in my face. While I was shaking my head to clear the fuzziness that'd appeared, I didn’t have time to register the white bloom of color on my periscope, before the ear-splitting noise ripped into my headphones. The Sound-Discriminator, so finely tuned to where the men were, screamed every bit of noise it could into my ears, causing me to recoil in shock. I yanked the headphones off, my head ringing. It took me a minute to recover, as I laid there in mute agony.
All I could do was nervously glance around me, my heart beating from the surge of adrenaline. Cold sweat had pooled in the small of my back and was drenching my shirt. I shivered, flinching slightly as subsequent explosions popped and crackled in the distance. It took me several long moments to gain the strength to tear my eyes away from my surroundings, and I shuddered as I brought the headphones near my face. I could still hear the white noise coming through them, even with the headset an arm’s length from my head. I investigated the periscope and saw the thing that I feared had occurred. The dozen thermal signatures had been completely replaced with a white glow. They were gone, whoever they were. The explosion had made sure of that.
Shit… A weapon like that would’ve alerted the whole city… Which means…
It was time to get the hell out of here. Hope what I recorded is worth something.
Thirty seconds later I’d neatly dissembled the Sound-Discriminator, broken down the periscope, and folded the auto-camouflaging blanket that had obscured my position from the infantry and drones. When everything was loaded into my backpack, I began to make my escape.
I walked to the opposite end of the floor and looked over the ledge. Earlier that morning I had snuck into the building by gliding through the air from a nearby, taller skyscraper, one that had its elevator systems still intact. Throughout the entire day I had sat uncomfortably here, watching and recording a variety of soldiers marching their ways up and down street lanes. Now I was in a predicament. The building I was on was still under construction and had no viable way of getting to the top, meaning that gliding my way out of the city from where I was, was impossible. Jumping from where I was now would mean I’d undoubtedly hit the ground before I’d even made it a third of the way through, and with all the drones and soldiers running about above and below the smoke, guessing where to land would be difficult. Not to mention any haphazard that stood in the way. That left me two options. One: to roof-hop, or two: risk jumping and gliding to the streets below and hope to find someplace where the fog wasn’t so dense and hope that I could land safely… and not into anything unpleasant… Neither seemed very approachable.
But as I scanned the horizon, watching as the pair of stars began to truly drop over the edge of the world, my options narrowed to just one. The quiet humming of drones, interested by the sound of the explosion, were bearing down on my position. My eyes quickly began lancing up and down lanes of ruined street and rubble, looking for a clearing. To my left, down the valley of skyscrapers, the dust and clouds had begun to fade down one road. It was very far, but after a quick calculation in my head, I estimated that I could make it. Hesitating a moment to shake any last-minute doubts out of my head, I checked my flight gear, confirmed that it was still in working order, and leapt off the side.
The thick air caught me in its embrace, holding me still as I fell. In one swift motion, I flicked both my wrists upwards and two flexible bands shot into my hands. I lurched my arms back behind my body, and fabric sprouted from my backpack, conjoining with my arms making me appear like a type of human-flying-squirrel. The jolt of deceleration caused the securing’s to cut into my clothes, the device on my back straining against the wind. After a last unpleasant moment of having to feel the straps cut into my thighs, chest, and shoulders for a second time that day, I was gliding. Buildings shot past my face as I raced across the sky. The road that I surveyed earlier had darkened as the twin-suns sank ever lower over the lip of the horizon, but I could still barely make out the spot where it was clear for a landing. For a few peaceful seconds, it appeared that I would make it.
Something hit my back and I nearly lost control, sinking a few precious measurements lower to the opaque canopy of white. I made a tiny half figure-eight, and twisted my head, straining to see behind me. A single drone had managed to spot me mid-flight and had given chase. I couldn’t deal with it right now, with only a hundred meters left to go, the wisps of the fog were beginning to stretch up and latch onto my legs. Streams of vapor popped in front of me as projectiles of an unknown substance punctured holes into the fog. I serpentined and watched my landing zone disappear as my head sank beneath the clouds.
Just twenty more meters… I can’t be more than a few off the ground.
A lucky salvo clipped my left arm and shoulder, breaking apart the left “wing.” The emergency braking system flared as my body corkscrewed, tiny flaps of fabric all over the backpack shooting up, trying to slow my descent as quickly as possible. It wouldn’t have mattered. Just as I raised a hand over my head, everything reappeared as I punched through the cloud of dust and fog, my plummet short lived as smooth concrete rose up to meet me. The thick clothes on my body did little in terms of protection as my limbs flopped and as I rolled over on the hard asphalt. If it wasn’t for my headgear and backpack helped to keep my vitals together in one piece, I most certainly would’ve snapped something important.
