Just a few kilometres past the gate where the Skyreign halted and its crew awaited, a second set of gates stood tall and wide, dwarfing the thirty Occupiers standing outside. Janeth walked directly for the entrance, where two guards stood in the way.
“Halt, stranger!” said one of the hooded guards. He was a tall Behraanese man, speaking in a barely operational level of Pillarian, with a plasmar pistol holstered and his hand hovering over it.
“Easy,” Janeth replied in perfect Pillarian, purposefully sounding younger and far less educated, smiling easily, her hands up and somewhat submissive, “I’m meeting my boyfriend at the Shifty Snake, he’s waiting on me. Please let me in?”
“We haven’t had anyone come through in a day,” the second guard argued. His Pillarian was a bit better, at least more fluent.
“He came here two days ago,” said Janeth as she cocked her hip to the left and put her hand in it, “look, I already went through this with the guards at the first gate, and they wouldn’t even let me take in my bike!”
“They didn’t tell you the city was under quarantine?” said the second guard, “Haven’t you heard? There’s trouble up on the world surface.”
“All the more reason to let a poor, defenceless girl in, right?” Janeth put her lip out in a pout.
The two guards looked to each other, then finally nodded.
“Quietly,” said the first guard, “you here whole time. Understand?”
“Thank you, thank you!” she happily hugged one of the guards, then the other. The first guard then opened a smaller door for her to pass through.
As she stepped through the passageway, the world around her changed from an empty tunnel spanning for hundreds of kilometres, to an underground city as sprawling and illuminated as Graldica itself.
True to the namesake, large stone pillars, sometimes hundreds of metres across, extended from ground to ceiling, kilometres up. They were dotted with windows of all kinds, lit brightly with bluish white light. Bridges extended from one pillar to another, sized from little skyways for people, to larger highways with both guided and unguided vehicles darting across them.
Around those pillars were numerous smaller buildings, obviously newer than the ancient pillars they surrounded, yet not so much so that they stuck out any more.
One thing that seemed out of place, one thing that did stick out more than anything else, was the sheer number of Occupiers that walked the same streets with the citizens of the city. Citizens did not overly fear them, but they kept their distance. They were always aware of that foreign presence.
Other than that, things remained largely the same as before. The fashions and styles, the pale skin, the tall drooping street lights, the four-wheeled civilian vehicles people drove about in. It seemed as if this place was so isolated, so confined and so far underground, that the place not only stood the test of time, but ignored time entirely.
She walked down the sidewalk of a street, one leading into a shadier district she knew about. One she knew contained a particularly scum-laden bar.
She knew that Pillars had order. It had rules. Laws. Schedules. Ways to keep its people on track.
I.D. cards. One required one of these cards to even get a decent drink. Behraan's presence would only tighten these regulations further.
Even from a distance, she could hear the low throbbing of the base-laced heart-tempo music, just as it was years before.
The Shifty Snake was alive and well.
As she approached the shabby black-brick bar, she noted a long line-up, perhaps twenty bodies long, extending from the door to the curb at the far side of the building, with mobile, heavy-based poles and black slacked rope connecting them all to form a line that switched back on itself, and to keep people from cutting in.
So she stood in line.
As she did so, she observed people pulling out their I.D. cards. On them were their emotionless faces, as well as numerous facts about the person holding it. The people themselves, like the bar, were rougher in appearance. Their clothes, though having never seen the sun, were still tattered and torn. The women were extremely lightly dressed, as if to flaunt their bodies as much as possible without exposing the more private of areas.
Janeth had more class than that. But those women—if they were old enough to be called women—had cards. Those cards were a necessity in order to enter, because of age restrictions put in place by Pillars law. No doubt, it helped Behraan keep tabs as well.
The older man in front of her—in a manner of appearance only—was stopped by the bulky, bald-headed doorman, as pale as everyone else. The doorman held him back with his palm, shaking his head as the customer tried to explain his situation.
So she listened.
“Told you what,” said the doorman in a deep, apathetic voice, “no card, no bar.”
“Please, sir,” said the older man, “can you not see I am of age to drink? I’ve been coming here for years! You know me.”
“I know the rules. Rules say, no card, no bar.”
“I guarantee you the little girl you just let in has a fake,” Janeth spoke up, in Pillarian, “but you didn’t even look, did you. You saw a square little piece of plexicarbon and let her in. This man is clearly of age.”
“Don’t care,” he said, “next?”
