He carefully pokes his head around one side of a building, then quickly retreats behind the wall.
couldn’t see anything,” he mutters.
He does it once more but this time he steadies a prolonged gaze. He searches the destroyed street, the building he presses his body against is a small house he realizes. Across the street is a similar looking one, and in fact the entire row on either side is of a similar make. They all have unique patterns of destruction. The houses nearest Hector still have their faces somewhat intact, but the ones at the far end are almost completely razed, having only the remains of the supporting walls outlining vaguely that there were once houses in those plots. Hector retches at the sight of the destruction. He has seen this kind of destruction when he watches the entertainment programs in his leisure time, but it never crossed his mind that he would ever see it in person. His comfortable lifestyle of the Academy sickens him. He can't help but think about the private talk he had with Nani earlier in the day. He lingers on her words; 'If the Eco-City walls were never put up, then the Free Cities would have free reign on the technology of the Eco-Cities.'
“I can't imagine what they would do if they had our atomic technology.” Hector whispers to himself in disgust.
For his entire life, he feels like he has a connection with the Free Cities. ‘Feels’ is the keyword in that last sentence because for as long as he remembers, he is a citizen of the UTG. And so for all his life he feels like he should keep quiet about this unusual feeling. Mostly due to the majorly over exaggerated stereotype created at the expense of the average Free Citizen. But the citizens of the UTG could care less, because their chances to encounter a Free Citizen is virtually zero percent. And so the wildly exaggerated stereotype has evolved into a derogatory term after hundreds of years since the stereotype’s initial conception. Therefore being a Free Citizen sympathizer is absolutely out of the question for Hector—his already pathetic social life will implode if he were to ever come out as one. Mr. Teech would probably send him to the psychiatric district of the Academy. At least that's his train of thought most of the time whenever the subject of the Free cities come about. He always tries to avoid the subject of the Free Cities because he loathes the stereotype.
In any case, with this mission, he has a major opportunity to do something right for the Free Citizens. Pater is the closest Free City near his city, Eco-City #9. If he can somehow find this Angelus the Swift, he will be content with himself. But it would be a great opportunity for his Survival group as well. If he can secure a safe place in Pater, then Survival Camp is going to be exponentially easier. Mr. Teech always says that the completion of Survival Camp is your safe return to Academy #9. No more, no less—meaning there are no rules stating you can’t leave the forest. However Academy students always assume that the forest is the boundary and they insist on thinking that the Camp’s ordeals will teach them how to survive in the wilderness. But Hector knows better—he knows that you can venture out past the limited area of the forest because he's done it in the previous year's Survival Camp. Mr. Teech in fact praised him at the end of that Camp for his quick thinking and he cherishes that praise to this day. If the point of the Camp is to teach students how to survive in the wilderness, the Academy would surely include it in the UTG Primary schooling curriculum. Hector believes this to be true. Furthermore the attendance for the Camp is completely optional leading Hector to think that the Camp is for another purpose entirely. But he does not know what that purpose is yet, nor does he have the intention on finding out. The only reason Hector decided to do the Survival Camp again this year was to explore further outward, past the forest, and this mission is his perfect excuse. He resolves himself to find Angelus and secondly find a safe place to stay for the week.
A cool wind caresses his bare arms which makes him shiver uncontrollably. The thought of having to sleep on the bare ground with only a sleeveless shirt and shorts makes him shiver even more. He shakes his head. ‘Ok, that’s not going to happen. I have to get going. I’m wasting a lot of time thinking about the Free Citizens,’ he thinks.
He gets in a running position behind the wall, and then he suddenly starts sprinting toward the next house in the row, stopping behind its shambling walls momentarily before sprinting onward. He finds himself running toward the far side of the perpendicular street at the end of the row of houses, where he finds there is a large field. He stops to take in the view, as the field stretches for miles. He continues along but at a slow walk but taking comfort when he notices the lack of popping sounds that was prevalent not too long ago. He scans the landscape and notices a pattern. The ground seems to be shaped like a blast site, and the houses he came from lays on the very edge. He coughs uncontrollably at the thought, his mind flashing images of darker themed space films featuring warzones. He scans the area once more, steeling his mind from thinking any thoughts other than his task at hand. He must get to Pater, and he needs to find Angelus. This little town was razed, but Pater is the next city over. He trudges along, past the crater—pacing himself, so as not to tire himself out—to find the road that leads out of this town and into Pater. Not too far along the road, he sees a sprawling metropolis, but this city is quite different from the crown jewel of his home, Eco-City #9. The buildings are coloured in various shades of grey in spotted shapes of various sizes. Many of the buildings are worn down, some don’t even have roofs intact. A dark aura emanates from the city, and Hector suddenly feels cold. He crosses his arms in attempt to warm up. He continues along the road, and it takes him just shy of a couple of hours to reach the outskirts of the Free City.