After rag-dolling for several meters, I finally fell flat onto my stomach in the empty street. No part of was left unchecked from the fall. Everything hurt. From the ringing in my ears, I could faintly discern the sound of the drone overhead, scanning the dust and debris. I reached for my sidearm, only to discover that it was no longer in its holster.
Fuuuuuuck… Not like this…
Tiny red beams shot out of the clouds and began flickering from side to side, intent on finding my body. I began to scramble incoherently, feeling as the adrenaline pushed all thoughts of pain and discomfort away. I managed to get to my knees, dog-crawling to the far side of the road. I wedged myself underneath a metal door that had been blown off its foundation. The drone dipped beneath canopy. I breathed slowly, painful, the hot air venting out in rasps. I watched from the corner of my eye as the beams etched little patterns into the ground before tracing over the door above me.
A nearby explosion boomed. Confusion seemed to take ahold of the drone as it tried to figure out if it should continue searching for its prey or to go investigate a new threat. It hovered in the air, contemplating whatever programming it had. I didn’t move. The drone reached its decision and swiftly flew off.
Minutes passed and it didn’t return.
I pushed the door off me and crawled to the nearest building. It was a grocery store. The single open doorframe, what I guess was the owner of the door that had concealed me, welcomed me as I gingerly squeezed myself through it. I took a moment to unlatch my backpack, and propped myself up against the doorframe, hidden from sight from the street. In less than a minute, I was unconscious.
It was the dripping water on my lips that woke me. My eyes creaked open like rusty doors. Half-expecting a blinding light and loud voices in my head at any moment, I refused to believe that there was nothing. Not a light nor sound. Nothing but the dark abandoned grocery store, my backpack filled with incriminating information, and a single pipe that for some inexplicable reason was sticking halfway out of the store into the rain that had returned. I breathed slowly, taking in a personal inventory. Cautiously flexing each individual body part and discovering their individual pains. I leaned off the wall and groaned as something in my chest caught. Carefully I stood up and limped around. It didn’t seem like I’d received too much damage. My left arm had quite a few holes in it. I could see the metallic filaments stretching from fingers to elbow, plus several dozen more that been snapped. I felt my back, where the most amount of pain was. A few of the tracers had managed to slide between the narrow area where my pack and hardened clothes didn’t crisscross. Two had ricocheted off the bone, while the third and fourth had successfully penetrated flesh and muscle. I realized that as I breathed out, one of the bullets was physically underneath my rib cage, pressing against my lungs. The other I had no idea and guessed that it was still lodged somewhere in my stomach. That plus the number of scrapes and road burns, not to mention the nasty bruising by my ankle proved the hard fact: I wasn’t going anywhere fast.
…Looks like it’s time to call backup…
Hours later the rain had given way to a fully-fledged storm. Hail pelted the road and streets, and the wind lifted the fog, cleaning the dust away. The city almost looked… relatable, in the glow of the still functioning streetlamps. It was now that in my original plan, I was supposed to use the disorientation of the storm to my advantage and exit the city. Now I was going to use that same distraction to escape.
My wristwatch beeped a series of quiet radio codes to me.
Good, almost here… I’m going to have make this quick…
In the intensity of the raging storm, all was quiet. Nothing moved save the wind and water.
No one is here… perhaps they’ve all moved on...?
The literal second the thought had past my mind, I heard a shout, and the brilliance of laser and tracer fire erupted fifty meters down the street.
Yelling and screams echoed in the distance as I furiously typed a command on my watch.
Miniature detonations rocked the tiny store causing ceiling tiles to crash to the floor.
My wrist beeped once more in confirmation to the commands were received.
I grabbed my backpack and hefted it onto my shoulders, growling from the pain of the weight. I stood by the door frame, carefully watching the battle ensuing.
A roar erupted from the opposite end of the street, as an unmanned taipan fighter squeezed itself into the alley way of skyscrapers. The soldiers on both sides yelled as the taipan’s powerful flood lights flickered rapidly, blinding anyone who was looking in its direction. I limped out the front door as fast as I could, trying to keep my head down as projectiles crashed all around me. The taipan’s shields crackled and snapped as the infantry weapons tried to do some amount of damage to it. I pushed past the shield and grabbed ahold of the side of the cockpit, throwing my things and then myself into the chair. The canopy closed and the thrusters roared as the ship rose off the ground.
A pop could be heard as a single rocket exploded forth from one of the soldiers, desperately trying to reach its mark. The gimballed cannons of the taipan automatically traced the incoming missile and shot it out of the air.
With me secured inside the automated ship, the taipan accelerated, unfolding its wings the second it had screamed overhead the soldiers below and out of the valley of skyscrapers.
I took a breath of relief. Finally, I had escaped.