“Well, since you won’t listen to blatant reason,” said Janeth as she pulled out two cards from her bra, showing them to the doorman, “I hold my father’s card in case he forgets.”
The old man gave her a strange look and quirked a brow. Janeth ignored the look.
The doorman looked at the two cards, then back up, “you don’t look anything like her.”
“I dyed my hair silver,” said Janeth with a grin, running her hand through her hair, “make me look like one of those immortal freaks. Cool, huh?”
The doorman finally sighed as he handed her the cards, “get in.”
“Let’s go, father,” Janeth grabbed the man by the arm and guided him through the two glass doors.
Just as the two made for the second set of doors, she looked over her shoulder to see the brunette and her boyfriend searching frantically for their cards.
“I don’t know who you are,” said the man, “but thank you.”
“Thank me by buying me a drink,” said Janeth, “you’re lucky the doorman’s half-blind. He’s lucky most people don’t know that.”
Laura. Olsein. Rose. Savath. The four Occupiers that survived that horrid slaughter. The four that arrived at the inner gates to Pillars, largely unarmed.
Laura marched ahead of the other three, ignoring the other guards at the exterior points of the garrison, and focusing on the two guards at the door.
“Report,” Laura commanded in Behraanese, brandishing a Captain’s bars.
The two guards looked to each other, then back to her.
“Nothing to report, Captain,” said one, “damn quiet all day. Nothing in, nothing out. What’s it like at your post?”
“None of your grahaamut business, soldier!” she narrowed her eyes in on him, “now, you be straight with me, because Imperator as my witness, I’ll shoot you square in the eyes, right here, the next time you lie in my face!”
The other guards became startled—the one began to shake at just the thought.
Laura then just laughed, looking to her cohorts. Olsein and Rose joined the laugh. And then the guards followed suit, even the thoroughly frightened one.
“You, uh, really had me going there Captain,” said the one guard, still laughing lightly, his face flushed with both laughter and fear.
“You’re an easy mark, is what you are,” Laura continued to laugh, before sighing and resuming her business face, “so, the four of us are heading in for a drink. All this time in the dark is hard on us sun-loving folks.”
“Tell me about it,” said the other guard, opening the door, “go right in, Captain.”
“Chin up, soldiers,” said Laura as she stepped in. Before she continued, she stopped and turned to the guard, “Oh. By the way. I’m not so sure my friends here have the allotted leave time to accompany me. Best we all forget our passing through today, right?”
The guards nodded.
Laura nodded back and continued into the city.
“That was close,” said the former target of Laura’s plasmar.
“Weren’t we supposed to tell them what happened to the other Occupiers?” Rose whispered in Laura’s ear.
“I liked this way better,” Laura shrugged, patting her plasmar, “the look on his face was thoroughly worthwhile.”
As the four of them entered the city, they stopped abruptly to feast their eyes on those same wonders Janeth had witnessed just an hour before.
“Holy shit,” said Savath.
“Nothing about this place is holy,” Olsein grunted, “but the shit part is bang-on.”
“Alright,” Laura put her hands on her hips, “so we’re in. Now we need to get to the other side.”
“Walking could take hours,” Olsein stated, “and it’s not exactly a straight line from the look of things.”
“We could use a vehicle,” said Rose, “something to get us from one side to another quickly enough.”
“Olsein, Savath,” said Laura, “you’re on that. We’ll meet here at the entrance in two hours. Find a vehicle. Rose and I will either find a map, find Janeth or both.”
“You heard the lady,” Olsein began to walk towards a street on the right, “let’s go.”
As the two women watched them go, they became aware of a platoon that marched along the sidewalk of a busy street, another thirty Occupiers in formation. Three by ten. Armed with rifles.
Headed for the gates.
“No good,” Rose shook her head, “no good at all.”
“Pillarian forces must still be around somewhere, right?” asked Laura.
“Probably,” said Rose.
“We need to stall that platoon,” Laura said at last, “that is part of the original plan.”
“Talk to them?”
“Talk to them,” Laura smirked, marching towards them, “Rose. Keep--”
“Watch your back, I get it,” said Rose, “just like old times?”
“Just like old times,” the Captain whispered as she approached the platoon.
That platoon stopped in front of her and saluted.
She saluted back and put on a stern face, “report.”
“Occupier Platoon, fifth,” said a Lieutenant, “reporting to the outer gate to relieve the Third Platoon.”
“I am from the Third,” Laura shook her head, “Orders from higher up has us working a double shift, so your platoon is on leave for now."