The streets are quiet. Abandoned vehicles are left in gridlock. The buildings are seemingly vacant. The soot stained city of Pater feels like a ghost town. The hair on the back of Hector’s neck stand on end as he cautiously walks down the streets. His ears twitch at the slightest of sounds—the rustling of debris scattered on the ground that are caught in the wind, the creaking of loose windows, and even the echoes of his own footsteps on the empty streets. He gets into one of the vehicles and frustratingly scratches and shakes his head. He sighs, before getting out of the vehicle. He turns around to see the last glimpses of sunlight against the horizon, the red-orange twilight glow eases his mind. He sighs once more, in relief this time, before heading deeper into the Free City.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Hector jumps in reaction to the very loud popping noise. He instinctually runs into the back seat of the nearest abandoned vehicle and shuts the door closed. Another set of pops startle him, as he gets into a fetal position and covers his ears desperately. Night time settles in and the pops are heard sporadically throughout. Eyes closed and ears covered, Hector manages to fall asleep, the popping sounds becoming twistedly therapeutic. The morning rays of sunlight wake Hector up, and before long, the popping sounds are heard once more. Hector sighs as he sits up in the back seat of the vehicle. He looks outside the windows, forward and backward, and doesn’t see any movement. Still no change from the previous night. He starts to wonder whether there are any civilians left in the city. He then for the first time realizes that he has no leads. He finally made it to the city, but he couldn’t find anybody to speak to. His initial plan being to talk to the locals to find out about who this Angelus the Swift really is. But alas, since the city is seemingly abandoned, aside from the popping sounds, he has no one to get any information from.
He opens the vehicle door slowly, and just as slowly gets out, keeping a low profile. He assumes a crouching position and makes his way to the building immediately in front of him. He attempts to turn the doorknob, and to his surprise it turns. After many failed attempts, he outright gave up on trying to get inside any of the buildings. And so in his triumphant, albeit lucky success, he quietly makes his way inside the building. Keeping to a low profile, he shuffles his way to a row of shelves. It’s a strange room, unlike anything he knows from the Eco-City. Rows of shelves occupy the entire room, and on the shelves are... food.
“Thank the Stars! The one door that was actually opened is the one that leads into a room full of food!” Hector whispers triumphantly.
He grabs one of the packages, which is labeled, ‘Momma’s Sweet Bread’, in a stylized font. “Strange,” Hector mutters, as he rips open the package. A soft sugar coated bread is quickly devoured by the starving boy, and he proceeds to open another… and then another. After two more, Hector lightly pats his stomach. “Ugh…” Hector moans, “I have a headache,” he complains aloud. Suddenly a loud bang his heard from the back of the room. Hector quickly gets down on the ground, putting his back against the shelf and bending his knees against his torso. He peeks toward the back of the room, and a small girl rubbing her forehead casually walks toward the startled boy.
“Hi!” the small girl greets Hector.
Hector jumps to his feet in a defensive position and says, “Who are you!?” His eyes are half closed, and the small girl starts to laugh.
“Wow that is pathetic.” The small girl says with confidence.
Hector opens his eyes and his vision becomes clearer. He sees the girl’s small stature and immediately relaxes his stance. The girl does a jumping lunge stance and stomps the ground with a heavy foot. The noise startles Hector, and he jumps back into his defensive stance. The girl immediately starts laughing again.
“You sure are jumpy. Hahaha. I’m Étaín,” the small girl says, “Nice to meet you again!”
Hector looks her over curiously for a moment until he says, “You’re Wei’s friend right?”
“That’s right! And you’re Hector, the one who forced Wei to replace his arms.”
Hector suspiciously stares at her and disregards Étaín’s last statement. “What on Terra are you doing here? And what was that big bang earlier?” Hector eyes her forehead, which she is still rubbing.