"On leave?" The Lieutenant tilted his head.
"You heard me," Laura replied, "welcome to ask them yourself if you feel that's necessary."
“I believe it will,” said the Lieutenant as he raised his rifle, followed by his troops, “since the platoon stationed out there was the fourth. Not the third.”
“Just like old times, huh?” Laura looked over to Rose.
Rose only raised her hands.
“Remove their hoods,” said the Lieutenant to one of the other soldiers.
“Aye,” the female soldier complied and pointed her rifle to Rose, using her free hand to yank the hood off of Laura’s head. Then, she removed Rose's.
The Lieutenant nearly gasped at the sight of the two women, slugging his rifle on his shoulder as he smiled wryly, “so, at long last, you walk back into Behraan’s grasp, Vinfield. We have been waiting for you.”
Laura sighed and raised her hands as well.
“Still nothing,” said Darrick to Elsie and Grace as he worked on the inner workings of the sensors display, “It’s been two hours and still nothing. But it's not from us. Our sensors are fine."
“Something’s not right,” said Elsie as she paced left and right, staring at the wooden deck, “their armcomms were working when they left.”
“Yeah, and I’m not getting anything past the gate. Not even depth scans are getting through!”
“Is it possible the Behraanese are aware of our presence?” asked Grace.
“Possible,” Darrick shook his head, “but--”
Before he could continue speaking, the low buzz of a sensor alarm went off. Darrick lifted his head, smacking it against the undercarriage of the dashboard, then clearing it to see the source of the alarm.
Red dots. Dozens.
“Company,” Darrick ran his hands through his hair.
“So they are aware of our presence,” Grace said, “what do we do?”
“Looks like they’re just coming out of the gate,” said Darrick, “no vehicles or anything. Another platoon of thirty, it seems. We have some time, but not much.”
“To do what, exactly?” Elsie continued to pace.
“Well,” Darrick sighed, “we’re a ship made of gold. If they shine a light on us, they’ll see us. If we move, they’ll see us and hear us.”
“Those fighters that bombarded us are probably still on the other side of the tunnel if they know we’re here,” Elsie leaned on the railing along the starboard edge of the deck, “no way out.”
Darrick sat deeply in the pilot’s chair, staring blankly at the sensors.
“Darrick, you are the acting captain of this ship,” said Elsie.
“I think that is true,” Grace added.
“So, decide,” Elsie demanded, “decide before time runs out.”
Finally, Darrick sat up, looking up and over the bow, “If they’ve been tipped off, I’m betting our friends inside are in some kind of trouble. So, if we can’t get out? We—we go further in.”
“What?” Elsie said in shock, “are you well!?”
“Never been so well in my life,” said Darrick, “You two, grab the port and starboard cannons. We’re going to cause a ruckus.”
“I don’t like this,” said Grace with a frown and a sigh as she hopped into the port turret, “but I know it must be done.”
“I’ll take starboard,” Elsie said with a smirk, “good call, acting Captain.”
“I wouldn’t say that just yet,” said Darrick as he started the lifters and fed power to the battle systems. Shields. Bridge field. Two of the turrets. The torpedo banks. Extra power to the lifters. He wanted it, and it was there. Barely.
As Darrick lifted off, he eyed his two ruby rings, allowing for a fraction of a second to think of their implications.
“Now’s a good time, Dae,” Darrick said under his breath as the lifters crackled and whined under the extra power, and the ship lined up with the gated end of the tunnel.
“Better drop the uniforms,” Olsein said to Savath from a shady alleyway, moments after seeing Laura and Rose be apprehended.
“No shit,” said Savath, his whispers still projecting, “not like I brought a change of clothes.”
“Hey you’re a GC, right?” Olsein grinned, “GC’s a joke to the Behraanese army, but last I heard, they still had authority rights like any policeman.”
“Yeah,” he grinned, “pretty damn sweet.”
“Can’t you, uh, commandeer a vehicle?”
Savath stared blankly, “Gonna have a hard time finding one I can fit in.”
“Right,” Olsein scratched his beard, “They’ll be looking for us. Probably have our faces. Better keep it low for a while. Hey, big guy. Do me a favour, would you?”
Savath quirked a brow, “what?”
“Have a razor?”
The Shifty Snake was a bar below all bars. Beyond the doorman, all rules seemed to be irrelevant. The music made it near-impossible to hear anything else. The only lighting came from the dance floor, a few coloured lights, strobes, and minimal lighting from diode candles on the numerous shabby tables dotting the crowded bar.
At the far end was the bar rail, the source of many problems and many solutions.
The men and women drank, danced, sang freely to the same old tunes.
Janeth appreciated a drink, but the rest seemed such a waste of time and resources.
These people. Did they even care that their nation was conquered?
“Come, then,” said the older man, “a drink, as requested.”
As Janeth followed him to the bar, she glanced around to get an idea of how many people were there, who was sober, drunk, active, sitting, talking, silent, benign, dangerous.
The bartender was bald, not much taller than Janeth, bearded, his face only slightly less pale than the rest.
“What’ll it be?” he asked in Pillarian.
“Surprise me,” she looked to the older man.
“Pillarian Stout for the lady,” he said to the bartender.
“Right,” he eyed her, “nice tan. Surface dweller?”
“I need to speak to Mig,” Janeth said in Pillarian, then switched to Nywanese, “it’s important.”
The bartender stopped solid, gave her a sizing look, then nodded, “two minutes.”
The older man looked to Janeth, “been here before, have you?”
“Once or twice,” she replied.
“Buy you a drink?” asked a brutish male in black studded leathers, as he leaned with his elbows on the counter, brushing up to Janeth.
“Already have one, thank you,” Janeth didn’t bother to look more than over her shoulder.
“My treat,” he smiled a toothy grin.
“Save your money,” Janeth said.
“I have the money to spend,” he brandished the Behraanese Army insignia on his bare chest, visible under his wide-collared shirt. The idiot tattooed it to his chest. She couldn’t quite get over that.
“Thank you, again,” Janeth shook her head with a smile, “but no.”
“Most girls don’t say no to a good drink,” he insisted, leaning in and quirking a brow.
“Yes,” Janeth finally faced him, “well, as you might already be aware, I’m not most girls.”
“Take my offer,” he placed his hand on her arm, “better that than making a scene.”
Janeth gave him a warning look, “best take your hand off me, boy.”
He only tightened his grip.
“I won’t ask again,” Janeth growled, gritting her teeth.
“Better off when the girl don’t talk,” he pulled Janeth’s arm towards himself.
At least, he tried to. Before he could do so, she twisted her arm in such a way that she had his arm under her crushing grip. Muscles popped under the leather. Arteries burst under the skin. The man writhed in pain, as he saw the glowing blue cinders in the woman’s eyes. She walked toward him, guiding him down to the ground, pinning him down with her boot, still crushing his arm under her inhuman grip.
She could have broken his bones in her closing fist if she so pleased.
At this point, the music stopped and the crowd cleared away, leaving only the foolish brute’s wailing and incomprehensible begging.
“It’s invertebrate fractions of men like you that give Behraan a bad name,” she said in her second, more otherworldly booming voice, her eyes glowing enough to light his terrified face in a bluish hue, “now—shall you walk yourself out, or shall I drag you out?”
“I’ll go, I’ll go!” he yelped, “have mercy. Mercy, mercy!”
Janeth then released her grip. His arm fell limp to the floor, a perfect hand mark in blood-red and black bruising all around the point where she grabbed and crushed. Her eyes then dissipated to their normal selves, the flames being suppressed once more. Janeth simply pointed to the door, staring intently at the broken man.
Without a further word, he stood, cradled his arm and left in shame.
Once he was out of the spotlight, there was only her to bear all the attention.
“Occupiers or not, let none impose upon you in such a way,” said Janeth loudly and clearly in Pillarian, “now, I came here for a quiet drink. I suggest you all carry on and do the same.”
“I’m with you on that one,” said the older man, as he stood next to her, “nothing to see here. Just another man who thought he could get his way through brute strength. Back to it!”
The music started. The crowd resumed their earlier affairs.
“I take it we are even then,” said Janeth evenly, turning to face him.
“You put up quite a show here,” said the man, “and you must be filled with some purpose, to be looking for Mig.”
Janeth simply nodded. Then, she took a closer look at his face. If not for the wrinkles and the greys....
“Indeed I am, old friend,” Janeth smiled, “good to see you again.”
“It has been twenty revolutions since the last time,” said Mig as he returned the smile, “and you haven’t aged a day, have you.”
“Perhaps not physically,” Janeth sighed, “we must speak. In private.”
“I gather,” he ushered her with his hand over her back, “please, my friend. This way to my office.”
The barkeep then came back and put the glass tankard on the counter, watching as the two of them passed by him, opening his mouth to speak, but knowing better not to.