“I could ask you the same things. As for the bang, I…” Étaín turns away from Hector, “I fell down.”
“Are you okay? I don’t have any first aid knowledge, but if we get you to my friend Nani, she can help you.”
“I’m fine. It wasn’t a bad fall. I was sleeping on a table in the backroom and fell over when I heard your voice. I looked over and saw your dumbfounded expression and quickly relaxed.”
“Ah, I see. So, what are you doing in Pater? You’re not following me are you?”
“What? No! Why on Terra would I follow you?” Étaín gives him a look of disgust, “As soon as the first blast hit, I ran immediately toward this place. I just have to see what all the commotion is about. I just have to see for myself the destruction these people can cause.”
Pop. Pop. Pop. The popping sound penetrates the door and barricaded window the room.
Hector shudders as soon as Étaín finishes her sentence, inattentive to the pops. ‘She sees the Free Citizens the same way Nani does…’ Hector thinks.
“Hey! Hector! What’s with that look?”
“What? Oh… it’s nothing.”
“So what is a thick skull like you doing out here?”
“Me? I’m…” Hector hesitates before he continues, “I’m on a mission.”
“Really? What kind of mission?” Étaín eyes him suspiciously.
“A mission that doesn’t concern you.” Hector clamors up.
“Okay, secret agent man. Well, what are your plans?”
Hector blankly looks at her.
“Let me guess,” Étaín starts, “you don’t have a plan…”
“I… I have a plan. I need to find someone in this city. After that, I will get information about the man I’m looking for.”
“Oh!” Étaín points at Hector, “Who are you looking for? You know, maybe I can help… If we stick together, I can help you find this man, and in return, you can protect me…” Étaín looks at Hector top to bottom, then says, “On second thought, you can act as decoy while I take out our aggressors.”
“What? I can protect you! I am going to be the one to beat Wei in a fight you know!” Hector cringes as he finishes his sentence.
Étaín shakes her head and says, “Real mature of you… my protector!”
Hector turns away immediately to hide his reddened cheeks.
“So Hector… You plan to just wander aimlessly into the heart of the City? I don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but there is something not quite right with this City.”
Hector remembers another excerpt of the same history book: ‘War is a constant theme of history. It is unavoidable. Thus the development of weaponry…’
“War is a constant theme of history. It is unavoidable…” Hector recites the excerpt.
“What was that?”
“We’re in a warzone Étaín. Those popping sounds you here outside. They are coming from weapons used by the ancients.
“Get out! A warzone?”
“Yeah! It was even on the news two days ago.”
“I don’t watch the news. Alright Hector I believe you. That just means we have to be really cautious going forward.”
“Yeah. We’re sticking together. If there is a war going on out there, no way are we going to split up.”
“I suppose you’re right. But you’re going to come along with me? Without even knowing the specific details of what I’m setting out to do?”
“I don’t care what you have to do. Quite frankly I’m going to see this war. And you’re going to watch my back as I do.”
Hector eyes her, furling his eyebrows. “Alright, but that’s really twisted, you do know that right?”
Étaín menacingly smirks.
“Stop that!” Hector orders, “People are probably dying out there, and you carelessly say you want to watch it. Are you human?”
“Am I human? That’s a silly question. Of course I am. And you’re such a dramatic. Besides you’ve said it yourself, ‘War is unavoidable,’ so I may as well witness it.”
A knot begins to turn in Hector’s stomach. He loathes the nonchalant attitude this person takes when talking about watching a war—it is absolutely disgraceful as a human being—the sheer disregard of human life is unforgivable.
“Go!” Hector says with grit teeth while pointing at the door to the backroom, “Get back in the room for a while. Your attitude is really pissing me off.”
“What! No! I am staying right here!”
“What is your problem man? Speak up. You know how to use words right? Now speak.” Étaín says in a condescending yet impactful way.
Hector scratches his head and sighs. “The way you casually say you want to watch the war is just… it just feels wrong. Don’t you know that? Just acknowledge that’s true at the very least.”
Étaín sighs and hesitates. She turns away before saying, “Yeah, I agree with you. It does feel wrong. I was just trying to get under your skin with all that talk.”
Hector suspiciously eyes her but nods and says, “Thank you.”