The room was almost more of a library, filled with old shelves and dusty tomes within them. The floor was made to look like hardwood, and the desk, made to look hand-carved. It seemed as if this room, too, represented an ancient time.
“You didn’t come here to gawk at the furniture, did you?” said Mig as he closed the wooden door behind him.
“No,” Janeth said in Nywanese, “I didn’t.”
He sat in the chair across from her at the desk and leaned back, his fingers meshed on the table, “so—dear Janeth. What can a humble bar owner do for the Nywanese Queen?”
Janeth sat down in front of him, leaning in and never losing eye contact with him, “I need two things. A detailed map of Pillars--”
“And,” Janeth cracked her knuckles, “I need you to start a war. It’s time we ended this occupation.”
The man’s eyes widened. "Not--so easily done."
Olsein and Savath stepped out of the alley, both bald, both shaven, both in more civilian outfits, simple and grey buttoned shirts and blue denims, with their Behraanese plasmars tucked under their shirts.
“You always have another trick up your sleeve, old man,” said Savath as he loosened the shirt around his neck, “down to the size too, almost.”
“Tricks,” Olsein raised a brow, looking left and right at the traffic-laden streets, “never thought of them that way.”
“Still got the beacon?” asked Savath.
Olsein pointed at his back pants pocket.
“Nice,” he nodded.
The street’s traffic seemed to be governed by lights at intersections, of various colours, giving those travelling it the right to continue, or telling them to stop.
“See anything you like?” asked Olsein, looking intently at a fire-red sports vehicle, a two-doored, four-wheeled car clearly designed for speed and performance, “my eyes are on the red one over there.”
“I see a nice bike over there,” Savath pointed to a speedy two-wheeled powered vehicle, its rider completely unaware that he was being watched, “so we just blast through the city and get to the other side?”
Olsein looked to him and shook his head, “Gotta pick up the girls after school.”
“Oh shit, right,” he nodded, “alright old man. Any idea where they went?”
Olsein lifted his armcomm, “Behraanese frequencies. I can tune right into those soldiers and track them, so you’ll have to follow me.”
“Alright old man,” Savath grinned as he gestured towards the car, “you first.”
“Yeah,” Olsein sighed, shaking lightly, “haven’t done this in a long time.”
As the traffic came to a stop at their corner, Olsein bolted towards the red car, pulling his plasmar out at the unaware driver and shouting in Behraanese, “Behraan police! I must commandeer your vehicle! Get out!”
Savath sprinted across the street, jumping onto and over lower cars to get to the bike, shouting at the startled rider, “Galpol! Get the hell off my new ride!”
Being Pillarian civilians, neither person spoke a word of Behraanese, so the two of them saw only pistols and cowered.
Olsein sighed, realizing the communication barrier was slowing things down. He simply reached into the driver’s mind, so easily while he panicked, and had him unlock the door, open it, step outside and run away.
Savath had no such power over others, and the rider tried to drive away. So, the hulk of a man grabbed him by his jacket with one arm and tossed him aside by it.
By then, Olsein had already read his host’s mind long enough to get a grasp on how to operate the car, and he had it started.
Savath, again, had no such power, and took a moment to figure out the best way to drive the bike.
A moment too many. Olsein drove the car next to him, up and along the sidewalk, and rolled down the window, shouting out to him, “Get in! Slouch if you have to!”
“Damn,” Savath dismounted the bike, “another time with it then.”
“Sure, big guy,” Olsein threw the rocker switch that opened the passenger door vertically.
“Some ride,” Savath piled in, looking to Olsein, “where to?”
Olsein glanced at his armcomm as he put his hands on the yoke, pressing the accelerator pedal and listening to the roaring and the whining of the magnetic reactor.
“We’ll need to take a left up ahead,” said Olsein, “they must have gotten into another vehicle of some kind because they’re way off now.”
“The traffic’s still stopped--”
“That’s not right,” Olsein shook his head, “should have turned green by now.”
“Shit,” said Savath, “old police trick to pin in fugitives. Thinking they’re onto us. Drive, old man, drive!”
Olsein quickly pushed a few buttons on the dashboard to increase the vehicle’s ride height, clearing the curb and sidewalk. He drove more onto it, honking the horn at the fleeing pedestrians along it. Getting around the traffic block, he jumped the car back onto the road and opened full throttle.
“Wonder how many demerit points you get for speeding down here,” said Savath with a terrifying grin.
“Only matters if we get caught,” Olsein replied.